Encountering Jesus

 

A Sermon
Presented to the Youth of the Broadway Church of Christ
Lubbock, TX
October 4, 2017

A Living Lord
Jesus is often tamed, no less in our churches.  I think, however, that we like it that way.  When we relegate Jesus to “the before time”, the “back then” we do not have to worry about him showing up today, right now.  When we confine him to stories bound in a book we do not have to worry about him making too many demands.  He becomes a static idea that we can manipulate and skirt around by mental and hermeneutic gymnastics.  But throughout history Christians have confessed their faith in a short summary called The Apostles Creed.  Within that creed there is a confession which reminds one of the most dangerous, terrifying, even rebellious things that we could ever say.  After confessing Jesus born of a virgin by the Holy Spirit, crucified under Pilate, and buried, we continue with this subversive confession: “On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  Jesus is alive.  This means that he is active.  He still speaks.  He still shows up in the world.  He still meets us unexpectedly, and that’s a terrifying thought.

It’s terrifying because I can read about Jesus calling Peter, James, and John to leave their jobs to follow him and I remain untouched by that command (cf. Lk. 5:1-11).  “Jesus spoke to them”  we say.  And when we get to work interpreting the text we ask, “But what does it mean for us?” as if we are sure it means something different.  We transform this radical call to leave one’s livelihood and we dumb it down and tame it.  We read this passage and we say, “Well, obviously Jesus is not calling us to leave our jobs.  The text only means that we are supposed to have a kind of inner detachment from our work.  It is not to be our god.”  And so we allow ourselves to remain in our jobs and our lives more or less untouched.  That is because we are dealing with a text.  We are not dealing with a living Lord.  If Jesus were to appear to you and me as he appeared to Peter, James, and John there would be no escape.  Sitting in our boats with Jesus upon the shore, our interpretation could not save us.  When Jesus issues the command to leave behind our nets and become fishers of men it would do us no good to turn to our companions and say, “Worry not, friends.  He doesn’t really mean for us to leave our work.  The world needs fishermen too.  He only means for us to carry on our work in a new spirit.  We are to fish as if we fished not.  Our hearts are to be with Jesus while our hands are with our nets.”  Who could imagine Peter, James, and John saying such a thing?  And so we are comforted when we begin to think that Jesus will never meet us like he met them.

Or perhaps we read about Jesus meeting with the woman at the well in John 4.  We read about how Jesus revealed unto her all that she had ever done, and we breathe a sigh of relief that he will never meet us like that.  That was “back there”, “back then”, and now Jesus is way away in heaven.  We don’t have to worry about him meddling in our business today like he did in hers.  But we can only hide when we are hiding behind a text.  We can only take that kind of comfort if we forget that we are dealing with a living Lord.  If we thought that Jesus might actually appear to us, as he did to this woman, while we went about grocery shopping or going to the post-office, we might feel quite differently.  If I really thought that I might meet someone around the next corner who would reveal to me “everything I have ever done” (4:29), I might feel a little more timidity about this Jesus whom we worship.  But, thank goodness I’ll never meet him.  Or will I?

Very often, I think, we are like those children C.S. Lewis describes in his book Miracles.  “There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall?  There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion (‘Man’s search for God!’) suddenly draw back.  Supposing we really found Him?  We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?”1 . We have been playing make believe. All this church stuff is fun, sure. But we never expected to actually meet Jesus. We never meant it to come to that. Why? Because then we might have to actually do something about it. Well, I’m here to tell you that he is exactly the God you have to deal with.

The Present Christ in the Powerful Spirit
Luke writes his gospel to one Theophilus.  He says, “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (1:1-4).  So we read on and we hear about all the grand things which we applaud and at which we stand amazed.  We read about the things which, while they are fantastic, we are a little glad that they are “back there.”

The disciples, however, felt a bit differently about Jesus’ presence being a thing of the past.  In his upper room discourse with his disciples they worried that he was going to leave them.  So much so that he had to offer them comfort.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled” he said (Jn. 14:1).  He continues, “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you … Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.  You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.'” (14:18, 28).  Even though Christ was going away, we would not leave them orphans.  He would not leave them alone.  He would come to them again.  In fact, he says, it is even better for him to go away and come again.  “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit; 14:16, 17] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7).  After Jesus ascension he returns in the person of the Holy Spirit.  This is why he is able to say, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).  This is not metaphorical.  It isn’t the “pretty talk” of cliché bumper sticker religion.  He means it. He will be with us.  Literally.  Jesus is present with the believer by the Holy Spirit.  This is perhaps one of the reasons it was to our advantage that he “go away.”  While Jesus was upon earth his presence was confined by the space of his body.  When he was with Peter, James, and John upon the Mount of Transfiguration he was not with the other nine at the foot of the mountain.  But now in the person of the Holy Spirit he is present with all of us.

So as we continue to read we find that the living Lord is active indeed.  He’s still “doing stuff.”  Luke writes again to Theophilus, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1, ESV).  Did you catch that?  His first book, the Gospel According to Luke, recorded all that Jesus began to do and to teach.  That means that he is still doing and teaching.  The crucified savior is the risen and ruling Lord.  This is what we mean when we confess, “On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.”  His seat is a throne of authority from which he continues to act.  When Peter and John go to the temple and heal a lame man they confess that it was Jesus himself who healed him.  “And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you” (3:16).  When the retell the story to the authorities they say, “Let it be know to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth” (4:10).  After they are released they then pray to God and say these words, “And now, Lord, look at their hearts, and grant your servants to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (4:29, 30).  Still later Peter met a man name Aeneas who had been bedridden for 8 years with paralysis and he says to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you” (9:34).  If we were to watch all of these events we would see Peter healing and praying.  But if we want to know who is really working we have to look at Peter and see Jesus.  Peter doesn’t say to Aeneas , “I heal you” or even simply, “Be healed.”  He says, “Jesus Christ heals you.”  Jesus is still working in the world and he does it through his people, like he always has.

God With Us
When Jesus was born he was called Immanuel, which means “God With Us” (Mat. 1:23).  He is now and has always been that same God.  He does not leave us alone.  He is not “way away up there.”  He is present here and now in the church, his body on earth (cf. Col. 1:18; Eph. 5:29, 30).  That is our business in the world.  We must be Christ for the world.  Christ acts through us.  “But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him” (2 Cor. 2:14).  Again, “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11).  The church makes Christ visible to the world.  She is the sign that God is still “God With Us.”

 

The Freedom of Christ and the Hard of Heart
So it is that God is still with us.  He never left.  We may meet him, in flesh and blood, just as the apostles met him.  And he may meet us, just as he met the woman at the well and Zaccheaus.    How does this happen? We’ve already hinted at one way–i.e. in the chuch–and there are other ways as well, like prayer and scripture reading.  We must first mention a quick caveat.

Insofar as we are dealing with a person, not just a text or an idea, he has a will.  He is free. As a person Jesus may choose to appear or not, and that is not up to us.

