Desiring to Know the Real Reason

English: Saint paul arrested

English: Saint paul arrested (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love this simple statement Luke includes when he recounts the trial of Paul in Acts 22.  Paul had been preaching the gospel, sharing his story of encountering Jesus, and it caused a stir.  People were upset.  They couldn’t handle what he was talking about.  And their reaction was to hand Paul over to the authorities.

 

The Romans did what they were trained to do – get the truth out of Paul any way that they could.  Their interrogation methods included flogging.  Nothing like a few lashings to get to the truth.  But before they made it that far down the particular path, Paul explains that what they are about to do us unlawful, for although Paul is a Jew, he was also a Roman citizen by birth, and thus he had some legal protection from being bound and interrogated without cause.
What strikes me about this story though is not Paul’s social and political savvy, or even his practice of what some have labeled “riot evangelism.” (Not arguing against this either.  The demonstration and proclamation of the Gospel should cause a stir!).
No, what I find fascinating is that the Roman tribune came to back to Paul, “desiring to know the real reason why he was being accused by the Jews.” (v. 30).
Do our lives and our words have that kind of effect?
 
Not just the effect of causing a stir or a controversy.
Not just the kind that instigates a riot.
Not just the kind that shakes the comfortable and complacent out of their apathy.

But the kind that draws others closer, “desiring to know the real reason.”  

 
The real reason for the hope that we profess.
The real reason for our experience of God.
The real reason why some would struggle to the point of wanting to condemn, ostracize and even punish  us for what we believe, what we proclaim and what we demonstrate with out lives.
That’s the kind of impact I want to have.  To see men and women and children be so moved with desire to want to know the real reason why I believe the gospel.  This is why I’m excited to see more interest being taken up in the realm of “gospel neighboring” and if you haven’t yet stumbled upon Andy Stager’s  blog and podcast on this subject, you really should go check it out here.
It’s when we live with such radical hospitality, in close proximity to others in our communities, that the distinctiveness of our lives shaped by the Gospel will begin to have the effect of disrupting the perceptions and preconceived notions of Christianity and Christians themselves, and that space for desiring to know the real reason is created – in relationship.
Can you imagine what would happen if our words and lives had this as their aim and intention?
Can you see your family members, neighbors, and coworkers being so drawn to ask you that kind of question – “Tell me the real reason why……
….so-and-so seems out to get you?
….you’re not holding that grudge against that guy who threw you under the bus?
….you’re not falling apart when your husband lost his job?
….you’re neither a fundamentalist, prude, nor are you a anything-goes kind of person?
….you love your kids and yet your world doesn’t simply orbit around them and their schedules?
….you’re life has changed so dramatically?
….you go to that church?
….you are a Christian?
Can you imagine the folks in your particular sphere of influence asking you these kinds of questions? That’s the kind of person I want to be, and the kind of people God wants us to be as we seek to live a distinctively Christian life in the world He has placed us.

How do you base your morality? and What is the bible? (Part 1)

I was recently asked a question by a friend that made me stop and take some time to think before I responded.  Essentially, his questions broke down into three main questions, with the third having a list of passages that could prove problematic for anyone who would want to base their morality on the Bible.  Image

1) How do you base your morality?

2)  If it’s based on the Bible, which is supposed to reveal the character of God, how can you (or, do you) pick and choose which parts to follow or not?  

3) Take the examples of God not only allowing, but sanctioning even commanding the murder of whole people groups (ethnic cleansing?), including women, children and non-combatants (Canaanites).  How is this “moral” and what does it reflect about God’s character, as well as the character of those people who seek to reflect His character?

I am going to post my answers to these question in two blog posts.  The first (this one) will address the first two questions, and the next post will address the third question.

Q: How do you base your morality?  

A: I would say that I base my morality on the gospel – the Good News (literal meaning of gospel) that God does for me and the world what the world and me can’t do for ourselves – as revealed in the Bible, not on the Bible itself.  For more, see next question.

Q: If it’s based on the Bible, which is supposed to reveal the character of God, how can you (or, do you) pick and choose which parts to follow or not?  

 A: The Bible does in fact reveal the character of God, but it is not simply a collection of God’s characteristics in the abstract.  It is about His character in action.  What we know of God is first and foremost revealed to us by Him.  It is not merely conjured up or developed from the human mind (whether collective or individual); the direction is not from the human to the divine, but from the divine to the human.   This means that what we know about God is set in the context of recipients who are themselves not-God.  

