14 May 2024

The implications of being God’s son.

John 5.17-23.

After Jesus cured some guy at a pool, the Judeans objected because he’d done so on sabbath. Now in the synoptic gospels, Jesus’s defense was usually along the lines of, “Curing the sick is a good deed, and doing good deeds on sabbath doesn’t violate the Law.” In John however, his defense is entirely different:

John 5.17-18 KWL
17 Jesus answers them, “Even today, my Father works.
And I work.”
18 So this is why the Judeans are seeking all the more to kill him:
Not only is Jesus loosening sabbath custom,
but he’s saying God is his own father,
making himself equal to God.

Y’see, there’s a really profound legal concept embedded in Jesus’s statement, “My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.” Jn 5.17 KJV It’s something you’re gonna miss if you don’t understand how adoption in the Roman Empire worked. Instead you’re gonna wind up making the foolish assumption many an Evangelical has: They think Jesus told the Judeans, “God’s not bound by your customs and Law, and neither am I.” Therefore he can break the Law. With impunity. Kinda like they do.

If Jesus is claiming he has the almighty prerogative to do as he pleases, including break whatever commands he wished, then Jesus could sin like crazy. It’s why lawless Christians love this interpretation—it gives them license to sin like crazy. Grace forgives everything, right? So let’s get nuts!

It turns Jesus into a major jerk—which is an obvious sign that’s not what he meant. If any interpretation of God violates his character, it’s wrong. It’s based on our bad attitudes, not his.

Jesus isn’t claiming he can do as he pleases. He’s claiming he does as the Father does. And the Father is benevolent, kind, generous, compassionate, forgiving. He does good deeds every day of the week, sabbath included. Ever been sick, and got well on a Saturday morning? Looks like God cured you on sabbath too.

Likewise Jesus is kind. His goal is always to demonstrate his Father’s love, and in so doing reveal who the Father is, and the sort of kingdom the Father’s given him to rule. Bear that in mind whenever you read the gospels.

Okay, on to what Jesus actually means. And why it outraged the Judeans.

13 May 2024

“But you cured them on 𝘴𝘢𝘣𝘣𝘢𝘵𝘩.”

John 5.8-16, Luke 13.10-17.

So Jesus goes to Jerusalem and cures some guy at a pool. I’ll quote the pertinent part:

John 5.8-9 KWL
8 Jesus tells him, “Get up.
Pick up your bed and walk.”
9 At once the person becomes whole.
He picks up his bed and walks.
It’s the sabbath on that day.

In case you missed it, the last line of verse 9 points out that day was sabbath. That’d be Saturday, the seventh day of the week; the day on which the LORD told Israel he wanted ’em to not work. There’s a whole command about it:

Deuteronomy 5.12-14 KJV
12 Keep the sabbath day to sanctify it, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee. 13 Six days thou shalt labour, and do all thy work: 14 but the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. 15 And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.

Everybody got that? No worky. Not you, nor your kids, nor your employees, nor your animals, nor “shabbos goys”—which is what certain American Jews call their gentile friends who do things for ’em on sabbath so they won’t break the command. They might think having their gentile neighbor pick up a pizza for ’em isn’t suborning a commandment violation. But it totally is.

Pharisees got mighty specific about what constitutes rest. The Mishna has a whole section, or tractate, called Shabbát. It’s all about what you can and can’t do on sabbath. There are 39 specific Pharisee rules about what not to do. No planting, plowing, reaping, gathering, threshing, winnowing, etc. Picking up your bed broke the 39th rule: No moving something from one significant place to another.

Yet here was this guy, carrying his bed. Because Jesus, who cured him, told him to do it.

John 5.10-13 KWL
10 So the Judeans are telling the cured person, “It’s sabbath!
It’s not right for you to pick up your bed.”
11 The cured person answers them, “He who makes me whole—
that person tells me, ‘Pick up your bed and walk.’ ”
12 They question him, “Who is the person
who tells you, ‘Pick it up and walk’?”
13 The cured person didn’t know who Jesus is,
for Jesus slipped into the crowd in that place.

09 May 2024

Ascension: When Jesus took his throne.

This happened on Thursday, 15 May 33—if we figure Luke’s count of 40 days Ac 1.3 wasn’t an estimate, but a literal 40 days.

Acts 1.6-9 NRSVue
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9 When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

I usually translate ἐπήρθη/epírthi (KJV “he was taken up,” NRSV “he was lifted up”) as “he was raptured.” ’Cause that’s what happened. Jesus got raptured into heaven.