“If you are a geologist studying rocks, you have to go and find the rocks.  They will not come to you, and if you go to them they cannot run away.  The initiative lies all on your side.  They cannot either help or hinder.  But suppose you are a zoologist and want to take photos of wild animals in their native haunts.  That is a bit different from studying rocks.  The wild animals will not come to you: but they can run away from you.  Unless you keep very quiet, they will.  There is beginning to be a tiny little trace of initiative on their side.  Now a stage higher; suppose you want to get to know a human person.  If he is determined not to let you, you will not get to know him.  You have to win his confidence.  In this case the initiative is equally divided–it takes two to make a friendship.  When you come to knowing God, the initiative lies on His side.  If He does not show Himself, nothing you can do will enable you to find Him.  And, in fact, He shows much more of Himself to some people than to others–not because He has favourites, but because it is impossible for Him to show Himself to a man whose whole mind and character are in the wrong condition.  Just as sunlight, though it has no favourites, cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror as clearly as in a clean one.”2

Two things should be noted: First, the disciplines which we are about to mention are not magic, nor are they science (which are more related than we like to admit). They are ways of listening. If there is nothing to hear then listening really hard will not help. Spiritual disciplines do not compel God to show up. As such, he may not show up when we want him to. That does not mean, however, that he does not or will not. It only means that he hasn’t yet. We should wait. It is something like what Gandalf says to Frodo when he appears in the Shire. Frodo says to him, “You’re late.” To which he responds, “A wizard is never late. Nor is he early. He arrives precisely when he means to.”3

Second, if we do not meet Jesus, or hear from him, the fault may be our own. Lewis says that light cannot be reflected in a dusty mirror. Jesus says, “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them” (Mat. 13:15). If we have never expected God to show up, we cannot expect to have met him. Likewise, if we have never slowed down to listen, we ought not be surprised if we have not heard. There is a reason we are told to “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10).

Encountering Jesus
We mention here three ways by which we might encounter Jesus. First, in prayer. In prayer we ask for help. We ask for mercy and grace, and that is pictured as approaching the very throne of God. “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). When Isaiah approached the throne of God–which is identified as a vision of Christ (Jn. 12:36-41)–his life was changed forever. He saw himself in contrast to God’s holiness and he confessed, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). Not only did he see himself as he really is, but he was called to a mission in that same vision. When God asked “Who will go for us?” Isaiah responded, “Here am I; Send me!” (6:8). This is not unlike what happened when Peter came into Jesus presence in Luke 5. He confessed his sin and received a commission to become a fisher of men (5:1-11). So, we should be prepared for what may happen when through prayer we enter into the presence of God and approach the throne of grace. We may find ourselves confessing our sins or called to some far flung corner of the world. We never know what will happen or what Jesus might say. Remember, he is a person. This is a relationship. In relationships each responds to the other. And we should expect no less from Jesus.

We should also expect an answer to our prayers.  We should expect God to show up.  When David was exiled from Jerusalem because his son Absalom his trusted advisor, Ahithophel, was reported now to be in service of Absalom.  David immediately prays, “O LORD, I pray you, turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness” (2 Sam. 15:31).  What happens then is no voice from heaven, nor does Ahithophel become a babbling idiot.  Still, what happens is no less an answer from God than a voice from the clouds.  “Hushai the Archite came to meet him with his coat torn and earth on his head.  David said to him, ‘If you go on with me, you will be a burden to me.  But if you return to the city and say to Absalom, “I will be your servant, O king; as I have been your father’s servant in time past, so now I will be your servant,” then you will defeat for me the counsel of Ahithophel'” (15:32-34).  David prays that God would turn Ahithophels counsel into foolishness and immediately God answers.  He sends Hushai the Archite to do just that.  When we say that we pray to God and we listen for an answer we do not mean that we hear voices from heaven, or voices in our head for that matter.  But we do mean that God is present.  Jesus is here.  And not only does he listen, but he responds.

There is a story told of Mother Angelica, founder of Eternal Word Television Network. When things were really getting off the ground with EWTN she wanted to expand things and she ordered an enormous satellite dish. She doesn’t have the money to pay for it but she orders it anyway. When the fellow arrives with the dish he says, “I’m supposed to ask you right away for the money. I’m not going to leave this thing here until we’re paid. It’s $600,000.” She says, “Give me one minute” and goes inside to the chapel and prays to God. She says something like, “Alright Lord, I thought you wanted me to have this things, so I ordered it. You better come through.” She leaves the chapel to go and tell the fellow that she doesn’t have the money. Just as she does one of the young nuns runs up to her and says, “Mother, Mother! There’ someone on the phone who wants to talk to you right away.” On a yacht, in the Bahamas, is some business man who had read some of her books and had admired her for quite some time. He said, “Something told me that I needed to send you $600,000.” To which she responds, “Wire it right away!”4 And so she gets the dish which you can still see to this day. When she prayed, God showed up. She expected an answer, and she got one.

Second, we meet Jesus in the reading of scripture.  In the Mishnah it says, “But if two sit together and words of the Law [are spoken] between them, the Divine Presence rests between them, as it is written, Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon his name.  Scripture speaks here of ‘two’; whence [do we learn] that if even one sits and occupies himself in the Law, the Holy One, blessed is he, appoints him a reward?  Because it is written, Let him sit alone and keep silence, because he hath laid it upon him.”5 . As we read and study the word of God we enter into the presence of God and he speaks to us.

Remember that “the word of God is living and active” (Heb. 4:12). It is so because it comes from the mouth of a living Lord. As such, the words are not static. Whenever we listen to the words of scripture it would be a mistake to think that they mean only one thing and that they mean the same thing to every person. If we all came with the same question to Jesus he would not give us all the same answer. Why? Because we are all different and we all need different things. When we treat the word as if it is dead, as if it means only one thing, then we are forced to interpret it in such a way that is becomes applicable in that same way to everyone, and that is a mistake. Jesus did not call everyone he met to leave all and follow him, but he did call twelve to do just that. He did not call everyone to sell what they have and give to the poor, but he did call the rich young ruler to do just that (cf. Mat. 19:21). He did not call everyone to be an apostle to the Gentiles, but he did call Paul to be just that. Can we be sure, when we read scripture, that the words do not apply to us exactly as they are written? It is not for me to say that you must sell all that you have an give to the poor. Neither is it for me to say that you must not. You have to do with Jesus. He is the Lord which issues his command. When St. Anthony went to worship he heard the reading of the gospel which said, “Be not anxious for the morrow” (Mat. 6:34). He immediately got up, left the service, sold all that he had and went to the desert where he would depend solely upon God for tomorrow’s provisions.6 St. Anthony did not ridicule others because they did not follow him to the desert. He did not make the mistake of thinking that the word which Jesus spoke to him in the reading of the gospel was the same word that he spoke to others. But when Jesus’ command came to him he had no choice but to obey, and obey he did. We must allow for the possibility that we may meet Jesus in a similar way. He may gave us similar commands. The word of God is not dead because its author is not dead. What he says he says to each of us individually, if only we are willing to listen.

Finally, we meet Jesus in community. We have seen already how that Jesus is continually active through his body, the church. When the church is what it ought to be, when she is disciplined by the word of God, when she lives in the rhythms of the very life of God and is shaped by her worship, she may speak to us as a spokesman for Jesus.