But more than that, what we know of God is also set in a context of sin, or what one philosopher describes as “vandalism of shalom” – Hebrew for peace, meaning universal human flourishing and a webbing together of all humans and all things in a rich state of affairs where natural gifts are employed and needs are met. In a phrase, the context we live in is a world that is “not the way it’s supposed to be.”  (Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary on Sin).  In this context, all humanity is both complicit with and impacted by sin; we are at one and the same time both victims and victimizers (borrowing from Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace).  And before you dismiss this statement by saying, “I have not harmed anyone or done anything wrong/bad/evil,” ask yourself if you really believe that you are so completely disconnected from others in this world that your actions do not impact – whether directly or indirectly – the lives of others. This is what theologians refer to as “sins of commission” – those things we do that are wrong, unjust, and harm others – or “sins of omission” – those things we leave undone that are right, just and seek the welfare of others.”  Voltaire famously said, “No snowflake feels guilty in an avalanche.”  We are caught up into a system of human relationships where our actions or inaction impact others, and most of us are simply oblivious to this reality.  Just watch The Place Behind the Pines or Crash for modern cinematic examples of this fact.

Now, so far I have described the context of human life and sin in a horizontal dimension – the impact we have on our fellow man.  If you take that as your only dimension, the problems we face are bad enough as it is.  But if we take the world we live in as a product of a Creator’s design, delight and intent, then we have to add a vertical dimension to the horizontal.  How we live then, not only impacts our fellow man or the environment, but also our relationship with One who created us.  If we can turn the world we live in and create an environment that is not the way it’s supposed to be, what would the One who created it in the first place think of our actions and inaction?

In a word, displeasure.  But that sounds too shallow, or calm.  Afterall, you and I experience more passion when someone disses a band we like or a movie we loved.  Could you imagine someone actually threatening, abusing and destroying another human being you deeply cared about? Or a work of art that was a labor of love and you spent countless hours developing? If He created the world, and us to live in it because He delighted to do it, then we can and should assume that our attempts to live life in ways that thwart or disrupt that creational intent for peace and human flourishing would invoke God’s anger.  Now if He were angry at what had become of His creation, He has a couple of choices: a) scrap it all and start over, or b) put in place a plan to “redeem” (buy back, purchase, reclaim ownership) and “restore” (fix, repair, make new again) His creation.  

This is exactly what the pages of the Bible in the book of Genesis tell us.  Genesis 1-3 is the historical account of God’s creating all things, declaring them good, commanding His crowning jewel of creation, man, to live in a state of love and trust with Him and carry out his task of doing in creation what God had done for creation – manage and cultivate it with benevolent care and peace-full intention.  When man instead breaks that state of love and trust (yes, I have the Pearl Jam song playing in my head as I write that), God inserts himself into the situation and interjects His solution – a promised redeemer and rescuer for all creation (cf. Genesis 3:15).  In the meantime though, all of creation lives under a curse – the inevitable outcome of choosing to love and trust in self instead of living in dependence on God and carrying out our original intention as humans made in His image.  

Ultimately, this promised redeemer comes and is God’s very own Son, Jesus Christ in the pages of the New Testament.  But up until the coming of the Jesus, we have foretastes, or appetizers, of the redemption that God would bring about. This occurred through select individuals (Noah, Abraham, Moses, David) but also through the establishment of a whole people group, the nation of Israel.  Their charge and responsibility was to be a blessing to all the nations.  Their method or way of doing this was by living as a distinct and unique (meaning of holy, set apart) nation among all the nations. Genesis 12, what could be labeled as the Israelites Charter for Existence, tells us such:

“Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

- Genesis 12:1–3 (ESV)

 This is why I say that I get my morality from the gospel as revealed in the Bible, instead of the Bible itself.  The Bible is a collection of recorded works that describe who God is but also what He has done and is doing, in this world to fix the problems, right every wrong, and ultimately wipe every tear from every eye.  I can derive my morality, or ethical lifestyle choices from the Bible to be sure, but only in the context of the gospel, because that is ultimately what the Bible seeks to communicate.  It is not a moral play book, or a divine guide for a good and happy life, sent down from on high to educate and provide the steps needed to live a certain way.  It includes that, but it is not merely that.  It is first and foremost a revelation from God to us, highlighting who He is, who we are, what’s wrong with the world, and how He intends to put it back right.  This allows one to see the connectedness of all scripture and how each individual part (verse, passage, book, genre, collection, testament) fits together to make a composite picture, or mosaic, of the character in action (God) and the implications for His creatures (man, included).  

So, I don’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible to follow; I follow them all, in the context of the overall picture of Bible, which could be summarized as: 

Creation (Gen. 1-2) – Fall (Gen. 3:1-14) – Redemption (Gen. 3:15-Rev.19) – Consummation/New Creation (Rev.20-22).