From there Jesus ascended (from the Latin ascendere, “to climb”) to the Father’s throne—to sit at his right hand, Ac 2.33, 7.55-56 both in service and in judgment. We figure Jesus’s ascension took place the very same day he was raptured, so that’s when Christians have historically celebrated it: 40 days after Easter, and 10 days before Pentecost Sunday.

Some of us only focus on Jesus’s rapture—“Yay, he’s in heaven now!” And yeah, there’s that. But the way more important thing is Jesus taking his throne. When we say our Lord reigns, you realize his reign began at some point. Wasn’t when he died, and defeated sin and death; wasn’t when he rose from the dead, and proved he defeated sin and death. It’s when he took his throne. It’s his ascension day. Which we observe today.

06 May 2024

God’s unmerited favor.

Titus 3.4-7.

Previously in Titus, Paul reminded Titus and the church of Crete—the men in particular—to be good people, not “tough guys” and alpha males who are constantly battling everyone else to be the top dog. There are a lot of unhealthy Christians who still try to behave that way—who think we should be that way; be far more like the characters Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood play in the movies, than Christ Jesus.

We used to be that way, Paul said; stupid, unyielding, evil, envious, hate-filled…

Titus 3.4-7 KWL
4 That’s when the kindness and love for humanity
of our savior God appeared—
5 not because of works of righteousness which we do,
but God saves us because of his mercy,
through washing, rebirth, and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
6 whom he richly pours out over us
through Christ Jesus our savior,
7 so we who are justified in that grace might become heirs,
according to the hope of life in the age to come.

That’s when the Cretans—that’s when we all—encountered God’s grace. While we were still jerks and sinners, while we were still unworthy of salvation and adoption by God, while we didn’t deserve God’s kingdom at all, Christ died for us.

And you’ll find that same sort of grace—that same unmerited favor—throughout the bible. It’s hardly just in the New Testament. It’s everywhere.

When the LORD chose Avram ben Terah, renamed him Abraham, Ge 17.5 promised him the land of כְּנַעַן/Kena‘án (KJV “Canaan”) and had him relocate there, Ge 12.1-3 then promised him an uncountable number of descendants, Ge 13.16 it wasn't because Abraham was a good man. Most of the Abraham stories involve him screwing up one way or another. He wasn't a particularly outstanding specimen of humanity. At all.

Yes he had loads of faith. But his story doesn’t start with that faith. He didn’t have it yet. He acquired it—as the product of his God-experiences. After God appeared to him, gave him a mission, and promised him stuff. After he spent 25 years—not a short time!—following God before he finally got the son God initially promised. God showed up way before Abraham’s faith did.

So why'd the LORD establish a relationship with Abraham and his descendants? Grace. Solely grace. Pure grace.

And he did it again. When the LORD sent Moses to rescue some of Abraham’s descendants from Egypt, then patiently dealt with these Hebrews’ sins thereafter, and finally got their descendants into Canaan and helped them take the land: Again, ’twasn’t because the Hebrews were good people. Without constant divine supervision, they’d turn idolatrous within a month! Miraculously supply ’em with daily bread, and they’d still piss and moan they had it better in Egypt. (Where they were slaves. Where the Egyptians murdered their babies.) The Hebrews were just awful to their God. So why’d the LORD even bother with them? ’Cause he promised Abraham he would. Dt 7.7-8 ’Cause grace. Pure grace.

When Jesus decided to save me, what had I done to merit saving? Not a thing. I was a little kid. Not a good little kid either. I could be a tantrum-throwing brat when I didn’t get my way. (I still can be, which is why I gotta keep that misbehavior in check. God help my poor nurses if ever I go senile.) Plenty of Christians will easily confess they were awful human beings when they first encountered Jesus. Why’d he save us anyway? ’Cause he loves us. ’Cause grace. Pure grace.

Christians love to describe grace as “unmerited favor.” It’s actually more than that—it’s God’s entire attitude towards us, which includes unmerited favor. And often we forget the unmerited part: It really isn’t deserved at all. Totally unfair. Often inappropriate. It breaks all the rules of karma. We shouldn’t get it!

Hence there are a lot of people, Christians included, who still strive to achieve good karma. Who try their darnedest to be good people, try to balance out any bad in their lives, and make it so they do merit God’s good favor. Who think the whole purpose of good deeds is to make ourselves worthy of heaven. They forget God doesn’t work like that. At all. He forgave us already. He makes us worthy of heaven. Ep 1.15-23

Why? Nah; I’m not gonna repeat it anymore. Go back and read it again.

