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Friday, July 25, 2014

Surprise Party

At our local church, we've been going through many of the parables of Jesus this summer.  It's been great because studying the parables allows us to see what Jesus taught firsthand to people. I love re-reading what Jesus taught to people. It often hits me square between the eyes and gives me a kick in the pants (sorry to mix metaphors).

Last week, we looked at the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-35; Mark 4:30-34; Luke 13:18-21).   Each time we have studied a parable at youth group, we have taken the time to go deeper and read the surrounding context. This way, everyone who is there will be able to apply and teach the scripture to a friend or neighbor (at least in theory). This parable was no different. As part of this study, we read all of Matthew 13 and then discussed the background of expectation.

I guess we should back up, why were we talking about expectation in the first place? Expectation is one of the chief things Jesus was dealing with when he taught.  Many people had expectations about what the Messiah (Christ is transliterated from the Greek for Messiah) would be like.  As Jesus deals with those expectations, he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven.  In Luke and John, the same concept appears as the Kingdom of God. Matthew, as a good Jewish person, would have avoided using the name of God and instead inserts heaven.  For our purposes, it will be sufficient to look at what Matthew does with the concept.

In Matthew, the idea is introduced by John the Baptist (3:2) and then taken over by Jesus as he inaugurates his public ministry (4:17).  In this particular instance, Jesus reinterprets the prophet Isaiah as speaking about Jesus' ministry (cf. Isaiah 9:1,2 & 42:7).  From here on out, we start to see how Jesus sees himself fulfilling the role of Messiah for the Jewish people. Interestingly, Luke follows a similar path in allowing Jesus to interpret his role as Messiah through the voice of Isaiah the prophet (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2 ff), but this time Luke is writing primarily for a Gentile audience.

As Matthew continues his narrative of Jesus' life, he keeps using the Kingdom language. In the Sermon on the Mount, this expression dominates the new way of living shares with the people.  For the Jewish people, it was not the newness which surprised them about how Jesus described the Kingdom. Instead, it was the fact that Jesus was not describing a kingdom on earth which would be marked by peace and signs of paradise (i.e. material wealth and glory- for a further explanation on this see (βασιλεύς, βασιλεία, βασίλισσα, βασιλεύω, συμβασιλεύω, βασίλειος, βασιλικός:
Vol. 1: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (564). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.    מֶלֶךְ and מַלְכוּת in the OT and ff).

But Jesus doesn't preach to them about material wealth or earthly peace.  He preaches about things like loving our enemies, blessedness because of persecution, and a higher standard of sexual morality.

I can imagine the reaction to these things- "Aw, come on! You have to be kidding me Jesus! When is it our turn?" It's easy to imagine this reaction because many people feel the same way today. Sometimes I am one of those people who expects Jesus to bring me material bliss or earthly peace.  I don't usually, if ever say it, but I live that way and I pray that way.

In any case, Jesus has built up a story of the Kingdom which keeps slamming their expectations.  Very little is left of most peoples' previous thoughts on the matter, at least if they've been paying attention.

This is the state of things when Jesus tells the story of the mustard seed.  Here is a tiny little seed. Maybe even a seed that is regularly thrown away because it is insignificant and a bother to those who are not cultivating it. Then God does something amazing with it- he turns it into a plant big enough for the birds of the field to land in.

I am an advocate for the idea that parables only have one main point. All the other points are just in support of the main point. This one is no different.  Jesus is telling us that God is going to surprise us. How is he going to surprise us? He's going to use the Kingdom of Heaven just like a mustard seed. It's unexpected, not necessarily wanted, it's small, hidden, and just a little bit annoying if we're honest with ourselves.   How does a mustard seed grow? You let it go. You let it do it's thing. And then we are surprised by what happens.

We can't control God's kingdom. We can't control the results. We can't even control the means God wants to use. God is going to use the crazy things, the small things to break into our world and grow his kingdom. God wants to surprise us today. How must that happen? We have to give up control to God.

In our talk, the topic of choice came up. So, does this parable mean I no longer have any choice in my life? Nope, it just means we are going to give the choices to God.  For a high school student, it means I give the choice to God about whether or not I should attend a party, or drink, or have sex with someone I am not married to- all of these choices either lead to life (the tree/kingdom) growing or to death (retaining control and not letting the seed grow).   The difference really isn't that great for adults. We can either choose to let the kingdom grow in our lives or we can choose to retain control.

