Why Two Testaments?

Why do Christians have the Old Testament?  The Muslims certainly knew both testaments of our Bible and they kept neither but started over.  The Jewish holy texts remain our holy texts because the disciples read for and found Jesus there, so the Hebrew Scriptures become the first volume of a two volume revelation. After the resurrection his followers finally realized that what they wanted they were not getting, however, what they got was better.

ImageThat was not clear at first because they were looking for David, a type of Hercules or Alexander the Great, to thump the wicked, restoring Israel to her place in the sun.  I’ve always found it interesting that on the way to Emmaus after joining the party, Jesus opened the Scriptures showing how Messiah had to suffer and die. (I wish Cleopas had published his notes).

What he explained on the road, was that what they believed about Messiah was indeed true but incomplete and that the triumph of Messiah was at the end of the age not then.  Their desperate need threw off their timing.   What are we desperate for today?  Is it possible that what we want is less than God wants for us?  Remember that Columbus was on his way to the Orient when he bumped into the Occident.  What Columbus accidentally found was better than what he looked for!

O Lord, we are not yet as we shall be and after the dying of our illusions lies the resurrection of our true selves.   Don’t forget the promise of Columbus.  Amen.

I Will Fall Upon the Rock

tenants_in_vineyardOne of the strangest and to my mind most disturbing sayings of Jesus is in Matthew’s Gospel 21:44.  It occurs after a parable of conflict with the Jewish religious establishment.  Jesus said, “The very stone with the builders rejected has become the head of the corner?  Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but when it falls on anyone it will crush them.”  What does this mean?

I can’t be certain of all it means but I believe that these remarks of Jesus point to the root of the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish religious community especially the Pharisees.  This is also the issue between Paul and his Jewish opponents. It is a sort of which came first the chicken or egg question. According to Jesus and Paul it was the gift of God’s presence that made a good life possible rather than if you live a good life God will be present as a reward for your goodness. The challenge of Jesus was this: obedience does not lead to God, rather God’s love leads to obedience. This is the reverse of what was happening in 1st Century Judaism.  Christianity is not immune from the tendency to think we should or could EARN God’s love.

The deepest longing of the Jewish people was for the Messiah to come and bring the Kingdom of God.  The Pharisees who have a bad reputation among Christians were really a renewal movement among Jews.  They longed for the Kingdom and Messiah.  Further they were proactive and decided to do their part to make it happen.  They believed that if everyone followed the law that Messiah would come.  They pushed not just the 10 commandments, but all the rules and interpretation of the law. TAKE IT FURTHER!

Jesus is the rock

They wanted the ritual purity of the priests in the temple – to be normative for all Jews in all parts of their lives.  They were deeply motivated to keep the law and hostile to those not so  inspired because the laxness of some prevented the coming of Messiah. Now Jesus tells them that they had it all wrong.  Being good and getting your ticket punched will not bring God’s presence; rather God’s presence enables goodness.  Keeping all the laws won’t bring Messiah – Messiah will come when he chooses and furthermore here he is: the stone, which the builders rejected, has become the keystone of the arch.

The Jews have a saying: “If a jar falls on a rock, woe be to the jar. If a rock falls on a jar, woe be to the jar. Either way, woe be to the jar!”

God will being in his reign of peace, the Kingdom in his way, on his terms, not because we hold our mouths just so and wish real hard, keeping all the rules and getting our tickets punched.  When the Pharisees and others thought keeping the law would produce God’s presence they were forgetting their own history.

  1. Abraham didn’t go to Canaan looking for God. God lead him there.
  2. Jacob fled his home to escape his brother Esau, whose blessing he had stolen.  As he slept God came looking for him so that Jacob awoke and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.”
  3.  Moses did not set fire to the bush – the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob came looking for him
  4.  The prophet Isaiah reminds the children of Israel (and us) that it is God that makes a way in the sea, who does a NEW THING, waters in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.
  5. Paul writes in his letter to the Christians in Philippi that he presses on to reach the goal of participating in the resurrection of Christ from the dead.  “…but I press on to make my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
  6. In the reading from Matthew, Jesus tells the story of the wicked tenants, who refused to recognize the heir of the vineyard’s owner when he came to receive what, belonged to the owner.  The vineyard was a common symbol of Israel.  The scribes and chief priests understood the story as a critique of their leadership of Israel.

The irony is that Messiah had come.  The very one that their hearts most longed for had come and they didn’t recognize him because he had not come on their terms [they weren’t good enough yet] but on his father’s terms.  That’s really tragic.

It’s sort of like the old couple who began dating after their spouses died.  They spent a lot of time together and one day as they sat on the porch he leaned over and whispered, “Let’s get married.”  She laughed and said, “It’s a great idea but who would have us?”

