1st John – Epistle of Schism

It’s truly a fascination to see that nearly half of the 105 verses in 1st John are listed among the most favorite Bible verses. It is truly an orchard from which many verses have been cherry picked. It was a walk down memory lane as I read through it several times, getting caught on verses I had memorized.  

9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

9Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.10Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.1

1But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

11For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him23

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;

 19We love because he first loved us. 2 You could almost call this little book an Epistle of Love.

But that’s what makes it so confusing. It’s context is one of a nasty quarrel between people who were supposed to love each other. It raises questions like: Was it was written before or after the Gospel of John? Was it ‘assembled’ from many sources over time with new elements being added? Either of these being true would certainly help explain the essential incoherence of the book which many biblical scholars have reluctantly admitted. J. H. Houlden referred to 1st John “a puzzling work” and suggests that “to find a single logical thread … is liable to lead to infinite complexity or to despair.” I’ve got to say that man speaks my mind.

Not a single Gospel detail is included in 1st John. No teachings are attributed to any human Jesus and there is no specific reference to the cross and nothing at all about the resurrection. The fundamental doctrines of the Gospel are simply not there.

In the Gospel of John Jesus promises to send an advocate to “be with you forever, the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16). This is pretty essential to Quaker faith and practice because the promise by Jesus is that this Spirit will be our comforter and guide. This is the Christ who has come to teach his people himself. 1st John shows no knowledge of such an advocate.   The mention in 1st John of an advocate is not an abiding spirit among us but Jesus himself interceding with God in heaven.

The expectation that the church faced a long-term future as the first century passed into the second accounts for the Gospel of John abandoning the expectation of an immediate end of the world. Yet the Epistle speaks of living in “the last hour” (2:18). So then how do we account for this regression to a more primitive eschatology?

And just as unsettling is its’ Theo-centricity in contrast with the Gospel’s Christo-centricity. Believers are “God’s children.” The text says that it is God who is light with no word of Jesus’ own declaration that “I am the light of the world…” The Gospel centers on Christ Jesus but in 1st John God holds center stage with Jesus in a supporting role. It is God “who dwells within us” (3:24). Keeping Jesus’ commands is of major importance in the Gospel. In 1st John knowing and keeping the commands of God is one of the central issues.On multiple occasions the epistle tells the reader to ‘love one another’ and this admonition comes from God, ignoring the many times the Gospel puts those words in Jesus’ mouth. The concept of Jesus as a teacher is nowhere in evidence in the epistle, even amid references to the idea of Christian teaching.

The picture of Christ presented in 1st John is remarkably more primitive than what we find in the Gospel. How could the author simply rid his mind of the Jesus presented by the Gospel of John?

Scholars who argue that the Gospel was composed before 1st John acknowledge that the opening of 1st John is “a poor imitation” of the Gospel’s Prologue. In “recasting” the mighty Prologue the writer discards the Word and its incarnation. He drops any references to pre-existence and creation; and the figure of John the Baptist disappears altogether. Does he now disagree that Jesus is the Logos or Word of God, or that this Word was made flesh? The obvious explanation is that the opening passage of the epistle is an earlier formulation of Christian orthodoxy focusing on the “message” about eternal life that the community has received by revelation, and the Gospel is of a later period which adopts Jesus as the proclaimer of the message and an incarnation of the Word itself.

The occasion for the composition of 1st John was a nasty, name calling church split between those who adhered to the initial Jewish outlook held by the community from its beginnings, a faith based entirely on God, and those who embraced a new development in their faith, the existence of the intermediary Son. This group became convinced that the Son is the avenue to the Father; to be without him is to be without the Father. Both groups claim to be legitimate representatives of their tradition but the group holding to the traditional views, we are told, have “gone out,” since they cannot accept the new doctrine.

            Were the progressives pushing a view which was not part of the original “knowledge” bestowed by the rite of anointing? That this new perspective it did not go back to the beginning is suggested by the very fact that the writer does not specifically make such a claim. 2:24 reads “If you keep in your hearts that which you heard at the beginning . . . (then) you will dwell in the Son and also in the Father.”

Aside from the fact that what was heard is not spelled out, the point is not presented as an argument to prove the group’s position against their opponents. 3:11 actually states the message which was heard at the beginning is: “that we should love one another.” The writer does not state that the doctrine of the Son was part of the original message. The phrase in 1:3c linking the “Son Jesus Christ” to the Father is a new addition to the initial version of the group’s self understanding by someone who subsequently chose to see the Son as implied in the sect’s original revelation.

           If the doctrine of the Son is relatively new, at least in its acceptance by the community, how can the writer speak as though the antichrist (meaning the one destined to be against the Messiah) was a traditional part of the congregation’s expectations? Because the idea of a “man of lawlessness,” an agent of Satan (or Satan himself), was well established in Jewish apocalyptic expectation, a figure who would oppose God’s work and that of his Messiah at the End-time establishment of the Kingdom. There is no record of the term “antichrist” before 1 John, and scholarship generally regards the term as invented by the writer of this epistle. And in 1st John it is applied, not to some bigger than life power but to the conservatives who felt they needed to part company from the progressives over this shift in understanding the faith.

Walter Bauer said that, not unlike all ancient history, early Christian history was written to show Constantinian triumph and Catholic orthodoxy as provided for by God. The Christianity of second-century Ephesus did not meet the standards of an emerging Catholic Orthodoxy. Some blamed Paul who had planted the church in Ephesus. They sought replace him as patron saint with John. F.C. Baur wrote that “Paul had laid the foundation in Ephesus and built up a church through several years of labor. If Romans 16 represents a letter to the Ephesians, then, on the basis of verses 17-20, we must conclude that already during the lifetime of the apostle, certain people were there whose teaching caused offense and threatened division in the community. 1st Corinthians 16:9 tells us of ‘many adversaries’ in Ephesus. In any event, the book of Acts has Paul warning the Ephesians … that from their own midst there will arise men speaking perverse things to draw away the Christians for themselves (20:30). In Revelation the recollection of a Pauline establishment of the church of Ephesus was suppressed…On the foundations of the new Jerusalem (21:4) only the names of the twelve apostles are there. There is no room for Paul. And at the very least, it will be but a short time before the Apostle to the Gentiles will have been totally displaced in the consciousness of the church of Ephesus in favor of John.

The earliest Christians in Ephesus were Jewish Christians who believed that the Christian faith was continuous with the Jewish faith and who were content to live within the context of a Jewish community. Their view of Jesus was that he was the Messiah who had come and then promised to return to fulfill the hopes of the Jews as well as the Christians. The expulsion of the Christian community from the Jewish synagogue had a mighty effect on the Christian community, producing a trauma of faith of major proportions. It was amid this crisis the author of the Gospel of John gathered the traditions of the community and interpreted them to address the needs of the newly isolated community.

