A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 2

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copyright ©Vincent Marquis, 2020

(This is the second part of a story about Jesus calling Peter, Andrew, James, and John as disciples. It is based on the relevant New Testament passages in the Gospels Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with some literary licence).

Shim’on paused his rowing to look.  After a few seconds he responded, “Hey, I think you’re right!  It’s a bit far to tell for sure, but I believe you.  I wonder what he’s doing there right after sunrise.  I hope he wasn’t coming to buy fish.”

“Yeah.  That would be embarrassing,” chuckled Andreas.  He called across to Ya’akov and Yochanan in the other boat, half joking, “Hey, Ya’akov, Yochanan!  Look who’s on the beach waiting just for us!”

The other two partners paused their rowing too.  After a few seconds, young Yochanan, who also had acute vision, declared without any hesitation, “Hey!  It’s Yeshua, the new rabbi in town.  Cool!  I’ve been hoping to hear him teach and meet him.  There are some pretty strange stories going around about him.”

Ya’akov cautioned him, “We’ve work to finish before you go off listening to a preacher.  Most of those stories are made up anyway.”

Andreas responded, “I don’t know about that, Ya’akov.  I was at the Jordan ford when he came for mikvah with the Immerser.  Something pretty amazing happened.  I saw and heard it all myself.”

“Yes, yes, we know what you say you saw, about a dove coming down on him and the Immerser saying he should be immersed by Yeshua instead of the other way around.  And a thunderclap out of clear blue sky!  We all know what a good imagination you have, Andreas,” finished the sceptical Ya’akov.

“It was not my imagination!” snapped Andreas.  “There were hundreds of people who saw and heard the same thing as I did.  Ask any of them.”

“Yes,” said Yochanan.  “I spoke to my friend Talmai yesterday, and he was there too.  He said that that is just what happened.  But that Yeshua told Yochanan to immerse him anyway because it was what was needed to satisfy righteousness.”

Andreas pondered.  “What a strange thing to say.  I wonder what he meant.  Now that I think about it, after he immersed Yeshua and as Yeshua was leaving Yochanan said something even more puzzling.  He called Yeshua the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”.  He said he would immerse people in fire.”

“Yes!” added Yochanan.  “He did say that.  Now I really want to meet this Yeshua.  He was gone for a while, but now here he is again.  I’m super curious.  And now here he is on our beach.  Oh wow!”

Andreas the joker laughed, “Yep!  And he’s there to ask you for the best fish in your boat, Yochan,” he jibed, using his younger friend’s short name.

Shim’on was lost in deep thought and ever so slightly trembing as he listened to this banter.  The chill?  Yeshua, the new mystery man, was standing on the beach, and, he could see, plainly looking out over the lake at the four of them in their two fish-empty boats.  He had only ever seen him very briefly in the last few days that he had been in K’far-Nachum since his return from Y’hudah.  It was rumored he had not even gone to Yerushalayim, but out into the wilderness south-east of the city, down Yericho way. 

If he was an up and coming new rabbi, one even recognized by the Immerser as someone special, why would he come back here to the backside of Israel?  Why didn’t he go to the city and set up in the Temple Porticos like the other rabbis seeking to gather disciples and make a name for themselves?  He would never get anywhere by spending his time up in the Galil among its uncultured peasants and yokels.

Yet here he was.  Shim’on felt uncomfortable.  Yeshua was still staring out at them as they drew near to shore.  What did he want?  They were just about in ear-shot now, and the rabbi’s voice drifted out to them across the water.

“Good morning, friends.  Could you come into shore and let me get into your boat?”  Shim’on knew he was talking to him.  He looked at Andreas, who looked as startled as he was, but quickly responded, “C’mon, Shim’on!  Let’s do it!”

Shim’on shrugged as if he was indifferent, but mumbled, “Alright.”

Yeshua watched them come in as the boat’s prow bumped against the wharf.  He had a huge smile as he said, “I really appreciate this, friends.  I’m Yeshua.”

Andreas reached out to help him up over the gunnels, saying, “I’m Andreas and this is my brother Shim’on.  What did you have in mind, rabbi?”

“If you don’t mind I just want to spend a few minutes talking to the people who have followed me to the shore.  If I’m in a boat they’ll see me better and my voice will carry.”

“Sure, no problem,” Shim’on answered.  He felt as if he were almost standing outside himself listening.  The man’s eyes were uncanny, but not creepy.  He read real compassion in them, a sort of genuine caring.  His voice also intoned the same sense.  It was melodious, somehow soothing and authoritative at the same time.

Yeshua asked, “So this is your boat, Shim’on?”

“Yes, rabbi.  Andreas and I own it together.  Those two in the other boat are Ya’akov and Yochanan, our partners.  You might know of their father, Zavdai.  He owns a number of boats around Kinnaret.”

Yeshua grinned.  “As a matter of fact, I’ve done business with Zavdai.  My father Yosef and I helped him build a dock a while back and we made some furniture for their house a few years ago.  I don’t know if Ya’akov and Yochanan would remember me, but I remember seeing them around and chatting with them back then.”

“Small world!” said Andreas.  “Hey, Ya’akov and Yochan.  Do you remember Yeshua the carpenter working at your house and your father’s dock a while back?”

The other two looked sharply at the rabbi.  “Well I’ll be!.  Of course.  Yeshua the carpenter from Natzeret!  But, you’re now a rabbi?  That’s quite a shift!” said Ya’akov the sceptic.

Yeshua ignored Ya’akov’s tone and answered graciously, “It’s really nice to see you both again.”

He then moved to the sturdy forward shelf in Shim’on’s boat and stepped up where the crowd, now numbering several hundred, could see him.  His voice was resonant and conveyed real authority as he first told them a story about a pearl followed by another one about a treasure buried in a field.  He finished with a blessing on them as he dismissed them to go about their daily concerns.  He reassured them that he would be available later outside the synagogue for them to come with their sick and unwell.  Right now he needed to spend time with his new friends.

He stepped back down into the boat as the crowd began to disperse calmly and peacefully.  As simple as this had all been, lasting no more than ten minutes, Shim’on, Andreas, Ya’akov and Yochanan had been spell-bound.  They had just met him but somehow it seemed as if they had already known him for years.

Something buried deep inside was welling up in Shim’on, something linked to this unusual person, so unlike anyone else he was likely ever to meet again.  In shock, Shim’on the strong, the bluff go-getter realized that this Yeshua scared him.

It made no sense.  There was no threat of any kind.  The young rabbi was of an age with him.  He was a man who exuded peace and compassion, but Yeshua genuinely scared the wits out of him!  It was said that there was no one taller or stronger than Shim’on in K’far-Nachum or the whole region roundabout.  Yeshua was tall too, and his build said that he was also strong, a craftsman used to hard work.  But he exuded shalom.  His stories about Adonai and the Heavenly Kingdom seemed to be about a Person he knew. “So how was the fishing last night?” said the rabbi.  “I don’t see many fish in the boats,” he smiled.

A Different Kind of Fishing, Part 1

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Copyright ©Vincent Marquis, 2020

by Vincent Marquis

(Note: This post and the next two will be different from the usual fare in worldvyoublog.com. I am sharing a short-story based on the first meeting of Yeshua/Jesus with several of his first disciples. The story is a re-imagining of those encounters based on the New Testament. Literary licence accounts for a my not totally strict adherence to the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)

Shim’on was dog-tired and discouraged.  The dawn was breaking and the night’s fishing had been pathetic.  Nothing to show for twelve hours work except sweat, a chill in his bones, sore muscles, and bad humour.  His stomach growled with hunger.  He had long since eaten his midnight lunch of bread, dried fish, and figs.  Their water jar was almost empty, although there was Kinneret to dip into.  As he carefully coiled his net, he was looking forward to a cup of wine at home along with his morning meal. 

He barked at little brother Andreas to get a move on in pulling in the other linen-weave net.  The sooner that got done, the sooner they could dock the boat, get ashore, clean the nets, and go home to eat and rest.

Ya’akov and Yochanan had had no better luck.  In their boat about fifty cubits to starboard, they too were hauling in their empty nets.  Time to call it a night. 

The last few weeks of late spring had been pretty slim, and that would make for a hard summer if it kept up.  With the nets finally in the boat and placed in their spot behind the mast, he and Andreas put their cloaks on over their tunics and sat at the oars to head for shore.  Their destination was the fisherman’s wharf in the center of their home town, K’far-Nachum. 

K’far-Nachum boasted a large market district where most anything could be bargained for, even pigs from the Decapolis for the Gentile residents.  Right next to the market was the fine new synagogue with its boundary wall, its colonnaded courtyard, and well-tended garden.  The congregational assembly hall was large enough to accommodate hundreds at prayer.  The interior decor included a finely tiled mosaic floor laid out with colorful natural scenes to glorify Adonai as Creator.  It was complemented by the fine craftsmanship of the ark where the sacred scrolls were kept.  Unlike poor villages and towns whose synagogues could afford only the most essential scrolls of Torah and a great prophet like Yeshayahu, K’far-Nachum’s had many.

Although the town fell under Antipas’ Tetrarchy rather than the Roman Governor of Syria or his subordinate, the Procurator of Y’hudah, the great shadow of Rome was never far should trouble arise.  While the majority of the locals were Jews, there were Greeks, Syrians, Nabatæans, Bedouins, and a few Phoenicians.  Most Romans only passed through, but there was a small contingent of Roman auxiliary troops camped on the outskirts.  Antipas was glad to have them there.  They ensured the roads remained free of bandits.  Troops marching south to Y’hudah from Syria were not an unusual sight either.

Most residents of K’far-Nachum, as throughout the Galil, spoke at least two languages.  Shim’on and his partners spoke Aramaic among themselves and were conversant in Greek.  They could all read the Hebrew scrolls in synagogue as well, although Hebrew was not a daily language.

