Faith that works

 

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People sometimes settle for a phoney notion of faith. They say “Just believe!” as if it’s Santa Claus we’re talking about and not God, and that me wanting to talk about it is just spoiling everyone’s fun.

It’s as if you are invited to check in your brains at reception when you enter Christian Club.

The thing is that this is just too important to get wrong. And also, shouldn’t “the truths that we hold to be self-evident” be strong enough to stand a little investigation? That’s what Robert Heinlein meant when he said that “Faith strikes me as intellectual laziness.”

Of course, the Bible is quite clear that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.For by grace are you saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).

So we see that faith, given as a gift by God, is what saves us. But the next verse tells of the results of that salvation: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Rather than being saved by some easy act of our own wills, we are saved by the hand of God Almighty, by His will and for His use. We are His servants, and from the moment of salvation by faith, we embark on a journey of pre-ordained good works that are the evidence of that salvation. If there is no evidence of growth and good works, we have reason to doubt that salvation ever truly took place. “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20), and a dead faith is not a saving faith.

And we have to acknowledge that “It would be the height of absurdity to label ignorance tempered by humility “faith“! as John Calvin put it in the Institutes (III.2.3) .

No, faith has to “work” in all kinds of ways. Look, for example,  at 2 Peter:1:

Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is short-sighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1: 5-11)

I always remember my Maths teacher at school demanding that I show my “working.” The reason for that was to indicate the process by which you arrived at your conclusion. So Peter’s list is the working-out process of faith.

It’s interesting that it’s impetuous Peter who’s supplying this careful, disciplined program!

So:

Faith works itself out  in “goodness” (virtue, moral sensitivity) which means, approximately, a clean conscience. If we are living in conscious disobedience to God, then how can we expect to grow in Him or receive from Him?

And this “goodness” precedes “knowledge.” In this context, this means knowledge of  God’s ways and God’s laws (the Bible, in other words) and this informs our conscience and sets the bar for all our thinking and behavior.

But knowing the truth does not help if we do not exercise “self-control” to practice the truth. Thus self-control is next. But self-control on a few occasions will not help if we then yield and mess it up in one swell foop (as P.G.Wodehouse used to say). So we need “perseverance” when the tough times come. Which, in a normal life, is every twenty minutes or so.

As we persevere, we develop “godliness,” which refers (more or less) to living in a real awareness of God in every situation.

But true godliness is not just “my business,”  as if it’s a  private matter between the me and God that has no community repercussions. It manifests itself in godly relationships. Thus we need “brotherly kindness” and self-sacrificing “love.” I’m part of the family -the community of Jesus – and this is how my faith works out, in community.

It’s important to realise that this list of seven qualities is not “a big bunch of Shoulds” (as someone expressed it to me!). It’s a description, not a prescription. It’s what happens when someone becomes alive to God.

Of particular importance is that first quality of “goodness (moral excellence).” It’s there in 1:3 too, in reference to Jesus, and again in 2:9 to refer to “the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” According to Michael Green, It was used “to denote the proper fulfillment of anything. The excellence of a knife is to cut, of a horse to run.”

 Entirely fitted to the purpose of its creation.

Now, since Peter uses it just two verses before to refer to Jesus Christ, we may generalise that here he means, “Christlikeness,”  that we are to grow in the character qualities that marked Jesus. Just as Jesus always obeyed the Father and lived to glorify Him, so should we. But don’t slip into that “Should” again, as if this is some kind of Pharisaical Exercise to be undergone with rugged determination and gritted teeth. It is “Christ in you” that is the “hope of glory. ”  And “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” 

So we do nothing? We just “let go and let God”? (Or any one of a hundred assorted cliches). No.

“He has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. And for this very reason, make every effort ….”

