What the Resurrection Really Means: An Invitation to Discovery

In 2013, I hired a guy named Casey to be the Worship Leadership for Shepherd’s Community UMC. My wife, Emma, and I became great friends with Casey and his wife, Cindy. Early on, they shared with us that they had lost a baby at birth, a little girl named Selah. Upon hearing this, I felt compassion but didn’t give it much thought until it came up in other conversations. From my perspective, their loss didn’t affect the way our friendship developed or how I saw them as people . . . until they invited me to a gathering called Compassionate Friends.

If you’re not familiar, Compassionate Friends is a support group at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, FL for parents who have lost children of all ages. My first encounter with them was around Christmas time when I was asked to deliver a message for their holiday gathering. Casey, Cindy, and Emma were also asked to lead worship, so it was an opportunity to serve together. Upon arrival, I felt like a fish out of water. How could I possibly speak to this group of people when I didn’t share their unique loss? I was fearful of having no credibility or unintentionally offending them with presumption.

I am happy to say that all went well that night. However, the greatest blessing for me was the opportunity to gain a better understanding of my friends, Casey and Cindy. Prior to that night, I really didn’t get it. I did not understand the full significance of their losing a child, and how this event deeply shaped them as people. As I stepped into their world and watched them interact with others who were suffering a similar heartbreak, I began to understand an important part of their identity.

Has this ever happened to you? You thought you knew almost everything about someone but were missing something important. something that you could only discover by stepping into their world.

 

Resurrection as Disorienting

Well, this happened to the disciples too in their relationship with Jesus.

According to the gospels, Jesus told the disciples that he was going to die and be raised from the dead by God, but by all accounts, they just didn’t get it. It is not that resurrection was a completely foreign concept (it already had a history in their native religion, Judaism), but when Jesus talked about it they did not understand the significance of what he was saying. It did not seem to affect how they saw Jesus or how they lived their lives . . . until they discovered an empty tomb.

This was a confusing, disorienting, and terrifying discovery. Since we know the whole story as recorded in scripture, we tend to see the resurrection as the solution to all life’s problems, but this was not the case for the early Christians. Their experience of the empty tomb did not function as a solution but created a whole new set of problems that, up to that point, they did not have. At first, they did not understand what was happening—they did not get it.

 

The Original Ending of Mark

It is difficult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of the disciples. We forget that no one in the ancient world had their own copy of the Bible. We forget that there was a time when the early Christians did not have the New Testament because it had not been written yet. Furthermore, we forget how these books came to be, one at a time, and that even after they were written the early Christians had limited access to a few handwritten copies passed around in house-churches. For these reasons (and many more), it’s difficult for modern people to read the gospels from the perspective of their original audience. However, there is much to be learned by this imaginative effort.

For this article, I am most interested in the Gospel of Mark, which was the first gospel to be written. At the time of composition, there was no Matthew, Luke, or John. Furthermore, the oldest manuscripts of Mark end at chapter 16, verse 8. If you have a study Bible that is informed by modern scholarship, the textual notes will alert you to this fact as well as the two different endings that were added later.

For whatever reason, after the Gospel of Mark was written, the early church was not satisfied with its original ending. Thus, a short addition was added in which the women tell the disciples about the empty tomb and the resurrected Jesus appears to them. As time went on, this ending did not satisfy either, because the early church came back and added an even longer ending, which made it sound more like Matthew and Luke.

Remembering that there was a time when the earliest Christians only had one gospel, the Gospel of Mark, let us try to hear the original ending without filling-in the blanks with the additions or other gospels.

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. [THE END.] (Mark 16:1-8).

Do you see why the church may have found this ending inadequate, especially since there were no other gospels to fill out the story? The truth is, we probably do not like this ending either. However, there is much to be learned if we try to imagine that we are hearing this gospel for the first time, that this is the only gospel we have, and that this is the only ending we have. What could this teach us about the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection?

 

Resurrection as Invitation

As mentioned above, the empty tomb by itself does not answer questions, it raises questions. According to the story in Mark, it evokes fear, amazement, and confusion, leaving the women stunned and asking, “What in the world is going on here?” The empty tomb and the claim that Jesus has been raised from the dead created a problem for the earliest witnesses. It apparently raised so many questions and evoked so much fear that they refused to tell anyone about it!

Knowing their initial response, the man in white apparel gives them further instruction: Go and tell the disciples, and then go to Galilee, because the risen Jesus goes ahead of you and “there you will see him, just as he told you.” If they want to see the risen Jesus, they must leave the empty tomb and go to where he is—ahead of them.

Importantly, Galilee is not a town or a city, but a region. It is the region where Jesus spent most of his time serving the poor, marginalized, vulnerable, and rejected. So, the angel seems to be saying: There is only one way for you to begin to understand the empty tomb, one way to begin to understand what resurrection might mean, one way to trade your fear for wisdom—to personally encounter the resurrected Jesus for yourself. And the only way that you can do this is to go where he went, to do what he did, and to serve who he served. If you do this, then you will encounter Jesus and will finally start to get it. By serving the friends of Jesus, you will come to know in the deepest part of your being that, somehow and in some way, Jesus is still alive and at work in this world.

As it was with the disciples, so it is with us.

However, just because the claim, “Jesus is alive,” strikes us as true does not mean that we have it all figured out. What is interesting about deep truth, wherever we find it, is that it creates a weird experience in which we believe that something is true, but we are not exactly sure how it is true. Why? Because the most profound truths of the universe are beyond human understanding, beyond human categories, language, and explanation. In this way, the dawning awareness that something is true serves as an invitation to a process of discovery in which we gradually get glimpses of what this truth might possibly mean.

According to the Gospel of Mark, this is what the divine messenger does for the women who discover the empty tomb, at least in the original ending. He doesn’t answer all their questions or give them miraculous knowledge. Rather, he invites them to a way of life in which they can (1) come to believe that the resurrection is in some sense true, and (2) enter a process of discovery that will help them see how it is true. In my own experience, when we gain this kind of deep insight through personal experience, how something is true can be surprising. It might be true in a way we never expected.

 

Challenge

When Christians say that Jesus was raised from the dead, they are saying that Jesus is still alive and at work in the world today. He is still out ahead of us with his friends, abiding with the poor, outcast, rejected, and vulnerable—with those who suffer. If we want to encounter the risen Christ, if we want to understand him and his resurrection, then we must go where he went, do what he did, and serve the people that he served. We must step into his world and see it as he does. This is the only way that anyone can make sense of the resurrection and truly come to believe it. Just like I could not really understand Casey and Cindy until I stepped into their world and served their friends, I cannot truly come to know Jesus and his resurrection until I imitate his life in ministry to his friends. It is in their eyes that we meet the risen Christ, come to believe that he is still alive today, and get glimpses of what this might possibly mean.

The resurrection is an invitation to a way of life that ends-up being a process of discovery.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as I learn the stories of Jesus, empower me to go where he went, to do what he did, and to serve the people he served so that I may come to believe and understand his resurrection.

