Sunday, October 26, 2014

Give It Away

1You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. 3For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, 4but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. 5As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; 6nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, 7though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. 8So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
34When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35and 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.’ 40On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
41Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42“What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” 43He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 
44  ‘The Lord said to my Lord, 
     “Sit at my right hand, 
          until I put your enemies under your feet”’? 
45If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” 46No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.

If Jesus Christ himself appeared in front of you and you could ask any question, what would it be? Would it be a question about theology like why is there suffering in the world? Would it be a question about his life, like did you really know what would happen after you were crucified? Would you be so bold as to ask him a question to test if it was really him?

If I could ask Jesus any question in person, I think I’d ask the question: 

What do you want from me?

I wonder, though, how Jesus would respond our questions. When we read the Gospels, we see that both the disciples and his adversaries asked a lot of questions. We also see that Jesus often answered them by asking an even harder question that left them scratching their heads.

In our passage today, the Sadducees have tried questioning Jesus to trap him into saying something heretical and they failed. We pick up where the Pharisees have a go at trying to stump him or trap him. Again, Jesus stuns them silence with his answers. He takes everything they thought they knew and turns into something they did not expect.

You see the Pharisees were a people of questions. They were working really hard at getting religion right—just like us. In fact, my friend Rev. Christy Ramsey tells the congregations he serves that when they hear the word Pharisee, they should think Presbyterian. I know, I know. We are conditioned to think Pharisees equal bad guys and we aren't so bad. 

We think the Pharisees are hypocrites whose outside appearance does not match their true inner nature...If you order a “Pharisäer” in some European coffee shops, you will get a strong black coffee topped with whipped cream and a lot of sugar. Nothing special at first glance. But after the first sip you know why it is called a “Pharisäer.” Hidden under the cream and mixed into the coffee is a generous serving of rum. Legend has it that this recipe was conjured up …to hide alcohol consumption at weddings from the local pastor who strongly opposed it. 

As Christians, we are often harsh and judgmental in our treatment of Pharisees. But, even though some of Jesus’ harshest words are for the Pharisees, in their day Pharisees were pretty popular. Like, Protestants, they thought religion wasn’t totally focused upon what happened at the Temple. What happened in the home or on the street was important, too.

Pharisees were popular with common people who felt that the Sadducees (another religious group) were too elite and cozy with the Romans. Pharisees were Bible–or Torah—based and took the laws of the book and the oral tradition seriously, but not literally. Sound familiar? 

For example, the Sadducees believed literally. An eye for an eye punishment  meant someone had to go get the spoon (see Leviticus 24:19-20). The Pharisees said, Well... You don’t have to actually remove the eye of the offending person, you can make them pay in some other way—like money or perhaps an eye’s worth of punishment.

The Pharisees’ focus was on applying the Torah to every day life.  They thought deeply about how to interpret those laws collectively instead of emphasizing the priestly privilege of interpretation. Like Protestants, they were reformers.

Pharisees, like Presbyterians, believed in resurrection and a spiritual realm. They expected a messiah. Like Presbyterians, they studied together, ate together and prayed together. They valued communal discussion and education.

While we probably like eating together best, we Presbyterians are also interested in discussion and education, too. We think critically. We embrace debate. We ask lots of questions. In fact, I think we Presbyterians get our nickname “Frozen Chosen” because we tend to worship more with our heads more than our hearts.

While they are the New Testament's "bad" guys, Christianity would not exist as we know it without the Pharisees that we hear so much about. Paul approached faith in Christ with a mind of a Pharisee.

Remember, Paul was Jew. His way of thinking about religion was still with him. Jesus ambushed him on the Road to Damascus and invaded his heart and his mind giving him new sight, humbling him and calling him to a different way of serving God. Paul is transformed from a church killer to a church planter. He doesn’t keep his experience to himself. He gets back on the road with a whole new agenda, and everything he learned Pharisee.

As a Jewish Christ follower, Paul tries to organize, explain and codify his born again moment from the Road to Damascus. Inspired by the Spirit he begins to transform the followers’ faith in Christ to the religion of Christianity.  Paul makes the spiritual, religious.  

He could do this because of his training as a Pharisee.  He took the feelings of faith and tried to explain them with logic and reason. He helped to turn beliefs into rituals.
·      He thought critically and asked questions about the practices of the newly forming churches.

The Pharisees were part of Jesus’ faith tradition just as  Paul and other people who ask the hard questions of faith are part of our own Reformed tradition. These kinds of people help turn faith into religion and feelings into practices. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, they take our individual faith experiences and make them communal. Without people like Jesus, Paul and the Pharisees, we’d ALL be walking around being spiritual but not religious. We wouldn’t know how to put our faith into practice.

