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The Kingdom is Near

 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”  Matthew 4:17

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ first instruction to his followers was to “Repent.” He follows this directive with a brief justification. In my paraphrase, Jesus says: “You need to change the focus of your life because the kingdom is very near and available to you here and now, but you will never experience it from the path you are on.” The kingdom of heaven Jesus refers to may or may not be a place we go when we die, but it most certainly is a state of being here and now.

It is difficult to overemphasize the central position the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God (I believe the terms are used interchangeably), has in the teachings of Jesus. This kingdom is the nexus from which his teachings emanate. Jesus refers to the kingdom of heaven/God 85 times in the four Gospels. He refers to the kingdom another 34 times. Clearly, there is something significant about this kingdom that Jesus invites us to know and experience.

Most of us were taught to think of heaven as a faraway place where the good and faithful go after they die. The alternative, hell, is where those not qualifying for heaven go. Our stay in either place is rumored to be eternal. While I do not wish to speculate about possible states of being after our physical death, I have certainly experienced both heaven and hell on earth. It is to these present states of the human condition that I believe Jesus is referring when he tells us the kingdom is near.

What Jesus says about the kingdom is instructive. Aside from the many comparisons he draws, i.e., the kingdom of heaven is like…, Jesus refers to the kingdom as a place that is very close. In Matthew 4:17, Jesus says “the kingdom of heaven has come near” (emphasis added). Elsewhere in Matthew (12:28) he says, “the kingdom of God has come to you.” In Mark 12:34: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” From Luke 17:21: “the kingdom of God is among you.” The unmistakable common theme is that this kingdom is not somewhere far away, but this kingdom is here. As if this is not convincing, in Luke 9:27, Jesus says: “But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God.” Point number one is that the kingdom is near. Point number two is that the presence, knowledge, or experience of Jesus is integral to our ability to enter the kingdom. Third, while many Christians believe Jesus is the entry point to heaven (Jesus, in fact, claims as much in John 14:6), I do not believe the Christian experience of Jesus is the only entry point. Rather, all points likely require a knowledge or experience of God in the flesh, which is exactly what Christians believe of Jesus. In other words, entry into heaven on earth requires a Jesus-like encounter with the divine, which is available to all, including those who have never heard of or experienced the Son of God manifested in Jesus of Nazareth.

Jesus, in referring to the kingdom, is talking about a state of being that is present now, while we are alive on earth, and we enter it through Christ, the Son of God. We are not separate from God; only our lack of faith makes it seem so. In a recent Daily Meditation1, Richard Rohr wrote, “The belief that God is ‘out there’ is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Jesus came to put it all together for and in us. He was saying, ‘This physical world is the hiding place of God.’” Although the body of Jesus left this planet 2000 years ago, he is still present through the reality of the Spirit, offering us entry into the kingdom whenever we are ready – right here, right now, next week, or when we die (death likely changes our focus for us). The ticket to the kingdom is repentance – rearranging our priorities. Once our heart is set on the right path, Jesus will lead us to the kingdom, as will become apparent as we continue to explore his teachings.

This is the 3rd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 1  Richard Rohr, Daily Meditations. January 5, 2018. http://www.cac.org, Sourced January 15, 2018.

Repent!

Repent!

 From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”   Matthew 4:17

The first instruction from Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark is to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 4:17 and Mark 1:15). This line is exactly what John the Baptist is quoted as saying earlier in Matthew (3:2) and occurs after Jesus has been baptized by John and spent 40 days in the wilderness. It seems safe to assume these words hold a special significance, since they mark the beginning of his ministry. What does it mean, exactly, to repent? The current understanding has largely to do with being sorry for poor behavior. In Catholic traditions, parishioners can attend confession, where they admit to a priest where they have fallen short in the recent past: “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” Certainly, confessing our shortcomings and seeking forgiveness is a healthy practice, but the fuller meaning of repentance goes beyond being sorry for less-than-stellar behavior.

Dictionary.com1 defines repent as “to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better” (emphasis added). The Greek word for repentance is metanoia, which literally means “a transformative change of heart: especially, a spiritual conversion.”2 To repent is to turn around or to make a conscious choice to change the direction of one’s life. It goes to the core of our being and seeks to change us from there. Much more than saying, “I’m sorry,” to repent is a determined, sustained, and conscious action to chart a different course for one’s life. This, then, is Jesus’ initial instruction for those who wish to follow him.

