Saturday, September 23, 2017

15. Mark 4:13-20: Ways of Hearing

The questions the twelve asked Jesus about this parable prompts him to ask how they will understand any of the parables (v.13). His parabolic announcement of Jubilee, then, is paradigmatic of what the Jesus movement is all about. And as hard as it may be even for them (to whom its mystery has been given, v.10) to “get” this parable, they should not be surprised when it “sowing” to their contemporaries issues in much rejection. Thus, Jesus uses its imagery to craft a parable on “hearing.”

Some hearers are on path where the word was sown. They have no chance as Satan himself swoops in and removes the word from them. Enmity to Jesus’ Jubilean word has more than human rejection to deal with. Think here of a balloon lying deflated in your hand. You intend to blow it up but somehow, for some reason, you never get around to it. The balloon lies limp not doing what it was meant to do.

Some hearers are like seed sown on rocky ground. They accept it at first happily but its puts down no roots in them. And when the cost of this commitment rears its head, “trouble or persecution,” poof! they are gone! Think of a balloon inflated, held by fingers at the bottom. The fingers let go, and the balloon flies off erratically around the room.

Yet other hearers are like seed sown among thorns. They accept the word, take it seriously but slowly “the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things” strangles their faith and nothing comes of it. Our balloon is inflated again and held by fingers at the bottom. This time, the fingers open slowly allowing the air to escape little by little. But the end result is the same. The balloon lies empty of air, unable to bring joy to others as it was made to do.

Finally, some are like seed sown on good soil. They receive the word, embrace it, it takes root, endures, and bears fruit. Again, 30-60-100 fold. Here our balloon is blown up full of air. And as it is blown up, more balloons emerge from it blown up to full capacity. And more balloons emerge. And more. Each is tied off to contain its air and creates great festivity.

These parables, Jesus tells his followers, are ultimately revelatory (vv.21-22). Our response to them, how we hear, what the reality is in our case. That is, what kind of soil we have proven to be. Everything depends on how we listen (v.23)!

Jesus word, his announcement of Jubilee, as out-of-the-box as it was, provokes a crisis in hearing that reveals our heart. It’s a life-and-death matter as his severe final comment indicates (v.25).   

Friday, September 22, 2017

Economics as America’s Sovereign Religion: Is it Time for a Reformation?

The most powerful religion in the Western world is no longer Christianity. It is economics.
It can actually be quite instructive to consider economics not as a science or sociology but as a religion, complete with doctrines, priests, and constant references to faith. So says John Rapley in his essay from The Guardian last July.
“Think about it. Economics offers a comprehensive doctrine with a moral code promising adherents salvation in this world; an ideology so compelling that the faithful remake whole societies to conform to its demands. It has its gnostics, mystics and magicians who conjure money out of thin air, using spells such as “derivative” or “structured investment vehicle” … it has its prophets, reformists, moralists and above all, its high priests who uphold orthodoxy in the face of heresy.”
If the economy is the new religion of the masses, then economists are its priestly class replete with their own denominational squabbles and even scandals. The economists are like priests,
“…giving us guidance on how to reach a promised land of material abundance and endless contentment. For a long time, they seemed to deliver on that promise, succeeding in a way few other religions had ever done, our incomes rising thousands of times over and delivering a cornucopia bursting with new inventions, cures and delights.”
Economics dominates modern ethical discourse. Profitability now equates with ethical virtue. The bottom line ethical question for Western society–the question behind all of our other questions–is no longer “what is true?” or “what is good?” and certainly not “what is beautiful?” The bottom line ethical question of our day is “what is profitable?”

The Church and Changing the World

The church is not called to change the world, it's called to participate in and witness to the changed world brought by Jesus' life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

I posted this earlier on my facebook status and one friend responded: “I think that would change the world.”

I agree but not perhaps in the sense my friend means and not as I suspect many American Christians, progressive or evangelical believe.

My thesis is this: “Changing the world” is a mantra that has been present in many ways in American Christianity throughout its existence. Some of it came from post-millenial thought. Steven Pointer explains:

“During most of the nineteenth century, American Protestants believed they were living in special times, that current events were hastening the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. Hymns like the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" became popular because they so well expressed this hope: "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,/He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored/He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword,/His truth is marching on.
“Undergirding this optimism was the doctrine of postmillennialism—the belief that the Second Coming will take place after the millennium of blissful peace and prosperity for the church, which will be ushered in by the divinely aided efforts of the church.” (
Out of the ferment of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy came another strand of postmillennialism, the Social Gospel Movement.

