The Comedy of Christ

Comedy is usually thought of as beneficial but not necessarily significant or essential. However, there is actually a structure and significance to humor as seen in comedic pieces. For instance, during comedic movies, many times the events are going decently well but in time they begin to devolve and become somewhat tragic, that is until the arrival of the comedic turn. The comedic turn is what serves as the axis which turns tragedy on its head and the once sorrowful story suddenly becomes joyful and hopeful. In light of the structure behind comedy, it may play a larger role than initially believed.

The important role that comedy plays is to inject hope through a greater understanding of truth. In Harry Potter, students encounter a Boggart, a creature that attacks them in the form of their worst fear. One would think students would be taught a deadly, powerful spell to defeat the Boggart but instead they are taught to use the spell, “Riddikulus” which turns the Boggart into something humorous. Through their laughter, the students learn that the opponent they face is not indestructible but ultimately conquerable. The transformation of approach from terror to humor stems from understanding this truth and allows them to then laugh from an assurance of victory.

For Christians, we are able to similarly fight our enemy with laughter from the same hope of victory. Our hope stems from the unique comedic turn of Christ, the axis that turns tragedy into joy. Raskin, a distinguished professor of linguistics at Purdue, explains the link between the comedic turn and humor stating it comes from, “the idea is that every joke is based on a juxtaposition of two scripts. The punch line triggers the switch from one script to the other. It is a universal theory.” In the biblical story, there exists the two scripts: the present fallen world and the future perfect world. When Christ came, died, and rose again, he was the punch line that triggered the switch from the fallen world and bridged the gap to the perfect world.

Christ’s life and death was a miraculous act that suddenly and irreversibly altered the fight against sin. The fight against a once seemingly formidable enemy becomes a fight filled with the joy and laughter that accompanies ultimate victory. The consolation of a happy ending is labeled by Tolkien as the Eucatastrophe,  “the consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn.”  As a result of Christ’s life and death, we are able to fight against our enemy without total anxiety or fear. If Satan is our Boggart, Jesus is the “Riddikulus” which allows us to claim our assurance of victory. Because of Christ, we are able to recognize the ridiculousness attempt of Satan to rule and can wage war against us. This joy found in the fight against Satan does not trivialize or underestimate the battle but rather esteems the miraculous turn created by Christ’s birth, death and resurrection.

We will face obstacles and struggles in the present world since Christ’s Eucatastrophe has not come to its full effect, but this does not mean His actions lack present effect. The underlying quality of the Eucatastrophe is,“It is not only a “consolation” for the sorrow of this world, but a satisfaction, and an answer to that question, ‘Is it true?’” While the Gospel’s Eucatastrophe creates a perfect hope for the future, it has the ability to deeply affect our present spiritual struggles by removing fear or anxiety in the midst of battle.


You should hug trees…Or at least, appreciate them: A Theology of Trees

Christians should care about National Arbor Day (to those who don’t know, that is today). Even if you are not a devoted celebrator of trees, it is worth your time to stop and consider what wonderful things trees are. Not only are they ascetically appealing, they are present in almost any climate, and provide shade and food. Practicality aside, the Bible illustrates many points through trees. The prevalence of trees and tree imagery in the Bible should shed light on other ways to appreciate and consider these majestic pillars of nature. To explore this idea, let us look at some specific examples of trees in the Bible and examine what they ought to signify to the Believer.

In some stories, the trees play a direct role in the narrative. In Genesis, Adam and Eve sinned by taking the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To Eve, the fruit was a “delight to the eyes” (Genesis 3.6). It appealed to her, not because fruit is deceitful and evil, but because fruit, by nature, is beautiful. Being tempted by the devil to act on her desires, Eve took what belonged to the tree as her own. In partaking of the fruit of the tree, Adam and Eve brought death and corruption upon the whole human race.

In direct correlation to the fall, even our salvation came about by a tree. Christ, our loving Savior, was nailed to a tree for the sins of man. He accepted this death voluntarily out of obedience to the will of God. Through his willingness to die on a tree, humans are restored and reunited with the Father. This tree, the one which was made into a cross for the death of our Savior, should be a symbol of hope. It ought to remind us of the merciful action of our Lord by which unworthy souls are made holy.

From death into life, even our daily walks are described in terms of trees. When Christians are thriving in their faith, it is said that they will bear fruit. You cannot see into the heart or judge the faith of another person. Yet, you can tell whether or not they are being spiritually fed because they will be acting in love, joy, peace, and so on. In the same way, you cannot see the roots of the tree. You cannot see the place where the tree receives its nourishment. You only know if it is healthy by the things that it is producing. Trees, then, exist as an image of the relationship between one’s heart and one’s actions.