“One of the most delightful examples comes from ‘the poor little monk of Assisi,’ St. Francis. Francis, it seems, was in ‘great agony of doubt’ about whether he should devote himself only to prayer and meditation, which was a common practice in those days, or whether he should also engage in preaching missions. Wisely, Francis sought out counsel. ‘As the holy humility that was in him did not allow him to trust in himself or in his own prayers, he humbly turned to others in order to know God’s will in this matter.’ He sent to two of his most trusted friends, Sister Clare and Brother Silvester, asking them to meet with one of their ‘purer and more spiritual companions’ and seek the will of God in the matter. Immediately, they gathered to pray and both Sister Clare and Brother Silvester returned wit the same answer. When the messenger returned, St. Francis first washed his feet and prepared him a meal. Then, kneeling down before the messenger, St. Francis asked him, ‘What does my Lord Jesus Christ order me to do?’ The messenger replied that Christ had revealed that ‘He wants you to go about the world preaching, because God did not call you for yourself alone but also for the salvation of others.’ Receiving the message as the undisputed word of Christ, St. Francis jumped up saying, ‘So let’s go–in the name of the Lord,’ whereupon he immediately embarked on a preaching mission.”7 As Peter and Paul were Christ’s representatives to so many, so the church continues to be Christ’s presence in the world. So it is said, “If you cannot listen to your brother, you cannot listen to the Holy Spirit.”8 Of course, the church, even at her best, can be fallible. So we “test everything” and “hold fast to what is good” (1 Thes. 5:21). The frailty of the church does not negate the fact that our brothers and sisters may speak the words of Christ into our lives.

 

Are You Ready?
Hopefully now it has become clear: there is no escape. Jesus is not someone “back there” and his works are not “back then.” Jesus rose from the grave on the third day. He is alive, and he is active. We meet him in a thousand different ways and he continues to speak to us. He calls us, he commands us, because he intends to change us. When we are ready to face Christ in the flesh, as a reality today, we face him as a lion, and so I am reminded of Jill in C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair. When she first arrives in Narnia she finds herself unbearably thirsty. Happily, she hears a stream near by, but as she approaches she is stopped dead in her tracks. There, just on her side of the stream, is the Lion Aslan. “If you’re thirsty, you may drink” he says. That’s Jesus invitation to us all. Hearing the stories of men and women like David, Deborah, Peter, and Paul, of certain saints like St. Anthony or St. Francis, all make us thirsty, like Jill, thirsty for an encounter with Jesus. At the same time, we are a little afraid of what might happen if we were really to meet him. So, like Jill, we ask him politely to go away. Aslan says, “Are you not thirsty?” to which she responds, “I’m dying of thirst.” “Then drink”, said the Lion. “May I–couldI–would you mind going away while I do?” said Jill. She wanted satisfaction without the Lion. Like her, we want satisfaction without Jesus. We may even want religion with Jesus. Church and family are fun. They’re full of friends and games, and we like those well enough. But very often, we’d be more pleased if we could have them without Jesus not knowing that even if we could have it, it would not satisfy. Of course, Aslan refused to move. Jill could not drink without drawing near to Aslan, and so we cannot have the life we were made for without Jesus. Of course, even Jesus isn’t so threatening, so long as we can keep him caged up in a book. That was Jill’s thought too. She thought that perhaps she could get close to Aslan by taming him. “Will you promise not to–do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill. Like her we want all of the comfort of Christ with none of the change. We want all of the riches of Christ with none of the responsibility. “I make no promise,” said the Lion. The thing is, we stand before Jesus as we would stand before a lion. We cannot know what might happen if we get too close. But if we give ourselves to Jesus he will do with us what we could never imagine. So follows this final exchange between Jill and Aslan.

“Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms,” said the Lion. It didn’t say this as if it were boasting, nor as if it were sorry, nor as if it were angry. It just said it.
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.
It never occured to Jill to disbelieve the Lion–no one who had seen his stern face could do that–and her mind suddenly made itself up.”9

We may run from Jesus, but there is no other stream. Only he has the water of life (cf. Jn. 4:14). Oddly enough, the most common way of running from Jesus is by trying to tame him. We want a promise that he isn’t going to do anything to us. But that’s not how things work. He is living, and active. His call and commands meet us sternly in prayer, in scripture, and in the community. When Peter, James, and John were commanded to leave their nets, there was no interpretation that could save them. When Jesus told Zaccheaus to come down from the sycamore tree, there was no illusion that he meant anything other than what he said. Jesus’ living voice remains today. Who knows when we will meet him or what he might say? Who knows how our lives might change? When Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy first heard of Aslan they asked if he were safe, to which Mr. Beaver responded, “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.” There is no grander adventure than being a Christian. It’s exciting. It’s dangerous. There is nothing safe about it. Do not be trouble. Though Jesus be not safe, you can trust that when you meet him you will know that he is good.

 

©M. Benfield, 2017


1. C.S. Lewis, Miracles, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 150.
2. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 164.
3. Peter Jackson, director, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, (New Line Cinema, 2001). A clip of the scene may be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HvWCnqY-GWQ .
4. As related by Bishop Robert Barron here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uDBTT9NL0_Q&t=379s .
5. Herbert Danby, trans., Mishnah, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2013), Aboth 3.2, p.450.
6. The story is related here: http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2811.htm .
7. As told by Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 180.
8. Virgil Vogt, as quoted by Richard Foster. Ibid, 187.
9. Lewis, The Silver Chair, (New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 21-23.

The Seed that Changed the World

 

A sermon delivered to the City Park Church of Christ
12th Sunday after Pentecost
July 30, 2017

TEXTS:
1 Kings 3:5-12
Ps. 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.'” (Mat. 13:31-32).

Our humble God did not gain his humility with the advent of Christ.  The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has always worked in small beginnings.  He decided that his dominion of the world should be shared with Man and Woman.  He called an unknown man from the east and made him the father of many nations.  He chose the barren to give birth to a chosen people.  He chose a small people to give birth to a Savior.  He chose a manger to give birth to a King.  And he chose a mustard seed to grow tall and play host to birds and their nests.  Such is the kingdom of heaven in the person of Jesus Christ.

The same God that did all this is the same God we serve today.  The history of the church follows in the footsteps of its crucified Christ.  Its small beginnings, with a despised carpenter from Nazareth, have quite literally shaped the world.  It did not keep its blessings to itself.  It has grown large and played hosts to civilizations and cultures.  The same God which accomplished all this can accomplish the same great things in us.  But what great things has this tiny church accomplished empowered by the kingdom of heaven?

Hospitals
Medicine has been studied for a long time.  Hippocrates, born in the fifth century B.C., is often considered the father of modern medicine.  Doctors, however, were for the wealthy.  There were some medical facilities in Rome, but they were primarily for soldiers and gladiators.  The mother of our modern hospitals was not established until the fourth century A.D. by St. Basil of Caesarea.  Moved by his faith he established an enormous complex, a “new city”, for “the care of friendless strangers, the medical treatment of the sick poor, and the industrial training of the unskilled.”1 By the middle of the 16th century there were “37,000 Benedictine monasteries alone that cared for the sick.”2 This close association with Christianity is the reason for the emblem of the Red Cross as well as such names as St. Jude’s, St. Luke’s, and our own Covenant Medical Center in Lubbock.3 Other kinds of medical care such as Hospice, established by Anglican Cicely Saunders, and the L’Arche communities of Jean Vanier were likewise inspired by a commitment to Jesus Christ and his care for “the least of these.”  Could you imagine a world without hospitals? If you can, you will then see the difference the kingdom of heaven makes out of its small beginnings.