Shim’on and his partners had prospered since settling here.  Fish were always in demand and the lake was usually generous.  The P’rushim and Scribes disdained the Jewish Galileans as unclean and ignorant, but Shim’on was a good man who followed the Law as best he could.  His irritating younger brother had lately been going off for days at a time to go listen to that rabble-rouser, Yochanan the Immerser.  The man was considered a prophet by many, the first in over four hundred years.  His message was mainly about repentance, telling people to undergo mikvah and prepare for the coming of someone greater who, he said, would baptize with fire!  Presumably he meant the long-expected Mashiach.

What in the name of the Blessed One did “baptizing with fire” mean?  He could understand undergoing a ceremonial mikvah to symbolize a desire to live a pure life for Adonai.  He hadn’t done mikvah yet, but he sometimes felt a tug in that direction.  He was well aware of his faults and that, as an example of Adonai’s chosen people, he fell far short.  About this baptism by fire he had no clue.  It sounded downright unpleasant!  But prophets were always rather cryptic.

He was a man with responsibilities, with some property, with a place in society in this part of the Galil.  He was the respected heir to a family business that his grandfather and his father, Yona, had worked hard to establish in neighboring Betsaida.  After Yona had retired, Shim’on had moved to K’far-Nachum, a more strategic location, and the move had proved a good one.  Andreas had followed him.  Shim’on had a decent house, a good wife, and a charming little girl.  His wife Shoshana’s mother had recently come to live with them because she was now a widow and her health had been deteriorating.

Brooding, he pulled on his oar.  “Life is basically good,” he told himself, “so why do I feel unsettled, as if I’m missing something?  What is this?  I’m not like this!  I’m a joyful fellow.  I love what I do.  A few weeks of bad catches are part of the game.  It will all balance out in the end.  Besides, this is what Adonai has given me, so it is wrong for me to grumble and be unhappy.”

But still he brooded.  He made no pretention about trying to live a perfect life like the P’rushim who paraded around all day in prayer-shawls with long t’alit, making sure everyone heard them and saw them as they went to synagogue or scolded someone for violating some minute rule.  Who made all those rules anyway?  He could remember few such minutiae from the hearing of Torah in synagogue, or even in the rabbi’s teaching for his now long-past Bar-Mitzvah.

The nature of his work and the people he dealt with exposed him to “uncleanness” every day.  He did his best not to build up resentment or hold grudges, to let his eye wander after pretty young maidens or, worse, the sensuous women of the night that lived in a certain part of town.  They could be seen walking around the market to advertise their availability.  There were occasional days or nights when he had been tempted to sneak off.  He shook his head to clear it.  Shoshana was a good woman and mother and all he could desire.  Little Hannah was the delight of his eyes.

“Stop it, idiot!” he mumbled aloud to himself.

Andreas, sitting on the seat at the other oar on the opposite side of the mast with its folded sail and tied down spar, looked over at him quizzically.  The morning breeze was up now, making the rowing a little stiffer.  “What are you mumbling about, Shim’on?”

“Nothing important,” he answered.  Then, to change the subject, he asked, “So do you think the Immerser is the Mashiach?”

Andreas was emphatic.  “He’s a real Prophet, and when I listen to him, I feel like I’m hearing the words of Adonai!  I like to listen to him, and you should come sometime.  We could do mikvah together with him.  It would do you good.  I’m planning to do it soon – next time we have a few days without fishing to do.

“And he says very clearly that he is not the Mashiach.  He says that Mashiach is already among us, and bringing an axe to cut down the trees that don’t bear fruit.  Really, Shim’on, you should come to hear him.  He knows how to put those arrogant P’rushim in their place.  Sometimes he really gets them mad, tearing a strip off them about their hypocrisy.  And he lays into Prince Herod too about his sleazy behaviour with his sister-in-law.”

Shim’on laughed, his humor improving.  Andreas had a knack for lifting his spirits.  He was blessed to have such a brother who was also his best friend.  He had always wondered why his father had given Andreas a Greek name.  Yona had only said that it was to honor a close friend who had died in the time of his youth.  There was a story there which he longed to know.  His father had had some sort of adventure with a Goy friend as a young man, but no one ever talked about it. 

Family and neighbors had gossiped about Yona naming a son after a Gentile ever since.  It made Shim’on self-conscious.  He and Andreas had to be extra careful so as not to bring more shame on the family by being accused of compromising.

He glanced behind him.  They were still at least eight hundred cubits from shore and the morning breeze was getting stiffer by the minute.  The sun was over the horizon and now giving some warmth.  His quick glance to shore had shown him a bit of a crowd gathering.  What could make that happen at this hour? Andreas had seen it too.  He had especially good eyesight and piped up, “Say, I think that new rabbi from Natzeret is on the beach.  He has quite a group there with him.”

Summer 2020, 3: People with Clay Feet

The expression “(s)he has clay feet”, although perhaps not so well recognized as it used to be, is still understood to refer to someone who, under the appearance of glamour, glitz, control, wealth, power, etc., has some serious flaws, usually kept as hidden as possible. 

Every normal person knows they are flawed.  Looking in the mirror in the morning can show that easily enough at one level.  But the delusion is much more problematic when it comes to the more serious matters of character and psyche.  We can shield our physical shortcomings when we doctor our faces, perfume our bodies, get plastic surgery, and hide ourselves inside some clothing.  The other flaws will sooner or later jump out of our mouths and flash into view in our behaviour, despite our best attempts to repress them.

Having clay feet is actually one of those sayings based on Biblical imagery that has somehow lingered in the language and culture despite the alienation of our society and culture from its long-time Biblical underpinnings.  Kudos to anyone who actually knows what Biblical story it stems from!  (I’ll add that tidbit at the end of this article in case you don’t know or remember.)

Incidentally, even if you don’t hold the Bible in any great esteem as a holy book, it’s still an amazing source of imagery and insight into fundamental human nature, not to mention history and some incredibly good stories which have provided fodder and inspiration for millennia to writers and thinkers across the world.  To the objection that the less well-informed often make that it is not a reliable source for history and is full of super-inflated legends and myths that have been used to deceive and oppress people, they simply don’t know the book at all.  My suggestion to anyone in that boat is, “Try reading it for a while, just as literature, setting aside your ideological bias, and then criticize it with a modicum of civility and balance.”

Now back to the clay feet idea.

The truth about the “legendary” and “mythological” heroes and heroines in the Bible is that they just don’t measure up to the standard notions of hagiography.  Biblical saints are very human, and sometimes not very likable.  They certainly did not walk around in a cloud of radiance and haloed goodness.  A few examples will suffice to demonstrate this.

Abraham is held up in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures as the great model of unshakeable faith and upright character to be emulated by true disciples.  He is the founder of the “Chosen People” of Israel, and the great example of faith-based salvation in the New Testament Apostolic writings.  But Abraham had “clay feet”.  He lied about his (first) wife – twice!! – and let two monarchs add her to their harems because of fear that the King would kill him to have her.  Perhaps ashamed of his previous treatment of Sarah, he gave in to her and disowned his first son by her maid and his concubine when Sarah became jealous of he own maid and the status of her surrogate son, Ishmael, above her own son, Isaac, miraculously born long after menopause.

Jacob, Abraham’s grandson through Isaac and father of the twelve “Patriarchs”, was a liar, deceiver, and conniver who cheated his brother Esau out of his birthright and a good part of his inheritance.  (Seems as if the internal family rivalries were passed from generation to generation.)

King David, slayer of the nasty giant Goliath, the great model of “a man after God’s own heart”, writer of half the Book of Psalms, was an adulterer, murderer, absentee and rather poor father, and a multiple polygamist who disregarded the admonitions about Israel’s King not amassing wives and wealth or relying on massive military power.

King Solomon, David’s heir, builder of the First (magnificent) Temple to Yahweh, and the reputed “wisest and richest man in the world” in his time, exponentially exceeded his father in amassing excess wives, horses, chariots, and splendid displays of his prowess as a ruler.  He taxed his people into poverty, and reintroduced idolatry and various other forbidden occult practices into Israel.  He compounded all this by murdering most of his half-brothers to consolidate his throne and doing away with another batch of David’s former foes, sometimes in obedience to David’s (so much for David`s vaunted clemency in his lifetime!) death-bed wishes.

In the New Testament, we find some pretty glaring weaknesses among the disciples of Jesus. Two examples of the most prominent will suffice.  Peter suffered from “foot-in-mouth” disease and a tendency to try to play both sides of the road in his leadership, thus creating ambivalence in settling some pretty important questions among early believers.  Paul, the greatest evangelist among the Apostles and certainly the first and greatest theologian among them, had a fiery temper and quarrelsome disposition mixed with a fanatical streak which held on from his days as an uber-Pharisee.  He was also an accessory to murder in his pre-Christian days. 

This is a very short list of such examples.  Of course, I am only citing negative examples of things these people did.  Obviously, they also did enormously important positive things or they would not be part of the story of God reaching out to the human race to bring restoration, reconciliation, and ultimate redemption.

The point is that the Bible is unlike any other sacred literature.  The forty or so human writers who contributed to it did not edit out all the nasty bits about our ancestors in faith so we would have only a rarefied, superhuman portrait of them.  We are intended to see them “warts and all” so that we can realize that, if they are “saints” despite all that stuff, so can we be and, if we are in relationship with God through Jesus, the ultimate answer to our human brokenness, we already are saints.  “Saint” just means set apart to God, for God, for the Creator to mold into a true image-bearer and to participate in the bringing and building of the Kingdom of God here and now, in preparation for what it finally will be, without all the warts and failures.