Even the body of Christ is represented by a tree: Paul presents the imagery of the olive tree in Romans, showing the relationship between the Jews and the Gentiles and revealing the beauty of the gospel. In chapter 11, Paul says that the Gentiles have been grafted into the tree, being made into a legitimate part of God’s family. The Jews who have rejected the truth are the branches that were broken off so that all men could have a share in salvation. Now, because of God’s abundant mercy, all men can be nourished by the tree. With this metaphor, the tree represents how each person can be a part of the family of God.

Today is a day where people take the time to celebrate trees for their beauty as well as their necessary contributions to our environment.
As Christians, we can also recognize trees as being a part of the story of our salvation. Trees are involved in our fall and our redemption. They also illustrate the other aspects of our Christian life, such as the picture of bearing fruit or the imagery of the Gentiles being grafted in. Today, take the time to celebrate National Arbor Day. Appreciate trees for their beauty, their necessity, and their existence as tangible reminders of the story of our salvation.

Family Matters: A Biblical perspective one’s duty to the family

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26).

These are the words of Jesus, spoken to a crowd of his followers. This is a severe and perhaps surprising assertion. One would not expect Jesus, who demonstrates perfect compassion and love, to ask his disciples to show hatred towards their families. This demand does not seem to fit in with the behavior that is expected in the Kingdom of God. To complicate matters, Paul says in 1 Timothy that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1Timothy 5.8). Paul’s statement is also harsh, but what he says seems to contradict the words of Jesus. Yet, with a deeper investigation, these seemingly opposite claims can be reconciled.

When Jesus says his disciples must hate their family members, he is not giving instructions on how to treat one’s family, but rather communicating the cost of being a disciple. He concludes his talk saying, “therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.33). He means that the cost of being a disciple of Christ is a heavy one. It requires the complete renunciation of oneself. We are to serve God and God alone. This does not mean that we ought to hate our families, but it does mean that we have to renounce our duty to them. The severity of Jesus’ statement is genuine. He is reminding us that one cannot enter into the Kingdom of God half-heartedly.

Paul statement on the family is actual instruction for the church. The family is an institution created by God. It was designed so that members could care for each other. In fact, proper care of one’s family is necessary for the thriving of the church as a whole. Regarding church leaders, Paul writes, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1Timothy 3:4-5) To be effective in the church, you must first prove to be faithful in the small things. We are called to care for our families before we can extend our reach to the church and to the world.

Jesus and Paul are speaking of two different aspects of the Christian life. Jesus is talking about the weight of the decision to follow him. Paul is giving guidance of how we ought to live once we have given our all to Jesus. Combining the messages of Jesus and Paul, we can conclude that when we renounce our family, we receive an even greater responsibility for them. To become a follower of Christ, we must surrender all. Yet, we take on a new lifestyle when we choose to follow Jesus. We are expected to behave differently. We now put God above all, and in doing so, recognize everything that all we have belongs to him in the first place. Jesus reminds us that our families are not actually ours. Family is a gift which was graciously bestowed upon man by God. Thus, we must care for them, adhering to the structure and order that God has designed. Of course, this cannot be done without love, compassion, and attention to our loved ones. When we are faithful in this task, we can also serve effectively in God’s church. It remains our responsibility to love our families as Christ loves us.

“Mundane” Testimonies

Christians struggle with their own testimonies. Our stories are boring, uninteresting, and mundane, or so it seems to us; who would listen to us even if we did share? What often qualifies as ‘interesting’ is the sort of thing someone would write (and read) a book about: ex-felons, ex-addicts, ex-something-or-others. We are all sinners saved by grace, and as unclean and broken as we may be many of us haven’t gone a day in our lives not knowing about God. We remember repeated prayers as naturally as we recite the alphabet; some of us even had songs for both. Often we describe our testimonies in terms of a reshaping or a renewing of our current faith: we are reminded of the sin we have, or convicted of the sin we didn’t see, and now we can return to the Cross we’ve known all our lives. It isn’t so much a one-eighty as a couple of degrees at a time; we may admit to forty-five, at most.

There’s nothing satisfying, at least to our current experiential palate, about turning away from pride, for instance. No one can look and see an immediate or obvious change; pride is a matter of the heart, and our actions often contradict our motives. We look and see good people, but until they start talking, until they start telling us of their evil hearts, we can’t be witnesses to their redemptive stories. But this isn’t a problem with their redemption. We’re suckers for big and loud stories—look at the film industry for evidence—and so we tend to write off anything that doesn’t fit the bill, at least when it comes time to share. We don’t volunteer to tell people we grew up in the church and asked Jesus into our hearts right as we learned to speak; who would find that anything but boring?

