Monday, April 16, 2007

The Extravagant Father

We tend to make categories of people - usually they are described as some variant of either good or bad. The religious leaders were masters of such categorization! And Jesus constantly frustrated their categories.
Rather than “good or bad” Jesus shared with them the categories of “lost or found.” These categories seem similar, but upon closer inspection there is a world of difference between them - difference the Pharisees and other religious people could not accept.

  • “Good or bad” puts all the emphasis on the moral choices and consequences of the individuals, while “lost and found” emphasizes the act of God in redeeming (reclaiming) his people!
  • “Good or bad” focuses on the tragedy of being lost (which is true, but not the final word!), while “lost and found” rejoices in God’s gracious salvation!
  • “Good or bad” seeks to codify the boundary between saints and sinners, while “lost and found” works tirelessly to cross the boundaries and encourage the lost to become found.
  • “Good or bad” creates an atmosphere of moral and spiritual superiority which, of course, leads to arrogance and hypocrisy. “Lost and found” reminds us gently that we are all saved by the grace of God and we are in no way superior to others. Rather we are reminded that the greatest among us are the servants!

God is like a shepherd seeking his lost sheep, or a woman searching for her lost coin, or a father welcoming his wandering son home, not as a servant but as his son! We must become like that image of God.

The Extravagant God

The story of the lost son is perhaps Jesus’ most well known parable. It has been called the Prodigal Son. However, prodigal means “wasteful or extravagant” and the Father seems to be the most extravagant character in the story!
Jesus tells three parables in response to Pharisees who complained that Jesus “welcomes sinners and eats with them!” All the stories deal with something lost, but only as the prerequisite to the joy of being found! The contrast with the religious leaders could not be more stark: Jesus rejoiced with the sinners who were coming to God, while the religious people could only complain. Their identity was built in opposition to the people Jesus welcomed, rather than in their relationship with the father!
The father in this story had two sons, both of whom were separated from their father. The younger son was away from home, living in a far country - free from all restraint! (Except, of course, the restraint of hunger and no resources!) The older son still lived at home, but he was just as estranged from his father. Both boys did not know their father and their lives were impoverished as a result. The younger son was surprised at his father’s grace. The older son was surprised at what he considered his father’s foolishness - for grace always looks quite foolish!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Time Marches On...

One of the amazing things about Rome was how the various sites and monuments were located all over the city and so many sites contained "levels" of use. For example, adjacent to the bus stop where our hotel shuttle dropped us off and picked us up was the "theater of Marcellus." It was built by Augustus to honor his nephew, and later also his son-in-law, Marcellus. The building was built in the first century B.C. and later had some restoration work done to match the architectural style although different materials were used, and finally some apartments were built on top. It seemed surreal to see such "layers" of use for so many buildings. In the photo above you can see an area of extensive repair to the Colosseum.
After walking through the forum one afternoon we noticed an ancient building that was obviously at least three layers. We commented on who would do such a thing as to just build on what were obviously well preserved ancient ruins. Imagine our surprise later that evening to discover that the building we saw was still in use as the City Hall of Rome. It had been the "tabularium" in ancient times; and the genius who renovated it to modern use? Michelangelo!
Because the march of time is relentless, buildings get used, then reused, destroyed, used as "quarries" for new projects, etc. Under the moderns roads of Rome there are wonderful ancient sites waiting to be explored, but the roads have to be given priority.
These "layers of history" do not just apply to buildings and monuments, but also to ideas. Among those "layered ideas" are modern systems of government, law and even religion. Walking around Rome you could see the conflict that Christianity had with the dominant culture as it came to be more prominent in the empire. Christians must use wisdom and prayer as we hold on tightly to the biblical witness of Jesus, and apply that story to the world we now live in. It is not an easy task, but it must be negotiated for the faith to remain vital and vibrant!