“The Social Gospel was a Protestant movement that was most prominent in the early-20th-century United States and Canada. The movement applied Christian ethics to social problems, especially issues of social justice such as economic inequality, poverty, alcoholism, crime, racial tensions, slums, unclean environment, child labor, inadequate labor unions, poor schools, and the danger of war. Theologically, the Social Gospellers sought to operationalize the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:10): "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". They typically were post-millennialist; that is, they believed the Second Coming could not happen until humankind rid itself of social evils by human effort.” (
The period of the two world wars and the Great Depression destroyed the sense of optimism about human goodness and ability and the inevitability of progress. Yet many in the churches continued to expect that God would bring positive change and moral renewal to his world, or at least America, through his faithful people.

The Civil Rights struggle, the war on Poverty, and the movements against the Vietnam war, largely from the liberal side of the church during the 1950’s -1970’s. The 1980’s saw the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Right. Thirty years later the Christian right has morphed into the religious right and hitched their star to the Tea Party and Trumpites. Liberalism is in disarray but a progressive movement in the both the church and world has emerged to lead a social justice and peace movement of sorts.

In all this, it seems to me, runs at least an undercurrent of postmillennial hope: if the church will do its job God will reward it with human and moral improvement, however differently those terms might be parsed. The call from all sides of the church to “change the world” reflects this residual hope for the world’s improvement.

Yet, though God will win in the end by his own initiative and power, there is no scriptural warrant I know of that says the church will prevail and lead the world to greater and greater moral achievement and social justice.

I do believe the theology of the cross which says that the resurrection of Jesus validated and vindicated his life is the God-approved way to win through losing. The cross is the criterion of faithfulness. But we still lose!

I do believe that “not cling(ing) to life even in the face of death” is what the Seer of Revelation calls conquering” (Rev.12:10).

I do believe that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" (Tertullian, Apologeticus, Chapter 50). And why should the fruit of this seed be any different?

I do believe that J. R. R. Tolkien’s statement, “I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic, so that I do not expect 'history' to be anything but a 'long defeat'—though it contains . . . some samples or glimpses of final victory,” and his portrayal of this view in his magnificent The Lord of the Rings is profoundly biblical.
I do believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is right to say “only a suffering God can help” and that we follow Jesus in the world in the same way he went into the world, by bearing the world’s sin and guilt, seeing the world from the perspective of those who suffering and not by being the world’s moral exemplars and policemen.

What kind of people live this way? How do they participate in and witness to the changed world Jesus won for us if we’re not out changing the world ourselves? Tolkien well describes

Whether or not we think our world is in decline is up to each one of us. But in application, we see this life principle guarded against pessimism by love and hope. Fighting the long defeat is not meant to protect our hearts from suffering or lead to resignation. I am reminded of a wise counselor's words to me when I complained that, after all this counseling, I seemed to cry more frequently than before: “What made you think counseling would cause you to cry less?       . . .
If anything, we find that most of the characters in LOTR cast their whole hearts into their endeavors. What they love is on the line: their friends and family, their gardens, a mug of ale in the company of friends. They hope and long for these things to be protected and offer themselves as sacrifices to make it so.
In other words, if fighting the long defeat does not lead us to risk our reputations to love the outcasts, to stay with the chronically ill in love, to support ministry to those with Alzheimer's disease, or to prepare week in and week out for a one-person Bible study, we have misunderstood it. This is what we have to offer to the world, is it not? A love unrestrained by success or timetables or ambitions? . . .
We fight the long defeat because results are not as important as our Father's delight. We fight the long defeat because we are not the authorities over “success.”
We fight the long defeat because the final victory is coming.”           (
Living this long defeat allows us to let go of our residual post-millennial illusions of “changing the world” and the political absorption of faith that seems its ever-present companion. To live in this world with patience and hope even if signs of the changed world seem few and our efforts at changing the world always fall prey to the need for success upon success and for us “world-changers” to be successful as well. We do what we can in terms of political involvement and the improvements that can be made that way but our lives and faith do not depend on them. But, rather, on the reality of the changed world of Jesus Christ. And our participation in and witness to this reality is the way we change this world (to the degree it can be changed) even as we wait for the full and final establishment of God’s new creation at Christ’s return.

