Questions: How do you explain the Trinity?

Rublev Today we continue our series on the questions that thinking people ask about the Bible and the Christian faith. One of the other great questions over which I’ve often had discussion with people – both in the church and outside the church – is the issue of God’s nature and personhood, which we call the Trinity.

 What is the Trinity? As a child I learned and memorized the great creeds of the church – the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed – which affirm belief in one God in Three Persons – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. We’ve recited the creeds (statements of faith) often as we did earlier today.

 But when it comes to discussing the Trinity, there seems to be a hesitancy and a tendency to throw up our hands in frustration.  I mean, how does this work?

 A lot of images have been used to try and illustrate the concept. St. Patrick used the shamrock or three-leaf clover to illustrate the Trinity to the Irish druids – three leaves but one plant. I’ve heard the example of water – it can be a liquid, solid, or gas but still be H2O. Another one is more personal – for example, I am one person who is simultaneously a father, a son, and a husband. You can probably think of others.

 I’ve always believed in the Trinity as a reality – but it's not an easy reality to grasp. I’ve heard all kinds of arguments for and against the concept. Some have said that the Bible doesn’t use the word “trinity” in reference to God (which is true) and therefore we shouldn’t talk in those terms as they seem to imply that there’s more than one God (which the Bible firmly denies). Others look at the Scriptures, like the early New Testament language – such as the letters of Paul- and see very clear Trinitarian references there (which also seem to make sense). Our text today from Matthew would seem to make that very clear. 

 Ultimately, however, any discussion of the Trinity really boils down to what we believe about Jesus of Nazareth. When we ask, “What is the Trinity?” what we’re really asking is “Who is Jesus? Is Jesus human or divine or some combination of both.

 Take a look back at the Nicene Creed and you’ll see that the bulk of the language in the creed has to do with the relationship with Jesus and God. We’ve recited this creed for centuries, but one of the things we have to realize is that this understanding – that Jesus and God are of the “same substance” – did not come easily to the ancient church. In fact, the debate over the personhood of Jesus became a violent one.

 A great book on this period of Christian history is entitled, When Jesus Became God: The Struggle to Define Christianity in the Last Days of Rome. It’s written by Richard Rubenstein, who is a scholar with expertise in religious conflict. He looks at the political intrigue and power plays that took place in the Christian church after the emperor Constantine took over and made Christianity the state religion of the empire (a quick turnaround after years and years of persecution of the church). It seems that there were really two camps, two thought processes about Jesus during that time. On the one hand, you had the views of a bishop named Arius – who asserted that Christ was greater than a human being but less than God and, on the other end, the views of Athanasius, another bishop who contended that Jesus and God were one in the same. The debate was nasty, leading to open warfare in some parts of the empire. So deep was the theological divide that, says Rubenstein, one could not buy a loaf of bread in Constantinople without being asked whether you believed Jesus was God or not.

 The Nicene Creed was an attempt at compromise (Constantine wasn’t concerned about the theology as much as having peace in the church). The word homoousios – one substance (one Being)  became the linchpin in all of this. Homoousios seemed to be more the biblical view, as opposed to homoiousious, which suggested that Jesus was sort of like God, but not quite the same. The phrase “one iota of difference” comes from this debate. One letter changes everything. Eventually, Athanasius’s view won out (rightly, I would argue) and we have been interpreting it that way ever since, though I would also argue that Athanasius’s methods were not always Christ-like. That doesn't negate the idea, it just indicts what happens when we need to be right instead of compassionate. 

 Not that the debate has stopped, however. Recent scholarly debates go over the same territory. On the one hand you have groups like the Jesus Seminar who want to deconstruct the supposed mythology about Jesus and get at the supposed “real” historical Jesus who, they seem to be saying, was a Jewish mystic and sage but not at all divine. On the other end of the continuum are the more conservative scholars whose focus is on the divinity of Jesus and his saving power (sometimes over and against his apparent human nature). Still others frame the debate in terms of metaphysical issues – asking questions like, “When Jesus prayed, was he talking to himself? Why did he call God “Father”? etc.

 Like the other issues we’ve been looking at in this series, we can see that these debates continue to rage along this line – A or B, human or divine, etc. I’ve read books and had discussions with people all along this continuum. People want to know where you are on this – which side. What’s the answer?

 Ultimately, I think the answer is somewhere out here. Perhaps we need a new way of understanding Jesus, God, and the Trinity that we can all really get behind. After all, our beliefs really don’t mean anything unless we flesh them out and use them. I believe our creeds, doctrines, affirmations, and statements are helpful in that they tell us something about God in, as much as is possible, a cognitive way. They give us a place to start, flawed and confusing though they may be. I hold to them, say them, preach them, believe them.

 But I’ve also come to believe that the real heart of the matter is not what we say we believe about God – that’s what I’d define as religion. Religion can be organized, systematized, synthesized, debated, debunked, affirmed or rejected. I’ve spent most of my life doing, debating, and dispensing religion.

 These days I’m discovering that the real heart of faith, for me is found in relationship to God – that we understand concepts like the Trinity, the humanity and divinity of Christ, even the church not primarily as a system of belief to be studied,  but as a relationship to be explored, experienced, and enjoyed. I think that’s where the Scripture takes us. Not bullet points, but a relationship.

 John of Damascus was a seventh century Greek theologian who, I think, captured what this really means. In much of the western Christian world at that time, the dominant symbol for the Trinity was an equilateral triangle – very distinct, hard edges, differentiated with angles that can be measured – a technical view of God. In a sense, this image functioned as an organizational chart – the points of the triangle representing the three persons of God with the Father “on top” – an organizational chart that reflected the hierarchies of both the church and the empire.

 But John of Damascus, who grew up in the eastern Christian world, described the Trinity with a completely different symbol – a circle…in fact, he used the word perichoresis to describe God (peri – round or circle, choros – dance). He saw the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit not as a hierarchical, hard-edged system but as a circle dance – a relationship wherein the three persons of God were in constant movement, intimate, equal, unified yet distinct, and in loving relationship. Notice that when people gather out in the Narthex to talk and share, they most often form a circle – not a triangle or a box or a lecture hall…it’s a way of expressing equality and openness – the pre-requisites for loving relationships. That’s the way that God works and we, being made in God’s image, do it naturally – relationally.

 John of Damascus saw the nature of God as being first, foremost, and always relational – not only within God’s own personhood, but in relationship with God’s creation. It was natural, then, that God’s relational nature would find an outlet in engaging in another relationship – with us.

 Here, at the intersection – the connecting point of God and humanity-is where I believe we find Jesus – fully divine and fully human for the sake of full relationship with both.

 Still with me? OK, here we go. First, what do we mean when we say Jesus was “fully divine”? It can mean a lot of things – Jesus had a God consciousness, Jesus believed he was God or the second person of the Trinity, Jesus had a God complex (it has been interpreted in many ways).

 But here’s what I think…I think that when we say that Jesus was fully divine, what we mean to say is that Jesus was, in an unprecedented way, fully in relationship with God – so full of God as to act as God acts, speak as God speaks, love as God loves. In a very real sense Jesus embodied the God of Israel, YHWH, “I am Who I am”. At various times in his ministry he acts and speaks for God, to God, and as God. He doesn’t “channel” God as some new agers would say – he embodied God because he was a full participant in the circle dance with the full nature of God. For him it wasn’t a matter of  simply believing he was God (you could believe that and be wrong!) or wanting to be God – he characterized it always as being “one” with God (I and the Father are one!) – that’s a relational term.