For me, there is an Advent-feel about repentance in that it invites us to prepare for something magical and mystical. It is magical in that the life Jesus calls us to is largely foreign to our daily routines. It is mystical in that it cannot be explained or foreseen except by faith. In Luke 3:4, John the Baptist, echoing the prophet Isaiah, says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” John’s Gospel records the words as “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23). To the extent that John’s words are a call to repentance, it is a call to a process and not a single event; a preparation for an extended journey, as opposed to a specific destination.

This directive from Jesus for repentance is about a new focus for our lives. Jesus offers a bridge to this new life, but the first step of this journey of the heart is ours to choose. In a recent daily meditation, Richard Rohr wrote, “You cannot know God the way you know anything else.”3 This journey is not one of becoming upwardly mobile in order to rub elbows with the societal elite. There is not anything wrong with upward mobility, per se, except that is not an orientation conducive to finding God. Its motivations are wrongly placed. Our deepest essence cannot be focused on material gain and also upon God. In fact, the journey Jesus invites us to is more likely to take us among those society rejects. We, along with Mary and Joseph, must make the long heart-journey to Bethlehem and find our way to the dark of the stable. The Christ within will not be born among the lights and parties at the Inn with everybody who is anybody. There is no room there for this birth. The Christ within is born in the simplicity, solitude, and minimal provision of the stable.

To repent is to change our priorities. We focus less on ourselves and more on others. We are less concerned with accumulating stuff and more on acquiring useful items for those in need. Our priorities shift from success to meaning. This change is not something forced upon us, that we are guilted into beginning, or even something that is possible without our willing consent. As we turn our faces toward God, we are naturally pulled in a new direction, a direction an earlier version of ourselves likely would have shunned. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

 

This is the 2nd in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 1  Dictionary.com, Sourced January 8, 2018.                                                                                                             2  Merriam-Webster.com/dictionary/metanoia, Sourced January 8, 2018.                                                       3  Richard Rohr. Daily Meditations,cac.org. Published and sourced January 9, 2018.

 

 

What Did Jesus Say?

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. John 21:24

In the spirit of the New Year, I begin a new thread of Life Notes. I will focus on the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the four Gospels. A reasonable case can be made that Christianity has strayed from its roots. In fact, some go so far as to say that Jesus would not recognize himself in some of today’s churches that claim to follow him. For this reason, I think it is worthwhile to attempt a foundational review of his life and teachings. One question that arises as we begin is how do we know what Jesus actually said? Is the Biblical record a reliable source?

The proximity of when Jesus lived and when his words were finally written down is one concern. The New Testament books that contain the majority of the words of Jesus are the four Gospels. The books written closest to Jesus’ life, however, are the letters written by Paul. Paul never encountered Jesus until after the crucifixion and does not quote him. Even Paul’s letters were written several decades after Jesus’ death. The Gospel of Mark, believed to have been the earliest of the Gospels, was written 40 or so years after Jesus died. The last of the Gospels, John, is dated 20 or so years after Mark. There are plenty of Jesus quotes in the four Gospels, but the time that passed between Jesus’ life and their writing is a concern for some people.

Another issue is which, if any, of the authors of the Gospels actually heard Jesus speak. There is some evidence that it was followers of the original disciples who actually wrote the books, meaning their writings are at least a generation removed from anyone who witnessed Jesus face to face. The stories of Jesus, no doubt, were passed along verbally from person to person, generation to generation, prior to actually being recorded in written form. Because few people were literate in Jesus’ day, most persons were good listeners with memories much better than ours are today. Even so, some question the dependability of the recollections contained in the Bible.

A final issue with relying on the Gospel record to discern what Jesus said is with the multiple translations. Jesus’ native language was Aramaic. He likely also knew Latin, Greek, and possibly Hebrew. The New Testament books translated Jesus’ words into Greek and have since been translated into many other languages, including English. As the argument goes, could the actual words of Jesus have been accurately preserved through all the different translations?

