Monthly Archives: April 2011

A Risen Savior

Lucas Cranach, The Risen Christ (1558)

    Yesterday churches of all denominations across America were filled to overflowing with worshipers, singing hymns like “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” and hearing white-robed ministers proclaim, “Jesus is Alive!” Although the holy day we call Easter was unknown in New Testament times, the message of the resurrection was at the heart of Christian preaching because it was (and is) the central miracle of the Christian faith. The Apostles Creed says, “On the third day he rose again.” The Baptist Faith and Message states, “He was raised from the dead with a glorified body and appeared to his disciples as the person who was with them before his crucifixion.” Perhaps the earliest written account of the resurrection, even earlier than the gospels, comes down to us from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: And that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve: After that, he was seen of above five hundred brethren at once; of whom the greater part remain unto this present, but some are fallen asleep. After that, he was seen of James; then of all the apostles. And last of all he was seen of me also, as of one born out of due time. (1 Cor. 15:3-8)

    Despite its venerable pedigree the belief that Jesus rose bodily from the grave is not universally accepted. Protestant theologian Shubert Ogden quipped that “the bodily resurrection of the Jesus would be just as relevant to my salvation . . . as that the carpenter next door just drove a nail in a two-by-four, or that American technicians have at last been successful in recovering a nose cone that had first been placed in orbit around the earth” (Christ Without Myth, 136). The Bible disagrees. Again, Paul: “And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Cor. 15:14). Simply put: No resurrection, no salvation.

     What difference does the resurrection make to those who have lost a job or a spouse? How does the story of Easter speak to those who are sick or traumatized? If we have been deeply disappointed and our dreams have disappeared, does Jesus rising from the dead change anything? So what if Jesus rose again when I am broken and hurting? What does it do for me? Everything.

     Not only does the resurrection give us hope of future salvation, but it assures us that Jesus is now alive. And if Jesus is now alive, he is there for us . . . not just in the sweet by and by but in the not-so-sweet here and now. I serve a risen Savior. Do you?

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Once and Future King

Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, medieval fresco in the David Gareja monastery complex, Kakheti region, Georgia

     Remember the excitement over Barrack Obama’s candidacy in 2008? His cult-like following. Huge crowds shouting, “Yes, we can!” Now imagine if after winning the Democratic nomination he had said, “Actually I’m not interested in becoming president. I just want to be a motivational speaker and travel around the country, helping people improve their lives and realize their full potential.” Can you imagine the disappointment and anger of his followers at that point? If so, you get an idea of why the Jewish crowds who cheered Jesus at his Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, turned on him within a week and called for his crucifixion.The problem was caused by a misunderstanding of Jesus’ identity. Like the crowds in that first Palm Sunday celebration, I want us to ask the question, Who is this?

Our text for this Palm Sunday comes from Matthew 21:1-11, though the story of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry can be found in the other three canonical gospels as well (Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:29-44, John 12:12-19).

     Messiah means “annointed one” because in biblical times kings were not crowned; they were annointed with olive oil. (It is perhaps more than a coincidence that Jesus has this coming out party of sorts on the Mount of Olives.) The Greek word for annointed one is christos, where we get “Christ.” Let’s remember that Christ is not Jesus’ last name; it’s his title. When we call Jesus, “Christ,” we’re confessing that we believe he is the Messiah, the annointed king of Israel.

     In Jewish prophecy Messiah is the decendant of David and future king of Israel who will rule over a time of universal peace. This idea of a promised savior was powerful in Jesus day,  because the Holy Land was occupied by the Romans. While Roman rule was nothing like the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt centuries earlier, it wasn’t fun either. No one wants the their country ruled by a foreign power. The Jewish people chaffed under the heavy hand of the Roman Empire, and this little strip of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean became a hotbed of unrest. To the Romans it was like the wild west of the nineteenth century or Afghanistan today. Do something to offend these people’s religion and they’ll start a riot and begin killing people.

