Life Finds a Way

In this second week of Easter, this verse from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings has lodged itself in my brain: “You killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). It’s in Peter’s address to those “men of Israel” (not all Jews!) who colluded with their rulers and Rome to execute Jesus.

There are three astounding claims in this verse.

First astounding claim: Jesus is “the Author of life.” Jesus is the origin of life, the ruler of life (archēgos). Everything Jesus did, he did to bring about life. Everything Jesus continues to do by the Spirit, he does to bring about life. This, then is who God is: the Author of life, the one who writes our stories toward a full and thriving life. That which brings about death is not-God; this is the Satan, the anti-God, the thief who comes “to steal and kill and destroy.” Jesus has come to bring life, a life that is abundant (John 10:10).

Second astounding claim: Jesus, the Author of life, was killed. Humans killed the origin of life. Powerful humans, coalescing in the powers-that-be—human structures and systems of injustice and oppression—killed the ruler of life. The Author of life was written out of his own story. While God always moves creation toward life, we can do things that bring about death—even the death of God.

Third astounding claim: God raised the Author of life from the dead. God overturned the verdict of the human powers-that-be; God undid the death and destruction of the Satan, the anti-God, the thief. To quote that well-known theologian, Dr. Ian Malcolm, in Jurassic Park: “Life, uh, finds a way.” The God who always and only moves creation toward life, finds a way to bring life even out of death.

May we be chastened by the reality that we as humans can do things that bring death, even writing the Author of life out of their own story. But may we be encouraged that the Author of life still lives, and God is writing our story toward a full and thriving life, an abundant life for all persons and all creation.

“Concrete Koinonia”

As I look ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary readings, the reality of koinōnia stands out to me. Koinōnia comes from the Greek word for “common” or “shared” (koinos), and so koinōnia has the idea of “that which is held in common,” “that which is shared among us.”

Contrary to the way we often use the word “fellowship,” in the New Testament Christians don’t “fellowship,” as a verb. Rather, we have “fellowship,” as a noun. This koinōnia is a gift from God, a gift of God’s Spirit to us as God’s people.

1 John 1:3 describes it this way: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have koinōnia with us; and truly our koinōnia is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” There are things we hold in common, realities we share together—in 1 John these would be things like “life” and “light” and “love”—and as we share these common realities together we discover they are in fact realities God has shared with us, realities we hold in common with Jesus.

This “fellowship,” this koinōnia, is not just some abstract truth but a concrete, lived out experience. The love, light, and life we share together in Jesus works itself out in a shared life together, a common way of life in which we come together in acts of love and deeds of light that bring life among us and beyond us.

This “concrete koinōnia” comes out in another lectionary text for this Sunday, Acts 4:32-35: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (koinos)… There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

This is the new reality the resurrected Jesus creates among us by the Spirit: a shared reality in which we hold in common a new life of love and light, in which we live out this new reality in ways which re-order our common life so that no one is needy, no one is marginalized, no one is oppressed by forces beyond their control.

The Good News of “Holy Terror”

As we begin our Holy Week journey toward the cross, we know already that the story ends with the good news of resurrection. But Mark gives us a different take on Jesus’ resurrection than we typically think of.

Here are the (most likely*) final words of Mark’s Gospel: “So [Mary, Mary, and Salome] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Fear, even terror? How is this good news?

There’s a long history in the Bible of “holy fear,” even “holy terror,” in the presence of God. This isn’t (normally) because God is angry or abusive, but because God is so…absolutely other. “Holy,” to use the biblical language. When we humans find ourselves in the absolute presence of the transcendent God, we realize that God is not like we had imagined: God is so much greater than we had ever imagined.

This biblical thread finds its way into Mark’s Gospel story of Jesus. When Jesus teaches, people are “astounded.” When Jesus casts out demons, they are “in awe.” When Jesus heals, they are “stunned.” When Jesus walks on the water, his disciples are “terrified.” When Jesus calms the storm, they literally “fear with a great fear.” “Who is this,” they ask, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

So we really shouldn’t be surprised when Mark ends his Gospel with these same words, following this long biblical tradition. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has revealed God’s self in all God’s fullness: in life rising out of death, in peace growing out of violence, in liberation bursting out of oppression, in love blooming in the midst of hate. In Jesus’ resurrection, God has blown the doors off all our expectations of who God is and what God does.