 Lots of people in the history of the world have claimed to be divine – the Caesars, various rulers and potentates, cult leaders, you name it – and in nearly every case they claimed divinity as a means of gaining more power. Jesus claimed quite the opposite – his mission, his divine relationship, his power was realized in giving his life away as a servant – thereby forever redefining what we mean when we say “God.”

 That brings us to the other half of the equation – he was also “fully human” – the epitome of the best of humanity lived out in relationship with other humans. He lived, loved, forgave, challenged, taught, and died for and with humanity. In an unprecedented way, his relationship with God was lived out in relationship with others – and with everyone – the good, the bad, and the indifferent. Even many of those who don’t see Jesus as God in the way we Christians do, would likely admit that he is probably the greatest person who every lived. That’s something – fully human in the best sense of the term.

 Jesus is fully divine because he was and is in full relationship with God. Jesus is fully human because he was and is in full relationship with us. In him the best of both natures come together.

 Now, having said all that, I’ll have to admit that even this construct is incomplete. After all, how does one fully define a relationship? Think about the person you love best – how would you define your relationship? You could use words, symbols, actions, rituals – but ultimately, at the deepest level, the relationship goes beyond our ability to express it. It’s simply something we “know” in the deepest parts of ourselves.

 I think the same is true when we talk about God. The creeds, the Bible, our discussions, our musings and wonderings can only take us so far. The only way we can truly experience God, the only way we can really know God, is by opening ourselves to the deep intimacy of relationship with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit.

 To put it another way, if we want to understand God, we have accept God’s invitation to join the dance.

 When Jesus engaged people during his ministry, his words were always invitations to join the dance. Notice that he didn’t say to those around him – study me, talk about me, think about me, analyze me. He never said anything like “construct a religion around me.”

 What he always said was….Follow me. Follow my lead as we dance together…

 That’s how we’ll know him, be more like him. That’s how we’ll know God more fully. And that’s how we ourselves will become more fully human.

 You gotta join the dance. You need to join the circle.

 Now, I’ve talked for awhile and I’m fully aware that the words aren’t adequate. I don’t expect them to be. But perhaps there’s another way to understand it and I want to share that with you today.

 As I said earlier, the eastern Christian tradition is rich in symbolism. The eastern orthodox tradition uses art and icons more often than words to express the holy mystery of the Trinity. One of my favorite icons was painted by Andre Rublev, a Russian monk who lived in the 14th and 15 centuries There’s a lot of symbolism in this work, entitled “the Old Testament Trinity” – depicting the visit of what many scholars believe to be the three persons of the trinity to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre. Rublev painted this icon to depict the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in relationship to each other. The symbolism is rich if you look closely. For example, look at the hands. Henri Nouwen said that one way of looking at the icon is that the Father is on the left, making a hand sign that encourages the Son (in the middle) who has two fingers displayed, indicating his divine and human nature. The third figure, the Holy Spirit, points downward toward the rectangular hole in the front of the table, which represents the narrow path of faith to which we are directed. But the main feature I want you to focus on is this…notice the orientation of the icon…the three figures sit at a table, but the part of the table that is open is facing the viewer.

 What’s it mean? There’s a place for you at the table – a place to join in with and engage the living God in relationship.

 Rather than try to describe the Trinity, perhaps the best way we can learn it is to live into it, be in relationship to God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. And when we live into that relationship with God, maybe we’ll find our relationship with others transformed as well.

 This icon also reminds us that God’s very nature is defined by relationship—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and that relationship is always reaching outward. The doctrine of the Trinity isn’t so much an idea as it is an invitation.

 Will you join the dance?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What About Hell?

Matthew 25:31-46

  Doom Well, today is one many of you have been waiting for—the most asked question we received for this series on “Questions Thinking People Ask About the Bible and Christian Faith.” What do you think about hell?

 I get that, in some ways. When I was a kid, particularly when I was a teenager, we talked a lot about hell in church and in youth group. I remember getting tracts and seeing movies about the horrors of hell, and if you didn’t want to wind up there you had better  make sure you were prayed up, which meant that whenever you had any doubts you had better get down to that altar and make sure again, and again, and again. Oh, and you’d better get your friends “saved,” too, or you might be responsible for them winding up in hell.

 You may have grown up with this, too. Evangelism, in fact, was all about hell avoidance. Every conversation started with this: “If you were to die tonight, do you know where your soul would spend eternity?” It’s a question that would certainly get your attention.

 The older I got and the more I studied, however, I began to wonder whether that was the right question. I mean, does life really all boil down to what bin you go in when you die? Should fear of eternal damnation be the primary reason a person becomes a Christian? Of course, that brought up questions from the opposite side of the equation, too. Is it right, on the other hand, to believe in a kind of universalism, where hell is completely irrelevant and everybody goes to heaven? I have known Christians on both extremes.

 Problem is, however, that a lot of what we think about hell and eternal punishment is gleaned from tradition more than the Scriptures. The pictures we conjur up about a fiery pit with multiple levels and red devils with horns and pitchforks come more from the dark images of the Middle Ages and Dante than from Scripture. That’s not to say, however, that hell isn’t a reality. It’s just that we have to understand it within the context of the whole biblical worldview and the purposes of God.

So, as I often do, I want to take you back to the beginning, back to creation. The creation story tells us that humans were the crowning glory of creation because they bear the image of God. No other part of creation gets this designation. We are created in God’s image, to reflect God in our character, our love for others, and even in our work; caring for God’s good creation. All of humanity is created in God’s image.

 To be truly human, then, is to be in full relationship with God and in full relationship with others, relationships that mirror God’s relational care. To be truly human is not to be, as Plato said, a dualistic separation of body and soul, but to be whole person…an embodied person living out the image of God in God’s good creation. The unique capacity of humanity that separates us from the animals is not, as is traditionally thought, the presence of a soul—but rather to be in the image of God and to able to relate to God.

 The Bible tells us that, by chapter 3 of Genesis, humans began to distort that image and turn inward, missing the mark, veering off target. Instead of choosing to bear the image of the God who created them out of love, they chose to try and become gods themselves. They began to worship the creatures they were, rather than their creator. They made themselves into idols, and humans have been idolizing people and things every since.

 That’s how the Bible defines “sin” – it’s the willful act of choosing to be and to do that which is not the image of God. To sin, in other words, is to be less than human…less than what we were created to be. The Greek word for sin is borrowed from archery and it literally means to “miss the mark.” Sin is that which takes us away from the mark, the image of God. And when we’re bound up by sin, we tend to see others as less than human, too. We can see people as objects to be exploited, and we treat them accordingly, rather than seeing them in the image of God.

 The rest of the story of the Bible is thus the story of God’s mission to restore humanity to his image, to break the effects of sin. God carries out this mission through a people that he chooses and shapes—a people called Israel—but even they are constantly tempted to rebel against God, to worship idols, and to treat others as being less than human. They are a broken people, like we are, and cannot muster the capacity to recapture the image of God on their own. So God takes the extraordinary step of becoming human himself in the peson of Jesus Christ—a second Adam, as Paul calls him. Jesus is the perfect image of God, and calls people to follow his example, not only to become fully human themselves but to treat others as fully human as well.