It is really a message and picture of great hope we are seeing, not a depressing tale of inevitable human sin and failure.  Destiny and Fate are not what we face, as per the hopeless picture given in ancient paganism and even some modern religious and philosophical ideologies.

As the Apostle Paul, a certainly “clay-footed” man Jesus chose anyway do more church-planting and Kingdom-building than anyone else of that time, put it, “Oh, Death, where is you victory?  Oh, Death, where is your sting?  Death has been swallowed up in victory,” because of and through the resurrection of Yeshua/Jesus!

Oh, yes!  That allusion to clay feet is in the Book of Daniel Chapter 2, verses 31-45.  The story refers to a dream of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in which an enormous statue with a head of gold, shoulders and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet a mixture of iron and clay, appeared to the King.  Daniel explains the meaning of this vision to Nebuchadnezzar.  Over time, the statue could not stand on feet of this weak and flawed admixture.  I will leave it to the reader to look up the complete story and its interpretation by Daniel.

In conclusion, we do well to be aware of our own clay feet before we go declaiming about all the things which bring others down.  Jesus put it another way, “Before you go taking the splinter out of someone else’s eye, remove the speck from your own.”

We all walk on clay feet.  We all need to seek and trust in God’s grace and mercy – for ourselves and for those others we see so many faults in.

When Evil Comes, 10 – Rebirth, 1

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There was a man among the P’rushim, named Nakdimon, who was a ruler of the Judeans.  This man came to Yeshua by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know it is from God that you have come as a teacher; for no one can do these miracles you perform unless God is with him.”

“Yes, indeed,” Yeshua answered him, “I tell you that unless a person is born again from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

Nakdimon said to him, “How can a grown man be ‘born’?  Can he go back into his mother’s womb a second time?” 

Yeshua answered, “Yes, indeed, I tell you that unless a person is born from water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.  What is born from flesh is flesh, and what is born from the Spirit is spirit.”

Yochanan (John) 3: 1-6.  Complete Jewish Bible, translated by David H. Stern, 1998

(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The citation above comes from one of the best known passages in the Christian New Testament.  Many besides confessing Christians have pondered it and debated its meaning over the last two thousand years. 

The standard translations used by most Christians use different names than those above for the characters (in English, Jesus for Yeshua and Nicodemus for Nakdimon, while the P’rushim are the Pharisees and the Judeans are “the Jews”).  The Hebrew names help us to see this within its original context as a secret encounter between two First-Century Jewish leaders (whose real-life names were the ones given above) who spoke in Aramaic.  Our version of this encounter is derived from the Greek New Testament Gospel of John (Yochanan).  Perhaps Yochanan was privileged to have witnessed the meeting himself, which would make his story an eyewitness account.  Yochanan (John to us) was one of the “inner three” of Jesus’ disciples – Peter, James, and John and may well have been permitted to “sit in”.  He might even have been Nakdimon’s contact with Yeshua, as we learn later that “he was known to the High Priest” somehow.  David Stern’s translation beings us closer to the historical characters and setting in which this conversation took place. 

Stern’s translation of the Greek word “Ioudaiōn” as “the Judeans” rather than the oft-used general term “the Jews” is helpful in recalling the socio-political situation that existed within the Jewish world of the First Century of the Common Era.  There was no state or Kingdom of Israel or Judea.  It had ceased to exist (once again) as an independent, unified political entity in 63 BCE just after the Roman General Pompey subjugated the Seleucid Empire.

As an afterthought, Pompey headed to Jerusalem to resolve the squabbling over position among the Jewish authorities who had sought Rome’s protection against the Syrian-Greek Seleucid Kings.  Pompey made the Jewish Hasmonean state a Roman protectorate and declared it to lie officially within the Roman sphere.  Rome would appoint and acknowledge the accepted leaders.  He then walked into the Holy of Holies of the Temple, saw no idols, and concluded that the Jews were a very peculiar people bordering on atheism.  Having satisfied his curiosity, and not been struck dead by God as the Jewish leaders thought he would be, Pompey decided to leave their religious business alone as long as they accepted Roman supremacy and did what they were told when Rome told them what that was.

We will not rehash all the ensuing anguished perturbations of Roman-Jewish relations over the next 170 years.  Roman rule varied from using on-site proxies, such as the half-Jewish Herodean dynasty, to direct rule of some sections of “Palestine”, as Rome dubbed this minor-province of their vast Empire.  Palestine came under the overall direction of the Proconsul Governor of Syria, one of the most important provinces of the Empire.  The Governor of Syria had direct command of three and sometimes four Roman legions, as well as an equal number of auxiliary troops stationed throughout the region.  This army of 30 000 – 40 000 Roman troops was a very formidable force to reckon with for any ruler contemplating rebellion.

In the time of Yeshua (Jesus), Judea was under a Roman junior governor (a Procurator) who was subordinate to the Governor of Syria.  Galilee, where Yeshua came from, was under one of the Herodeans, who also reported to the Governor of Syria.  That is why there is a distinction of “the Judeans” in Yochanan’s story.  Nakdimon was a member of Judea’s Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, which had no direct authority in Galilee.

A great deal more could be said to explain the underlying subtleties of this conversation, but it might prove tedious to readers to chase down all those rabbits.  However, a certain amount of explanation is necessary to divest the narrative of some of the more bizarre ideas that have been grafted onto it.  Then there is also the whole issue of anachronistic theological and philosophical attributions flowing from later Christian (and other) theological and allegorical interpolations.

Before we get into the meat of what Yeshua was telling Nakdimon, we should at least attempt to undo some of these layers to, hopefully, free up our ability to see and hear what this meant and still means.  Many great Bible interpreters have labored over this story.  Whatever can be said here is said in acknowledgment of their work.  However, over the last few centuries, our modern culture’s peculiar obsessions have been so woven into and over this account that we have grown almost deaf to what the original people were saying to each other.  Perhaps we cannot really recover all of that now, but we can at least try approach it.

Let us remember that even the “original” Greek of the New Testament is a translation of an oral tradition that was originally in Aramaic, the language spoken among Jews of Palestine in the First Century.  That is what Stern is trying to convey in his version of it.

For me, understanding “unless a person is born again from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God” is still very much a work in progress.  Although I am a committed Christian, I strive to remain open to other points of view as well as those of fellow Christians.  I prefer to not engage in polemic or strident “preaching”.  I hope to invite reflection, rethinking, and response, my own very much included, through this blogging vehicle. 

First, a few comments about what Yeshua was not saying.  He was not proposing reincarnation or the transmigration of the soul.  Some gurus and teachers of major faiths (even some claiming Christian identity) such as some sects of Hinduism and Buddhism have said that Jesus was really an avatar of Vishnu, like Krishna, or a bodhisattva, like another Buddha, who reincarnated among the Jews in order to lead them to moksha (liberation from the wheel of samsara [futile existence]) and nirvana (blissful union with the World-Soul).  There have even been far-fetched stories of his having journeyed to India to learn from the great gurus and bodhisattvas during the “hidden years” between ages twelve and thirty.  After all, how do we know he didn’t do this?

Why didn’t the Gospel-writers tell us about this?  Was it a conspiracy of silence in order not to freak out the Jewish believers?  Was it another case of the later Church leaders suppressing this “truth” like they supposedly suppressed the other “lost Gospels” (like Thomas’ and Mary Magdelene’s and Barnabas’)?

Because this kind of story keeps raising its head, we owe it a brief consideration to evaluate its worth.

First, Jews did not believe in reincarnation.  In the First Century they were divided on whether there was any sort of after-life.  Jewish teaching was that a human was a body-soul being who lived and died once.  No reputable teacher would propose reincarnation, a doctrine of pagan idolaters.  Their sacred writings, which we now know as the Jewish Bible (“Old Testament” to Christians, the Tanakh to Jews), nowhere hinted anything else.

As to Jesus somehow making some sort of “pilgrimage of spiritual discovery” to India or Egypt, or both, as has also been suggested, this amounts to pure invention. Matthew’s account tells us that his parents took him to Egypt as an infant to escape Herod’s plan to kill him following the Magi’s visit.  He stayed there, in all probability in Alexandria among the large Jewish diaspora community there, perhaps up to age 4.  The family then returned to Galilee and settled in Natzeret, where Joseph and Mary (Yosef and Miryam) came from.

There is no evidence anywhere, other than the fertile imaginings of speculators with an agenda to show Jesus to be something beyond a “mere Jewish rabbi” with prophetic leanings, that he ever returned there or went off an a quest to distant India to meet gurus.  If we could categorize him as a guru, we can discredit the Messiah identity.

Culturally and practically, there was no possibility that an oldest son of a respectable Jewish family would simply “take off” on such a journey, leaving his aging father, his mother and numerous siblings, to fend for themselves.  This would be completely out of character within the culture and for the Jesus we see in the Gospels.  Any oldest son who did this would lose all standing and respect.  He would have no credibility to presume he could then become a teacher and leader they would listen to.

We see in his ministry that he adopted the recognized methods, teaching style, language, and model of a rabbi.  He did not use highly esoteric mystical language when he spoke to ordinary folks.  He taught in parables – everyday tales illustrating spiritual truths for uncomplicated people.  The unusual aspect was his itinerant ministry among the lowliest people (for which he was disdained by most of the respectable elite) and his numerous healings and occasional outright miracles.  These things so disconcerted the establishment that they accused him of sorcery and being demon-possessed.

Nakdimon was one of the elite.  He, however, did not disdain or outright reject Yeshua.  His opening remark, “Rabbi, we know it is from God that you have come as a teacher; for no one can do these miracles you perform unless God is with him,” shows that he had been pondering the contradiction in the elitist line of saying Yeshua was a sorcerer or a demonically controlled charlatan.  By this point, the popular Galilean rabbi had a reputation and a following and his teaching was known and reported regularly to the Jerusalem Sanhedrin.  It centered on the coming of the Kingdom of God.  (We glean this information largely from the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.)