This Easter may we, like the two Marys and Salome, come face to face with God in the resurrected Jesus, so that the walls we build around God might be shattered in the revelation of God’s life and peace and liberation and love. This is a good “holy terror.” This is good news.

* Mark’s Gospel has several different endings in ancient manuscripts of Mark. Most textual critics think Mark’s Gospel originally ended here, at Mark 16:8. Later scribes weren’t satisfied with this ending so they added their own or borrowed from the other Gospels.

The New Covenant Gospel

“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

These have to be some of the most beautiful words in Scripture.

Israel has broken the covenant. They’ve messed up big time. All that idolatry and injustice, all that pursuit of “gods” of wealth and power, all that oppression of the poor and the vulnerable—it’s caught up with them. Their society has collapsed, their homes have been destroyed, their temple has been desecrated, and they are enslaved in shame in a foreign land.

Yet God has not forgotten them—especially the poor and the lowly, the widow and the orphan, the enslaved and imprisoned. God promises a new covenant with them: the heart of the Torah written on their hearts, full forgiveness of their immense sins, intimate knowledge of God by all from least to greatest. In sum: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

To a people shattered and broken, humbled and humiliated, this is God’s commitment. And Jesus brings this commitment to fruition. Jesus establishes this new covenant for all peoples, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female and more.

May this gospel of inclusion, this good news of God’s compassion and forgiveness, God’s intimate, guiding presence, spur you on this week in your work and your worship.

The Gathered Redeemed

I’ve always loved Psalm 107 for the ways it describes the diversity of our encounters with God. No two people come to God in the same way. No two people experience God in the same way.

There’s the intro in verses 1-3: “Give thanks to God, for God is good! God’s steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed say so, all those God redeemed and gathered in from all different directions.” Then the Psalmist gives four different examples of how “the redeemed” have come to God.

There are those who have experienced hunger and barrenness (vv. 4-9): they have “wandered in desert wastes” until “their soul fainted within them.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “satisfying the thirsty and filling the hungry with good things.”

There are those who have experienced oppression and imprisonment (vv. 10-16): they “sat in darkness and in gloom, prisoners in misery and in irons,” and “their hearts were bowed down with hard labour.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “shattering the doors of bronze, and cutting in two the bars of iron.”

There are those who have experienced sickness and affliction (vv. 17-22): they “loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “sending out God’s word and healing them, delivering them from destruction.”

Then there are those who have experienced success and power, until disaster strikes (vv. 23-32): they went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the mighty waters,” until “they went down to the depths” and “their courage melted away in their calamity.” Then they “cried out to God in their trouble, and God delivered them from their distress” by “making the storm be still” and “bringing them to their desired haven.”

The Psalm closes with a beautiful depiction of God’s faithfulness and love toward those who are lowly or oppressed, humble and repentant. “When they are diminished and brought low through oppression, trouble, and sorrow, God pours contempt on princes and makes them wander in trackless wastes; but God raises up the needy out of distress, and makes their families like flocks.”

The whole Psalm is a wonderful reminder of the many ways God meets us in our need, meeting each of us exactly where we are at, meeting us exactly as we are. Do any of these poetic depictions above describe your story of encountering God? If not, what metaphor might you use for that?

“Let those who are wise give heed to these things, and consider the steadfast love of the Lord.”

“Fully convinced”?

“Being fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.”

These are the words that jump off the page for me as I look ahead to the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday. These come from Romans 4, Paul’s midrash on the Abrahamic covenant stories of Genesis 15 and 17. For Paul, this is a core element of the faith God desires of us.

“Being fully convinced that God is able to do what God has promised.”

I don’t think I have that kind of faith, or, at least, not often. “Fully convinced?” Hopeful, sure, that God will do what God has promised. Trusting in God through all things, regardless of what happens, yes. But “fully convinced”? That seems like a faith too great for mere mortals like me.