 Jesus demonstrates that by spending most of his time with people who were considered by most to be less than human: people on the fringes, people who didn’t really matter. He ate with tax collectors, whom people hated because they cheated and exploited the population, treating them as revenue streams. He ate meals with prostitutes, who were used as objects of pleasure by men. He touched lepers, who lived outside the community because their diseases made them less than human. He spent most of his time with people who weren’t people at all in that culture.

 Why did he do it? To demonstrate that they, too, were made in the image of God. He offered them forgiveness of their sins, not condemnation. He made the unclean clean again simply by touching them. He treated them as being fully human, and once they understood that they were created in the image of God, many of them were transformed by that knowledge.

 Now, one of the things you will notice, if you’re willing to look, is that when Jesus talked about God’s ultimate judgment, God’s wrath, God’s justice, it was not most often aimed at these people—the ones who were broken, and seen as less than human. No, when Jesus talked about God’s judgment, it was usually aimed very pointedly at those who thought they were superior and treated others as being less than human. God’s judgment was reserved, in other words, for people who ought to know better.

 Look at today’s passage from Matthew 25. Who are the ones who enter the kingdom? The ones who had compassion on those whom others had seen as being less than human. The condemnation, judgment, “hell” if you will, is for those who refuse to see other humans as being created in the image of God, people loved by God and valuable to God.  We can’t just sit and ponder Jesus, we have to follow him.

 Now, this is a far cry from what many of us in our traditions have come to believe. Most of us were taught that avoiding hell, getting out from under God’s wrath, was the result of simply having the right beliefs. If I only prayed the right prayer and asked Jesus into my heart, then I’ll be saved from hell no matter what I do. Too bad for those other people, who don’t have the right beliefs. They’re going to fry. To hell with them.

 My friends, the Protestant Reformation brought many great things to us, but this way of thinking isn’t one of them. In an effort to counter the emphasis on deeds for salvation in the Catholic tradition, the Reformers pushed the pendulum too far the other way and insisted on “faith alone” as the requirement for salvation. What that morphed into, however, was the idea that faith was just cognitive assent—ascribing to the right doctrines, getting your mind right about Jesus.

 One of the favorite verses the Reformers used was Ephesians 2:8-9. You know this one: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Yes, we are only saved by God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor. Yes, belief is important. We cannot earn God’s favor, but that never means that we are see faith, our response to God, as being passive.

 Look at the next verse, verse 10: “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life!”

 We were created in the image of God, in the image of Christ, for good works—to not only be fully human, but to bring others toward full humanity through acts of compassion and justice, just like Jesus! Christian faith is a way of life, not merely a good idea! Many will say “Lord, Lord,” says Jesus in Matthew 25. Many will claim that they had all the right beliefs lined up. But Jesus says, “I don’t know you…because you didn’t care about the people created in God’s image. You failed to be fully human.”

 So many Christians are sure that they know who’s going to hell and who isn’t. They are fixated on hell because they want to make sure that other people are getting what they deserve. But Jesus’ teaching on God’s judgment was never designed to give us a window on the fate of others. Instead, it is always a mirror that we hold up to ourselves. Are we becoming fully human? Are we treating others as people created in the image of God, no matter what kind of people they are? Do we treat others with compassion, or contempt? We will be judged on that basis, not simply on what creeds we muttered.

 You know, we can be so self-righteous, we people who cry, “Lord, Lord!” We’ve got it all figured out. We can categorize people into different groups so well, stick a label on them, and declare them bound for hell.  I have people ask me all the time why it is that people in this culture are rejecting Christianity in droves. Well, to me the answer is pretty simple. It’s us. When you treat people as less than human, when you slap a label on them, when you only care about how they line up compared to you…why would they want to know anything about the Christ you supposedly represent? You want to reach people for Christ? Start acting like him! What’s that mean? It means we’re less concerned about what bin everyone goes in at death, and we start engaging the reality of Jesus’ life—the Jesus who even forgave those who nailed him to the cross, the ultimate dehumanizing act of history.

 The image of God as one who is hell-bent on sending people to their doom simply isn’t the biblical one. Paul says this in 1 Timothy 2—“God our Savior…desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” What is the truth? “For there is one God, there is also one mediator between God and humankind. Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Christ became fully human and gave himself for…everyone.

 Does that mean that there is no hell? No, I think the Bible makes it clear that there are some who will choose to be outside of God’s kingdom. Sin is dehumanizing, it pulls us further and further away from the image of God we were meant to be. Sin is also a conscious choice—a choice to reject God’s image and create an image for ourselves. Given that reality, and given the biblical witness, I think it’s certainly true to say that some people will become so dehumanized by sin that they are really no longer human. If that’s the case, hell, whatever it looks like, is the ultimate result.

 One of my professors in seminary, Jerry Walls, wrote a book about hell titled. “Hell, the Logic of Damnation.” In that book he proposes that even if you could show people a video tape of what life apart from God, life so dehumanized so as not to bear God’s image, looks like, some people would very likely still choose it, exercising their choice to reject God to the last. The Bible is somewhat vague on what their ultimate eternal destination looks like. Jesus most often used the word “gehenna” to describe it, which was the smoldering garbage dump outside Jerusalem, but even then the description isn’t detalied.

 We may get glimpses of what hell looks like, however, just as we see glimpses of heaven. As I have said many times, the Bible speaks of the ultimate marriage between heaven and earth—on earth as it is in heaven is the goal Jesus taught us to pray for.

 But in the present, too, we see the other reality—the reality of hell on earth. We see places where human-ness has been almost entirely eradicated. We saw it in the holocaust. We see it in the genocide of places like Darfur. We see it the bloody spectre of war. We see it in places of crushing poverty. We see it our prisons. We see it in seemingly less dark places, like our computer screens and TVs, where human bodies are exposed as objects for our entertainment. We see places where people have very nearly ceased being human and act like sub-human monsters. If we really want to know what hell is like, we don’t have to go very far.

 And yet, even in these places of ultimate dehumanization and ultimate despair, places of violence and death, God does not seem to have completely given up. And if God hasn’t given up, then neither should we.

 Mike was my roommate in seminary, and I like him instantly. We studied together, played softball together, and had long theological discussions into the night as we read books and worked on papers. He graduated the year before me, and went to a little United Methodist Church in Beaumont, Texas, before joining the Navy as a chaplain. We kept in touch a little, you know how it is, enough for me to learn that he had met a beautiful young lady and they had married, and soon had two little boys, and I learned that he had gotten out of the Navy and was pastoring a small church in a little town in eastern Texas. I didn’t hear from him for awhile after that.

Until, one day I got an email from another seminary colleague who said, “Did you hear about Mike?” Mike was in jail…he had beaten his wife to death in the church parsonage with the leg of a table, while their two little boys slept in the next room.