 

Something Greater is Here (Mark 2:3-17)

Paralytic Man Lowered in the Midst of the Crowds Before Jesus

Jesus continues his public ministry and the crowds keep coming to him.  People are expecting him to do great and good works and they can’t get enough.  That’s what makes this episode about a man being lowered into the middle of a very crowded house so fascinating.  First, imagine you’re crowded into the home of Jesus along with everyone else, and suddenly you notice part of the roof collapsing.

Homes in Jesus’ day in Capernaum would have been constructed largely with some wooden beams and mud-patch work for the roof.  As this band of friends climbed up the roof and began to carve into the mud in order to lower their paralytic friend, they undoubtedly would have caused a commotion down below.  Mud pieces falling from the ceiling, maybe bits of straw or hay scattering around the room.  As their eyes were directed upwards, they notice several sets of eyes in a circle in the newly formed skylight, and then a man being lowered on a mat. You may think, “What never!” or “What boldness!” but the fact is that everybody notices and everyone is thinking something.

What do you think Jesus was thinking?  It was after all his home that just had the roof torn open so that a helpless man could get help.  Jesus tells us what he was thinking: while some were thinking “What nerve!” and others were thinking “What boldness!” Jesus was thinking “What faith!”  These men believed that if they could just get their paralyzed friend in front of Jesus, his life would be different.  He would be healed.  He wouldn’t need to be carried along by his friends anymore.  He could be restored to a healthy, vibrant life.  And they were right.  That is what happens when people meet Jesus.  With Jesus, life gets restored and things get set back to the way they are supposed to be.

So Jesus speaks to the paralytic man and says, ”Be healed?”  No!  He tells the man that his “sins are forgiven.”  What was Jesus doing here?  Jesus is meeting the man’s need in a way that neither the man, nor his friends, nor anyone else in the house expected – he is meeting his need for forgiveness of sin.  Tim Keller is helpful in understanding what is going on when he writes:

Jesus knows something the man doesn’t know—that he has a much bigger problem than his physical condition. Jesus is saying to him, “I understand your problems. I have seen your suffering. I’m going to get to that. But please realize that the main problem in a person’s life is never his suffering; it’s his sin.” If you find Jesus’s response offensive, please at least consider this: If someone says to you, “The main problem in your life is not what’s happened to you, not what people have done to you; your main problem is the way you’ve responded to that”—ironically, that’s empowering. Why? Because you can’t do very much about what’s happened to you or about what other people are doing—but you can do something about yourself. When the Bible talks about sin it is not just referring to the bad things we do. It’s not just lying or lust or whatever the case may be—it is ignoring God in the world he has made; it’s rebelling against him by living without reference to him. It’s saying, “I will decide exactly how I live my life.” And Jesus says that is our main problem. (Tim Keller, King’s Cross, 25-26)

Jesus isn’t denying that the man needs healing in a physical sense, but he is challenging everyone’s notion that Jesus is a really good guy, doing some really good things.  He’s more than that. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright links the authority Jesus claims for himself, with the authority promised to “one like a son of man,” in Daniel 7, where:

There, ‘one like a son of man’ is the representative of God’s true people. He is opposed by the forces of evil; but God vindicates him, rescues him, proves him to be in the right, and gives him authority. In Daniel, this authority enables him to dispense God’s judgment. Here, in a fascinating twist, he has authority to dispense God’s forgiveness. (N.T. Wright, Mark for Everyone, 17).

Jesus by forgiving the man’s sins is claiming to be the one promised by God to battle against the forces of evil that conspire against God and His people.  Jesus is saying that He’s one with the authority of God, and this demands a response.

Well this episode certainly provoked a response among the scribes, or religious professionals.  They got the message and were questioning whether Jesus had the authority to do what he was claiming to do.  If this man’s problem was a sin-problem, then his friends should have taken him through the proper channels.  Forgiveness is something only God can offer, and if that was what this man needed, he needed to be brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, in front of the credentialed priests; not a wandering preacher and healer in his home?

Jesus does the unthinkable.  He doesn’t just claim this authority for himself, but he wields it.  He executes his authority and the result is the man who was once paralyzed, now picks up his mat and walks away.  Something greater than the Temple and someone greater than their priests is now here.

Mark tells us that “they were all amazed and glorified God” and said “We never say anything like this before!” (Mark 2:12).  That’s because no one and nothing like Jesus had ever been seen before. He is the long-awaited “one like a son of man” to oppose evil in all it’s forms, and do for God’s people what they could not do for themselves.