I love the sense of living the Christ-life. I love developing my sensitivity towards God’s words and God’s summons in any situation (even when I get it terribly wrong, I still love to “make every effort” to do it). What do you want me to do today, Lord? There’s an old song that I woke up singing:

“Purify my heart… I want to be set apart for you, Lord. Ready to do your will.” Like Jesus. Entirely fitted…

 

 

 

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“The God we serve is able to deliver…”

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“If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Romans 14:8)

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.’” (Daniel 3:17-18)

The two quotes above were separated by about five centuries – the distance between, say, Martin Luther and Winston Churchill- but they could almost have been said by the same people. That’s because the same spirit pervades both.

It’s a spirit of courageous determination that refuses to yield, despite the odds stacked up against them. And the determination is based on a conviction about the character of God, that “the God we serve is able to deliver us.”  And the conviction led to the assurance that  “he will [indeed] deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.” 

Don’t you love the stately deference by which they refer to the king as “Your Majesty” but then stubbornly refuse to obey him?

That refusal stems from that word “serve.” Jesus said “No man can serve two masters.” And I remember dogwalking days out in the fields when I realised that no dog can chase two rabbits, either! It’s a sheer impossibility.

And from my home in Indiana, I cannot simultaneously travel to New York and Los Angeles. I have to choose.

And you see that choice, loud and clear, between “the God we serve” and the “gods … [and] the image of gold”  that “we will not serve.”  The direction has been chosen. There’s no room for negotiation any more.

The interesting moment comes after the choice has been made. It’s the moment when courage kicks in. It recalls that familiar phrase from Benjamin Disraeli: “Courage is fire, and bullying is smoke” which, in context, was a challenge to parliamentary opponents to do their worst. “Bring it on,” we might say.

Bring what on? Fear. The fear of the consequences. There’s a moment in George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones when Bran asks:

“’Can a man still be brave if he’s afraid?’
‘That is the only time a man can be brave,’ his father told him.”

Courage kicks in after you make the choice to do what is right in the teeth of the consequences.

And the men of the “fiery furnace” knew that: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand.  

But even if he does not…”  If he does not?

It is one thing to have confidence in God’s power and ability to rescue. It’s quite another to trust that God knows best, and will do the best thing, whatever the personal outcome!

But how can you get to that place of courage and determination in the very face of fear? Paul phrased it in terms of submission to the Master’s will: “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

It is a powerful twist of historical irony  that the guys in the furnace were  in fact delivered, but that Paul himself was not. They survived through a miraculous intervention, but Paul (according to historical tradition) was beheaded during the reign of the Emperor Nero.

And Jesus himself prayed in the garden of Gethsemane that the “cup” of suffering be taken from him. But, he concluded, “Yet not my will but thine.” The human desire to survive at any cost was subordinated to the determination to do the Father’s will. When Peter remonstrated with Jesus’s acceptance of the way of the cross (in Mark 8), Jesus rounded on him, declaring that he was putting the “things of men” before the will of God.

And that is always the temptation before us.

There was an immense courage in Martin Luther when he faced down his opponents, declaring, “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me. Amen!” He might well have anticipated a speedy execution, but he dug in his heels and stood firm anyway.

And Churchill was no stranger to the anxiety and depression that came from taking on insurmountable odds. He said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” There’s a dogged determination there, a refusal to quit no matter what.

And, as Christians, we look to the one who is able to deliver… the one who will deliver. But even if, finally, he chooses a different path for me (Gulp), I am still His, and He is still mine. “If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

God is in control. All will be well.

 

 

 

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“Even though I walk through the darkest valley…”

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“When I walk into the thick of trouble, keep me alive in the angry turmoil. With one hand strike my foes, With your other hand save me. Finish what you started in me, God. Your love is eternal—don’t quit on me now.” (Psalm 138:8)

There’s a gutsy quality about Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of the Psalms that reminds you of something really important. To put it simply, it’s that God  -and a God-awareness- spreads over the whole of our lives and can’t be fenced off in one small corner. We tend to keep things in tidily separated compartments, like a small child insisting that the potatoes, meat and veg are all kept apart on his plate.