 

(This post is the fourteenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

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Dying to Live: Suffering for a Higher Purpose

A few weeks ago, I was in the gym and noticed a guy working with a personal trainer. He was doing an abdominal circuit, and after a few supersets of planks and crunches he started groaning in pain. Now I work out, but my routine is not as intense because I have two simple goals: to not look fat in clothes, and to stay fit enough to surf. So, as I watched this guy, I thought, “Why would anyone submit themselves to this?” Then it occurred to me, he has different goals. Like my friends who do CrossFit, some people push themselves to the limit, enduring discomfort and pain, because they want to get in the best shape possible for their age and body type. If that were my goal, I would probably be doing the same.

Indeed, most of us are willing to make sacrifices and endure pain for a higher purpose. Think about the sacrifices that parents make for their children, that students make for a degree, that professionals make for their careers, that soldiers make for their country, or that missionaries make for the mission of Jesus.

 

Choosing Suffering for a Higher Purpose

All of us experience suffering that we don’t choose, and when this happens we try to stay close to God and do our best to handle it with faith and maturity. In the process, we hope to learn important lessons, grow spiritually, and become better people.

But not all suffering is forced upon us. Sometimes we choose it in service to a higher purpose. This is certainly true as we seek to follow Jesus, who says in Mark 8:34-35:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Jesus is saying that sometimes we are called to choose suffering, to carry a cross, to experience a kind of death. Furthermore, he teaches that there are at least two higher purposes that empower us to be obedient.

First, suffering can serve as a catalyst for our own spiritual transformation. It can help us become more compassionate, loving, kind, wise, strong, virtuous, and faithful. It can help us become more like Jesus. Part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus is to choose a life of self-sacrificial love.

I’ve heard countless testimonies of how people felt closer to God when going through suffering than in any other time of their life, and how God used their pain to change them in positive ways. While they didn’t necessarily enjoy the pain, they felt called to take-up a cross, and by faithfully carrying it became a better version of themselves. God expanded their capacity for compassion and gratitude, which helped them to live with more purpose, value, meaning, and joy. In short, when we are called to travel the road of suffering and are obedient, we can learn many lessons that make our lives better in the long run.

Second, God can use our suffering to help accomplish God’s great rescue mission of this world. The biggest source of inspiration for me in becoming a more faithful follower of Jesus has been other Christians. Not heroes of the faith, but ordinary men and women who handle great adversity and pain with grace, patience, and courage. These living and breathing examples of Christ inspire me to step-up my commitment and be more faithful in my own devotion and service. In this way, God uses our suffering, especially the way we move through it, to help and inspire others, which is one important way that God transforms the world.

In summary, if we are going to take-up our cross and follow Jesus, then we need a clear vision of a higher purpose, something that is compelling an inspiring, something that is bigger than ourselves. According to scripture, that higher purpose is spiritual transformation, which not only makes our own lives more meaningful but also makes us useful in God’s great rescue mission of this world.

The best example of this is Jesus himself. To accomplish his mission and serve the greater purposes of God, he was required to choose suffering. The gospels make clear that no one took Jesus’ life from him, but he willingly laid it down for the salvation of the world. This was so counterintuitive that Peter, one of his greatest disciples, refused to even consider the idea, pulling Jesus aside and rebuking him in private. Turning to his disciples, he scolded Peter: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind on human things not divine things” (Mark 8:31-33). Jesus continued by teaching the disciples that if they wanted a life worth living then they had to be willing to suffer, to take up a cross; that they must crucify their ego and completely surrender to God. And Jesus didn’t just teach this, he also lived it to the end, even to the point of death on a (literal) cross.

Following the example of Jesus, many others have witnessed to these truths about sacrifice and suffering. Think of all the biblical characters who illustrate the value of suffering for a higher purpose, people like Abraham, Mary, Peter, and Paul. Think also of the great cloud of witnesses throughout Christian history, culminating in our time with people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, and Martin Luther King Jr. And think of all the faithful Christians with whom we have the privileged of sharing life even to this day.

As we learn and meditate on these stories and countless others, we get a clear vision of the higher purposes of discipleship, especially during seasons of suffering. They remind us of some essential truths:

  • God will not allow our suffering to last forever. It’s only for a season.
  • Our suffering is not meaningless, nor is it in vain. While God does not cause our suffering, he certainly finds ways to use it for our own transformation and that of the world.
  • God suffers with us, so we never face our pain alone.
  • God gives us everything we need to move through suffering with grace, maturity, and faithfulness, and when we fail God offers grace and forgiveness.
  • Our suffering will eventually give way to joy.

These are the promises of God that together generate a vision of a higher purpose that empowers us to choose the way of self-sacrificial love. Without them our suffering becomes meaningless and death-dealing. Without them we’ll never be able to faithfully follow Jesus during seasons of great suffering and learn the lessons therein.

 

The Dialectic of Suffering and Hope

All of this leads to an important truth: we should never collapse the tension in Christian life between suffering and hope, because that tension is creative and transformative.

It is true that all of us experience suffering, and part of what it means to be a Christian is to learn how to handle our suffering in a Christlike way. Wisdom teaches that we should expect suffering, so we can prepare for it. However, Christianity cannot be reduced to suffering, nor does it seek to glorify suffering in and of itself. It never has the last word in the Kingdom of God. There is never a cross without an empty tomb, never a death without a resurrection. Christianity is about the good news that love wins, life wins, God wins, and when we talk about the necessity of suffering it’s always in the context of God’s ultimate victory over sin, evil, and death. Therefore, as we anticipate and prepare for seasons of suffering, as we take-up our cross and follow Jesus, it’s important to remind ourselves of the higher purposes of God. Suffering without hope leads to an unproductive and death-dealing despair that has no place in the Kingdom of God. Likewise, hope without sacrifice leads to empty wishing, and joy without an honest acknowledgement of suffering leads to a kind of sentimentality that make it hard to take Christianity seriously.

True Christianity acknowledges the truth and importance of both suffering and hope, holding them in productive tension. As we live in this tension, as well as that of law and grace and love and justice, God recreates us in the image of Jesus and gives us the possibility of a truly good life.

 

Challenge

Remember the words of Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Where do you find yourself in all of this? Is God calling you to something higher? Is there a sacrifice you need to make or a season of suffering you need to endure to achieve the higher purposes of God? Do you need to get into recovery, spend some time grieving losses in therapy, do some painful emotional work with your spouse or kids, give-up something that is blocking your own spiritual growth, sacrifice more time for deeper spiritual practice, or make a major decision that you’ve putting off too long?

We are all in different places on the disciples’ path, and God calls us to different seasons at different times. Only you know what God is calling you to do. In your own discernment process, remember that God is with you, and that if you stay close to Jesus and move forward with faith then your suffering will not be in vain. God will use it to transform you and others. Remember the promises of God and allow the hope transmitted therein to give you want you need to keep moving forward in ways that are life-giving and productive.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, show me your will, and give me the courage to carry it out, even if it requires taking up a cross.

 

(This post is the twelfth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

Suffering, Confession, & Repentance

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’”

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  (Mark 1:1-5)

 

A Call to Repentance

The gospel of Mark begins with the announcement of good news to a people enduring great suffering. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not begin with a birth narrative. Rather he jumps right to a message that the people needed to hear: you do not suffer alone; God suffers with you. This is communicated by evoking a prophecy in Isaiah of a suffering servant sent by God to save his people, and by suggesting that Jesus is the fulfillment of this prophecy.