The solution isn’t to seek a more powerful testimony—let’s not sin that grace may abound—but to expand our understanding of what constitutes a beautiful testimony. We can describe those who grew up in the church as spared from the horrors of the criminal life, but this feels empty. The negation isn’t nearly so powerful as the positive expression: we are saved from the damnation we earned by the great grace of God’s son, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Of course we desire to be remembered, to be seen as moving examples of the grace God can provide. The examples trumpeted to us are those who stand out in the wide course of history, especially those saved from what we see as powerfully damning testimonies: Paul’s persecution of Christians, Augustine’s many sexual sins, right on up to the teenage-atheist-turned-thirty-something-Christian C.S. Lewis. We see that great Christians of the past have often come from broken places.

This emphasis on Michael-Bay-esque testimonies can be harmful, despite the intention to inspire us. While these testimonies can encourage us to look and see the greatness of God, our tendency is to only see God’s grace manifest in those who have been saved from what appears to be much. If we took for our role models ‘ordinary’ Christians—local pastors and elders, our parents and professors, our peers—perhaps we’d be more capable of seeing God’s explicit and awesome grace in our ‘ordinary’ lives.

I don’t recommend removing the historical ‘greats’ from our studies, nor should we discount the explosive testimonies we so often hear. Rather, we ought to broaden our understanding of what makes for a compelling story of grace.

To borrow a phrase from Matthew Lee Anderson’s discussion of the ‘radical’ movement within Christianity: if we lose out on mundane spirituality—that is, if we aren’t “more attentive to the homeless fellow nearby us than […] the grand, architectonic life that […moves us to] the third world”—then we’re certainly skipping out on appreciating mundane testimonies. While we should not fight against radicalism in one sense (in precisely this sense: Christianity is radical because God stepped into the world to save us, and our lives will be changed; we will look different), it is worth remember that Paul was a tent-maker, and continued to make tents even as he went about his missionary journeys. Jesus often met people in what seem like minor ways: eating with them, spending the day with them, and traveling with them. The disciples were ordinary people pulled out of more-or-less ordinary lives, made memorable by Christ’s interaction with them. Some we hear a lot about, John and Peter especially, while others are more-or-less forgotten: Bartholomew, Judas son of James, Simon who was called the Zealot, and at least one of the two named James. These men could have taught us much—after all, they walked with Jesus—but their Biblical conclusion comes almost as soon as they are introduced: they become absorbed by the term “the twelve,” rarely to be heard of individually again.

And so it often is with us. There are many unsung heroes in your local church, and I’m not talking about those often described as unsung heroes. Every Christian has a redemption story. Whether you are saved from cocaine addiction or a prideful heart, from deep in a prison cell or the comfort of your suburban home, your story is one filled with grace. If we can’t see the beauty of a redemption story, the problem isn’t with the story: the problem is with us.

After all, every story of redemption is one so powerful that Christ died to fulfill it.

The Mercy Seat: Our Neighbors are Our Life

Ever let mercy outweigh all else in you. Let our compassion be a mirror where we may see in ourselves that likeness and that true image which belong to the Divine nature and Divine essence. A heart hard and unmerciful will never be pure.

–       St. Isaac of Syria

There are but two commandments that may never be broken—regardless of the circumstance. Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Against such things, there is no law.  There are no extenuating circumstances; while there may be excuse for failure, there is no justification. The whole of man’s responsibility is summed up in these truths—more constant than gravity and stronger even than death.

Love the Lord your God is fairly straight-forward. How much should we love?—that’s defined when Jesus restated the command to the Pharisee about said law—with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. How do we love God? To start, we can love our neighbor, because God loves them and God loves us—that wonderful injustice—God loves us, without qualm, reservation, hesitation or condition.

But how can we ever love our neighbor well enough to reflect the love of God? After all, while these commands are given based on importance, there is an implied proximity in their relation to us. The greatest distance in the world is not the space between our Earth and our Sun, but rather, the distance between man and God. The second greatest span is that between man and his neighbor. Perhaps this is why folks like St. Francis lived and died on the doorstep of Heaven—for he was reconciled to his Maker and he made all men his brothers and all women his sisters.

How can we love our neighbor? We must love him like God loves him. We must cover his sin with grace. We must restrain his liberty if it be for his own good. We must take it upon ourselves to make him our brother—not even our brother, but our very selves. The Good Samaritan did not treat the wounded victim on the side of the road as he would treat an acquaintance, or even a friend, but how he would want—but not expect—his very self to be treated.

And so it is preached, and so we general allow. The scandal of grace is a wonderful thing to hear. No reasonable Christian will say that God does not love all men, and that we are not to go and do likewise.

And this an easy command when we are detached from the subject of our love. Any man can say “Peace be with you” to a person he has never interacted with. Where Christians (read “human beings”) are prone to slip and stumble is when we venture out into the world—and get cut off in traffic. Or we arise early in the morning to pray and be quiet with the Lord, and walk to our car with the fire of love in our hearts—and find that our ride to work has been stolen.