Public Education
Public education is almost brand new in terms of world history.  It also has Christianity to thank for it establishment.  Prior to public education there was no law which required parents to educate their children.  As such, many went without any education at all.  Those which were educated were either taught by their parents or by those who were wealthy enough to hire a tutor.  This all began to change with The Massachusetts Bay School Law of 1642.

Plymouth, Massachusetts was established in 1620 and became the second successful North American colony (after Jamestown, Virginia in 1607).  It was established by Puritans who sought to separate themselves from the State Church of England.   Literacy was exceptionally important for them.  They thought that you needed to be able to read and understand the laws of the land in order to make good citizens.  They also believed that you should be able to read the Bible in order to make good people.  Suddenly, there was an influx of new settlers who did not share their commitment to literacy.  They worried that perhaps their way of life might be endangered.  So, they passed The Massachusetts Bay School Law.  It says:

“Forasmuch as the good education of children is of singular behoof and benefit to any Common-wealth; and wheras many parents & masters are too indulgent and negligent of their duty in that kinde. It is therfore ordered that the Select men of everie town, in the severall precincts and quarters where they dwell, shall have a vigilant eye over their brethren & neighbours, to see, first that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to indeavour to teach by themselves or others, their children & apprentices so much learning as may inable them perfectly to read the english tongue, & knowledge of the Capital Lawes: upon penaltie of twentie shillings for each neglect therin. Also that all masters of families doe once a week (at the least) catechize their children and servants in the grounds & principles of Religion, & if any be unable to doe so much: that then at the least they procure such children or apprentices to learn some short orthodox catechism without book, that they may be able to answer unto the questions that shall be propounded to them out of such catechism by their parents or masters or any of the Select men when they shall call them to a tryall of what they have learned of this kinde.”4

Note their two reasons for insisting upon learning to read: that they may learn the laws of the land and that they may learn Christian orthodoxy. A difficulty soon arose with the law. They may impose a fine for those who do not educate their children but what are those to do who are not themselves educated enough to teach their children or rich enough to pay someone else to do it? This led to The Old Deluder Act of 1647. It states:

“It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures, as in former times by keeping them in an unknown tongue, so in these latter times by persuading from the use of tongues, that so that at least the true sense and meaning of the original might be clouded and corrupted with false glosses of saint-seeming deceivers; and to the end that learning may not be buried in the grave of our forefathers, in church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors.

It is therefore ordered that every township in this jurisdiction, after the Lord hath increased them to fifty households shall forthwith appoint one within their town to teach all such children as shall resort to him to write and read, whose wages shall be paid either by the parents or masters of such children, or by the inhabitants in general, by way of supply, as the major part of those that order the prudentials of the town shall appoint; provided those that send their children be not oppressed by paying much more than they can have them taught for in other towns.”5

So the city required one school teacher for all children per fifty households. Again, their motives were religious. They saw public education as a way to combat “that old deluder, Satan.” His job, they said, was “to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures” and saw whatever would enable men and women to read the Bible would be war against him. It was not long before surrounding areas began to pass similar laws. The Deluder Act goes on to require the establishment of a grammar school per one hundred households in order to prepare students for college.  Our first colleges, over a hundred of them, were established as seminaries.  The Christian influence in education is undeniable.  Can you imagine a world without public education? If you can then you will begin to grasp what difference the kingdom of heaven makes out of beginnings like that of a mustard seed.

The Church
The Church itself had the humblest of beginnings.  Its cornerstone is, of course, Jesus built upon by his closest disciples, the apostles.  They were a rag-tag group of men. They were fishermen, tax-collectors, and rebels.  Two of these, Peter and John, were recognized as “uneducated and ordinary men” by their opponents.  Yet their boldness made it clear that they had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13).  Paul had the most learning of the apostles and yet he did not depend upon it.  Rather, he preached “the foolishness of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18-21; 2:1-5).  Still, it was Christ in him that “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).  This community, at first as small as a mustard seed, grew so large so as to be scattered throughout the known world.  And like that great tree became a home to the birds of the air, so the church shared its blessings with the world.  They were and we are a people who believe, fundamentally, that “it is better to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).

Jesus
It was in Jesus that the kingdom of heaven arrived.  As he stepped onto the scene of history he announced, “The kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15).  But even Jesus’ beginnings are small and despised, like that of a mustard seed.  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the question asked of him (Jn. 1:46).  Just after he told these parables the people were impressed, partly because of his despised beginnings.  They marveled, “Is not this the carpenter’s son?” (Mat. 13:55).  None of this mattered.  His lowly birth, his unworthy neighborhood, his working class family, none of it stopped him from changing the world.  He built a house which all can call their home.  The church he built spans centuries, countries, and cultures.  Billions of people have made their homes in the tree which sprung from the seed of his body.  This is the God of the Bible, the God who brings order from confusion, a great tree from a small seed, even life out of death.  This is the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

The Change in You
The tiny seeds which change the world are being sown today.  Their symbols remain in the church.  Only God can take water and birth a new family from all nations, tribes, and tongues.  Only God can take the singular meal of the Supper, the common bread and wine, and feed billions across millennia.  Only God can speak a word and change a life.  Baptism, the Supper, the preaching of the Gospel are all humble simple things, but they make the home that we inhabit.  And should this surprise us?  Jesus has made the world.  Yes, the sun, moon, and stars, but also the hospitals and the schools.  The branches which began in the mustard seed continue to grow.  Christ continues to bless the world through the church.  He changed the world forever, in amazing ways.  If he can establish the foundations of the universe, if he can build hospitals and schools, don’t you think he can do great things in you?  Those great things need not start off great.  It need only be as big as a mustard seed.  A marriage can be saved by something so small as the commitment to tell the truth.  A community can be revitalized by your signature on a petition to establish a food bank.  A soul can be saved because you took the time to listen to a person’s grieving.  A life can be put back together just because you decided to read the gospel for yourself.  Christ brought the kingdom of heaven to earth.  It began as a seed.  Today its branches provide homes for millions of homeless.  Make Christ your home today.

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. The Catholic Encylopedia, “St. Basil the Great.” Available: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02330b.htm ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.
2. “The Christian Origins of Hospitals.” Available: https://biblemesh.com/blog/the-christian-origins-of-hospitals/ ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.
3. Ibid.
4. “Massachusetts Bay School Law (1642).” Available: http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/schoollaw1642.html ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.
5. “The Old Deluder Act (1647).” Available: http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/deluder.html ; Accessed 29 July, 2017.

The Call of Christ

 

 

A sermon delivered to the City Park Church of Christ
10th Sunday after Pentecost
July 16, 2017

TEXTS:
Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The Call of Christ
The word from the Gospel is often co-opted by preacher’s to describe their work.  While we may do so by analogy the problem I have with such a comparison is that it circumvents the Christ.  He is the sower of the seed (cf. 13:37).  Jesus is and must be central to the exegesis of both Testaments.  We cannot go around him.  Because he is the sower of the seed, any preaching of the gospel must be an encounter with the living Christ, not an abstract idea which we label “Jesus.”  This changes the way that we read the words of Jesus, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer well knew.  He writes,

“Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship.  An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the whole conception of following Christ.”1

If our only encounter with Jesus is as a static idea then we may easily find our way “out of it.” We may say,

“‘It is true that the demand of Jesus is definite enough, but I have to remember that he never expects us to take his commands legalistically. What he really wants me to have is faith. But my faith is not necessarily tied up with riches or poverty or anything of the kind. We may be both poor and rich in the spirit. It is not important that I should have no possessions, but if I do I must keep them as though I had them not, in other words I must cultivate a spirit of inward detachment, so that my heart is not in my possessions.’ Jesus may have said: ‘Sell thy goods,’ but he meant: ‘Do not let it be a matter of consequence to you that you have outward prosperity; rather keep your goods quietly, having them as if you had them not. Let not your heart be in your goods.’–We are excusing ourselves from single-minded obedience to the word of Jesus on the pretext of legalism and a supposed preference for an obedience ‘in faith.'”