Nakdimon declares, “We know it is from God that you have come as a teacher…”  In this he is not voicing an official endorsement of the elite.  Who, then, is this “we”?  He is bravely separating himself from the great majority of his peers.  He is coming open, looking past the humble origins of this Galilean yokel.  He is saying that any sensible person with eyes and ears can see that Yeshua is not demonic and is exhibiting a powerful connection with Adonai, Israel’s God.  

Yeshua accepts Nakdimon’s sincerity and does not deny that he, Yeshua, is sent by God.  Instead, he goes straight to the heart of the matter and tells him that “unless a person is born again from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”

TO BE CONTINUED

Resurrection

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The ancient world abounded in stories of death and rising.  After all, nature puts on this show every year.  Even semi-tropical areas see vegetation lapse into dormancy for several months, and the animal kingdom has its “mating seasons” often coinciding with the time of vegetative dormancy.  The subsequent birth of young comes as the vegetation awakens and the seeds break open to release the new shoots of plant life, ready to feed the new shoots of animal life.  For some plants this is the season for flowering to entice insects and birds to bring them mating pollen.

The first civilizations went a step beyond this sort of simple observation of the natural cycle.  Many (all?) of them attributed the natural cycle of dying-and-rising to a divine display in the natural world of actual divine activity breaking through to where we could see it.  The gods were saying that the divine order moved within this same kind of cycle, linked to the sensible realm.  This truth was communicated in myth, and various forms of such myths were propagated and disseminated at large so that many cultures told similar stories with similar elements.

Thus, the sun dies every evening and must be escorted through, or perhaps battles its own way across, the underworld of death and shadow to come forth once more and give heat and light to the visible cosmos.  The moon lives as a light in the shadows, waxing and waning until it too fades into the dark underworld, finding its way back once more in a few days and gradually regathering its strength, only to fade and die again.  And ever on.

Specific important deities were named and identified with the stories of the conflict between light and dark, also conceived as good and evil.  For example, in Egypt Osiris, the great and good King and giver and maintainer of life and order, son of Amon-Ra the Sun, is slain in jealous rage by his treacherous brother Seth, Lord of the dark realms which he rules.  But Isis, Osiris’ Queen, defeats Seth and raises Osiris, at the price of his return to the underworld each night. 

In Greece there was the story of Persephone and Hades, who had allow her to return to the world of life each spring to allow the earth to flower once more.  The Egyptians also told the story of the Phoenix, a bird which, when it died, turned to a great flame from which it emerged regenerated, ready to once more fulfil its appointed role as a harbinger of the will of the gods among humans.  You get the idea. 

Our modern/post-modern, scientific worldview reduces all these concepts to quaint tales told by the primitive, or at least prescientific, ancients who had no sophisticated knowledge of how all these natural phenomena actually work according to the laws of chemistry, biology, and physics.  But I think it is fair play to have the ancients turn the tables on us, who are the greatest reductionists and over-simplifiers in all recorded cultural history.  It is we who have reduced the natural, created order to dead, demystified, mere “stuff” made of atoms and all-sorts of micro-atomic bits and pieces.  We are all about reduction and deconstruction till we become blinded by our microscopes and telescopes.  As C.S. Lewis once said, we no longer see the wonder and beauty of a tree.  We have reduced it to a mere collection of cells doing things which convey nothing of the miraculous wholeness and unity of the tree as a tree, let alone the amazing phenomenon of a vast forest of such creatures.

Even with all our scientific calculation and sophistication, we still hit the wall.  “What wall is that?” you say.

The wall of life versus death, or, if you prefer, life versus non-life.  And, by extension, life and death.  We can measure and study and speculate and presuppose that we will one day reduce it all to the measurable and studiable as much as we like, but we still meet the same mystery as our ancient forebears met.  We still stand and laugh and cry in awe as a baby is born, emerging inexplicably from the combination of two independent cells to form a whole new living being.  We still weep and grieve in utter bemusement about what is actually happening and where that once so vibrant soul goes as we watch with a dearly loved one as their miraculous life-force slips out of its flesh-bone-and-blood vessel.  The ancients saw all this with appropriate awe and wonder.  They observed with other eyes than the two organs of light reception in their upper head.  They saw with the eyes of the heart and soul.  So looking they gained some genuine insight into what these twin ultimate mysteries portend.

If nothing else, the mystery of life and death remind us very graphically and regularly of a few very basic, fundamental realities.  First, that we did not make ourselves.  We were/are made;we are creatures of a Maker.  Second, we are finite – we are born, we live for a while, we die.  We have a beginning and an end to our existence, at least insofar as we can measure it according to the super-sophisticated precision of our ever-developing technological prowess.  The corollary of this temporal finiteness is that it is also spatial.  But, paradoxically in all truly significant respects, our wonderful tools of observation of the material realm are ridiculously crude and next to useless in measuring the reality of life and why it even is.

As one ancient sage put it, “We see through a glass (an old term for a window) darkly” as far as anything beyond what our senses can tell us.  (And, yes, the ancients actually had glass windows, at least the well-off did if they fancied them and wanted to pay for them.)  No matter how great a telescope or microscope we may now have and yet invent, with it we will still only see mere stuff, “dark matter”, maya as the Hindus call it.  Light and life still lie and will always lie beyond any sort of material construct or model we can concoct. 

Saul-Paul, the ancient sage quoted above, meant something like this: “Our bodily senses (and all the aids and accoutrements we make to enhance their abilities) can only take us to where material stuff ends, and not even that.  Beyond that you need another kind of sense.  But if you don’t even accept that there is another whole dimension or domain beyond “mere stuff”, then you can never see beyond you own limitations and confined perceptions.”  He goes on after that to say, “No eye has ever seen and no ear has ever heard what the Creator has prepared for those who love Him/Her.”

You may groan that we are heading back to religion.  My answer is that in fact you cannot escape “religion” – even if you’re an atheist or agnostic.  But we are not talking about a particular “religion” in saying this.  At this point, it’s irrelevant to ask, “Which religion?”  We are not talking about “converting” to some set of performance criteria for appeasing a Deity of whatever description.  Rather, we are talking about the Latin (as in the language of the Romans from which we get the term) sense of religio – the system, the principle that ties “it” (the Cosmos) all together, that binds up all the loose ends and begins to make sense of them.

“And what, pray tell, has any of this to do with Easter and old myths about dying and rising?” 

Everything!!  As we age (as I am doing), those willing to pay attention see it more and more clearly.  Dylan Thomas wrote “Do not go gently into that good night [death]; Rage, rage, against the fading of the light.”  Yes, he was a great poet.  But he died a bitter, addicted man at age 39.  He was an atheist, but he felt intensely the “wrongness” of death, of the “night”, the fading of life into feeble old age (“the fading of the light”).  He preferred to die young and raging against the injustice of the universe because he longed so intensely to find meaning but still knew he was lost.  Our scientific brain says life and death are the natural order, the way it has always been since the first single-cell life form wiggled into life in the primordial slime and replicated. 

Let us say that as long as what lives is not self-aware and self-determining, which we humans are, at least to a respectable degree (setting aside discussion of the philosophy of determinism and the theology of predestination for the moment), I guess it’s just, “Sound and fury signifying nothing” as Shakespeare had Lady Macbeth say.  You’re born; you live for a bit; you die.  The universe could care less.

But Shakespeare did not really accept that.  Lady Macbeth was not Shakespeare speaking soto voce.  Shakespeare was giving voice to the despair lurking behind having no Creator to give things meaning.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the ultimate realist and super-philosopher of the modern and post-modern West, did not really believe it either.  His own inability to concede what all his great rational philosophizing told him drove him insane and to suicide.  “God is dead and we have killed him.”  But in “killing” God/the Creator, we have only killed our souls.  The Creator still lives, and we cannot expunge this knowledge from our hearts and souls.  We can deny it, and work very hard in doing so, but we cannot expunge it.

Charles Darwin, who constructed the evolutionary worldview expressly to remove the need for a Creator from the reality of life and existence, did not really believe it.  He confessed as he neared his own end that he regretted having written what he did and feared he might have led the world astray.

François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, the quintessential Enlightenment philosophe and professed atheist, the trenchant mocker of Christianity, did not really believe it.  On his death bed he lamented that he knew there was a God and that he feared he was going to hell.  But, having lived as an atheist and scorned the “simplicity and gullibility” of “believers”, he would not accept having a priest summoned.

They all desperately wanted their lives to mean something.  They all desperately wanted their thoughts and influence to carry on after them – somehow.  They all wanted, somehow, to defeat death, to live beyond it.  It was the desire for eternity bred into their very souls breaking through all the manoeuvres of a life-time seeking to deny it and repress it. 

Many of us now find ourselves twisting and turning every which way in the same tortured dance.  I too once danced that dance, and will not say that I never have the least doubt to this day.  But the wonder of an incredible but real Cosmos that can only be here because a Creator fashioned it, and me within it, overthrows all the objections.  Even the hardest ones – the pain, the suffering, the evil-doing, the senseless (from our perspective) catastrophes – must give way to the fact that things are and that, being there at all, they are “fearfully and wonderfully made”.

In the Hebrew (Jewish) Scriptures a verse says, “The Creator has placed eternity in their (humanity’s) hearts.”  It is a thunderous statement!  It reputedly came from the most learned and “wisest” man of his age, in a book called Qohelet, which can be translated as “teacher” or “preacher” – a bit of both. 