But life isn’t like that. Things get messy!

Sooner or later we get into the thick of it. Sooner or later, things get mixed up together. For example, some would say: “As a Christian, you shouldn’t really get involved in politics” or even, “Why do they keep going on about religion at Christmas?”

Everything gets mixed up. Think about your motives. There seems to be no out-and-out-good-deed that isn’t somehow just a little self-referential, or mixed up with something just a little less worthy, if we are truthful enough with ourselves.

Think of your emotions. There’s an old cliché about how close love is to hate, but even in the thick of real committed love you realise that you two are two colours of paint, impossible to separate. “And they shall become one flesh” is not a fanciful metaphor, it’s the realistic expression of how that mashed potato gets mashed up with the veg, whether you will or not.

We’re part of one another’s lives. We live in the thick of it together.

Even good and evil, through those motives, those emotions good and bad…. somehow even good and evil get mixed up together. Quoting Paul Russell ““If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that the unfortunate thing about life is that everything’s mixed. There’s no absolute good and there’s no absolute evil. There’s just a lot of confusion.”

This is brilliantly stated in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s  The Gulag Archipelago: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

The Bible calls it “the evil day.” What do you do when you walk through the valleys?

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars…” Don’t be afraid. Don’t get overwhelmed by the noise of the turmoil. And as the Psalmist has it here:  “In the thick of it, we call on you.”

Acknowledging the condition is one thing. But what do we call on God for?

The first thing is survival and protection: Just keep me alive. Life is lived in the thick of it. So lead me not into temptation. Deliver me from evil. This online dictionary defines deliver as “to set free or liberate; to release or save.” So, “deliver us from evil” means we are asking to be freed or saved from evil.

The second thing is discernment:  Keep me aware. Give me ears to hear what’s going on. Give me eyes to understand what is happening in the mist of the confusion.

And help me to distinguish between friend and foe. “With one hand strike my foes, With your other hand save me.”

The third thing is a total, childlike  trust in God’s sovereignty: “Finish what you started in me, God. Your love is eternal.” He has this in hand.

There is nothing that can defeat me here. I’m with Him.

And if that’s the case, then even in the thick of it, I am totally secure.

There’s no safety outside of God. So stay put.

‘But I trust in you, Lord; I say, “You are my God.” My times are in your hands’. (Psalm 31:14)

 

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“This present evil age…”

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“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

According to Galatians 1:4 Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age.” In some versions the key verb is “rescued.

This “present evil age”! Sound familiar?

Rescued, delivered… like a powerless victim brought out of a burning building.

It reminds me a little of the prayer of Jesus in John 17:15: “Father don’t take them out of the world, but keep them from evil.” Do you agree with the connection I’m making? The “present age” is overwhelmed and saturated with evil because sin would seem to have such a strong grip on our minds and lives.

Someone said to me that it seemed like “Satan ruled the roost.”  In fact, he’s called the “prince of this world” and  in 2 Corinthians 4:4  Paul says, “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” Things happen that suggest the dominating influence of evil, and the internet monkeys (as in the above pic) make sure that that message gets out.

“Bad news on the doorstep. I couldn’t take one more step.” Etc.

But you don’t have to think that way.

And for those who trust Christ, a liberation has begun to take place. Colossians 1:13 makes it explicit (and puts it in the past tense!): “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

I’ve been singing -in fact I can hardly stop singing-  “I’m no longer a slave to fear.” The reason we are no longer enslaved to the fear and guilt and anger and pessimism and selfishness and greed and pride of the “present evil age” is that “we have tasted the powers of the age to come ” (Hebrews 6:5), or as Jesus said, “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17) and that “New” that has come is a new age, with new powers and new ways, which has broken in to deliver us from the present evil age.

The experience of deliverance from the present evil age enables us to bear witness with our lives that we belong to another King and another kingdom and another age.

And it begins with a changed heart and a changed mind.

Paul said, in a poignant moment, (in 2 Tim 4:10),  “Demas has deserted me, in love with this present age.