The appropriate response upon hearing this good news is to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” which seems odd. Why would the first message to a brutalized people be a call to repentance? At first glance, this may seem like victim blaming. What exactly are the sins from which they need to repent?

Remember that when Rome burned in 64 C.E., Emperor Nero blamed the Christians and a mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on every door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Jesus follower. If a believer was identified, either by admission or because of someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified, then those living there were required to name someone else living elsewhere. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day.[i]

As they were subject to unimaginable horror, some people acted out of character, doing things that they deeply regretted. Some denied Jesus by denying their faith. Others betrayed friends to save their own families. Resentment and hatred poisoned their hearts in the face of unjust violence.

These are some of the sins from which they needed to repent because they created heavy burdens of shame. Seen in this way, repentance was a gift from God insofar as it provided a release from these burdens through the process of forgiveness. They needed to forgive themselves, as well as their family, friends, community, and enemies to move forward, live full lives, and be transformed into the image of Christ, the suffering servant.

According to the Gospel of Mark, the arrival of Jesus the Messiah makes all this possible because he baptizes the repentant with the Holy Spirit, the one who empowers us to find freedom through repentance and forgiveness, both of which are miracles of God’s grace.

 

Suffering, Self-Discovery, and Forgiveness

In my own experience, suffering functions to peel away layers of old beliefs, thoughts, and patterns of action that cloud a true understanding of our pain. So often we don’t really know the source of our pain or what drives it because our understanding is distorted by false assumptions and stories we tell ourselves that are simply not true. Suffering can initiate a process of self-discovery that strips away the things that deceive so we can get to the roots of our suffering, which is the only place where true healing can happen.

However, this itself is a painful process. When our illusions and defense mechanisms are stripped away, we are required to face the fullness of our suffering. This is experienced as a kind of death—the death of ego. Many try to shorten this process by rushing forgiveness, as if it were a momentary decision of the will: “I forgive you. Yes, yes, all is fine now.” But all is not fine because forgiveness has not really happened. Rather this is an exercise in denial that sweeps the wrongdoing under the rug and prevents authentic forgiveness, which includes naming and condemning the offense, grieving losses, processing resentment, converting bitterness into compassion, and reassessing the boundaries in the relationship. Although denial may appear to work for a little while, over time it proves to be another deception that must be stripped away by suffering, so we can get in touch with deeper currents of anger, pain, and shame. Healing from brokenness and betrayal, the kind inflicted on us by others and the kind we inflict on ourselves, is a process that takes time. It cannot be rushed. And part of this process involves the confession of sin and repentance.

This is hard to hear when you’ve been the target of mistreatment or abuse. We must be very careful not to blame victims for offenses inflicted on them by others. (See the comments below on appropriate and inappropriate guilt.) But even truly innocent victims sometimes discover that they need to repent from their reaction to the offense. For example, some retaliate with violence, repaying evil with evil, while others nurse resentment for years.

These examples illustrate a more general truth: it’s hard to focus on our part in wrongdoing when our part is very small. Except in extreme cases of victimization, we usually bear some responsibility in the conflict we experience with others. Sometimes our part is easy to see because we’re mostly to blame, or at least a 50/50 participant. But when the offense of another is pronounced and obvious, it can eclipse the small ways that we may have contributed, making it appear as if the other person is 100% to blame.

Imagine having a difficult conversation with someone where you honestly spoke the truth in love. He gets furious and retaliates by mistreating you for months, trashing you behind your back to anyone who will listen. Resisting the temptation to repay insult for insult, you remain loving and continue to act morally. Then, one day, after a particularly nasty attack, you lose your temper and send an email in which you speak more truth, but this time it’s in anger not love. You’ve had enough, and your primary goal is to hurt him in the same way he has hurt you. Your enemy then takes the email and makes it public to continue hurting you. The wrong doing of this disgruntled man is so obvious and prolonged that it is easy to saddle him with 100% of the blame. By highlighting his gross wrong doing, you can eclipse your own small part and act as if you’re totally innocent. But if you want to be healed and spiritually transformed, you must own your part, even if it’s so small in comparison that it’s hard to see. Indeed, even if the other person is 99% to blame, you still must confess and repent of your 1%.

 

Understanding Confession and Repentance

But what do we mean by confession and repentance? Neither one of these spiritual practices can be reduced to a fleeting memory of wrongdoing acknowledged by an obligatory, “I’m sorry.” Many of us know from experience how these words can be used to avoid the natural consequences of bad action.

In contrast, true confession is about making a searching and fearless moral inventory. By seriously reflecting on the full scope of our wrongdoing, we gain a better understanding of the nature of our offense, what causes and motivates it, and what negative consequences ensue for everyone involved. Having done this, true repentance requires us to feel the pain we have caused others through genuine empathy, so when we say the words, “I’m sorry,” they are heartfelt. After connecting with the pain we’ve caused others, true repentance also requires us to fully accept the consequences of our actions, to become willing to make amends, and to commitment to addressing the roots of our problem so we can make lasting positive changes. Taken together, confession and repentance expose the character defects that drive our sin, putting us in a position to receive healing and liberation.

It’s important to note that repentance is not about self-hatred or beating ourselves up. Just as we seek to be compassionate with others, we also seek to be compassionate with ourselves. Just as we seek to forgive others, we also seek to forgive ourselves. This means that while we should accept the appropriate guilt that we deserve, we should not accept inappropriate guilt that we do not. This requires good boundaries because some people will try to blame us for things we haven’t done or manipulate us into assuming a disproportionate amount of the blame. But honesty cuts both ways. Just as we should not try to hide or deny our contribution (no matter how small), nor should we accept blame that does not belong to us, or the false narratives spun to legitimate the offering of inappropriate guilt.

 

Challenge

True repentance is an exercise in honesty, a gift from God in the larger process of forgiveness that can heal our pain and set us free for deep spiritual transformation. So, if you are suffering today because of sin, either your own or someone else’s, then remember that God has given us a way out. It takes time to work through confession, repentance, and forgiveness, but if you stay close to Jesus and get the help you need, your pain will not last forever. As you heal you will experience fundamental changes that will serve you well on the path to freedom, peace, and joy.

How your pain changes you is partly dependent on your willingness to deal with it in God’s way.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, help me to be honest about my own wrongdoing so that I can truly repent and be set free. Forgive my sin, heal my pain, and empower me to forgive others.

___________________________________

[i] Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind: The Four Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation (Journey of Quadratos, LLC: Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2017), 131.

 

(This post is the tenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John Shaia. Each post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

Preparing for Stormy Seas: The Necessity and Gift of Suffering

Context for the Gospel of Mark: The Burning of Rome

On July 19 in the year 64 C.E., a fire broke out in Rome. It lasted several days, killing many and reducing most of the great city to embers. The emperor at the time, Nero, had previously proposed to demolish and rebuild most of the city in a classical manner, so rumors spread that he started the fire to make it easier to proceed with his plans. As a result, Nero came under attack by his senators. He needed someone to blame, so he scapegoated the Jews. His ploy was believable because most Jews lived on the outskirts of town across a river, and because of their location were untouched by the fire.

