Sunday, February 24, 2013

Doors, Living Water and Shepherds: metaphor and symbol



The Prophet Jesus, our Master, nearly always speaks to us from the pages of the Scriptures in parables, symbolically. But this is the most forgotten and ignored Truth of his ministry, and causes much misinterpretation.

The Book of Mark tells us, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.” Mark 4:33-34

In the Book of John, we read of Jesus being called a door.

“So Jesus again said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:7-12

But was he REALLY a wooden door? Did he REALLY lead around a small flock of animals? Of course not. If one is a Literalist, it makes no sense, as it made no sense. But if one understands that we are the sheep, and he’s the shepherd, and that we, through him (like walking towards and then through a door) may have more abundant, productive lives, the parable opens to us and becomes clear.

When Jesus spoke of himself and his teachings as Living Water, the Samaritan woman at the well asked, "Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” Obviously, he was speaking in metaphor.

Jesus is compared to a Narrow Gate. But again, he had no stones or hinges, but instead offered the difficult (but holy) way to serve and know God.

Nicodemus asks Jesus what he meant by being “Born again.” Surely, one can't crawl into his mother’s womb to be once again born! Jesus explains that he was speaking symbolically.

Luckily, most people today understand this. Most see the Jesus really wasn't a door, made of wood and hinges, or a bucket of water, sloshing around ancient Judea.

But most don’t understand that all of the Gospel stories should be taken as Parabolic and Symbolic, and their extreme literalism obscures and sometimes warps the vital teachings Jesus left to us.

When Jesus says one must eat of his flesh and drink of his blood, they, like the ancient Jews who heard this literally, ask, “"How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" and they invent man-made doctrines that turn ordinary food, as if by magic, into flesh and blood.

When the Jews heard Jesus say, "My Father is working until now, and I am working." (John 5:18) they immediately accused him of “making himself equal with God.” But Jesus had repeatedly said that he could do nothing on his own without God, that he was God’s Prophet, that God was working through him, that he was God’s Son because he heard and obeyed God and said often that he was sent by God. And yet, most who have read the Gospels have believed instead the Jewish lawyers sent to accuse him falsely (on this and other occasions) rather than God’s Anointed One.

Jesus is clearly speaking as the metaphorical shepherd in John 10:14-15, saying “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” Clearly, again, he is not a literal shepherd of animals, but the meaning is clear: he is laying down his life for his followers – those who obey him.

Clarifying, he says also (using the symbolism of friendship) “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:13-14.) There, neatly laid out, without obfuscation or confusion, is why Jesus died, and it is a call to obey our Prophet and Master’s example. But other men have crafted many clever ways which purport to show that Jesus died in order to allow us to get into heaven simply by believing his death was magical, when in fact, his life and death calls us to repent from sinning, obey God’s commandments, and forgive and serve Others. That, not mere belief, will allow God to reward us with eternal life.

“Scripture” is only what bears witness to what is true. But if we willfully misread scripture, ignoring our God-given Reason in order to interpret and understand it, pretending the words are something other than what they are, we obscure its meaning, and lose the precious teachings the Master Jesus gave to us during his ministry.



Selected Scripture:

“Then the disciples came and said to him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" (Matt. 13:10)

“This figure of speech Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.” (John 10:6)

“The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (John 6:52)

“Nicodemus said to him, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?" (John 3:4)

“The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:11-14)

“I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” (John 10:14-15)

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:13-14)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Picking a Church, forgetting God



Selecting a church today is a lot like selecting a job, or a school, or new car.

Is it close by? Are the people nice? Is the pastor clever (and handsome!) Does he (or she) have short sermons? Are the sermons “relevant” – filled with neat allusions to TV shows, popular songs, hit movies and funny jokes? How about a good singing program, with a great rock band and a competent light show?

What about the facility? Is it large? How’s parking? Easy access from the highway? Does it have a cool cafĂ©, and a gift shop with lots of neat cross necklaces and pithy scripture-laden t-shirts for the kids? There are questions to be asked about daycare, after school activities, programs for teens, pre-teens, elementary school kids, toddlers, babies, support groups for pregnant women, single people, the elderly, and perhaps a few other groups we hadn’t even considered we’d be interested in.

But what has been forgotten in all of these questions? Oh, yeah, God.