Qohelet was King Solomon writing under a pseudonym.  As any teacher will tell you, all teachers preach, because they all have their worldviews and believe the students in front of them need converting.  They need to be brought into wisdom, which the teacher-preacher happens to believe they have to some degree.

“Eternity in our hearts” is what this Easter thing is really about.  It’s about the ultimate fulfillment of the old stories of death being defeated by life.  It has nothing to do with denying the “natural order” or the “self-evident laws of evolution and natural selection and survival of the fittest”.

Easter is a Western tradition about life returning.  In the pagan era, it was focused on the winter gods and spirits giving way to the gods of new life and fertility.  But by a few hundred years into the “Common Era” it had been transformed into the celebration of actual resurrection – the promise of life returning to the dead, their being raised into an indestructible, eternal body to live in all the fullness of all the best that could be.  It was centered on the ultimate resurrection, the resurrection of God-come-in-human-flesh, the returning-to-life-from-actual-real-death story of a real man who was also the real Creator-God.

That story is the Jesus Story, which was treated in the series previous to this one on this blog.  We will leave this discussion here.  Anyone so inclined is invited to see the previous series on “The Jesus Story”.  Or, better yet, you could seek it out in the original sources.

Lent 5- Forgiveness

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“Forgive us our debts/trespasses as we forgive those who are indebted to us/have trespassed/sinned against us.  Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  

For if you forgive those who sin* [make a mistake, offend] against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 

But if you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”  

(Matthew 6: 12-15)
  • Greek; paraptomata – is the word used. It has a heavy connotation of owing a contracted debt you must pay.  It implies that the only way to get off is for the debt to be forgiven, written off, by the one to whom it is owed.]

Last time we spoke of temptation and what Jesus’s forty days in the wilderness, dogged by the devil and temptation, teach us about ourselves and our own struggle with our own demons.  Just to recap: Jesus’s “demons”, the things the Tempter thought he could most entice him with, were (1) worry about the provision of the most basic things, (2) achieving superstar religious recognition, and (3) achieving worldly power, fame, fortune.

#1 is about the stuff it takes to make life work from day to day.  The Tempter says, “Hey dude, you’re famished, literally dying of hunger.  So if you are the Son of God, then just turn these stones under your feet into bread, and voilà, problem solved!  No big deal; just a little perk for being God’s Son!  Who’s to know, eh?”  But Jesus refused to use his special position, power, and status to gain an advantage and take the easy way, answering, “Man shall not/cannot/must not live by/on bread [the physical stuff our bodies demand] alone, but by every word that comes from God’s/the Creator’s mouth.”

#2 is about achieving superstar religious recognition and status by showing off how spiritual and totally lined up you are with all that people expect from a Messiah – a really spiritual person.  The Tempter smarms, “Hey Jesus, if you’re really God’s Son, the promised Messiah, make a dramatic arrival on the scene by throwing yourself off the summit of the Temple in Jerusalem.  After all, doesn’t on of the prophecies say that you could throw yourself down and God would send his angels to catch you so you wouldn’t even stub your toe?  Imagine the impact!  Everyone would know immediately how great and anointed you are and follow you just like that.  No need to go through all the performance-criteria to convince the big-shots of the Temple and Sanhedrin.  Even the Zealots and hothead fanatics would be convinced!”  Jesus rejected this too, saying, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” 

#3 – Finally, the Tempter plays his last Ace.  “All right then.  If those two things don’t appeal to you, and you really are anointed and appointed by the Holy One to be Israel’s last King and the world’s Saviour, I can spare you a lot of struggle and war and grief and pain and suffering – not only for yourself, but for everyone else too.  See, I actually have control of things down here, and I can hand it all over to you – today if you like!  Remember how Adam and Even listened to me?  When they did, they gave me control.  Even you have to admit that.  And today I’m offering that control to you.  All you have to do is one little thing – not very hard, really.  Just bow to me and worship me, just this once, just for a second or two.  And I’ll just fade into the background and let you have it all, all the power and glory and fame and acclaim.  Just think of it, man!  No wars!  No slaughters!  Just take the throne and I’ll get them all to bow to you.  I’ll do all the finagling and convincing.  How could that not be a good thing, huh?  Even your Father would have to agree this is a great thing – to stop all the wars and selfish slaughters and personal ambition all these human rulers operate by.  Just a bow to me!  Just this once, eh?”  And Jesus answered the Tempter, “Get away from me, Satan.  It is written, “You shall worship only the Lord your God, and Him alone shall you serve.””

Jesus defeated the Tempter in these archetypical allurements.  We all must face the specific manifestations they take in our own lives.  He was modeling for us that there are no shortcuts to a real relationship with the Creator.  He was portraying the character of what we each will face as we travel our roads.  We will struggle and worry about provision; we will seek spiritual wisdom, or at least the answer to the meaning of who we are, what this reality is, what it’s about, and whether there is anything beyond what our material perceptions tell us.  We will be greatly drawn to make that meaning a question of what we can achieve and become noted for in the eyes of the world (kosmos, in Greek).  But what Jesus shows us is that it all turns on knowing our Creator first and foremost, and recognizing our own personhood as a gift, given out of pure love from Him/Her, and for which we are accountable.

As he said more than once, it all boils down to two basic things: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.  And love your neighbour (fellow humans) as you love yourself.”  Loving God is not a thing done in the abstract, but in the world where you live.  It is an inner orientation which flows out by loving the other humans God made in his/her own image, just like He/She made you.  And that also extends to loving the Garden of Planet Earth He/She made you and me to inhabit and look after.  All the Creator’s creatures and creations are, in that way, our “neighbour” too.”

However, we all stumble and fall and make mistakes and act, sometimes, in terribly selfish ways.  But the Creator is concerned enough about that to have sent His/Her special envoy, or Son, to show you the way out, in fact, to be the way out.  The Creator is ready and willing to forgive your mess-ups, even the really bad ones.  But it’s not just about getting a free pass, no matter what you do.  There is a promise that you will be forgiven almost anything, no matter how gross, terrible, atrocious, etc.  Just one exception – something called by Jesus “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” – which we will not deal with here and which is much debated to this day.  No one is quite sure what that is, even since the very earliest days of the Jesus Movement.

There’s this one other thing too, a thing that doesn’t get much attention in our eagerness for total, unconditional forgiveness and love.  The problem is that “unconditional love and forgiveness” cannot be found in the record of what Jesus said.  As we said, it’s not that he, and God, are not willing to completely forgive everything you could ever do wrong, (except that mysterious blasphemy of the Holy Spirit).  But there is one condition attached to my receiving full pardon.  You can see it in the citation that stands at the head of this post.  It’s how we forgive those others who have done us wrong.  After all, they don’t really deserve to be forgiven; you just don’t know how badly they hurt me!

Our human automatic fall-back position is “tit-for-tat”, this-for-that – revenge, in other words.  You did me wrong, so I want justice.  You deserve to be punished and hurt just like, or with the same measure which, you did to me – even more!  (After all, it was me, the most important person who’s ever lived, that you hurt!)  Jesus’s statement is very sobering and powerful: “If you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”  If I won’t forgive, neither will the Creator.  If I forgive, so will He. 

I really wish that verse wasn’t there.  It feels like a sword of Damocles hanging over my head.  Especially if I get to the end of my journey and have stubbornly held tight to my “right to be avenged, to demand justice.”

That’s why Jesus, citing the Hebrew Scriptures repeatedly, says things like, “Go and learn what this means; I (the Lord) desire mercy over sacrifice,” and, “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities (nasty deeds), then who could stand?”  Who has more right to demand justice than the Creator, whose creation has been violated, raped, pillaged, defaced, wasted, and ruined since humans first rebelled against His/Her offer to live in relationship and harmony with Him/Her?  Who has more right to say to all of us who have mistreated and abused our fellow humans made in the Creator’s image just as much as I and you are, “You can’t be my son or daughter after denying that other people are by the way you treat them and think about them and reduce them to mere animals or things by the way you act towards them?”

But instead, this all-loving, all-merciful Creator comes to us in Person, even as a human Person, and says, “You can be fully forgiven.  Just forgive one another as I forgive you, and accept that if you hold unto me, I’ll see you through into God’s eternal Kingdom.”

Refusing to forgive one another is retaining the posture of rebellion, of making myself judge and jury – in other words, still claiming the prerogative of being my own little god, to make the final decision about right and wrong, good and evil, just like that original lie of the old Tempter.

There we have it!  Full circle!  The Tempter again: “See, honey, you can’t trust God to do what’s right.  You have to judge right and wrong for yourself, because that Creator is just too damn lenient.  You’ll never get justice [vengeance] if you rely on Him/Her.  Take it from me!  I know!  He never gave me the recognition I deserved.”

We are nearing the end of this Lenten season.  Good Friday is just ahead, followed by Easter Sunday.  Good Friday – so ironic!  A “good” day – on which the ultimate innocent and best Person who ever walked the Earth was taken and convicted of. . . .  what exactly was His crime again?  Pilate, his judge, said, “Why?  What evil has he done?  I find nothing deserving a death sentence.”  But then he sent him to be executed anyway – not in a nice, clean, modern “humane” way, but after horrible torture and unspeakable abuse.  And in the most excruciating fashion ever designed by the cruel refinements of human ingenuity to inflict pain and suffering on another human.

But even as he was drawing his last breaths, he asked the Creator for mercy, not justice, on all those who had done all this to him.  “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”  Incredible!  After being beaten, spat upon, whipped to within an inch of his life, mocked, and abandoned even by his best friends: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.”

First there were the ordinary people, soldiers and just regular folks – who screamed for his blood, mocked and spat on him, even as they worried about Temptation #1 about how they would meet the needs of the day. 

