Crucify Him!

It was the early 1970s. I had just begun to seriously follow Jesus. I was toggling over from a simple cognitive belief in Jesus to actually desiring to figure out what it meant to be a follower.

Late one evening, sitting in my living room, I was reading the Gospel of Mark in my new-found JB Phillips New Testament translation. As I read, I found myself immersed in the story – watching and following Jesus’ movements from the periphery. Why was I following Jesus? I couldn’t NOT. There was something about this man.

Reaching Mark 14-15 (the Passion narrative), which I was so familiar with that I didn’t know the story at all, I witnessed Jesus’ capture. I stood outside the High Priest’s house where Jesus was being questioned by the religious leaders. Watching as a bystander, I saw Peter interact with a young woman. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could see that he was getting agitated – agitated to the point of cursing at her.

It was dawn. The eastern sky was starting to take on a bluish hue and the roosters were crowing in the distance. A crowd began to gather, asking and wondering what was happening. Suddenly they brought Jesus out of the house and the crowd started to move, so I followed. We ended up in the Praetorium, the common courtyard connected to the palace of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. I was in the back of the crowd, straining to see and hear what was going on.

Pilate seemed confused. What had this man done? Why had the religious leaders brought Jesus to him? He apparently offered to release either Jesus or Barabbas, who was in jail because he had led a failed insurrection against the Roman government. People around me started to chant Barabbas’ name, they wanted him released. Made sense – he had the guts to act on his nationalistic beliefs. Pilate then hushed the crowed. “What shall I do with Jesus, the so-called king of the Jews?” I could hear some people in the front yell “crucify him.” Then it became a chant. “Crucify him! Crucify him! We have no king but Caesar!” The chant filled the Praetorium courtyard. People around me were chanting, staring at me with a sort of patriotic contempt. Not having the courage to stand my ground, I yelled “Crucify him!”

Suddenly I was aware of my surroundings – my living room with my Phillips New Testament in my hands. I was fully aware that had I been there that day, I would have yelled “Crucify him” because I didn’t have the backbone to stand against the crowd. I suddenly felt like Peter must have felt. And I too, wept bitterly. And for a long time, till I fell asleep.

I woke up the next morning with sadness and a fair amount of self-abasement. I remember the feeling lasted several days. As I kept reading, the crucifixion took on a whole different meaning for me than ever before. I had called for his death. I was part of an insurrection against God’s own son. I would have yelled “crucify him!” I had followed the crowd, inflamed by people with an agenda that didn’t serve God’s purposes – people that had no personal care for or interest in the crowd. That realization increased the sadness and abasement.

A few days later I read the account of Peter’s denial in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 22:54-62), again from the Phillips translation. After Peter’s predicted third denial, the narrative says:

The Lord turned his head and looked straight at Peter…

Prior to my “Crucify him” experience, I think I was a bit judgemental of Peter’s denial. Serious, Peter? Jesus even warned you, yet you still denied him. From that perspective I assumed Jesus’ “look” might have communicated, “This is what I warned you would happen.” Not now. My perspective had changed! I envisioned Jesus’ eyes full of compassion as if to say, “It hurts, Peter, doesn’t it?” Feeling the same compassion, I was able to leave the sadness and self-abasement behind and follow Him anew, for which I will be forever grateful!

A prayer from Walter Wangerin’s Reliving the Passion:

Oh Jesus: you gazed into the hundred hearts amassed before you, thick with fear and fury. Was mine among them? Yes. Mine was among them. I have desired your death in order to preserve my life, my way of life, my fulfillment, and my own control. But you, like me, desired your death too! By a mercy I cannot comprehend, you accepted my evil intent even to save my own life! Well, I am therefore my own no more, but yours – no more an enemy, a friend to you forever. Lord Jesus, how I love you! Amen.

Walking the Talk

We are moving toward the week in Christendom we refer to as Holy Week and/or the Passion Week.  By passion we mean ‘suffer,’ and thus focus on the suffering Jesus experienced leading up to and including his crucifixion.  Assuming I was somewhat alert at 5-6 years old, I have read or heard the passion story every year for 65 years.  In my last posting (Reliving the Passion), I intimated that the passion story might be all-too familiar to us.  I think if we have ears and eyes that are open, we can see and hear this world-changing story anew every time we wander into it.  This year has been no exception for me. 