But, this can be a trap, too. This is why Presbyterians, or Pharisees, are criticized.
    When our religion becomes only about ideas, rituals, practices and laws it loses its foundation.
    When religion is only about our head and not about our heart, we lose our faith.
   When religion's laws trump relationships, we end up religious but not spiritual.

Jesus and Paul are both reminding us that we need a spiritual foundation in order to be truly religious

First, let’s look at Jesus:

Jesus is always the smartest guy in the room. He stumps the Sadducees and Pharisees every time. He reduces them to silence with the both the simplicity of his answers and the complexity of his questions.

Seeking to trap him, the Pharisees ask which of the 613 commandments in the Bible is the most important. I’m sure the crowd was watching, whispering and waiting.

“613 commandments! So many to choose from!”
“I’d say don’t put God to the test”
“I’d go for one of the 10 commandments.”
“I’ll bet he doesn’t pick the one about mixing wool and linen for cloth.”

But Jesus knows his Torah and his God. He turns the question from the head to the heart with his answer. Jesus tells them:

 It’s not just about what you know, it’s about who you know and how you treat them.

"What is the greatest commandment?" the lawyer asks.

 Love God. Love your neighbor. Jesus’ answer is surprisingly spiritual but not terribly religious. It’s positive, not a Thou Shalt Not. It’s relational, not ritualistic. 

Jesus strips away the rules and regulations to their core. He reduces the laws to their center. He says the foundation of all of it all—of life, of faith and of religion—the foundation can be summed up in three words: God, Love, and Neighbor. The spirit of Judaism, Jesus says, is love.

When we take seriously Jesus' command to love God and our neighbor, we are led into a life of questions. We ask ourselves, how will this influence my relationship with God? How will what I do effect my neighbor? This command takes us out of our self-centered world and opens us up to love.

Fast forward to Paul’s ministry to the Thessalonians. He comes to them to preach the Gospel, to bring them good news. He doesn’t do it by focusing only on his own experience, invoking authority or scaring them with threats of hell. No. He lived with them. He worked alongside them. He nurtured them. And he loved them. Dearly. Tenderly. Gently. He says:

Even though we had some standing as Christ’s apostles, we never threw our weight around or tried to come across as important, with you or anyone else. We weren’t aloof with you. We took you just as you were. We were never patronizing, never condescending, but we cared for you the way a mother cares for her children. We loved you dearly. Not content to just pass on the Message, we wanted to give you our hearts. And we did.

Paul made sure that he reached their heads and their hearts. He told them the news of Christ and then he showed them the heart of the gospel. The spirit of Christianity is love.

Living a life of love and faith sounds simple yet it's so complex.  I'm just like the Pharisees (or Presbyterians). I have questions.

Like the Sadducees and Pharisees of the Bible, I pepper Jesus with questions almost every time I pray. What does this mean, I ask? What should I do? Should I boycott chocolate farmed with child labor?Is this what the Bible passage means?  Can you guide me?  How does this apply to everyday life? Do I have to buy fair trade coffee? 

But then I remember that these are really the secondary questions. The primary question is one that I already know the answer to. It's the question I start with and end with. And the answer is the same every time, for me and for you, too.

Jesus, what do you want from me?

Jesus says, I want you to give away your heart. Give your heart to God. Give your heart to those around you. Love God. Love neighbor. 

Now I ask you, How hard is that?  

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Gains and Losses

4bIf anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Kids are making grand plans for their Halloween costumes. They visit stores, try on masks and let their imaginations run wild. Pinterest moms are probably already sewing something adorable and creative.  This month, some of us will intentionally put on masks and costumes to be someone or something else.  But most of us don’t think about the every day masks that we depend upon to get by in the world.

The apostle Paul realized this when he encountered Jesus. Before meeting the resurrected Jesus he depended upon the masks of education, his religious identity, his family lineage and his work as a Pharisee. He built up his identity piece by piece from the outside in.

His confidence was bolstered by who he was on the outside. He could brag about his importance. Paul spent his early life putting on the things that would make him feel important in this world.

4bIf anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee;6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

If we interpreted Paul’s opening paragraph with our culture’s values. It might read something like this:

If anyone has reason to be confident, it’s me. I was baptized in a beautiful church, I’m a cradle Presbyterian (or Episcopalian or Methodist), my family came to America on the Mayflower. I have a Harvard education and have been very successful in my career. I have never been arrested and my record is spotless.