     First-century Jews in Israel wanted the Messiah to come, and that’s what they thought Jesus was signaling when he rode into town on a donkey. It was a deliberate claim to be the fulfillment of prophecy concerning the coming Davidic King. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus even quotes a specific Old Testament prediction: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion; shout, O daughter of Jerusalem: behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and having salvation; lowly, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass” (Zech. 9:9). The last “and” here is probably best translated “even,” since parallelism is a common feature of Hebrew poetry and one animal is intended, not two. Mark’s Gospel mentions only “a colt,” but Matthew’s account has both “an ass and … a colt.” While it’s possible that Matthew adjusted his account to fit a misunderstanding of the verse in Zechariah, I think it’s more likely there were two animals but Mark mentioned only the one Jesus actually rode on.

     The symbolism of riding in on a donkey was unmistakable. In ancient Israel kings rode horses in battle, they rode donkeys if they came in peace. When Jesus came to Jeruslem the Jewish authorities had alredy planned to arrest him (John 11:57); nevertheless, he came in peace. Isaiah called him the “prince of peace” and he brings spiritual peace above all. At his Second Coming Jesus will not ride a doney but a white horse when he comes to “judge and make war” (Rev. 19:11). It is significant that when he quoted Zechariah Jesus stopped quoting just before the following words: “And I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the horse from Jerusalem, and the battle bow shall be cut off: and he shall speak peace unto the heathen: and his dominion shall be from sea even to sea, and from the river even to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:10). This part of the prophecy is better suited to the events surrounding his Second Coming than his Incarnation.

     Now back to Jesus’ Triumphal Entry. . . . Can you imagine the scene? Noisy crowds gather on a hillside, overlooking Jerusalem,  gleaming in the midmorning sun. The smell of olivewood mixes with dust. Young women try to quiet their crying babies. Someone shouts, “Here he comes!” Heads turn and children, trying to see, stand on their toes. A roar goes up from the crowd as a bearded man, riding sidesaddle, trotts in on a donkey. People are waving branches and shouting, “Hossanah! Save us!” Now they’re laying down the branches and even their coats, lining the path in front of him. Smiling, Jesus rides on toward Jerusalem, surrounded by a crowd cheering him on. Then someone turns to his neighbor and asks, “Who is this?”

     It’s surprising to me that Jesus let the people honor him in this manner, even though they didn’t understand who he was. Why did he allow this? I think he allowed it because it was fitting; it was the right thing to do. Consider a different scene: a group of sailors are standing around, and a man in a dark business suit approaches. One of them calls out “attention on deck.” Everybody stands up and salutes. After the man passes someone says, “Who was that guy?” The sailor who called the group to attention replies, “The Secretary of the Navy.” All gave the SECNAV the honor he deserved, even though only one knew who he was was. Do you think the Secretary of the Navy would disapprove if he realized what had happened? I don’t think so, though I’m sure he’d prefer it if all his sailors knew him well enough to recognize him on sight. It’s the same way with Jesus. He deserves praise from everyone and everything (even rocks!), but it’s better when those who are celebrating his prescence know who he really is.

     Indeed there are different kinds of knowledge. There’s intellectual knowledge and personal (sometimes called “mystical”) knowledge. It’s good for us to know who Jesus is in our minds, to get our doctrine about who he is correct. It’s even better for us to know him personally, to get our hearts right with him. The bystanders on the first Palm Sunday asked, Who is this? It’s still an important question today: Who is this man called Jesus? And what is he to you?

     It’s good to know Jesus as Messiah and King, but it’s even better if you also know him as your personal Savior and Lord.

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OK to be Gay?

The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), John Martin, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

There has been much discourse about homosexuality in our country recently due to the polarizing matter of whether gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military. Congress has spoken and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will soon be lifted. That settles the policy issue but not the moral issue of whether or not it’s OK to be gay. For Christians, the scriptures must be our ultimate spiritual and moral guide, whether or not the conclusions we draw from them are popular or politically correct.

What does the Bible teach about homosexuality? Surprisingly little.* Jesus and the Gospels never mention it, and the word “homosexual” appears nowhere in the canonical books, except in some recent English translations like the New International Version. (Apparently the term “homosexuality” wasn’t even coined until the 19th century.) In fact, if it weren’t for a few verses in the epistles of Paul, Christians would have no scriptural basis to condemn it.

