A Liberation For Those Who Mourn

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (Matthew 5:4)

IMG_0464(Top to bottom; left to right.): Ethel Lance, 70; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49; The Rev. Clement Pinckney, 41; Susie Jackson, 87; Myra Thompson, 59; The Rev. Dr. Daniel Simons Sr., 74; The Rev. Sharon Coleman-Singleton, 45.

I’m in Brazil this week sharing two separate series of presentations. The first series was in Manaus and the next will be hosted in Novo Airão.

My heart was torn in two directions as I started to write this article. Since my arrival in Brazil, I’ve wanted to share with you the gross economic disparity I see between so-called “first world” countries and “third world” countries. I’ve noticed how developed countries have harnessed developing countries and I’d like to talk more about that.

But my heart also breaks for what has taken place back at home in the US, with the violent, anti-Black, mass murder in Charleston resulting from white, xenophobic hatred.

As a white male in American society, whose voice is often heard and listened to, I’ve wrestled with whether my comments on Charleston will benefit or harm those who we should be making room to listen to in this moment.

I hope that w hat I am about to share will contribute to a safer and more compassionate world for all. This is what’s on my heart.

What I’m sharing are my feelings—how I feel and not just what I think. I believe and teach enemy-transforming, restorative forgiveness, which is vastly different than simply letting someone off the hook. Yet there is a sick feeling in my gut when people of color are murdered by White people and I hear White people affirming the victims for forgiving their murderers and not killing White people in return. When I share this feeling, some of my White friends retort, “But I thought you believed in nonviolence, Herb?”

Yes, I do believe in nonviolence. And I don’t think that what I believe is the most important question we could ask at times like this.

So I want to qualify what I’m about to say. This piece is primarily for those White people who want to understand how I apply my teachings about Christological nonviolence. I am in no way critiquing members of the Black community about whether they should be nonviolent or what form their nonviolence should take. African-Americans are entirely free to self-determine their responses, and it is not for me, or any other than that community, to decide for them.

If you’ve followed my work over the last few years, you’ll know that I have said a number of times that Christological nonviolence is not passive in the face of evil; instead, it is disruptive and that’s the very reason it can be effective. If nonviolence is passive and does not subvert or transform white racial violence, it simply empowers that violence. Whatever form nonviolence takes, it must carry with it a distinctive and profound “no” to the violence it’s responding to.

I’m on the wrong side of the tracks to be thankful that another racist white murderer is being publicly forgiven by relatives of the people he killed. If these family members would like to do that, that is their prerogative. But I do not feel comfortable being thankful for it. The business of racism, the business of oppression, the business of violent, anti Black, xenophobic hatred must not continue as usual, and for me to ask victims of racial violence to be peaceful according to my standards when I belong to the group that still controls the status quo would be a subtle form of violence in the name of nonviolence: nonviolence in name only.

Think back to our study of the Jesus story itself. Only a poor Jewish outcast could tell poor Jewish followers to nonviolently confront their oppressors. For a Roman citizen to tell a Jew to be nonviolent just after a violent Roman massacre of Jews would’ve been a special, blinkered breed of violence. Those in white society are in no position morally to approve or reject the choices made by those in communities of color, whether those choices be forgiveness or revolt, nonviolence or violence. As someone who belongs to the group still in control of our societies, I have no ground to judge those whose humanity the status quo is denying. As the nonviolent Jesus taught, it’s not for me to focus on the dust that may or may not be in someone else’s eyes. I need to “first take the beam out of [my] own eye.” These are the kinds of feelings I am navigating today.

When we consider the historical context of the Jesus story, we see the wealthy classes economically abusing the poor. Herod’s plan was to deliver Israel through economic wealth at the expense of the poor; Pilate oversaw Roman political oppression of the Jewish people; and the High Priest Caiaphas monetarily benefited from both of these abusive structures. He added “God’s” blessing to the abuse and allowed the Temple to be co-opted in the stronger’s domination of the weaker. Jesus threatens this trifecta and is executed on a Roman cross.

James Cone’s monumental book, A Black Theology of Liberation, affirms how Jürgen Moltmann describes the resurrection. Cone writes, “Moltmann is correct when he speaks of the resurrection as the ‘symbol of protest.’”

The resurrection is God’s “NO” to the systems of oppression that lynched Jesus. Yes, Jesus forgave. And the resurrection is God’s further response—a decided NO to the violence Jesus was victim to on the cross. The status quo executed Jesus because he stood in solidarity with the oppressed and those who had been “Othered.” In the resurrection, God stood in solidarity with Jesus in this and stood against the violence meted out through the cross.  Everything accomplished in the cross was undone and reversed in the resurrection.

Whenever the status quo desires people of color to remain passive in the wake of horrific white violence, Martin Luther King, Jr. is always drug out of the grave and co-opted. If only the system knew how subversive and critical of the system King really was, I do not think they would tout him so readily. Listen to King speaking at the funeral service of three of the four children killed as a result of racist violence in a church in 1963. Speaking of three of these children, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, and Cynthia Diane Wesley, King said:

“They say to each of us, black and white alike, that we must substitute courage for caution. They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly . . .”.(emphasis added.)

So what about what Jesus taught in Matthew 5? What he taught and demonstrated in his life is not a nonviolence of self-denial that he imposed on the victims of his day. It was oppressors who he called to deny their lust to victimize others. Jesus’ nonviolence for the victims is not self-denying, it is self-affirming. Their “selves” were already being denied by their oppressors. Rather than harnessing the oppressed with an enemy embrace, or demanding they reconcile with their “enemy” before their “enemy” becomes a friend, Jesus’ nonviolence empowers those being dehumanized with a way to affirm their humanity through nonviolent, enemy confrontation. Reconciliation may happen down the road, yet it is a reconciliation that follows enemy transformation.

As I have said in previous weeks, the Jewish people faced disproportionate violence from Rome. If they reacted to Rome with violence, Rome would raze Jerusalem to the ground, much as white Charleston residents burned down Emmanuel AME church in the 1800s after Denmark Vesey’s attempted slave revolt. Jesus empowered the oppressed to choose a nonviolence that they could apply even if they were grossly outnumbered. Its primary goal was not reconciliation but the transformation of the enemy.  Again, any reconciliation would only come after their enemies were transformed. Ultimately, Jesus’ nonviolence has the goal of liberation for everyone. King called this the “double victory” of liberating both the oppressed and the oppressors. But we must note that liberation for the oppressors is radically different from the liberation of the oppressed. The oppressors choose to perpetuate dehumanization, whereas the oppressed have dehumanization chosen for them. Both need to be set free from injustice, but liberation means very different things to each side.

Lastly, Jesus’ nonviolence is not concerned whether we make waves or “remain peaceful.” It is not about maintaining the society of the oppressors. Jesus’ nonviolence is grounded in solidarity with the oppressed and a solid rejection of the oppression of the oppressor. Jesus’ nonviolence offers the oppressed a self-affirming, enemy-confronting, non-peaceful nonviolence. Scholars such as Walter Wink, Marcus Borg, and others have shown that, culturally understood, the three examples of nonviolent protest Jesus gives in Matthew chapter 5 are nothing less than “cheek” defiance, public nakedness, and a refusal to follow the oppressors’ rule. (See Jesus and Nonviolence by Walter Wink, chapter 2; as well as the presentation The Way of Enemy Love). Jesus’ nonviolent protest in the Temple flipped tables and scattered livestock. It most certainly disrupted “business,” and it might have even involved some damage to the property of those who were facilitating oppression in the temple. Jesus’ nonviolence was not passive. Jesus’ nonviolence shut down the business of oppression in the Temple. Jesus’ nonviolence is rooted in love, even enemy love, yet it is enemy love with the goal of liberation, and it will neither settle for nor stop at anything less.

This week, I don’t have much more than this to share: this is what’s on my heart. My heart hurts for the nine families whose loved ones were taken from them much too soon. I don’t have a neat little HeartGroup Application, I don’t have a quippy ending, and I’m asking the followers of Renewed Heart Ministries to simply do this:

Engage and listen to those whose existence in our societies is elementally different from your own, because they don’t share the privileges that most of us are oblivious to. This is not the time for censure or smug approval. It is the time to listen to those whom we have failed to hear.

This week more than ever,

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. One shared table, many voices, one new world.

I love each of you and I’ll see you next week.

The Seven Last Sayings of Jesus; Part 2 of 9

 

Part 2 of 9

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

BY HERB MONTGOMERY

Wooden Rosary

 

And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). —Mark 15.34

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema
sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). —Matthew 27.46

No saying of Jesus in any of the Gospels has produced more controversy than this one.

Rather than debating whether Jesus truly felt forsaken or not, I believe we need to ask ourselves why Mark (and Matthew) would include this while later gospels would not.

Mark wants us to embrace Jesus as the Messiah, the son of David, the son of man of the Jewish restorative hope [1]. Remember that in Mark’s gospel, the title “son of God” did not mean “second member of the Godhead.” Rather, this was the return of a king to Israel. King David was Israel’s original “son of God.” To call Jesus by this title was to make the connection between Jesus and kingship! This is the one that would liberate Israel from her oppressors and put all injustice, oppression, and violence to right. (Rome also referred to some of the Caesars as the “son of God.” Some of the early followers of Jesus in Acts would subversively call Jesus the “son of God” in this context as an act of noncooperation with Rome, but this would come later.)

Early in the telling of the Jesus story, one of the chief objections to the claim that Jesus was the king, the son of God, the Messiah, was that Jesus was actually crucified by the oppressors, the Romans.

Within Judaism in the first century, for would-be messiahs to end up on Roman crosses meant that their claims to messiahship were false. They had failed! We see from the early letters attributed to Paul that being put on a Roman cross in first-century Judaism was also equated with Deuteronomy’s mention of being “put on a tree.” [2] (However, this would have been a contemporary application, as Deuteronomy was referring to a very different practice than crucifixion.) This would have been the argument: Jesus could not have been the Messiah. He could not have been another “David,” another “son of God,” [3] a new “king.” Rome had defeated him, executing him in the fashion in which Rome executed all political threats, and Jesus had died in a fashion that, according to the Hebrew scriptures, clearly reveals this would-be messiah to also be “cursed of God.” Jesus was a false messiah and his crucifixion proves this in these two accounts.

Mark addresses this objection head-on (and Matthew follows him in doing so).

How does Mark do this? He reaches back to an experience in which David, the King of Israel himself, also appeared to be forsaken, but discovered this was very much not the case.