That is to say, that deliverance must mean a counter love affair, a change of heart, and what someone callled “the expulsive power of a new affection”  so that we become enraptured with a different way of seeing life altogether.

In Romans 12:2, Paul said: “Do not be conformed to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.”

How hard it is to not be conformed to this age! We learn its values through our newspapers, books and films. We imbibe its moral conclusions through a hundred soap operas and through the lives of its “celebrities.” We are taught to admire and covet money, sex and power, and our children are force-fed almost twenty years of non-Christian education, backed by a pervasive 24/7 barrage of TV enculturation. How on earth can we not conform?

But you don’t have to think that way.

Despite every appearance to the contrary, “He that is in you is greater than he who is in th world.” Here’s the context in 1 John 4: “Every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming, and is already in the world at this time. You, little children, are from God and have overcome them, because greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. They are of the world. That is why they speak from the world’s perspective, and the world listens to them.…”

Deliverance from the present evil age means freedom not to think like this age.Total mental freedom -imagine that! “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1). Jesus Christ died to deliver you from the curse of the law—glorious forgiveness!—and he died to deliver you from the conceptions of our age—glorious freedom and independence of mind!

“Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!…  Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.

Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4)

“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

 

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The liberating power of praise

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Hallelujah!

It’s the ultimate praise-word. The term is peppered across the book of Psalms and in the book of Revelation. It’s very familiar through the singing of Handel’s Messiah.

But what does it mean?

It’s made up of two words.  The first part, hallelu, is the second-person imperative plural form of the Hebrew verb hillel. That simply means a summons or encouragement to a group to “Praise!”  The second part, Yah, is the shortened form of the Hebrew word for God.

However, “hallelujah” means more than simply “praise Yah”, as the word hallel in Hebrew means a joyous praise in song, to boast in God. Hallel could also refer to someone who acts madly or foolishly! Imagine that. Go wild!

It’s a summons into something outside of ourselves. It’s a joyous reminder that  first and foremost, life is not all about us.  The Psalmist summons us to look to God:

“Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness!”  (Ps 150:2)

“And my tongue shall speak of your righteousness and of your praise all the day long.” (Ps 35:28)

But this outward-looking perspective has an important consequence. It not only challenges our self-obsession, but second, it brings us to a place of humility. To say “Hallelujah” recalls our dependency on God, as we acknowledge our need for Him. It’s an admission that we are not in control.  He is.

This is the challenge of Psalm 95 – a great classic picture of praise:

“Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.”  (Ps 95:2-3)

It’s important not to let familiarity blunt the impact of these words. Catch the wildness of “joyful noise”! This is more to do with the unihibited riot of a kids’ party than the hallowed tones of a Cathedral choir- that’s the crazy foolishness of the Hillel definition coming out.

And there’s something more still. First we learn to look outside ourselves, in gratitutde and wonder; then to see ourselves in that perspective, humbled and dependent. But, third, we discover something mighty about who we are in God.

This was the discovery of the people of God in 2 Chronicles 20, when Jehoshaphat encouraged a beleaguered people to praise God in the face of an overwhelming enemy. Evil will not stick around if we’re praising our God, who will fight our battles for us.  Third, Praise makes the enemy flee.  It pushes back the darkness that threatens to  surround, and blocks the attacks and lies that come against us:

“As they began to sing and praise, the Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated”  

And fourth, praise leaves no room for complaining.  We focus on Him, and no longer allow so much attention to be centered around our own struggles.  We’re reminded of what He has already done in our lives.  We’re reminded that He knows what concerns us, and is capable of taking care of all that burdens us.

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.” (Ps 103)

I love the Message version:

“O my soul, bless God.
    From head to toe, I’ll bless his holy name!
O my soul, bless God,
    don’t forget a single blessing!”

Fifth, our spirits are refreshed and renewed in His presence.  We’re strengthened by His peace and refueled by His joy.  Through a heart of praise, we realize that God doesn’t just change our situations and work through our problems, He changes our hearts.