Or, even worse, we sit in church and hear the Gospel of Jesus preached, and we go out into the world and deal with sinners (as if all men aren’t sinners) as the personification of their vices. When this happens, we are not only damning the object of our judgment, but we are damning ourselves, since our neighbors are our life. We are, effectively, making people worse than they are. When our hearts are hardened, the woman who has been tragically twisted into a life of sexual promiscuity, slowly compromising until her heart is a maze of hairline cracks, is no longer God’s daughter, but a slut. The man struggling with same-sex attraction is no longer a broken human being (as we all are), but a project—a problem to be fixed; if not fixed, then protested against. We must remember that even the Pharisees brought sinners before Jesus—the woman caught in adultery was publicly hurled before Christ’s feet right before they planned to stone her to death.

Mother Teresa once said that “we ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” The problem with treating our neighbors as the embodiment of vices, the infinite sin of not extending grace to our fallen brothers and sister, is that we are missing the drops for the ocean. When Jesus said “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” he did not mean “Love humanity as you love yourself.” Love of humanity is an abstract easily attained by the righteous and unrighteous alike. When Jesus said love your neighbor, he meant love your neighbor—your dirty, sinful, annoying neighbor. And if we would only but give it two seconds of thought, we would see ourselves in every one of our neighbors. If we would give it a second more, we would see God in them.

We are indeed saved through grace; the love of God comes first, and overshadows all, even our own weakness. But if we are not a reflection of the love of God, we should tread carefully as we approach the Mercy Seat of Heaven. For love covers a multitude of sins, but belief without love is the religion of demons and devils. That blessed throne from which Christ steps down from to embrace his children is the same seat from which he will cast fallen angels eternally away from his presence. The only difference is the love and mercy borne of a relationship with Christ.

Our brothers and sisters who have yet to be reconciled to their Maker do not need to be proven wrong. They do not need to be argued with. They do not need to condemned (usually). They do not need to be beaten into Heaven. What man—every man—needs is the love of Christ. And with Christ living in our hearts, if we do not show that Divine love—who will?

Are Works our Salvation? A Lesson in Beauty

The kingdom of heaven is like the piano lesson of an undeaf man.

Outside the kingdom of heaven, it’s like being someone who’s listened to his music too loud too long. For years, whenever the music ate at his hearing, he would turn it louder, again and again, until he was all but deaf. He gets so nearly deaf and plays the music so loud that, taking a sharp turn at a yellow light, he doesn’t hear the other car honk its warning, but careens solid into the passenger door, shattering his sedan and pummeling his forehead against the steering wheel.

His car with its loud radio comes up against something too sturdy, something that, by its nature, couldn’t be misshapen, but could only reshape what tried to clash against it. Amid the odor of sweltered rubber and aluminum, the sturdy car’s door swings out and the sturdy driver plunges out into the unwieldy wreckage to revived the concussed young man who sees and hears nothing as darkness swallows his field of vision.

A foreign student in a foreign country, the young man wakes in a four-poster bed in a strange room without a sound in his ears. Wriggling his jaw to unpop them, turning his head to relieve the emptiness, he sits up and tries to form words, but produces only silence and sweat.

Entering the kingdom of heaven is like being that stranger walking out of the guest room into the other driver’s home and finding it a mansion. It’s like him feeling in his toes and his heels the vibration of a terrifyingly unheard music, whose vibrations heightening as he descends the stairs into the great front hall and wanders through it. Turning the corner, the Steinway comes into view, with the pencils and pen in a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug atop, neighbored by a stack of freshly writing pages. Hearing the approach, the other driver shoots from the piano bench to grasp the bandaged hand and place in it a solid handshake, a drink, and a seatback.

So, the convalescence begins. The composer from the other car drives the young man to the doctor by day and houses him in the guest room by night, and the young man relies on that composer for every dignified and undignified necessity until the morning comes, and the composer pays the cost of the ear surgery that will restore all the young man’s hearing potential.

The young man goes under for the surgery. Eyelids fluttering in sudden consciousness, our young man hears whispered some words about deposits and accounting among numbers of something. Each word is as crisp and clear as the smacking kiss of a shameless child, and just as beautiful.

The story is familiar: fault and injury, payment and restoration. If he was in a smaller story, that would be enough. If he hadn’t embanked on Beauty’s threshold, then having hearing restored might have been enough. However, the kingdom of heaven isn’t home to enough, but to the complete and the holy and the extravagant. Breathing in the kingdom of heaven is like when the young undeaf man goes to the composer’s concert the next evening. The concert sounds nice. Some parts stir him, and he gets a little bored in some sections, but he stays attentive most of the time (until they neared the end, anyway).