This, I submit, is what Jesus means in the gospel of John about his followers living in the word but not being of the world. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

God-given Weirdness


Much of the literature on the fundamentalist – modernist controversy of the 1920’s and 30’s is described as the struggle of fundamentalists against modernity — its science, its ways of thinking, approaches to Scripture, and, in particular, the theory of evolution. But what we don’t talk about very much is the way in which the desire not be thought of as fundamentalist has shaped mainline Protestantism. If you read the history of that period, you will discover that big donors to Riverside Church in New York City — where Harry Emerson Fosdick was the preacher for so many years — gave to the building of Riverside, precisely as an effort to stem the spread of fundamentalism. If you read the steady stream of blogging, there is no end to the skewering . . .


14. Mark 4:1-34: Parables (I)

“Parables have typically been preached in North American churches as ‘earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” That, however is exactly what they are not. Rather, Jesus is describing the sovereignty of God in the most concrete possible terms, using images that any illiterate peasant could understand. The genius of parables is that they offer recognizable scenarios, drawing listeners in, then throw surprise twists is order to challenge listeners’ assumptions about what is possible.” (Myers, Say to This Mountain, 39.)
The Parable of the Sower: More Jubilee (4:1-9)                                                            (See here Myers, Say to This Mountain, 39)
The parable of the Sower is its own parable. It does not require to be “explained” by vv.14-23. The intervening section, 4:10-12, puts that latter Sower parable in a new and different context than the first.
This first Sower parable announces the radical Jubilee agenda of God’s New Exodus movement. Jesus preached to peasants who toiled against the odds to eke out an existence on the marginal plots of land they were left by the wealthy.
This dry soil method of farming was well-known to Jesus’ hearers with its ¾ failure of the land to yield a crop. This meager output usually led to debt which led to taking a loan from a wealthy landowner which led to loan default which led to selling one’s labor. When Isaiah speaks of “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field” (5:8), this cycle is what he has in mind and was still the situation when Jesus came.
A six-fold yield was the very best a peasant farmer could hope for. A 30-60-100 fold yield was unthinkable! More than enough to bust the debt-loan-servitude cycle to smithereens for a whole village.
If one has “ears to hear” this is Jubilee language. Abundance for all. Freedom from debt. Communal well-being. Liberation in real life terms. This is the world God wants and in Jesus is bringing into being. This is good news, gospel, indeed!
The Purpose of Parables (4:10-12)
After this mind-boggling parable, Jesus retreats with the twelve. They were probably as dumbfounded by what Jesus just said as his other hearers. Not surprisingly, they pepper him with questions. Jesus’ answer: the “mystery” of the kingdom of God has been given to you. The mystery (which in the Bible always means something we would never know or figure out unless God tells us) of what God is doing in the world, mind-boggling as it is (as we have just seen), has been given to those who have committed to follow Jesus.
For those who have not committed to him, all they hear are parables, impenetrable riddles, because they remain obdurate and hard-hearted. Or, perhaps better, because they are obdurate and hard-hearted, all they hear from Jesus are impenetrable riddles, fantastical stories far-removed from any world they know and how it works.
Jesus cites Isaiah’s prophetic commission from Isa.6 as his rationale. Isaiah is commissioned:
“And (God) said, “Go and say to this people:
‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
10 Make the mind of this people dull,
    and stop their ears,
    and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
    and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
    and turn and be healed.”

People can only see and hear what they are willing to see and hear. Prolonged unwillingness to hear God’s word of judgment and call to repentance creates ear-lids and heart-guards that make gibberish of further divine words. This was the case with Israel in Isaiah’s time. So he was told to preach to them what they could not and would not hear as judgment against them. And that until the full consequences of their idolatrous preoccupations had reamed them empty (Isa.6:11).

