Friday, March 16, 2018

To whom shall we go?

John 6:66-69
66 After this, many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. 67 So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” 68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, 69 and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
    In John 6, we observe Jesus feeding the five thousand, walking on water, and teaching about the bread of life. In the course of this chapter, Jesus says some words that are just a little too much for a lot of the people following him. But Peter’s confession teaches us how to trust Jesus so that we can grow to understand what he teaches us.

    In the first section, Jesus has gathered a crowd that numbered five thousand men. Jesus multiplies five loaves of bread and two fish, into enough to feed the crowd as much as they wanted with twelve baskets left over. Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee, but the crowd follows him to the next town. Then Jesus begins to teach them that there was more to the miracle of the bread than they realized. A loaf of bread will sustain your life until the next day. True bread, the Bread of Life, will sustain your life eternally. Jesus says “I am the Bread of Life.” What he says next sounds truly strange if you’re not already following his meaning. He says, “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” After this, many who had been following him walked away.

    Here is where we pick up in verse 66. Jesus turns to his closest disciples, the twelve, and asks, “Are you going to leave too?” Peter speaks up, “Lord, how could we leave? Where else would we go? You have the words of life.” Peter’s statement should not be taken to mean that Peter and the twelve immediately and perfectly understood Jesus’ teaching. Peter’s confession does mean that he trusts Jesus. Peter knew he couldn’t find the words of eternal life elsewhere. Notice verse 69: “we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Peter doesn’t have complete knowledge about Jesus’ plan. He hasn’t worked out all the details, but Peter trusts Jesus.

    Faith, or belief as Peter puts it in John 6:69, is not simply accepting an idea without evidence; faith is not irrational. Based on this passage, I would offer the definition that faith is giving confidence where confidence is due, trust where trust is due. Peter originally followed Jesus on the testimony of his brother Andrew that Jesus was the messiah (John 1:41). Over the course of time Peter heard his teaching, saw his miracles, and began to see, based on observation and evidence, that Jesus was who he claimed to be.

    If Jesus is who he claims to be, then to leave because of a difficult teaching is irrational. In the Christian life, we will all come face to face with teachings in the Bible that we find difficult to understand or put into practice. Peter writes this very thing about some parts of the New Testament, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). But if we continue to observe and come to know and trust Jesus Christ, then these difficult teachings become clearer in their context. When we know Jesus and encounter difficulty, we can confidently answer with Peter, “You have the words of eternal life.”

Friday, 3/16/2018
Today’s Reading: Exodus 27, John 6, Proverbs 3, Galatians 2

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Christianity's radical idea

John 3:16-21
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. 19 This is the verdict: that the Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of the light because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.
    In this passage, John introduces a theme he comes back to again and again in his Gospel and his letters: love. Here is right where it starts: God loved the world. The word there is cosmos, and it means that God loves the whole creation and everyone in it. He demonstrates his love in a very particular way: he gave his only-begotten Son. This is the good news.

God's love in self-sacrifice
    God showed love for the world by means of self-sacrifice. The eternal Son of God became a human. He became a human with the intent of being rejected  and dying on a cross. God's love by way of self-sacrifice is what the Apostle Paul said was the great stumbling block for Jewish people and foolishness for Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:23). Through history, it's proved to be exactly that, a stumbling block. Why, many ask, did Jesus have to die to save me? Why couldn't God snap his fingers, so to speak, and save everyone automatically?

    The answer to those questions centers on what it means to "be saved." Salvation involves rescue from hell, but it's much more than that. Salvation is eternal life. Salvation is turning to Jesus Christ, knowing that the depth of our sinfulness will be brought to light. Paul, again, says that Jesus died for us, knowing full well that we were and are sinners (Rom 5.8).