Trustees Office at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

We will encounter the rock, the stone rejected by the builders, whether we recognize him or not.  We will finally encounter the reality that we can’t make it on our own.  We may live in denial and avoid it for as long as humanly possible but eventually the jar and the rock will collide. Most of us talk about grace but we really prefer to earn our way.  We believe that our goodness brings God’s presence when God’s presence brings whatever goodness we display.  Salvation finally is a gift, if we are to be saved.  I at no other time at death we will finally admit/submit to power beyond us – the jar and the rock will collide.  Fortunately that reality is a God who is generous and wants the best for us.  We do not have to wait to the end.  We can choose to embrace the reality that God’s presence is a gift now!  “If you fall on the stone you will be broken to pieces but if the stone falls on anyone it crush them.”  I submit that it is better for God to pick up the pieces of our ego and rework them than to be pulverized.  We can cooperate with our salvation or we can resist it.  It is up to us.

The Shakers have a hymn that sums this up,“I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble (bow like the willow tree).  I will bow this is the token I will wear the easy yoke.  I will bow and be broken, Yea, I’ll fall upon the rock!”

Let us then fall upon the rock – For indeed – brothers and sister it is the rock of our salvation.      Amen.

 

 

 

 

Soul of the World

The Epistle to Diognetus is an apology for Christianity,  written by an unknown writer to a pagan of high social or political rank.   It probably dates from the 2nd or 3rd century.  In chapters 5 & 6 Christians are described as the soul of the world.

 

mathetes “Christians are not distinguished from the rest of mankind by either country, speech, or customs; the fact is, they nowhere settle in cities of their own; they use no peculiar language; they cultivate no eccentric mode of life.  certainly, this creed of theirs is no discovery due to some fancy or speculation of inquisitive men; nor do they, as some do, champion a doctrine of human origin.  Yet while they dwell in both Greek and non-Greek cities, as each one’s lot was cast, and conform to the customs of the country in dress, food, and mode of life in general, the whole tenor of their way of living stamps it as worthy of admiration and admittedly extraordinary.  They reside in their respective countries, but only as aliens.  They take part in everything as citizens and put up with everything as foreigners.  Every foreign land is their home and every home a foreign land.  The marry like all others and beget children; but they do not expose their offspring.  Their board they spread for all, but not their bed.  They find themselves in the flesh, but do not live according to the flesh. They spend their days on earth, but hold citizenship in heaven. they obey the established laws, but in their private lives they rise about the laws. 

 

ApostolicFathers

 

They love all men, but are persecuted by all. They are unknown, yet are condemned; they are put to death, but it is live that they receive.  They are poor, and enrich many; destitute of everything, they abound in everything.  They are dishonored, and in their dishonor find their glory.  The are calumniated, and are vindicated.  They are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted and render honor.  Doing good, they are penalized as evildoers; when penalized, they rejoice because they are quickened into life.  they Jews make war on them as foreigners; the Greeks persecute them; and those who hate them are at a loss to explain their hatred.

Vasily Perov's painting illustrates clandestin...

Vasily Perov’s painting illustrates clandestine meetings of Christians in pagan Kiev. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a word: what the soul is in the body, that the Christians are in the world.  The soul is spread through all the members of the body, and the Christians throughout the cities of the world.  The soul dwells in the body, but is not part and parcel of the body; so Christians dwell in the world, but are not part and parcel of the world.  Itself  invisible, the soul is kept shut up in the visible body; so Christians are known as such in the world, but their religion remains invisible.  The flesh, though suffering no wrong from the soul, yet hates and makes war on it, because it is hindered from indulging its passions; so, too, the world, though suffering no wrong from Christians, hates them because they oppose its members; so, too, Christians love those that hate them.  The soul is locked up in the body, yet is the very thing that holds the body together; so, too, Christians are shut up in the world as in a prison, yet it is precisely they that hold the world together. 

 

Immortal, the soul is lodged in mortal tenement; so, too, Christians, though residing as strangers among corruptible things, look forward to the incorruptibility that awaits them in heaven.  The soul, when stinting itself in food and drink, fares the better for it; so, too, Christians, when penalized, show a daily increase in numbers on that account.  Such is the important post to which God has assigned, and they are not at liberty to desert it.”

 

Luke 7:1-11

Almost every time Jesus appears in the Gospels he is healing or has healed or is on his way to heal.  In Luke 7:1-11 a foreigner, a gentile, sends Jewish elders to Jesus asking for help for a sick slave. The man  was a Centurion.  A bit of explanation is in order: Roman Military structure: what we call an army they called a Legion

Legion1

  • Basic unit – Century made up of 80 men commanded by a Centurion
  • 6 Centuries = Cohort
  • 10 Cohorts = 1 Legion – The first Cohort had double Centuries of 160 and thus was an elite unit – The Centurion over this Cohort was the Primus Pilus (first javelin)   highest ranking Centurion – Aside: Some believe that Pontius Pilate, Governor of Judea, who condemned Jesus had  been Primus Pilus thus the nick-name Pilus or Pilate.