The use of Jesus’ crucifixion as proof that Jesus could not have been the Messiah, the return of Israel’s king, must have been a very common objection. The psalm in which David expressed his own wrestling with what seemed to be his apparent forsaking by God was used over and over by first-century followers of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 27, verses 39 & 43, he clearly alludes to David’s God-forsaken psalm:

Matthew 27.39—Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads

Matthew 27.43—[“]He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’”

Psalms 22.7-8—All who see me mock at me; they hurl insults at me, they shake their heads; “Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

John too, in chapter 19, verse 24 of his Gospel, quotes directly from David’s God-forsaken Psalm:

John 19.24—So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says, “They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.”

Psalms 22.18—They divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke quote from this section of David’s God-forsaken psalm, in part:

Matthew 27.35—And when they had crucified him, they divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots;

Mark 15.24—And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

Luke 23.34—And they cast lots to divide his clothing.

Even the author of Hebrews quotes directly from David’s God-forsaken psalm, placing David’s words in the mouth of Jesus:

Hebrews 2.11-12—For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”

Psalms 22.22—I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters; in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.

Lastly, in his Gospel, John correlates David’s God-forsaken psalm with Jesus’ dying words:

John 19.30—When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is accomplished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Psalms 22.31—And proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has accomplished it.

All of this shows that it was very common among the early followers of Jesus to use David’s God-forsaken psalm (Psalm 22) to defend the claim that, like David, Jesus was the “son of God,” [4] Israel’s King, the long-awaited Messiah, the return of the anointed one5, the Christ.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Mark would make use of this psalm, too, in his Gospel. It’s rather ingenious, actually. At first, David appears to be forsaken, but by the end of the psalm he discovers that this was a false conclusion and that it only appeared to be so. David sang that God had not forsaken him, that God had not abandoned him:

Psalms 22.1—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?

Psalms 22.22-24—I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you . . . For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has NOT hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help. (Emphasis added.)

If David, King of Israel, could have gone through an occurrence in which, to all appearances, it looked as if he was forsaken and yet in reality he was not, then also Jesus, King of Israel, could go through an occurrence in which, to all appearances, others might judge that he had been God-forsaken, and yet he not be.

Notice in Mark’s Gospel the way Mark aligns King David’s experience with King Jesus’ experience:

They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

Mark 15.22-24 (Emphasis added.)

Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.

Psalms 22.16-18 (Emphasis added.)

It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. They crucified two insurgents with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also hurled insults on him.

Mark 15.25-32 (Emphasis added.)

All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.He trusts in the LORD,” they say, “let the LORD rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”

Psalms 22.7 (Emphasis added.)

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

Mark 15.33-34 (Emphasis added.)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Psalms 22.1 (Emphasis added.)

Remember that the point is to link Jesus’ experience to David’s. If David could go through an experience in which he appeared to be forsaken by God but wasn’t, and could still be Israel’s king, then Jesus too could go through an experience in which he appeared to be forsaken by God but really wasn’t, and could still be Israel’s king!

This is why I believe that Psalm 22 was relied upon so heavily by the early Jesus-following community. It was their way of addressing the objection, produced by Jesus’ crucifixion, to their claim that he was the long-awaited Messiah, the return of their king. This is how they could proclaim that although Jesus had been crucified, he was still Lord.

Today, historical and textual critiques argue about whether these words were actually said by Jesus or were supplied apologetically by Mark. Either way, it matters little. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that these words are actually original to the historical Jesus. If Jesus had quoted from Psalm 22 on the cross, we must assume that he too would have known the entire psalm, and either used it as a source of comfort, reassuring himself that it only looked as if he was God-forsaken but that he genuinely was not, or he could have been quoting this psalm to answer the derision of those who mocked him, saying that his crucifixion did not disprove his claim to be their King, as David had gone through a similar experience of appearing to be forsaken but not being so. What seems obvious to me is that Jesus could not have genuinely felt forsaken by God while quoting this psalm, because he would have known how it ends:

Psalm 22:24—For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.

Mark ends his crucifixion narrative with the proclamation of a Roman centurion:

Mark 15:37-39—With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Emphasis added.)

Mark, who from the beginning of his Gospel had centered the Jesus movement in Galilee as opposed to Jerusalem, described the religious leaders in Jerusalem mocking the claim that Jesus was their “king” while this Roman centurion, a gentile, “gets it.” Remember, to a first- century Jew (and also to a Roman, for that matter), the title “son of God” was not a religious title, but a political one. It meant that this one was the king.

Did Jesus actually say these words? There is no way to prove it conclusively.

Did Jesus actually feel forsaken? Whether these words were original to Jesus or were Mark’s narrative device, it is very unlikely either way, given the entirety of Psalm 22, that Jesus said these words as an expression of truly feeling that he was forsaken.

Did the God of the Jesus narrative actually forsake Jesus in this story while Jesus was on the cross? Absolutely not! The narrative element of the resurrection will show that the God of the Jesus story was standing in solidarity with Jesus every step along the way, over and against those who were executing Jesus (we’ll address this in Part 9).

What does this mean for us?

As a theist, have you ever felt forsaken by your God when the established authority stood against you, claiming God was on their side? Don’t trust appearances. Just as the early followers of Jesus were not to trust the way things appeared on the night Jesus was executed, we are not to trust the way things may look for us when we stand up against the religious, economic, or political domination systems of our day. It may appear that you are presently on a cross, presently forsaken by your God, but your God has not abandoned you. Don’t lose the hope and assurance imparted by the resurrection.

HeartGroup Application

  1. Go back and contemplate the times in your life when you felt as if your God had forsaken you. Allow the Jesus story to rewrite that narrative in your heart. Allow yourself to see yourself as not forsaken, but only appearing to be so. Don’t trust in how things appeared at the time. Choose to believe your God had not abandoned you, but was with you all along the way.
  2. Journal the paradigm shifts you experience as you go through this exercise.
  3. Share with your upcoming HeartGroup what you wrote down.

We need not fear standing up to injustice, oppression, and violence in our time. We need not fear standing up against the religious, economic, political, or social domination systems of our day. As Jesus’ followers, we stand in the light streaming from the tomb! That light tells us that the domination system of Jesus’ day could not stop him, even on the cross. Jesus is still out there, still recruiting, still calling those who will stand up and follow his lead as he shows us a way to a new world, whispering . . . “follow me.”

Until the only world that remains is a world where Love reigns. Many voices, one new world.
I love each of you.
I’ll see you next week.


 

1. Daniel 7.13-14—In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

2. Galatians 3.13—Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” Deuteronomy 21.22-23—If anyone guilty of a capital offense is put to death and their body is exposed on a pole, you must not leave the body hanging on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God’s curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. John 19.31—Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.

3. Psalms 2.7—I [David] will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father.

4. Psalms 2.7—I [David] will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have become your father.

5. Psalms 2.2—The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against his anointed [David], saying; Psalms 18.50—He gives his king great victories; he shows unfailing love to his anointed, to David and to his descendants forever; Psalms 20.6— Now this I know: The LORD gives victory to his anointed. He answers him from his heavenly sanctuary with the victorious power of his right hand; Psalms 23.5—You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows; Psalms 28.8—The LORD is the strength of his people, a fortress of salvation for his anointed one; Psalms 45.2—You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever; Psalms 45.7—You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy; Psalms 84.9—Look on our shield, O God; look with favor on your anointed one; Psalms 89.20—I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him; Psalms 89.38—But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one; Psalms 89.51—the taunts with which your enemies, LORD, have mocked, with which they have mocked every step of your anointed one; Psalms 105.15—“Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.”; Psalms 132.10—For the sake of your servant David, do not reject your anointed one; Psalms 132.17—“Here I will make a horn grow for David and set up a lamp for my anointed one.

Liberation Descending in the Form of a Dove

The Liberation dove and the difference between nonviolence and peace.

By Herb Montgomerywoodendove

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9–11) 

This week I’d like to invite you to step back into a world that revolved around Jerusalem within the first century, and to draw your attention to a few significant details in Mark’s retelling of Jesus’ baptism.

Especially focus on the spirit’s descent in the form of a dove; Jesus’s declaration of Sonship; and “the Voice’s” declaration of love for Jesus, with whom he is “well pleased.”

Some Observations

Let’s first tackle this declaration of Sonship.

Jesus’ favorite title for himself was the Son of Man. He uses this title for himself more than any other within the four canonical gospels. The roots of this title, and its apocryphal usage, go back to Daniel chapter 7. In Daniel 7:13–14 we find,

As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

Jesus took this text, held dear by an oppressed people who themselves dreamed one day of world domination,[1] and announced that he was this Son of Man finally come. However, the world he was bringing was going to look a little different to what the Jews had expected (more on this in a moment).

This is the cultural significance to a first century bestowal of the title “Son of God” within a Jewish context. The one declared to be “Son of God” would be the new king of Israel just like David of old. This was the “Son of Man” who would be declared the king (“Son of God”) of an everlasting kingdom. (Jesus, though, would even turn the notion of human hierarchies, including “kings” and “kingdoms,” on their heads.[2])

Notice the use of “Son of God” for the world-dominating King of Israel:

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed [David], saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision. Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me [David], “You are my son; today I have begotten you.” (Psalms 2:1–7, emphasis added)

The title of “God’s Son” was a deeply politically charged title within the culture of oppression for first century Jews.

Mark knows the political significance of what he is retelling. He pushes the point home even further by mentioning the phrase “with you I am well pleased.” This, too, was a politically charged phrase within an apocryphal context. Notice the book of Daniel’s point, which the foreign kings, through uncomfortable means, came to know:

And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the wild beasts of the field, and they shall feed thee with grass as an ox: and seven times shall pass over thee, until thou know that the Most High is Lord of the kingdom of men, and he will give it to whomsoever he shall please. (Daniel 4:29, LXX, emphasis added)

And he was driven forth from men; and his heart was given him after the nature of wild beasts, and his dwelling was with the wild ox, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven; until he knew that the most high God is Lord of the kingdom of men, and will give it to whomsoever he shall please. (Daniel 5:21, LXX, emphasis added)

Mark is ensuring that his audience does not miss the point when he calls Jesus the son of God. This is the return of the long-awaited king of Israel, the son of God, the one in whom God is pleased to give the kingdom.

Now comes the first twist in Mark. The spirit of the Lord descends on Jesus just as it did on the Judges of old who, according to the ancient stories, repeatedly delivered the Hebrew people from foreign oppressors.[3] But rather than a violent portrayal, such as in the book of Judges, this delivering spirit of the Lord descends on this new “judge/deliverer” in the form of a nonviolent dove.

A DOVE!

The Jesus narrative announces the arrival of a new world where humans are no longer going to practice dominance over other humans (much to the dismay of those who longed for the day when Jerusalem would rule the world[4]), a world that will be birthed through the nonviolence of a dove.