 I can’t tell you how I felt hearing that news. My friend was a murderer—a violent killer. I had not seen this coming. No one did. I had no categories for it. I read the news reports, which were all over even the national news (anytime a minister does something heinous, you can be sure it will be everywhere). He plead guilty, but before he was to be sentenced he tried to kill himself, but was unsuccessful—“unfortunately,” said the local paper. He was sentenced to 55 years in a Texas state penitentiary.

 What do you do with that? It’s hard to imagine a more brutal, dehumanizing crime, and the devastation it caused not only in those families but in the local church and everywhere else.

 And yet, as terrible as this was, and as much as Mike deserved the consequences of his actions (some said that he got off “easy”), I simply couldn’t stop thinking about him and wondering what had gone wrong. Every time I tried to put it aside, I couldn’t. It was like God was prodding me, and I know what it’s like to be prodded! I had to believe that something very dark had happened to him, but that the person he was hadn’t completely gone.

 I wrote to the district superintendent and bishop of his conference to see where he was being held, but got no response. I sent a letter to where I thought he was, and it came back unopened.

 A couple of months ago, I decided to try again—eight years after he was put in jail. Two weeks later, I got a response from Mike, written on a typewriter, which is all they’re allowed to use. He told me that I was the first pastor to contact him, other than one of our mutual seminary friends. He told me about the tears he shed when we saw the letter, because he had felt completely abandoned by everyone.

 Mike is deeply, devastatingly sorry for what he did. We’ve been corresponding back and forth, and he has yet to tell me what was going on inside of him that day that caused him to perpetrate such violence. Maybe, in time he will, but I imagine that it’s hard to define such evil. He tells me about the hell that is prison, but soft pedals it for me, I’m sure. He is very aware that he is getting what he deserves.

 I, on the other hand, have had to come to grips with the fact that I am the friend of a murderer. I’m still trying to figure that out.

 But one thing I do know is that God is in the midst of that prison. God has not forgotten Mike, and made sure that I didn’t either. Even in the midst of horror, God is working to rebuild his humanity, and I’m pretty sure God wants me to be part of that process. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t feel at all comfortable to be in this place, but I believe it’s part of what God is up to—pushing back hell little by little by restoring the image of God.

 All of this reminds me of that little poem by C.T. Studd. The one that goes:

 "Some wish to live within the sound of Church or Chapel bell;

I want to run a Rescue Shop within a yard of hell."

 I know this probably isn’t the answer some of you were looking for when you wanted to know about hell and who goes there. But maybe instead of focusing our attention on hell, we ought to focus our lives on helping others and helping ourselves to recognize what it means to fully human people, created in the image of God…

 Especially if we’re doing it within a yard of hell.

 

 

Questions: Do the Bible and Science Agree?

Age-dinosaur-bones-1 Today we begin a new series on “Questions Thinking People Ask About the Bible and Christian Faith.” I chose that title carefully, because over the next four weeks we’re going to be examining questions – questions that often beget more questions – questions that don’t very often yield the definitive answers that we’d like. But I think that dealing with the questions is often more satisfying because it stimulates our thought processes. The older I become the more I’ve come to believe that I learn a lot more by asking questions than by spitting out answers (which is a temptation for us minister-types).

 So today we begin with a great question – probably the most asked in the survey we gave to the congregation (at least a lot of the questions were variations on the theme). The question was phrased variously as “Do the Bible and Science agree?” But that led me to the larger question and that is – what is the Bible and how do we deal with it, given all we know now through the disciplines of science?

These are the kinds of questions that come up when, say, you visit a natural history museum. It’s fun to go and look at all the dinosaur bones and the natural history that’s been uncovered. But the question always comes up – where does all this pre-history fit into the biblical account of creation? What about evolution? How old is the earth? This is the kind of stuff that school districts fight over – do we teach creationism or evolution? Or something in between?

 It’s natural to wonder about the natural world. But even more than the questions about the origins of life are the questions about how nature continues to function. There are natural events that give us pause—think of something like  the tsunami in southeast Asia in 2004. A horrific tragedy – more than a hundred thousand people killed, even more homeless – a “natural” disaster – the scale of which has been described by some in the media as “biblical”. But what does it mean? Sure, we can scientifically understand how tectonic plates smash into one another and 20 ft. waves are generated, but is that the only reason? Is it a random act or, as insurance companies might call it, “an act of God”? And if miracles are possible, as the Bible seems to indicate, why didn’t God do something to stop it? Big questions (and Joe will deal with the question of why bad things happen to good people a little later in the series).

 When we deal with such big questions, people tend to respond by grabbing something off the shelf – some book, some text, to provide the answers – be it a Bible or another book or, more often, we “Google” it. Given the vast amount of technology we now have at our disposal, we’re used to simply looking up the information and systematically explaining things and then holding tight to our opinions.

 That’s because most of us in this sanctuary today are children of the Enlightenment, or “moderns” as some sociologists call us. Our worldview, our way of thinking, is governed by our place and time in history. To understand our approach to the Bible, we have to understand our approach to knowledge in general. Here’s a very brief history lesson to explain what I mean:

 We might think of history as being divided into periods: There’s pre-history (before writing) – then ancient history, beginning about 2500 BC and lasting until about 500AD – the time of the great empires – Greece, Rome, Assyria, Babylon. The time in which the Bible was written – a time where history, theology, and science were not separate disciplines but all combined into one comprehensive worldview.

 Then came the medieval period – roughly 500AD to 1500 – the time of the church, popes, castles, lords, and serfs – the feudal system. A time where peoples were tightly controlled by the dominant theological worldview of their region – be it Christian or Muslim. It was the time of the crusades and religious relics. Science was beginning to emerge as a discipline but was in conflict with the Church – people like Copernicus (who said the earth revolved around the sun, not vice versa), Galileo, and others were persecuted.

 Then in about 1500, things shifted significantly. Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Catholic Church in Wittenberg, Gutenberg invented his printing press, industrialism, the rise of machines and the rise of modern science ushered in the Enlightenment – or the “modern” era – which said basically that just about everything can be broken down into scientific categories – from the natural world to human behavior – there was no mystery, it seemed,  that couldn’t be explained. This period also ushered in the concept of objectivity – a mechanistic and measured way of looking at the world. The underlying belief was that science could provide the answer to everything – the age of Darwin, the age of secularism. The dominant phrase for this era can be summed up by the old Dragnet quote. Remember? “Just the facts, ma’am.” This is the age that most of us were born into. Think about your education – lecture, drill, test. Learning was equated largely with ingesting and regurgitating information.

 To put it another way, the modern way of thinking puts most things on a continuum like this:

A————————————-B

A vs. B. A range of knowledge with finite extremes. Creation vs. Evolution. Liberal vs. Conservative. Spiritual vs. Secular. Most of us find ourselves located somewhere along this continuum because we’ve reasoned ourselves to that point and, in most cases, we’ll doggedly defend our positions as “factual”.

 So, here comes this text – the Bible – talking about a seven day creation, about Noah, seas parting, people walking on water, etc. And we tend to look at it on that continuum – Bible vs. Science. Biblical literalists argue that all of this is factual and scientific secularists argue that it’s all mythology with no basis in empirical proof. Humans were directly created by out of dust God vs. they evolved from the primordial soup. Others try to find the middle ground by saying things like, “Well, the days of creation were really millions of years”. And so it goes.