How are we to know, two thousand years and many cultures later, what Jesus said? For me, the answer lies not in the factual accuracy of scripture but in the implications of what is there. For example, a child may hear his teacher say, “Your homework is due tomorrow.” The student’s mom says, “You heard your teacher. Get your homework done tonight.” The student’s dad says, “Do as your mother said.” These are three different phrasings with identical implications. The importance is not the actual words, but the call-to-action inspired by the words. In Jesus’ case, it matters less that his words were recorded verbatim and more that the larger message Jesus communicated was preserved faithfully. I believe a strong case can be made that Jesus’ teachings may have been better understood some years after his death, allowing the authors time to reflect upon and live into the teachings.

Another important argument as to why we can rely on scripture to study what Jesus said has to do with one of his favorite teaching mediums – the use of parables. Jesus taught using parables, and no one questions the historical accuracy or factual nature of a parable. They were stories told to illustrate a point. The New Testament authors may have used parable-like paraphrasing to capture Jesus’ teachings, and to the extent that is the case, I think the essence of the teachings is very likely intact.

All of this is to say that the argument of whether Jesus’ words are accurately captured in scripture is not an issue to me. The more important questions are what did Jesus’ teachings mean at the time they were spoken, and what do they imply for us today? The latter question will be my focus in the coming weeks.

This is the 1st in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”

 

Magnifying the Lord

Magnifying the Lord

 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Luke 1:46-47a

In the days before the birth of Jesus, Mary visited her relative, Elizabeth, who was pregnant with the child who would become John the Baptist. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, sings her Song of Praise, recorded in Luke 1:46-55, which begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord…” (emphasis added). Some Bible versions translate this as “My soul proclaims the Lord…” I am generally uncomfortable splitting hairs over different translations, but this distinction is important to me. To magnify is to make larger or more visible. To proclaim is to tell about. Mary, in agreeing to birth Jesus, allowed God to become visible in the world. Thus, she magnified the Lord.

It is hard to know how much of the coming decades were known to or suspected by Mary at the time. From the retrospective view of the gospel of John, however, her soul truly did magnify the Lord. Indeed, two thousand years later, Mary is remembered and celebrated nearly as much as Jesus for her role in his birth. Mary, while not usually considered divine, does represent the feminine archetype in an otherwise patriarchal religious hierarchy. Symbolically, Mary represents the earth. She is the “formless void” the Spirit of God hovered over in the Genesis creation story, receiving and birthing the Word of God into physical existence (See Genesis 1 and John 1). To the extent that Jesus of Nazareth was 100% God and 100% human, the human part of Jesus came into being through Mary. God, being spirit, required a willing and human servant to give birth under divine circumstances in order to manifest on earth as Jesus. Mary willingly assumed that servant role.

In the passage above, Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord. Although the definition of a soul is somewhat ambiguous, it generally refers to our innermost, spiritual essence. Our soul is our eternal connection with God, and it existed before we were born and will continue to exist after our physical death. It is the conduit through which our material and spiritual natures meet, allowing God to access us and allowing us to access God. When we pray, we are communicating through this invisible channel of the soul. Just as our bodies form and develop within our mother’s body, so the body of God formed within Mary. The way I picture this is as a spiritual spark emanating from God and penetrating the malleable material of the earth (Mary), causing it to coalesce into a physical human body. In this way, Mary was impregnated with God’s Word, and she birthed a human body in which the spark of God would manifest physically. Thus, God was magnified through Mary’s soul and became visible to us in human form.

The point is not that God is so small and meek as to require magnification. The reality is that our free will allows us to pay attention to whatever we choose, and most of us choose to focus away from God. God becomes nearly invisible to us as we lose ourselves in the busyness of our daily lives. The distractions of the earth are seductive. In addition, an experience of God is not something that is imposed upon us. It is always available, although few of us choose to attend to it. Mary is celebrated today because she chose, of her own free will, to allow God’s spirit to work through her in order to enter our material world as one of us. Her decision came with the high price of giving up life as she knew it. For many of us, giving up the life we know and cherish on this earth is a step too far.

Like Mary, whether or not we consciously recognize it, our souls magnify the Lord. The grandmother of a friend told him that a little piece of him rubs off on everyone he meets. His challenge was to make sure it was a good piece. And this is our charge, that a piece of God is magnified in everything we do and to everyone we meet. It is our job to make sure that what we magnify through our words and actions is a good reflection of the spark of God within.