“In His presence, there is fullness of joy.”  (Ps 16:11)

“Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you. I will praise you as long as I live, and in your name I will lift up my hands.” (Ps 63:3-4)

And sixth, this gives space for God to move.  People’s lives are affected and changed.  God shakes things up through praise.  As Paul and Silas sat in prison, shackled, and chained, they kept right on praising God.  And God sent an earthquake that shook the cells and broke the chains.  The jailer and all his family came to know Christ that very night.

“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.”  (Acts 16:25-26)

Everyday we make a choice: we either live absorbed in ourselves and our own stresses and strains, focused only on what surrounds us, or we learn to say “Hallelujah.”

I’ve found this last week quite stressful, to be honest. But one of the things that “unfastened my bonds” was the simple and wonderful song by Rend Collective, “Free as a Bird” which reminds me of the Hallelujah, the liberating power of praise.

You break us out of our cages
Into the wide open spaces
We are free
Free as a bird on the wind
No prison wall can contain us
Your beating heart makes us fearless
We are free
Free as a bird on the wind
Love cannot be tamed
You shattered every chain
Let our praises run wild and free
The lionheart is alive in me
Let our freedom and joy begin
With you we’re dancing upon our chains
With you we’re soaring on eagle’s wings
Take us beyond our horizons
Leading us into your wildness
We are free
Free as a bird on the wind
You are the greatest adventure
You are my uncharted waters
We are free
Free as a bird on the wind
Love cannot be tamed
You shattered every chain
Let our praises run wild and free
The lionheart is alive in me
Let our freedom and joy begin
With you
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Love your enemies

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“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt 5:44)

So how do you reconcile the bumper sticker in the picture to the words of Jesus in the quote?

Answer: You don’t. Only one of them can be right.

And the words of Jesus are so emphatic, so crystal-clear, that they challenge any attempt to misconstrue, fudge or blag your way out of it.

But what about when someone does something bad to me?

 “Someone may have done something wrong to you. But do not do something wrong yourself in order to punish them. Do the things that everyone knows to be right. If possible, be friendly with everyone… Do not let evil things defeat you. But defeat evil things by your good behaviour.” Romans 12:17-21.

Here’s Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message:

“Bless your enemies; no cursing under your breath. Laugh with your happy friends when they’re happy; share tears when they’re down. Get along with each other; don’t be stuck-up. Make friends with nobodies; don’t be the great somebody.

Don’t hit back; discover beauty in everyone. If you’ve got it in you, get along with everybody. Don’t insist on getting even; that’s not for you to do. “I’ll do the judging,” says God. “I’ll take care of it.”

Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness. Don’t let evil get the best of you; get the best of evil by doing good.”

Paul had seen Stephen die; and he stood by, as an enemy. But Stephen had prayed for his murderers (Acts 7:60).

Paul also knew Jesus’ words from the cross (Luke 23:34) and what Jesus taught about enemies (Matthew 5:38-48). So Paul urges followers of Jesus to live that way. He says, basically, “Refuse to do what you know is wrong. Show that your actions are good. Encourage peace. Avoid quarrels.”‘

And dont ever retaliate. That’s a biggie.

For three good reasons.

1. Only God has the right to punish actions. In the end, God himself will show his fair judgement. Be careful not to play God with other people’s lives.

2. If an enemy receives kindness, he may be sorry for his actions. He may change his ways. Paul uses words from Proverbs 25:21-22. ‘Hot coals’ means that the enemy  will be ashamed.

3. And if I hate someone who hates me, haven’t I just made it worse?  Am I doing right to do so?  “Love your enemies” is a difficult verse to misconstrue. And yet somehow we attempt it!

Evil deeds cannot defeat someone who is evil. Instead, Christians overcome evil powers when they do the right things. They do the things that God wants them to do.

And that is the only way to challenge evil.

