The Fame of Jesus

In the middle of Mark 6, we get a glimpse of just how fast knowledge of Jesus began to spread. After hearing about Jesus sending his disciples out in groups to further his message and ministry of the kingdom of God, verse 14 says that news of all this was spreading so far and so fast that Herod, the ruler of Galilee, even heard of it. Religious authorities have noticed Jesus from the very beginning of his ministry. Now the political authorities are beginning to take notice.

This Herod is one of the sons of Herod the Great, the king who ruled at the birth of Jesus. The son was denounced by John the Baptist for marrying his brother’s wife. To pull this wedding off, Herod had to divorce his own wife, who was the daughter of Aretas, king of the nearby Nabateans. Aretas, to save family honor, attacks Herod and takes part of his territory. Then Herod marries Herodias, who was previously married to his brother. In case that’s not enough palace intrigue, Herodias was niece to both these sons of Herod the Great. Herod does not seem like one who would bother to take note of whatever the latest religious phenomenon is sweeping Galilee.

Herod did take some interest in John the Baptist, who was introduced back in chapter 1 of Mark’s story as the forerunner of Jesus. Herod’s main interest seems to be that John would not stop talking about how wrong it was for Herod to divorce his wife and marry his brother’s wife who was also his niece. Let’s be honest, John had a lot to talk about here. And, Herod did not know quite what to make of John, for though he put him in prison, he would listen to him gladly.

Herod, who is supposed to be in control and running things, actually comes across rather pathetic in this story. He does not rule so much as he is ruled by his passions and his desire to not lose any honor. When the daughter of Herodias, his new wife, dances before Herod and his court at a lavish party, Herod promises to give her whatever she desires. Encouraged by her mother, the daughter asks for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Herod, the once willing listener to John’s preaching, grants the request.

So when Herod hears of a new religious fervor sweeping Galilee, He is amazed to learn that it is attached to a new name, Jesus. Some say this person is no ordinary person but a prophet, like one of the prophets of old: Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, or Amos. Some say surely this figure is Elijah, come back to bring in a new messianic era. Herod joins the voices of those who say, “Surely, this person is John the Baptist, raised from the dead.”

Whatever Herod has heard and thinks about Jesus, he does not know Jesus. It is not enough to just gather bits and pieces of information about Jesus, to be aware of his fame. There is nothing like knowing Jesus. If Herod knew Jesus, he would have known that he was one greater than the prophets, Elijah, and even John.

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Amazing Jesus

We read lots of stories in the gospels of people being amazed at what Jesus can do: heal the sick, raise the dead, teach with authority, walk on water. We still find ourselves amazed at some of the events in the life of Jesus over 2,000 years later. What we may read over and forget is the story about how we can amaze Jesus.

In Mark 6:1-6 we read about Jesus returning to his hometown. It is obvious that these people know him well. They name his family members, know where his mother lives, and probably even know his favorite Psalm to sing. What they do not know is where he gets the power to do the things they have heard about Jesus doing in other places.

Mark tells us they are scandalized by Jesus. They have tried to place Jesus in all their known and familiar containers: Mary’s son, brother of James, carpenter. Healing and teaching are not skills learned in any of these categories. So where did Jesus get this power?

The people of Nazareth are not so much amazed by what Jesus does as by the fact that Jesus does these things. They have stumbled over their familiarity with Jesus. They know him so well, they cannot believe he is able to do such things.

This is when we uncover what amazes Jesus: unbelief. Mark says Jesus was able to do very little in his hometown. He healed a few sick people but was not able to do any great miracle like he had done in other parts of Galilee or even in Gentile territory across the Sea of Galilee. Jesus was amazed that his hometown crowd could not believe in his ability to do such things.

Imagine Jesus coming to his own people and turning away, amazed that their unbelief keeps them from experiencing some of the radical outbreaks of God’s kingdom like feeding thousands or casting out demons. What deeds of power might Jesus be trying to work among his people, the church, today? Are we limiting what Jesus can do among us by trying to contain him in familiar categories and labels?

Of course, Jesus will not be limited by our unbelief, any more than he was limited by the people of Nazareth that day. Instead, Jesus goes forward and expands his mission by enlisting his disciples to begin carrying his message and mission forward.

Grace-filled Interruptions

Some of our favorite stories of Jesus’ ministry occur in response to interruptions.