At Young Life College, we would always joke about our conversations coming full circle each week.  As we read the Gospels, moving into the passion week, it becomes apparent that there is a full-circleness to Jesus’ life, culminating at the cross.  His experiences that last week were opportunities for him to live out what he had been teaching his followers for three years. Some thoughts on that…

Jesus’ ministry started with the temptation to take a shortcut to usher in God’s kingdom, seen in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels (Matthew 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13).  The devil taunted Jesus with “if you are the Son of God…”  While on the cross, the people (including the chief priests and the elders) taunted him with “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”  Again, the temptation to shortcut the process.  The writers of the gospels often inserted the phrase, “Let the reader understand.”  It seems like Matthew and Luke may have wanted the reader to understand the connection of these two taunts/temptations. 

Jesus’ followers witnessed the admonitions of the Sermon on the Mount played out those last days leading up to and including his crucifixion.  Some examples…

In the Sermon Jesus outlined what prayer of kingdom people might look like (what we call The Lord’s Prayer).  In that prayer he suggested we pray for God’s will to be done and for protection from the evil one and from temptation.  In the garden he asked that the cup might pass, ultimately praying ‘thy will be done.’  And I’m sure throughout the twelve hours of mock trial and beating, there was many a prayer to not succumb to the temptation to do some ‘holy smiting!’

The beatitudes from the Sermon speak of what kingdom living looks like.  Jesus lived that out in front of his followers daily, but it especially showed up during this time.  Blessed are the peacemakers. Jesus told Peter to put his sword away and reminded him that those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

In the Sermon, Jesus told his followers not to resist evil or retaliate when slapped about.  He had the opportunity to ‘practice what he preached’ when mocked and slapped about by both the religious leaders and the representatives of the Roman Empire (Mark 14:65, Matt. 27: 27-31). 

You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden.  No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. (Matt 5:14-15)  The Romans made absolutely sure that crucifixions took place for ALL to see, as a reminder that the same thing could happen to those watching.  On the hill called ‘The Skull,’ Jesus, the light of the world, was hoisted up for all to see!  In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. (Matt 5:16)

I’m sure there are many other examples of Jesus, God’s true Israel (to borrow a phrase from NT Wright), showing and teaching his followers how to live during the first three years of his ministry THEN ‘walking the talk’ those final few days.  I am grateful that every year God has been faithful in helping me look at Holy Week, the week that changed history, in a new light.  This year has been no different.  Thanks be to God!

Reliving the Passion

Each year I look for ways to observe Lent in a more robust manner than simply “giving something up.” This year I am using Walter Wangerin’s Lenten meditations from Reliving the Passion, gleanings from the Gospel of Mark. Wangerin does an amazing job of bringing to life the all-too familiar story of Jesus’ Passion. In bringing it to life, he helps the reader crawl into the story, experiencing the passion and Jesus in new ways.

So, I want to share one of the daily meditations that I found particularly engaging…

Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas.  And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he was wont to do for them. And he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. (Mark 15:6-11)

Behold the people! Though they think themselves the force of the morning, in charge of things (by virtue of their numbers and their noise), they are in fact being put to a test which shall reveal the truth beneath their words, the reality beneath their self-assumptions and all their pretense.

Behold the nature of the breed!

A crowd has gathered at the Praetorium, a rabble, an obstreperous delegation of Judeans whose presence complicates Pilate’s inclination to release Jesus. These crowds are volatile. Instead of a simple release, then, a choice is offered the people. Let the people feel in charge; let the people decide. The Governor will, according to a traditional Passover amnesty, free one prisoner. Which will it be— Jesus of Nazareth?—whom they have falsely accused of treason against the Empire? Or Barabbas?—treasonous in fact, one who committed murder for the cause?