I do not mean that this world will be born peacefully. No, this new world will not come in peace to the status quo. It will discomfort the status quo. It will challenge the status quo. It will even shame the status quo.[5] This is a world that will turn the present world upside down.[6] This is a world where those who are last in the present order of the world will be first, and those who have been privileged as first in the present order will be treated equally with the last.[7] It will provoke the present order to pick up a sword to defend itself.[8] Yet it will remain resolute. It will triumph over raised swords with dovelike nonviolence that will set the present order of things on fire.[9]

And what hope does this deliverance, this liberation that comes in the form of a dove, bring?

A new order. A new world. A new humanity where the presently marginalized, excluded, and oppressed are blessed while the insiders, the privileged, the powerful, and the advantaged are invited into an existence that is, at bare minimum, problematic for their current status quo (see Luke 6:20–26). This is a world where radical transformation is offered to oppressors, while radical liberation is offered to the oppressed. (Although it looks different to both, it genuinely is liberation for both those who are on top as well as those who are at the bottom.) This is a new world where privilege is not simply offered to those to whom it was previously denied, this is the arrival of a world no longer founded on the very principles of privilege and subordination. This is a humanity where, regardless of race, gender (male or female; cis or trans), wealth, education, or orientation, we see and embrace one another as part of ourselves. Each a beautiful reflection of the divine in a human kaleidoscope of wonder. No more us and them. We begin to discern how we are all siblings, all children of the same Creator, destined to sit around that same family table once again.

Mark’s Gospel does not begin with a Jesus who settles metaphysical, ontological, and cosmological debates. This is a Jesus who appears by a river along side of an announcement of the arrival of a new world where everyone is welcome, where everyone will be treated with equity and justice, which will bring beautiful liberation descending in the form of a dove.

HeartGroup Application

  1. This week I want you to contemplate the difference between peace and nonviolence. Yes, peace is the end goal. Yet, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is reported to have said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” We must not mistake the disruption of the current order of things as somehow being a negative. The dove is nonviolent. Yet it does not come in peace to the present order. It seeks to subversively undo the present order. True, it would rather have its own blood shed than stain its hands with the blood of another, yet blood is shed—its own. Conflict between the present order and the new is where this path begins. And although the present order may place martyrs on crosses, the narrative doesn’t end there. The present order will melt in the fire of the radically (and sometimes counterintuitively) different ethic of the liberated new world proclaimed in the Jesus narrative.
  2. Journal what you discover as you contemplate the difference between peace and nonviolence.
  3. Share what you discover with your upcoming HeartGroup.

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns. Keep living in love, loving like Jesus.

I love each of you dearly.

I’ll see you next week.

  1. “At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the LORD, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they shall no longer stubbornly follow their own evil will” (Jeremiah 3:17). “In days to come the mountain of the LORD’S house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2).
  2. “But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves’” (Luke 22:25–26).
  3. “The spirit of the LORD came upon him, and he judged Israel; he went out to war, and the LORD gave King Cushan-rishathaim of Aram into his hand; and his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim” (Judges 3:1). “But the spirit of the LORD took possession of Gideon; and he sounded the trumpet, and the Abiezrites were called out to follow him” (6:34). “Then the spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites” (11:29). “The spirit of the LORD began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol” (13:25). “The spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart barehanded as one might tear apart a kid. But he did not tell his father or his mother what he had done” (14:6). “Then the spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and he went down to Ashkelon. He killed thirty men of the town, took their spoil, and gave the festal garments to those who had explained the riddle. In hot anger he went back to his father’s house” (14:19). “When he came to Lehi, the Philistines came shouting to meet him; and the spirit of the LORD rushed on him, and the ropes that were on his arms became like flax that has caught fire, and his bonds melted off his hands” (15:14).
  4. “But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves’” (Luke 22:25–26).
  5. “And if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (Matthew 5:40).
  6. “When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also’” (Acts 17:6).
  7. “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, ‘Call the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.’ When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:8–15).
  8. “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:34–38).
  9. “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10). “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11–12). “For everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49). “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49)!

Why Christians Should Be the Last People on Earth to Justify the Use of Torture for the Protection of National Security

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by Herb Montgomery

“You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”—Caiaphas (John 11.50)

Substitute the word “tortured” in place of the word “die” in the above passage and you’ve got quite a provocative story.

I’m presently alarmed at hearing how many Christians are justifying America’s use of torture, saying things like, “They did what they had to do to protect the American nation.”

The first time I heard those words, the words of Caiaphas rang in my ears. This mentality, this logic, this philosophy, this way of reasoning should be the last for any follower of Jesus, for it was this way of reasoning that led to the death of our Lord. It’s this reasoning that killed Jesus.

It’s this line of reasoning that led to the torturing of your Jesus. It’s this line of reasoning that led to your Jesus being bound and “blindfolded,” made to stand within a circle of men and guards who “spat in his face,” “slapped him” repeatedly, “struck” him, shouting “insults,” tauntingly endeavoring to intimidate him by asking him over and over to tell them, “Who struck you?”[1] And this was only by the ecclesiastical structure.

Jesus was charged with suspicion of insurrection[2] against the Roman Empire and then turned over to a group of Roman soldiers who had no knowledge of the preceding case. The soldiers didn’t know Pilate believed he was innocent. If Jesus was standing before them he must have been guilty, and they were required to follow orders. After all, the peace of Rome (the Pax Romana, Rome’s national interests) was at stake!

So the military soldiers of the Roman Empire did to Jesus what they did to all suspected insurgents. (Remember that torture and crucifixion was reserved for the political enemies of Rome.)

The whole cohort of military soldiers was gathered around Jesus. They “stripped” him and made him stand naked in front of them all. After they chained him to a post and tortured him, they dressed this insurgent in the royal garb of an opposing empire. Then they taunted him, spat in his face and struck him repeatedly upon his wounds. [3]

Then they led him away to be torturously executed.

Yes, it’s ugly to consider—but this, the torture of your Jesus, is where your philosophy that torture is necessary to protect national interests leads.

The resurrection of Jesus is God’s critique of Caiaphas’ justification of using violence, including torture, for the purpose of protecting national interests (“Better for one man to die than the whole nation destroyed”—John 11.50). When Jesus died as a result of Caiaphas’ methodology, the entire philosophy of justifying violence for national preservation was unmasked. By God resurrecting Jesus, God is, once and for all, unequivocally critiquing the way of the empire, torturing suspected threats included. The resurrection locates God within the narrative. God was not with Caiaphas, protecting Jewish national interests. God was not with Herod, protecting economic interests of the wealthy. God was not with Pilate, protecting Roman imperial interests. The resurrection reveals that God was in the one shamefully tortured and suspended on a tree at the orders of superiors and at the hands of those who were simply following the chain of command. The resurrection is God’s action over and against the torture and death of Jesus as a necessary evil for national security. In the resurrection, God undoes and reverses the torture and death of Jesus and makes known for all to acknowledge, “I’m in solidarity with this one whom you tortured.”[4]

The narrative of the death and resurrection of Jesus is saying to us that this entire philosophy is flawed, for if even God were to show up and be perceived as potential threat, a suspected insurgent, even with due process, the system would torture and murder God, too.

As Mark Van Steenwyk recently stated, “In case Christians need reminding, we worship a suspected Middle Eastern insurgent who was tortured.”

It is always the fear of a foreign threat that drives the methodology of violence, including torture. In the 16th century, it was fear of the Turks taking over Europe that led to the torture and murder of the Anabaptists who spoke out against violence in the name of national interest. In Jesus’ day, it was fear of the Romans that caused Jesus’ Jewish audience to reject his critique of violence. In our time, Martin Luther King Jr. was quickly assassinated when he added a critique of the use of violence for the protection of national interests in Vietnam to his platform of racial equality. Gandhi, too, was murdered when his nonviolence was seen as no longer a tool for national interest, but as a threat. It was this fear of foreign threat that has also radically changed the face of Christianity for the last 1,700 years.

Let me tell you a story. For the first 300 years of Christianity, Jesus’ followers were a nonviolent people who felt it was better to have their own blood shed than to have their hands stained with the blood of another. As Christianity began to exponentially grow, this became a problem to the Roman Empire in the fourth century—for if everyone became a Jesus follower and embraced Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence, who, then, would protect the national interests of Rome against foreign threats? Everyone would become a noncombatant.

Thus began the long and much disputed history of the Constantinian shift within Christianity, where Christianity simply became the tool of the empire.

But let’s imagine for a moment that the national interests of Rome in the fourth century had never compromised Christianity. As Christianity continued to grow, more and more Roman citizens would have embraced Jesus’ teachings on nonviolence.  Rome would have eventually fallen to foreign invaders. But the Christians would still have been present, and they would have continued to grow exponentially. Eventually, the new foreign empire would be facing the same challenges to its national interests that Rome had faced and would fall to its foreign threat. But, again, the Christians would still be present and still continue to grow. The third empire coming in contact with these Christians would eventually, too, be facing the same dilemmas.  This history would be repeated over and over, until, eventually, you would run out of empires, and Jesus’ new world would have been the last one standing.  All empires and national interests (beasts and dragons; see the book of Revelation) would have been overcome by a Lamb—not by a sword, but by a cross.

Would many Christians have died in the process? Absolutely. Yet they would have died with the hope of a resurrection into this new world once it became unobstructed. This is why Jesus emphatically said that the way we are going to change the world is through crosses not swords. Remember, crosses were only used by Rome for those suspected of being a threat to her nation interests.

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.’” (Matthew 16.24, emphasis added.)

“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14.27, emphasis added.)

What does this all mean to American Christians today?

What if America, like Rome, has to fail for Jesus’ New World to succeed? Which allegiance would you choose? Would you remain a Jesus follower, or would your American patriotism and the protection of America’s national interests be of greater value? In other words, would you give up being an American to follow the ethical teachings of Jesus?

As Jesus followers, we are to call the nations to embrace the new world that has been founded by this Jesus.[5] When his followers historically have genuinely followed Jesus’ teachings, they have always been seen as a threat to the national interests of whichever empire they were living amidst. They were accused of turning society “upside down, ” as acting “contrary” to the interests of the Roman “empire.”[6] Rather than calling Caesar “Lord,” they proclaimed Jesus was “Lord.” (Acts 16.31.) Rather than calling Caesar “King” and “Son of God,” they proclaimed Jesus as “King” and “Son of God.” (Acts 17.5–7, 9.20.) Rather than justifying actions for the preservation of the “Pax Romana” (Peace through Rome), they proclaimed the “Pax Jesus Christo” (Peace through Jesus Christ). (Acts 10.36.) The refused to subscribe to Rome’s propaganda as being the “Savior of the World,” but instead proclaimed Jesus as the “Savior of the World.” (1 John 4.14.)