The community became an independent Christian body though there were some internal conflicts over the interpretation of the original gospel and proper belief and practice in particular. The author of 1st John says that a group had gone out from the ranks of the community. Both parties knew the proclamation of Christianity but they interpreted it differently. Each of the disputing parties were making the claim that its interpretation of the Gospel was correct. The secessionists so stressed the divine principle in Jesus that his earthly career was neglected. They apparently believed that the human existence of Jesus, while real, was not significant for one’s salvation. The only important thing for them was that eternal life had been brought down to men and women through a divine Son who passed through this world. The author faults the secessionists on three grounds. First, they claimed an intimacy with God to the point of being perfect or sinless. Second, they placed an inadequate emphasis on keeping the commandments. Third, they were vulnerable on the subject of neighborly love.

So what did I learn from all this? From the very beginning people within the community of faith have held contradictory beliefs. The reason the Gospel of John is so different from the synoptics is simply because people remember things differently. They use different words to describe their spirituality. That’s nothing new. But the lesson that I find beneath the nasty battle for orthodoxy in Ephesus is that despite the differences in our describing our faith experiences we are called to love each other. In the fourth chapter we read this: 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. Evidently the two sides to this church squabble couldn’t see how this injunction was applicable to them. Were it not for those lovely cherry picked verses I have no doubt that 1st John would have been excluded from the canon of scripture.

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A Small Tract

1st John 1:1-2:18

I think Quakers should be able to understand the religious tract named 1st John better than most. It is the declaration of a common experience, something experience by a ‘we’ not an “I. ”  The author isn’t an “I.” And for that if for no other reason 1st John is anonymous. There has been a lot of ink spilled arguing over its authorship but it really isn’t that important. It seems to come from a collective – a writers group – who felt drawn to share their experience and what it means to be a community of faith.

“It was there all the time, from the beginning.” What an interesting way to start. It’s like saying ‘how could we have missed it?” It’s like Oracle Jones in the movie Hallelujah Trail “I see it.  I see it now!” But now we see, we hear, we feel and we testify to that experience. “The Word of Life.” While the Gospel of John begins by proclaiming Jesus as the Word, here the connection is sketchier and broader than the historic Jesus. The Word of Life isn’t limited to an individual it is about a life shared with the “Father and his Son Jesus Christ” and with us.

What’s the message? Well, despite Jesus saying “I am the Light of the World” the tract says “:…that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” No darkness – you can’t be in the light and yet for some things be out of the light. Your walk, your life much more than your voice declares whether you are in the light.  The role  1st John plays  for us is setting up for us a set of queries – a challenge to evaluate our lives and our relationship with God and the faith community.

1st John isn’t a letter like the Epistles in the New Testament. And it certainly isn’t a Gospel. What it is is a religious tract and as such it is a testimony of a faith community.   And it is written to a vastly different world than the Jewish world to which most of the New Testament is directed. There’s a section on knowing God. Now the Jewish understanding of how we know God is through revelation. God is the initiator. Not so for the Hellenist. The text reads: “Here is the test by which we can make sure that we know him: do we keep his commands?” A bit later the text reads: “Here is the test by which we can make sure that we are in him: whoever claims to be dwelling in him binds himself to live as Christ himself lived.”   These are questions about knowing God and being in God. These are not new categories of thought for the Greek mind. Hundreds of years before this time the Classical Greek person was convinced that they could arrive at God by the sheer process of intellectual reasoning and argument. This philosophic mind examined everything – all the world is the proper study of man; no question is wrong to ask; God must explain God’s self for did he not make man so?” The way to know God was intellectually. But an intellectual approach isn’t necessarily ethical. If your religion is a series of calculations to be solved and God is the solution it may give you intellectually stimulation and satisfaction but it does not necessarily result in moral action.

Later Greeks, in the period of the New Testament, sought to find God in emotional experience. These were the mystery religions whose goal was union with the divine.  They were played out in passion plays about some god who lived and suffered terribly and died a cruel death and rose again. The candidate would be prepared by a long course of instruction, ascetic disciplines to practice and would be worked up into a pitch of expectation and emotional sensitivity and then invited to witness in a passion play the suffering, dying and rising god. The whole event was carefully staged with lighting effects, sensuous music; incense and a marvelous liturgy. Being worked up into such an emotional frenzy the candidate would cry out “I am thou and thou art I” and he shared in the god’s suffering and shared in his victory and immortality. This accounts for the sacrificial language and the identification of some as having been “initiated.” Feeling God in this way was a way of escaping life and its ethical challenges.

As a tract 1st John doesn’t intend to provide a complete theology, and regardless of the theology of the reader it challenges expressions of faith that lack an ethical element.

When this tract was in circulation in Christian circles those of whom the faith in the resurrected Messiah consisted were second and third generation followers. Christianity had become habitual for many, traditional and nominal. There were many for whom living ‘like Christ’ had become burdensome. They didn’t want to be ‘saints’ in any New Testament sense. It’s a big concept at work in the Greek word hagios. It meant set apart – like the Temple; it meant being of a different character like the Sabbath. The expectations of being part of the faith community set people apart from the values of the world. There was a new standard of personal behavior that was to take over one’s life, a new kindness the permeated relationships, a new call to service, a new forgiveness and all of that was difficult to live out in the culture of the day. People didn’t want to stand out, be different. They didn’t want to refuse to conform to the generally accepted standards and practices of the age.

You see, the challenge being faced by the faith community didn’t come from without – it came from within. Actually those to whom it is addressed sincerely thought they were making the church more accessible to the general population. Couldn’t it be more intellectually respectable and more socially amenable?

            And wouldn’t it be great if it all didn’t seem so contemporary.  

1 John 1:1 – 2:5

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— 2this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— 3we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.

8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

3Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. 4Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; 5but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him:

6whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

7Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. 8Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. 9Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. 10Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. 11But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

12I am writing to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven on account of his name. 13I am writing to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I am writing to you, young people, because you have conquered the evil one. 14I write to you, children, because you know the Father. I write to you, fathers, because you know him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young people, because you are strong and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one. 15Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; 16for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live forever.

 

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Desires of the Heart

Exodus 20:17; accompanying text: Matthew 22:34-40

The Desires of the Heart — Do Not Covet

Did you notice that when we read the second tablet commandments one was repeated? “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse.”   Normally when we repeat something we are either revealing our level of dementia or we are trying to make a point. I’m thinking that God was making a point! There’s a fruitless debate between one tradition which counts “You shall not covet” though mentioned twice, as one commandment. Those traditions which count, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house” and “You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse” as separate commandments are making a spiritually significant point. I think they are telling us that the so called “big sins” start when our gaze falls on something that belongs to someone else.

There are two pretty clear Old Testament examples:

Let’s start with King David? The Bible says that one evening he got up off his couch and was walking around the roof of his palace and his eyes fell on his neighbor Uriah’s wife, while she was bathing.   David wasn’t deprived of female companionship, he had a wife and access to other women who lived in the palace. But he decided he couldn’t live without having Bathsheba. And he had her. And when she came up pregnant he arranged for her husband Uriah and the entire company who was fighting David’s war to be slaughtered. And it all started with a little lustful coveting (II Samuel 11-12).