And then I remember the rest of Abraham’s story. Sure, at these moments of encounter with God, when God comes before him in awe and wonder, then Abraham could well have been “fully convinced that God was able to do what God had promised.” But the rest of the story shows us that Abraham was not always “fully convinced.” In fact, he sometimes wasn’t trusting in God at all.

It turns out Abraham was human after all. Just as human as the God-man Jesus, who wrestled with doubts in the Garden of Gethsemane. Just as human as you and me.

God is able to do what God has promised. That reality doesn’t depend on our faith or lack of faith. The invitation to faith is an invitation to rest in this reality. Let’s cherish our experiences of full conviction, for sure. But may we always be encouraged that even great examples of faith like Abraham, even our Lord Jesus, wrestled with doubt in times of uncertainty and distress. This, too, is faith.

God’s Rainbow Promise

In looking ahead to the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, these words from Genesis 9:12-13 stand out to me: “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”

What I love about God’s rainbow promise is the expansiveness of it: all earthly creatures, even the very earth itself, from that point into eternity. The whole rainbow of created things, in all their vast diversity, is included in God’s always-life-affirming, never-again-destroying covenant.

Yet in this expansiveness of God’s promise there is still a very personal dimension. “I make this covenant,” God says to Noah, “between you and me”—Noah individually, personally, in the midst of his family, in the midst of all God’s good creation. And so God repeats this always-life-affirming, never-again-destroying covenant with each one of us, individually, personally, in the midst of all God’s good creation. This is good news; this is gospel.

The rainbow has become a symbol of the beautiful spectrum of human sexuality—all sexes, all orientations, all genders. That’s appropriate, given the expansiveness of God’s rainbow promise here, encompassing the full diversity of creation. It’s appropriate, too, given the fully affirming nature of God’s promise to each human person.

As we walk in our work this week, may we be mindful of God’s immense love for us, for all people, and for all creation, from the most unloved of individuals to the very earth itself.

Love Builds Up

Looking ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary texts, I’m struck by the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 8.

It’s a fairly well known text, but a strange one. Paul is dealing with the issue of meat that has been sacrificed to a god or goddess in one of Corinth’s many temples. Corinthian Christians could get this meat at a discount in the local market. Should they buy it? Should they eat it? Should they eat it if someone offers it to them in their home? Should they attend a feast in one of these temples, and eat this meat there? (Should I eat it in a house? Should I eat it with a mouse?)

We all know what it’s like to live and worship together with others who have different religious sensibilities than ours. The thing that really matters to that person might not matter at all to me. But then there’s that thing which I think is really important—why can’t this person see how important it is? So much of church life is navigating these diverse sensibilities, around liturgy, mission, theology, and whether Henry should really be the one leading the singing over Zoom since God knows he can never hit those high E-flats.

The words that struck me this time are the words Paul opens with: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by God.”

How often does my knowledge, my certainty that I am right, puff me up in arrogant condescension of others? How often, then, do I miss the knowledge which is really most necessary—the knowledge of God through love? When we act in love for God—devotion to God through compassion for others—then we find we not only know God truly, we are truly and fully known by God.

God’s Reign Come Near

The Gospel text for this coming Sunday is Mark 1:14-20. It’s the well-known description of the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, including the call of the first disciples of Jesus. Jesus comes into Galilee “proclaiming the good news of God.” And what is this good news? That “the time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near.”

The Greek word for “come near” (engizō) is an interesting one. It can mean “near” either in terms of space or in terms of time—or possibly both. Does Jesus mean that it is almost time for God’s reign of true justice and lasting peace and flourishing life to be revealed on earth? (“The end is near!”) Or does he mean that this reign of God is already now but it’s just beyond our reach?

I tend to think Jesus meant both of these. Like God’s very self, the kingdom of God is both imminent—near in time—and immanent—near in space. If we have eyes to see it, we can see this reign of God already among us—heaven invading earth in acts of justice and peace and life-giving love. However, this reign of God is not fully here—and so we wait for its fullness to come, always tantalizingly just around the corner.

This week, as we do the necessary tasks before us, both the mundane and the sublime, may we glimpse the reign of God breaking into our world and among us as God’s people. And may we be filled with the ever-fresh hope that the fullness of God’s reign is just around the next bend.