Then, rolling his attention in a long stretch of whining strings, he stumbles into a glimpse of the tears clustered in the eyelashes of the enraptured woman beside him.

Startled, he glances to his left to see another guest whose lips hang parted by an unaffected smile. Our young man fumbles at his brochure to find the concert billed as being from the hand of The Greatest Composer of All Time. Bewildered and humbled, the undeaf rubs his eyelids and realizes with shock:

Even hearing, he doesn’t know how to use his ears.

The kingdom of heaven is like the young man strapped in the passenger seatbelt on the way home beside the Greatest Composer of All Time as the raindrops tap notes on the windshield, while he admits with helpless but calm sadness, “When I was deaf, I couldn’t hear sounds. But, now, I still can’t really hear music. Little bits here and there thrill me, and hint at something I can’t access, but most of it I just don’t care about. I’m just not good enough at hearing to listen to your music.”

One hand on the wheel, the Greatest Composer of All Time presses the undeaf man’s shoulder, saying, “Listening takes more than hearing. But, if you’ll learn, there’s nothing I’d rather teach.”

The kingdom of heaven is like the following morning, when the young man rises early at the composer’s suggestion, and slides into place behind the dawn-kissed piano keys. And the Greatest Composer of All Time gently guides his undeaf student through the C scale, which he plunks out again and again, awkwardly or too quiet or too stiff, until the motion settles into part of his nature.

Then, another scale and another. Slowly and precisely. Even when the ears can tell poor from good, to know good from great takes a lesson of the fingertips. Because to understand greatness – in music or in painting or in life – is to understand the process of creation. To fully enjoy a masterpiece means knowing the difference between a master’s work and a master con’s, and the only way to know that is from so close you’re almost within, almost of the same mind as the artist by sincere imitation. (And what artist practices his craft as beautifully as the King of heaven practices goodness? And the ability to mirror this goodness forms the greatest gift of salvation. Are works our salvation? Yes: by our salvation, we are finally and delighted capable of good and saved from doing bad.)

In our sanctification, the world expands as the concerts expand for the undeaf student. He begins to hear what’s there, instead of missing everything. The Greatest Composer of All Time even writes him his own melodies to play. With practice, his ears and his fingers learn to reach for the depth of the beauty in every tone and harmony and trill. With familiarity, he discovers the thrilling gap between his abilities and those of the Composer. It troubles him until he discovers that the difference is too severe to permit an inkling of competition. Then, the gap becomes freedom and pursuit.

He sinks himself as far into that gap as he can go, increasingly enjoying the vast expanse of untrodden beauty into which he can fling himself further every day without fear of running out of room. The joy of ceaseless pursuit finds home in the unbounded possibility of beauty.

The learning takes his lifetime and makes his lifetime worth every minute he pays to the piano keys and the concert hall. It’s years and hours and, with gray tufts over his ears, he still slides into place beside the Greatest Composer of All Time.

“Before you began teaching me,” the undeaf, unyoung man sits upright on the bench beside his still teacher. “I thought you and I were two degrees removed from each other’s musical abilities; you could play and I couldn’t, and those were the two options. When I started the scales, I began to think we might be a hundred degrees removed, and when I started melodies, I realized that hundreds was far too small.”

The kingdom of heaven is like when the composer reaches in front of that upright student and places a hand-penned song on the music stand. That evening, even from the corner by the lamppost outside, wayfarers can hear the Steinway’s melody swell as the unyoung, undeaf man pours his fingers and his joy into the masterpiece gifted to the undeaf by the Greatest Composer of All Time.

On Smart Christianity: Not Just Interesting Ideas

There is not really a “beyond” in Christian theology, given that everything that we learn in Sunday school is still true when systematic theology rears its dogmatic head. It is impossible to transcend the basics. Although there is a “mere Christianity” that all Christians hold in common, it is possible, nay, desirable to elaborate upon what we believe and develop smart Christianity. The question of whether the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father only or from the Father and the Son together was one issue at stake in the East-West Schism of 1054. The Pope’s decision to tack “and from the Son” onto the end of “proceeds from the Father” in the Nicene Creed spiritually means something. The theology that we believe goes into the kind of people that we become. As learned Christians elaborate upon “mere” Christianity, they are not merely playing a game for bookworms.

In The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, Vladimir Lossky states,

If even now a political doctrine professed by the members of a party can so fashion their mentality as to produce a type of man distinguishable from other men by certain moral or psychical marks, a fortiori religious dogma succeeds in transforming the very souls of those who confess it. They are men different from other men, from those who have been formed by another dogmatic conception.