For all of these reasons, Jesus followers should be the last to justify the use of torture by any nation to protect that nation’s national interests. Not only was our Lord tortured and killed as a result of this way of reasoning, but Jesus also said we, as those who announce the new world founded by Jesus, we would also be seen as threats to our respective national interests, and tortured and killed as well.

“Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” (Matthew 24.9, emphasis added.)

Please, my fellow Christians here in America, stop justifying America’s use of torture.

“Love your enemies.”—Jesus, The Gospel of Matthew

“In everything do to others as you would have them do to you.”—Jesus, The Gospel of Matthew

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns …

I love each of you.

I’ll see you next week.

1. “Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?’” (Matthew 26. 67–68.)

“Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him.” (Mark 14.64–65.)

“Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, ‘Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?’ They kept heaping many other insults on him.” (Luke 22.63–65.)

“When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, ‘Is that how you answer the high priest?’” (John 18.22.)

2. “But they were insistent and said, ‘He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.’” (Luke 23.5.)

3.  “Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.” (Matthew 27.27–31.)

“Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.” (Mark 15.16–20.)”

“And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and striking him on the face.” (John 19.2–3.)

4.  “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know—this man, given to you according to the definite plan and purpose of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2.22–24.)

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear.” (Acts 2.32–33.)

“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2.36.)

“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors, has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, but God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.” (Acts 3.12–16.)

“Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’” (Acts 4.10–11.)

“The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Founder and Savior.” (Acts 5.30–32.)

“You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” (Acts 10.36–43.)

“Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to

have him killed. When they had carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people. And we bring you the good news that what God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus.” (Acts 13.23–38.)

5.  “Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.’” (Matthew 28.18–17, emphasis added.)

“That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’” (Acts 23.11, emphasis added.)

“Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (Revelation 14.6, emphasis added.)

“Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” (Revelation 15.3–4, emphasis added.)

“To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all the peoples, the nations, and the languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7.13–14, emphasis added.)

“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb … the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. … On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 21.22–22.2, emphasis added.)

6.  “While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’” (Acts 17.5–7, emphasis added.)

7 Reasons Why White Christians Should Be Standing in Solidarity Right Now With Their Brothers And Sisters Of Color by Herb Montgomery

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Over the last few weeks, I have witnessed a very disturbing pushback from individuals I respect. This pushback is against the Black Lives Matter movement born out of the stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and many more.

I’d like to offer a few reasons why I am convinced that as white Jesus followers, our place is beside our brothers and sisters within the Black Lives Matter movement.

1. Jesus’ New World Is Not Color Blind

Whenever racism is discussed, you will always have a few well-meaning people who seek to dismiss the conversation by saying, “I’m color blind. I don’t see color. There is no such thing as race. We are all part of the human race. The more we talk about this, the more we continue to keep racism alive.” Part of that statement is correct. Yes, we are all part of the human race, but the idea that talking about a problem somehow keeps the problem alive is misinformed at best. We can’t fix a problem without talking about it. Racism will not go away by ignoring it. Not to mention that there is a significant difference between a white person saying, “We are all part of the human race,” in an effort to shut down a discussion on racism, and a person of color saying, “We are all part of the human race,” in an effort to open up the discussion and address the blind spots of privileged white people. One is insensitive and perpetuates racism; the other does not.

My black friends will be the first to tell you that there is nothing wrong with seeing their color or their race. It’s part of who they are, and there is nothing wrong with their race that I shouldn’t see it. It’s a huge part of their identity. The problem is when we treat one another as “less than” based on their race. THAT is racism.

Racism is a social construct created to divide human beings from other human beings in order to privilege some at the cost of others. When monarchies were thrown down and people began to believe that “all men are created equal,” hierarchy could no longer to be rooted in the bloodlines of kings and queens. So hierarchy took a new form. A new idea was created. This idea was that some races are superior to others, and this is how hierarchical privilege lived on.

Jesus’ new world is a world where there will be equity and justice between the races. It will not be a world where race does not exist. And thank goodness we will not all be white.[1]

2. Jesus Was About Liberation

Out of all the Old Testament pictures of Yahweh that Jesus could have chosen, Jesus chose the Advocate God, the Liberator of the Oppressed.[2]

Jesus chose to stand in a deeply oppression-confronting, prophetic lineage.[3] Each of the prophets made his respective privileged class uncomfortable by calling for systemic change as each stood in solidarity with the oppressed.

James Cone, in his book God of the Oppressed, states, “Any interpretation of the gospel in any historical period that fails to see Jesus as the Liberator of the oppressed is heretical.” This has grave implications for us as Jesus followers. We are called to be liberators, too! This is why Cone goes on to say, “Any view of the gospel that fails to understand the Church as that community whose work and consciousness are defined by the community of the oppressed is not Christian and is thus heretical.” (Emphasis added.)

Gustavo Gutiérrez, in his landmark book, A Theology of Liberation wrote, “The gospel itself contains the seed of liberation from all things that oppress.”

3. Jesus’ Liberation Is From Systemic “Sin” As Well As Private

One of the deepest disconnects for many of my white friends is that they still are looking at these stories emerging from the black community as isolated and individual occurrences without connecting the dots. They want to debate the intricacies of each case individually without stepping back and looking at the big picture. If we will stop and listen first, we will discover that our fellow Christians of color overwhelmingly see these cases not as disconnected, but as one example after another of an entire systemic problem. The stories of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice somehow hit the news and caught everyone’s attention, but they are not isolated occurrences. These stories are symbolic of the larger experiences—the daily experiences for people of color.

We follow a Jesus who came to liberate us from systemic sin as well as personal or private. I want to share two more statements from Gustavo Gutiérrez:

“Grace moves individually AND socially.” (Emphasis added.)

“Sin is evident in oppressive structures, in the exploitation of man by man, in the domination and slavery of peoples, races and social classes.”

When we focus on liberating individuals from personal sin while ignoring systemic sin, we create a reality that is deeply problematic. Let me try and illustrate why. Imagine systemic sin within a society as an automated locomotive train racing down the tracks. We are all on this train together. We as individuals may not participate personally in the operation of the train, yet we are still on the train with everyone else as it is moving along.

Someone can choose, privately or personally, to be a Jesus follower, but that person is still a member of a much larger society around him or her that is racing down a track. Just because the person is not racist doesn’t mean he or she is not on an automated train that is. As a white follower of Jesus in society, I may be completely unaware of how vastly unfair the societal structures are. Or, I may know, but choose in my private life to be different. But the train we are on is still moving us all together down the tracks.

Some will ask, “If we just focus just on healing hearts, won’t we heal the systems as well?” It’s a beautiful thought. It’s simply not that automatic. John Newton, the slave trader who wrote “Amazing Grace,” did not look at the slave trade after his conversion and simply say, “Eh, it will take care of itself if we keep converting souls.” No, he intuitively saw the difference between systems and the people who live within those systems. Just because he was converted didn’t mean the system had changed. He immediately went to work changing the social order of slave trading in his society. (*****This paragraph has been corrected here*****.)

If one is privately a follower of Jesus, than one should publicly be involved in ending systems of oppression and privilege. We must purposefully, as Jesus followers, be swimming against the current—swimming upstream, if you will forgive the mixing of metaphors. It’s not enough to be neutral; we must actually be anti-racist. We must be intentionally standing against present racial inequality, while putting on display a world that could be radically and racially different. That the current train is moving down the tracks and remaining neutral or privately non-racist isn’t enough. We must privately and publicly be anti-racists.

Neither is it anti-police to want law enforcement systems to be fair. Today, we live within an automated racist system (train) without racists (conductors). Therefore, if we are going to be following a liberating Jesus, we, like Jesus, must seek to take apart racist systems as well, even if we don’t personally think we ourselves are being racist.

As Peter Gomes stated, “Social sin does not differ from private sin: both stink in God’s nostrils.” Jesus came to heal us from more than individual and private sickness. We must not only embrace the private healing and shun the public healing. Jesus came not only to heal the heart but to heal our sick, social structures as well.[4] (I’ll come back to Jesus’ healing motif in #7.)

4. Jesus Shut It Down

In Mark’s gospel, we get a little tidbit that is most often overlooked.

“Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (Mark 11.11, emphasis added.)

When Jesus arrived at the temple, it was already too late in the day for his temple protest to accomplish his desired result. So he had to go back to Bethany, spend the night and come back the next day, when there would be a sufficient amount of people to make shutting down the temple sacrifices an effective demonstration. (Imagine if Jesus had had Twitter.)

Luke tells us that as a result of Jesus shutting down the temple, the priests began “looking for a way to put Jesus to death.” And it would not be long before the temple police showed up at night with swords and clubs to arrest Jesus.[5] (Talk about police brutality.) During Jesus’ trial, Jesus was even subjected to police brutality according to John’s gospel.  “When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” (John 18.22 ) We can respond to this two ways. We can either say Jesus should have known how to talk to law enforcement respectfully, or we can see Jesus as not being disrespectful, but that there was a much more deeply systemic problem here with a very long history.

James Cone, again in his book God of the Oppressed, writes, “The only meaningful Christian response is to resist unjust suffering and to accept the painful consequence of that resistance.”

Jesus, in shutting down the temple, had “resisted” the oppression of unjust exploitation and ecclesiastical abuse, and now he must “accept the painful consequence of that resistance.” To their violence, he must respond by turning the other cheek. He must love his enemies—and even seek to restore them. He must do whatever it takes to endeavor to win them away from their own enslavement to systemic evil—even if it is through death and resurrection.

This is where the power, not of Jesus’ death, but of the resurrection of the Jesus narrative, takes center stage. Jesus’ death is nothing more than yet another lynching by those at the top of oppressive systems when their privileged way of life was threatened (economic via Herod, political via Pilate and religious via Caiaphas).

At the moment of Jesus’ lynching, Matthew tells us: “the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Matthew 27.51).

The priests claimed God dwelt at the heart of their temple, at the heart of their system of oppression. But when the curtain that covered the central room of their temple, where they said God dwelt, was torn in two, it was seen that the room was empty. No “presence.” No “ark of the covenant.” Only an empty room, uncomfortably announcing the absence of God.

Now, place alongside this the story detail of the resurrection—where the torn curtain tells us where God was not. The resurrection tells us where God actually was. God is not at the heart of that system of oppression. The resurrection reveals that God was in solidarity with the one being lynched. Whether it is civic violence (Pilate), religious violence (Caiaphas) or economic violence (Herod), or what today is racial violence at the hands of law enforcement, the Jesus story puts on display that the presence of God is not found within the most exclusive holy places belonging to those systems of oppression. The true dwelling place of the presence is found in the one shamefully suspended, lynched on the “hanging tree” at the orders of those oppressive systems. In other words, God is standing, and always has stood, in solidarity with those our systemic injustice is oppressing. No matter what white theologians say, oppressive systems are not of divine origin, but actually capable of lynching God, too, if God were come as one among us and be viewed as an intrusive threat to such systems.