Doctrine may or may not come up in this search. But if the traditional label is on the door (Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Roman Catholic) then the affiliation will be clear enough, and if you were raised in one of these traditions, then you’d probably assume you’d be comfortable in a new church with that label, too. Certainly you won’t be challenged, and the words will always be friendly, perhaps eliciting emotional tears at the end.

Jesus was sent as God’s Prophet, sent to proclaim a message to the world, and it’s a message that has nothing at all to do with any of these glittering irrelevancies we’ve placed around the Church that Jesus calls us to be.

Jesus not only calls us to come and die when we take his Yoke of Service onto us in his name. No, if we serve God through Jesus the Anointed (“Christ”) he would call us to give up everything in the service of God.

Today’s Christians would say his command to the wealthy man (who likely served MONEY as much as, if not more than, God) to “Go, sell everything” and “Come, follow me” simply does not apply to us today. Surely, we’d be allowed to keep ALL of our McMansions, large SUVs, Playstations and Wii’s along with our kitchens with stone countertops and marble floors. Right?

When Jesus calls us to go out into the world and share the Good and Beneficial Message (“Gospel”) of repentance of sins and to seek God’s forgiveness (and give it to others without ceasing) and to be prepared to leave everything behind, surely he didn’t mean for us to leave our glittering “Mega-Churches” behind. Right?

And when we are called to “go the extra mile” and to give not only our jackets to those in need, but our jackets, too, that doesn’t REALLY apply to us today, does it? Surely we aren’t called to do Good Works in Jesus’ name, are we?

After all, the TV preacher will say, Jesus was just joking. Or he was just speaking to the Jews. Or he was speaking to an earlier “dispensation” not to those who live in our day. Or we, as poor and pathetic humans, can’t possibly do Good Works (which God doesn’t like anyway.)

But if Jesus was joking, or his words are not relevant, why did he say those words would “never pass away”? Why did he tell us we would be judged according to our Works?

Because, perhaps, he meant exactly what he said, and wished us to become Jesus Followers in our daily lives, dedicating ourselves to Loving Good fully and completely and serving others with Good Works in his name, and be not just Jesus admirers and Jesus praisers, sitting in comfortable, padded chairs in expensive Mega-Churches. 



Selected Scripture:

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Matt. 11:29-30

“And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Mark 10:21

And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” Luke 9:23-25

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Matt. 24:35

“For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.” Matt. 16:27

“The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” Matt. 13:43

Jesus answered, "The most important [commandment] is, 'Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.' The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these." Mark 12:29-31

Sunday, February 10, 2013

A call to service and Costly Grace


The great pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life in a Nazi concentration camp, preached bravely against the notion of "cheap grace," saying that "When Christ calls a man, he bids him to come and die."

Bonhoeffer defines Cheap Grace in his work, "The Cost of Discipleship" thusly: 

"Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ…. Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has."
In truth, Grace is indeed a gift from God, but it requires not only the recognition that it IS a gift, but also obedience to the Giver, if we accept it from Him.

Shockingly, Bonhoeffer was one of very few in the past century to speak this truth.

Jesus, God's chosen spokesman and Prophet, sent by Him to proclaim a Good and Beneficial Message ("Gospel") made this perfectly clear in his ministry, but we fail to heed his message.

We instead choose an easy path, a path that simply adores and praises his name while continuing to seek greater wealth and prosperity, when his entire ministry was dedicated to calling people to come and die.

While surely we must metaphorically "die" to our sins, Jesus said we must lose our lives (sometimes literally) in order to be saved. And Jesus calls us to deny and sacrifice ourselves, not fill ourselves with pride or focus on self-gratification.


When Jesus tells us to do this DAILY, and to pick up our crosses, and take on the yoke of his teachings (Luke 9:23) he is asking us to serve others, to do good and Righteous Works, and prepare to sacrifice our entire fortunes, if necessary, for his sake.

We must question why modern American Christendom preach EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE of this, because the idea that we need not give anything in return for our salvation is a myth.

Jesus said we are REQUIRED to forgive others if we expect God to forgive our shortcomings (sins.) (Matt. 6:14-15)

Jesus said we were not to simply CALL him Master, and that he would not be impressed by this, but only those who obeyed his words would be saved. (Matt. 7:21) Obedience is a WORK, assisted by God’s Spirit.