Paul had solid, respectable mask. His mask was so good it allowed him to get away with murder as he participated in the persecution of Jews who were joining the new Jesus sect. He did whatever it took to put a stop those who had the audacity to proclaim Jesus is the messiah, follow the Way of Christ and proclaim the resurrection. Putting on the mask of cultural respectability led Paul to some big gains—prestige and importance.

Then or now, these are the people that we often lift up as a success; the people many of us measure ourselves against. They seem to have gained it all.  Their life is good.

But when Paul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus and his whole outlook changed and the passage today shows us one of the changes.

When Christ met him and confronted him with the words, Why are you persecuting me? Paul’s mask was shattered. Encountering Christ he realized, My God, NONE of this matters. None of it is important.  Everything he thought he had gained, was actually a loss. In the end, all that education didn’t matter. His family heritage was nothing. His zeal for protecting his religion and his blamelessness under the law were unimportant. His past was meaningless when faced with a future in Christ.

The self-declared righteousness of which he was so proud was false. It was not the eternal righteousness of Jesus Christ. When Paul encountered Jesus, he realized that righteousness was not attained by following laws, but it was a gift from God. Righteousness was not something he did for God, but something God did for him.

He says, I do not “have a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.” 

Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is the equivalent of what we call being saved. It’s coming face-to-face with the power of God and recognizing how small and sinful we are by comparison. It’s trembling in the fear of the Lord AND being overwhelmed with the love and forgiveness of Christ at the same time.  Martin Luther called this simul justus et peccator. We are simultaneously righteous and a sinner. Too often we overemphasize one side of the other.

The letters of Paul seek to describe this inner duality of our faith experience. We saw it last week when Paul talked about being both empty and exalted. This week he’s talking about gains and losses and he contrasting his own confidence and insecurity. The man who was so sure of his righteousness loves his new life in Christ. He no longer proclaims himself judge and jury (well, most of the time).  He hands over power to Christ.

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

This is a powerful man who has been humbled. A religious zealot who puts his faith in God instead of himself. He became a man who trusted God wholeheartedly.

God shattered Paul’s masks and his understanding of who God is, and Paul followed him in response.  Jesus came to him while he was yet a sinner. The light that blinded Paul also gave him new vision.

The British theologian C.S. Lewis explains this action of God in his book A Grief Observed. He says God is a great iconoclast. God is the great shatterer of institutions and images used religion. Lewis writes:

My idea of God is not a divine idea. It has to be shattered time after time. [God] shatters it himself. [God] is the great iconoclast. Could we not almost say that this shattering is one of the marks of his presence? The Incarnation, [Jesus coming to the world as a baby], is the supreme example; it leaves all previous ideas of the Messiah in ruins.

This is what Paul learned. It’s what we have to learn.  When the people in the Bible forget God and lift themselves up, God shatters them in new and surprising ways. Like with a baby in a manger as a savior or a redeemer who dies to give life.

So what are the masks we have today?  What needs to be shattered for us to come closer to Christ. What are our masks?

Maybe they are degrees and resumes masking our feelings inadequacy or unworthiness.

Leaving the house with just the right clothes and perfect make up may hide our fear of being unloved or rejected.

Maybe being attached to our phones or computers masks feelings of emptiness or loneliness.

Money could be a mask our dependency. If we have enough money we don’t have to depend on the goodwill of others. 

We can use our education and jobs, our beauty, our busyness, our money and other things as masks. 

These masks can make us more palatable and powerful in the world. They can gain us prestige, friends, and power. But they are masks. They are false. They distance us from Christ. Paul tells us in to uncertain terms: These things are garbage—and that is really hard to hear. He writes:

More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9and be found in him.

The masks Paul was wearing were shattered. But this loss was a gain. He looked at those broken pieces and realized that they weren’t him. Much his writing calls us to do the same thing. He says forget who you were before and embrace who you are as one of God’s beloved. Let go of the masks that keep you from connecting with Christ and each other.

Paul threw away the broken pieces of his mask and found Jesus instead. He left his masks in the trash and walked into a new future. One that was less about him and more about Christ. He traded in his prestige for a hard life on the road. He traded his power and authority for a jail cell. He lost everything he thought was important, but gained a life of love in Christ.

Did he win it or earn it or work for it? No. God revealed what was there all along—a deep, forgiving love. God so loves the world that you and I are a part of. Come, let’s live as the beloved community of Christ.  Let us take off the masks and reveal that love to each other and to the world.