05 May 2024

Orthodox Easter.

Today, 5 May 2024, is Easter in the Orthodox Church.

Which is admittedly weird. Orthodox churches have the very same rule for figuring out the date of Easter as the rest of Christendom: It’s the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. Therefore the Orthodox celebrations of Easter should fall on exactly the same day as Catholic and Protestant and nondenominational churches. Same as they do every other year.

Here’s why they don’t: Orthodox custom insists that Easter has to take place after Passover. It can’t do it before. All the other Christians might do it before—this year, it was nearly a whole month before—but Orthodox Christians point out Jesus died and was raised after going to Jerusalem for Passover, and disconnecting the two holidays is weird and wrong.

And y’know… they have a valid point. I mean, if Easter is the Christian Passover, shouldn’t they happen at the same time, or at least very near the same time?

Most of the reason they don’t, has to do with ancient Christians intentionally trying to disconnect the two holidays. Some of those Christians were most definitely antisemitic. (How you can be antisemitic when our Lord is a Jew still makes no sense to me, but since when have antisemites made sense?) That’s why they chose our formula for determining Easter, instead of scheduling it right after Passover. That way they wouldn’t be dependent on the Hebrew calendar.

But… why be independent of the Hebrew calendar? After all, we’re not independent of the Hebrew scriptures: We still read and revere the Old Testament. We’re not independent of the Law and Prophets; they point us to God’s will for our lives. The Hebrews’ Messiah is our Messiah. You can’t divorce Jesus and Christianity from their historical background without getting weird… and, most of the time, dangerously heretic.

So I’m gonna side with the Orthodox Christians here. I’d still move the holiday back a week, to 28 April; I see no reason at all why Easter can’t take place at the same time as Passover. (Following the usual formula, sometimes it does!) But there shouldn’t be any disconnect at all between Passover and Easter. Jesus is the world’s Passover lamb.

(And for all the other Christians who celebrated Easter back in March: You realize it’s still Easter until Pentecost, right? Oh, you forgot. Well, no problem. Here’s your reminder.)

Happy Easter, folks.

02 May 2024

“Call me Pastor.”

Twelve years ago I got into a conversation with some guy at a Starbucks. It’s usually in coffeehouses such conversations take place; I’m in them so often. He asked my name. I gave it. He gave his name as “Pastor Athenodoros”—although Athenodoros isn’t actually his first name, ’cause I changed it for this story, ’cause he’s not gonna look good.

Athenodoros struck up a conversation with me, quickly found out I’m Christian, and we got to talking about our common beliefs. Like most people, he assumed since I’m not clergy, I must know nothing about theology. Which is a really naïve assumption, ’cause there are a lot of dangerously overeducated laymen like me around. Something I learned back in my journalism days: Never underestimate people. Never overestimate ’em either. Just find out who they really are.

There are a lot of dangerously undereducated clergy around too. It just so happens Athenodoros is among them. He tried to instruct me in certain areas… in which he clearly knew very little. I expressed doubt, ’cause scripture, which I quoted where appropriate. Athenodoros tried to correct me, ’cause earnestness, although he couldn’t really think of any proof texts. I didn’t fret about it, ’cause Athenodoros wasn’t wandering into heresy. But Athenodoros did fret about it. Y’see, certain folks believe anyone who disagrees with them is heretic, and think it’s their duty to rescue such heretics from hell; so Athenodoros just had to get through to me and convince me of my errors. I think I kinda ruined his day.

To my point: At some point I addressed him by his given name, which as far as you know is “Athenodoros.” He corrected me there, too.