Jesus went into considerable detail on this point because he was challenging an entrenched worldview based on the Old Testament “Eye for an eye” principle:

“You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:38–41)

Jesus’s words about nonviolence are often dismissed as impractical idealism. I mean to say: How is “Turn the other cheek” different from being a doormat? It even sounds complicit –cowardly!- in the face of injustice. “Resist not evil” seems to suggest passive submission and “Going the second mile” is now a platitude that means little more than “Be more helpful”! Rather than a strategy for opposing evil, it sounds like nodding wimpish agreement to the playground bully.

But Jesus never acted or taught in the way I have just described! The whole context of the cross of Christ is a confrontation with evil which constitutes an absolute and implacable hatred of oppression.

Simply put, the Greek word antistenai  does not mean “Resist not evil.” The translators (who were paid by King James 1st ) were translating nonviolent resistance into docility. The Greek word means “Resist violently, revolt or rebel, or engage in an insurrection.”  Jesus did not tell the beleaguered listeners to shrug and put up with it; rather, he warned against responding to evil in kind by letting the oppressor set the terms of their opposition.

Antistenai  means “Do not retaliate against violence with violence.” Both Jesus and Barabbas sought to oppose Roman oppression: they only differed in their methodology.

There are only three possible responses to evil: (1) rebellion, (2) submission, and (3) militant nonviolence. Fight or flight or…something else.

There had been previous insurrections. Twenty years before Jesus spoke these words, over two thousand rebels had been crucified in an uprising against Imperial Rome. Some also would live to experience the horrors of the war against Rome that ensued in 66–70 AD. So if military victory could not be achieved, then the Jews must settle for submission, gritting their teeth and obeying resentfully. Right?

Jesus offered that “something else”.

Now do you see why King James’ servants translated antistenai as “resist not”? Is it likely that a 17th Century sovereign would allow the suggestion of civil disobedience? So according to this take, Jesus appears to say that submission to monarchical absolutism is the will of God. Most subsequent translations follow that line, (tugging their forelocks as they do so, no doubt).

Read it this way: “Don’t react violently against someone who is evil.”

And Jesus gives three quick word-pictures to underline this, his real point: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Why the right cheek? How does one person strike another on the right cheek anyway? Try it. A blow by the right fist hits the left cheek of your opponent! To strike the right cheek with the fist would require using the left hand, but in that society the left hand was used only for unclean jobs (Don’t ask). According to the Dead Sea Scrolls, even a gesture with the left hand at Qumran earned you ten days penance. The only way one could strike the right cheek with the right hand would be with the back of the hand.

So we’re talking insult here, not fisticuffs. The intention is not to injure but to humiliate. One normally did not strike a peer in this way, and if one did the fine was exorbitant (four zuz was the fine for a blow to a peer with a fist, 400 zuz for backhanding him; but to an inferior, no penalty at all!). A backhand slap was the normal way of rebuking underlings. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. It’s what you did to people lower down on the food chain.

Now, in these kind of circumstances, retaliation would be suicidal. The “right” response would be cowering submission. It is important to ask here just who Jesus was talking to. Invariably, they are not those who strike, initiate lawsuits, or impose forced labour. No! Jesus is speaking to the victims, the underlings themselves, the very people who have been subjected to such indignities. They have grown up with a simple mentality: “Just look at your feet and take it lying down. These people are your betters!” So we’re talking class prejudice, caste snobbery, gender inequality, legalised slavery, racial Über-mensch ideology…. All of that and more.

“How dare you even feel outraged? Just who do you think you are?”

But Jesus stops this whole degrading process in its tracks. By turning the other cheek he takes from the bully the power to humiliate. The person who turns the other cheek is saying, “Again, please. That didn’t work. You can’t belittle me because I am a human being just like you. You cannot demean me.”

This is the momentous discovery that people can only hurt you by your permission. This is the secret weapon of Jesus, re- discovered by Gandhi and Martin Luther King and a very few others.