We have before us the story of an innocent man, born into poverty, who questioned authority and was unjustly executed because of it. Through religiosity, the story has lost its impact. Yet it is the story that is repeated in every Eric Garner.

“The cross was God’s critique of power—white power—with powerless love, snatching victory out of defeat.” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree.)

5. Jesus Taught Us How To Protest Civil Justice Issues Effectively

Jesus gave us three examples in the Sermon on the Mount of how to protest injustice both nonviolently and effectively. Please notice that “peaceful protest” and “nonviolent resistance” are not always the same. There is a subtle difference between passive nonresistance taught by those in positions of privilege because they would like to have their lives left undisturbed and what Jesus taught as nonviolent, de-centering and discomforting noncooperation that endeavors to disturb and wake up oppressors to their participation and perpetuation of systemic injustice. Let’s look at those three examples.

The first was the turning of the left cheek to be struck as a social equal instead of being humiliatingly backhandedly slapped on the right. This was a demeaning act whereby a supposed superior (master over slave, husband over wife, parent over a child, Roman over Jew, man over woman) purposed to humiliate and dehumanize. This is especially relevant in matters of race today. At its heart, racism dehumanizes, saying some races are “less human” than others. In Jesus’ example, a blow in retaliation would have most definitely invited escalating retribution. But in offering the left cheek, the one being dehumanized showed that the supposed inferior defiantly REFUSED to be humiliated in such a way. And with the left cheek now bared, the one struck was effectively stating that if a blow was to be given, it would have to be given on the proper cheek with a closed fist, which would have been an acknowledgement that the one struck was the social equal of his or her striker. Jesus is giving the one struck a nonviolent way to protest the intended dehumanization of the oppressor.

The second example was of standing stark naked in a court setting as if to “shame” an oppressor. Whether we like it or not, Jesus is endorsing in this example public nudity as a valid form of nonviolent protest.

And the last example is of putting the Roman soldier in the uncomfortable bind of causing him to break his own law by allowing the voluntary carrying of the conscripted burden a second mile.

In each of these examples, Jesus is putting the oppressed person in charge of the moment while exposing the exploitative system and decentering, shaming and discomforting the oppressors. Jesus was teaching nonviolent ways for oppressed people to take the initiative, to affirm their humanity, to expose and neutralize oppression. Jesus is demonstrating nonviolent ways in which people at the bottom of society or under the thumb of systemic oppression can learn to recover their humanity while at the same time reach out to redeem and restore those who are their “oppressors.” (I have written more about the cultural context of these three examples here. )

These were methods whereby oppressed people (such as the Jews under the Romans) could overthrow systems of injustice through waking their oppressors to their own victimhood to systemic injustice and winning their oppressors away from these systems to standing in solidarity with the oppressed.

This is what Martin Luther King refers to as the “double victory”:

“We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process and our victory will be a double victory.” (Christmas 1957.)

This is especially why white Christians most of all should be standing alongside people of color at this moment in America. It is time for white Christians to proclaim the liberating power of Jesus in putting on a display of how Jesus woke them up to their own victimhood to systemic injustice as perpetrators of racial inequality. It’s time for white Christians especially to put on display a Jesus who has set them free to now stand in solidarity with those their white forefathers disadvantaged, marginalized and oppressed. THIS is what it means to announce the new world that has arrived in Jesus.

We must not close our ears, as some have done, by saying, “Well, maybe there is something wrong, but they are destroying their own neighborhoods. How does that help?” I want to go on record that, as a Jesus follower, I do believe that nonviolent protest is a force more powerful than violent protest. But it’s not my place as the white person who is benefitting from systems of oppression to dictate how those who feel harmed express their frustration. As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Let’s assume King is right. What isn’t being heard? Yes, there are looters, but this happens every day on white Wall Street as well. We cannot use this as an excuse to tune out the legitimate groaning of a group of people who are trying to say that their experience in the world is very different than ours.

Those who benefit from white privilege must take great care not to do more damage by writing off the voice of the protestors because of a few who become violent. It smacks of what Broderick Greer tweeted recently: “So the loss of property is more important than the loss of Michael Brown’s life? #capitalism.” It is not the place of white Jesus followers to critique the voice of the black community who is giving voice to its oppression. A Jesus follower of color may do this, but as a white Jesus follower, I cannot. I am disqualified by my place of privilege within this system. No matter how sincere my critique may be, it comes across as only desiring to have my place of privilege not be made uncomfortable. As white Jesus followers, our place is to mourn with those who are mourning, lament with those who lament, march with those who march nonviolently, and to participate alongside people of color in nonviolent demonstrations. (The sit-ins of the ’60s have now become die-ins.) All the while continuing to ask ourselves, “What are we not hearing?” Before we judge, we must genuinely listen.

Again, I do believe nonviolence is a force more powerful. Yet it is not my place as a person of privilege to critique the oppressed. That only breeds further oppression. I’m not justifying violence protest; I’m simply saying we should care more about the voices who feel they are not being heard, voices who feel that their only option is violence. We should care more about the value of those voices than the value of our property.

6. Jesus’ “Kingdom” Is Not Of A Mere “Spiritual Nature”

When Jesus said to Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.36), he was not saying that his kingdom is “spiritual” rather than this worldly. This is the tragic mistake of dualism. Jesus’ kingdom is not “OF” this world—meaning, his kingdom is not from this world. It doesn’t operate the way kingdoms of this world operate. It’s a kingdom that is really an upside-down kingdom—an un-kingdom, so to speak.

Jesus also refers to it as the kingdom “of heaven.” He does not say that his kingdom was in heaven; rather, it was of or from heaven, and had come to earth.[6] And its arrival contained significant implications for the present social structures of his day. These implications are outlined in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. With this, Jesus was not telling of a future, post-mortem heaven one could be assured of by experiencing personal, private, individual spiritual renewal now; rather, Jesus announces that if you are hungry, weeping, morning, or hated because of the present system, this new world he had come to found was especially for you. It was a message of liberation now for the presently oppressed. The arrival of Jesus’ un-kingdom marked the beginning of a new world of restoration, liberation, redistribution and a rearrangement of how life on earth was structured. (See Luke 6.20–26.) (I give more detailed explanation of how Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount was announcing liberation to the oppressed here.) This is why Jesus’ followers of the first century were seen as such a threat to the elite and privileged of their day. If Jesus’ followers of the first century were endeavoring to only promote a “spiritual” kingdom, Rome would have never given it a second thought. But instead, those at the top of their social conventions felt especially threatened by this new Jesus movement.[7]

Some say, “Well, this all sounds too political.” Let me say “political” doesn’t go far enough. Not only does Jesus’ new world confront political systems, it confronts social systems, ecclesiastical (religious) systems and economic systems as well. Wherever there is oppression, Jesus stands in solidarity with the oppressed being the beacon of liberation from, yes, both private and social evil.

Notice how politically, socially, economically and ecclesiastically challenging the early Jesus movement really was.

In protest to calling Caesar “Lord” they proclaimed Jesus was “Lord.” (Acts 16.31.)

In protest to calling Caesar “Son of God” they proclaimed Jesus as “Son of God.” (Acts 9.20.)

In protest to calling “Pax Romana” (Peace through Rome), they proclaimed the “Pax Jesus Christo” (Peace through Jesus Christ). (Acts 10.36.)

In protest to Rome being called “Savior of the World,” they proclaimed Jesus as the “Savior of the World.” (1 John 4.14.)

Jesus called us to make disciples of the nations. We are not to only call individuals to follow Jesus, but systems, structures of the nations as well.[8]

“All nations” includes America. As Jesus followers, we are to call the nations to abandon their abuse of humanity and follow the teachings of Jesus as well. This is radically different than calling on America to enforce Christian values (often by the sword). This would be an abandonment of the teachings of Jesus by the Christians themselves who called for such. This is a call for America, as well as all nations, to no longer be conduits of oppression, to no longer depend on systems of injustice, but to submit themselves to the liberating new world that has arrived in Jesus, too.

7. Jesus Came To Heal The World

Jesus emphatically taught that his purpose in coming to this world was to heal it.[9]

Nowhere in the gospels do we ever find Jesus going around trying to get people to say a special prayer so they could go to heaven when they died. Jesus wasn’t focused on getting people to heaven later, but on bringing heaven into people’s lives in the here and now, today! For Jesus, salvation meant healing. And when he sent his first followers out themselves, he told them not only to proclaim the good news of a radically new world, but to “heal the sick” as well.[10] There are more sicknesses in this world than mere physical sickness. There is social sickness, ecclesiastical sickness, political sickness and economic sickness. (For more on this, you can check out the presentation I gave, A Time For Change, here.)

Jesus died to liberate us, not from the evils of a future, disembodied age, but to “set us free from the present evil age.” (Galatians 1.4.) White Christians—praise God for the exceptions—historically have been too busy saving people’s souls for eternity to even consider the bondage to social injustices and oppression that their potential converts are under in “the present.”

What Would Jesus Have You Do, Right Here, Right Now?

Some have said, “Why don’t we just focus on Syrian Christians who are suffering at the hands of ISIS in the Middle East, rather than civil, racial equality issues here in America?”

To those I would ask, “Why assume that racial inequality here is not affecting your brother and sister ‘Christians’ here?”

In all actuality, the question itself is born out of an experience only rooted in white theology. White theology is not the standard, default, “real” theology. There is no such thing. There is no such thing as just “theology.” All theology is done from someone’s vantage point. It is time we start naming what has passed as “theology” as really “white theology,” and allow other voices, other theologies that are speaking from different vantage points, to be heard.

ISIS is rebellion against the oppressive empires of the West that are associated with imperial Christiandom. Nonviolent noncooperation or protest was never something Jesus offered to empires as a means of defeating insurrectionists, but something Jesus offered insurrectionists as a powerful means of overthrowing oppressive empires. (I write more about this here.)

But most importantly, the fight with ISIS, for most of us in the States, is far, far away rather than right in front of us. The fact that we would rather identify with Syrian Christians thousands of miles away rather than our fellow black Christians right here is very telling. But Syrian Christians are a safe distance away. We will likely never meet them. We will likely never have to wrestle with their narratives. We can speak about our solidarity with them without ever having to bear a cross (or a lynching tree) with any of them.

Right before us is a very tangible but costly option. The stories of our black brothers and sisters are stories that we cannot project our own stories onto to justify our solidarity with them. These stories call us, like none other presently, to embrace what has too long been labeled, even among Christians, as “other,” as “equal but separate.” It’s time to embrace the liberating narrative of Jesus and to choose, in solidarity, to stand against the systemic racial injustice around us.