Then there was King Ahab and Jezebel. Right near their palace, a faithful fellow named Naboth had his household and vineyard. The king offered to buy the vineyard or swap the land for a better stretch of land. Naboth wasn’t interested as so refused. Jezebel brought false charges against Naboth and paid two men to perjure themselves by testifying falsely against Naboth. In the end Naboth was dead and Ahab and Jezebel got the vineyard. And it all started with a little coveting (See 1 Kings 21).

The prohibition of “You shall not covet” is, in one way, a fence or boundary keeping us at a safe distance from the very serious sins that may result from it and that may cause very serious harm to others: theft, adultery, and – most serious of all – murder.
Were that all at work in this verse it simply results in one of the Ten Commandments being an auxiliary to the commandments that precede it – “You shall not murder,” “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not steal.” That could cause the prohibition of coveting to lose its own independent significance.

These prohibitions against coveting teaches us that a person may harm a neighbor even through mere thought. Your desire for “whatever belongs to your neighbor” represents a spiritual “encroachment” and although the damage is not visible, it can be even more serious.   It may not be measurable in financial terms, nor can the coveter be sued in a court, but on a very basic level it can destroy what are potentially positive relationships among people and families.

The limitation that it places on a person’s internal, emotional world – gives rise to another possible explanation: this prohibition is meant to bring the person who finds themselves coveting to a higher level of spiritual purity, free of forbidden desires. It is not the “neighbor” that the Torah means to protect here. It’s actually a pretty sophisticated concept, especially since there are those who purposely dress, act or conduct themselves to arouse the envy of their neighbor.

There is another way of considering the implication of this commandment. It comes down to trusting God. When we are satisfied with our portion of the things of this life which God has entrusted to our use and care our heart does not covet what God did not wish for us to have. We cannot take it by force or by thoughts or schemes. We have faith in our Creator, that God will provide for us and do what is good in God eyes.

Trusting God to provide disarms the attraction of coveteousness to the point where we can look at anything that is pleasant to our eyes without such things arousing in us the desire to attain them. It is a religious prohibition. God has forbidden to us our neighbors spouse or house. Here’s a re-formulation of the commandment: “Do not covet that which God has forbidden to you or does not wish to give you. Rather, be satisfied with what you have, with the knowledge that this is the lot that God has assigned you.”

This law is meant to protect us from the harm of desiring and coveting something that is outside of our reach, and that the object of the prohibition is “all that belongs to your neighbor” – because it is the very ownership of the object by someone else that makes the desire for it a desire for the unattainable. It is an illegitimate, prohibited desire.

Philo of Alexandria declared that “You shall not covet” is a central pillar of moral instruction. There is the individual aspect of this command which intends the spiritual education and elevation of an individual, but ultimately concludes that that significance of violation of this command on the family, the land and all of mankind can ultimately be destroyed as a result of unbridled desire. The command “You shall not covet” therefore has the potential to save the world.

On a map of the Middle East drawn before 1917 you won’t see Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan or Palestine. The British and French created those political entities to maintain their own rule over what had been the Ottoman Empire, lands that had economic or strategic significance to them. France claimed the lands from the Lebanese border to Mosul; Britain got part of Palestine and Jordan and Southern Iran from Baghdad to Basra. France gave up northern Iraq in exchange for 25 percent of the oil revenues and took greater Syria which they divided up into Lebanon and Syria. Today’s winds of change are erasing those lines drawn a century ago in the Middle Eastern sands. The was growing interest in Great Britain at this time on using Palestine instead of Uganda as a Jewish state.

 

Environmental implications: selling our abundant coal which will pollute China’s air, indiscriminant drilling practices that destroy water sources; desecration of creation and fouling natural resources that belong to future generations for our own interests.

And think about the economic implications – what is slavery but the taking not merely the house or spouse but the whole life of another for our own self aggrandizement. And what of the use of our vast military establishment when it is used to secure for us access to oil for instance? God said: “You shall not covet…”

 

 

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Second Tablet – Neighbors…

The Second Table — Turned Toward the Neighbor

Exodus 20:12-17

12Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. 13You shall not murder. 14You shall not commit adultery. 15You shall not steal. 16You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. 17You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

Matthew 22:34-40 When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “ ’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

 

Summer got here. We just passed the summer solstice which happened just before noon last Saturday. Next came the feast day of John the Baptist on June 24, which undoubtably everyone commemorated….You understand the significance? In John 3:30 John wrote: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” So as days start to grow shorter we celebrate John the Baptist. Of course, come the winter solstice, right after December 21 we celebrate Jesus. Like the feast day for John the Baptist the Roman Catholics call it Christ Mass. It’s surprising how many people actually think Jesus was born on December 25. It’s just another way that over the centuries our faith tradition has found it possible to use the events of nature to declare the good news. And now, in its proper order comes the Fourth of July. It is our National Holiday.

What answer do you think you’d get from most people were you to ask them “What are we commemorating on the Fourth of July. Do you think you’d get more than a blank stare? In Philadelphia on July 4th, 1776 the Declaration of Independence was signed. It changed the world forever. Some men stood up and signed their names to a document that branded them as traitors. There was courage among them but also fear. They joked to help break the tension. Plantation owner Benjamin Harrison of Virginia was a huge man and he turned and to Elbridge Gerry, a prosperous Massachusetts merchant he said “I will have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry when we are all hung for what we are doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.” I guess you could call that gallows humor. When later Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania wrote John Adams of Massachusetts he recalled what he referred to in his letter as ‘the pensive and awful silence which pervaded the house when we were called up one after another, to the table of Congress to subscribe what was believed by many at the time to be our own death warrants… Why were these people willing to risk their lives? What did they want? They wanted to be free. They were determined to be free…free to run their own country and write their own laws. In their day, that just wasn’t the way the world worked.

As we’ve been looking at the Ten Commandments we’ve seen how a liberated people are to live. Remember the words in the preamble, I guess I can call it a preamble as well as an introduction. In Exodus 19 the Lord called to him (Moses) from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. .

Then God spoke all these words: in Exodus 20: 2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; Again, it’s past tense. I brought you out, out of Egypt and out of slavery. It is the story of freedom but God already dealt with the “freedom from” part. Now he tells them what “freedom to…” looks like.

How do you conceive of freedom? Is it as an end in and of itself? Is it unimpeded access to any choice, as in always keeping your options open? Since 2006 we have endured thirty-three mass shootings. Of the 143 guns used more than three quarters were obtained legally. The arsenal included dozens of assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high capacity magazines. Jeffrey Weise used a .40-caliber Glock to slaughter students in Red Lake, Minnesota. James Holmes did to, along with an AR-15 assault rifle. Adam Lanza chose a Bushmaster semi-automatic to massacred 20 school children and six adults. Is intentionally intimidating people by brandishing your Glock in a public place and declaring your rights what freedom is about? Freedom is not when the powerful take whatever they want, but when we respect the property and space of others and when we do our best to help them maintain it and retain it. Freedom is not when the strong dominate the weak, but when the bodies and lives of all — from the impoverished, to the handicapped, the vulnerable, to the elderly — are protected and their rights are respected. Freedom is not the endless satisfaction of every impulse, but the commitment of people to each other.