So what does the bully do next? Obviously (anatomically), he cannot now hit the other cheek. But if he hits with a fist, he is making himself an equal, and acknowledging the other as a peer. The whole point of the back of the hand is to reinforce the institutionalized inequality that Jesus is challenging.

The second example Jesus gives is a legal one. Someone is being sued for his outer garment. In that cultural context, only the very poor would have nothing but an outer garment to give as collateral for a loan. Jewish law strictly required its return every evening at sunset, for that was all the poor had in which to sleep. The situation to which Jesus alludes is one with which his hearers would have been too familiar: the debtor has lost it all, the debt cannot be repaid, and his creditor has hauled him into court to wring out repayment.

Jesus’ parables are full of debtors struggling to salvage their lives, and, indeed, poverty and debt formed the most serious social problem in first-century Palestine. His hearers are the poor (“if anyone would sue you”) who are being crushed by a system that subjects them to humiliation by stripping them of their lands, their goods, finally even their outer clothing.

But why say “Give up your inner clothing too”? That means stripping off and leaving court naked! There stands the creditor, red with embarrassment, your outer garment in one hand, your underwear in the other. You have turned the tables on him. You couldn’t win the trial since the law was entirely in his favour. But you have refused to be humiliated. At the same time you have registered a protest against a system that creates such humiliation. You have said, in effect, “You want my robe? Here, take everything!”

And what happens next? Remember that nakedness was taboo in Judaism. There was shame involved, not on the naked one but on the person viewing or causing one’s nakedness (Genesis 9:20–27). Your creditor is now involved in your destitution. As you walk away from the court, your neighbours ask what happened. You explain. They join a procession which is publicly unmasking an act of social bullying. The creditor is revealed to be not a “respectable” moneylender but a party in the reduction of an entire social class to destitution.

And even this is not payback or revenge: it offers an opportunity for the creditor to see things differently, and perhaps to repent.

It’s a powerfully absurd joke.

People in powerful positions “stand on their dignity”. By refusing to be awed by this power, the powerless are enabled to take the initiative, even where societal change is not possible. Jesus is not offering an impossibly idealistic strategy: he is empowering the oppressed. He provides a hint of how to take on the entire system in a way that unmasks its essential cruelty and to mock its pretensions to justice.

The third example, the one about going the second mile, is drawn from the enlightened practice of limiting the amount of forced labour that Roman soldiers could levy on subject peoples. A soldier could force a civilian to carry his pack one mile only; to force the civilian to go further carried with it penalties under military law. In this way Rome tried to limit the reaction of the occupied people. Nevertheless, this law was a harsh reminder to the Jews that they were –after all- still a subject people.

So, to this proud people, Jesus did not suggest the Barabbas route. You don’t draw your sword on this enemy. But why walk the second mile? Is this not the opposite extreme: aiding and abetting the enemy? No. The question here, again, is how the oppressed can recover the initiative, how they can assert their dignity as human beings in an impossible situation. The rules are Caesar’s but not how you respond to them!

Imagine then the soldier’s surprise when, at the next mile marker, he reluctantly reaches to assume his pack. You say, “Oh no, let me carry it another mile.” Normally he has to force obedience but you do it cheerfully and will not stop! Is this a provocation? Are you insulting his strength? Being kind? Trying to get him disciplined for seeming to make you go farther then you should? Are you planning to file a complaint? To create trouble?

Do you see how provocative your action is?

At first you were a slave, being bullied into further humiliation. Now you have taken the initiative. You have taken back the power of choice. The soldier is thrown off-balance by being deprived of the predictability of your response. Imagine the hilarious situation of a Roman soldier pleading with a Jew, “Ah, come on, please give me back my pack! You’ll get me into trouble!”

This is hilarious. It is really really funny to thus make fun of your oppressors.

Is it revenge or retaliation in an underhand way?