If they choose the latter, their loyalties to the Empire (which Jesus is supposed to have offended) are revealed a vile sham, and these are no more than temporizing hypocrites, pretending any virtue to satisfy a private end. But the Governor will release only one prisoner. Which will it be?

Jesus—who is the Son of the Father, who is the Kingdom of God come near unto them?

Or Barabbas—whose name means “the son of a (human) father,” flesh itself, the fleshly pretensions to god-like, personal power in the kingdoms of the world?

This, precisely, is the timeless choice of humankind. If they choose the latter, they choose humanity over divinity. They choose one who will harm them over one who would heal them.

If they choose Barabbas, they choose the popular revolutionary hero, the swashbuckler, the pirate, merry Robin Hood, the blood-lusty rake, the law-flout, violence glorified, appetites satisfied, James Bond, Billy Jack, Clint Eastwood, Rambo, the celebrated predator, the one who “turns them on,” over one who asks them to “deny themselves and die.” They choose (voluntarily!) entertainment over worship, self-satisfaction over sacrificial love, getting things over giving things, being served over serving, “feeling good about myself” and having it all and gaining the whole world and rubbing elbows with the rich rather than rubbing the wounds of the poor—

The choice is before them. And they think the choice is external, this man or that man. In fact, the choice is terribly internal: this nature or that one, good folks or people essentially selfish and evil, therefore. It’s an accurate test of their character. How they choose is who they are.

Behold a people in desperate need of forgiveness.

And this, Christ, is the stunning irony: that their evil was made good in you! You knew our nature as children of wrath; you knew exactly how we would choose; you put yourself in harm’s way that our sin might kill you, that your death might redeem us even from our sinful nature! Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, and I grow dizzy thinking about it. All that I can say with certainty, but with everlasting gratitude, is — Amen.

Wangerin, W. (1992). Reliving the passion: Meditations on the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus as recorded in Mark. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House., The 24th day.

Get Used to Different

If you haven’t watched The Chosen yet, I highly recommend it. The developers of the project hoped to create a “binge-worthy” series and they seem to have accomplished their intent. I had a fever several weeks ago, was self-quarantined for a few days, and I binge-watched the entire first season (eight episodes). It is well done! They really do a good job of depicting the humanity of Jesus as well as his likely interactions with the people, especially his followers.

The creators did an especially nice job of surmising the interactions between the disciples themselves. Of particular interest was the interplay of the fishermen (Simon, Andrew, James, and John) with Matthew (Levi), the Israelite, turned traitor, tax collector for the occupying Romans. There was no love loss. When Jesus invited Matthew to follow him, Simon questioned the action, “What are you doing? Do you have any idea what this guy has done?” Simon, after reminding Jesus what this guy was a tax collector, said, “I don’t get it” to which Jesus responded, “You didn’t get it when I chose you, either.” Simon’s response: “But this is different. He’s a tax collector.” Jesus’ retort has become my favorite line in the series so far – “Get used to different.”

I want this shirt!!

Get used to different – an understatement to say the least. As I read through the gospels, I try to imagine what was going through the minds of those first-century followers. Almost everything Jesus did and said was different. I picture them huddled together, collectively trying to make sense of what was happening.

I recently read Luke’s account of Jesus calming the storm prior to a visit to the Gentile region on the East side of the Sea of Galilee (Luke 8:22-39). To this point, the disciples suspected they might be following the Messiah, the anointed one of God that would rescue the nation of Israel from the Roman Gentile dogs. But Jesus seemed to do things differently than they expected of a messiah and the trip across the lake didn’t ease their confusion. When Jesus said, “Let’s go across to the other side of the lake,” I could picture the disciples discussing among themselves, “Serious? The other side? That’s Gentile country. They are different over there.” Get used to different!

As they crossed the lake (about the size of Lake Mille Lacs in Minnesota), Jesus fell asleep and a storm blew in. After being abruptly awakened by the disciples, Jesus calmed the raging storm and they continued their journey across the lake. Though the disciples marveled at what they had just witnessed, it left them fearfully asking, “Who then is this…?” We think he might be the Messiah, but messiahs don’t calm storms. Messiahs position themselves to overthrow pagan kingdoms. This is different. Get used to different!