These laws are not to make our lives into self-help projects, but rather to turn one neighbor towards the other in a shared spirit of community. The point of the law is not self-improvement, but neighbor-improvement. Jesus said that: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is the second greatest commandment. Jesus was quoting Leviticus 19:18b.

The purpose of the law is not “your best life now,” but rather “your neighbor’s best life now.” God in God’s meddling grace unweaves all the fibers of hateful and fearful creation and then reweaves them into a renewed and repaired creation. God says to us, “For as long as you’re here you are to love your neighbor.”

We respond, “OK, God, we understand that love is the best way but…. But, how do I love my neighbor?”

God says, “OK, let me be a little more explicit. Make sure everyone gets time off each week, take care of the elderly (they may not be your parents but they are somebodies and they are your neighbor), don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t have sex with someone else’s spouse, don’t hurt your neighbor with your words, don’t desire your neighbor’s stuff. That’s how you love your neighbor.”

So is this just a revered antique that deserves being preserved on a plaque on the court house grounds? What’s this don’t kill thing – God certainly wouldn’t have included public executions of notorious felons? God certainly would make exceptions for military personnel engaged in protecting our national interests.

And who are we kidding about not stealing. Financial institutions do it all the time. So do corporations that use slave labor and child labor and steal income for undocumented workers. And what about corporations that intentionally defile the environment because they can do it legally? And we couldn’t be more complicit as we celebrate the Dow Jones report and cash our dividend checks.

And sex. My goodness, it seems to be open season on bed swapping, at least if you catch the life and times of persons in the entertainment world who, by the way, have a huge influence over the almost mature in our country. And hurting people with words…you can’t have missed the level of what masquerades as civil discourse today. Just turn on to AM radio stations or venture into the vast wisdom shared by talking heads on television intent on shaping the opinions.    

I said this two weeks ago, but it bears repeating. The law isn’t about you. It’s about your neighbor. And God loves your neighbor so much that God gives you the law. And God loves you so much, that God gives your neighbor the exact same law.

In other words, in the second table of the Decalogue we find good news. Good news for truly free people. Good news for us and for our neighbor.

 

 

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Ten Commandments – First Tablet

Lessons About the Lord for Gen Exers. Exodus 20:3-11 Matthew 22:34-40

Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. 4You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. 5You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lordyour God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me,6but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. 7You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.8Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

Today we are going to look at the first set of commandments, the so called first tablet, which describe our relationship with God. These words, were we to take them seriously instead of using them for political posturing, would dramatically change the landscape of our lives.  To do so would be extremely difficult, especially for we Americans.  They show us what is required for a life of faith attuned to God. They show us that in order to be attuned with God there are things from which we need to turn away,  things that we prefer instead of God. And they show us that we are to use some of our time and to use God’s name in order to tune into God. Did you catch the consequences of failure? for I the Lordyour God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me….

To start with, we Americans detest being ‘lorded over’.  What fueled our nation’s birth and continues to propel our political life is our unquenchable desire to be the king, to be the international super power that is able to exercise dominion over the people and resources of the whole globe.  Lord is the word used to describe one who has authority, control or power over others. Through one’s Lord one would have a livelihood and protection.  The word derives from a tribal chieftain who provides food for his followers.   In the Bible, where in the New Testament alone it is used over 700 times is refers to a person who exercises absolute ownership rights. We’ve decided that “we the people” can do that for ourselves. How can we tolerate the very idea of having a Lord?  For many law and order folks this part of the Ten Commandments has less meaning than any other bumper sticker. Thank you God, but we don’t want or need your Lordship.  Let me show you what happens were you to let God be Lord of your life.      

The first commandment is the ultimate one – nothing should be in our lives ahead of God. As Moses says in Deuteronomy 6:5 and Jesus says Matthew 22:34-40, this means we are to love God with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our might or mind. If we center our lives around things other than God — whether it be money, fame, power, pleasure, beauty, even religion, — others, and more specifically our progeny will suffer.  But isn’t that like the threat of global warming and environmental deterioration?  That can’t be considered in how we do business.  Future generations will get to find solutions to their own problems, like building ever higher levees to keep rising sea levels out of cities.  We can’t let future degradation get in the way of our bottom line, seeking money, fame, power, pleasure, beauty and religion is what it is all about.  

The second commandment means not having idols in our lives. We all know what an idol is.  It is a statue made of wood, stone or metal worshipped by pagan people or maybe an amulet that we hope will give us protection against evil, danger or disease.  Martin Luther said  “A god is anything upon which you set your heart and put your trust.” Anything!  An idol can be anything we love, worship, or center our lives around that isn’t God.

How about an economic system in which we put our faith​? How about a stock of precious metals just in case the economic system we say we trust fails?  How about weapons to protect your household from invasion, or on a much larger scale an enormous military ostensibly to protect our boarders but used to bully other nations into compliance wit our economic interests.  Not having our idols, not having anything substituting for God just doesn’t fit well into our way of life.  It is almost audacious of God –imagine, suggesting that as a person of faith I might have to say “no” to some things in order to say “yes” to God. Why can’t I just believe in God and other things, too? Why do I have to turn away from other gods? In Japan I can be both a Buddhist and a Shinto. Can’t I trust free market economics and trust God? Can we hold as a belief at the same moment that we were created, redeemed, and empowered to serve what God created and loved and at the same time believe that some other power has done these things. God demands we love God alone.

But we cannot do this — we cannot love God more than things or ourselves. Our lives are cluttered with other gods, many things that we love and trust more than God.

The third commandment is that the Lord has given us the divine name “The Lord” in order that we might call upon God for forgiveness, sing out in thanksgiving and praise, and cry out for deliverance and healing. God’s name is poured over and into us with the coming of Christ’s spirit. That’s what Pentecost is all about.  The life of faith consists of learning the implication of using God’s name. What does it mean for you to use someone else’s name?   Have you ever let someone use your credit card?  That’s sort of what this is like.  God let’s us use God’s name.  How we live then reflects on God.  I know of one person who insists that if you said grace in a restaurant you shouldn’t stiff the waitress. I wonder if that has implications on how you drive, especially if you have religious stickers on your bumper. Flying under the banner of God, we are expected to live up to certain expectations. You might have caught the less than veiled consequences for misusing the name.

Fourth, loving God means keeping the Sabbath. Of course it includes a time of worship among us as participants in a community of faith but it’s quite a bit more than that. Keeping the Sabbath isn’t about constraints we put on ourselves during a 24 hour period.  It is living in the awareness that every moment is sacred, every moment is an opportunity to serve our Lord. The broader meaning implied is more like the Day of the Lord.