Word spread quickly among the Jews and fear spiraled out of control as they anticipated mass suffering at the hand of brutal tyrant. Desperate to avoid Nero’s wrath, some Jews went to the emperor and accused a fringe group of setting the fire, the Messianic Jews who followed Jesus. Nero’s response was horrific. He demanded that the larger Jewish community collaborate with Roman soldiers to identity Christians, and to save their own families they agreed. “A mini-genocide ensued. Roman soldiers knocked on each door of the Jewish quarter demanding to know if anyone in the house was a Christ believer. The answer determined the fate of the householder and everyone else in that house.”[i] If a believer was identified, either by admission or someone else’s testimony, everyone in the house was publicly executed. Most were led into the Circus Maximus, chained to the floor, splattered with blood, and eaten alive by starved dogs. If the soldiers came to a house and no one was identified as a Christian, then those living there were forced to name someone else, who was then seized and executed without trial. Neighbor turned against neighbor as self-preservation became the order of the day. In the end, the Christian community in Rome was destroyed.

It is hard to imagine this horror. The Messianic Jews were betrayed by their own people to mass murder. The Christians who escaped and those who lived in neighboring areas were isolated in a sea of terror, fear, persecution, and death. It must have been hard to believe in the promises of Jesus, especially since their slaughter was the result of their belief.

Most scholars date the Gospel of Mark to around 70 C.E., and while its audience is debated, it certainly fits the situation of the early Christians who were recovering from the aftermath of unimaginable cruelty. As such, it gives guidance to Jesus followers regarding how to faithfully navigate fear, resentment, hatred, persecution, and suffering.

 

The Gospel of Mark and the Second Path of the Quadratos.

As the Gospel of Mark addresses the question of how we move through suffering, thereby disclosing the second path of the Quadratos.[ii]  Those who walk the road to transformation sometimes feel like they are in a small boat on a stormy sea. “The winds and water lash at us as we are tossed about in a gray, horizon less [sic.], directionless world.”[iii] We’ve gone too far to return to the beginning, but we’re not sure how to discern the best way forward either. As we stand facing the horizon, Mark reminds us of a hard truth: sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Suffering is to be expected and is a necessary part of our spiritual growth. But, Mark also reminds us that suffering is only for a season and that there are reliable spiritual practices that can help us along the way. We endure by praying, listening, and acting accordingly.

 

Good News in Suffering

Given all that we know about the context, audience, and theme of the Gospel of Mark, one might think that it would begin with a sobering word of caution, something like, “Buckle-up buttercup because it is about to get really bad!” But it doesn’t. In stark contrast, it reads, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1, emphasis added). I can imagine a Christian living in Rome around 70 C.E. saying, “Good news? What good news?” The Messianic Jews didn’t appear to have much to celebrate. Even though they decided to follow Jesus, their obedience to the call threatened their lives and resulted in the senseless murder of family and friends.

Nevertheless, Mark begins with the proclamation of good news. While all the evidence may seem to suggest that the teachings of Jesus are an exercise in empty wishing, we hear the voice of a cloud of witnesses: God’s promises are true. It may not look like it or feel like it, but God is faithful, and your suffering will not have the last word—that is reserved for redemption. Mark reminds us that we follow one who not only shows us the way forward but also understands our pain, because he has experienced it too. He walks with us and suffers with us, so that we will have everything we need to move through it.

An important truth revealed in Mark is that we cannot bypass suffering.  We must go through it. Suffering is a necessary part of our spiritual transformation because there are lessons that can only be learned as we wrestle with pain. But the good news is that God will see us through, and our faithfulness will be a contribution to God’s great rescue mission of this world. By beginning with the proclamation of good news, Mark is telling us to gather our strength and hope by remembering the promises of God, which help us understand our suffering as part of a larger divine process.

Although we will learn many important lessons and develop many helpful tools in our study of Mark, it is important to remember something from the very beginning. There is not only good news despite our suffering, or in the face of our suffering, or at the end of our suffering. There is also a gift in the suffering insofar as it helps us get in touch with what is most essential about our faith.

Since so many Christians in America experience a life of ease, which can function to distort the gospel message, it is often helpful to ask, for what are we willing to suffer? For what are we willing to be persecuted? For what are we willing to die?

Many of us are born, then born again, and die in comfort. As those living in a country founded on religious freedom, most of us will never face the terror of the early Christians. Indeed, the very idea of martyrdom has become unintelligible for most American Christians.[iv] This is not only the case for individual Christians, but the church has the luxury of dodging these questions too. Even though some influential Christian groups cry persecution as a political strategy, these claims smack with absurdity when considering what our brothers and sisters have endured through the ages, and even now in places like Syria.

It seems to me that we are most lax in our faith and divided in our beliefs when life is good. Individuals and churches that enjoy wealth and influence are tempted to misuse these gifts for selfish gain, squabbling over trivial matters and confusing the essentials of faith with political agendas. This can be clearly seen in our current context in which many people who profess to follow Jesus have all but completely abandoned his teachings and the value system of the Kingdom of God.

But persecution—real persecution—has a way of parsing, sifting, and separating that which is essential and non-essential in the Christian faith. When facing torture and death, you don’t have time to quibble over extraneous or peripheral issues. And while many of us will never face torture and death because of our faith, all of us will eventually suffer as a result of our decision to follow Jesus. Mark helps us to see that this suffering, understood in the right context, can be a gift insofar as it cuts to the core of what we really believe and shows us what we are made of.

Listening to the words of Jesus while enduring a season of suffering reminds us that Christianity is not a social club, a non-profit relief group, or a political action committee. It is not one collection of ancient teachings among others from which we can pick and choose to build our own philosophy of life. Rather, when Jesus says, “Follow me,” he bids us to come and die.

Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life[b] will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Mark 8:34-37)

Jesus is saying, I want you to base your entire life on the truths I am proclaiming and to believe it so deeply that you practice it even when it requires you to lose everything. Given the hostile environment in which these words were recorded, we can say that Jesus was not speaking metaphorically. It is no coincidence that the word for witness in the early church was the same word for martyr, because being a Christian meant staking your life on the gospel of Jesus.

When we face the prospect of acute suffering because of our decision to follow Jesus, these teachings once again dawn on our consciousness, and if we do not quickly dismiss them they create an opportunity to wrestle with the question, “Do I really believe this stuff?” Human beings have an incredible capacity for self-deception. In terms of our faith, we often say that we believe something only for the truth of that claim to be questioned by the prospect of sacrifice. Suffering has a way of cutting through self-deception and getting us in touch with what we really believe in our heart of hearts, what we are willing to sacrifice, suffer, and even die for. Suffering can function as a kind of refining fire, separating the essentials from the non-essentials and giving us a gut check regarding our commitment to the essentials.

This is the way our ego is crucified so that our true self can be resurrected. This is the path to honesty, which is the path to humility, which makes true faithfulness possible. But this path is not easy. It is the most difficult part of our journey toward transformation, and we need the wisdom of the Gospel of Mark to illuminate our way and give us the tools we need to make it through. This will be the focus of our reflection in the weeks to come.