Then there were all the religious types and claimants of righteousness before God/the Creator.  Temptation #2:  Do you hear them saying, “Hey Lord!!  See how well we keep your laws, do the sacrifices, perform the ceremonies, pray and give a good example of how to live right?  Pretty impressive, eh?  So we really deserve to be in your Kingdom, right?  And look, this wretched poser and quasi-Messiah, we just got rid of him for you.  He would have undermined everything we’ve done for You.  He kept saying that none of our stuff impresses You, that all you want is to love us, have us love you back, and love one another.  But we know it takes a lot more than that!”

And then there was that Roman Governor and those Herodians saying (Temptation #3): “We can’t let a dude like this become too popular.  His whole message will undermine our whole message – telling people that their true King is God, the One God, the Creator, and that he, Jesus, is the one true Anointed and appointed spokesperson and embodiment of the Creator’s actual Person.  He’s telling them that all the power and glory of Empire is an illusion and only leads to oppression and disillusionment.”

So there isGood Friday, and there is Jesus, hanging by his nail-pierced wrists and bleeding out through the slashes and gashes of his head-to-toe, front-and-back flogging, the thorn piercings through his scalp, and the spike holes though his wrists and ankles, his face swollen from the punches and blows of his mocking captors.  Even then he says to his Father from the Roman cross, “Father, forgive them.  For they don’t know what they’re doing.”

So if I want forgiveness, I’d better remember whom I have not forgiven in my self-righteous, petty-god clinging to my “right to justice”.  I’d better consider what Jesus says about God’s forgiveness to me.  I’d better realize that his stipulation has no loop-hole that allows me to claim the right to vengeance.  I’d better put this in front of me like a moral and spiritual GPS: “But if you do not forgive their sins [mistakes, false steps, errors] your Father will not forgive your sins.”

Yikes, friends!  Just YIKES!!  It’s time to give it up – that old grudge, that “right” to be right; to “have justice”, seek vengeance.  If you insist on straight justice against that person, you are insisting on it against yourself too.  That’s what it means.  So choose, remembering that Jesus said, “Go and learn what this means, mercy triumphs over justice!”  But to receive mercy, you have to extend mercy – real, undeserved, pure grace mercy. I would much rather have God’s total mercy than cling to my (illusionary, after all) right to demand justice.  And the Creator would much rather give you full mercy and pardon than leave you standing naked before the Judgment Seat where the Son will sit when it comes down to the last and ask you, “So why didn’t you forgive?”

Lent 4 – Quarantine, Lead Us Not Into Temptation

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The year 2020 will now be long remembered as the year of the COVID-19 pandemic.  We find ourselves in unprecedented territory, at least for the last hundred years.  It is just beyond 100 years since the Spanish flu pandemic, the last real global “plague” of a highly contagious disease.  SARS, H1N1, Ebola, were mere scares which, happily, never lived up to their advanced publicity.  Unless you are someone in sub-Saharan Africa with Ebola or AIDS.

The Spanish flu of 1918-19 lives on in the memory of the West because it hit hardest in those countries – carrying off perhaps 50 million at the highest estimate – at a time when the world population was much lower (about 1.5 billion) and a terrible war had depleted resources and weakened many people’s health and constitution through long-term privation.  The Spanish flu did not discriminate against the elderly but was most devastating to the young.  My father caught it at age six and was at death’s door for at least a week.  (Obviously, he survived.)

We know that an effective quarantine is the best way to limit the spread of deadly disease.  It is not a cure, but must be done to protect those who have not been infected, while providing the best care possible for those who are suffering from the disease. 

It is interesting for those of us of Christian conviction (for me at least, at any rate) that this pandemic is hitting its global stride during the season of Lent.  Of course, from a scientific standpoint, this is irrelevant and mere coincidence, of no more import or interest than if it happened during Ramadan (Islam), Sukkot (Judaism), Diwali (Hinduism) or some other religious season for another major faith.

But its occurrence is calling the whole world, even its most wealthy and powerful, to mindfulness about the most basic issues of existence – what we live for and why we find life so precious that we are (or being made to be) willing to shut down all sorts of things that we normally choose to spend so much time, energy, and resources on.  Things like amusements and entertainments and public gatherings, shopping and restaurants.  Vacations and trips of all kinds cancelled.  Emergency centers and measures which we normally would resent or ignore being applied under government auspices, and, for the most part, with ready compliance because the potential consequences of non-compliance and pursuing blithe self-indulgence are too risky.  Or perhaps we simply fear being shunned as selfish and so self-absorbed that our peers would despise us.

The English world ‘quarantine’ is lifted right out of French – quarantaine – meaning “about forty”. 

In the Bible forty is a much used and symbolic term.  It first appears with Moses in exile from Egypt for forty years before God speaks to him in the burning bush. Then it recurs with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for forty years, and Moses up on Mt. Sinai for forty days before God gives him the Ten Commandments.  Forty seems to symbolize a period of searching and preparation, withdrawal to regroup or retreat, to find the way.  In the New Testament, Jesus fasts for forty days as he begins his public life, being tempted by Satan and learning the will of God.  And at the end of his earthly sojourn, he visits his disciples off and on over a period of forty days before his ascension.

Here we are with a once-in-a century phenomenon of a world practicing quarantine (quarantaine again in French).  We are told to practice social self- isolation.  As we do, we cannot help reflecting on life’s fragility and death’s randomness.  We can hardly help getting back in touch with the most basic questions about why we live.  A century ago in 1918-9 the Spanish influenza had the same effect at the same time of year.  It seems that most of us in the West will not turn aside from our frenetic pursuit of so much that is frivolous and far from what is really important unless forced to by some sort of personal crisis.  Now we have one for all of us at the same time.

We have an opportunity to take stock.  What have we made our lives about?  What have we made our civilization about?  What are the great idols in our lives which rule our hearts and minds?

When Jesus spent his self-imposed quarantaine fasting and praying and meditating, we are told that he faced three “temptations”, or great questions.  The first was hunger.  The second was to prove how holy and tuned in to God he could be by daring to try something only God could do, or could save him from.  The third was to turn away from God to worship a false god and in return receive all the success and power and worship and adulation this world can offer.

Jesus did not give in to any of them, but they were very real temptations, very powerful attractions for a human wanting to find a formula for success or an easy way to get through life with the least hassle.  Jesus was a real human, so resisting these allurements was neither easy nor automatic.

In his first test the Tempter had said, “If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.”  He had just completely fasted for forty days!  I will not debate whether Jesus had the real power to transform stone into bread, but there are the stories of his turning water into wine and multiplying a few loaves of bread and some fish into enough to feed thousands.  But what Jesus faced is exactly the sort of thing we all face every day, but hardly ever think of in that way. 

Now, I can’t turn smooth round stones into loaves of bread. My temptation is to worry about how my needs and my family’s needs will be met, whether there will be enough, or whether we’ll find a way through our present trials and tribulations, whatever these look like.  Bread represents the day-to-day basics we can’t get along without. Maybe now more than ever as many face unforeseen loss of income on a massive scale.

Jesus was in the Judean desert (which I have seen and gone through) and there was (and is) nothing to eat or drink for many kilometers.  In some way and at some point, almost everyone faces a desert where there looks to be nothing to sustain us.  For many right now, that point is now. Jesus’s response to the Tempter was “Man (humanity) does not live by bread alone (mere physical bread), but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  For me, I may not see how my needs and my family’s and loved ones’ needs will be met or how we will get through our valley of the shadow of death. But, like Jesus, I can say that the Creator will meet me/us and walk through to the other side with me/us – and in the process provide what we really need, beyond what the appearance seems to tell me/us that I/we need.

In the second test the Tempter takes him to the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.  For doesn’t the Scripture say that God will not suffer you to fall or even dash your foot against a stone?” 

I don’t expect to be taken to the top of the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome or some other great holy place of renown and splendor and be tempted to jump.  And of course that’s not the point.  This is about the second path people often choose to “lose their lives while seeking to save/find them” as Jesus puts it in another place.  It is the path of religion and striving to be known as a great spiritual leader, guru, mystic, model, shaman, witch, ayatollah, priest, bishop, preacher, etc.  It is the path of making religion and recognition for spirituality one’s god rather than turning to the Creator Him-/Herself to find the way to truth and peace and harmony – “Shalom” as the Bible calls it.

It is the path of making God serve me rather than me serving the Creator, imposing my agenda and ambitions over those that come from His/Her heart and mouth.  For those of the population still hungering and thirsting for something deeper than the “stuff” and all the pleasure it can offer, this is a great temptation.  I can become someone respected and looked up to and listened to if I can rise as a holy person, a gifted person who “hears from God” or is “in tune with the spirit-realm” and able to channel such energy or “bring in the lost”, etc.  Or perhaps, if I do some heroic thing of self-sacrifice and self-immolation I will win a great reward and a place of honour.

This is a road I know something about, but it is a dead-end.  Religious performance and “getting it all right” as per a set of dogmas and rules will not create a bond with the One who made me to be part of His/Her family.  Jesus had some of his harshest words for people who were all about religion and hardly at all about caring for the needy and helping those who needed a little practical love so they could feel the love of the Creator.

The final test Jesus faced was to bow down and worship the Tempter himself.  In return, all the kingdoms of the world would be put at his feet.  He would have all the power and dominion possible for anyone to have.  Jesus’s answer was, “It is written, “You shall worship the Lord God alone, and He alone will you serve.””

I don’t expect to be offered great riches or worldly power any time soon (or ever).  Or fame and fortune and acclaim to make me the envy of millions (or thousands, or even a few hundred or dozen).  But once again, the temptation Jesus faced is generic – to bow down to the great idols of success of our culture, which the West has so idolized and made the great symbols of “success”: Money, Fame, Acclaim, Reputation, being envied by others, having the best job, car, house, stuff, nicest partner, best (most accomplished) kids, etc., etc.  To do whatever it takes to get there, to reach the top of the heap. 