Francis Howgill, an early Quaker trained as an Anglican priest, wrote this of the Day of the Lord. The appearance of God, who is eternal life, in his day, in his immeasurable Light, is a great joy, and source of rejoicing to the righteous. For he is to his people an everlasting light, and in his light they come to see light. He reveals the secret mysteries of his kingdom in those who see his day appear in their hearts, which makes all things manifest, even the secrets of the Lord, and his hidden treasure, and his durable riches which never canker or rust, but are fresh, and keep their pure image and impression. By this Light all the righteous, who have waited on God’s appearance, come to see Him. As it is written, “Lo! This is our God, we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” Does he indeed come that you have waited for? Yes, Come, “and his reward in with Him;” … What was the witness of his disciples? “the son of God has come and has given us an understanding.” Of what? Of God, of his day, of his appearance, of his power, of his wisdom, of his kingdom, of hope, of faith, of assurance, of peace, of joy, of comfort and consolation. What? In his life? Yes!

The reason we keep the Sabbath, according to Deuteronomy, is that our people used to know what life was like when we had a lord named Pharaoh who did not allow days off. Put yourselves in the feet of the Exodus generation. For years they served Pharaoh, a burdensome master who gave no days off and when complaints arose, who said, “Now make bricks without straw.” God graciously intruded into that reality and said to the people, “You will no longer serve Pharaoh, you will serve me. And to serve me means that once every seven days, you, your kids, your workers, even your animals get the day off.” Why? Because God’s gracious intrusion into human existence was not a one-time event, but a regular, ritualized reality.

On one very simple level “The Sabbath” was the first fair labor law. Not only were the heads of households to rest, but also the working poor, the undocumented workers, the slaves, and even the animals were to be given rest. Keeping the Sabbath, first and foremost, is about lives that are captured by a God who keeps faith with us and who keeps on intruding graciously into our lives. But again, every day, in relationship with God should be a day of peace and justice.

In the Old Testament laws God offers a series of other sabbatical laws. Once every seven years, the land is given a rest — “the seventh year you shall let it rest …so that the poor of your people may eat.”  God’s gracious intrusion now spreads over the course of years and it is for the sake of the poor. Once every seven years, all debts are to be forgiven God announced. Why? For the sake of charity and stewardship.  And it gets even stickier.  Every seven years slaves are to go free – it’s God’s gracious intrusion to free those in chains. God’s gracious intrusion ensures that the means of life are not monopolized by the few. How does that square with the gods of our world? How do we deal with thirty year mortgages? How do we in good conscience purchase goods manufactured by the economic slaves?  What about persons sentenced to make restitution for damages done to their victim and while they are incarcerated the interest on their indebtedness continues to grow. What about people sentenced to jail for indebtedness? Is there no forgiveness?

Keeping the Sabbath is about an entire way of living. A way of life that is in keeping with the One who keeps faith with us. 

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Ten Words

Ten Words

Exodus 19:1-6

On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. 3Then Moses went up to God; the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: 4You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.” 

Exodus 20: 

Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery….;

 

Matthew 22: 35 – 39

…one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” 37He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38This is the greatest and first commandment. 39And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 

To prepare a message on The Ten Commandments is a tough challenge.  Depending on who is doing the looking they occur two or three times in the Old Testament.  They are found in Exodus 20, Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 5.

When you start looking closely at them you find interesting things like in Exodus 20 the motive for keeping the Sabbath is based on God’s blessing and will for creation:  “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” In Deuteronomy, however, the motive for keeping the Sabbath is based on Israel’s experience of being rescue from Egyptian bondage: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” The former emphasizes the Sabbath as blessing, the latter emphasizes the Sabbath as an institution of justice — the first fair labor law.

Jews, Protestant Christians and Catholics number the versions differently and if you do a careful review you will discover that under the banner of “The Ten Commandments” there are nineteen commands or prohibitions within which some identify 25 instructions.  When the question of what set of words should be placed in public places what is most widely chosen is the Protestant version of Exodus 20.

Two key things need to be established first.  The relationship God establishes with the chosen people always comes first – it is literally primary. The legal stipulations, with its ethical demands on our behavior, comes second – it is literally secondary. In Exodus 19 God says, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”(19:3b-6a).  I love the metaphor of being borne on eagles’ wings.  I sure it must our literalists friends heartburn.

The start of Exodus 20, verses 1-2 — what most Christians refer to as the “prologue” to the Ten Commandments, but which Jews consider the “First Word” — makes the same point: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

This is really important.  First God establishes a relationship with us. Only then does God make a claim on our behavior.

There are a couple of other things about the law that are good for us to know.

The first is that God did not give the law as a means to salvation. It’s not possible to use the law to earn salvation, to win one’s soul way into heaven.

The second is that God did not give the law as a way to establish a relationship with the people. God established the relationship and then gave the law.

Then there’s this big thing about the Law. It may come as a surprise.  It isn’t about “you,” per se.  God didn’t give us the law in order to make you a better you or me a better me.  The law is not about us — it is about our neighbors. God gives you the law, not so that you can get more spiritual or have your best life now, but so that your neighbor can have her best life now.

Think about it.  Notice how many times God made this point in the Ten Commandments: Do not bear false witness against your neighbor. Do not covet your neighbor’s house. Do not covet your neighbor’s spouse. When it is the day of rest, make sure that all of your neighbors — from yours sons and daughters right down to your sheep and oxen — get to rest just like you do. And, oh yes, the elderly — “your father and your mother” — are still your neighbors too.

Paul makes the same point in Galatians: “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” Paul isn’t saying that if you have warm fuzzy feelings about your neighbor, then you’ve done all that you have to do. Rather, the word that is translated here as “summed up” is similar to the modern economic metaphor of the bottom line, and that can help us understand Paul’s message. Paul is saying: The bottom line of the entire law is that it is about loving the neighbor.

And that’s good news. At least it’s good news for my neighbor. God loves them so much that God tells me not to kill, steal, commit adultery, and so on. And good news for me. God loves me so much that God tells my neighbor not to kill, steal, and so on.

One more thing.  The Ten Commandments are for free people, for people whom God has freed: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” “I bore you on eagles’wings.” These commandments are not meant to limit our freedom by telling us what things we are not free to do (although these laws do precisely that). These commandments are what lives freed in Christ look like. The law shows us what that free life looks like.

In Matthew 22:34-40. Jesus (consistent with first century Rabbinic teaching) declares that two commandments are the greatest: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

This reading has two points. The first point is that the first table of the law can be summarized: Love the Lord your God. And the second table of the law can be summarized: Love your neighbor as yourself. The second point is that the purpose of the commandments is love. We do not keep the commandments for our own pleasure or benefit. Rather, we keep them as a way to love God and our neighbor.