Jesus is teaching all day and the disciples come to him and say, “Send the people away to get something to eat.” Jesus feeds the crowd of over 5, 000 with five loaves and two fish (Mark 6).

On another day when Jesus is teaching, parents push their children to be close to Jesus. The disciples try sending the children away, but Jesus places them front and center and says, “Let the children come to me. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Mark 10.)

In Mark 5, Jesus is on his way to heal a little girl. While walking the crowded streets, a woman reaches out to touch the edge of his clothes. Jesus stops and asks the crowd, “Who touched me?”

These stories are not about how these people interrupt the important teaching and healing of Jesus. They are stories of how Jesus interrupts the way we think things are supposed to be. In each story, Jesus stops what he is doing and devotes himself to the situation at hand. His grace-filled response is why we remember these stories still today.

Jesus interrupts our ideas of where food comes from and how we have to receive it. Jesus interrupts our ideas of who is important and should be allowed in the center of activity. Jesus interrupts our ideas about who is worthy of notice and needs healing.

In his book Reaching Out, Henri Nouwen tells about visiting a former colleague at the University of Notre Dame. As they walked across the campus, the older professor commented, “my whole life I have been complaining that my work was constantly interrupted, until I discovered that my interruptions were my work” (Doubleday: 1986, p. 56).

I am not saying every demand on our time is of equal worth. We are bombarded with robocalls and infomercials that can drain precious time from family, friends, or work. But there are times in our lives when the real difference has been the grace we experienced in the unexpected encounter, the event that seemed to ruin our daily schedule, or the meal from unexpected resources in the most unlikely place.

Trinitarian Living

This Sunday is designated as Trinity Sunday in many Western churches. It is not that these churches forget about the Trinity the other 51 Sundays of the year (well hopefully it’s not like that.) This day is just set aside to lift up the Christian understanding that we worship one God who is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Doubtless, there will be lots of sermons devoted to the Trinity. The problem that troubles many of these sermons is trying to explain the Trinity; say too much and it is easy to go beyond the official teaching of 3-in-1, say too little and you might end of with just one being, say too much and you might end up with three unrelated beings.

Saint Augustine realized this danger years ago. In his book on the Trinity, Augustine first surveys the works of other early theologians on the Trinity. Augustine notes that many struggled when they ventured to explain the Trinity. Often they made the Trinity sound like a mathematical problem: 1+1+1=1 Augustine saw the Trinity not as a mathematical problem to be solved but as a model of Christian living.

For Augustine, the Trinity is a model of how Christians are called to live int he world. The Trinity is the original unity in diversity. For Christians, devoted to worshipping and following the 3-in-1 God, the Trinity calls us to live in fellowship with God and neighbor.

Arguments from the days of the early church about how many persons and whether or not they were all one same essence, were not esoteric hair-splitting just to get the doctrine correct. Doctrine was seen as guidelines, stage directions for living the Christian life.

The Trinity is about how we see and understand God, but like Isaiah (Isaiah 6), our vision of God leads to a new way of living in the world. A trinitarian understanding should lead to a trinitarian lifestyle. Such living places us, like Isaiah, before the holiness of God. Here we see our solidarity with others, “I am a person of unclean who lives in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Yet cleansed by God, we are sent forth to share with others the what God has made known to us, with our lives as well as our lips.

 

Pentecost: The Continued Work of the Spirit

Pentecost is one of my favorite days in the life of the church. I love the story from Acts 2 where the Spirit descends like flames of fire on the disciples, and a congregation is suddenly formed of mixed nationalities. The Spirit crosses our normal barriers and divisions.

I think of the flames of the Spirit descending in different colors, bright orange, red, and blue. It reminds me that the church of Jesus is a diverse gathering of people.

Years ago, one of my mentors said, “Anyone can build a congregation of like-minded people, but it would not be the church of Jesus Christ. The Church of Jesus is a congregation of people of different backgrounds, languages, nationalities, etc. It takes the Holy Spirit to form a congregation like that.”

There is more to the work of the Holy Spirit than the loud rushing wind and a church gathering that is confused with a drunken mob, there is the quiet on-going work of the Spirit helping us to truly live together in love and unity. This does not destroy our differences, rather it helps us to witness to the world that our new life in Jesus is more important than the things that others think should divide us.