Five Simple Hacks to Revolutionize Your Bible Reading

You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to get more out of your Bible reading. Ideally, sure, we’d all be reading the Bible in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek with a full understanding of the relevant ancient cultures—but we all know that’s not going to happen. So, here are a few tricks of the trade—a few “Bible reading hacks”—to help you maximize your English Bible reading. Beware, though, you might find this actually revolutionizes your Bible reading—and radicalizes your faith in Jesus and his way of love.

Read “Jesus” as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

We as Christians tend to think about Jesus in generic sorts of ways, or we domesticate Jesus so he fits better with who we already are. Reading “Jesus” in the New Testament as “Jesus of Nazareth” reminds us that it’s not just some generic Jesus whom we trust and obey, but a very specific Jesus: a first-century Jew from rural Galilee who lived in certain ways and taught certain things and, as a result, was rejected by many of his religious leaders as a blasphemer and executed by the Roman Empire as an enemy of the state. See here for some direct biblical reminders of Jesus as a man from Nazareth.

Read “Christ” as “Messiah.”

Most Christians probably know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name, but a title: it is the equivalent of “Messiah.” There were a few different messianic expectations among Jews in the first century, but the most common—and the one behind the New Testament word “Christ”—was the expectation of a king in the family line of ancient Israel’s King David, who would arise and bring about God’s reign of justice and peace on earth. See here for a few of these kingdom expectations. Confessing Jesus as “Christ” means claiming these expectations are being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

Read “kingdom of God” as “God’s reign of justice and peace and life”—and read “salvation” the same way.

We might tend to think of the “kingdom of God” as equivalent to “heaven,” by which we mean “an eternal, spiritual future of perfection and bliss.” This can be especially so when we read Matthew’s preferred phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” However, this is not what language of “God as king” or “God’s kingdom” meant for Jews in Jesus’ day.

The “kingdom of God” is about God’s reign as rightful ruler over all creation, bringing justice and peace for all people and flourishing life for all things. It is closely tied to biblical language of “salvation”: God’s reign brings deliverance from evil powers that oppress us (economic, political, spiritual, and more), and a restoration to freedom and full, flourishing life. “Eternal life”? That’s “the life of the coming age”: life under God’s reign, experiencing God’s “salvation” even now, in this age. Notice the way this language is all connected in this passage, for example.

God’s kingdom is “of heaven”—originating in God’s holy presence and reflecting God’s righteous character—and so it is “not of this world”—the very opposite of the power-hungry, violent empires we have known in human history. But in Messiah Jesus of Nazareth this reign of God “has come near,” and one day it will fully come about “on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the fullness of “salvation” for which we all yearn, deep in our bones.

Read “faith” as “devotion” or even “allegiance.”

The biblical language of “faith” is much more than just “believing the right things about the right things.” In fact, James describes that kind of “faith” on its own as “dead,” “barren,” “unable to save.” Yet this is often what Christians mean by “faith.”

In the Bible the language of “faith” and “believing” is much more personal than propositional. It’s primarily about trusting in God through all things, being devoted to God in all ways. It is really about allegiance: “faith” is a commitment to God and God’s ways as revealed in Jesus. Reading “faith” language as “devotion” or even “allegiance” reminds us of the radical nature of Christian faith.

Read “love” as “Jesus’ way of love.”

“Love” is another of those words that can mean a lot of different things for us. But in the New Testament the “love” we are to aspire to has a very specific association with Jesus. It is “love in the way of Jesus,” which includes things like breaking bread with “sinners” and other outcasts, welcoming “strangers,” blessing “enemies,” forgiving those who sin against us, caring for “the least” in society, bringing good news to the poor, freely healing the sick, warning powerful oppressors, and liberating people from evil forces that coerce and constrain them. In other words, “love” is how we live into God’s reign of justice and peace and life.

Next time you’re reading the New Testament, give these “Bible reading hacks” a try. Just remember my warning: if you take this Bible reading seriously, you might find yourself on the same path as Jesus, loving outcasts and walking with the oppressed and being crucified by the powers-that-be. The good news? There’s a resurrection on the other side. This is the narrow path leads to true life, for you and for all.