Landing on the the other side of the lake, Jesus and his disciples were immediately met by a naked man who lived among the tombs and was possessed by a Legion of demons (Who, by the way, knew exactly who Jesus was – “Son of the Most High God.”). Cleanliness was core to the first century Jewish religious customs. What we see in this narrative is uncleanliness at every turn – an unclean (naked) man, with unclean spirits who lived among unclean tombs in an unclean territory where they raised unclean hogs. Any respectable rabbi (and presumably a messiah) would have gotten back in the boat and left. I picture the disciples huddled on the shoreline next to the boat, again asking “Who then is this…? This is really different than we expected.” Get used to different! *

In what ways might we need to get used to different? As Christ followers, I think we need to be OK with different. I think we need to learn to expect different. In fact, as Christ-followers, I suspect that God wants us to step into different. The late Howard Hendricks used to suggest that we should always be involved in something that stretches our thinking and comfort – something different than we are used to. Different drives us to God and causes us to rely on the Holy Spirit. Different leads to transformation. If we are serious about following Jesus, I suspect we need to…

Get Used to Different!

* If you know the story, you know that Jesus drove the legion of demons from the man. Jesus was not defiled by the unclean man in his unclean setting. Instead “the holy contagion of Jesus rescued and transformed the man,” borrowing from Jim Edwards (Edwards, J. R. (2015). The gospel according to Luke, p. 249).

Circular Thinking

The first day of the Summer Residency for my Doctorate in Higher Educational Leadership program started with a “get to know each other” exercise. We were each given a sheet of paper from a flip-chart and some colored markers. We were instructed to spread out and create a sheet that described who we are with the understanding that we would share our creation with the cohort. A great and fun idea. Who doesn’t want to get to share who they are? So, I wandered out of the classroom to find a quiet place to create my sheet.

When I came back into the room I discovered how linear my thinking was, as you can see below. Next to mine is a photo of my friend Amy Bronson’s creation. As I shared my sheet with the class, I simply worked down the list, discussing each of the bullet points – quite linear. As Amy discussed her story, she took us on a journey around her sheet – almost in a circular manner.

There is a significant different between Eastern and Western thought. One of those differences is our actual thinking process. Western thinking is quite linear – steps 1,2,3, leading to a final outcome. Eastern thinking is more process-oriented and “circular.” The focus isn’t about getting to the final outcome but the pilgrimage. Its more about the journey than the outcome.

We need to remember that Hebrew thinking was Eastern, which means the Hebrew scriptures were written by Eastern thinkers. Notice how the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, is written in story and journey form. It doesn’t give us exacting formulas to land on, but principles to follow (the Proverbs are a great example of this). In our Western thinking, we tend to presume that the New Testament follows the Old Testament linearly. We must also remember that Jesus was trained and grew up in an Eastern culture, learning the Hebrew scriptures. (This would be true of the Apostle Paul and most, if not all, of the other New Testament writers who constantly circled back to the Hebrew scriptures as they developed their own understanding of Jesus and his anointing as King)

I want to circle back to a previous blog post, The Great Omission. In it we looked at what is often referred to as Jesus’ Two Great Commandments:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:36-40)

I have always suspected the two commandments were more circular in their intent (i.e., Hebrew thought). I suspect we get bogged with Western linear thought (i.e., once I learn to love God well, then I can begin to love others). Since we can never quite get that figured out (how to love God well) then we subconsciously (or consciously) allow ourselves off the hook regarding the loving our neighbors.

Looking at the two commandments in a circular manner might look like this: We love God the best we can, as best as we know him, and start loving others because he asked us to.  In the process, we see and know God better (and maybe differently), so we can love him all the more, allowing us love others better, etc., etc.  

My friend Chuck Jamison pointed me to something that New Testament scholar M. Robert Mulholland suggested regarding the two commandments. The text, he says, could be translated “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. Another way to say this is to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Chuck Jamison: “Love your neighbor” is just another way of saying “Love God.” To actually love God would be to love my neighbor… whomever is standing in front of me at the present moment. That’s a powerful thought. Imagine the transformative power in that – for me and the world around me!