If I may veer away from The Lord of the Rings for a moment, a scene from C. S. Lewis’ The Narnia Chronicles seems apropos. In the Magician’s Nephew, Uncle Andrew, a pompous and arrogant scientist wants to use his science to ultimately rule his world. Through Narnian magic he finds himself in Narnia at the moment Aslan sings it into existence:

“When he first hears the roar of Aslan at the creation of Narnia, he recognizes that the sound is indeed a song. But he tells himself that the source of the noise is ‘only’ a lion, remarking for his own benefit, ‘Who ever heard of a lion singing?’ (MN, Ch. 10, p. 75) Lewis comments that Uncle Andrew ‘tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring, . . . [and] the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song.’ When at last Aslan spoke and said, ‘Narnia, awake!’ we find that Uncle Andrew ‘didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl’ (MN, Ch. 10, p. 75). (

This, I submit, is the best commentary we have on Isaiah and Jesus’ use of Isaiah here. Israel knows conflict with Rome is coming and the various groups (Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes, and Zealots) are competing for the right to define the kind of Israel God expects his people to be. Jesus is among them as the “mystery” of the kingdom of God in person. His parables have the function of good news for those who can still hear (even as God assures Isaiah a remnant of faithful will remain for him in Isa.6:13), his followers, but for the majority, his riddles confirm them in their resistance to him. And Rome will be the consequence of that resistance!

Myers notes the Isaianic reference to a “holy seed” (6:13) may have been Jesus’ inspiration for his following application of the sower parable (41).

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

13. Jesus and Family

No doubt family is important to humanity. So important that it is one of the two things almost every human being would kill and die for. The other is, of course, the nation-state. Interestingly, neither merit that kind of commitment according to Jesus. One’s nation is way down the list of priorities for God’s people. Family is a lot higher but not high enough to kill or die for. Only God is atop the priority list meriting such level of commitment. And while Jesus does promote the possibility of giving one’s life for God, he never supports, indeed, rejects in the clearest and strongest manner, the taking of life. Even for the family.
That’s why Jesus talks about “hating” mother and father. It’s hyperbole, to be sure, but the reality is Jesus will not accept or tolerate any other commitment or relationship that dilutes, distorts, or denies the ultimate priority of following him.
And why he foresaw family members rising up against each other before the authorities on account of him. And why he would not let the man who had to bury his father first, join his movement.
Jesus’ most programmatic statement on family is this:
“Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Lk.18:28-30)

Jesus completely relativizes natural family times. Not only are they not ultimate, they are replaceable with ties formed from faith in Jesus and participation in God’s New Exodus. In our world which idolizes the so-called nuclear family and allows nothing to challenge its primacy, Jesus is breathtakingly and scandalously radical. A radicality we westerners have still yet to truly engage.

Reading the Bible Through Neuroscience: Is Your Brain Different From Moses’ Brain?

What can neuroscience teach us about how to read the bible? James Kugel has some suggestions.
Kugel is a Jewish biblical scholar & former Harvard professor. His new book, The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times, makes some fascinating observations about the difference between the Hebrew mind and the modern mind.
The main difference is in our “sense of self.” Modern readers don’t have the same assumptions about what it means to be a human being. We differ in two key ways:
Self as Internal v. External to the Body
At this moment you have an idea about what it means to be you. This is your sense of self. Kugel says that the modern sense of self is quite different from the ancient sense of self . . .

A Theology of Ya’ll

Herma and Herman Neutics on "A Theology of Ya'll'

Biblical theology is a theology of Ya’ll (or if you’re a northerner, “youse guys,” remembering that in this locution “guys” is generic). Since I’m a southerner, I’ll stick with “ya’ll.”

In a “Me, Myself, and I” world this is a serious matter. Before we even open the book we have a barrier to understanding it because of the world we have been socialized into. The kind of faith we have in our part of the world is that of the individual relating to God as an individual. Church for many of us is an optional extra, a help if we need it. Alone with Jesus in the garden is an image that resonates deeply with many of us.

The basic thrust here is that the Bible speaks to and about the community, Israel and the church. Most of its imperatives (commands) are issued to the above in the 2nd person plural (ya’ll) not “you” singular. Even when the singular “you” is used, often it is for rhetorical reasons. That is, it speaks to the individual “you” to stress that what has been commanded or instructed is for “every” you. In short, for the whole community.

Realizing this, it makes more sense to us to read things like the Beatitudes, the fruit of the Spirit as addressed to the community. Not every person will have each of these qualities or fruit, but as a community, a ya’ll, we can and should. I think this removes a barrier to really taking passages like these seriously. It is unlikely, probably impossible for most of us, to imagine ourselves exemplars of each and all of these. But we likely can imagine, or at least hope, to be a part of such a community.