The creation story in Genesis privileges heterosexual sex (God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve) but it does not logically follow from that fact that all homosexual sex is immoral. In Genesis chapter 19, Sodom (where we get the word “sodomy”) was marked for destruction before the unfortunate incident in which the Sodomites, not knowing Lot’s houseguests were angels, demanded Lot hand over these strangers that they “may know them” (Gen. 19:5).  It is probable but not certain that “to know” here means carnal knowledge as was traditionally assumed. And if it is referring to sex, what do we make of the fact that righteous Lot offered his virgin daughters to be raped? It may be that inhospitality, not homosexuality, was the great evil of the Sodomites. Jesus practically said as much in Matthew 10:14-15 and Luke 10:10-12. The book of Leviticus calls homosexual acts an “abomination” (Lev. 18:22, 20:13). But it also calls eating shellfish an abomination (Lev. 11:10-12). God gave the Jews the Levitical laws to set them apart from the Gentiles around them. Ritual purity and not morality seems to be the issue here.

In the New Testament, although the Gospels ignore the issue, Paul said some pretty strong words about homosexuality, which I find much harder to dismiss than the Old Testament passages discussed above. He uses the terms “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind” (1 Cor. 6:9) and “them that defile themselves with mankind” (1 Tim 1:10) in lists of serious sins, and in the case of the former, mortal sins. These terms are commonly assumed to be euphemisms for homosexuals, which is plausible but debatable. That brings us to the single passage of scripture that condemns same-sex acts as immoral in no uncertain terms:

“For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompense of their error which was meet.” (Romans 1:26-27)

Attempts to explain away the clear condemnation of both homosexual and lesbian sex in this passage seem to me contrived (for example, recently deceased Harvard Minister Peter Gomes claims it’s talking about heterosexuals who act against their sexual orientation), and Paul’s argument fits nicely with natural law theory. In fact, Paul argues from natural law in the very passage in question when he says the Gentiles “show the work of the law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15).

According to natural law theory, those things are good which fulfill their natural function. The natural function for sex is procreation, so sexual behavior that promotes procreation is good, and it also fulfills the Biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28). Behavior that violates the human inclination to procreate is bad. For example, sex that is purely recreational or commercial (e.g., prostitution) violates the natural function of sex. Homosexuality does too, not merely because it does not lead to procreation (as is true of straight sex most of the time), but because it can never lead to procreation. It is in this sense that homosexuality is “unnatural,” not because there is a lack of evidence for homosexuality in nature but because it does not fulfill the natural function of sex. I’ll admit that there’s often a double standard, because a lot of heterosexual behaviors are also unnatural by this test, and most natural law theorist are not as passionately against these behaviors as those practiced by same-sex partners. However, this inconsistency does not make the argument any less valid.

Even if some people are born with a homosexual orientation (I have no idea whether that’s true), it still wouldn’t make homosexuality “natural.” It would make homosexuality a genetic defect. If a person is born blind or deaf or lame, we don’t call blindness or deafness or lameness “good.” These are tragic accidents of nature. Those born with such handicaps are of equal value as those without them and should be protected from unfair discrimination and abuse. But it’s illogical to promote an abnormality as a positive good.

One of the most famous natural law theorist the German philosopher Immanuel Kant built an ethical system without any appeal to religion, only reason. His ethical system emphasizes doing one’s moral duty, regardless of the circumstances or consequences. His first rule is to do only those things whose moral principle we could wish to be a universal law. Lying would be out of the question because we could not wish that everyone lie all the time. Homosexual behavior also does not pass this test, because if everyone were gay the human race would quickly become extinct.

Thus, the biblical teaching against homosexuality (what little there is) agrees with natural law that homosexual behavior is morally unacceptable. That said, we shouldn’t treat gays and lesbians like lepers or criminals. We are all sinners and God loves us anyway. He loves homosexuals as much as heterosexuals. We should too.

*For much of the biblical interpretation in this post I have relied on Peter J. Gomes, The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart (New York: W. Morrow, 1996), 144-72.

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Leland’s Story

For some time I’ve been fascinated by the ability of religion both to hurt and heal. Even pastors, who are supposed to bless, sometimes abuse. In the following short story (my first attempt at fiction writing) I explore this tension between good and evil in the church. The characters are based on real people I have ministered to over the years but I’ve changed names and details to protect their identity. The original idea for the story came from a sermon written by my friend Charles McGathy, a retired Navy chaplain and pastor of First Baptist Church of Madison, NC. If the story touches you, please leave a comment.

