Monthly Archives: December 2015

Refugees, the Church & Security

One would think that churches would be clamoring to welcome and support Syrian refugees in the midst of the current international crisis. After all, providing hospitality for these people would mean more of Jesus and more of God among us. Jesus said that when churches welcome those who have nothing, they welcome Jesus himself and enjoy God’s presence (Mark 9:35-37).

Perhaps one factor that keeps us from doing what Jesus says is the felt need for security. “What if some of these refugees are terrorists? What if they are coming into this country to kill us? Isn’t this what happened in San Bernardino?”

These kinds of discussions are not appropriate for the church.

I am not saying that security is insignificant. Just that safety and security are concerns of governments. Service, hospitality, loving and welcoming strangers are the tasks of the church. The church is a distinct entity from any state or nation and it cannot be concerned with security, self-protection and self-preservation.

Jesus stresses this at several points in Mark’s Gospel.

Hospitality_of_Abraham

In the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20), Jesus speaks of the word that goes out and finds different kinds of responses. This is the announcement of the cross-shaped kingdom that is led by a cross-directed Messiah and calls disciples to pick up their crosses and to lose their lives.

Some of this seed falls among thorns that grow up and choke it (vv. 7, 19). Explaining this image, Jesus says that “the worries of this age, the deceitfulness of wealth, and desires concerning other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.”

Unfortunately, many English versions translate merimnai tou aiōnos in v. 19 to refer to the “cares of this life,” calling to mind daily hassles faced by individuals. But merimnai are “worries, anxieties, cares” and aiōnos is “the age”—“this present age,” as opposed to “the coming age.” The expression could also be translated as “cares for this age,” referring to the concern to guarantee the present social order, or the preservation of “our way of life.”

Among the “anxieties of the age” are self-preservation, self-protection, concerns about all that we will lose if we respond to Jesus’ call to become Kingdom-oriented communities.

These anxieties – these worries and concerns that have their origin in this age – will choke the word. A community that nurtures impulses for self-protection and self-preservation will not bear kingdom fruit.

There is too much to lose. The cost is too high.

Perhaps this is what Jesus means by “the deceitfulness of wealth.” We imagine that we can secure our possessions if we hold on to them, especially our lives and our security. But Jesus says that if we seek to secure our possessions and our lives, we will lose them.

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul (Mark 8:34-36)?

Jesus calls the church to welcome the needy, serving and loving them. This may cost our lives, but we must remain faithful to what Jesus says at the cost of our personal safety, since following his call guarantees our safe and joyful arrival in the world to come.

The cross shapes the identity of the church, which is a people who have surrendered their rights to their lives and possessions at the start. If we begin to clutch at our possessions and worry about self-preservation and security, we risk becoming communities that do not bear Kingdom fruit. We risk surrendering our place in the world to come.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus calls the church to a radical form of community life that is at odds with this present age and its values. Counter-cultural communities that embody Kingdom life serve the needy and provide hospitality for the socially marginalized. Having surrendered all rights to our lives by becoming disciples, we cannot begin to speak of safety and security.


Falwell, Muslims & the Offense of the Cross

Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, an evangelical Christian institution, ignited a firestorm in his comments about carrying guns and killing Muslims:

“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he says, the rest of his sentence drowned out by loud applause while he said, “and killed them.”

“I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,” he said. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”

Some Christians may feel that comments like these are acceptable. Others who wouldn’t say such things aloud may share the sentiment.

We see a world in chaos. We see mass murder and violence. We hear of plans for domination in the name of Islam and our fears are ignited. We grow suspicious of others and can only think of protecting ourselves.

In such times, talk about forgiveness seems irresponsible. Loving and praying for enemies sounds foolish.

Jerry-Falwell-Jr

I would argue that it is unacceptable for Christians to speak as Jerry Falwell, Jr. did. Put more strongly, this is an instance of a Christian being offended by the cross.

And this shouldn’t surprise us. While we may think that the cross is an offense to an unbelieving world, in Scripture the cross is an offense to the people of God.

In the first century God’s people were under the thumb of foreign oppressors. They were mistreated. The presence of Roman soldiers in Israel and Jerusalem was a daily reminder of the nation’s existential crisis.

They wanted Rome out. They were tired of being kicked around and wanted vengeance. They cried out for justice, God’s justice, and they longed for salvation, which they understood as the purifying of God’s land of their pagan oppressors and the liberation of God’s people. Their songs of praise envisioned freedom from enemies and from fear (Luke 1).

When Jesus arrived on the scene, they were primed for a militaristic Messiah who would rally the nation, take up the cause of liberation and bring about a glorious triumph. They longed for someone in the image of their most recent nationalistic hero, Judas Maccabeus (John 6:15).

Into this situation of unrest, Jesus came as a cross-shaped Messiah to form a cross-oriented kingdom. He preached repentance from quests for revenge on Rome and called God’s people to forgive their enemies and to pray for the ones persecuting them (Matt. 5:44).

This wasn’t a popular message.

He told his hometown that God’s long-expected salvation had arrived, which thrilled them (Luke 4:14-22)! But then he said that this salvation would include Syrians and other ethnic groups they had come to despise (vv. 23-27).

They were offended and tried to kill him (vv. 28-29).

He told his disciples that he was headed to Jerusalem to die on a cross (Mark 8:31-32) and called on his followers to take up their crosses and follow him (vv. 34-35).

Peter had had enough. What script is Jesus reading from!? How is any of this going to work!?