Dwight Judy, in his book, A Quiet Pentecost, tells of over 40 different congregations being transformed by connecting to the on-going work of the Spirit in their life together.  Pentecost is more than one day in the life of the church year. Pentecost is the continued work of the Spirit within our life together, shaping and forming us into the body of Christ.

Celebrate the wild, loud, astounding work of the Spirit on Pentecost and continue working with the quiet continued presence of the Spirit in your midst.

Ascension

The Ascension of Jesus into heaven may be our most neglected day of worship in the church. It might be because Ascension occurs on Thursday and it is hard to get people to church on a Thursday. Perhaps the problem is we just do not know what to make of the Ascension and find it easier to ignore it. On the other hand, Luke, the author of the gospel that bears his name and the Book of Acts, finds the Ascension so important that he repeats it.

Luke finishes his gospel with the account of Jesus taking the disciples to Bethany and then ascending from them (Luke 24.44-51). In the first chapter of Acts, Luke tells again about how Jesus promises that the Holy Spirit will be given to the disciples so they can be witnesses for Jesus, before ascending from them.

As the story is written in Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until they receive the Spirit. I think this is the real reason we often ignore or look over the Ascension; we do not like to wait. We live in an instant society. We want things as quickly as possible: download books to read from a website, microwave popcorn in under three minutes, coffee in less than one minute, instant access to entertainment on TVs, computers, and phones. We do not like to stand around and wait on things, not even big things like the presence of God. Give me John’s gospel where Jesus appears on Easter evening and breathes out the Holy Spirit not this waiting ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost.

We also tend to think of waiting as wasted or empty time; sitting around twiddling our thumbs until there is something to do. This is what the Ascension story in Luke’s gospel really challenges. Luke tells us that the disciples return to Jerusalem to wait on the Spirit, but they are anything but idle. They are in worship and prayer. Their waiting is an expectant waiting, not an inactive void. They are doing those things that keep them ready, attentive to the movement of God’s Spirit.

John Wesley called activities like worship, prayer, studying the scriptures, and sharing with fellow Christians means of grace. They are ways that keep us in touch with God’s Spirit and attentive to what God may do or say in our midst.

I think the real challenge of the Ascension is understanding that often I am prone to dart out on my own, in my own strength, my own vision, my plan, only to find out that I may not be doing what God is working to accomplish in the world. However, when I am in tune with God’s vision, God’s power, and God’s mission, I get to participate in something far greater than I can ever think or imagine.  That’s something worth waiting on.

 

Abiding In Love

“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” John 15:9

This saying, like many of Jesus’ sayings, sounds simple and sweet, until we try to live it. I mean live it to the fullest, not just live it in a moment of ecstasy when we think everything is right with the world and things are all going our way.

It is comforting to be reminded that Jesus loves us with the same deep love that exists within the Godhead. “I love you as the Father loves me. Abide in my love.” To remain steadfast in this love, to be grounded and rooted in it, gives us a sense of worth and purpose in the world.

But there is more to this love than just a reminder of God’s love for us. The love that Jesus offers us calls us to love each other too. Abiding in this love of Jesus means we love each other the way Jesus loves us. Abiding in this love may be a little more difficult.

Kristen and I designed our wedding bands during our engagement. They are simple rings with an inscription in Greek. The inscription comes from another passage in John’s gospel where Jesus says, “Love one another, as I have loved you.” (15:12) Circling our rings in Greek are the words, “as I have loved you.”

During our engagement, that seemed like a nice, sweet sentiment of Jesus. Nearly 23 years later, I can tell you that one of the most painful experiences for me is to look down at my wedding band in the midst of an argument and stopping to ask myself, “am I loving Kristen the way Christ loves me?”

I am not implying that Christ’s love will erase all our differences, disagreements, or even simple misunderstandings. But seeing that comment on my ring calls me to seek resolution of our differences, disagreements, and misunderstandings in a different way.

Abiding in Christ’s love also means staying committed to loving each other in times when we may think the other person undeserving of our love, rebuking our love, or even misunderstanding our love. Abiding in love is not something we commit to as disciples as long as we all get along and agree with each other. To love one another as Christ loves us, to abide in that love, means being committed to loving one another in difficult times, times of disagreement, times when loving my not feel like what we want to do at all. And if we abide in this love, Jesus says we will also be filled with joy (15:11.)