This is how it might look if we related to Jesus as a mere idea. This is how it might look if we treated Christianity as if it were adherence to a system of doctrine instead of obedience to a person. But that option was not available to those who met Christ by the way, as he went about sowing the seed.

“The difference between ourselves and the rich man is that he was not allowed to solace his regrets by saying: ‘Never mind what Jesus says, I can still hold on to my riches, but in a spirit of inner detachment. Despite my inadequacy I can take comfort in the thought that God has forgiven me my sins and can have fellowship with Christ in faith.’ But no, he went away sorrowful. Because he would not obey, he could not believe … But we in our sophistry differ altogether from the hearers of Jesus’ word of whom the Bible speaks. If Jesus said to someone: ‘Leave all else behind and follow me; resign your profession, quit your family, your people, and the home of your fathers,’ then he knew that to this call there was only one answer–the answer of single-minded obedience, and that it is only to this obedience that the promise of fellowship with Jesus is given. But we should probably argue thus: ‘Of course we are meant to take the call of Jesus with ‘absolute seriousness,’ but after all the true way of obedience would be to continue all the more in our present occupations, to stay with our families, and serve him there in a spirit of inward detachment.’ If Jesus challenged us with the command: ‘Get out of it,’ we should take him to mean: ‘Stay where you are but cultivate that inward detachment.'”2

No, we do not follow Christ as if he were an idea. We do not adhere to Christianity as if it were a body of doctrine. We do not preach the gospel as if it were a creed to be merely recited. The Christ which met men in the dusty deserts of Galilee is the living Christ who meets each of us today and calls us to follow him. And so we must face his call because he faces us.

“With an abstract idea it is possible to enter into a relation of formal knowledge, to become enthusiastic about it, and perhaps even to put it into practice; but it can never be followed in personal obedience. Christianity without the living Christ is inevitably Christianity without discipleship, and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ. It remains an abstract idea, a myth which has a place for the Fatherhood of God, but omits Christ as the living Son. And a Christianity of that kind is nothing more or less than the end of discipleship. In such a religion there is trust in God, but no following of Christ. Because the Son of God became Man, because he is the Mediator, for that reason alone the only true relation we can have with him is to follow him.”3

And so we find a living and resurrected Savior, not a dead and dying god. He is no idea. He is a man, just as you and I are men. As such, his call comes as definite and clear as my voice is to yours.

“When he was challenged by Jesus to accept a life of voluntary poverty, the rich young man knew he was faced with the simple alternative of obedience or disobedience. When Levi was called from the receipt of custom and Peter from his nets, there was no doubt that Jesus meant business. Both of them were to leave everything and follow. Again, when Peter was called to walk on the rolling sea, he had to get up and risk his life. Only one thing was required in each case–to rely on Christ’s word, and cling to it as offering greater security than all the securities in the world. The forces which tried to interpose themselves between the word of Jesus and the response of obedience were as formidable then as they are to-day [sic]. Reason and conscience, responsibility and piety all stood in the way, and even the law and ‘scriptural authority’ itself were obstacles which pretended to defend them from going to the extremes of antinomianism and ‘enthusiasms.’ But the call of Jesus made short work of all these barriers, and created obedience. That call was the Word of God himself, and all that it required was single-minded obedience.”4

What then do I mean? Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to leave your job as he called Matthew, Peter, James, and John? Maybe. Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to sell all that you have and give to the poor? Yes, maybe. Do I mean that Jesus is calling you to leave your family and to follow him wherever he bids you go? Yes, maybe. That is something that neither you nor I can determine. That is determined by Christ alone.

If we believe that the same Christ that met Peter and his brothers by the sea is the same Christ we worship, why should we think that he calls no one in similar fashion today? If we believe that the same Christ which met the rich young man is the same Christ which is alive today, why should we think that he calls no one to a similar destiny? Is there no one which needs to hear that call? If we believe that the same Christ which called men to leave father and mother is the same Christ which calls us today, why should we not believe that he issues the same call to some today?

No, it is not necessary for everyone to leave his occupation. No, it is not necessary for everyone to leave their families behind. And yes, it is possible to have riches and faith in Christ. But often this is only made possible by first giving them up, as Abraham received Isaac again only after he had sacrificed him to the LORD.

“[I]t is possible to have wealth and the possession of this world’s goods and to believe in Christ–so that a man may have these goods as one who has them not. But this is an ultimate possibility of the Christian life … It is by no means the first and the simplest possibility. The paradoxical understanding of the commandments has its Christian justification, but it must never lead to the abandoning of the single-minded understanding of the commandments. This is only possible and right for somebody who has already at some point or other in his life put into action his single-minded understanding, somebody who thus lives with Christ as his disciple and in anticipation of the end.”5

When we read the call of Matthew or the call of the rich young man, we should not assume that ours is the same call, but neither should we exclude it from possibility.

“Obedience to the call of Jesus never lies within our own power. If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience he demands. In fact such a step might be the precise opposite of obedience to Jesus, for we might then be choosing a way of life for ourselves, some Christian ideal, or some ideal of Franciscan poverty. Indeed in the very act of giving away his goods a man can give allegiance to himself and to an ideal and not to the command of Jesus. He is not set free from his own self but still more enslaved to himself. The step into the situation where faith is possible is not an offer which we can make to Jesus, but always his gracious offer to us.”6

The point is simply this: each time the gospel is preached it is not a mere exchange of information, it is a meeting with the risen and living Lord.

“Jesus Christ is not dead, but alive and speaking to us to-day [sic] through the testimony of the Scriptures.  He comes to us to-day [sic], and is present with us in bodily form and in his word.  If we would hear his call to follow, we must listen where he is to be found, that is, in the Church through the ministry of Word and Sacrament.  The preaching of the Church and the administration of the sacraments is the place where Jesus Christ is present.  If you would hear the call of Jesus you need no personal revelation: all you have to do is to hear the sermon and receive the sacrament, that is, to hear the gospel of Christ crucified and risen.  Here he is, the same Christ whom the disciples encountered, the same Christ whole and entire.  Yes, here he is already, the glorified, victorious and living Lord.”7

It is that sort of encounter which Jesus is describing in the Parable of the Sower. The previous chapters of Matthew describe various responses to people’s encounters with Jesus; This parable is an explanation of those various responses. And so, this parable invites us to ask ourselves how we have responded and how we will respond when we meet him again.

The Seed Eaten by Birds
The first response to Christ is describe as that seed which fell along the path (13:4).  “Hear then the parable of the sower.  When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path” (13:18, 19).