Leland’s Story

      Nobody sat in the first three rows at Calvary Baptist Church. It was like the splash zone in front of the killer whale show at Sea World, only the waves that washed over you in church were waves of sorrow and guilt. The front of the church was a wet place and not just because there was a baptismal pool. It was where people came to kneel and repent, shedding hot tears over their sins. It was where widows sobbed at the caskets of their departed husbands and where mothers of brides and grooms dabbed their moist eyes with lace-trimmed handkerchiefs. That’s why nobody sat there during Sunday morning services. Nobody except Leland.

      When Pastor Tim saw him sitting there, in the middle of the second pew with no one near him, he figured the man was a visitor, likely someone unchurched or at least not Baptist. Baptists fill up a church from the back to the front on Sundays. Only the latecomers were forced into the front pews and only when the church was full. But the church was half empty, and there he sat.

     Leland was middle aged, forty-nine, but he looked more like sixty, heavyset with thinning grey hair and pale skin. His suit was grey too, three piece, making him look like a banker. After the service the pastor introduced himself and learned that he wasn’t alone. Leland was married. He and Linda had three children, Jordan, a girl who was off at college, Ben, a senior in high school, and Mary, the youngest, who was fourteen and a freshman. Linda and the two younger kids had been in church too but they sat in the back. The family had just moved to town a few weeks earlier after Leland’s company transferred him. He was an engineer who designed missile systems for a large defense contractor.

      If Leland was wound a bit tight, his family was the opposite. From the first Sunday they arrived, Linda and the kids jumped into the life of the church with gusto. They were social butterflies. Ben and Mary attended youth group and Sunday School. He would roughhouse with the other boys. She would whisper secrets to the girls and giggle. Linda became part of the women’s missionary society, volunteered for the nursery, and delivered Meals on Wheels to elderly shut-ins. Only Leland held back. No coaxing would get him to a men’s prayer breakfast or Bible study, but every Sunday, there he was, sitting up front.

      Pastor Tim noticed that Leland seemed to know the hymns by heart. He sang with an open hymnal resting on the back of the pew in front of him, but he never needed to look down. The pastor kept hoping and praying he would come forward at the end of a service and give his heart to Jesus, but Leland was glued to his seat. He never moved. He sat ramrod straight throughout the sermon with a painful expression on his face. Did he have back problems or sciatica? The minister knew better than to pry, especially with men in the church who could be as skittish as field mice. When his wife Cindy asked him why he thought Linda’s husband acts so strange, Pastor Tim just said, “Pray for him, honey. I think God’s working on his heart.”

     “Working on his heart?” Cindy said with incredulity in her voice. “I hope so, because he gives me the creeps. He’s the kind of guy people talk about on the eleven o’clock news, saying, ‘I just can’t believe he had a dozen bodies buried in his basement.’ Well, I can. I hope God works on his heart before he brings a gun to church.”

     “Honey, please!”

     “No, I’m serious! Remember that guy who walked into a church last year and shot the pastor in the pulpit while he was preaching and at first everyone thought it was an act? I don’t wanna be like that pastor’s wife on TV, crying in front of the camera, saying, ‘I’m just thankful that God took him home quickly and he died serving the Lord.’ You get shot by that loon and I’m gonna look in the camera and say, ‘I tried to warn my husband but he was just too stupid to listen to me!’”

     “Now, Cin, nobody’s gonna shoot me, and I think you’re wrong about Leland.” Pastor Tim sounded like he was trying to convince himself as well. 

     Cindy wasn’t the only one in the church who had doubts about Leland. Mrs. Turner, the matriarch of the church, did too. Virginia Turner was a white-haired dowager of indeterminate age, who had a hand in everything at church. She cornered Pastor Tim after church one Sunday in the hallway outside his office.

      “Pastor, I’m concerned about the safety of our church,” she announced.

      “Oh? Why’s that?”

      “Leland,” she said, lowering her voice. “He’s a dangerous man.”

      “What makes you say that?” The pastor closed his eyes as if he were trying to wish her away.