We do not look at physical sicknesses such as cancer and refuse to search for a cure, saying, “This will not be solved till Jesus’ return.” Why should we do this with social, political, ecclesiastical or economic sicknesses? Why should we do this with the cancer of systemic racism?

“As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick.”—Jesus, Matthew 10.7–8

“And until the white body writhes with red rage, until the white heart heaves with black tremors, until the white head bows before yellow dreams and tan schemes and olive screams for a different world, any communion claimed will be contrivance of denial. A theologian—speaking of resurrection, in a body not bearing the scars of their own ‘crucifixion’? Impossible!”—James Perkinson, White Theology

“White Christians that refuse to affirm that #BlackLivesMatter are rejecting the concrete option for Christian Solidarity in the way of Jesus.”—Drew G.I. Hart, @druhart on Twitter

“If your success is defined by being well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference, then we don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders who love the people enough and respect the people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid and unintimidated, to tell the truth.”—Dr. Cornel West

“True peace is not the absence of conflict but the presence of justice.”—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The resurrection assures us that we need not fear the consequences of our engagement against systemic injustice, racial or otherwise.  We stand in the victory of Christ over all injustice, a victory that has already been won.

Please accept my humble apology for departing from our Advent series this week. This is on my heart. And, really, isn’t the coming of the one who set the oppressed free really what Advent is all about?

I love each of you. I’ll see you next week.

Till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns …

#BlackLivesMatter
#HandsUpDontShoot
#ICantBreathe
#GodCantBreathe
#JesusCantBreathe
#SolidarityJesus
#JesusShutItDown

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[1] “He governs the world in righteousness and judges the peoples with equity.” (Psalms 9.8.)

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Revelation 7.9, emphasis added.)

[2] “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4.18, emphasis added.)

[3]“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8–9.)

“God judges in favor of the oppressed.” (Psalms 146:6–7.)

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6.)

“How terrible it will be for those who make unfair laws, and those who write laws that make life hard for people.” (Isaiah 10:1.)

“Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed.” (Isaiah 1.17.)

“I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5.21–24.)

[4] “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world [as the political party of the Pharisees were desiring] but that the world, through the son, might be healed.” (John 3.17; sozo means healed, emphasis added.)

[5] “Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police and the elders who had come for him, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit?’” (Luke 22.52, emphasis added.)

[6] “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6.10.)

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5.5.)

[7] “While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, ‘These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.’” (Acts 17.5–7, emphasis added.)

[8] Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” (Matthew 28.18–17, emphasis added.)

“That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’” (Acts 23.11, emphasis added.)

“Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people.” (Revelation 14.6, emphasis added.)

“Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All the nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” (Revelation 15.3–4, emphasis added.)

“To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all the peoples, the nations and the languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7.13–14, emphasis added.)

“I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb … the nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. … On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” (Revelation 21.22–22.2, emphasis added.)

[9] “God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world [as the political party of the Pharisees were desiring] but that the world, through the son, might be healed.” (John 3.17; sozo means healed, emphasis added.)

[10] “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10.8, emphasis added.)

“And he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.” (Luke 9.2, emphasis added.)

Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10.9, emphasis added.)

What does the Advent mean if not Liberation? By Herb Montgomery

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He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. – Mary; Luke 1.52–55

As the season of Advent has begun, I find myself, this year, not so much needing the story to be “true” as much as needing what the Jesus narrative promises to be possible. By this, I do not mean that I need heaven to be real. I do not mean that I need an afterlife to be possible to assure me that this is not all there is. I do not mean that I need even our origins to be explained. What I mean is that I need to know that a world where there is no oppression, injustice, and violence against an oppressed people by those who are advantaged and privileged is possible, here . . . now.

The Jesus narrative, with all its challenges to us today, is proclaiming that this new world has actually begun. I’m also well aware that when the Roman Empire coopted the Jesus movement in the fourth century, in what many scholars call “the Constantinian shift,” what the Jesus narrative says to those who are oppressed became eclipsed and largely lost as the church (those by whom the Jesus narrative was taught) would eventually become the Empire itself and almost irredeemably attach the name of Jesus to one of the most oppressive structures in the history of the Western world. Even with the protestant reformation, “Christianity” today continues to be one of the most oppressive voices in the West regarding issues of race, gender, sexuality, and economics. How has that which claimed the Jesus of the Jesus narrative to be its central object of reverence veered so far from what that Jesus taught in regards to liberation?

From all the pictures of God within the Jewish scriptures that this Jesus could have chosen to characterize his movement, he chose an advocate God who liberates the oppressed.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4.1819, emphasis added.)

When John’s disciples came asking Jesus if he was really the one they had been looking for, this Jesus offers his work of liberation for those socially oppressed as the conclusive evidence.

He answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7.22).

Remember, those who were blind, lame, and deaf were not considered objects of compassion, but “sinners” being punished by God and thus oppressed as well by those who were seeking this God’s favor. (We do this socially as well. One of the ways we become “friends” with someone is to show ourselves to be against those who they are against as well.) Jesus came, instead, announcing God’s favor for those who were being oppressed and calling for oppressors to embrace this radically new way of seeing God and to begin standing in solidarity with the oppressed as well.

Notwithstanding all of the challenges that the narrative of Jesus’ birth produces for us today, we can trace this picture of an advocate God of liberation all the way back to the words of Jesus’ mother Mary.

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1.5254).

Let’s unpack this.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly

Mary first portrays the work of her son to be subversive to monarchy. Her son’s work would decenter a world that functions hierarchically where humans “reign” over other humans. We can see this in Jesus’ words to his disciples in Luke 22. “He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” Jesus came announcing the possibility of a world that does not depend upon hierarchical structures for it to function. Hierarchy rules coercively; love inspires compellingly. Jesus came with the message that we can live together without being “ruled.” Jesus cast a vision of a world inspired by the beauty of egalitarian love (Matthew 23.8) where each person treats every other simply the way one would like to be treated (John 13.35; Matthew 7.12).

It might be said that today, at least here in America, we no longer practice monarchy but democracy. Nevertheless, even within democracy, hierarchy is still practiced. Privilege and advantage cause those of a different race, gender, orientation, or economic status to be “ruled over” by laws and policies written by white, wealthy, straight, cisgender males like myself. What does it mean, within a democracy, for the “powerful” to be pulled down “from their thrones?” Those who wear the name of this Jesus should not be supporting the status quo, but subverting it, pioneering a new way of “doing life,” calling those at “the top” of a nation founded on privilege to follow this “dethroning” Jesus as well. It is my belief that there is no better place for this to begin than within Ecclesiastical structures themselves. Until religious hierarchy ceases to be practiced and protected by those who say they are following Jesus, the church is betraying itself. Until those who claim the name of Jesus begin themselves to follow this “dethroning” Jesus, we cannot even begin to dream of (much less pioneer) a world that is truly different. New hierarchical structures will simply replace old ones. The names of the streets will be changed, yet the same old ways of mapping those streets will remain the same.

He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

It would be well to remember the words of Jesus in Luke’s version of the Jesus narrative in Luke 6.2026:

“Then he looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.’”

Not as an outsider, but as one of us, Jesus had come to bring about a great reversal, a rearrangement, a redistribution of resources, here and now. Those who were presently poor, hungry, and weeping as a result of how the present society was arranged would be particularly blessed by the new world Jesus had come to found. Those who had been privileged, those who were rich, those who were well fed, those who rejoiced in the present structuring of resources would go hungry, would mourn, and weep.

Yes, Jesus came announcing good news to the disadvantaged, but it was not perceived to be good news by all. There were the few at the top of the political, economic, and ecclesiastical structures who viewed Jesus’ “good news” as a threat to be swiftly dealt with (see Mark 11.18 cf. John 11.4750).

As Peter Gomes in his book The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus writes, “Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which ‘niceness’ is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the end of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.”

And again,

“When the gospel says, ‘The last will be first, and the first will be last,’ despite the fact that it is counterintuitive to our cultural presuppositions, it is invariably good news to those who are last, and at least problematic news to those who see themselves as first” (Ibid.).

Today wealth and prosperity is taken as evidence of God’s blessing. Jesus did not teach this. Jesus taught that wealth and prosperity reveal an inequality in foundational structures that left some hungry while others were well fed. This new world pioneered by this Jesus was a world where “the hungry would be filled with good things,” and the stockpile reserves of the “rich would be sent away empty.”

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

The great hope of the Hebrew people was not to die and go to heaven, but that some day, on earth, all oppression, violence, and injustice would be put right. This hope was held to be precious by a people whose history was one of being the sweatshop workers of Egypt, then the conquered natives of the Babylonian Empire, and presently the victims of Roman colonization.

What Mary is announcing is that her son would be the liberator of her people from the oppressive presence of the then present Superpower of the known world. What Mary as well as many of the others within the Jesus narrative do not perceive is that this Jesus, whenever followed, would be the liberator of all who are oppressed in every generation. One needs only think of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for the evidence of this being true. What I find most ironic is that Gandhi, in being inspired to follow the teachings of Jesus in the “sermon on the mount,” found liberation from British Christians. And King, by doing the same, found liberation from white Christians in positions of privilege here in America.

What does this mean to us this Advent season?

For me, it means that as someone raised as Christian, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me first and foremost, seeing that Christians have been, historically, oppressive first and foremost. As someone who is mostly white, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of racism. As someone who is mostly male, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of male privilege. As someone who is mostly straight, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in matters of LGBQ rights. As someone who is mostly cisgender, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to confront me in regards to the threatening reality that my transgender friends live within every day. As someone who is mostly wealthy by global standards, I need to allow the Jesus story to confront me in matters of economics, especially in regards to justice for the poor. As someone who is mostly privileged, I need to allow the Jesus narrative to wake me up to the degree to which I am participating in oppression, even unknowingly, and to allow the beauty of this Jesus to inspire me to compassion instead of fear, and love instead of self-protection, and a letting go, instead of the death-grip grasp on my life as it presently is.

Change doesn’t have to be scary. For those at the top, following Jesus will change everything. But the beauty of the world promised by the Jesus narrative, I choose to believe, is possible. And it’s the beauty of this new world that wins me, at a heart level, to allow my present world to be “turned upside down” (see Acts 17.6).

Will it be costly? Of course it will be. But it’s worth it.

“The kingdom of heaven [this new world] is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13.44).

HeartGroup Application

1. As we begin this Advent season, let’s spend some time sitting with the living Jesus allowing him to open our eyes. As Rabbi Tarfon so eloquently stated, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

2. As you contemplate the injustice of the present world as contrasted with the justice of the new world promised by the Jesus narrative (see Matthew 6.33), journal what Jesus inspires you with.