HE. “It’s Pastor Athenodoros.”
ME. “I’m sorry. Your first name is ‘Pastor’? Or it’s ‘Pastor-Athenodoros’?”
HE. “Pastor’s my title.”
ME. “Oh. But you aren’t my pastor. No offense.”
HE. “Still, I’m a pastor, ordained by God. I should be addressed by that title.”
ME. “Fair enough. If you were a doctor I’d call you Dr. Athenodoros.”
HE. “Exactly.”
ME. “But wouldn’t you think it odd if a person walked up to you, gave you unsolicited medical advice, and told you to call him ‘Doctor’? No offense.”
HE. “…If he saw someone in real need of medical treatment, that is his job.”
ME. “It is. But let’s say his treatment sounds a little, well, off. ‘Here, take this strychnine. It’ll settle your stomach.’ ‘Waitaminnit, isn’t strychnine poison?’ ‘Oh, don’t worry about that. I’m a doctor.’ ‘Yeah but I’m pretty sure strychnine is poison.’ ‘Yeah, but “doctor’s” my title.’ You see the problem?”
HE. “You think I’m trying to poison you?”
ME. “No, I think your intentions are good. But good intentions doesn’t mean good doctrine. Apollos was a great, earnest speaker, but Priscilla and her husband still had to correct a few screwy ideas he had.” Ac 18.24-26
HE. “So you think I have a few screwy ideas.”
ME. “Well I have my doubts. And the whole, ‘You have to call me pastor’ thing doesn’t help. It’s like ‘Don’t look at my reasoning. Look at my title. I’m a pastor. You can trust me.’ ”
HE. “So you don’t trust me?”
ME. “I just met you. I don’t know you. You just came over here and decided you’re my pastor. I have a pastor. If you were my pastor, I would know your voice. But I tell you the truth, I do not know you nor where you came from.”
HE. “All right. Well you have a good day.”
ME. “You too.”

Yeah, I was loosely quoting Jesus. Jn 10.1-18 I think Athenodoros recognized the bible reference, which is why it bothered him. Of course, he might’ve been just as bothered by the fact I wouldn’t blindly accept his authority over me.

I shouldn’t have to tell Americans, of all people, to watch out for people who wanna claim authority over us. But you’d be surprised how often people assume, “Oh, you’re a pastor. Well then you know what you’re talking about.” Many of ’em do. Some really don’t.

01 May 2024

Christian stewardship.

STEWARDSHIP 'st(j)u.ərd.ʃɪp noun. The job or duty of supervising or caretaking a person, property, or organization.
2. [adjective] Having to do with the role or condition of supervision or caretaking.
[Steward 'st(j)u.ərd noun; stewarding 'st(j)u.ərd.ɪŋ verb.]

Why on earth have I decided to tag the topic of stewardship with “Mammon”? Because way too often—in fact I would argue most of the time—whenever Christians talk about stewardship, we’re talking about managing our wealth… but we’re pretending we’re managing God’s wealth.

First time I heard about stewardship, I was a kid, learning about Adam and Eve and creation. Adam and Eve had been put in charge of the planet Earth. Says so in the bible.

Genesis 1.27-28 KJV
27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

“Subdue it” (Hebrew כִבְשֻׁ֑הָ/khivsá literally means to tamp it down, but usually has the sense of conquering and subjugating. Humans are meant to take over our world, and make it do as we want.

But, my Sunday school teacher pointed out, not so we could just do as we please with it, and ruin it as if it’s a disposable commodity. Littering is bad! Polluting is bad! I know; your Sunday school teacher may not have ever taught such things. Mine did, and justified it by pointing to something the LORD told the Hebrews in the wilderness about the land he intended to give them.

Leviticus 25.23 KJV
The land shall not be sold for ever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.

It’s God’s land, and God’s world, she pointed out. We humans are just stewards of this world. We take care of it for him. At at some point we have to answer to God for how we did.

Other Evangelicals have profoundly different attitudes about creation care—and many don’t believe we do answer to God for it. Ever. He gave Earth to Adam and Eve; we’re descendants of Adam and Eve; so it’s our planet to do with as we see fit. And after Jesus returns he’s just gonna destroy the world and make New Earth anyway. Rv 21.1 So it’s okay if we trash the world, and make it uninhabitable and poisonous. We’re getting a brand-new one!

Anyway, that’s how I was introduced to the concept of stewardship. I no longer agree with that interpretation of it; I’ll get to that. But between that and Jesus’s parable about the Faithful and Stupid Stewards Lk 12.41-48 —one of whom watched out for his master, and the other who acted as if the master would never return—to my mind, stewardship had to do with responsibly doing as God wants during our time in this world.

Then, as a teenager, I was introduced to stewardship as it has to do with how Christians handle our money. And that’s where I encountered a buttload of Mammonism. Disguised as Christianity of course; disguised as biblical principles which’d make Christians wealthy, and justifications for all our covetous and stingy behavior: “We’re practicing good stewardship of God’s money. We’re doing it for him.”

Yeah right. If doing it for God were truly the case, we’d see way more good fruit in all this “stewardship.” But when it’s not—when it’s all just hypocrisy and Mammonism—we look like greedy, graceless people who have built a lot of Christian corporations and fancy buildings, but haven’t built any of God’s kingdom. Nothing that’ll last after Jesus personally takes over. Because we’ve prioritized money.