 But here’s the thing. The Bible isn’t a modern document, written in the modern era. It’s not written with science or objectivity in mind.  While we moderns look for the “how” of creation, miracles, history – the Bible is more concerned with “WHO” and the WHY.

 When we look at the creation accounts, for example, we have to understand that they were not written to counter science, but rather, the worldview of the other pagan peoples around the Israelites. Most ancient near eastern cultures had a polytheistic worldview—many gods, and these gods consort together to make the world. The Mesopotamians, for example, believed that the earth was created as the result of a great battle, where the god Marduk slays the great dragon Tiamat and splits her into two pieces—the earth and the sky. Along comes the Bible, however, suggesting a radically different view—that there is one God, and that God creates the world out of nothing, just by speaking.

 Now, when you think about science and creation, we understand that the Bible’s account is a lot closer to what science tells us, that the universe came to be as part of an ordered process brought into being and managed by the one true God. But the point is really not so much the details of precisely how it happened, but that it happened and that God did it.

 The Bible is thus concerned with God, and it’s the story of God’s interaction with a particular people – the Israelites, and it’s the story of how God will work through these people to redeem the creation he made (however he may have made it). The ancients weren’t as concerned about empirical verification as we are. They build their lives on a story—a true story, but true in ways that are more than just the facts.

 Our modern approach to biblical interpretation is often, on the one hand, as a rule book or answer book and, on the other hand, as an ancient myth. It’s a printed page, written by humans in an ancient context, open to interpretation. But the reality is that the range of interpretations we find ourselves defending really say more about us than they do about God or the Bible itself. When we ask whether the Bible is a salvation story or a science text, maybe we’re asking the wrong question.

 When Paul writes to Timothy, he says that all Scripture is “God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness – equipping us as God’s people (2 Timothy 3:16). Often we want it to be God’s encyclopedia, God’s rule book, God’s answer book, God’s five happy hops to heaven instruction manual, God’s little book of morals for all occasions. But the only people in Jesus’ day who have had anything close to those expectations of Scripture would have been the scribes and Pharisees! For Paul, the Scriptures represented the whole story of salvation history-a story inspired by God, but written by people. It’s not dropped out of the sky in complete form. God inspires it, because God is the primary actor, and the story is centered around God’s relationship with his people, who write the story. The Bible thus points us to God, not to itself. It is, as Paul says, a story that “equips” us for every good work. The text is vitally important, but only if we see it as pointing us to the God whose love is, ultimately, expressed in the person of Jesus Christ.

 Jesus was always calling people to look above the text. When he encounters the Samaritan woman in John 4, she wants him to give a definitive answer – on which mountain should we worship God – this one or the one in Jerusalem (a continuum question). Jesus says to her, essentially, neither. But the time is coming when the true worshippers will worship God in spirit and in truth. Not here or here…but up here. When the Pharisees want to pin him down on the legal issues of Sabbath laws and forgiveness of sins, Jesus wants to pull their attention beyond the legalities of the text and get into the purpose and intent of God for God’s people and the whole creation.

 What if, rather than locating the Bible somewhere along this continuum, we instead look somewhere above the line – outside the box. What if the issue is not as much the authority of the text itself, but rather the authority of God, moving mysteriously and awesomely ? As Brian McClaren puts it in his book A New Kind of Christian, “What if the issue isn’t a book that we can misinterpret with amazing creativity but rather the will of God, the intent of God, the desire of God, the wisdom of God – maybe we could say the kingdom of God?”

 He gives an example: Think about a math book. Is the value of a math book the answers in the back? Or is the value in the learning about how to work the problems, how to think them through so that they can be applied to everything from construction, to accounting to rocket science? Could we look at the Bible and its stories and worldview in the same way?

 Now, admittedly, this is a different way of looking at Scripture than most people are used to – call it (as some sociologists have) a “postmodern” view. I am a trained historian, thoroughly a modern-educated man. I was trained in absolutes – memorizing, interpreting, valuing the Bible as an empirically historical, scientific document – something to be learned, interpreted, analyzed, parsed, and parceled.

 But the more I’ve studied the Bible, the more I’ve seen it on the ground and working in the lives of people and communities, the more convinced I become that the Bible’s value is way more than the sum of its parts. It’s the grand story. The story that we all find ourselves in. It’s the story of God and our story – not so much the how (thought there is some of that) but the who.

 To use another analogy – if you were a student going to dissect a frog – what would be your feelings about the frog? You’d probably want to know the directions, compare the frog’s anatomy to another animal, measure and weigh the organs. But it would be a very dispassionate exercise.

 Contrast that with the way a young boy approaches a girl at a high school dance. How does he do it? Not dispassionately! He approaches her relationally, playfully, joyfully. He wants to know everything about her because he wants to be part of her life and wants her to be a part of his.

 Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that we should approach the Bible more like that boy on the dance floor! To dance with the text, to understand her for who she is, and to get to a higher level of interpretation – the level of love.

 One of the questions that someone asked on one of the cards was about Jesus and the reason he spoke in parables instead of bullet points. Why did Jesus use these little stories instead of just giving us five principles or four laws—something you can easily quantify and explain?

 Well, I think it has to do with the power of story. When we tell a story or hear a story, we’re invited into it, and we’re invited into a relationship with the storyteller. Stories move us in closer, and provide us with nuance, wonder, and imagination. Bullet points, on the other hand, just give us information in a dispassionate sort of way. We memorize bullet points, but we live stories. Jesus saw his stories as being part of a larger story, and invited people into the story he was weaving in his own life, death, and resurrection—the climax of the larger story of Israel.

 Most people tend to have a rather truncated view of Scripture—a view that’s organized around their worldview, or organized around a few texts that fit the doctrinal view that they hold. Most Bible studies that are published, for example, start with a topic and then the author will go out and grab some Scripture passages that support his or her particular worldview. Very rarely do Christians seek to understand Scripture as being a whole narrative, a whole story, instead of merely the sum of its parts. It’s a story that is expressed in many different genres, just like we read different genres of literature in order to understand our own culture.

 Yes, there is history, but not history in the coldly objective, chronological, post-Enlightenment sense (which is a fallacy in itself, but that’s another lecture). It is history told from the particular perspective of a particular people in a particular time and place…as all history is! This isn’t history for history’s sake, it’s the history of Israel, and the story of the one true God who enters into history in the person of Christ. You need to know—I truly believe that Jesus was, indeed, God in the flesh, and I believe that he was raised bodily from the dead. The Gospel writers and Paul believed this, too, and wrote about what they saw and experienced.  But they weren’t concerned with exactly HOW that all worked physiologically. They approached the resurrection not as a coldly empirical exercise, but with wonder and amazement. Trying to explain the incarnation and resurrection scientifically is an interesting exercise, but it misses the point. When God is at work, that work transcends our categories.

 In addition to history, however, Scripture includes poetry, there is allegory, there is some wisdom literature like proverbs, there is visionary apocalyptic that uses highly symbolic language, there is commentary. We cannot read all those different genres the same (nothing ruins poetry more than trying to analyze it, for example), but understand them in their context and within the categories of the style of literature. What we have in the Bible is not a single document, but a library that is oriented around a particular story—a story that orders and guides every other story.