Vegetius was an historian from the 5th century, the period of the late Roman Empire, who wrote a book called The Epitome of Military Science. In it, he described the qualities of a centurion in rather glowing terms.  

English: Centurion (Roman army) historical ree...

English: Centurion (Roman army) historical reenactment Boulogne sur mer (France). Français : Centurion (armée Romaine) Reconstitution historique à Boulogne sur Mer en France. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Centurions should be:

  • literate, ideally
  • at least 30 years old,
  • With some years of military service behind them.
  • A centurion is chosen for great strength and tall stature, as a man who hurls spears and javelins skillfully and strongly, has expert knowledge how to fight with the sword and rotate the shield, and has learned the whole art of armature. He is alert, sober, and agile, and more ready to do the things ordered of him than speak, keeps his soldiers in training, makes them practice their arms, and sees that they are well clothed and shod, and that the arms are burnished and bright. (Vegetius, Epitome of Military Science, quoted on Cotter, p. 114)

This Centurion was an impressive man.  He likely worked his way up through the ranks, he may well have been the Primus Pilis as he has control of consideration money.

After Jesus had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people, he entered Capernaum. Excursus: First century Roman baths excavated on this site point to Roman presence in the 1st Century.  Legions were often stationed in a place for a long time, even centuries.

2 A Centurion there had a slave whom he valued – this choice of words is utilitarian, sort of like saying, “he had this machine he valued for what it could do for him” a better translation would be a slave whom he highly honored, slavery is always bad, and people shouldn’t be “owned.” Unlike US history Roman slavery was not racial but economic.  It was assumed that at some point the slave will be freed and likely go into business sponsored by his former master.  We do not know any more of the relationship than the fact that this Centurion thought highly of this slave who was ill and close to death.

3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders to him, asking him to come and heal his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they appealed to him earnestly, saying, “He is worthy of having you do this for him, 5 for he loves our people, and it is he who built our synagogue for us.”

Thoughtful Romans rather liked a lot about Judaism and particularly appreciated its high morals and ethics. What they did not find attractive at all was circumcision and keeping the dietary kosher laws.  The most common meat in Rome was pork and they as we do like a big pork chop from time to time and as you know Pork was high on the list of kosher no no’s.

We encounter these Gentiles in the Gospels, The Acts and in Paul’s letters.  Since Paul’s understanding of the Gospel was that the resurrection spelled and end to all the very rules that turned off the Gentiles attracted to the high ethical standards and practice of the Jews so they could become Christian rather easily and they did just that.  This very man may well be a brother of ours in heaven.

This military man asked the Elders of the Synagogue he attended to approach Jesus. The Elders were glad to do it because apparently he was a really good guy, and he had paid for the Synagogue building.   They came to Jesus with the request and Jesus agreed and went with them to the Centurion’s house.

6 And Jesus went with them, but when he was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to say to him, “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; 7 therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. 8 For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.”

Centurion Safety

 9 When Jesus heard this he was amazed [amazed: Astonished, his jaw dropped, the language is beyond surprised it is intensified to he just stood there dumbfounded.”]  at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.”

Now, just go with me for a minute,  we, if we are not careful, allow our knowledge of the Jesus as the Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity and allow the equal reality that at the same time he was fully human the son of Mary.

I was reared with an heresy that unwittingly elevated Jesus’ divinity at the expense of his full humanity.  This is my thought.

“I wonder, was this the first time it occurred to Jesus to heal that he could heal at a distance?”

How cool is that?  Jesus is brought up short not by his fellows but by a Gentile of all things, who would have thought it?

That’s why he turned those with him and said, “Well, don’t that beat all, a Gentile has just taught the Son of God something about faith!”

10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health [in Greek the word means robust, like nothing had ever happened].

 If you notice, the Centurion never met Jesus in person.

  • He knew that Jews didn’t enter the houses of Gentiles.
  • He in an elegant move kept Jesus from controversy while at the same time believed that Jesus could/would heal his friend.
  • He was powerless to help this man who he held in high regard
  • He was not without power.
  • He used his power: net-worked
  • He was humble – put aside his station and power – and asked for help.

That was them then and there.  What about us here and now?

What about us?

My mentor, Bronson Bryant used to say, “John, we are always prepared for God to do nothing.”

  • Where is the need in your life?
  • Where are you powerless?
  • How are you using the power you do have?
  • When was the last time you really asked God for help?
    • And expected something to happen?
    • And when he did was surprised?

Faith is found in the strangest places.  Unfortunately, Church is often one of the strangest places to find faith. I pray that this will be the place where people meet the Living God with visible consequences.    Amen.   

“The Centurion’s Servant”  – Sir Stanley Spencer 1914

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