On a different matter, the ya’ll is the matrix within which the I or me come into being and is conscious of itself. I know who I am, my gifts, and may place in the word through the community that raises us. In a world socializing us into a “Me, Myself, and I” world, which denies the necessity or importance of the ya’ll, the Christian ya’ll has to be intentional in battling for the identity and outook of the congregation.

Ya’ll is the “language of Canaan,” the lexicon of the divine, the apple of God’s eye. God intends to deal with us as a community and members thereof. If we fail to lay hold of this reality and continue to live as if the Christian “thing” is “me and Jesus in my heart,” we won’t get far in growing our faith.

Jesus Christ is God’s YA’LL. In him, we too are God’s ya’ll. Let’s read the Bible and live like it!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

12.Mark 3:19b-35: Dynamics of the Fellowship of the King

A Sandwich to Chew On
Mark has a habit of telling stories “sandwich” style. He often starts one (one piece of sandwich bread), interrupts its telling to relate another story (the meat), and then return to finish the first story (another piece of sandwich bread). And just like we eat the bread and meat of a sandwich together, Mark intends us to interpret these two stories together.
The bread of this sandwich story is about Jesus and his family. His natural family, having heard about his strange exploits with the supernatural (exorcisms) worry about his mental stability and their own family reputation in the community
“Exorcists often invoked a higher spirit to get rid of a lower one, so Jesus’ opponents accuse him of gaining his power for exorcism from sorcery-relying on Satan himself. Insanity (3:21) was often associated with demon possession (3:22). Because false teachers were sometimes thought to be inspired by demons and the official penalty for misleading God’s people this way was death (Deut 13:5; 18:20), Jesus’ family had reason to want to reach him before the legal experts did. (The legal experts could not enforce the death penalty, because Palestine was under Roman domination; but the public charge alone would humiliate the family.) Teachers offended by reports of the events of 2:1-3:6 are now taking the offensive.” (Craig Keener, IVP Background Commentary on the New Testament, on Mark 3:20-22)
Jesus’ opening campaign recounted in 2:1-3:6 gave plenty of ammunition and opportunity for his opponents to strike back at just this point. Mark breaks off the family issue here and veers into a story of the scribes coming at Jesus with venom and accusation. They accuse him of being in league with the devil himself, operating under his authority and power (v.22).
This is a pretty desperate expedient, it seems to me. When Jesus turns their accusation back on them, it seems self-evident, doesn’t it? Of course, a kingdom divided against itself is already beaten. It can’t go on working against itself. It will fall.
But the scribes have already decided that Jesus is not on their side, on God’s side. Therefore, he MUST be on the other side, Beelzebul’s. They are forced into a weak argument because it is they themselves who are not in their right minds.
Jesus follows up with the well-known parable of binding the strong man and plundering his house (v.27). Isaiah 49:24-26 seems to lie in the background here:
“Can the prey be taken from the mighty,
    or the captives of a tyrant be rescued?
But thus says the Lord:
Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken,
    and the prey of the tyrant be rescued;
for I will contend with those who contend with you,
    and I will save your children.
I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
    and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.
Then all flesh shall know
    that I am the Lord your Savior,
    and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
If Jesus has this scripture in mind, he is doing through his exorcisms what God himself promised to do for them through the prophet. And don’t forget, Jesus promised his New Exodus community this same power to continue his work.
His final comment on this scene is that only those who determine the work of God’s Spirit to be of the devil, that is, “blasphemes against the Holy Spirit,” may receive the forgiveness God offers them through Jesus. Those who do this, by definition, cannot/will not receive such forgiveness, “for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’” (v.30)
It is one’s disposition to Jesus that finally determines whether an “eternal sin” has been committed. Any other in, as he himself said, can be forgiven. So whatever sin one has committed, short of rejecting Jesus, will be forgiven. And it is those who worry whether the sins they have committed might be “unforgivable,” are those who have little reason to worry.
And with that Mark turns to the next piece of bread and finishes out the “family” part of this section. Jesus’ family came to his house, and remember they have already implicated themselves with the “he has an unclean spirit” side, so we are not surprised that they are “outside” (v.31). The crowd tells him they are here and want to see him. Again, Mark mentions they are ‘outside.” So he asks the question of the moment: “Who are my mother and my brothers?”
And here Jesus makes a most profound and fateful move. With this question he opens up membership in the people of God dependent on something other than ethnicity! And doing the will of God is that something.
Family, Jesus’ family, are those who do the will of God. Participate in his New Exodus movement. Be his Subversive Counter-Revolutionary Movement. And in this moment of fulfilment, Jesus opens membership to this community to any who will live its way of life in faithfulness to him.
The Holy Spirit is here revealed to be the agent and power of Jesus’ liberating ministry and, therefore, the heartbeat of his family. And that same Spirit will work liberation through us in similarly scandalous and troublesome ways.