 

 

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Limits to Diversity Philippians 2:1-13

Philippians 2:1-13

 

The very pragmatic argue that the values held out here represent an impractical ethical ideal.  No  leader of any nation could afford to govern by “the mind of Christ”.  It would require the renunciation  of power and national interest!  Nor is what we read a simple ethic for individuals, it is a summons to adopt a social ethic intended to guide the life of a community.  As such it calls us to consider what being in community means, living a life in unity.  But then it also challenges us to consider life in unity together with people who are different from us.

 

Listen again to what Paul calls for:  being of the same mind, having the same love, being of one accord and of one mind.  A straight forward translation of the Greek text reads: “that you think the same thing, having the same love, together in soul, thinking one thing.”  To emphasize it Paul places the phrase ‘being of one mind’ first and last – repeating it so it can’t be missed. 

 

Is being of one mind a virtue?  We “celebrate diversity”.  Difference is intrinsically good.  Difference, tolerance and the embrace of the other makes us strong,

 

Isn’t Paul the apostle to the Gentiles?  Didn’t he champion a diversity of spiritual gifts, insisting that because “the body does not consist of one member but of many,” “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,”.  Jews and Gentiles are to be brought together into one body, as are the diversity of spiritual gifts.  We simply assume that, whatever our differences, we need to love each other, fellowship together, work alongside each other.  The call to unity, as we see it, is a call to overcome our intolerance, our fear of difference, but not a call to overcome the differences themselves. 

 

Where is Paul going with this? “Thinking the same thing”?  Come on, now, Paul, .don’t be so narrow-minded.  Why do you want to abolish difference?  Don’t you know that difference is what makes us strong?  We don’t want to live in a world where everyone thinks the same thing.”

 

The events of September 11, 2001 forced us to acknowledge that  boundaries are needed in  our embrace of diversity. We learned that suicide-bombing fundamentalists cannot be tolerated.   Doesn’t that suggest that there is no place in our pluralistic world for the continued acceptance of religious extremists who fail to embrace our gospel of diversity?   What about Donald Sterling and his ownership of the Clippers?

 

Is this our new orthodoxy?  If everyone must be included then clearly those who don’t think everyone can be included cannot themselves be included. The embrace of diversity requires a shared vision of the value of diversity asking what sort of differences we are to embrace, which ones we are to merely tolerate and which ones we must exclude – and why.  Here’s the paradox:  pluralism defined as an open inclusion of many different viewpoints requires the inclusion of those who hold view points among which, at least, is the shared conviction that diversity is a good thing.

 

Is it that we can tolerate the differences in belief but not differences of actions?  We want to think that so long as one’s belief does not translate in actions harmful to others we have a fundamental liberty of conscience to believe what we want.  But of course the reality is that we tolerate all kinds of differences of actions and practices, so long as we share a similar core belief about the purpose of society, the meaning of life together, and the kind of love for others that is called for.

 

Paul doesn’t say “Doing the same thing.”  His theology of spiritual gifts requires each of us to do different things, without this necessarily harming the unity of the body.  But we must “think the same thing,” by which Paul certainly does not mean “sharing identical opinions on every question,” but sharing the same fundamental convictions about the world and what God is doing in it. 

 

Paul writes: …complete my joy by being of the same mind,  having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Those four phrases mutually interpret one another, leading us away from either an intellectualistic uniformity of belief or a fuzzy sentimental unity .  What they point us to, instead, is a common object of love, which is one-another-in-Christ, a common strategy for life together, which is a self-sacrificial regard for the other, and a common vision of what God has been doing and is doing in the world.  Without this shared compass, no project for unity in diversity in the Church can get far. 

 

This passage is an illustration of what Christian citizenship means.

 

Unity comes in serving God through service to each other. There is danger of selfishly looking out for one’s own interests at the expense of others, or of arrogance born of pride in one’s status, birth, or achievements. A spirit of self-sacrifice is an expression to others of the love exemplified in Christ, love that was “obedient unto death.”

 

There is no room for triumphalism here! There is no room for a feel-good religion that does not take its servant role seriously. There is no room for a victory that does not first know the “fellowship of His sufferings” in behalf of others; no room for piety that does not pour out, yes, even totally empty, oneself for the interests of others.

The Church needs this unity of mind and purpose to which Paul called the Philippians. It needs a unity built around servanthood. This passage suggests that the Church needs to see itself less as the proclaimer and defender of divine truth, and more as the servant of humanity, the foot washer who expresses his love by humble service. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:  The church is the church only when it exists for others. . . . The church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. . . . It must not underestimate the importance of human example which has its origin in the humanity of Jesus.

 

We live in a society dominated by rights-activism, permeated with the philosophy of “me first,” and molded by the corporate ideals of efficiency and success. The Church must be called to remember that demanding one’s rights and privileges may be popular but if it does so at the expense of Christian unity and love, it is not Christian! The Body of Christ must be called upon to refocus on Christian humility, unity, and fellowship. We must make service to others, perfect love in action, our primary responsibility.

 

For us, Quakers, our worship and our process of discernment is specifically seeking the mind of Christ, by which to be directed.  It is the culmination of the story of Pentecost.  It is consciously moving away from hearing the polyglot voices of the world’s success models and listening intently to hear the voice of Christ which influences how we relate to one another and the world.

 

 

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The End of an Era — The Start of an Era

The End of An Era – The Start of A New Era

It’s pretty well accepted that Luke is the author of the Gospel which carries his name and the author of the Book of the Acts.  Luke wasn’t a disciple of Jesus.  We don’t meet  him until the 16th  Chapter of  Acts, a book he himself authored. He was Greek, not a Jew.  As such he is the only non-Jewish author in the New Testament.  As a traveling evangelist with Paul, it is appropriate that he takes the good news of Jesus Christ into Europe. Most of his ministry was in eastern Greece.  Conservative scholarship says that Acts was written around AD 64.  Conservative scholarship also says The Gospel of Luke was written around AD 90 and 100.  That is to say that Acts, what we are told is a sequel to the Gospel, was actually written first.  But this actually makes sense.

The Gospel is part one of what some suggest was intended to be a three volume work of which we have only the first two installments.  It builds on the biblical history of God’s dealing with humanity found in the Old Testament and shows God’s promises to Israel being fulfilled in Jesus and how the salvation promised to Israel and accomplished by Jesus is extended to all humanity.   He presents Christianity as a legitimate form of worship sufficient to meet the spiritual needs of a world empire like that of Rome. 

As there is a period of Israel’s development and then a period marked by the life and ministry of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus.   Luke says there is also a period of the church as a distinct phase of salvation history.  That has important consequences for how Luke interprets the teachings of Jesus.  He shifts the emphasis from the expectation of an imminent escape from this world to day to day concerns of the Christian community in the world.  He is concerned to present Jesus as the model of Christian life and piety in, what was to his mind, the next great period of salvation history, the period of the church.