 

Challenge

But for now, it is important to gather our strength by remembering that we live in the power of good news even when experiencing deep suffering, and that the suffering itself can help us get in touch with what is most important, true, and helpful about our faith. In this way, we gain sound footing on the difficult road that lies ahead.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as dark, rumbling clouds approach the horizon and waves begin to beat against the boat, remind us of your faithfulness and give us the courage to trust your ability to get us to the other side.

 

(This post is the ninth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[i] This account of the burning of Rome and the scapegoating of Christians is taken from Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind (Journey of Quadratos: Santa Fe, 2017) 130-132.

[ii] Ibid., “Crossing Mark’s Stormy Sea.”

[iii] Ibid. 128.

[iv] See Mark Reynolds, “Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?”

You Don’t Walk Alone: Change, Spiritual Journeys, & Resurrection  

The Greek Philosopher, Heraclitus, is quoted as saying, “The only thing that is constant is change.” Most of us know this from experience, even though we tend to resist change because it requires us to grieve losses and navigate countless unknowns.

When we decide to make a change, or one is thrust upon us, we typically do one of two things: cling to the past in fear or find the courage to move through it. While it is hard to admit, resisting change keeps us stuck in unproductive ways of living and ultimately proves to be a fruitless enterprise. Things are going to change whether we like it or not, and if we do not develop flexibility and learn to adapt it is at our own peril. In contrast, accepting change and courageously stepping into the future creates the necessary conditions for human beings to learn, grow, and experience a deeper sense of meaning.

Additionally, as Christians, we believe that God is at work in the world, giving us clear ideals and luring us into ways of being that make the realization of these ideals possible. So, when Christians face change, we not only see the potential for emotional growth, but for spiritual growth too. When God calls us in a new direction, it is an opportunity to better serve God’s mission in the world and realize God’s dream for our lives. We are given eyes to see meaning, purpose, and directionality in change as we embark on new spiritual journeys.

 

Challenges of Change

However, we also know that navigating change is no easy task, especially when considering a variety of predictable challenges. We will be tempted to disassociate from the parts of our story that evoke embarrassment or shame, cutting us off from important lessons that can be learned only by reflecting on our failures. We will experience fear of the unknown, tempting us to return to old ways of living that no longer help us become the person God is calling us to be. We will be tempted to misuse God’s good gifts to escape pain and secure worldly success. The value system of the world will try to lure us off the path of discipleship, causing us to forget who we are as children of God. As we face unknowns and experience anxiety, we will be tempted to abandon personal responsibility by blindly submitting to religious authority. Instead of encouraging us to follow our hearts, people we love may betray us.

Taken together, these challenges can feel overwhelming, even for the most seasoned and mature travelers. So how do we faithfully navigate these challenges on our quest for spiritual transformation?

First, we remember that learning to deal with these trials in graceful and faithful ways takes a long time. It includes lots of trial and error, success and failure. We are going to mess-up—often—but the real question is whether we will learn from our mistakes and get a little better each time. Those who have gone before us say that we will never survive the process of maturation unless we are gentle with ourselves. Second, it always helps to have good traveling companions, which is one of the benefits of joining a healthy community of faith. Some people will feel threatened by our transformation and try to pull us backwards. Without a community of people on a similar journey to encourage and support us, it’s difficult to keep moving forward. As the Beatles knew, we get by with a little help from our friends. Third, we must stay close to Jesus.

 

Staying Close to Jesus: The Gift of Resurrection

When considering the possibility of staying close to Jesus, it helps to reflect on the story of the resurrection in the Gospel of Matthew, because it reminds us that we do not walk alone. The resurrected Jesus is always present through the power of his Spirit doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Even when we feel completely isolated it is not because God is absent but because, for whatever reason, we have been rendered blind, deaf, or numb to the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus calls us to a life of discipleship, which is a life of radical transformation. He also shows us the way to be transformed by his life and teaching. But there is more to the story because this same Jesus was raised from the dead by God, is eternally present through his Spirit, and gives us the power to faithfully walk the path of transformation and experience real change. Remember his last words in the Matthew: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus does not leave us orphaned. We never walk alone.

This is certainly good news because no one can faithfully navigate change without God’s help. People who have recovered from addiction provide great testimony to this truth. While we need good friends to encourage and support us, there are things we need on our journey that only God can provide.

Indeed, as we stay close to Jesus and wrestle with change, he gives us many important gifts. As we face the pain and shame in the dark parts of our story, Jesus gives us the gift of redemption. As we face our fears of the unknown, Jesus give us courage. As we resist the temptation to misuse God’s good gifts to escape pain or secure worldly success, Jesus gives us faith. As we resist the value system of the world and embrace the value system of the Kingdom of God, Jesus gives us wisdom. As we question religious authority and learn to author our own lives, Jesus gives us honesty and authenticity. As we heal from the brokenness of betrayal, Jesus gives us compassion and restoration.

Redemption, courage, faith, wisdom, honesty, compassion, and restoration, these are awesome gifts that not only help us begin our journey toward transformation but also prepare us for what lies ahead.

 

Challenge

In conclusion, there are a few things that will help us faithfully navigate change. First, and most importantly, stay close to Jesus by committing to a daily practice of reflection, meditation, and prayer. These spiritual disciplines do not save us or inoculate us from suffering, but they do create space for us to reconnect with God and become more aware of God’s perpetual presence. Second, secure a trusted spiritual director or soul friend who can serve as a good travel guide and connect with a group of friends that will support and encourage your spiritual evolution. Third, take stock of all the gifts that God has already created in you as a result of diligent struggle with trial and temptation, and allow these gifts to generate the courage, hope, and strength required for the next leg of your journey.

 

Prayer

Gracious God give me wisdom to know where you are leading and what needs to change in my life. As I do my best to stay close to Jesus and faithfully navigate the challenges of change, create in me the spiritual gifts needed to keep moving forward. Amen.

 

(This post is the eighth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

Responding to Betrayal: The Ongoing Obligations of Love

An Outlaw Pastor: Rob Bell

Rob Bell was born on August 23, 1970 to a family that was deeply committed to the evangelical movement in America. His father, a U.S. District Judge appointed to the federal bench by Ronald Regan, worked with Jerry Falwell to start the Moral Majority, a political organization that played a key role in mobilizing conservative Christians in the 1980s.

After finishing high school, Rob went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Wheaton College and, after experiencing a call to ministry, a Master of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary. As a young pastor, he was mentored by Ed Dobson at Calvary Church in Grand Rapids Michigan before going on to start Mars Hills Bible Church in 1999.

While his new church started with a few hundred people, within a few years it grew to over 10,000 in Sunday morning worship. By all metrics, Rob’s ministry was wildly successful, but at the same time he wrestled with difficult questions that emerged through deep study of the Bible and critical reflection on his own experience. Through this honest struggle, he eventually realized that he could no longer accept some of the central tenants of American evangelicalism, such as the infallibility of scripture. He also felt uneasy about the cozy relationship between evangelicals and neo-conservative politicians. As the insights kept coming they had a cumulative affect that launched him on a new spiritual journey.