The first response to Christ is pictured as puzzlement and confusion.  It is not because Christ is enigmatic or his call unclear.  Understanding is not only a matter of the intellect; It is a matter of the heart.  It takes moral training in order to understand holiness.  Even his own disciples often misunderstood what he said.  They did so because they still treasured in their hearts visions of power and conquest.  When victory means killing your enemies one cannot help but misunderstand when the conqueror predicts his own death (cf. Mark 9:9-10, 30-32; also Mat. 16:13-23).  And so it is that Satan is often at work in our hearts to make Jesus message unintelligible.  “The evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.”

The Seed on Rocky Ground
“As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away” (13:20-21).

To “be rooted” is to be attached to Jesus for Jesus’ sake.  Those who have “no root” are those who have not attached themselves to a person but an idea, the very abstraction which I described at the beginning of this sermon.  An idea is completely within our control.  We may take it, leave it, or alter it whensoever we wish.  We may construct a Christ of our own liking.  If that abstraction brings with it any difficulty then we may discard it without harm and so we “immediately fall away.”  Only when we “root” ourselves in Jesus, in his living person, do we find root in anything of substance.  It is the strength of the living Christ which offers us the strength to endure persecution.

“Jesus hath many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of His Cross.  He hath many seekers of comfort, but few of tribulation.  He findeth many companions of His table, but few of His fasting.  All desire to rejoice with Him, few are willing to undergo anything for His sake.  Many follow Jesus that they may eat of His loaves, but few that they may drink of the cup of His passion.  Many are astonished at His miracles, few follow after the shame of His Cross.  Many love Jesus so long as no adversities happen to them.  Many praise Him and bless Him, so long as they receive any comforts from Him.  But if Jesus hide Himself and withdraw from them a little while, they fall either into complaining or into too great dejection of mind.  But they who love Jesus for Jesus’ sake, and not for any consolation of their own, bless Him in all tribulation and anguish of heart as in the highest consolation.  And if He should never give them consolation, nevertheless they would always praise Him and always give Him thanks.  Oh what power hath the pure love of Jesus, unmixed with any gain or love of self!  Should not all they be called mercenary who are always seeking consolations?  Do they not prove themselves lovers of self more than of Christ who are always seeking their own gain and advantage?  Where shall be found one who is willing to serve God altogether for nought?”8

We may not idealize Christ or Christianity because it is not ideals that we love. It is not ideals that we worship. We follow of a living Lord. But we must not forget the resurrected Lord is the crucified Christ, and “it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master” (Mat. 10:25). To be rooted in Christ is to be destined for suffering but we “rely on Christ’s word, and cling to it as offering greater security than all the securities of the world.”9 Nothing else can sustain in time of trial.

The Seed Among Thorns
“As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing” (13:22).  Just as the ground cannot sustain both the wheat and the thorns, so no man can serve two masters (cf. Mat. 6:19-24).  The call of Christ is to leave everything behind and follow him.  As goes the proverb, “If Christ is not Lord of all he is not Lord at all.”  Unless my money is under the sovereignty of Christ, it is a danger to me.  Unless I do my work as unto the Lord with faith in his provision, it is harmful to my spirit.  Unless I enjoy my pleasures as a grace from God, they erode my soul.  Unless I receive each meal as a gift from him who gives all good things, I eat to my own damnation.  My heart has room for only one master and Christ lays claim to its throne.  In order to place another upon his seat I must insist that Jesus move over.  And if I do I am assured that I will “yield nothing” (13:22).

The Seed on Good Ground
“But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (13:23).  Christ calls us all individually.  Just as the decision whether to sell our possessions, or leave our occupation, or leave behind our family is dependent upon the call of Christ, so is our own productivity.  God gives the increase.  It is not for everyone to lead myriads to Christ and we should not pridefully insist upon being greater than our call.  If we have answered the call at all we have answered the call which Christ has given to us and that is our satisfaction.  “In other words, disciples do not come in only one size or type, and there is room in the kingdom of God for the ordinary as well as for the spectacular.”10

Tilling the Soil
Jesus tell us what makes the difference in the soils. When he describes those whom we are understand as bad soil he says of them,

“With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: ‘You will indeed listen, but never understand, and you will indeed look, but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes; so that they might not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and understand with their heart and turn–and I would heal them.'” (13:14, 15).

Adopting the language of the psalms to describe idol worshipers, Jesus describes those who become like the idols they worship. Those who reject Christ do so because they are idolators. When a man meets Jesus he receives the call to come follow him. That call constitutes the call to forfeit his idols and worship Jesus as the one and only true God. It is a man’s unwillingness to part with his idols which results in the rejection of Christ.

This is informative because by contrast it also indicates to us the way in which we may prepare our hearts to receive Christ and hear his call–we worship him.

“To the question–where to-day [sic] do we hear the call of Jesus to discipleship, there is no other answer than this: Hear the Word, receive the Sacrament; in it hear him himself, and you will hear his call.”11

This is why the liturgy of so many Christian traditions all lead up to the Lord’s Supper, as I could wish we did here. There we meet Christ. There we hear his call, over and over again. At the celebration of the Eucharist in The Book of Common Prayer the celebrant offers you the Supper and then commissions you to enter the world on behalf of Christ. They may say, “Let us go forth in the name of Christ” or “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”12 In the Catholic tradition it is so called “Mass” from the Latin “Missa” because it is the past participle of the verb “to send.”13 We come to be sent. We come to hear the call. Having heard the Word and received the Supper, you have been called by Jesus himself.  Will you answer the call of Christ?

 

©M. Benfield 2017


1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 59.
2. Ibid, 80-81.
3. Ibid, 59.
4. Ibid, 79.
5. Ibid, 82.
6. Ibid, 84-85.
7. Ibid, 225-226.
8. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Trans. Rev. William Benham, (Einstein Books), “Of the Fewness of Those Who Love the Cross of Jesus”, II.11.1-3, pp. 42-43.
9. Bonhoeffer, 79.
10. R.T France, New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, Ed. Wenham, Motyer, Carson, and France, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 921.
11. Bonhoeffer, 228.
12. The Book of Common Prayer According to the Use of the Episcopal Church, (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2007), “The Holy Eucharist: Rite One”, 339-340.
13. “Mass”, Dictionary.com. Available at: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/mass?s=t ; Accessed 15 July, 2017.

The No-True-God Fallacy: A Blind Man’s Confession

 

 

Having reviewed my own work in the previous article about who God is and what sort of God he is, I realize that it is an easy article to contest.  One might easily say that I have committed the No-True-Scotsman fallacy.  This fallacy is an after-the-fact attempt to rescue an argument from refutation.  It is so called the No-True-Scotsman fallacy for the illustrations that are often used to explain it.

Smith:  All Scotsmen are loyal and brave.
Jones: But McDougal over there is a Scotsman, and he was arrested by his commanding officer for running from the enemy.
Smith: Well, if that’s right, it just shows that McDougal wasn’t a TRUE Scotsman.1

Or another form, which was my first introduction to the idea and still the one which first comes to mind, goes like this:

Person A: No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.
Person B: But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.
Person A: Ah yes, but not true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.2

One might say this is the sort of thing I have done.  I have asserted that God exists.  Then, when someone points out that there is suffering in the world, I simply respond by saying, “Ah yes, but the sort of God that is disproved thereby is not the God of the Bible.  The true God is not disproved by suffering.”  One might say that in the face of any evidence which would refute God I simply say, “The God you have refuted is not the true God.”  One might say that this is “simply a dogmatic refusal to face up to the possibility of being wrong.”3 Is this what I have done? Have I committed the No-True-God Fallacy?