Control often comes with the allure of short term gain. It can be fun to know what kind of pleasure I will experience immediately.  In the kingdom, we give up control so we can see the benefit of God surprising us.

A surprise is hard to wait for, I know, I am really bad at being patient when someone tells me they have a surprise to give me.  Just imagine what God has in store for us though! When we give up on our short term control, desires, and expectations God has something better in store.  God wants to surprise us with his grace and love.

Let's let the kingdom grow. Let's be surprised. Let's give God control.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Revelations and Relationships

If you have spent a large amount of time around church people, you've probably heard someone correct someone else at some point about the name of the last book in the Bible. Sure, the correct name is "Revelation" as in The Revelation of St. John. I understand the reason most people try to make this correction. In fact, I have often been one of the people doing the correction. There is a concern to help the offender become enlightened. We also want people to know there is only one revelation from God about the end of the world and not multiple ones.

Sometimes though, our corrections come at wrong times. I would argue this happens a lot. If someone feels like I am more concerned with correcting them than having a discussion, the discussion shuts down. Later on, this can cause the relationship to start shutting down too. This is especially true if it happens more than once.

I'm a know-it-all at times. My wife would attest to this fact. I don't know when to shut up.  The good part is that I do know how to apologize and learn when I'm wrong. At least I hope that's the good part. We might be kind and call a child who knows a lot a savant, but by the time we reach adulthood we usually label such a person a jerk if it is not tempered by other things. We all know people like this in our lives (if you're reading this you probably know me and have thought I'm a jerk at one point or another, it's ok, I realize it).

So, why is this important for the church and not just me? The church is full of know-it-alls. In fact, we often set up systems in order for the people who remain a long time in the church to become know-it-alls.  This set up is foundational to having a church which is more systematic and business like than body-like.  We were meant to be a body, not a business. I know this is a tired theme for some people, but I'm focusing on one particular element. How do we teach people without making them experts?

You may be wondering why I would want to do such a thing.  Isn't being an expert a great thing?  Isn't an expert the equivalent of someone who has done extremely well?  The answers to those questions are, "it depends!" What does it depend on? It depends on the way you are evaluating an expert.

In the book Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier, we see two models of evaluation compared.  One model tries to encourage outliers or "stars" to appear. For our purposes, these would be experts- people who excel so much that they are beyond everyone else.  The entire point of this first model is to create people who are outliers. The problem with such a model is that by design most people will never achieve this status. The second model is based upon a Bell Curve of success. This model assumes that many more people will achieve a more modest form of success without ever aiming for the outlier position.  In this model, many people are rewarded for doing lots of things well without all striving for the few same things.

That's all well and good, but what does it have to do with the church? Especially given the fact that the book you gained the idea from is a business and management book?

Well, it got me thinking. What has been our goal in the American church? Why do we correct people over things that destroy relationships- like an "s" at the end of a word when the person is maybe only trying to reference something and we turn it into a discussion on meaning? Why do we feel the need to make people right? And that's where it hit home for me.

I believe we try to create Christian super stars in the U.S. Maybe not always, maybe not at every church, but in general I think this is the modus operandi. We continue to operate in a business model because our goals are pragmatic and not grace oriented.  A business cannot operate on grace. Bodies depend on grace for life.  I think this might be Paul's point in 1 Corinthians-  

13:13  Now these three remain:
   faith, hope, and love.
   But the greatest of these is love.
   14:1       Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and above all that you may prophesy. (HCSB)

How do we expect to teach people (prophesy, which I take to mean speaking truth) if we don't love them? We can say we love someone, but it is meaningless unless we serve them.  This has to include the way we correct someone. Do we correct from grace or from a need for that person to be right? Do we correct someone because we want to see the body succeed or because we want them to be an expert? Or maybe we correct someone because we want to show them we've already achieved expert status?

Do I think we shouldn't call for excellence in the church? I am arguing for some type of moral middle ground? Is using the Bell Curve to describe the situation an excuse to no longer want the best from people? Answering all these questions definitively- no. I think it is about thinking of people in terms of a whole rather than merely as individuals. We are the body of Christ- not the hand, the eye, or the foot of Christ.

This idea has implications for how we view things like holiness and moral action within the church body. It also has implications for the role of the local church and its leaders. I guess what I'm saying is that it is just a starting place. Let's live with grace as we help people to succeed in a new way. Let's make a go of it together with room for imperfection when it comes to the things that don't matter- which by the way includes an "s."