But can people engaged in oppressive acts repent unless made uncomfortable with their actions? Sure, there’s the danger of using nonviolence as a tactic of revenge and humiliation, but there is also, at the opposite extreme, an equal danger of sentimentality that confuses the uncompromising love of Jesus with being nice.

Loving confrontation can free both the oppressed from docility and the oppressor from sin.

To those with power, Jesus’ advice to the powerless may seem paltry. But to those whose lifelong pattern has been to cringe before bullies, to those who have internalized their role as inferiors, this small step is momentous.

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Selfie Obsession

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This picture  popped up on the side of my newsfeed with the tagline: “Is selfie culture helping our self-esteem or sentencing us to lives of self-obsession?”

It’s an interesting so-called “choice”, if you think about it, for both the Either and the Or can have negative consequences. “Self-esteem” is not an end in itself or a quantifiable “good.” What’s the value in “esteeming” your journey if you’re headed the wrong way?

In any case, it’s very hard to “have a sane estimate of your own ability” (as Paul put it). We think of ourselves far too much and far too little, simultaneously. Either way, we are –generally speaking- totally self-obsessed.

So, to put a “How much” on it, is a tricky experiment in quantification.

In Luke 22, you have a series of threads  on that theme.

First you have the tragic analysis that Judas made, about Jesus. An ocean of ink has been expended on his motivation, and I guess that we’ll never really know. Maybe he felt betrayed himself. Maybe he felt that Jesus was letting him down. But what is clear is that his decision to betray Jesus was made when self replaced God at the centre of his choices.

And Jesus exposes that choice right in the middle of the Passover meal:  “One of you will betray me.”

The curious thing is the immediate response: “Is it I?”  Isn’t that amazing? They knew  themselves capable of what Judas was about to do.

But that rare moment of self-understanding was overtaken minutes later, when   “A dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.” Imagine having that conversation in front of Jesus!

But Jesus takes it on: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” This is where John inserts the story of Jesus washing their feet. The same point is being made.  How dare you bully and look down on others?  You think of yourselves too much.

Jesus, however, admits a level of coming greatness: I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

You are thinking of yourselves wrongly. It is for me to honour you, not for you to niggle and shove each other into a pecking order.

And at this point Jesus begins to pray for Simon Peter:  Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

Peter doesn’t receive it at all!  “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” I imagine that that line was spoken, hand on heart, head proudly back in a voice that carried throughout the room. Big tough Peter. The indomitable rock.

He thinks quite highly of himself, doesn’t he?

And Jesus tells him about what will happen in the night ahead, that the rock will crumble

Jesus is preparing him for future failure. There’s an odd thought, isn’t it? Quite often, when some leader fails in the Christian community, we shout him down, cat-calling and shooting the wounded with undisguised relish. It’s an unpleasant prospect, the name-calling and denouncing that flies across the Internet, like a class of Primary school children ratting on their  naughty school-friends. It’s so childish, so unloving. What an amazing contrast, to see Jesus preparing Peter for failure and encouraging him to go through it, into new hope and strength and to get ready  to comfort  others with the comfort  he himself has received.

So, based on their own self-obsessed decision-making,  Judas betrays Jesus and Peter denies him. The disciples posture and blabber about greatness, but when push comes to shove, they shove off. What of Jesus himself? Jesus enacts what godly choosing looks like. He kneels in the garden of Gethsemane , encourages his faltering friends to pray with him, and reaches deeply into the will of his Father. “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.”

And Father says no.

Sometimes we think that prayer reaches outwards from the one praying to change the circumstances. Mostly, I find, it works the other way around. It reaches inwards to focus and challenge my own thinking. It’s this very point again: How much do I think of myself? Jesus understood that his entire destiny was wrapped up in the glory of God; he saw that this was God’s victory story, and he had a vital role to play. It was the role of a servant.

And so he concluded: “Not my will but yours be done.”

Can we really reverse the order? Is prayer really the demand that  my will be accomplished?

And if it is truly God’s will that must be done, and if I am called to be a servant to that will, then how much can I think of myself?

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