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?  

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