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Dawning of the Resurrection

There is a difference between knowing an event occurred and knowing the meaning of the event. This was never more true than for the disciples trying to make sense of the resurrection of Jesus. There is an obvious progression - a sort of “dawning” of the resurrection - given by each gospel writer.The immediate response to the resurrection was fear. This is not surprising since Jesus constantly created fearful situations for the disciples. According to John’s account the fear almost turned into paranoia - they always kept the doors locked! The disciples were afraid of being without Jesus, were afraid they wasted their time, and were afraid of the Jewish leaders. The constant word from God? “Do not be afraid!”Fear gave way to a growing sense of disbelief among the disciples. They all were “slow to believe” and some became icons of disbelief - like “doubting” Thomas. Perhaps the saddest statement in Luke’s gospel is spoken by the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “but we had hoped…” Once your hope is gone there is nothing left to build a life of faith upon. Even with stories of resurrection being circulated among the disciples, none of them believed easily in the resurrection - their belief came as the mounting proof became overwhelming.As disbelief melted away, a growing sense of hope returned to nurture their new found belief. They were still a long way from understanding it all, but they knew enough to celebrate!As Jesus worked with them, explaining the Scriptures, they began to understand the power of the resurrection. The presence of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost intensified this understanding. They emerged as witnesses (Greek - martyrs) of the resurrection. Their lives caught fire from the Spirit and God used them to change the world.Disciples today have the same resurrection power, the same fire from the Spirit, and the same mission that the early disciples had. Having experienced the resurrection of Jesus, we are witnesses, too! Arise and shine…

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Christianity Triumphs Over Paganism

The painting above is from the ceiling in the "Constantine Room" in the Vatican Museum. It is entitled "Christianity Triumphs Over Paganism." In the painting a statue of Caesar has fallen off the pedestal and broken to pieces on the floor. In its place is a figure of Jesus on the Cross. The message is profound, and reminiscent of the Old Testament story of the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple of Dagon (1 Samuel 5). The other pictures are of the Cross displayed on top of a building, and the Pantheon in Rome. Because many of the ruins most attractive in Rome predate the acceptance of Christianity there, a strange mixture of pagan and Christian symbols occur, often in the same space.
When Christianity became first a legal religion then finally the State religion, the problem of how to deal with all the pagan temples and rituals came to dominate the thinking of the church. It was a difficult task, because while the best thing would have been a clean slate, that was much to dramatic a move for the church or even the emperors sympathetic to Christianity to make. Rather a process of synthesis began with pagan symbols, rituals and sites being given new "Christian meanings."
The official status granted to Christianity was a blessing, in that it ended the persecutions, but it was also a curse because now there were many adherents to Christianity who were not disciples and had no intention of becoming disciples, rather they were social and political Christians. The church easily took up the trappings of the empire and quickly slipped away from the practices of Jesus concerning servant leadership! The power of the church was growing while the witness of the church to the suffering servant was receding. While there were voices that fought against this process, it was hard to stop. It still is. Often we are good at walking with Jesus until we finally get to the point where we can "do it ourselves." Then we accept worldly systems as the normal operation procedures for the church. This is a fatal mistake.
One ancient theologian said, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?" Later another theologian said, "In your haste to escape Babylon, do not run past Jerusalem!" The church, as well as individual disciples, has always had to struggle to obey Jesus about being in the world but not of the world. This is still a vital struggle today.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Walking Through Rome

Our family just spent our spring break in Rome. We have dreamed of visiting Rome for years, even before we had any kids, and we finally decided we better do it or we would just let the dream slip away. To say it was incredible would be a huge understatement. Although it was more like an intense graduate course in ancient and medieval history (with hours of walking every day), than a fun vacation - we all enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Seeing so much and being so overwhelmed at the volume of history and art left us breathless most of the time. We would sight see by day and study at night about what we saw that day and what we would explore the next day. It was a little frustrating to me (Kenny) to not be able to take all the time we wanted at each sight (kids and schedules kept interfering), but I would never have left the Vatican Museum if they would have let me have my way!

We are still a little speechless about all our experiences, but we are beginning to process our trip and I am grateful for the opportunity to walk where so much history was made and where early Christians tried valiantly to struggle with their culture in a way that would both honor God and reach the people around them who were steeped in idolatry and paganism. This is still Christianity's greatest struggle to be faithful disciples who are in the world but not of the world.