As Christians examine TULIP, papal supremacy, Arminian soteriology, and weigh the views of Christ’s divine-human composition, they make decisions about what kinds of people they are becoming. Belief Two builds upon Belief One, and believing that subtle distinctions in theology are just Star Trek vs. Star Wars arguments for nerds is in itself a Belief One that supports a Belief Two. What Christians do with people who disagree with them is in itself a spiritual decision. From the lady adding and subtracting dollars in the supermarket to the nuclear physicist playing with imaginary numbers in a top secret lab, while simple math is enough for practical matters, anyone looking at an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile in an exhibition lit by nuclear power knows that advanced math is also enough for practical matters.

Mere Christianity is powerful stuff. It helps Protestant and Catholic missionaries cooperate on the mission field to serve people with physical needs and leads Lutheran and Eastern Orthodox Christians to dig for their common roots. Even so, it is not an iron to press flat the various folds following the Good Shepherd. Transubstantiation is not just a funky Catholic idea, and the five Protestant “solas” as an expression of basic Christianity are not practically the same thing as the decisions handed down by the Council of Trent. Protestants and Catholics agreed in many areas as they reformed abuses in the Church, but Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries revealed a Protestant fresh perspective on the sanctity of Church property. If I am an ecclesiological pluralist, it is as a pragmatic maneuver to keep peace with people who love God. Because I believe that Calvinism is wrong, I argue against it when it comes up in conversation, but I have enjoyed fellowship in Reformed churches because they possessed enormous stocks of mere Christianity.

When I find myself debating with Calvinists, I make better progress with them than when I chat with agnostics. My disagreements with atheists and agnostics are actually flat and uninteresting compared to my disputes with Calvinists because of the extent to which we agree. Arguments within the game of Monopoly are far more heated than discussions of whether the game is worth playing. When we quote St. Augustine as saying, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” it is with the point of letting each other live long enough to make good progress in studying and obeying the truth. Even non-essentials matter, but we also believe that charity is true. Getting into advanced theology matters quite a bit, so when you have to let go of a position, be sure to do so as letting go of a lower rung to grasp a higher.

“I see dead people”: On Hope in Missions

When considering the task of the Great Commission in light of the global plight, it is an overwhelming mission. If you’ve been watching the Arab Spring revolutions that have been devastating Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Turkey recently you’ll get a pretty stark picture of the human heart. In spite of these nations attempting to throw off tyranny and run after the freedom that other nations seem to enjoy, the fires of revolutions have primarily brought devastation, economic hardship, and instability to regions where the flames have kindled. In Syria alone, nearly 100,000 people have died in a quest that likely ends in greater bondage than what was originally thrown off. In addition, these countries reside in the 10/40 Window, an area known to be incredibly hostile to the influence Christianity. Thus, it is a place where the spiritual lives of its people is reflected in the landscape: dry, arid and dead.  What hope does such a place have?

And yet dwelling on the woes of such an “obviously” troubled region can blind us to the deadness of our own country. If we turns their gaze to states closer to home, we realizes that even in places where freedom  and tolerance are celebrated and embraced, in the “land of the free” itself, there is a very real deadness. People abuse their freedom to indulge in a number of unholy practices, and idolize people, ideas, and things rather than worshiping God. While this may be a land of plenty, it is all the more deadly for its apparent benignity. What hope does such a place have?

In the book of Ezekiel we, along with the prophet, are led to ask the same question. The people of Israel had been conquered, slaughtered and carried off to foreign lands to be slaves. They trusted in the idols and gods of the nations surrounding them and in their own might. They failed to uphold their end of the covenant with Yahweh. He removed his protection after the Israelites consistently rejected the grace God consistently offered. God had promised that they would be a nation forever, that they would be ruled by the line of David for eternity and yet they were scattered to the four winds. How would it be possible for them to regain the land? What hope do such a people have?

When God enters in to clarify the issue, it is not to alleviate Ezekiel’s fears, but to confirm them. God begins by showing Ezekiel a vision of a valley of dry bones (If you haven’t seen this depiction of it, go watch it, it’s well worth the two minutes). The bones are “very dry,” exceptionally lifeless even for bones, and they themselves cry out, “Our bones are dry, our hope has perished; We are cut off.” God asks his prophet, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” In a sense, God asks Ezekiel, “What hope does such a place have?” Ezekiel, standing in the midst of the desolation of an entire nation, knows that there is no way that these bones can live. But he doesn’t stop by just looking at the bones, he looks to the God who made the bones. He speaks to the Mighty One of Israel, and his reply demonstrates his faith and hope: “Oh Sovereign God, you alone know.”

When considering the spiritual status of the world, we need to look beyond what is humanly possible. We need to look to the one who created us, because He and He alone knows whether spiritual life can come to a person or to a people.