 

The Morning of Christmas

Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us. Matthew 1:23

 

‘Twas the morning of Christmas, when Love came to earth,

By way of a tiny and humble child’s birth;

His parents had traveled so far from their home,

For the census decreed by Augustus, in Rome.

Arriving in Bethlehem, with no place to stay,

The new baby slept in a manger of hay;

With cattle and donkeys and sheep at his side,

This animal stable was home, for a time.

Angels announced the birth on that night,

To seekers and shepherds and sinners alike;

“All glory to God!” the heavenly host chimed,

“And peace on the earth to all of mankind.”

Beneath a bright star, the news was proclaimed,

Of God come to earth in the form of this babe;

A child who would grow and remake us anew,

And cover the sins of me and of you.

On the morning of Christmas, the Prince of Peace came,

To reconcile souls with their Maker, again;

God with us, Emmanuel, forever to dwell,

On the morning of Christmas, and all year as well!

May the true light of Christmas find its home in your heart today – Merry Christmas!

 

Love Comes Anyway

Love Comes Anyway

 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. 1 John 4:11-12

The theme for the fourth week of Advent is Love. I believe that God is love and that love manifested in human form on earth in the person of Jesus. The stories of Jesus’ birth, recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, present an unusual way for love to appear. The familiarity of these stories to those of us raised with them has perhaps caused some of the mysterious particulars to become commonplace, and so we embellish and romanticize them. It is the peculiar details, however, that point to the deceptive simplicity, the laser focus, and utter purity of the love of God for and with us.

As the Christmas story goes, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem for the Roman census. The town was crowded with others gathering there for the same reason. There was no place for the child to be born, so the birth occurred in an animal stable. We recreate this today as a quiet, peaceful scene with calm, domesticated animals, fresh hay, and gentle lighting. The reality would have been much different – loud, smelly, dirty, and dark. The point we miss from the original setting, however, is that God enters into the chaos and the messiness of our everyday lives. For most of us, God does not come with a clap of thunder, marching bands, or with pomp and circumstance. Rather, God comes as a baby. Just as the baby’s cries in Bethlehem were lost in the noise of the animals and pandemonium around the stable, so today we cannot hear the baby’s cries for the Christmas messages blaring incessantly around us. It would have been easy to miss the birth of this God-child in Bethlehem. In fact, it would have been difficult to even find it there, just as it is difficult to experience it today for all the noise and distractions.

James Finley, in his Advent reflection* for 2017, says one lesson of the Christmas story is that God comes anyway. Even when we are too busy to prepare, God appears and abides within us. It did not matter that Mary and Joseph were far from home. It did not matter that Bethlehem was crowded and chaotic. It did not matter that there was no room at the Inn. God came anyway. Nothing was ready for the baby. There was no nursery, no safety, no soft clothes, and no appropriate shelter. There was no welcome fitting for a king, so Jesus was born in squalor with farm animals. Yet, he did not seem to mind or even notice.

Life is complicated because we have made it so. Love at its core, however, is simple. In spite of our messiness and unworthiness, God comes. This is the nature of love as taught by the Christmas story, that even when nothing is as we feel it should be, love comes anyway. It is there, lying unnoticed beneath the self-imposed complexity of the season. If the house is dusty and unkempt, it all-the-more resembles the original setting for the birth of Jesus. Love is an unstoppable flow – it is given and received independent of the circumstances around it. God choses to come to us because God loves us, even and especially in our imperfection. God cannot wait to be with us and will not wait until we think we are ready. God choses to be in relationship with us knowing all relationships require a give and take to perpetuate, and accepting the risk that we may not reciprocate.

Nothing matters as much as our attentive and conscious reception of this unfathomably generous gift of God’s self. Once received, this love can be passed along to others as freely and generously as it was given to us. In being giving away, love mysteriously returns to us all the more. It is almost too easy and simple to believe. Yet, this is the meaning and purpose of the season – not the noise and chaos we have built into Christmas, but the silent simplicity of a new life being gently born into our lives, just as we are, here and now. Love comes.

*James Finley, Faculty Advent Reflections, https://cac.org/faculty-advent-messages/, sourced on December 18, 2017.