    Jesus teaches elsewhere that all of Biblical morality can be boiled down to the principle that we should love God with our whole being, and that we should love our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:28-33). Paul restates it this way: love fulfills the law (Rom. 13:8-10). Just think about the problems that hit the headlines. If we truly loved our neighbors we wouldn't despise them or take advantage of them in so many ways: racism, sexism, abuse, and so on. Closer to home, if we truly loved each other we would never be short with our spouses, or impatient with our family members, or rude to our coworkers. If we truly loved our neighbors, there would be no need for the perennial anxiety that comes with seeking promotions at work, or being a perfect omnicompetent mom.

    The problem is that our typical frame of mind is self-oriented. When we do good, we want to make sure people see it. When we do bad, we hide. As our passage says, "everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed." We are afraid of exposure. Whether our sins are big or little, public or private, everyone knows when we engage in any kind of self-oriented behavior, we are walking along a path that will only ultimately lead to sorrow. That's what Jesus means by "whoever does not believe is condemned already." Self-orientation leads to death.

    But the good news is that whoever believes in Jesus has eternal life. The doctrine of justification is what we typically think of when we hear the word "salvation." The word references a judgment that God makes. If you trust in Jesus, then God judges you to be righteous for his sake. But salvation in the broader sense also involves forming you so that your life actually matches God's prior judgment. Salvation includes living our lives so that we practice following Jesus in his self-sacrifice, or other-orientation (John 15:13).

Christ our only hope
    God's law makes a very high demand of us. We are to be fully other-oriented, loving God with our whole being and loving our neighbors as ourselves. But in order for us to live this way, we require a fundamental change. Jesus teaches that in order to be saved one must be born again (John 3:3). Salvation requires a gracious act of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, because as Jesus teaches, our hearts love the darkness. That's why Jesus had to die to save us. Not only was he removing a guilty verdict and a death penalty, he was also enabling and empowering change; he was showing us the path to true freedom.

    This is Christianity's radical idea: that love is demonstrated in self-sacrifice, and that the way of love is the way that leads to life. The good news of John 3:16 is that God loved us first. This is how God loved the world: He gave his Son.

Thursday, 3/15/2018
Today's Readings: Exodus 26, John 5, Proverbs 2, Galatians 1

Image credit: NASA

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

He knows your heart

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, James Tissot John 2:23-25:
23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.
    To put it in context, today's passage comes after Jesus is announced by John and calls his first disciples (John 1), and immediately after the miracle at Cana and the cleansing of the temple (John 2). Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Passover and many people are responding to his ministry. But the passage says that Jesus did not entrust himself to them.

    The people in Jerusalem were very expectant that a messiah, or anointed one, would rise up and save them. We can see evidence of this sense of expectation in the visit of the wise men (Matt. 2:1-6), and in the account of Jesus' presentation in the temple (Luke 2:22-38). In the book of Acts, a pharisee named Gamaliel lets us know that there had even been others who claimed to be a messiah (Acts 5:35-39). Given the people's expectations and Jesus' signs, many people started following Jesus.

    Next, the text says that he saw right through them. The passage says he didn't entrust himself to them. Why? Because he knew their hearts. He knew that their faith was superficial or artificial. The crowds were showing a kind of faith of people joining a movement, or following a celebrity. There is a kind of faith the Bible says even the demons have (James 2:19), but the demons don't draw near in relationship; they shudder. This false faith lacks repentance. True saving faith seeks friendship with God (James 2:23). True faith obeys (John 14:21; 15:13-15), not out of compulsion or transaction, but out of love.

     Jesus could see their hearts. "He himself knew what was in man." Jesus also knows your heart. Let me suggest that this can be a comforting reality. Jesus sees through all the posturing and signaling. He sees through all of our attempts at appearing to "be a good person." He sees right through to the shadowy corners of your heart where you try to tuck away guilt and shame and fear. Jesus sees through it all, in order to tell us that he has defeated our guilt, shame, and fear by dying on the cross and rising again. He restores innocence and honor and power by inviting us into his family, and calling us to live according to his teaching.
As high as the heavens are above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
    so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
    so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
    he remembers that we are dust.
(Psalm 103:11-14)

Tuesday, 3/13/2018
Today's Readings: Exodus 23, John 2, Job 41, 2 Corinthians 11

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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