The prologue to the Book of Acts clarifies  the scope of his Gospel which was the period of the Messiah, Jesus.  He writes: “I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning 2until the day when he was taken up to heaven….”  In the prologue to his Gospel Luke characterizes himself as a scholar who, while not being an eyewitness himself, researched the oral and written stories of the life and ministry of Jesus that were in circulation in order to write a connected narrative of that era. 

We know the beginning of that period quite well.  It’s all about Herod and Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, John and Jesus.  We know about the shepherds and angels,  Simeon and Anna and that Jesus didn’t begin his work until he was thirty years old. 

We’re well acquainted with the calling of the disciples, Jesus’ parables and sermons on the mountain, on the plain, from the boat.  We are familiar with the story of the passion from the upper room, to the garden, to the court yard to Golgotha.  We celebrate the resurrection story and then, for some reason we dispense with following Luke’s outline.  We jump to Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit and with it the birth of the Church and its missionary enterprise which is story told in the Book of Acts.

The scope of Luke’s Gospel was from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven.  In our great desire to keep Jesus as the focus of our faith pilgrimage we conveniently skip over the conclusive fact that Jesus left the building! 

The Gospel ends this way: Luke 24:44-53 50Then he (Jesus) led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

 Jesus had explained it.  He said it needed to happen, his leaving.  And, he said, his leaving was a good thing. He had to leave so the Holy Spirit could come.  We find in John 14: 15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.17This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you. And two chapters later we read where Jesus says “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you

So we come to the conclusion of Luke’s Gospel and this is what he tells us: . 

4While staying with them, he (Jesus) ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 

He told them to wait for the promise of the Father.  What promise was that?  Luke has Peter  to quote Joel  2:28-29  in Acts 2, immediately following the Spirit-baptism. “This is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel. ‘And it shall come to pass afterward,  that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;  your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,   your old men shall dream dreams,   and your young men shall see visions.    Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit.’”

In Luke’s eleventh chapter Jesus says: “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”  One commentator says that the assurance of the Father’s willingness to give the Spirit in abundance is what Luke means by “the promise of the Father.” It is certainly a promise fulfilled by what happened on the Day of Pentecost.  Luke makes the general assurance of answered prayer into a promise of the Father to supply the Holy Spirit.   There are a few ancient manuscripts of Luke which have a notably different reading of the Lord’s Prayer.  Instead of saying “Thy kingdom come…” it reads “Thy Spirit come upon us and sanctify us.”  That may have been the original before copyists decided to bring Luke into conformity with the other Gospels.

Luke has Jesus instructing his disciples, actually Luke’s readers, to pray for Christ’s Spirit to take its place in their lives. He built this right into the Lord’s Prayer, so that every time the people in his community prayed they would ask for the Holy Spirit . Imagine that.  Every time we pray we pray for the Holy Spirit that we might be more Christ like in character, less selfish and more selfless, less prejudiced and more open the changes in our lives.

Jesus’ coming into the world fulfilled the expectations of Old Testament salvation history.  Jesus’ leaving the world opens up the period of salvation history in which Christ’ spirit is poured out on all flesh. In John 16 Jesus says to his disciples , 7Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned. 12“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; 

The end of an era – the beginning of a new era.  That is Luke’s vision.  The  version of what’s called the Lord’s prayer found in Luke 11 goes like this:  The disciples ask “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Father, hallowed be your name. Your Spirit come upon us and sanctify us. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 

 God of all creation, may your Spirit come upon us and make us clean. 

God of compassion, may your Spirit come upon us to make us whole. 

God of forgiveness, may your Spirit come upon us that we may be able to forgive.

God of reconciliation, may your Spirit come upon us that we may live in unity.     

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”…what is that to you? Follow me!”

”…what is that to you? Follow me!”

Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”  (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) He said to him, “Follow me.”  Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; he was the one who had reclined next to Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?”  When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”  Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” John 21:19-22

 

At first I didn’t get it.  …this stuff about the belt and old age connected to the kind of death Peter would die.  I discovered it was much more about the life of service Peter was destined to live into old age than some untimely or bizarre death.  It doesn’t support the tradition that Peter was crucified upside down in Rome, but it does support the long held belief that Peter labored long and hard for many years in ministry within the church.  And it starts with the hard work to which he was called.

 

The word picture in our passage tells of the processes of aging, quite specifically that of Simon Peter’s aging.  His labors began in Jerusalem and involved him in the earliest councils that shaped the church, carried him on missionary journeys and that included his correspondence. That’s the picture of the belt.  Early in his life, as a fisherman doing  heavy lifting like he did pulling a net of 153 large fish to shore, Peter fastened his own belt and went where ever he wished in a life of service in the Kingdom.

 

Later in life all he would be able to do would be to lift up his arms so others could fasten his belt around him, like they do today in nursing homes, and they would take him where they wanted him to go.  I found it heart warming that with such an understanding of the passage we get the sense that Peter wasn’t abandoned once he was advanced in age but that he was cared for, even if he could not longer pursue the ministry he loved.  No one knows when or how Peter died though many have been willing to share their speculations.  But that was what was in store for Peter were he to live obediently to Jesus’ call to follow him.

 

You might enjoy this.  As I was trying to understand the implication of the belt and its relationship to heavy lifting I learned that the phrase ‘to gird up your loins’ originally referred to pulling up your pants so they won’t get in the way of the labor you are planning to do.   It seemed so contemporary.  I guess if you don’t plan on exerting your self, girding up your loins is a waste of time.

 

But all that is just context and getting caught in the context can become an attractive nuisance that keeps us from the getting to the heart of the shared story.  In this case, the majority of those who comments I read on these few verses seemed fixated on the phrase ““If it is my will that he remain until I come…” speculating on when Jesus will return.  For Quakers that’s never been a matter of contention, we believe that Christ has already come to teach his people himself.  We aren’t to spend our time waiting for the other shoe to fall, we are called to put on our shoes and get on with sharing the good news of the Kingdom come, on earth.

 

The text implies that Simon Peter was walking with Jesus and Jesus told him what he would be facing in life. Peter wasn’t going to die an early martyr’s death like he had expected or maybe even preferred.  He looked back and saw another disciple following them.   Actually I think it’s important that the other disciple isn’t clearly identified.  For the purpose of the story it could have been anyone else who was, like Peter, following Jesus.  “Lord,” Peter said, “What about him?”

 

This may be hard to imagine but according to the Gospel of John the very last words of Jesus is a rebuked of Peter and of us to the extent we are like Peter.  “…what is that to you?” Jesus said. “Follow me!”   It was none of Peter’s business.  Your business, Jesus told him, is to follow me, not meddle in the lives of others. In the devotional classic ‘The Imitation of Christ’ Thomas A Kempis describes a man who ‘neglects his duty, musing on all that other men are bound to do.”

 

How very hard that is for us to give up the need to concern ourselves with how others live out their faith.  Peter had just heard a very hard word about his future. And he thought “what about John?” or who ever.   If I have to suffer, will he have to suffer? If my ministry ends like that, will his end like that? If I don’t get to live a long life of fruitful ministry, will he get to?  That’s the way we are wired. Compare. Compare. Compare. We crave to know how we stack up in comparison to others. …like two children comparing what they got for Christmas and trying to figure out who got more.

