Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Imitate Jesus: Getting Love Right

           There are two stories in the life of Jesus concerning what is now commonly called the greatest commandment. One occurred in the final week of Jesus’ life as he was being questioned by the religious leaders in an attempt to trap him in his words. He was asked point blank what the most important commandment was and he answered: “The most important one is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 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: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”(Mark 12:29-31) The religious leader agreed with Jesus’ answer, but then Jesus surprised him by exclaiming: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” This must have been offensive, because this man certainly believed he was solidly inside the kingdom of God! And yet Jesus said he was close to the kingdom but not quite there yet. That raises, at least for me, an important question: If he understood the primacy of love, then why was he only close to the kingdom?

The other time Jesus was questioned about the greatest command, an expert in the law asked Jesus: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus, in typical rabbinic fashion, answered his question with a question, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?”  Jesus wanted this man to recognize that he already knew the answer! The man answered just as Jesus had in the previous story. Jesus praised him for his right answer and encouraged him to put that answer into practice: “Do this and you will live!”

            The expert in the law, in typical expert fashion, wanted to justify his actual practice (or the lack thereof), so he sought to fine tune the answer – “And who is my neighbor?” In response Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan. The interesting thing in this story is the Jesus used it to answer a different question than the expert in the law actually asked. His question was, “And who is my neighbor?” The question that Jesus answers is “To whom am I a neighbor?”

            The expert in the law was looking for a loophole to spare him the difficult task of actually living out the implications of the truth concerning the greatest command to love God and love people. He wanted to know the right answer, but to be free from having to practice the right answer.

            Christianity has struggled with this desire over the years and even developed ways to enable us to defend ourselves against the tension. We often, as Christians, focus a lot of attention on what we call orthodoxy – or right belief, but Jesus calls us to more! He is glad we know the right answers, but challenges us to understand that they are not actually right if we fail to live them!  Orthopraxy – right practice – is what Jesus is calling us to!   

            “Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asked. The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”  Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise!”

If we do not practice the commandment to love God with all we have and to love our neighbor as ourselves, it is pointing to the fact that we do not really believe it after all. If we practice it, we cannot help but believe it!

                                                - Kenny Payne

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Imitate Jesus: Humble in Heart

From the beginning of his ministry, Jesus gave priority to making disciples. He explained the essence of discipleship by this wise saying: “The student is not above their teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher” (Luke 6:40 NIV) As Christians our consuming passion should be to become like Jesus, our teacher, and to help others grow in discipleship as well.

              One of the most striking characteristics about Jesus was his humility. Though he had every reason – due to his status and ability – to be prideful, Jesus continually humbled himself and treated others with dignity and respect. It is important to recognize humility does not result from telling lies about yourself, but rather from knowing the truth about yourself, but not using it as a tool to place yourself above others. Jesus never denied his status as the “son of God” yet he was willing to associate with people from all social levels. Jesus was as comfortable in the presence of tax collectors and sinners as with the religious leaders.

            The greatest description of Jesus’ humility was penned by the apostle Paul:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11 NIV)

            Jesus refused to use his status and considerable power for personal gain; rather he lived his life for the benefit of others! Humility is what allowed Jesus to take the slur of the religious leaders – “He is the friend of sinners!” – transforming it from a stinging insult to a statement of faithfulness to God. And it is a statement of truth: sinners have never had a better or more loyal friend than Jesus!

            So how does one learn humility? Jesus says it happens like this: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-20 NIV) Have you ever noticed that trying to keep your pride fueled is a weary and burdensome task? Those who value their pride above all else can scarcely imagine what rest would feel like, or that listening to Jesus could ever bring peace. But when we actually learn from Jesus to be gentle and humble in heart, we also learn that we have God’s favor, not because of our efforts, but because he loves the people he created. And living in the security of God’s favor frees us from pride and allows us to love and serve others. Humility is the key to an easy yoke and light burdens. Jesus knew that and he wants you to know it, too.

Imitate Jesus: Moved By Compassion

Jesus lived in a messed up world just as we do. Just turn your head and look at the people around you and you will see the same kinds of problems that Jesus saw.

           Seeing all the pain, suffering and need does something to a person. You learn to defend yourself against it all, isolating yourself in an imaginary world without need, and constantly guarding against seeing the needs of people whom you wish were invisible.

            Or it pulls you towards helping those who suffer… This is, of course, a very risky pull, for the needs of people are simply overwhelming and capable of sucking all your resources and leaving you needy as well! This is a crucial moment – for you and for them – for if you allow yourself to feel compassion, compassion will begin to move you.

            You see this powerfully in the life of Jesus. Jesus simply refused to turn his head away from human need. Rather, he usually walked straight into it, or at least did not run away when it approached him. His compassion drove him to engage need and provide relief and help for the people caught up in it. No wonder they called him the savior!

            Jesus was moved by compassion to help the needy people around him. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” Jesus’ image of a mass of needy people – harassed and helpless - becoming a “harvest” is a paradigm shift. With this simple device Jesus invites you to look into the pool of need and see opportunity rather than a reason to turn your head.

            But where do you start the journey that compassion is pulling you to make? According to Jesus you start with prayer! Listen to his advice to his students: “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” It is not enough to merely replace the crippling dread of unmet needs with the joy of abundant harvest – for in both situations there is an overwhelming sense of the volume of work necessary to make a difference. Even work that seems a joy because of the promised reward is still energy consuming and often exhausting! But imagine the joy of working on a very large “harvest team!” That is why we pray for the Lord of the harvest to send out workers.    