      “Well, I wouldn’t have believed it if someone had told me, but I saw it with my own eyes. I was driving home from the grocery store last Thursday, and I saw Leland on the side of the road, changing a tire.” She paused. “Only he wasn’t changing the tire.”

      “What do you mean?”

      “The flat tire was on the ground but he wasn’t putting the spare on the car. He had the tire iron in his hands and he was beating the flat tire with it. Beating it like you chop wood.” She demonstrated. “He was dripping with sweat and his face was red and he was beating that tire like it was the devil!”

      Pastor Tim tried his best to reassure her. He reminded her that lots of people get upset when they have to change a flat. Taking out one’s frustration on an inanimate object may look violent but it doesn’t mean he’s a violent person. He ended with, “I’m sure there’s nothing to be worried about.” But the pastor himself wasn’t sure.

     About four months after he started attending, Leland called the church secretary and made an appointment with the pastor for the next week. Pastor Tim prayed intensely in the days leading up to the meeting: “Lord, help me not to get in the way of what you’re doing in Leland’s life. Let me really hear whatever he needs to say and find a way to give him hope.”

     When the day came, Leland showed up at the church office not wearing his usual three-piece suit he wore on Sundays. He was in khaki walking shorts and a white guayabera shirt. He looked like a banker on vacation in Miami, only a nervous one. The pastor invited Leland to sit down in one of the two brown leather wingback chairs in his office. Pastor Tim sat opposite him in the other one. After the usual small talk Pastor Tim said, “This is your time. I want you to know that whatever we discuss in here, stays in here.”

     There was an awkward pause. Leland shifted in his seat then blurted out suddenly, “I don’t know who I am.”

     Pastor Tim resisted the urge to speak, believing that silence could be as therapeutic as words, often more so. But when more than a minute passed, he tried an active listening technique he learned in his seminary counseling classes—restating what the person says in the form of a question. “You don’t know who you are?” Pastor Tim said.

     The question shocked Leland out of his silence. It was as if he stuck his finger in a light socket. He became animated, electrified. His words came hot and fast.  “I was ten, my brother thirteen, when mama took us away. Daddy was not a good man.” Leland told about hearing his mother’s screams and seeing bruises, sometimes blood. “She began sleeping with a gun under her pillow.” Pastor Tim raised his eyebrows. Leland continued, “She woke us up in the middle of the night and drove away with us and just a few of our things. She kept driving until daylight. We started a new life and never saw daddy again. She even had all of our names legally changed. I’ve been Leland Rogers so long now I can’t remember my old name.”

     Leland explained how difficult it was for him deal with such trauma at a young age. “I . . . I used to wake up terrified . . . covered in sweat.” He spat out his words in a staccato rhythm as if he were coughing them up. “I’d bang my head against the wall . . . bang it until I’d pass out . . . and gouge my skin with my fingernails . . . until it bled.” He clawed his left forearm, mimicking his self-mutilation. Pastor Tim sat there listening carefully and nodding occasionally as Leland poured out his heart. Years of pain gushed out of him like water from a fire hydrant. He sobbed uncontrollably as he told about his older brother’s suicide and his mother’s death from cancer two years back. He was bent over double now, almost in the fetal position, with his face buried in his hands. He began to shake and whimper like a small child. 

     Pastor Tim got up from his chair, knelt down in front of Leland, and put his arms around him. After a while Leland stopped whimpering. He took a deep breath and let out a sigh. Pastor Tim let go of him, got up slowly, and returned to his chair.

      “I’ve been holding that in for a long time,” Leland confessed, mopping his wet face with a handkerchief.

      “That’s quite a story,” Pastor Tim said. “I’m honored you’d trust me with it.”

     Leland looked different. His face shone like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai, and there was a peaceful expression where earlier there had been tension and pain.

     Pastor Tim knew this breakthrough was only the beginning of what would no doubt be long journey of healing. He thought about making a referral to Dr. Ingram, a psychologist who worked with the Baptist association in town, but something kept tugging at his mind. “I’m just curious about one thing.”

            “What’s that, pastor?”

            “Why do you always sit up front in church, not with Linda and the kids?”

            Leland’s brows knit together. He was thoughtful a moment, then looked into Pastor Tim’s eyes intently. “That’s where I had to sit every Sunday while my father preached.”

            The two men sat together for a long time in silence.

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