The Great Commission

In the last posting, we discussed The Great Omission, in which we wondered if, culturally, we have maybe disqualified Jesus from important societal discussions. I want to continue the conversation today, January 18, 2021, which is the 35th anniversary of Martin Luther King (MLK) Day. MLK Day is a federal holiday in the United Sates, set aside to celebrate the life and achievements of American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. This year, we commemorate King’s 90th birthday.

I wonder what Dr. King would have to say about the increased racial tensions evident in America today. I wonder what he would say to the Christian community about the role we have played (or not played) in addressing the racial disparities and tensions we face today…

I recently read a rather disturbing study by the Barna Group. Their research showed that practicing Christians – self-identified Christians who say their faith is very important in their lives – are no more likely to acknowledge racial injustice than they were prior to the tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and others this past summer (cf Barna, September 2020). I wonder what Dr. King would say to us?

Here is another interesting Barna study which I find equally disturbing in light of the Great Omission post: According to their research, over half of American Christians have never heard of the Great Commission, and over 37% of those polled couldn’t identify the Great Commission out of a list of various Bible verses. As a reminder, in what we refer to as the Great Commission, Jesus said:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:16-20)

The Great Commission was Jesus’ “marching orders” to his followers, trickling down to the 21st Century. It’s our mission, vision and core values rolled into one statement. And half of us are unaware of its existence? I think we’ve discovered the disconnect. How are we to do what Jesus wants us to do if we don’t know what Jesus want us to do? If we don’t know what Jesus wants us to do, then we are “free” to pick and choose whatever we want. It would explain how external ideologies and rhetoric are free to affect our thoughts and actions. Isn’t it imperative that we know/discover Jesus and his desires for us as followers?

Over the years I have always pointed people to the Gospels. How else will we possibly know the Jesus of scripture? (I use the term “Jesus of scripture” in opposition to the “Jesus” of culture.) This is what is frustrating and deeply disturbing for me: I suspect a very high percentage of those who claim to be Christians have never read through the Gospels even once. That leaves us susceptible to cultural ideologies contrary to our commission.

Prior to the inception of watermarks in our currency, do you know how bank tellers were trained to distinguish between real and counterfeit bills? They spent time familiarizing themselves with the real thing so that when a counterfeit shows up, it’s obvious to them. I hope and pray that we are willing to spend significant time in the Gospels, doing the heavy lifting necessary to know the difference between the Jesus of scripture and all the counterfeits running around these day.

Otherwise, we can be duped! And who wants to be duped?

The Great Omission

As I’ve watched the events of the past several years, and especially the past ten months or so, I have been confused and frustrated. But after the events in Washington DC last week and seeing the responses from much of the Christian community, I am deeply disturbed. When we discuss political and social needs of human beings in our country (human beings created in God’s image, by the way) it appears to me that we have left Jesus out of the equation. “Left out” would be an omission. I fear we have intentionally removed Jesus from important discussions and, worse, have figured out how to justify such actions. That’s not just an omission but a commission, as in “the action of committing [an] offense.”

Ironically, there is a passage in scripture known as the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus to his disciples:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.

A key element to this directive is disciple-making – inviting people to follow Jesus and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded. I remember reading this early in my Christian journey, wondering exactly what those commands were. It drove me to read the Gospels several times over. I even made a list of all his commands (which was daunting, by the way). My second or third time through the Gospels, I suddenly realized that all his commands (and in fact, all of scripture) hinged on just two:

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5). This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:36-40)

And who is my neighbor? That’s what the theologian asked Jesus in the narrative we know as the Good Samaritan story. In response to the question, Jesus told a story that didn’t fit the man’s ideology. Your neighbor, Jesus indicated, is likely the one you dislike (hate?) the most. It appears the guy didn’t decide to follow Jesus. Is there a chance our ideologies clash with Jesus?