Authenticity became a hallmark of Rob’s ministry which impacted his preaching and teaching. He decided to be honest with his congregation regarding his spiritual questions and to only preach about things he had experienced firsthand. While some found his transparency refreshing, others found it threatening, which led to conflicts at Mars Hill. For example, in 2003 he gave a message series on the equality of women, and some of the church leaders tried to have him fired. When he decided to empower women to serve in church leadership roles, worship attendance dropped by 2,000.

While these experiences were painful, Rob didn’t turn back, and his relationship with Mars Hills reached a turning point in 2011 after publishing Love Wins, a controversial book that questioned traditional teachings on hell. He was quickly labeled a heretic in evangelical circles and within a year decided to leave his church in Michigan to pursue other avenues of ministry in Los Angeles, California.

While many people at Rob’s church lovingly supported his spiritual transformation, others were not as encouraging. Before leaving Mars Hills, some wealthy church members tried to leverage him with money to return to the standard evangelical message, the old “we will take our money and leave if you don’t do what we want” trick. Remembering this betrayal, he said in an interview, “It broke me, but it also gave me this nuclear engine of resolve to keep going.”[i]

Rob has certainly landed on his feet, writing numerous books, preaching and teaching in sold-out auditoriums, broadcasting a popular podcast, and making the list of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. But this didn’t happen overnight, and it certainly wasn’t easy. He was treated horribly by people who once declared him their torch bearer, launching smear campaigns on television, radio, social media, and public speaking. Some of the very people that he led to Jesus called his faith into question, accused him of being a false teacher, and publicly protested his speaking engagements.

Amid all the hostility, Rob didn’t lash-out in anger or check-out in resignation. Rather, he remained true to himself, true to his relationship with God, and true to the values of the gospel as he understood them. In this way, he serves a real-life example of someone who has walked the first path of the Quadratos; someone who has accepted the call to a new spiritual journey, struggled with fears of the unknown, navigated big change, and responded to hatred with compassion and equanimity. Regardless of what you think about the specifics of his teaching, Rob is a good example of how to follow Jesus in the face of betrayal.

 

Being Betrayed: Jesus

Most people, whether they regularly attend church or not, can tell you that Jesus was betrayed by a man named Judas, but when we dive into the details of the story as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, we discover some helpful lessons for the first path of the Quadratos.

One of these lessons is not to be surprised by betrayal. In certain ways, it’s to be expected when we embark on a new spiritual journey that subverts old ways of thinking, believing, and acting.

It certainly didn’t surprise Jesus. At the Last Supper, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.” Upon hearing this, the disciples became “greatly distressed” and said one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?” Jesus answered, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me” (Matthew 26:21-23). This is clearly a foreshadowing of Judas’ betrayal (vv. 14-16, 47-50), but Jesus knew that Judas would not be the only one. In first century Palestine, meals were typically served from a common bowl. Each person around the table would tear a piece of bread, shape it into a scoop, and reach into the bowl for food. Since everyone at the Last Supper would have dipped their hand in the bowl, Jesus was not only foreshadowing Judas’ betrayal but that of all his disciples.[ii]

We see this play out in the story of Jesus’ passion. He predicted that Peter would deny him three times (Matthew 26:33-34), and he did (vv. 69-75). He predicted that all his disciples would become deserters (v. 31), and they did. According to Matthew, none of the disciples were at the foot of the cross, only the women.

Jesus expected betrayal, and this allowed him to prepare for it. Instead of being surprised and compulsively reacting to emotional triggers, he saw it coming and prepared to respond with intentional acts of love. In this way, he navigated between two common pitfalls.

First, Jesus did not retaliate with a spirit of resentment.

When Judas appeared in Gethsemane with a large crowd to apprehend Jesus and then betrayed him with a kiss, Jesus said, “Friend, do what you are here to do.”

Did you catch that? Jesus addressed Judas as friend, the man who sold him down the river for thirty pieces of silver. As Alexander John Shaia explains, “By using this address, he completely embodies the principles he taught in the Sermon on the Mount, returning nothing but the greatest love and respect even when it [was] not offered to him.”[iii] The betrayal didn’t change who he was—he remained true to himself and faithful to God. Instead of lashing out in punitive anger, Jesus responded with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity.

Second, when experiencing the pain of betrayal, Jesus did not disconnect from himself or those who betrayed him as a way of escaping the hard work of reconciliation. How often do we do this? Someone betrays us, and we disconnect from ourselves in mindless distractions and disconnect from them by pretending they don’t exist. If we happen to encounter them after the betrayal, it’s easy to ignore them in hopes that the conflict will simply go away. Isolation, denial, hiding, pretending, ignoring, blaming—all are attempts to escape the ongoing obligations of love.

But Jesus didn’t do this. He didn’t hide from those who betrayed him. Nor did he disconnect from himself, which can be seen when he was hanging on the cross and rejected the offer of gall (a bitter substance mixed with wine to deaden pain). He chose to remain fully awake, “to face and feel every moment with an open mind, heart, and body . . .”[iv] He stayed connected to his own experience, so he could continue to practice the gospel in the presence of those who were seeking to destroy him.

Interestingly, the two pitfalls of lashing-out and checking-out are different ways of acting-out a victim mentality. But Jesus would have none of this. Even in the depth of betrayal, humiliation, and suffering, he refused to see himself as a victim. He not only expected betrayal, he accepted it as a natural consequence of choosing the way of love in a fallen world.

In Luke 9:51 we read, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, Jesus made a conscious decision to walk into the holy city knowing it would be the beginning of the end. Resolute in his mission, he accepted the predictable consequences of speaking truth to power: betrayal, torture, and death. Likewise, in the Gospel of John, Jesus is recorded saying, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (10:18).

Since he refused to see himself as a victim, he had no to need to punish people with anger or disconnect in fear. By refusing victimhood, he could continue acting with intentionality according to the law of love. This is a great example to us as we too experience betrayal on the first path of the Quadratos.

Like Jesus, we should expect betrayal so that we can prepare for it. As we embark on new spiritual journeys, there will be people that will try to pull us backwards into old ways of thinking, believing, and acting.[v] This pull can be gentle or forceful, and one forceful way of pressuring someone is by betraying them or accusing them of betrayal. This is especially true of authoritarian people who are plagued by the fear of losing control. The more fearful and insecure, the more authoritarian, demanding, judgmental, and punishing. So, don’t be surprised when some people don’t celebrate your new journey and pressure you to go back to your old self. It is easier for them if you conform to the old pattern because then they don’t have to change and readjust to the new dynamic in your relationship. As you push through their resistance and continue moving forward, don’t be surprised when those same people betray you or accuse you of betraying them.

But be careful how you press forward and respond to betrayal. Remember the two pitfalls: betraying the very values of the spiritual transformation we seek by lashing out in anger and disconnecting from those who hurt us in hopes of avoiding the ongoing obligations of love. Like Christ, we are called to forsake a victim-mentality, so we can intentionally choose to act with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity. This is no small order, and we fail all the time, but we must keep pursuing the way of Jesus Christ as part of our spiritual transformation.