Our hope is the same tremendous hope that was given to Ezekiel and the remnant of Israel. In the latter half of chapter 36 God promises spiritual life to his people beyond anything that they could have dared to imagine or hope for. They are promised holiness and cleanliness in place of their sin and idolatry. God promises to replace their hardened stone hearts with hearts of flesh. He promised to set his spirit on them, not for a short time, but perpetually and continually – to be in communion with God and to know in their hearts the way He would have for them.  To drive the point home, God has Ezekiel  walk among the bones and prophesy to them:

“Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” [Ezekiel 37:4-6]

Miraculously, flesh covers bone. Sinews, tendons, muscles, organs and skin form where before there was only dust and death. God is replacing the hearts of stone with hearts of flesh. But there was not yet any breath in the bodies. “Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.’” In both passages, the word breath can also be translated spirit – thus God is placing his Sprit into the bodies he has caused to form. Then they rose and stood, an “exceedingly great army”.

In these verses we see the impact that a person submitted to the will of God can have on the dead. God could have just formed flesh and breath and put them on the bones as he did in the beginning, without the help of Ezekiel. Instead, God graciously includes his servant in the process and allows him to be a source of physical awakening in the bones, and a spiritual awakening in the lives of the Israelites. The hope that these people have is a mighty God, who has provided a perfect sacrifice, priest, prophet and King to intercede at his right hand forever (see Hebrews, esp. 7:23-8:13). They also have the hope that God’s prophets will see the nations’ dead bones, and prophesy life to them. May we see dead people everywhere and seek to preach the hope of the Gospel to a dying world.

The Great Joke

It’s a familiar parable—the Pharisee and the Tax Collector—but in its familiarity, many of us have missed a twist that Jesus intended. The story reads almost like a joke: a Pharisee and a tax collector walk into a temple. The Pharisee stands before the altar and prays, with palms up to Heaven and raised eyes,

“God, thank you that I’m so righteous. You have blessed me and made me holy in your eyes.” Here he pauses to shoot a glance over at his money-grubbing friend, “Thank you that I am not like those wicked men who would steal the coin of others.” And then he sweeps up his robe and leaves, with a self-assured smirk of contempt.

Meanwhile, the tax collector hasn’t moved, but has stood off to the side, with shaking hands and downcast eyes. Finally, he gathers his courage, strikes his chest, and breaks his silence with a trembling voice, “God, have mercy on me, for I am an unclean sinner.” He has no other words, for no other words will cover his guilt and shame.

As Jesus wraps up his story, he offers those wonderful words, “I tell you that (the tax collector), rather than (the Pharisee), went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Everybody listening looks around knowingly, as if they had heard the punch line to some great and insightful joke at the expense of another.

All those listening to Jesus tell this story for the first time surely shot glances over at the religious elite and thought to themselves, “What a self-righteous group of men.” After all, Jesus was targeting them; those who were confident of their own righteousness were those who inspired the story. Even today, we hear sermons preached on the topic, and go out thinking, “What a wicked Pharisee; God, thank you that I’m not a Pharisee.”

Therein lays the grand joke. By judging the Pharisee, we have made ourselves into the very thing we are disdaining. We condemn the Pharisee for pride, and exalt ourselves over him for our humility. No doubt the Story-Teller knew this, although many of his followers surely did not. Even today, many are left laughing at the joke, but they have missed the punch line.

Nowadays, acceptance is the catch-phrase. We no longer live in a culture that intentionally separates clean and unclean—although we certainly do in more subtle ways. Indeed, everywhere we turn in our enlightened Western culture, we hear preached a doctrine of “love” and acceptance.

However, this message only extends as far as those who will show acceptance to others. We are called to love, but only if the people we are loving have some modicum of acceptability; we love people who love people. Judge no man—of course—unless the happen to be Westborough Baptists, Klan members, or jihadists. We offer a culture of acceptance, and any man who does not accept it, do not accept them. We have become utterly intolerant of the intolerant.

The dichotomy here is clear; the moment we condemn the Pharisee, we condemn ourselves with as much certainty as the Pharisee did when he offered judgment to his tax-collecting fellow. Loving those who are humble is easy; loving those who want no love (or feel they don’t need any) is divinely difficult—it is the great joke of the holy Gospel. We are called to love the unlovable, even (especially) those who express no need or desire for it.

Reverend Richard Wurmbrand, was the founder of the organization Voice of the Martyrs. In 1966, he spoke in front of Congress about the horrors of Communism, as well as showing his scars he had acquired during his years in imprisonment for his faith; the stories he told detail some of the most horrific and terrible crimes against humanity ever committed.  He was perhaps one of the most outspoken religious opponents of the Communist movement, specifically the Soviet regime, for the atrocities they carried out against Christians and against mankind. And yet, despite his opposition, he still had the strength to tell his congregation, “When Communism falls, it is the duty of every Christian to shelter and defend the Communists fleeing from the mobs and unjust persecution.”