In a series of parables in the next chapter Jesus clarifies the scope and nature of the kingdom movement Jesus’ leads.

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Church’s DNA

I suggest that the church has a biblical dna that must govern the way we conceptualize, structure, orient, worship, and serve the world. Genesis 12:1-3 gives us a classic description of this dna which, I would claim, underwrites any form the people of God take in the Bible. Whether they be a fugitive group of escapees from Egypt, a nation formed on Mt. Sinai, nomads wandering in the desert for 40 years, a united monarchy, divided monarchies, exiles in Babylon, or exiles in their own land, the threefold promise of

-being God’s people,
-being blessed and protected by God, and
-used by God to bless everyone else,

should mark, indeed, be the rationale, for their existence.

I assume, then, that such a dna ought to guide of reflections on the shape of the church in our time. Assuming nothing about what a church must look like, questions like these should guide our considerations:

-what does it mean to be a “people” in our individualized and increasingly individualizing culture? What of structures do need to a people in this environment? What does such a “people” need from “leadership” in that setting?

-how does being “blessed and protected” by God affect our lifestyles in an endlessly consumeristic culture? Can we sit looser to what we determine we need as a church, or can we give to our world and trust God with our own existence?

-how might being “blessing” the world, understood in the Old Testament sense bring life and earthly well-being, impact the shape of our presence in the world? Might being “with” them rather than requiring them to come to us be a better way? Or perhaps doing away with the “us-them” category altogether?

11: Mark 3:14: “to be with him”

“And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons.” (Mark 3:14-15)

Often overlooked in this passage where Jesus appoints his twelve apostles is the first of the three mandates given to them. Before Jesus intends to send them out preaching and exorcizing he intends them to “be with him.”

What does he mean by this? France says it is “their personal involvement with and training by the master” and “is the essential prerequisite” of their being sent out (France, Mark, 159). And so it is with us, as well. Time “with” Jesus is as important and nonnegotiable now as it was then.
This is not, I think, a sequential process, though it may start that way. For the twelve it was an ongoing feature of their journeying with Jesus. Watching Jesus in action. Debriefing with him afterward. Taking one step forward and, sometimes, two steps backward. Growing through their failures more than their successes (which are precious few in this gospel), and finally, failing spectacularly at the end. It was this spectacular failure that marked their matriculation into apostleship.

What did they learn from being “with” Jesus that equipped them for their task? There’s a scene in The Fellowship of the Ring that may help. When Elrond declares the need to take the One Ring to Mordor and its destruction, the responses of the FoR are instructive.

Each of them dwarf, elf, human clamor to be the ring-bearer. “I” instead of the “We” was their operative instinct. Amid their arguing and shouting, little Frodo Baggins the hobbit cries out, “I will take it! I will take it! I will take the Ring to Mordor!” But he immediately adds, “Though… I do not know the way.”

Frodo’s humility in being willing to take on a necessary task that was too big for him touches the others. Gandalf commits, “I will help you bear this burden, as long as it is yours to bear.” Aragorn offers the protection of his sword. Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf offer their skills and experiences too. “And you have my bow!” responded Legolas. “And my ax!” followed Gimli. 
And Sam Gamgee, Frodo’s gardener and loyal hobbit friend, declares, “Mr. Frodo is not going anywhere without me!” 

This sense of humility in the face of the journey, sharing gifts and abilities, and Gandalf’s presence with them are suggestive.

-Unless we recognize that the task is too big and the journey too long for us, we will not persevere and endure.
-Unless we can help one another to discover our gifts and offer them the opportunity to serve as they have been gifted, we will never come together as a community.
-Unless we are “friends” who have each other’s back to the end, we will succumb to the rigors and trials of the crucible we enter.
-Unless we have desire and room for Gandalf (a Christ-figure) to be “with” us, we will wander aimlessly.
Surely, these are among the things we learn through spending time “with” Jesus throughout our lives. To know Jesus truly. To know ourselves well. And to see in each other both the reflection of Christ’s image and the neighbor claiming my care and concern. Those are essential prerequisites for the mission Christ entrusts to us. And they are lessons we never stop learning until we have fulfilled our baptismal vocation in death.