            So we begin by praying for workers, because prayer is the way that God pulls us into and equips us for the mission he is giving to us. But after we get up from prayer, we get to work responding faithfully to the needs we see around us. Jesus fed crowds that were hungry, healed people who were sick or demon possessed. He told a story in which he based his judgment of people on the way they helped the sick and prisoners, the hungry and thirsty, and strangers. Jesus even went so far in that story as to identify himself with the people in need. Ironically, neither the sheep nor the goats perceived Jesus in the needy! The goats claimed they would have helped – IF ONLY – they had recognized Jesus. The sheep said they did not help Jesus, only people! Jesus said to both groups – what you did or did not do to help the least of these you did or did not do to help me. Imagine your joy in discovering one day that compassion moved you to help Jesus!

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Eyewitnesses of His Majesty: From Reluctant to Revolutionary Witnesses!

Jesus trained his disciples for nearly three years; at his resurrection their training was almost over and he would send them into the world to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all nations. It is interesting that on the evening of resurrection Sunday two disciples make the first gospel presentation concerning the risen Jesus and the person they share this information with is, of all people, Jesus!

            In their conversation with Jesus, whom they did not recognize, they presented the facts as they knew them. “Jesus of Nazareth, was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20 The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21 but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22 In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23 but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24 Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they did not see Jesus.” (Luke 24:19-24 NIV) They were sad and not a little confused by the events of the weekend. Their message was one of despair – “we had hoped…” – and uncertainty – “they did not see Jesus.”

            Jesus was, understandably, not impressed with their attempt to witness! He shared with them the things that Scripture said about the Messiah, particularly about the suffering of the Messiah. Then he broke bread with them. Notice this account: When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:30-32 NIV) Their eyes were finally opened and they saw the risen Christ. Immediately they returned to Jerusalem to witness to the other disciples – without the despair and uncertainty!

            So how did the disciples move from being reluctant witnesses to being revolutionary witnesses? They all experienced the risen Christ. While Jesus tried to prepare them for his death and resurrection, it still took them by surprise! But once they saw Jesus raised from the dead, they were forever changed. They finally understood Scripture concerning the Messiah. When Jesus explained what the Scripture had to say about himself, they got the message and they could share it with others. They participated in the breaking of bread. The remembrance of Jesus through communion and the recognition of Christ in the lives of their brothers and sisters in faith kept them close to the heart of Jesus. They received the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciples were understandably upset when Jesus talked with them about “going away” but Jesus assured them, “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you.” In the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus came to his disciples and their lives and witness were changed forever. Even their opponents would claim, “They have been with Jesus!” Is your life telling the amazing story of the Christ who conquered death and brings new life?

- Kenny Payne   

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Eyewitnesses of His Majesty: Stories of the Resurrection

The gospels all report the resurrection of Jesus. As expected with four witnesses telling the same story, there are differences in details between the resurrection stories of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Skeptics have long tried to use the differences in the stories as proof that the resurrection is not an historical fact, but simply a figment of the wishful thinking of the earliest disciples.

However, in addition to the different details of the stories, there are amazing similarities between the stories that speak to the truth of what happened on a Sunday morning nearly 2,000 years ago. The testimony of these witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus must be heard and contemplated before one can either believe or disbelieve.

An open, empty tomb! All the gospels mention that the tomb was open and empty when people arrived there. The women who were planning to give a proper anointing to Jesus’ body for burial were concerned that they would not be able to roll the stone away. They forgot that problem when they arrived and the tomb was open and empty. The empty tomb meant they had a new problem – where was Jesus? For the enemies of Jesus the empty tomb was also a problem, for all they needed to disprove the resurrection was to produce the corpse of Jesus. They could not do that, so the stories persisted – intensified by later appearances of Jesus to his disciples.

The presence of messengers! All the gospels say there were messengers of the resurrection, but they disagree about the number and the nature of these messengers. Matthew says, “an angel”; Mark says, “a young man in a white robe”; Luke says, “two men in clothes that gleamed like lightening”; John says, “two angels in white.” In all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark & Luke) the message is “He is risen!” In John the angels ask Mary Magdalene why she is crying, and then Jesus appears to her. It is not surprising, nor out of line with the rest of Scripture, that there were angelic messengers at this most important of events!

A meeting with Jesus! Matthew says that Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, John tells of Jesus meeting with Mary Magdalene. Neither Mark nor Luke mention people meeting Jesus near the tomb. All the gospels have stories of Jesus appearing to his disciples later on resurrection Sunday or the weeks that followed. Seeing Jesus alive was a very convincing event, as you can imagine.

Doubt that turned into deep faith! The story the religious leaders wanted to tell about the resurrection is that it did not happen and the disciples simply stole the body. This is very unlikely since all the disciples were “slow to believe” that Jesus had risen from the dead. They, like all people in all places and times, knew that death is a final condition and that hope is lost at that point. That is why the resurrection was such an amazing surprise to them. Death, which seems to be all powerful, is over-powered! The hopelessness of grief is turned to joy when Jesus rises from the dead. And most of them lived the rest of their lives telling the story of a crucified and risen savior, many of them even dying for telling that story. They obviously had no doubt about the truthfulness of the resurrection!

Jesus once told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Be blessed…