 The Bible is real truth, but its truth is designed not just to be studied and analyzed, it is truth to be lived out in us as we continue the story. Dinosaurs, miracles, all of creation is a part of the wonder. Let science continue the quest for how – in fact, the more we learn at the micro level of biology the more scientists are seeing evidence of intelligent design – wonderful, mysterious, unexplainable. But let the Bible shout to us joyfully about the who – the God who stands in the midst of creation to be in relationship with us. The Bible is a book about God, and we are called to worship him, and not merely the book that points to him. It is God’s authority, expressed through the story but not limited by it, that really matters.

 Biblical truth goes way beyond the facts or even the text itself. As John Wesley said, we discover the truths of scripture through our reason, our experience, even the traditions and experiences of our ancestors. It’s not a static document, but a living breathing witness to a God who seeks to be involved in our lives—the God who is still working the story to its glorious conclusion.

 Now, you may not agree with this assessment, and that’s ok. I’ve had many conversations with people who are certain that their particular view of Scripture is the only valid one. My only caution is this: be careful that you don’t become so enamored with your position on the continuum that you miss the real story and the ultimate intent of the Author—the redemption of his good creation. We have to be careful to not be so enamored with certainty that we miss the mystery and wonder of what God is up to in the world.

 I think that’s what it means to be a Scriptural Christian—to be one who lives into the story, one who engages the mission of God, one who understands the Bible’s authority as being subject to the authority of God.

Sources:

McClaren, Brian, A Generous Orthodoxy. El Cajon, CA: Youth Specialties, 2004.

McClaren, Brian, A New Kind of Christian. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Calendar Confusion (1/2/11)

(Note: This sermon is adapted from one I wrote for the September-October 2008 issue of Homiletics. To subscribe, go to homileticsonline.com)

Spiral clock Well, here we are – January 2. Yesterday was New Year’s Day. Time to start remembering to write “2011” on your checks. Did you celebrate yesterday? At our house, New Year’s Day means eating sauerkraut, because my mom (who was a very devout Christian) was still a little superstitious and made sure we ate it for good luck, whether we wanted it or not. I hated it then, but love it now! Of course, the first day of the new year is also time for parades and football. That’s a lot of hoopla for the first day of the calendar year

 There are, of course, some who would differ about whether January 1 is actually the start of the year. The beginning of the new year, at least in perception, is relative to one’s personal or professional perspective. We clergy know that the official church year begins with the First Sunday of Advent, but few people get psyched about that since it’s so close to Christmas. The business folks in the congregation and others who work in government are stressing about the end of the fiscal year on September 30 and its new beginning on October 1. Pick a random date on the calendar and there’s a good chance that it’s a new year date for someone. 

The truth is, though, that even the calendar itself has long been up for grabs. The Western world, for example, has gone through several confusing calendar corrections in the last two millennia or so.

 In 45 B.C., Julius Caesar established what became known as the Julian calendar which began the year on March 25. That calendar was the standard until the Middle Ages, when astronomers and mathematicians noticed that the Julian calendar didn’t jive with the actual solar calendar and, perhaps more importantly, caused Roman Catholic Church holidays to fall on dates that were outside of the traditional seasons for them. 

To remedy the problem, Pope Gregory XIII, along with his papal astronomer and mathematician, proclaimed a new “Gregorian” calendar. In order to make the adjustment to the new calendar in 1582, 10 days were eliminated from October of that year. October 4, 1582, was immediately followed by October 15, 1582. Ten days were gone, like they never happened.

Protestants, though, being as obstinate as their name, held on to the old calendar for 170 more years. England and the American colonies finally went Gregorian in 1752, which meant that the year 1751 began with March 25 and ended December 31 and September 1752, lost 11 days in order to correct the calendar to its current form. Colonists who went to bed on the evening of September 2 of that year woke up the morning of September 14. What might have happened in those lost 11 days? Just musing here, but perhaps George Washington’s notoriously bad teeth were the result of his missing a long- scheduled dental appointment on September 4, 1752. 

Well, it could’ve happened.

Is this confusing enough for you? We have enough trouble dealing with leap years, daylight-saving time and figuring out when Easter is, let alone losing 11 days off the calendar. We like to think that chronological time is fixed, but history shows us that it’s fluid and subject to arrangement by humans for their own convenience. Hey, if you can eliminate 10 or 11 days from a month without bringing the world to a screeching halt, then why not do it every couple hundred years or so if need be? The next day will come regardless of what we name it.

 Biblically speaking, “time” has a couple of different meanings that we have echoes of today. If I ask you, “What time is it?” for example, how would you answer?

 Most of us would instinctively look at our watches. We might say it’s ___a.m. MST on Sunday, January 2. We know that kind of time as “chronological” time, which has it’s origins in the Greek word “chronos” or, simply, “time.”

 Chronos time marks our place in history, keeps us on schedule, let’s us know where we are, let’s you know how much longer until the service is over (hopefully). We live in chronos time all the time, and it’s a good thing.

 But there is a serious downside to only paying attention to chronos time. When we spend our days focused on the clock, being “one the clock,” clocking in and out, we see can begin to see time as an enemy. Boredom, for example, is a sign that time controls us, rather than the other way round. In fact, focusing too much on chronos time can actually be hazardous to our spiritual health. 

In C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, the devilish Screwtape writes to his demon apprentice, Wormwood:

 “The horror of the Same Old Thing is one of the most valuable passions we have produced in the human heart …. The humans live in time, and experience reality successively. To experience much of it, therefore, they must experience many different things; in other words, they must experience change.” 

That’s the truth of chronos — because time marches on, day after day, regardless of the date, humans will do just about anything to break the monotony, making changes just for the sake of change. When we don’t have an ordering principle for change, we’re prone to get stuck again and again. Without a governing principle, changes don’t tend to stick and pretty soon we’re right back where we started. After the exciting fresh start of a new year, filled with all those resolutions, we’re pretty soon back to the same old thing.

 Witness, for example, the number of people who crowd the gym the first couple of weeks of January, resolving to get in shape. But every year, just two weeks into January, everything goes back to normal. It’s hard to establish a new habit! Even those who maintain a workout schedule recognize that routines get boring.

 If idle hands are the devil’s workshop, as the old saying goes, then boredom provides a warehouse of raw materials for construction. When time holds no meaning for us, we can lose day after day wasted in trivial and, sometimes, destructive pursuits and not even realize that those hours, days and weeks are gone. 

We weren’t created to simply mark time, however. Sure, God created chronos time by marking out the seven-day week at creation, but God’s set calendar for humanity wouldn’t be primarily marked by hours, dates and minutes. Instead, God would give human time meaning by inserting the divine Presence into time itself.

 Biblically speaking, this is kairos time — the appointed time for God’s purpose and activity, the moment of God’s visitation and intervention, the decisive time. A kairo s moment may take place at a chronos point in history, but its meaning would extend beyond chronos time and be celebrated again and again as not only a past event but a present reality. 

 In other words, there’s another way you can ask, “What time is it?” It’s a way of asking about God’s timing, how God is acting to bring about his redemptive mission for the whole creation. A focus on kairos time is always looking for where God is at work in the present, based on God’s past activity and God’s promised future. Kairos is God’s perfect timing. It’s the ordering principle that brings transformative change. 