This time with Jesus apparently worked for that original group of twelve. Luke tells us this in Acts 4:13: “The leaders saw how bold Peter and John were. They also realized that Peter and John were ordinary men with no training. This surprised the leaders. They realized that these men had been with Jesus.

They “had been with Jesus.” May we too be “with” him as well.  

Can It Really Be That Simple?

Jesus said that his burden was easy and his yoke was light (Mt.11:28-30). Whatever exactly he meant by that, it doesn’t sound like the experience most of us have following him. Why is that? How can we live into and out of that “easy” burden and “light” yoke in a world like ours?
Jesus has something to share with his followers – his own knowledge of God the Father. And it is free – gratis – to all who want it. We have only to receive it. Easy. Light. Get it? Jesus will welcome us who come as little children and share what he alone has to give. No entrance tests to pass or qualify on. No prerequisites. Just come and receive Jesus’ gift of his knowledge, that is, his relationship to the Father, and enjoy!

Ironically, just this coming and receiving we find almost intolerably hard to practice. Years ago now, Jacques Ellul claimed that human beings hate the gospel and the grace it offers. Even good church people. In fact, it may be church people who hate grace and gospel the most! Standing on our own achievements or merits, earning or way, deserving what we get, keeping what we have by our own efforts, all this seems seared into our hearts by what has become of us in the wake of Adam and Eve’s defection in the Garden. For we all choose to replicate their defection in our own lives by embracing just these patterns of thought and action.

And folks like us who think and act like that aren’t very open to receiving gifts. It embarrasses us. We fumble around and worry because we have no gifts to give in return. Sin has robbed us of our openness to the gifts and graces of others, especially God. Therefore, we shy away from the gracious Christ and his gracious Father who wants his children to know him. We create other deities who have the decency to let us have something to offer him for his gifts. Or one so loathsome we feel justified in staying away or ignoring. That way really never satisfies most of us. And we struggle and grow weary, our lives mired in frustrated longing because we cannot accept Jesus’ free offer of satisfaction and delight in his gift of the knowledge, that is, the experience of the love, comfort, and mercy of his Father.

I said earlier that even many church folk have a hard time with simply receiving God’s gifts to us gratis. And there’s a biblical book that deals with just that. It’s 2 Peter. A much-neglected book, perhaps because it’s a tad too close to the book of Revelation which most of us want to avoid at all costs!

Nevertheless, the writer addresses the first part of the first chapter of his letter to exactly what we have been discussing. Here’s what he says:

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature. For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For anyone who lacks these things is short-sighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins.
Knowledge of God in Christ has graced us with everything needed for us to experience life as he intended it. He even goes so far as to call it becoming “participants of (or in) the divine nature” (v.4)! Then he lists goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love as qualities his readers should strive for (because God has already given them the “oomph” to strive for them). If his readers are finding it difficult to accept God’s gifts and do what he empowers them to do, the writer points to the one thing that hinders them: forgiveness. “Short-sighted and blind,” these folks have forgotten they’ve been forgiven (v.9)!

That is, they’ve forgotten they have only to show up to receive God’s gifts with empty hands and open hearts. And they can do this certain they’ve been cleansed and accepted and need bring nothing to offer God or stand on before him but themselves. Yet, as noted above, they struggle with this too, apparently. They cannot, or have not, remembered their forgiveness.

Forgiveness allows us to accept, even with joy, that we cannot and do not have anything to bring to God to justify his welcome of us. Forgiveness means we can forget the past; God has (Heb.10:17). Sin no longer burdens us or God or conditions our relationship to God or him to us. We are free to live, not apart from sin for we still do sin, but beyond it. In a reality that has overwhelmed sin, dealt with it, rendered it as no longer of any account and power over us. Strong enough even to break through our resistance to it, to enliven our memory to claim this forgiveness and draw nearer and nearer to God.

Can it really be that simple? Simply remember that we are forgiven? To enter into the joy of a living, renewing relationship to God in the midst of the turbulence and challenges of the day to day? Jesus says it is. 2 Peter affirms its true. It really is that simple!