This is from a man who witnessed things that would make men think they were no longer living, but were already amongst the torments of Hell. This is the love of Jesus, hanging on the Cross and gasping out, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” We are to love our enemies, even in how we judge.

The tax-collector is a fallen man—as is the Pharisee. Men can see the tax collector’s spiritual poverty, but only the eyes of Christ can see the Pharisee’s. When Jesus preached, “If your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out,”  he did not intend for us to go about blind, but to receive his eyes in exchange—those eyes that see clearly and love even the hateful.

Learning to Not Be Judas

There are certain people in the Gospel that Scripture calls us to identify with; more often than not, the people that Christ exalts, forgives, and heals—both physically and spiritually—are not model citizens. They are not well-liked and are often relegated to the fringes of society. Some common examples come to mind: prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers. They are both people with whom Christ interacts and characters in his parables, and through both examples we learn how to become righteous and how to interact with God. It is these broken, dirty, unjust people to which Christ tends specifically, and they become models for all believers.

For example, in Luke 18 Christ tells the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. The first, an allegedly knowledgeable, righteous, religious leader; the second, an untrusted, widely disliked tax collector. Christ tells the parable as follows:

Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. — Luke 18:10-14

It’s interesting that the Pharisee lists off the very types of people Christ spent so much time with as counter examples to his self-righteousness. But Christ teaches us through this parable that true righteousness is not achieved by surpassing others on the morality scale. We are called to be humble, like the tax collector. We must recognize our sin, and then we must also recognize our great need for God’s mercy, which he offers freely to all. As Psalm 51:19 reminds us,

A sacrifice to God is a broken spirit,

A broken and humbled heart God will not despise.

The parable of the tax collector teaches us that we are lost, but also that we are not without hope. This the Pharisee did not understand.

I think also of the thief on the cross who was crucified next to Christ. Luke 23 recounts:

Then one of the criminals who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If You are the Christ, save Yourself and us.’ But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not even fear God, seeing you are under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.’ — Luke 23:39-43

Again, we see the dichotomy of unrighteous and righteous, with the second thief gaining righteousness through his humility. Through such examples, Scripture teaches us that we ought to identify not with the self-righteous or those that society may exalt; but again, the point is not to be hopeless. Rather, we are to recognize our sinful state and approach God with humility to receive mercy and become sanctified. As my priest says every Sunday before communion: “With the fear of God, faith, and love, draw near.” The first thief did not understand.

I felt particularly convicted by these truths during one of the Holy Week services in the days leading up to Easter this year. It’s a well-known and saddening phenomenon that churches seem to fill up the closer we are to Christmas and Easter. I never see the church more full than I do at Good Friday and Easter. Praise God for a full church during such an important time for our faith, but it’s deceptively easy to fall into the mindset of the Pharisee from Christ’s parable. I may not be perfect, but at least I’m in church every Sunday. Similar thoughts crossed my mind as I noticed more and more people I did not recognize filling the pews. In such moments, I am no better than the prideful Publican or the scornful thief. I do not understand.

But it was one reading in particular that pierced my heart that week. A little ways into the service, I read the following words in my service book:

Let us present our senses pure to Christ, and as His friends, let us offer our souls to Him. Let us not, like Judas, choke ourselves with the concerns of this world, but from our innermost depths, let us cry out: ‘Our Father, in Heaven, deliver us from evil.’

In my experience, at least, I have not often been called to not be like Judas; beyond a basic understanding of Judas as evil, I’ve more or less discarded him from my thoughts. But these words abruptly reminded me how easy it is to be like Judas. I’ll be the first to admit that I “choke” myself “with the concerns of this world:” work-related stress, pining for worldly success and accomplishments, fretting over day-to-day struggles, and forgetting about God. It is not far from the truth to say that I often feel choked by such anxieties. I’d never before considered such things as similar to Judas’ sin, or considered myself similar to Judas in any way at all, and the comparison was almost shocking. Perhaps the underlying reminder is that it is through concerns of this world that Satan works himself into our hearts. Concerns like status and outward perfection (and who’s got higher church attendance), like those of the Pharisee. Rather, our concern should be for our souls and how we stand before God.

Our Father, deliver us from evil.

The service continues:

‘Be vigilant and pray, that you not be tempted;’ You, our God, were saying to Your Disciples; but the lawless Judas was unwilling to understand.

And so, this reading teaches another lesson about what we are called to be by reminding us who we are not to be—Judas. Reflecting on these lessons, I pray first for myself: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, the sinner. Our Father, in Heaven, deliver us from evil. Lord, help me understand.