The Passover is one of those kairos moments breaking in on chronos time. In Exodus 12, God instructs the Israelites through Moses and Aaron to prepare themselves for liberation, but to do so with some very specific and repeatable procedures. The liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt through God’s intervention would be the event that marked a new beginning, a new relationship between God and God’s people marked on the calendar as the “beginning of months” and “the first month of the year” (12:2). While the Egyptians marked their calendars by the appearance of the sun and moon, the Israelites were to mark their calendars forever with a story — a foundational narrative that would interpret their past, preserve their present, and shape their future as a covenant people chosen and preserved by God. The Passover was not to be just a one-off deal, but “a day of remembrance” to be celebrated as a “festival to the Lord” as a “perpetual ordinance” throughout all generations (12:14). It was, and is, the Passover that marked God’s people and gave them meaning and purpose in the world.

The writers of the New Testament certainly understood this and saw the coming of Jesus as the quintessential kairos moment that fulfilled the ultimate liberation of all of God’s people from slavery to sin and death. Paul, for example, would say in Romans 5:6 that “at the right time,” Christ died for the ungodly. Because of that, Paul would say in 2 Corinthians 6:2, “now is the acceptable time (kairos), now is the day of salvation.” If you asked Paul, “What time is it?”, there’s a pretty good chance he would have answered, “time to turn to Christ!”

 It’s that kairos time that we enter every time we break the bread and drink the cup of the Eucharist—which echoes this Passover story. When we take communion, we are remembering God’s sacrificial work in Jesus Christ in the past, but we’re also proclaiming his presence with us now, and we’re looking ahead to the great banquet to come. Past, present, and future come together every time we share at the table.  Every time we participate in the baptism of a new believer, every time we do or say something in the name of Jesus, we are in the midst of God’s time. The early Christians changed the day of worship from Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, to Sunday as a way of celebrating the reality of Easter again and again — a constant reminder that the resurrection wasn’t a mere historical event but a living and present reality; the beginning of a new age that looks forward to completion when Christ establishes the kingdom, making life “on earth as it is in heaven.” Time has meaning because God has entered into it and has called us to use our chronos to look for, celebrate and proclaim God’s kairos.

We’re so trained to live and work in chronos time and we have to fight the tendency to view life as the “Same Old Thing.” The ancient Israelites would soon forget the miracle of their liberation out of Egypt and through the waters of the Red Sea. Once they got to the other side of the Red Sea, they started complaining about the monotony of the desert and the daily diet of manna and quail. They got so bored and distracted that they ditched God, manufactured a golden calf and worshiped it for the sake of change (Exodus 32). When we fail to see the daily presence of God in our lives, we, too, have a tendency to use our time to construct gods for ourselves. 

We have calendars, PDAs, BlackBerries, Outlook and a host of other devices and techniques designed to help us manage time. But while we’re tapping on screens and making appointments, are we taking intentional time to recognize and celebrate God’s purpose and activity in our lives and in the world around us? Here are a couple of ways we might begin this year by moving from chronos thinking to kairos living:
• Celebrate the beginning of each new day with prayer, asking God to show you where he will be at work and where you can help. Be prepared each day to work for what you pray for.

• Institute time each day for planning the day ahead. Begin by reviewing yesterday. What did you accomplish? Where did you see God at work? What opportunities did you miss to serve God? Then take your planner and look ahead to the coming day, seeing it as a blank canvas upon which God can work within and through you. How can God’s purposes be worked in and through me today? How can I reflect God’s presence in my life in each event?

 I’m always struck by what John Wesley said about the use of time. To his preachers, Wesley gave these rules: “Be diligent. Never be unemployed: never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time: neither spend any more time at any place than is strictly necessary” and “Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time.” When we manage our chronos, we make room for kairos. When we take control of the time we’re given, instead of allowing it to control us, we make room for God.

 I know I’m working this year on doing a better job with time. We’ll be looking at that in a little more depth in a sermon series beginning in February titled “Ordering Your Private World.” I know that I am at my best when I’m paying attention to where my time and attention goes, and when it goes to God I find that life feels a lot less out of control. Perhaps we can covenant together in the new year to be a people who practice good time management—time management that opens up space for God to work within us and through us!

 John Wesley also gave the people called Methodist a great reminder at the beginning of each year—a covenant prayer that expresses what it means to make ourselves subject to the kairos time of God, to subject our time to God’s time, and to live as people who have our priorities straight. He gave us this covenant prayer—may it be our guiding prayer for this new year:

 COVENANT PRAYER 

I  am  no  longer  my  own,  but  thine.

Put  me  to  what  thou  wilt,  rank  me  with  whom  thou  wilt.

Put  me  to  doing,  put  me  to  suffering.

Let  me  be  employed  by  thee  or  laid  aside  for  thee,

exalted  for  thee  or  brought  low  for  thee.

Let  me  be  full,  let  me  be  empty.

Let  me  have  all  things,  let  me  have  nothing.

I  freely  and  heartily  yield  all  things

to  thy  pleasure  and  disposal.

And  now,  O  glorious  and  blessed  God,

Father,  Son,  and  Holy  Spirit,

thou  art  mine,  and  I  am  thine.  So  be  it.

And  the  covenant  which  I  have  made  on  earth,

let  it  be  ratified  in  heaven.   Amen. 

 

Learning to Follow – Luke 3:1-22

John-the-baptist One of the courses I just finished up for my doctoral program was focused on “Advanced Church Leadership,” which involved reading a whole stack of books on the topic of what it means to be a leader, successful leadership strategies, managing change, the life of the leader, etc. We read a lot of books written by business people and a few by clergy, but the focus seemed to always be the same: that it’s good to be a good leader. Go to Barnes and Noble and you’ll see a whole section of books dedicated to leadership. There are leadership tapes and leadership motivational calendars and posters.

 What you don’t see, however, in the midst of all this leadership discussion is very much about being a follower. I mean, all these leaders have to be leading somebody, and if being a leader involves leading followers then shouldn’t those followers have some guidance as well?

 That was the question that Harvard Business Review writer Barbara Kellerman asked herself, which led to her book Followership: How Followers Are Creating Change and Changing Leaders. This was also in my stack of books for the course and I found it to be the most intriguing of the lot. Her thesis is this: “So long as we fixate on leaders at the expense of followers, we will perpetuate the myth that [followers] don’t much matter.”

 We’ve all been taught to aspire to leadership, but what would it mean if we first aspired to be good followers? What makes a good follower and how does following in some sense promote leadership?

 These are some of the questions that came to my mind this week as I was studying this text in Luke 3 about John the Baptizer who, in my mind, is really one of the best examples in history of someone who became famous and revered not by being number one, but by intentionally knowing his role as a follower. He appears on the stage in each of the four Gospels, but Luke gives him significantly more ink. By doing so, I think Luke wants his readers to recognize that who we follow and how we follow is an indicator of how we will lead and to what purpose we will dedicate our lives.