 

Do we get depressed when we look around and find that what we are doing in our lives and ministries appears to be less successful than that of others? Do we get some kind of high when we compare ourselves to someone less effective than are we?

 

We do it a number of ways.  We do it when we contrast how others express their spirituality with the language and images that are important to us.  We do it with comparative morality – contrasting our personal standards with the practices of others.  Quakers have the model of William Penn and his need to wear his sword being told to wear it as long as he could, that is until he felt convicted in his heart about it.  Not a job for others, a job best left to the Holy Spirit.

 

There’s good news in this. Jesus does not judge us according to our superiority or inferiority over any one else. No other person is the standard for me!  Jesus has work for me to do and a way for me to do it that is different from the way for you. It is not what he has given anyone else to do. There is grace in that. Will I trust God for that grace and do what God has given me to do?  Paul laid it out in Romans 14:4 when he wrote Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.”

 

Late in his life, tradition says, Peter, with the help of Silvanus wrote the book we call 1st Peter.  He shares how Jesus’ instruction worked out in his own life and gives us advice for our own.  He wrote:

Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;

yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 1 Peter 3:13-22

His point is that all that any of us can testify too is the hope that is ours.

 

In the final analysis, the last words of Jesus weren’t a rebuke at all, they were and are an invitation that was offered to Simon Peter and to us.  Giving up our need to control, guide, direct or correct others Jesus simply says “Follow me.”

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Simon, son of John, do you love me?

Spiritual Friendship

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”16A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.  John 21:15-17

 

The Cistercian fathers did us all a great favor when they recovered and re-published an early 12th century treatise by the Scottish monk, Aelred of Rievaulx.  Its title is Spiritual Friendship.  Rhetorically, in answering the question “Is there a difference between ‘charity’ (i.e. love) and friendship?”  Aelred of Rievaulx says that the difference is vast.   If we are to love the way God loves and John tells us that God loved the world, loving what God loves seems incumbent upon us.  Being careful to not over state his case the monk refers to Matthew 5:44 and Luke 6:27 and says “divine authority approves that more are to be received into the bosom of love than into the embrace of friendship.  For we are compelled by the law of love to receive into the embrace of love not only our friends but also our enemies.” Friendship is the higher calling.  “Frankness not flattery, generosity not gain, patience in correction and constancy in affection—these are the marks of a genuine Friendship”.

 

We’ve pretty well turned that upside down.  We’ve come to believe that, like on Facebook, we should have lots and lots of friends and be very restrictive with who gets into the circle of those whom we say we love.   How can we hold to that if we are to love what God created and called good?  Being a personal acquaintance with someone and being a true friend are quite different things.  Aelred said that we love very many who are a source of burden and grief to us, for whose interest we concern ourselves honorably, not with hypocrisy or dissimulations, yet we do not admit these to the intimacy of our friendship.  The point is there can be love without friendship but true friendship without love is impossible.  Jesus set the limits on love when he said “greater love has no man than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends.”  That’s how far love between friends should extend.

 

In reading our text for today, Simon Peter is standing around a charcoal fire with Jesus.  We recall that the last time we were told that Peter stood around a charcoal fire was in the courtyard of the high priest while Jesus was being interrogated.

 

This is the Peter who on more than one occasion declared his unfailing devotion to Jesus.  Matthew reports (26:33) that Peter declared, “Even though all may fall away because of you, I will never fall away”.  In the upper room, just before Jesus’ arrest, he said to Jesus  “I will lay down my life for you…”  Within hours his self-confessed love failed and he openly denied that he even knew Jesus.  The courtyard scene begins with his being stopped at the gate while the other disciple of whom it says “knew the High Priest” went in.  But then turned around and spoke the gate keeper and brought Peter in with him.  She asked Peter “Are you another of this man’s disciples?” Peter replied  “I am not!”  That’s when he took his place around the charcoal fire provided by the servants and police. The others warming themselves asked him “Are you another of his disciples?”  But he denied it, saying ”I am not.”  Then a relative of the man whose ear Peter had severed from his head insisted,  “Did I not see you with him in the garden?”  And for a third time Peter denied his relationship with Jesus.

 

Now, once again standing by a charcoal fire, Jesus turns to Simon Peter  and asks  “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”  “Yes, Lord,” he answered, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

 

It might be instructive to note what Jesus did not ask.  He didn’t ask  “Simon, son of John, do you fear me?” He didn’t ask, “Simon son of John, do you glorify and worship me?” His question wasn’t even concerning his faith. He did not ask, “Simon, son of Jonas, do you believe in me?”

 

He did not ask Peter anything about his good works or his devotion.  “Simon Peter, how often have you been on your knees seeking divine mercy for the slight you did to me?”  “ ….  how much have you wept over  your denial of me?”   “How much time have you spent in prayer for others?”  “How often have practiced your faith in practical ministry?”   No.  It was not in reference to his works, but in reference to the state of his heart that Jesus said, “Do you love me?”

 

In reading the text I couldn’t help wondering to what Jesus was pointing when he asked Simon son of John do you love me more than “these.”  We can’t be sure.  But only a few hours before this, impatient for Jesus to meet them on the beach, impetuous Peter proceeded to return to his profession as a fisherman. “I’m going fishing” he said and the others followed suit.  So, for Peter, was it his profession that became the source of his alienation of affection?  Maybe you wonder too what it would be for you?  It goes to a process of self examination.  What gets our priority – what do we love more?

 

When Jesus repeated it a second time the question was even simpler.   “Do you love me?”  “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  But not finished, the symmetry is unmistakable and the pain Peter felt was real.  “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

 

“Simon son of John, Do you love me? ”Though it looks the same, in English, the third time Jesus asked Simon the question it wasn’t the same.  Not by a long shot. In the first two instances the Greek word translated love is the word ‘agapn’,  synonyms for which are words like: generosity, kindly concern, devotedness.  This time, the third time Jesus uses the word ‘phylias’.  Am I your friend?  Jesus asks.

 

Aelred wrote of having a friend, a spiritual friend: “…what joy to have someone to whom you dare to speak on terms of equality as to another self; one to whom you need have no fear to confess your failings; one to whom you can unblushingly make known what progress you have made in your spiritual life; one to whom you can entrust all the secrets of your heart and before whom you can place all your plans!”

 

There’s a phrase that has found its way into marriage ceremonies which reads: “Friendship heightens the joys of prosperity and mitigates the sorrows of adversity by dividing and sharing them.”  “Nothing is to be denied a friend, nothing should be refused a friend…” The question to Simon was a practical one.  Earlier Jesus had told his followers “You are my friends if you do what I command you, and that is to love one another.” (Jn15:14)  What does it mean to be a friend of Jesus? Simon, son of John, are you my dear friend?

 

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