Have I failed to make God intelligible?  What am I to do?  Should I recant all that I have said?  I find myself in the position of the blind man by the pool of Siloam.  And so, consider this a blind man’s confession.

The Unbelievers Who “Know” God, and the Believer Who Doesn’t
In John 9 Jesus and his disciples come across “a man blind from birth” (9:1).  Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent).  then he went and washed and came back able to see” (9:6, 7).  It is undeniable that this man had been changed by Jesus, so much so that even those who knew him were not sure that he was the same person.  “The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’  Some were saying, ‘It is he.”  Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’  He kept saying, ‘I am the man.'” (9:8, 9).

The most interesting thing about the encounter is the man’s agnosticism.  Whenever he is asked for an explanation as to how he came to see all he can tell is what happened to him, but as to who Jesus is, where he came from, or how we was able to perform the miracle, he repeats over and over, “I don’t know.”  “But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’  He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’  Then I went and washed and received my sight.’  They said to him, ‘Where is he?’  He said, ‘I do not know.'”

In contrast, those who refuse to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah are quite sure that they know what sort of man Jesus is.  “They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind.  Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight.  He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes.  Then I washed, and now I see.’  Some of the Pharisees said ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.'” (9:13-16a).  Whereas the healed man did not know where Jesus was, certain the Pharisees knew where he was not from.  They were certain that he was not from God.  Others, however, were more cautious.  “But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’  And they were divided.” (9:16b).

They turn to the formerly blind man and ask him again to explain the man who healed him.  This time he ventures beyond his agnostic position to say simply, “He is a prophet” (9:17).  The Jews who interrogated him were not even sure that the man was born blind or whether he was making it up.  After calling his parents to witness to the truth of the matter they turn again to the man and say, “Give glory to God!  We know that this man is a sinner” (9:24).  Again, those who reject Jesus are the one’s that make the strongest claims to know him.  They know that he is a sinner.  The blind man continues his cautious and agnostic approach about the nature of Jesus.  “He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see'” (9:25).

After the blind man’s expulsion he has another encounter with Jesus.  “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’  He answered, ‘And who is he, sir?  Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’  Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’  He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’  And he worshiped him” (9:35-38).  How ironic that it is the life-long blind man who “sees” Jesus (9:37).

As so often happens in scripture, Jesus explains his actions to those around him as a kind of enacted parable.  “Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’  Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’  Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin.  But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.'” (9:39-41).  The blind man knew well that he was blind, not only physically but spiritually.  He did not presume to know who Jesus was, and thereby he was able to accept Jesus as coming from God.  It was this “blind” man who has his sins forgiven.  The mistake lies with those who were so sure that they could see, both physically and spiritually.  They “knew” who Jesus was and what sort of man he was.  It is that claim to knowledge that made them unable to accept Jesus.  It is because they said “We see” that their “sin remains” (9:41).

We Do Not Make God Intelligible, He Makes Us Intelligible
All those who are sure that they know what sort of God the God of the Bible is find themselves in the place of the Jews who opposed him.  They had read the Bible, they were sure that they “knew” what the Messiah would look like, how prophets would act, and what sort of God they served.  It was that “knowledge” of God which caused them to refuse Jesus.  As it turns out, the God they rejected was not the God they met in Jesus Christ.  So it is with so many unbelievers.  They have perhaps read the Bible and maybe even some philosophy.  They are then sure that they know what sort of God the Christian God is and that is the very thing which stops them from being able to accept him.

But if they are the Pharisees then that leaves me in the place of the blind man.  Often the best that I can do when asked about God is to say, “I don’t know.”  Still, given that it turned out well for the blind man, I don’t think that’s a bad place to be.  “Disputes between those who believe in God and those who do not often turn on the assumption by both parties that they know what they mean when they say ‘God.’  This seems unlikely, since Christians believe that we learn to use the word ‘God’ only through worship and prayer to the One we address as Father, Son, and Spirit.  Such a God is identified by a story that takes time, often a lifetime, to learn.”4 Because this is the case, it is likely misguided to try and defend God or explain him. Even believers are often not quite sure what to say about God.   And when they are “sure” they are often wrong.  But I think that is because God does not gain his intelligibility from us, rather we get ours from him. We do not explain him, he explains us. The blind man put it so well. “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (9:25). He could not make sense of who had healed him. But the only explanation for the blind man’s sight was that someone had healed him. He could not explain Jesus, but only Jesus could explain him. Hans Urs Von Balthasar says something about this dynamic when he says, “John’s designation of Christ as the Logos points to the fact that the evangelist envisions him as fulfilling the role of cosmic reason, in the Greeks’ and in Philo’s sense as that which grants all things their intelligibility.”5

The Church that Only God Could Make
Mortimer Adler once described his attempt at apologetics using the works of Thomas Aquinas.

“One year–in 1936, I believe–that seminar began with the ‘Treatise on God.’  I announced that I would not move a page beyond Question 2 until I had succeeded in persuading every member of the class that the existence of God could be demonstrated by one or another of the proofs advanced by Aquinas.  One by one they gave in, either from some measure of conviction or, more likely, from weariness and boredom with the protracted process; but one, Charles Adams, indomitably held out.  Finally, my professorial colleague, Malcolm Sharp, called a halt to the proceedings and suggested that, instead of sticking to my guns with Adams, I tell the class about the life and work of Aquinas.  I did so, stressing the shortness of his career as a teacher and writer (a little more than twenty years) in which, under the austerities of monastic life, with no libraries, typewriters, in ordinary-sized volumes, would occupy many shelves; and, I added, most of these works were filled with quotations from Sacred Scripture, from the philosophers of antiquity, from the Fathers of the Church, and from his immediate predecessors in the 11th and 12th centuries–all this without having the convenience of a well-stocked library or an adequate filing system.  When I had finished, Adams spoke up.  He rebuked me for not having started out by telling the class what I had just finished reporting.  ‘Why?’  I asked.  ‘Because,’ said Adams, ‘if you had told us all this about Aquinas, you would not have had to bother our minds with arguments about God’s existence.  Aquinas could not have done what he did without God’s help.”6

Whereas, for Adams, Aquinas had failed to make God intelligible, he was sure that only God could make Aquinas intelligible.  It may be that the church’s best apologetics is being the church.  Stanley Hauerwas tells of a woman who served as his priest for some time, “Susan would often begin her sermons by observing that she could not ‘think the church up.’  She could not imagine an Aldersgate, but God can and does.  What a wonderful way to put it.”7 Our response to the living Christ is not to explain him but to live lives which only he could explain. This is a hard call to answer because so often Christians have severed their theology from the way that they live. Christianity has become formal knowledge of a private creed instead of discipleship to a living Christ. “I have come to think that the challenge confronting Christians is not that we do not believe what we say, though that can be a problem, but that what we say we believe does not seem to make any difference for either the church or the world.”8

It is time for the church to be the church.  It could very well be it is our lives, not our arguments, which need conversion.  There is a story often told of G.K. Chesterton.  He was asked if there was any irrefutable argument for Christianity.  He said, “Yes. Christians.”  Immediately following he was asked if there was any really good argument against Christianity to which he answered, “Yes.  Christians.”