Luke tells us from the beginning that John was born for a specific purpose. In that repetition of angel visits in the first two chapters of Luke, one of them comes to the old priest Zechariah, whose wife Elizabeth is barren, and tells Zechariah that they are going to have a son whom they will name John. The angel gives Zechariah John’s mission statement in 1:13-17—

14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.16Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

In other words, John was going to have the very specific mission of preparing the way for the arrival of God’s anointed one. He would go into the desert to preach and baptize, which recalls the movement of Israel into the desert after their liberation from Egypt. His ministry would be one of preparation and announcement, calling the people to repentance in preparation of the judgment to come and to give their true allegiance to the Lord and his anointed.

John baptized individuals, but his baptism symbolized something much larger—the “forgiveness of sins.” Remember that in first century Israel, sins were only to be forgiven through the sacrificial system in the Temple. What John was offering, however, was not merely the forgiveness of individual sins, though that was part of it. What he was really doing was enacting a sign for the whole nation of Israel—a sign of the redemption for which they had been longing for generations.

That word was rather popular and intriguing to a people long oppressed, so many flocked out into the desert, to the Jordan River, to hear John preach and go down in the water with him. Given the fact that it’s about 15 miles from the hill country of Jerusalem down to the Jordan River Valley, seeing John meant making a significant trip in those days which is an indication of the kind of crowds he was drawing and how his message was catching on.

It’s no wonder, then, that people began to ask John the inevitable question: Hey, since you’re drawing all these crowds doesn’t that make you the one we’ve been waiting for? Expectations were high—maybe, they thought, John was himself the Messiah.

I wonder if it was a temptation for John to think so…that maybe there wasn’t a little tug of that idea that he could be the leader everyone wanted. We don’t know how John thought about that privately, but we do know what he answered the crowd looking for a leader:

"I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."

“One more powerful than I will come…” That’s the statement of someone who knows his role, knows the big picture, knows what it means to be a follower first. John knew that he was not the Messianic leader and was able to say so.

Notice, though, that unlike our negative conception of being a follower, it is precisely John’s faithfulness as a follower that makes him one of the most significant people in the biblical story.

Look ahead a bit to Luke chapter 7, beginning at verse 18. John himself had been wondering if Jesus was the Messiah he had been preparing for, and it’s no insignificant question given the fact that to this point in his ministry Jesus had already ticked off plenty of people. John wanted to know whether his work had been in vain. Of course, it wasn’t—Jesus sent word back to him that the Kingdom work was being done. But then Jesus says this (beginning at verse 24):

24After John's messengers left, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? 25If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear expensive clothes and indulge in luxury are in palaces. 26But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27This is the one about whom it is written:
   " 'I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.'[a] 28I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he."

Here we see the principle in action: John was the ultimate follower, one so aware of his mission and purpose that he was able to step aside for the Messiah Jesus, the one in whom God called “son” and in whom God was “well pleased.” Interestingly, in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist says about Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease.” But that’s not a negative—it’s the ultimate statement of strength and faithfulness.

What John teaches us, I think, is that being a follower isn’t a passive way of living, nor should we stigmatize followers as being something less than leaders. You can’t have one without the other, after all. When followership is done at its best, the cause is advanced.

What makes for a good follower? Well, first we need to realize that there are different types of followers, based on their level of engagement with the leader and the cause. Kellerman categorizes followers into five different types.

  • Isolates: These are the folks who are barely aware of what’s going on around them. They don’t care much about the leader or the mission and largely stick to the shadows of the organization. Says Kellerman, “By knowing and doing nothing, these types of followers passively support the status quo…unwittingly, they impede movement and slow change.” Isolates are completely detached from the process and purpose of the organiztion.
  • Bystanders: Bystanders can also drag down an organization, but the difference between them and the isolates is that they know what’s going on around them—they just choose to not take the time, trouble, or risk to get involved. Witness the number of people, for example, who will stand by and do nothing when watching a crime being committed (the bystander effect). Bystanders have no internal motivation to change the status quo.
  • Participants: Participants, unlike isolates and bystanders, are engaged in some way. They will invest some of what they have (time or money, for example) to try and make an impact. Participants are engaged at some level, but are not “all in.” Think of it as the mid-level of involvement.
  • Activists, on the other hand, are people who feel strongly about their leaders or organizations and act accordingly. They are energetic, eager, and engaged. They are heavily invested in people and in processes so they work hard on behalf of their leaders. There are usually a much smaller number of activists in any organization because of the commitment it takes. They will work longer hours and take more risks to further the mission.
  • Lastly, there are the diehards. These are people who are prepared to go down for their cause—whether it’s an individual, an idea, or both. Diehards usually emerge when there is a crisis and they are willing to endanger their own health and welfare in the service of their cause. Think of a soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his buddies or the whistleblower who risks their reputation and even their life to bring corruption to light.

 John the Baptizer was, I think, an Activist. He maximized his subordinate role and poured his energy into a cause that he seemed to intrinsically know he was not going to be able to see all the way through. He saw his own life not as the center and focus of God’s plan, but as the means to advance it forward another step before passing it off to the true leader who was to come. He saw his life’s purpose as always pointing to someone else. That’s what drove him into the desert and it’s the reason we remember him today.

Jesus, of course, was not only the Messiah but also a follower himself—one who dedicated himself to the redemptive mission he had come to execute and was fully engaged in a constantly prayerful relationship with the Father. We could mark him as a diehard because he followed that mission all the way to the cross. If even Jesus was a follower, then it means we need to examine how we are followers, too.

How are you following Jesus this morning? What category would you place yourself in?

  • Are you an isolate, not really caring that much about Jesus or his mission? My guess is that there aren’t too many of those here this morning. Isolates probably wouldn’t care enough to get in the car and come!
  • But maybe there are some bystanders—folks who will want to benefit from a relationship with Jesus or connection to a church but who won’t take the risk or the effort to engage in the work or the mission. Bystanders are often good at offering critique, but never want to be part of the solution. If you’re a bystander, I invite you to consider taking the risk of becoming a participant and see what God has in store for you.
  • Like most organizations, a church has a lot of participants—those who attend, give some of their income, volunteer on occasion. Being a participant is a good thing…
  • But the call of discipleship is, I believe, a call to move up a level in our engagement with the mission of God and in our relationship with Christ. John the Baptizer invested his life in that mission, realizing that he probably would never see the final result (he was beheaded by Herod Antipas not long after baptizing Jesus because he called out Herod for taking his brother’s wife). To be a disciple, I believe, is to be an activist. Maybe you’re not there yet, but I want to encourage you to focus this year on the task of working on your own relationship with Christ. The deeper you engage in that relationship, the more you begin to see clearly the mission of God and your role in it.
  • As for diehards, well, Christianity has been blessed by many—people who sold themselves out completely for Christ. Their example can inspire us and drive us. We learn much from those who have sacrificed everything for Christ. It was that kind of commitment that took the disciples and Paul around the world preaching the Gospel. Perhaps we need a fresh infusion of that kind of followership in our own time.

What constitutes a good follower? Kellerman says that first and foremost there is this:

“Followers who do something are nearly always preferred to followers who do nothing.”

 As a follower of Jesus, like John, are you prepared to do something?

 When Jesus called his disciples, the invitation was simple: “Follow me.” John followed his call. The disciples followed theirs. Jesus followed his call all way to Calvary. Where will God’s call take you in the coming year?

 Source:

 Kellerman, Barbara. “What Every Leader Needs to Know About Followers.” Harvard Business Review. December 2007.