As a note of caution, the law of love does not require us to be a doormat for the dysfunctional or a victim of abuse. God’s love cannot be separated from God’s justice, and to love someone involves telling them the truth (Ephesians 4:15). The same principle can be found in reconciliation, which is made possible only by mutual truth telling and changed behavior. Consequently, submitting yourself to ongoing abuse is not an indication that you’re being faithful to the law of love but that you’re operating out of an unhealthy and self-destructive frame of mind. What is needed in these situations is emotional and spiritual healing, which almost always requires you to separate yourself from the abuser long enough to interrupt the dysfunctional system and gain enough health to make better choices. As many have learned the hard way, sometimes the most loving thing you can do for someone hellbent on destruction and abuse is tell them goodbye.

 

Doing the Betraying: Peter and Judas

In conclusion, it’s important to offer a few words for those who have inflicted betrayal on others. Just as Jesus said of the disciples, so is true of us. At some point in life, we all betray someone (which should make us more compassionate for those who betray us). It says in Romans 3:23 that everyone falls short of what God expects, which is another way of saying that all of us succumb to the backward pull of our former life, causing us to betray Jesus, others, and ourselves. Like the disciples, we all become deserters. So how do we get back up, find our footing, and start walking the road to transformation again? Fortunately, the passion of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew also provides guidance for this problem, especially as we consider the examples of Peter and Judas.

As already mentioned, Peter denied Jesus three times before he was crucified. Can you imagine the pain he must have felt when the full realization of his unfaithfulness dawned on his consciousness? Can you imagine how uncomfortable Peter must have been upon seeing Jesus again after the resurrection?

Although he was deeply ashamed of himself, he was able to accept responsibility for his own failure. As he stood before the one he betrayed, he found forgiveness rather than judgement, reconciliation rather than condemnation. As with us, it was probably easier to receive forgiveness from Jesus than it was to forgive himself, but by the grace of God Peter was able to do just that—and it saved his life.

This part of the story reminds us that even in the worst kinds of betrayal there is still the possibility of forgiveness and redemption for those who stay close to God and are willing to do the difficult work of reconciliation. We see this played out not only in the life of Peter but all the disciples, except Judas. All betrayed Jesus and all were forgiven and restored.

Just as all the disciples became deserters, all of us become deserters too. It’s almost like failure is built into the first path of the Quadratos. When embarking on a new spiritual journey, we all start in weakness, confusion, and fear, and we must all learn the lessons that our unfaithfulness teaches. After all, how can we proclaim the good news of forgiveness unless we have been recipients of this gift ourselves?

It’s important to keep all these gospel truths in mind because if we don’t it can kill us.

Like Peter and the other disciples, Judas betrayed Jesus too. We sometimes think of Judas as the only one, or assume his betrayal was worse than that of the others. But I don’t think so. Betrayal is betrayal, and if Judas had come back to Jesus after the resurrection and asked for forgiveness, I think Jesus would have embraced and restored him, just as he did with the others. So why did it turn out so differently for him?

I think it has to do with self-hatred. After betraying Jesus, Judas became the victim of his own despair. For whatever reason, he didn’t believe in Jesus, and I’m not talking about the kind of believing in which you receive Jesus as your personal savior. I mean he literally didn’t believe Jesus’ message about God’s love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It’s true that Judas felt horrible after coming to terms with what he had done, leading him to repent and return the blood money to the religious leaders. However, when he realized that this act of contrition could not stop the destruction he had set in motion, he descended into a dark pit of self-loathing. He could not imagine Jesus forgiving him. He could not imagine forgiving himself. So, he went into the woods and killed himself (Matthew 27:3-5).

Like Judas, we too can descend into a pit of despair after betraying someone we love. Self-hatred can blind us to the possibility of forgiveness and steal the hope of the gospel. As Dante knew, this is the definition of hell, a place devoid of hope, because once we lose hope we experience death—spiritually, emotionally, and, sometimes even physically. This is why believing in Jesus is a matter of life and death for many people.

 

Challenge

As we navigate change on the path to transformation, we experience resistance. Will we choose to keep walking even when others around us do not? Even when they pressure us to return to old ways of thinking and betray us when we do conform? Will we choose to stay awake to our own experience and remain connected to others, even as we confront our fears and the death of ego? Will we let go of resentment and choose love, acting with wisdom, compassion, and equanimity? Will we forgive others, remain open to reconciliation, and attend to the ongoing obligations of love? Will we believe the promises of Jesus, accept God’s forgiveness, and learn to forgive ourselves when we are the ones who have failed?

 

Prayer

Gracious God, when I experience betrayal, help me to respond in love with a wise mind, a compassionate heart, and a calm spirit. When I betray others, help me to honestly see the wrong I’ve done, repent, forgive myself, and move forward in ways that increase the possibility for reconciliation. Amen.

 

(This post is the seventh in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

____________________________________________________

[i] The Hell-Raiser, video uploaded on The New Yorker, “A Megachurch Pastor’s Search for a More Forgiving Faith,” December 16, 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/a-megachurch-pastors-search-for-a-more-forgiving-faith. See also the documentary, “The Heretic.”

[ii] Alexander John Shaia, Heart and Mind: The Four-Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation, Second Edition, Journey of Quadratos, LLC: Santa Fe, New Mexico 2017, pp. 103-104.  

[iii] Heart and Mind 107.

[iv] Heart and Mind 113. Matthew 27:34.

[v] One way of illustrating this can be found in family systems theory. In all groups, individuals assume different roles and then relate to each other in ways that aim at homeostasis, a stable equilibrium between the various roles. Since homeostasis is determined by the predictable interactions of all the various roles people play, when one person decides to change, it not only affects that individual but throws the whole system out of whack. Great pressure is exerted on the individual to go back to their previous role so that the system can be restored to balance. Whether it’s your family, church, or small group, if someone decides to deviate from their role, then people in that group will almost inevitably make efforts to pull that person backwards.

 

Questioning Religious Authority: Faith, Doubt, and Truth

Sally met Peter when she was in her mid-30s. When dating, he showered her with affection, and although she was not initially attracted to him, he eventually won her over. Unexpectedly, his personality changed on their honeymoon when he screamed at her for sleeping late. The verbal and emotional abuse escalated and turned physical as he demanded routine intimacy, often against her will.

Sally’s only support system was the church she regularly attended. Eventually, she opened-up to Christian friends and counsellors, but instead of helping her exit an abusive relationship they told her to forgive him and try to make it work. Eventually, Sally left Peter, seeking help through the legal system. She also left her church, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother. Ten years later, she still suffers from the trauma of abuse. If only she had heard one good sermon on domestic violence or had one Christian counselor help her find a safe way out.[i]

 

Using Scripture to Perpetuate Violence

Given all that we know about domestic violence today, it’s astonishing to me that there are still Christian pastors and leaders who use a handful of verses in the Bible to encourage women to endure abuse. They often start with Jesus’ prohibition of divorce:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)[ii]

Then they reference prohibitions in the New Testament letters:

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband . . . and that the husband should not divorce his wife (1 Corinthians 7:10).

In good patriarchal fashion, they wrap-up their arguments by citing verses commanding wives to be submissive to their husbands:

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church . . .” (Ephesians 5:22-23).

In some of the most egregious cases, some pastors misuse 1 Peter 3:1 to convince women that they can convert their abusive husbands by simply submitting to the violence as an act of love and humility:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives. (1 Peter 3:1)

By pulling these kinds of verses out of context and flatting them into absolute moral rules, some of the very people entrusted with the good news of the gospel come to facilitate evil.