The promises of the Tempter are all empty.  They may fool for a time, but in the end they whither and fade and leave the deluded one empty in heart and dead in soul.

Now, back to quarantine.  We have an opportunity, while we are waiting for the return of ‘normalcy’ so we can all turn back to running after our own particular set of goals.  Before we turn back to making sure of where all the stuff I “need” will come from, putting on a good show about how spiritual I am, and seeking to climb to the top.  The opportunity is to use our own “forty” days in the wilderness that we have been collectively given to turn away from our vanity and turn towards the only two things that really matter: finding our home in the Creator’s heart and arms, and sharing His/Her love to take in the others around us as we find that home, that Center.  In the old language it was called “Love God with you whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Love your neighbour like you love yourself.”

Lent 3: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit

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“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. . . . Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”

The New Testament: Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20

Spring begins to warm our lives like hope returning as we march through March.  The cycle of nature promises renewal.  The sun warms our bodies and hearts just as it awakens the ground from its death-like slumber.  The somber landscapes of winter (not lacking in austere beauty at times) will soon give way to the bursting out of new things, new life.

The physical reminds us that the spiritual, mystical life also has its cycle – joy and sorrow, advance and withdrawal, activity and reflection, peace and upheaval, harmony and disarray.  Human psychology marches in tune with these things just as nature does.

The timing of Lent corresponds with the winter-spring transition.  It is a time to step back and take stock of what has become sterile, barren, and dead in our lives and to find paths back into life and renewal – first with our Creator, but equally with our fellow human travellers, and finally with the natural world in which we all live and move and have our being.  For the Creator made it and made us to be in it and tend and nurture it.

As we consider this, we cannot avoid the climate change debate.  It has become an obsession which so polarizes people that we seem incapable of admitting that, whether we put ourselves on its “left” or the “right”, the creation is groaning in great travail, as the Apostle Paul comments in Chapter 8 of his Letter to the Romans.  Whether you accept that the world is warming dangerously or not, we must all see that we, the human species, have recklessly pillaged Earth’s resources and polluted our whole nest from top to bottom, stem to stern.

It began many generations ago, and we have not stopped doing it.  Now, however, we are without the excuse of ignorance.  Our rape and pillage is deliberate and totally devoted to present comfort and convenience with no regard for what is to come in a few decades.  It is of little use to point fingers at the parties we choose to hold (most) guilty – we all participate to greater or lesser degree.

We are told that prosperity depends on this exploitation, that fundamental rights and freedoms are involved in allowing it to continue, that a free and democratic and liberal society holding out the promise of life without poverty depends on it.  Free enterprise demands that we leave things run their course.

A reflection on Lent is not the place to debate whether Capitalism or Socialism is most compassionate and appropriate.  The key problem is deeper than a vehement debate full of vituperation against the evils of one or the other.  It is a problem of the brokenness of the human heart and our emptiness of the soul. 

Poverty is the lack of the most basic and essential things that make a decent life possible.  We lose sight of its terrible effects on real people when we turn it into a statistical exercise by reducing it to a question of income.  Talking about it as a question of money eases our conscience because we can then advocate remedies such as offering more money and more services to the poor with a measurable, impersonal price-tag.  Those of us who are not poor can regain some perspective by volunteering to help at the Food Bank or the Soup Kitchen or the Goodwill or the Street Ministry.  All good things to do, of course.  And they need to be done. And getting out of our comfort zones may lead to where we really need to go- to get in touch with our own poverty of spirit.

The deepest poverty is referred to by Jesus as “poverty of spirit” – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven [God].”  (Matthew 5:3)  Luke has him saying, “Blessed are you who are poor, for your is the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20)  It is good that we have both, for we must not lose sight that both forms of poverty exist.  Someone might suggest that the Luke verse is saying that actual material poverty is somehow good.  That is certainly not what he is saying!

But let us begin with poverty of spirit, and why Jesus says it’s a blessing.  First, it is the opposite of self-sufficient pride and confidence in our ability to get along without the Creator.  It is not an automatic posture, especially in the 21st Century West (if it has ever been automatic).  It is actually a rather rare revelation.  Few humans attain it for very long.  It takes a lot of counter-intuitive cultivation to “arrive” there and abide in it.  (I make no claim to abiding there!) To the extent that we do and can, Jesus assures us that we actually begin to experience God’s real presence – for by getting our self-sufficiency out of the way, we make room for the Spirit of the Creator to break in. 

We discover humility: humility as a dependent creature acknowledging my personal emptiness; the hole in my soul which only knowing my Creator can fill.  Humility is knowing that I cannot earn my way into this; I cannot perform a bunch of good deeds and sacrifices to enter this fundamental relationship.  Until I humble myself before the One who made me and seeks for me that I might come to know Him/Her, I remain locked in my pride and arrogance, my illusion that I am, in effect, a god unto myself.

If I can begin to live in poverty of spirit before God, I can begin to see my fellow humans as other lost souls desperately trying to fill that inner void.  They may well be unaware of it themselves, but, knowing my own poverty, I can relate to them in real compassion and humility and offer to come alongside them.  Not by preaching or cajoling or showing off my advanced spirituality, but by offering to walk humbly and openly with them and bring what is needful where they are. 

The materially poor are often already aware of their spiritual poverty and may well be beyond me in that understanding.  To those who are deluded by the illusion of control over their own lives, I can offer relationship when the illusion begins to dissipate amid the inevitable tribulations of life.  But no one can (re)enter or discover their true identity as a son/daughter of the Creator without first coming to poverty of spirit.

Finally we must come to the creation with that poverty of spirit.  It teaches us that we do not own it and it is not mere “stuff” for me, for us, to use, abuse, chew up, and trash when we’re done with it.  I understand that, like my loaned (lent) life, the creation has been loaned to us, that we do not own it, that we are responsible to care for it, to steward it, to bring it into its best state.  We are meant to appreciate it for what it really is, the Creator’s amazing gift, where He/She has placed us for whatever short span of years we have. He/She has also given us the potential to enjoy and glorify it in gratitude for allowing us to love all He/She has made in all its incredible wonder and beauty.  And we too are part of the incredible wonder and beauty to be enjoyed and brought to be the best we can be.

Lent is a good opportunity to deliberately choose one or two small ways to cultivate poverty – first, of spirit – but perhaps also alongside the materially poor.  Perhaps I will find myself actually meeting the Creator more intimately as I move this way.  If you ask, He/She will doubtless show you.

Lent, 1

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I will begin this post with a thank you to all my regular readers and subscribers for your faithful support and interest.

We are now in the season of Lent, which will end on Easter Sunday, April 12.  The word “Lent” in English is derived from Old English lencten, referring to the time when days lengthen or a long period.  Latin-based languages such as French derive their world for the season from the Latin word for forty –  quadraginta – of fortieth – quadragesima, e.g. – French la Carême.

During this season, i.e. for the next five or six posts, we will be taking a break from the usual fare of this blog.  There will not be a fixed theme, except along the line of what our topic today indicates – things appropriate to Lent.

Once upon a few generations ago in the West, this season of about forty days was publicly acknowledged and discussed as a time to dial back our usual bent towards self-concern and self-indulgence.  It was even mentioned in public institutions and political and cultural events to encourage people to “get a grip” on their bad habits and help one another out.  The purpose was to commemorate the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The forty days was as an imitation of Jesus’s time in the wilderness before he set out on his public ministry.

Whether you observe the traditions of Christianity or not, dialing back and slowing down, taking the focus off oneself for a season, deliberately finding a time and some self-discipline to regularly turn aside from “the usual” – the  pursuit of self-fulfillment for good ole Number One – cannot be a bad thing.  Other faiths do it and encourage it too (Ramadan in Islam is a prominent example), and even the sages of the health and well-being industry who promote forms of alternative spiritualities or secularized forms of such things (yoga is the most common) tell us that periodic fasting and self-denial is a good thing, especially when we mix in some genuine altruism to get our heads out of our own belly-buttons.

Many people set themselves a goal of “fasting” in some way during this time.  In the “old days” when most people in the West were at least nominal Christians, this meant doing without some favourite foods, for example.  Many people still do this, and add in more focused attention to daily prayer, meditation, and devotional reading.  Other forms of “fasting” might be setting aside forms of personal entertainment, abstaining from social media obsession, or watching less or even no Television or videos.

Now we live in a culture which hardly registers Lent as a blip.  There is a good side to this.  As a Pastor friend pointed out when we were talking about church attendance and declining numbers, the good part of this is that the people who are in church or “walking the walk” these days are there because they want to be and are committed. 

Some dominations and affiliations within the “Church” (I use the word here in its “catholic” sense of “universal” – the One Church which crosses all the denominational boundaries and enfolds everyone who follows Jesus, regardless of their affiliation as “Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Charismatic, etc.” – are more deliberate and formal about this whole Lenten season and making it a real observance.  I encourage those of you in that persuasion to “go for it” with all your might.  For others who may have more of a hesitation about being so deliberate and intentional about “observing days and seasons” as if they can create more godliness in us or impress God somehow, I would encourage them to see this season as an opportunity to more consciously implement the kinds of disciplines their background values.

No one can compel us individualist Western Christians of the 21st Century to do much of anything “religious” these days.  We love to say that faith and salvation are an individual choice, “by grace through faith” (Ephesians 2:8).  Coercion and manipulation by guilt or social pressure are pretty much done for most churches and individuals in North America and Europe.  All the statistics about religious adherence and practice demonstrate this.  But our self-indulgence and claim to individual rights cross into every aspect of how we live our lives.  Lent is one of those.