3. Share with your upcoming HeartGroup in what areas of the world around us that Jesus has inspired you to want to make a difference.

Until the only world that remains, is a world where love reigns, may this Advent season mark a furthering and deepening of the world that babe in Bethlehem came to found.

Together we can ensure a better world is yet to come.

I love each of you, and remember the advocating, liberating God we see in Jesus does too.

Happy Holidays and Tikkun Olam.

See you next week.

The Footsteps of the Prophets by Herb Montgomery

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“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.”—Jesus (Matthew 5.11)

Luke’s version is even more pointed:

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets” (Luke 6.22–23; emphasis added).

The first question I’d like to ask is why were the prophets also treated this way?

The Prophets

Take a moment and look at what the prophets actually said and the reasons they were reviled becomes disturbingly clear.

In his judgment of Israel, Amos said:

Thus says the LORD:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way . . .
in the house of their God [the temple] they drink
wine bought with fines they imposed (Amos 2.6–8; emphasis added).

 

Isaiah spoke these words about Judah and Jerusalem:

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand?
Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. . . .
your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean. . . .
learn to do good;
seek justice,
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow (Isaiah 1.10–17; emphasis added).
And Jeremiah spoke thus against evil kings:

Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place. . . . But your eyes and heart are only on your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence (Jeremiah 22.3, 17; emphasis added).

 

For Jerusalem, Ezekiel and Micah had these words:

As I live, says the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy (Ezekiel 16.48–49; emphasis added).

 

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice,
and to love mercy [rather than sacrifice],
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6.8)
What were the prophets known for?

Defending those who were oppressed from those who were in a position of privilege.

The prophets spoke against New Moon festivals, Sabbaths, the Temple, and sacrifice, and they spoke up for those who were oppressed by the religiously pious. This vocal opposition would be enough to get anyone in trouble.

In short, the prophets abandoned their own positions of privilege within Israel and Judah and made room for the voices of the oppressed to be heard. The prophets called those who practiced “holy” or “sacred” oppression, injustice, and violence to listen to the stories of those who were trodden upon. In His sermon on the mount, Jesus calls his followers to do the same.

The question we have to ask next is who was it, do you think, who reviled, persecuted, uttered all kinds of evil against, hated, excluded, and defamed the prophets?

 

The Privileged Who Feel Threatened

The answer is the same in every era. When men and women speak up for those who are oppressed, those in positions of privilege, practicing their “sacred” oppression, will treat these prophets who give a voice to the oppressed this same way.

The cross and resurrection prove throughout eternity that God stands not in solidarity with those religious systems that crucify others religiously, politically, or economically, but rather with those who are suspended shamefully upon crosses.

This is God. This is the God revealed through Jesus.

Persecution

And as Paul so eloquently wrote, “all who want to live a godly [god-like] life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3.12).

Make no mistake. If others persecute you, it does not always mean you are doing the right thing. You may just be obnoxious. Persecution does not equal being on the right path. But being on the right path does equal persecution.

The world we live in is comprised of those on the top and those on the bottom, the underdogs. And when you choose to stand in solidarity with the underdogs, you will be targeted by those on top. Again, experiencing persecution doesn’t mean you are doing everything right, but if you are not persecuted, you may need to ask yourself why. Are you fitting in too neatly with those at the top of this world’s pyramids of oppression?

Do not think that you are to go and seek out or try and produce persecution. No, no. But we should abandon our own positions of privilege and call out for the voices and stories of those who are oppressed to be heard. This act alone will ensure that persecution ensues.

This week, when you witness someone being oppressed, whether it’s someone who is poor, or someone who happens not to have the right color of skin, or someone who does not have the “correct” anatomical appendage, or someone whom society has deemed as possessing a non-normative orientation, stand up for them. Call for their stories to be heard, and then get out of the way and let those stories be told.

What will be the result? Ultimately, the result will be a world changed by Jesus. But along the way, you will be, according to Jesus, reviled, persecuted, hated, excluded, and defamed and have all kinds of evil spoken about you by those who have not yet abandoned their own positions of privilege, those who have not yet heard for themselves the stories of those who have been so grossly mischaracterized and wrongly depicted.

It will be scary at first, but have courage. You will quickly find you are not alone. You stand in a long line of those who have gone before—a line filled with martyrs, apostles, and prophets, at the beginning of which stands Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Peter Gomes

The following paragraph is from Peter Gomes, an American preacher and theologian, about whom it was said that he was, “one of the great preachers of our generation, and a living symbol of courage and conviction.” (Harvard Gazette. 1 March 2011) Peter understood what it meant to walk in the shoes of those who are oppressed for he belonged to at least two communities that experience oppression in our societies—one because of his race, the other because he was gay. Pay close attention to his profound recapturing of Jesus’ Kingdom.

“Good news to some will almost inevitably be bad news to others. In order that the gospel in the New Testament might be made as palatable as possible to as many people as possible, its rough edges have been shorn off and the radical edge of Jesus’ preaching has been replaced by a respectable middle, of which “niceness” is now God. When Jesus came preaching, it was to proclaim the ends of things as they are and the breaking in of things that are to be: the status quo is not to be criticized; it is to be destroyed.” (The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus)

 

Enemy Love 

Lastly, I would be amiss if I did not close with this reminder.

Right after Jesus pronounces a blessing on those who will create many enemies because they follow Him, Jesus says:

But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat, do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6.23–36, #mercyratherthansacrifice).

Remember, we are not called to defeat those who benefit at the expense of others. We are called not to defeat them, but to win them. We are called to put on display the beauty of a world changed by Jesus. We are called to recognize where Jesus’ Kingdom is already at work, whether in principle or by name as well, and honor it. We are also called to inspire those who have not yet encountered and embraced Jesus’ revolution of justice, mercy, and love to rethink everything. We are to call for a reevaluation of the scripts we have been given and by which we currently play the game of life. And, lastly, we are called to challenge oppressive, unjust, and violent ways of seeing God, ourselves, and everyone else around us.

It’s what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called winning the “double victory”:

“I’ve seen too much hate to want to hate, myself, and every time I see it, I say to myself, hate is too great a burden to bear. Somehow we must be able to stand up against our most bitter opponents and say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. . . . But be assured that we’ll wear you down by our capacity to suffer, and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves; we will appeal to your heart and conscience that we will win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory (Martin Luther King Jr., A Christmas Sermon for Peace on Dec 24, 1967).

THIS is what it means to follow in the footsteps of apostles, prophets, and Jesus himself, according to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Certainly there is more at the heart of following Jesus, but there is most definitely not less than standing up for the oppressed.

The time is now. Don’t wait for there to be an easier time, for that time will only come when you are no longer needed. Won’t you take a stand, too?

“If you’re neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Desmond Tutu

 

HeartGroup Application

  1. Spend some time this week contemplating the following words of Jesus:

“The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?” (Luke 9.22–25)

  1. As you sit with Jesus this week with this passage, write down what insights, thoughts, questions, challenges, fears, or hopes Jesus may share with you.
  1. Share what you discover this week with your HeartGroup.

Wherever this finds you this week, may you—and may we all—stop striving to ascend to our own positions of privilege and begin, rather, speaking up for those for whose stories have yet to be heard. Till the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love each and every one of you. And, remember, God does, too.

See you next week.

 

Mercy Seeds by Herb Montgomery

acorn

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” (Matthew 5.7)

It’s back-to-school season for most this time of year. And on our morning drive to drop off the kids this past week (I have three kids of three different ages being dropped off at three different schools this year) we’ve been batting back and forth different ideas concerning the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve had some good discussions, as we’ve tried to take the Beatitudes out of the economical context they were originally spoken in and apply their principles to the context of elementary, middle, and high school. What we’ve found is that the principles are pretty universal. Everywhere you find an underdog, or those being marginalized, the Sermon on the Mount becomes exceptionally pertinent.

From listening to my kids, too, I’ve come to the conclusion that there may be no better testing ground for the ethics of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, no greater context to experiment with the truth value of these teachings, than high school.  But that’s a side note.

What I want you to see in this week’s focus text is the intrinsic “reaping what we sow” principle, especially in the context of mercy. The previous verse spoke about hungering for justice. The justice Jesus taught was not retributive, but restorative—not punitive, but redemptive. And the mercy we are to practice is not out of harmony with this kind of justice, and it does not need to be brought into harmony with this type of justice. Restorative justice and the mercy we are talking about this week are simply two sides of the same coin. They are both expressions of the same thing: love.

Let’s take an example from Jesus’ cultural context first. Many people miss the economic context of Jesus’ words today. Let’s say we have a wealthy creditor in the first century and a debtor who has defaulted on a loan. The creditor has every legal right to foreclose. But Jesus asked creditors to stop and look at the circumstances of their debtors and to choose a more economically rehabilitative and restorative option than foreclosure.

Let’s look at it from the perspective of the debtor now. Let’s consider those that are being oppressed by an economic system that they can never possibly recover from. (Think of the global debt crisis between superpowers and developing countries around the world today.) The temptation is violent revolution, something to reset the scales of capitalism. A “year of jubilee” by force, if you will. I’m reminded of Gandhi’s words: “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” Jesus is calling us to change the world through mercy.

What the Sermon on the Mount makes clear is that a new world (the Kingdom) is coming; and, in fact, it has already arrived. Jesus is Lord. And this new world is going to be a world where life is arranged very differently than the way it has been. This world, under the reign of love, is a “blessing” to those the present arrangement oppresses, and it will be a “blessing” to those who stand in solidarity with, and give a voice to, those who have been oppressed. Jesus is, in this week’s statement, giving us a way to this whole new world, this new creation—and that way is mercy.

For those who are being oppressed: set in motion mercy. I’m reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words in my favorite sermon ever preached: “So, if you’re seeking to develop a just society, they say, the important thing is to get there, and the means are really unimportant; any means will do so long as they get you there—they may be violent, they may be untruthful means; they may even be unjust means to a just end. There have been those who have argued this throughout history. But we will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means, because the means represent the ideal in the making, and the end in process, and ultimately you can’t reach good ends through evil means, because the means represent the seed and the end represents the tree” (A Christmas Sermon for Peace).

That may be the thing many revolutions miss. We are seeking to plant trees of justice without sowing the proper seeds: the seeds of mercy. For mercy awakens mercy, and mercy is the mother of justice.

For those who are in a position of privilege, even unknowingly: practice mercy.  Don’t justify injustice. Practice mercy and this new world, along with all the changes it will bring, will go much easier on you. Remember that the Sermon on the Mount is a blessing for some, but a curse for others (see Luke 6.24–25). This is the sermon that changes everything.