Is he serious about “taking up the cross,” the central symbol of violent Roman oppression of our people? Crucifixion was Rome’s method of terrorizing the imaginations of a conquered people. Jewish bodies displayed on crosses served as billboards, crushing hopes for freedom and warning against insurrection.

Peter was offended by the cross and began to rebuke Jesus (Mark 8:32). “Are you insane!? Do you have any idea that this is the worst possible way to liberate God’s people? How is this going to solve the pressing problem of our people being terrorized!?”

For Jesus’ disciples to go the way of the cross meant embracing God’s upside-down way of working, crucifying their desires for vengeance and retaliation. They were to form communities of hospitality and care for one another and others (including their enemies) while giving up guarantees of personal safety and learning to see all things through a cross-shaped lens, even during times of cultural upheaval.

The gospel reveals that God accomplishes his purposes through the cross, which is “foolishness” in terms of this world’s way of doing things. It is a scandal to God’s people because it calls for the crucifixion of all other loyalties. It crucifies us to the world (Gal. 6:14), including our hopes, longings, prejudices, assumptions, fears, our desires to determine the course of events and for security. It demands absolute allegiance.

God’s way of working is a scandal and it was God’s people who were scandalized (1 Cor. 1:23).

The same impulses that led to God’s people being offended are the ones that shaped Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s comments about Muslims.

Just let them come on our campus. We would “end those Muslims!” Looking at “those people” through the lens of the cross is out of the question. What good would it do? They want to kill us!

The cross is not a personal and private matter between me and God. The cross determines everything for God’s people. It claims our bodies, our communities, our loves and longings, and secures an eternal future for those who cling to it.

As in Jesus’ day, some who identify as God’s people are offended by the cross. It seems an impossible option in an intense cultural climate of unrest.


The Church, Refugees & Jesus’ Love

Christians often speak of “showing others Jesus’ love,” or perhaps “demonstrating the love of Jesus to others.” We may speak this way with reference to the poor, those in need or others whom we are serving. When we take the initiative to do good to those in need, we are extending Jesus’ love to them.

It may be surprising to learn that these common expressions are not biblical ways of talking. And while it may not appear too sinister, such talk actually reveals a corrupted imagination with reference to Christian action and the love of Jesus. Talking about “showing others Jesus’ love” perverts the character of Christian service and reveals a misunderstanding of God’s love and presence.

It seems to me that this sort of confusion partly is responsible for the tragically anemic response of American Christian churches to the current international refugee crisis.

I say this because to talk this way is to imagine that we are the possessors of Jesus’ love. We have it and it is up to us to dispense it to others. This puts us in positions of power and control. We are patrons and others are needy clients. We occupy a superior position to others and it leaves the choice with us as to whether the situation merits “demonstrating God’s love.”

Jesus turns this assumption on its head when he speaks of service.

Sitting down, Jesus called the twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:35-37).

When disciples serve by providing hospitality and care for those with no social status (in this instance, children), they are not showing Jesus’ love. The biblical logic works in reverse. When disciples provide hospitality to people who don’t matter in the eyes of the world, they provide hospitality for Jesus. They encounter and serve Jesus and God when they serve others.

Christ Blessing the Children

The same logic runs through Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. Those who served the socially marginalized and needy were actually serving Jesus. Those who did not serve these people withheld service from Jesus and were headed for judgment.

John 12:26 makes the same point. Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.”

Where do we find Jesus so that we may know where his servants should be? Throughout the Gospels Jesus is with all the wrong kinds of people according to those who were very assured of their insider status with the God of Israel. The Pharisees imagined that they possessed God’s love and they withheld it from the unclean, from traitorous tax-collectors and other sinners. They were enraged when they found Jesus touching unclean people and providing hospitality for tax-collectors and sinners.

We find him entering a house in Tyre and healing a Syrian-Phoenician woman’s demon-possessed daughter. Mark exploits this episode to reveal and subvert the ethnic prejudices of his audiences in Mark 7.

Welcoming and providing hospitality and care for the needy, and in this case refugees, is not an option for the church. We should imagine this situation from both a hopeful perspective and a severe one. Hope, because serving others contains the promise that we will experience more of the life-giving presence of Jesus. Severity, because if we are presumptuous of our possession of God’s love and complacent regarding service to others, we risk having no connection to Jesus.

Rather than speaking of showing God’s love to others, we should talk about opportunities to encounter God’s presence and enjoy Jesus’ love. This happens when we put ourselves into uncomfortable situations and serve the needy. When we do this, we are the ones being blessed because in those acts of service we encounter Jesus and his life-sustaining presence.


God Abandons Corrupt Institutions

 

I’ve been enjoying David Garland’s excellent new work, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel, especially his treatment of Mark 13. This paragraph sums up the relevance of the chapter brilliantly:

Contemporary readers should learn from this historical disaster of the temple’s destruction that they should not be blind to the corruption of their own sacred religious institutions and think that they are immune to God’s wrath. Christians of any era can be deceived by appearances and fooled by the great stones of modern edifices that project the illusion of the invulnerability of a nation or of a hallowed organization or cause. They must not be deceived by appearances and also must be ready to read the signs and dissociate themselves from false ideologies even when they are attached to sacred institutions (p. 527).

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez

How easy is it to presume God’s loyalty to a nation, church, denomination, Christian school, mission organization?

God abandoned and judged the one institution that had more of a claim to his protection than any other in history. How wary ought we to be of the institutions and causes that elicit our loyalty, asking us to give them the benefit of the doubt?