Who is my neighbor? Former President Jimmy Carter tells the story of a Cuban immigrant pastor named Eloy Cruz, a man who focused his life and ministry on Puerto Rican immigrants to the United States, people who were among the poorest of the poor. President Carter asked this pastor about the secret of his success. Cruz responded in humility and with a certain measure of embarrassment. “Señor Jimmy, we only need to have two loves in life—for God and for the person who happens to be standing in front of us at any time” (Leif Anderson). My neighbor is whomever God places in my path even if I don’t like them, even if they are different than me.

How can people who claim to be Christ-followers be willing to set aside the tenets of Jesus? How can we, instead, seem to be okay with rhetoric that demonizes our neighbors and turns them into enemies (don’t miss the irony that Jesus also commanded us to love our enemies). Help me understand! To me, it appears we have been willing to set Jesus aside. (See also What the Right and Left Have in Common.)

How else can we explain the Christian community’s inability (and unwillingness?) to face, admit, and speak into the divisions and disparities so evident in our society?

As you can see, I’m mostly asking questions here. However, something is surely amiss and we, the Christian community, need to be willing to ask where we might have missed the mark. I am open to hearing your thoughts!

Barrington Bunny

“A gift. A free gift. No strings attached.”

The above quote was lifted from a short story by Martin Bell called Barrington Bunny. It’s a Christmas story. And an Easter story. The two can’t be separated. Both are about giving. And about sacrifice.

In our culture, we usually give from our surpluses, our extra, when we can afford it. And in our economy today, fewer of us can afford it. But in God’s economy, giving is sacrificial…

Consider Jesus’ discourse with his disciples, after observing the giving habits of people at the temple: Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” (Mark 12: 41-44)

Jesus equates giving to sacrifice. He’s kind of an authority on the subject. He was the greatest unconditional gift. A free gift. No strings attached. The well-known scripture passage tells us just that: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

So what do we do with this? What of us? The Apostle John made sure that we understood the principle that Jesus modeled, “God loved, so he gave,” transferred to us his disciples, his followers. This is what he wrote to early believers and was captured in the New Testament book of 1 John: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:16)

God loved, so he gave the ultimate gift – Jesus. A free gift. No strings attached.

Jesus loved, so he gave the ultimate gift – his life. A free gift. A sacrificial gift. No strings attached.

We are called to love, to give of ourselves – free gifts. Sacrificial gifts. With no strings attached.

This Christmas, ponder on the significance that God loved, so he gave. So simple and yet so profound. This is the true meaning of Christmas. And of Easter.

Jesus, the Radical Counter-Culturalist

I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Gospel of Luke the past couple months, most recently reading the “Sermon on the Plain” (Luke 6). In the “sermon” narrative, Jesus made a somewhat famous, unconventional, counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and radical statement…

To you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Luke 6:27-28)

I say somewhat famous because I suspect most people are familiar with the three words, “Love your enemies.” However, we must not miss that Jesus was saying far more to his followers. I fear that because these words are quite familiar, they can easily be heard or read without a second thought. Remember that familiarity breeds contempt. These three words and the rest of this short discourse were not familiar to Jesus’ first century followers and they likely didn’t go unnoticed. They were counter-cultural and radical.

Notice that Jesus started with the statement, “To you who are listening…” Jesus was well aware of the fact that his words might go into one’s ear canal, but no farther. Parents understand this concept. So do our kids. Jesus often said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (cf. Luke 8:8 and 14:35). Jesus was effectively saying. “Lean in and listen – this is the stuff of God’s kingdom, if you are willing and able to receive it.”

Love your enemies.

Jesus followed his introductory “lean in” comment with the charge that his followers love their enemies. There are three main Greek words used to describe love – eros (erotic love), plileo (‘brotherly’ love) and agapē (goodwill and benevolence). Agapē uniquely describes and expresses God‘s love for his creation. The word used in this passage is agapē. Jesus appealed to his first-century and subsequent followers to agapē their enemies. He implores us to love our enemies in the same manner in which we expect God to love us – with grace, mercy, goodwill and benevolence.