Jesus said we must seek God’s perfection and be morally perfect. (Matt. 5:48) and to seek after righteousness (Matt. 6:33.) And he made it clear that our discipleship will be measured by God by our obedience and righteous acts, done in humility and in obedience to Jesus, God’s Anointed One. (Matt. 16:27)

Jesus warned that his Followers would be hated, persecuted and even killed. This is far from the promise of ease, wealth and prosperity that today's Christendom claims he preached. (Matt. 5:11-12; John 15:18, 15:20)

And Jesus said, "Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me." (Matt. 10:38) This is not merely “belief,” which is only the starting-point of Faith.

Jesus calls not for mere adoration or love or spiritual ecstasy in the midst of spouting a "Sinner's Prayer" that is supposedly "enough" to get us a ticket into heaven. This is a commitment, a call to make Good Works a Sacrament and an offering to God in return for his Grace and gifts.

Jesus thought we were up for a challenging faith like this. We must believe he was right.





Selected Scripture:

“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” Luke 6:46


“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me,” Luke 9:23


“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matt. 11:29


“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?’” Mark 8:34-36


“Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”  Matt. 10:38


“And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Mark 10:23


“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matt. 6:33)


"Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matt. 5:11-12


“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” Matt. 25:37-40


“For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.” Matt. 16:27

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Called by God's Anointed One to seek perfection


The following little message was posted on facebook this week by a popular Christian TV minister:
“God knows we’re not perfect. We all have faults and weaknesses and make mistakes, but God loves us anyway.”
The concepts expressed here are not controversial among modern Christians. The fact that we aren't perfect is completely correct, of course, as is the fact that we have faults and make mistakes. The fact that God loves us despite these faults and mistakes is also completely true.

So, what’s wrong with this seemingly harmless statement of facts? What’s wrong is what’s been left out, and the conclusions that the reader of such a statement is likely to draw from it.

Today’s Christians are likely to easily, perhaps too easily, embrace the idea that imperfection, faults, weaknesses and mistakes are so natural to our Nature that we are bound – in all senses of that word – to continue wallowing in them and never overcome them.

The old bumper sticker slogan that “Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven,” is typical of this sentiment. The idea that we are destined by fate (and by our “flesh”) to continue to sin, is baked into the Christian message so thoroughly that it seems entirely natural that this is the message Jesus brought to us: “we are all sinners, but not to worry, we’re forgiven.” Period. End of message. Right? Not quite.

But the message that Jesus preached – for which he was chosen, adopted and anointed by God as His only Son, and sent by Him to preach to the world – was not to simply accept us for who we are, it was to challenge us to strive to become perfect, just as God is perfect.


While it’s obviously true that we will always stumble, make mistakes and fall short of God’s moral perfection, we are to always strive towards that Goal – the Goal that Jesus sets for us and knows we can achieve. 

Striving for the Kingdom of God, by repenting of our sins, pursuing righteousness through good works in the name of God, and following the perfect path of Jesus, all the while seeking God’s forgiveness for our shortcomings – this is the path Jesus set out for us to follow. 


Not only must we seek God’s forgiveness, we are required as a condition of receiving that forgiveness the granting of others forgiveness when they offend us. 


God does not wish us to remain “just as we are” in terms of our actions, attitudes and shortcomings, He wishes us to achieve the fullness of what He, our Creator, knows we CAN be. Since the dawn of human history, God has known all about human beings, and of what we are capable. He knows we can obey Him, and that we have done so repeatedly in past generations, just as He knows we are free to disobey His commandments. 


God chose and sent Jesus, His Anointed Prophet, to proclaim this Good and Beneficial Message (Gospel) to us, and to be a perfect example in his teachings, life and death that we should know it can be done by a human being. By becoming Jesus Followers, we accept the challenge Jesus gives to us to take up our cross and follow him and pursue God’s righteousness.



Selected Scripture: 


“You are to be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect.” Matthew 5:48 


“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” Mark 8:34 


“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Mark 6:14-15 


"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed” Luke 4:18 


“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Matt. 5:16 


“The LORD dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. For I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God.” Psalms 18:20-21 


“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” 1 John 2:1 


“Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.” 1 John 3:7