We might say that we have the same choices to make every day God gives us to continue enjoying (or enduring) our lives.  True enough.  But if all days are the same, no day is special.  The truth is, we really don’t live the rest of our lives that way at all.  We all want and need to feel unique and special, to have special occasions and days.

Our cultural hypocrisy then excludes this from the religious and spiritual side of our humanity.  And this is just another manifestation of what has occurred over the last century.  Despite all the attempts to remove religion and spirituality (the old Enlightenment progressive code-language for Christianity in particular) from the public sphere, humans are innately spiritual, even those of atheistic bent.  There is a hunger and need at our very core.  We deny it at our peril.

The point of Lent is to stop denying it and awaken it, encourage it to search for what can finally bring us to real  fulfillment – to set aside the counterfeits that can never fill the hole in our soul.

Of that, more next time.

The Third Way, 57: Saviours and Salvation, 12 – The Jesus Story, 9: The Third Way

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“Jesus called himself the Son of God and the Son of Man, but he laid little stress on who he was or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the Kingdom.  In declaring that he was more than a man and divine, Paul and his [Jesus’] other followers, whether they were right or wrong, opened up a vast field of argument.  Was Jesus God?  Or had God created him?  Was he identical with God or separate from God?  It is not the function of the historian to answer such questions, but he is bound to note them, and to note how unavoidable they were, because of the immense influence they have had upon the whole subsequent life of western mankind.  By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”

H.G. Wells, The Outline of History, Volume One.  (Doubleday and Company, 1971), pp. 456-7

Not all readers of this blog or all Christians will agree with H.G. Wells in every detail of this citation from his magnum opus The Outline of History.  I would agree with his view that it is not the historian’s function to pass judgment on questions such as Jesus’ ultimate identity.  He is fair in recognizing that Jesus did accept the titles of “Son of Man” and “Son of God” as proper to himself.  He is right in saying that Paul (and the other Apostles and first disciples) opened up “a vast field of argument”.  These arguments came in later generations, but, while they had disagreements among themselves, the Apostles did not disagree about Jesus’ identity.  As Wells says, perhaps the later arguments were “unavoidable” and have been historically significant “because of the immense influence they have had” on all the generations since.

I would not agree with Wells that Jesus “laid little stress on who or what he was, and much more upon the teachings of the [coming of the ] Kingdom [of God].”  If one considers only the three “Synoptic” Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, one could reach that conclusion on a superficial reading.  But the major emphasis in John’s Gospel is the central issue of Jesus’ identity.  It focuses on his proclamation that the Kingdom of God had arrived in the form of his person.  The heart of the message was really that the coming of the Kingdom was not just coincident and correlative to his own coming among humanity with a new teaching at a specific time and in a specific place, but that it was intrinsic to his being present.  It was and is bound up in his person, and entering that Kingdom was and is through him, through commitment of one’s life to God through him.  When we look carefully at the Synoptics[i], we will still find Jesus declaring this. 

The difference is one of “optics”—focus and perspective.  The focus of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (synoptic means seeing the same, taking the same perspective) is Jesus’ public ministry and persona as seen by the witnesses involved as he travelled through Israel and met his death, and then rose from the grave.  By comparison, the perspective of John is an intimate look at how Jesus related to those closest to him and with those who opposed him and eventually engineered his crucifixion. 

Wells is effectively doing what so many have done when trying to sort out “the historical Jesus” from “the Jesus of faith”; he is reducing him to a message, a set of teachings and admonitions to be applied, comparable to what the typical mystical prophets, philosophers, and sages have done for millennia.  But, as we said in our previous episode, we cannot reduce Jesus to that; he does not fit the mould or stay in our neat categorical boxes.  His message was really himself, and in that he is really and truly unique among all the great religious figures of history. 

Buddha, Muhammad, Lao-tse, Confucius, Zoroaster, etc. did not say things like “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father/Creator except by/through me.”  We could give many more examples of Jesus making such statements.  Here are a few to reinforce the point: “I am the door; I am the bread of life; I am the Good Shepherd; … I am the resurrection and the life,” etc.  Any of these others “greats” saying such things would have rightfully been declared a megalomaniac.  As C.S. Lewis so cogently puts it, “He does not leave us that option.”  He is so sane, so manifestly not a Lunatic!  So manifestly not a Liar!

Jesus also openly claimed to be sinless and publicly challenged his critics to produce one instance in which he had sinned.  He had lived a very public life for at least a couple of years by this point, and had been shadowed at every turn by hostile critics who should have been able to produce at least one tale of his having acted badly.  There were no takers.

Jesus did indeed teach extensively, often in parable form.  He challenged hypocrites wherever he found them.  He discredited stereotypes, stood up for the poor and downtrodden, and commented critically on many issues such as the way the powerful control, oppress, laying heavy burdens on people and inflicting suffering.  He criticized the wealthy and their lack of compassion. 

He said that his followers needed to be different from all this—to be like him!  Everything he brought to the table as a new way, a Third Way, was bound up in knowing him and following him.  It was not about a new set of rules or a new philosophical insight, or even a different way of performing religious rituals and routines—or not performing them, for that matter.  He elucidated and illuminated what they already knew, declaring that the scriptures spoke about him.  As we have said before, it will not do to confine him to being a sort of nice, peacenik guru saying “All you need us love, so stop being selfish and nasty.” 

Certainly, we need to stop being selfish and nasty, but the problem is that, in and of ourselves, we just can’t do it very well, at least most of us can’t, no matter how hard we try. There area few who somehow manage it much better than most, like Buddha, for example.  But even most of the prophets, gurus, and sages come out pretty splotchy when we dig a little deeper.  Most of us are like the Prophet Daniel’s dream of a giant statue of a King-God made of massive, shiny, metallic sections of gold, silver, and bronze.  We (try to) look shiny, powerful, and impressive, but we’re standing on clay feet which cannot support us at all when the waves crash in.

At the end of our citation Wells says, “By the fourth century of the Christian Era we find all the Christian communities so agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments about the nature of God as to be largely negligent of the simple teachings of charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Unfortunately, this part of his assessment is all too true.

At the end of The Third Way 56, we noted the tremendous positive and progressive impact of the legacy of Jesus and the best of the work of his disciples over the last two millennia.  As Wells puts it—the “charity, service, and brotherhood that Jesus had inculcated.”  Too often though, we have seen large segments of those followers turning inward on one another, “agitated and exasperated by tortuous and elusive arguments” with one another about God’s nature, Jesus’ nature, the Holy Spirit’s nature and work, questions of Church order and government, questions of right ritual and observance, and on and on.  And when the workers turn in upon one another, the anathemas proliferate and the love evaporates, evening  climaxing in war sometimes.  This does not even include the completely twisted notion of crusading to convert or crush “the infidel” or “heathen” of another religion.

When the Church, which is really just the community of his followers which Jesus commissioned to be “the light of the world and the salt of earth” loses its way and does those things, it has gone over to the “Dark Side” and lost its salt.  It breaks faith with its Founder and shames and dishonours itself.  So do all who take Christ’s name in vain by using it to say and perpetrate things and actions which in the end he will denounce and declare dreadful distortions of everything he is and calls those who follow him to be.

Nevertheless, Jesus has always had followers “muddling through” to act and be as he calls them to be and do.  There is still and has always been a remnant of communities and individuals who are “doers of the word, not mere hearers” and fancy talkers and theologians.  Now, at this time in history, and especially in the history of the West, faithful hearers and doers are more needed than ever, for much of the earth is in spiritual famine and dying in its vapid materialism and self-absorption, without hope or vision.  “Without a hope, without a vision for the future, people perish,” says a verse in the Book of Proverbs.

The core of the Christian proclamation is about hope—Good News—which is what the word “Gospel” really means.  That Good News is the coming of God’s Kingdom into our midst.  And it has come and continues to abide in a living Saviour who promises to “be with you always, even to the end of the age.”  He said, and says, “In this life, in this world, in this age, you will have trouble.  But take heart, for I have overcome the world.”

The “First Way” is the way of Religion—seeking peace and safety through appeasement of the universe and its dominant forces by the right kind of actions and staying out of the way of what can destroy us.  The “Second Way” is the way of Power, the way of control and manipulation and domination, to (re)make the world in our own image, even if it is just our own corner of it.  The ultimate form of this kind of counterfeit safety is world mastery—political, economic, and social domination and forcible conformity.

Both of these “Ways” of trying to make sense of reality are alive and well.  None of us is entirely free of them, either within ourselves or in our dealings with others, or even with nature.

The “Third Way” is what Jesus offered and offers—to cease from the first two and become truly free, as only he can make us free: “For if the Son (Son of God and Son of Man) shall make you free, you shall be free indeed.”


[i]  “Synoptics” = Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  These three take a similar, more or less biographical perspective to Jesus’ public career.  They see Jesus through the eyes of witnesses who were there, although takes a somewhat different witness perspective.  Matthew’s perspective is very Jewish – Jesus as the fulfilment of Torah and its reinterpreter for the New Age, the renewed or new Covenant.  Tradition says that Mark’s perspective is based on Peter’s stories about the Messiah Yeshua.  For much of the account, Jesus seems to be keeping a low profile, but is finally revealed to be the Son of God and the Messiah.  He is then arrested and crucified.  The end is wonder and amazement, and there is scholarly controversy about the last part of the final chapter being a later addition.

Luke takes a more scholarly approach, systematically accumulating evidence and eye-witness testimony.  Tradition says Luke was a well-educated, articulate, very literate physician, perhaps even a Gentile convert of Paul’s.  His story focuses on the humanity of Jesus while including details of healings and relationships which a doctor would note.

With this understanding, John’s approach becomes more illuminating as a bridge from the very public record of Jesus to his more intimate, personal dimension and the things he said about himself both with his closest followers and those who challenged and opposed him.