I may not be able to make God intelligible.  The church may not be able to make God intelligible.  But the church can be a body which only God makes intelligible.  Let’s get about being the church that only God could make.

 

©M. Benfield 2017

 


1. This example is taken from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available here: http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#NoTrueScotsman ; accessed 9 July, 2017. There it is noted that the No-True-Scotsman Fallacy is a different way of naming what is called an Ad Hoc Rescue.
2. This is the first form given on Wikipedia, available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_true_Scotsman ; accessed 9 July, 2017.
3. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Ad Hoc Rescue.” Available at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/fallacy/#AdHoc Rescue ; accessed 7 July, 2017.
4. Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir, (Grand Rapids: Eerdsman, 2012), 236.
5. Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Love Alone is Credible, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 54.
6. Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think About God: A Guide for the 20th Century Pagan, (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 22-23.
7. Hauerwas, 222.
8. Ibid, 159.

God’s Good World and the Image of God (Part 4)

 

God’s good creation has fallen under the curse.  He moves to redeem the world and he does so through Abraham and his family, the nation of Israel.  But, Israel too has fallen prey to the curse.  The rescuer needs rescuing.  That savior is Jesus of Nazareth.  He carries forth Israel’s Story.  He becomes representative of Israel and humanity itself.  He succeeds where we have failed.  In so doing he restores Israel and releases the blessing of New Creation into the world.  Let’s dive in and so how all of this works out.

The Gospels are those four books which give us most of what we know about Jesus’ life and each one in its own way makes a point of connecting Jesus’ story to both the Story of Israel as well as the long sad Story of human history.  For example, Matthew begins his Gospel with the words biblos geneseos (Βίβλος γενέσεως) in Greek which means “The book of the generation” or “the book of the genealogy.”  This may not seem overly significant until one realizes that those words form the very chorus of the book of Genesis.  Ten times Genesis draws attention to “the generations” or “the genealogy” or “the story” of a particular person (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:10, 27; 25:12, 19; 36:1; 37:2).  The first two of these times the exact phrase biblos geneseos is used in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (called the Septuagint or LXX).  By using this phrase Matthew connects Jesus’ story to the Story of creation (2:4), the Story of all Mankind (5:1), and the Story of Israel in particular (11:27 etc.).  Matthew intends for us to understand the Jesus is the one who carries this Story forward.

John is even less opaque.  His gospel begins exactly like the book of Genesis begins, “In the beginning” (John 1:1; Gen. 1:1).  Just like there were seven days of creation, John shapes his gospel around the number seven in many ways but specifically by recording seven signs of Jesus culminating in his resurrection.  He even enumerates the first two signs just as God enumerated the days of creation.  “The first of his signs … the second sign …” (John 2:11; 4:54).

Jesus’ story is the Story of Man carried forward.  A designation frequently used to refer to Jesus is “the Son of Man” which, as already noted, means “the Human Being.”  But his story is also the Story of Israel carried forward.  In a myriad of ways he relives Israel’s history.  Just as Israel was called out of Egypt as God’s firstborn son (cf. Ex. 4:22), so Jesus was called out of Egypt as God’s son.  Matthew even uses a quotation from Hosea which refers to Israel herself and applies it to Jesus.  “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son'” (Mat. 3:15; cf. Hos. 11:1).  Jesus forty days in the wilderness being tempted by the devil (Mat. 4:1ff) mirror Israel’s forty years wandering in the wilderness.  And even Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan corresponds to Israel’s crossing of the Jordan which was itself recalling Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea in their exodus from Egypt (cf. Josh. 4:23).  After Jesus’ baptism and wilderness temptation he enters the synagogue in Nazareth and reads a section from Isaiah (61:1, 2) describing the mission of God’s “servant” (a name for Israel–Isa. 42:1; 43:10) and declares the scripture fulfilled in him (Luke 4:21).  Jesus is an Israelite who now embodies/represents Israel.  He is the True Israelite.  And he proves himself to be such by fulfilling Israel’s mission as described in the prophets.  He does in fact go about releasing the “captives”, curing the blind, and bring good news to the poor.

On one occasion Jesus saw a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years.  After healing her he describes the healing as an instance in which he has set the captive free.  He asks the indignant leaders, “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” (Luke 13:16).

On another occasion Jesus meets a man with a withered hand.  Jesus “restores” it to health.  The word translated “restored” (apekatestathe)is significant.  A form of the same word is put into the mouth of Peter as he looks forward to the fate of all the world.  God is working towards a “universal restoration (apokatastaseos)” (Acts 3:21).  What God intends to do for the whole world he does in miniature through Jesus Christ for this man with a withered hand.  The curse which has tainted all of creation since Genesis 3 is responsible for the state of the man’s hand and Jesus, by reversing the curse, brings God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, he heals creation and “restores” the man.  Just as God intended to fix what went wrong through Israel so he does through Jesus the True Israelite.

But these local victories only point forward to that grander cosmic victory.  The preaching and healing that accompanied Christ where ever he went were ways of “binding the strong man” so that Jesus could eventually “plunder his property” (Mark 3:27).  The details of how Jesus’ death turned out to be a victory is not explained, the Bible only says that it was.

As Jesus went to his death he faced, not just the Jewish guards, nor the Roman empire, but the “power of darkness” itself (Luke 22:53).  In his death, when he was “lifted up,” the “ruler of this world” was “driven out” and “condemned” (John 12:31, 32; 16:11).  By the voluntary sacrifice of his life (John 10:17, 18) Jesus exhausted the power of the twin terrors of sin and death (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14).  Death, now without power (Acts 2:24), could not hold him and he resurrected on the third day in a body untouched by the curse, which would never see corruption (Acts 2:31, 32).  The work which God began, in some sense, was now “finished” (John 19:30).  The curse is lifted and the spell broken.  Jesus’ body is the first bit of New Creation, an incorruptible creation.  And the promise is that all of those who are joined to Jesus by faith and baptism will share in a resurrection like his (1 Cor. 15:20-23; 1 John 3:2).

But if Jesus has broken the back of sin and death, why do people still die?  And why is it that even those who belong to Jesus still sin?  And what are we supposed to do about it, if anything?  That will be the topic and concern of the fifth and final article in this series.

CONCLUSION:
1. Jesus is the climax of the long Story of the Bible.  God made the world to be ruled by Man and never rescinded that commitment.  When Man fell and brought the curse upon creation he moved to save Man by Man, specifically through Israel.
2. Israel, the rescuer of the world, found that she too shared in the curse.  He continually broken the partnership she had with God and brought curses upon herself.  The rescuer needed rescue.
3. Jesus, both the True Israelite and the True Human Being, came to restore Israel and to break the twin terrors of sin and death.  He began the work in his life and won the final victory in his death.  By submitting to death he exhausted the power of death and brought new life, indeed New Creation into the world.
4. This means that the New Age, the age which is no longer run by sin, death, corruption, oppression, war, and injustice but rather by righteousness, life, freedom, peace and justice, has begun with the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If that New Age has begun then we ought to live as if we are there instead of here.  We must live as people of life, peace, freedom, and justice.  Now.  This is what it means to be fully human.

©M. Benfield 2016