 

Thou Shalt Not Blindly Assent to Authority

I realize that the story of Sally and Peter is an extreme example, and that most mainline Christians would be appalled by the idea of using scripture to excuse abuse. However, these kinds of stories are real and can help us see a more pervasive problem in religion: the idea that people should blindly follow rules and refrain from questioning the religious leaders that teach and enforce them.

To illustrate the point, let’s return to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5). What changes when we raise the simple question, “Why?”

Why does Jesus offer such strong prohibitions of divorce, especially when men during that time were permitted to divorce according to Jewish law? This kind of question encourages us to consider the historical, cultural, religious, and literary context of Jesus’ words, as well as the overarching message of his gospel. In the light of these considerations, we discover the possibility that Jesus was trying to protect women in a patriarchal society.

In ancient Palestine, women were considered the property of men. As children they were under the authority of their father, but growing-up they were expected to get married and have children, preferably male children, to carry on the husband’s family name. This is where women found most of their value in the ancient world, and those who could not have children were often considered cursed by God. But to find a husband and earn her father a good bride price, a woman needed to be a virgin. Of course, all of this changed on the wedding night when the marriage was consummated, and she became the property of her husband.

Now imagine several years later that her husband grows tired of her or falls in love with another woman, provoking the temptation to divorce. Importantly, he was the only one who had this option because women didn’t have the legal right to seek a divorce in the ancient world. Nevertheless, what would happen to her if she were abandoned by her husband? Since she is no longer a virgin and already deemed unfit by her ex, no reputable man would want her. If she were lucky, her father or eldest male relative might allow her to come home, but this was not a guarantee because of the shame that her divorce would have brought on the family. Even so, she would have lived a life of perpetual shame. If going home wasn’t an option, she could have been reduced to begging or prostitution. In short, if a man abandoned his wife in the ancient world, it would have had life-altering negative consequences for her (and possibly her children).

While not perfect, things are very different in America today. Legally, women have rights that are equal to men. They can own property, get an education, pursue a career, choose to get married or remain single, initiate a divorce, choose when and if to have children, live independently, and largely determine the trajectory of their own lives. While divorce is often emotionally, spiritually, and financially devastating, women can and do find ways to recover and go on to enjoy happy, healthy, independent lives. But this was not the case in ancient Palestine—it was a different world.

Then Jesus comes along and says, “Men, don’t divorce your wives. I know the law gives you this right, but if you want to be one of my disciples then I’m telling you stay married and keep your promise to protect your wife from the dangers of a world that can be cruel.” In this way, Jesus is not so much offering an absolute moral rule that applies to every person in every situation in every generation. Looking deeper into his historical-cultural context, we see how he may have been trying to protect women in a patriarchal society, which is consistent with his overall message and treatment of women in the gospels. In a world where women had few rights as the property of men, Jesus saw them as equal in the eyes of God and suggested that men should not participate in their objectification and oppression by availing themselves to a one-sided, patriarchal form of divorce that caused long term damage.[iii]

When seen in this way, the spirit of Jesus’ prohibition of divorce is diametrically opposed to the way that some fundamentalist Christians have used his words to excuse the abuse of women. Indeed, this is one example of how human interpreters can really mess things up when they insist on a naive, flat, literal reading of the Bible that ignores its historical, cultural, and religious context. What’s even more concerning is how such misinterpretations can become requisites of faith as religious leaders equate them with the infallible word of God and command blind assent.

Jesus was fully aware of this persistent temptation in religion, which is why he questioned the religious leaders of his day and their interpretations of sacred texts. Repeatedly, throughout the Sermon on the Mount he says, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you . . .” (Matthew 5:21ff.). It’s like he was saying: This is how the religious leaders have interpreted our sacred texts for years, but don’t blindly assent to their authority and mindlessly capitulate to their rules. Rather, look deeper and you will see that in most cases specific moral rules are applications of larger ethical principles addressed to a specific group of people in a specific time and place. While the rules may have been life-giving in one context, they can prove to be death-dealing in others.

 

Life in the Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience

When specific moral rules are disconnected from the larger ethical principles from which they derived, we lose the reasons behind those rules. Purposeful action becomes meaningless acquiescence, and living faith is reduced to dead moralism enforced by religious authoritarianism. The antidote is a life awake in the power of the Holy Spirit—a close, loving, vital relationship with the living God. While God speaks to us through sacred texts, and even through religious leaders seeking to faithfully interpret these texts, God speaks to us in other ways too.

In the United Methodist Church, we believe that God speaks through scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and that all four are important to consider when evaluating moral and religious claims. When we remember that the Bible must be interpreted and that are interpretations are sometimes mistaken, it becomes clear that vital faith requires us to question how the Bible is interpreted and used to derive religious and moral claims. [iv] Listening for God’s voice at the point where the spirit of the gospel intersects with the best of Christian tradition, reason, and experience can help us in this endeavor.

Life in the Spirit of God is awake, alive, thoughtful, and critical of all absolute claims uttered by human beings. Instead of blind assent and meaningless acquiescence, we are encouraged to question religious authority and test religious claims according to the Spirit of the gospel and what we know to be true through reason and experience, both of which are progressively illuminated by the Holy Spirit as we practice a wide variety of spiritual disciplines and mature in our faith.

 

Challenge

Be bold and courageous in questioning religious authority in the pursuit of truth. If a pastor or religious leader tells you to believe something that everything else in your experience tells you is wrong, then there is a good chance that it is wrong! In the least, be willing to think critically and entertain questions. If your church teaches that faith requires blind assent and discourages you from raising questions, then you should consider finding a more open-minded and safe spiritual home. True faith will never require you to park your brain at the door or deny what you have learned in all other areas of life. While this kind of authoritarian strategy may temporarily give you the false security of belonging to an exclusive tribe, eventually it will require you to betray yourself and lose the living connection with God that makes our transformation in love possible.

This is especially true when we find ourselves on the first path of the Quadratos, when we are trying to navigate change and are faced with fears of the unknown. Instead of retreating to the illusion of certainty or mindlessly doing what we have always done, we can find the wisdom, courage, and strength to question religious claims as we seek a more integrated knowledge that broadens our horizon of understanding and facilitates our journey toward wholeness.

God is not only big enough to handle to your doubts and questions but loves you enough to encourage them.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, as we hold fast to the teachings of Jesus, help us to know the truth in a way that sets us free (John 8:31-32).

 

(This post is the sixth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

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[i] Baird, Julia. “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God.” ABC News, 23 January 2018, http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028.

[ii] In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus doesn’t even make an exception for infidelity: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

[iii] One thing that really bothers me about Jesus’ prohibitions (and does not support my argument) is his command for men not to marry divorced women. Since divorced women were so vulnerable in the ancient world, this would seem like a very compassionate thing for a man to do. Why not allow men to make personal sacrifices to help vulnerable women without being condemned to deadly sin? Remember, according to Jewish law, men and women both could be stoned for adultery (Leviticus 20:10).

[iv] As Paul Tillich once said, doubt is an important element in faith.