Jesus suggested practical ways that we, his followers, might demonstrate agapē love toward those who offend us…

Do good to those who hate you. We are off to a rough start! Oh, if only he had said to tolerate our enemies, we might have had a fighting chance. But do good? That’s a tall order. By definition, agapē is doing good – goodwill and benevolence. Goodwill implies an outwardly friendly, helpful, or cooperative attitude. Goodwill surpasses tolerance. Benevolence describes the quality of being well meaning, showing kindness. Benevolence is goodwill in action. It has the best interest of the other (our enemy/offender) in mind. This is radical, counter-cultural, and counter-intuitive.

Bless those who curse you. It doesn’t get any easier! What does it mean to bless someone? Blessing is a powerful Biblical concept, which I wrote about a few months ago. When we bless someone, we are really invoking God’s favor on that person. Invoke God’s divine favor on those who curse us? Radical, indeed. An unheard of suggestion.

Pray for those who mistreat you. A coup de grâce, of sorts. Love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and now pray for those who mistreat us? This is a hard expectation. It’s no wonder so many of us gloss over these difficult mandates, moving on to something that is more soothing to our souls. It’s no wonder so many of us choose to set aside Jesus’ directives and instead allow cultural ideologies to mold and shape us. What Jesus is saying to us is unconventional, counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, radical, and frankly hard, if not impossible.

It’s important to realize something about the Sermon on the Plain (as well the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew). Jesus is not suggesting a checklist that we should try get right. Rather, this is about a willingness to be a kingdom person. He is describing the basic life and character of a kingdom person, of a Christ-follower. He shows us who we can become when we follow him and heed his mandates. Following is always primary. Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness (or justice)… (from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6). When we seek Jesus and his kingdom first, then we see a shift in our thinking and can begin and continue* to Love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who mistreat us.

“No power in the world is comparable to agapē love, both to keep Christians from becoming like their enemies and to release their enemies from the presence of their own hatred.” (Edwards, J. R. (2015). The gospel according to Luke, p. 198)

* In Greek, each of the four imperatives – love, do, bless, pray – are present tense, connoting continual action!

Thankfulness and Gratitude

During my high school Young Life Campaigner (Bible study) group’s Zoom call Monday night, we had the obligatory conversation about thankfulness, given that this is Thanksgiving week here in America.

In the United States, the Thanksgiving holiday is a bit of a myth which came to the fore during the Civil War when President Abraham Lincoln, to foster unity, declared it as a national holiday. I am aware that other countries have also set aside annual days to be thankful. Days set aside for thanksgiving are centuries-old, though feasting is a newer phenomenon. In centuries past, days of thanksgiving involved fasting, prayer and supplication* to God. It reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Philippians…

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7, ESV).

During our Zoom call on Monday night, I asked if there was a difference between thankfulness and gratitude. In our initial responses we thought the words basically meant the same and were interchangeable. Those who know me well will not be surprised to know that I sent them to their devices to look up the definition of the two terms. We discovered something pretty interesting…

Thankfulness is an adjective and Gratitude is a noun.

To my English teacher friends, the significance of this distinction isn’t missed. The rest of us may need to dig a bit deeper. Being thankful is about being pleased and relieved, an adjective that describes how we feel. Gratitude, on the other hand is the quality of being thankful coupled with a readiness to show appreciation and return kindness. Gratitude is about our character.

With my Campaigner guys, we developed an analogy that helped us make sense of the distinction between thankfulness and gratitude: I get the results of a difficult math test and my grade is better than anticipated, for which I am thankful! Gratitude, on the other hand, would be displayed when I connect with my teacher to show appreciation for the extra help she gave me. Thankfulness is more inward; Gratitude is outward. Thankfulness is more of a spontaneous response; gratitude, as with all charter-building, takes time, effort and intentionality, to which my wife, Barb, alluded in a Face Book post this week:

A couple years ago I decided to focus on the word gratitude. At first I just put copies of the word “gratitude” in places I would see throughout the day. After awhile the word became part of my daily thoughts. I would encourage anyone who desires to see life through a better lens to try this, I feel like it changed me for the better.

Have a Blessed Thanksgiving!

* Supplication is not a word we use much these days. It basically means asking, even begging, for something with earnest and humility.