My kids are looking for the underdogs presently in each of their schools. Looking for those whom they can stand with, be an ally for, and make space for their voices to be heard. This week, whether it be in matters of economics, gender, race, social status, orientations, and/or normativity, I want to encourage you to be on the lookout for those disadvantaged by the present arrangement. I wonder whom Jesus will draw your attention to this week, whom you will get the opportunity to practice mercy toward, rather than sacrifice. And if you are oppressed, I know this part is the most difficult to believe, but the way to a world rooted in restored justice is not to passively enable continuation of the present injustice, but rather to direct restorative mercy that awakens in the hearts of those advantaged, and to listen to the voices of those who are not.

A new world is coming. It has already begun. Let’s go enlarge the Kingdom this week together.

HeartGroup Application

Whether you are in a position of privilege this week or a position of disadvantage, practice mercy. Experiment with it. Start out small and see what happens. As a person of privilege, it may open your eyes to a whole new world; I know it has for me. And I am very much still in that process. I can testify that the Sermon on the Mount has radically changed the way I see God, myself, and those—I’m ashamed to admit—that I used to condemn simply because they were different from me. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has changed everything for me. It has changed my life. I’m quite sure it has the power to do that for you, wherever it finds you, as well.

The oak tree is in the acorn. A just world is contained in the seeds of mercy, for the merciful will receive mercy.

1. This week, step outside of your normal routine and find an opportunity to practice mercy in a way that you wouldn’t normally.

2. Journal what happens as a result. If nothing happens, keep experimenting with it. If something beautiful does happen, write it down.

3. This upcoming week, share with your HeartGroup the stories of your experiments with Matthew 5.7 and the way of mercy.

Wherever you are right now reading this, keep living in love, loving like Jesus in the way he taught us to love, until the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

Next week, we’ll be looking at Matthew 5.11. And you won’t want to miss it.

I love each and every one of you. And remember, God does too.

See you next week.

Part 2 of 3 – Jesus and Women

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“Just then his disciples came. They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman” (John 4.27).

Last week we looked at Jesus and the “Us vs. Them” paradigm of the Jews and the Samaritans.  This week, I’d like to take a brief moment to notice the breathtaking way in which Jesus related to women, especially within a first century Palestinian patriarchal culture.

The disciples return and find Jesus speaking with a woman.  John tells us that the disciples were astonished at this.  The question I’d like you to ponder is why were they surprised?

Treatment of Women in the first century.

Last month in the eSight entitled Jesus Stops a Lynching, I made mention of the double standard that existed within the Torah concerning adultery.  Adultery was not defined as a male engaging in sexual relations outside of marriage, but as a married woman engaging in such.  In other words, if a married man had an affair with an unmarried woman it was not considered to be adultery because the woman did not belong to another man.  A man could only be committing adultery if the woman was married to another man.  The adultery laws of the Torah were not concerned with marital fidelity per se, as much as they were protecting the property rights of husbands to whom their wives belonged. Remember, women in this culture were looked upon as being the property of their husbands.  In John 8 we have a married woman about to be punitively punished for her unfaithfulness to her husband, and Jesus breathtakingly comes to her defense, disarms the crowd, siding with the woman about to be turned into a scapegoat, advocating for this woman against the religious male leadership.

The second example I’d like us to consider is the question about divorce put to Jesus in Matthew 5.  Remember, divorce laws in Jesus’ day were another example of male-dominance law.  Women could not divorce their husbands.  A woman was her husband’s property.  But, a man could divorce his wife.  What is remarkable is that under the Torah, a husband could divorce his wife for something as simple as burning his dinner, becoming less sexually attractive as she aged than the new younger options, or literally any reason for which the husband was no longer pleased with her.  This is how it was under Moses.  Jesus comes to women’s defense stating that, in the Kingdom, there is no reason for treating a woman unjustly.  You may be able to justify sending her away under Moses, but not so within the Kingdom that Jesus was coming to establish.  Let me say a word about Moses.  Moses was an improvement from where the Hebrews were in their unjust treatment of women (See Deuteronomy 24).  But, that was only as far as that culture could walk, at that time.  It wasn’t far enough. Jesus takes protecting women from injustice within marriages within a patriarchal culture to a whole new level by stating that the only reason a woman could be divorced was if she herself was martially unfaithful.  This was to protect men from being taken advantage of too, but notice that Jesus’ strict words about divorce arise from the backdrop of abuse of women in a marital context within a strictly patriarchal culture.  There was no egalitarian treatment of women within marriages during His day.

We could discuss the woman who was bent over that Jesus called forward into the males-only section of the synagogue to be healed on the Sabbath, or the woman, healed and then affirmed by Jesus, who violated the Torah and touches Jesus even though she has an issue of blood; but, what I want you to notice about all of the examples is the gender pyramid that existed in Jesus’ day and Jesus’ engagement with it.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about the economic pyramid structure that Jesus came to overthrow (see Luke 6.20-24).  I’d like you to consider the gender pyramid structures that existed in Jesus’s day as well.  Jesus had come to turn social pyramids upside down.  Those at the top of pyramids, in the places of privilege, would find themselves removed from these privileged positions.  While those at the bottom of these pyramid structures, who were slaving away to benefit those at the top of the pyramid, would find themselves liberated.  When it came to the gender pyramid in Jesus’ day, men were at the top and women were at the bottom.  In the Kingdom that Jesus came to establish, all of this was to be turned on its head, “upside down” as they said in Acts 17.6, where women and men would now be valued and treated equally.

Consider the story of Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Martha, who is slaving away at the bottom of the pyramid domestically that day, notices that she hasn’t seen Mary in quite a bit.  Wondering why Mary has left her to do all the “slaving” alone, she walks into the room to find Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus.  What makes this appalling for Martha is that this was a place reserved for men only.  Anyone could be in the room listening to Jesus, but women were typically at the back; then there were the men, and then, if you were a man who was aspiring to become a Rabbi, there was a special spot reserved for you.  Your place, as an aspiring Rabbi, was at the feet of the Rabbi who would be teaching that day.  Remember, being a Rabbi was a men’s only club and, therefore, the “feet of Jesus” was a place that would have been reserved only for men.  And yet, Martha finds Mary, abandoning her domestic place at the bottom of this social pyramid, and seated at the top, right there with Jesus.  What Martha is telling Jesus is that He should put Mary back in her place.  Jesus says, “Leave her alone.”  In Jesus’ Kingdom, women would no longer be relegated to a lower place than men.  Mary had chosen what was best, and she would not be denied based on her gender.

The parallels between the Genesis narrative of the fall and John’s narrative of the Resurrection also cannot be missed.  Both narratives take place in a garden.  Both narratives involve a woman.  But, where the Genesis narrative places the woman as the first to be deceived, the Resurrection narrative places the woman as the first to be enlightened.  She is then sent as an Apostle to the Apostles. She is the first person to proclaim the risen Lord; she is the first to proclaim that a whole new world has begun.  As followers of Jesus, we do not live in the narrative of an old fallen creation where the woman was the first to be deceived by the serpent.  Our story is the narrative of the Resurrection where the woman was the first to believe in the risen Lord.  The Female Narrative within the Hebrew culture has been redeemed through the Resurrection. Woman is now first into the new world!  Surely, the last (bottom of the pyramid) has become the first and the first (top of the pyramid) has become the last.

Some will try and use Paul to overthrow the Jesus story.  But, this is a misunderstanding of the subversive nature of Paul’s use of the word “submit.”  Paul told Jesus-following slaves to “submit” to their unbelieving masters, not because he believed in slavery, but as a subversive way to win over their masters so that they could become Jesus followers too, so that, once converted, the relationship between slave and master would be undone.  Paul uses this same word, “submit”, in relation to the kingdoms of this world as a subversive way to overthrow those same kingdoms, winning over the nations and the kings of the Earth so they would bow down as well to the King of kings and the Lord of lords.  And lastly, Paul speaks of women believers “submitting” to their unbelieving husbands (and vice versa) as the subversive way of winning unbelieving spouses to becoming followers of Jesus as well, where hierarchical authority structures even within marriage would be abolished for the egalitarianism of the Kingdom.

Now, let’s return to Jesus.  Jesus is not afraid to refer to the “maternal” nature of God, even within his own patriarchal culture. Yes, Jesus did speak of God as Father the majority of the time, speaking within His own male dominant culture, but at appropriately subversive and controversial times He also took care to speak about our Mother God as well. (Matthew 23.37; Luke 13.34)

There are undeniably two streams within the scriptures that Jesus followers hold in high regard.  While there is a clear patriarchal stream, there is another, very clear, egalitarian stream as well. (Galatians 3.28)  Jesus followers must discern whether Jesus is moving us away from the egalitarian stream to the patriarchal stream, or whether Jesus is moving us away from the patriarchal stream to the egalitarian one.  Which direction is the Jesus story moving us in?

Again, we can’t allow other sections of scripture to embolden us to ignore Jesus’ treatment of women.  Jesus simply stepped over the gender boundaries of his own day, ignoring them. For those who claim to be following this Jesus, the question we have to ask is are we following Him too?  This is not becoming more like the world.  It’s simply that the world has been listening, in this regard, to Jesus’ spirit, more than the church has.  If this is true, it would not be the first time.  And I’m sure, before the time of all things being restored, it won’t be the last.

“They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman.”  Why? Because Jesus refused to place women beneath Him.  Instead, Jesus believed God viewed, as well as treated, women with egalitarianism and Jesus was going to do so as well.  After all, if you’ve seen Jesus, you’ve seen the Father. (John 14.7-10, cf. John 5.19)

HeartGroup Application

1. This week I want you to spend some quiet time with Jesus contemplating what a world would truly look like in which women were treated the same as men.  Where people are evaluated on the value God places on them.  Where voices are heard based on content, not gender.  And where service is based on giftedness rather than gender.  Remember, we are called to put on display what the world changed by Jesus looks like and to give witness to the Resurrection that this new world has begun.

2. Ask Jesus to show you how you can put this new world on display in your own life, within your own sphere of influence.

3. Share with your HeartGroup what Jesus shows you.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, loving like Christ, until the only world that remains is a world where Christ’s love reigns.

I love you guys,

See you next week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part 1 of 3 – Jesus and the Samaritans

Jacob's_Well_1839

 

The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?” (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)  (John 4.9)

This week I want to begin a three part contemplation of the scene in John’s gospel that took place at “Jacob’s well.”  There are three ways we can approach this story.  The first thing to note is the cultural context and meaning within which Jesus was associating with the Samaritan. The second thing to note is that Jesus was speaking, not just to a Samaritan, but to a Samaritan woman.  The third thing is how Jesus relates to someone, regardless of who they are, someone who might have a sketchy past by which they define themselves and feel ashamed.  We’ll look at each of these over the next few weeks, but for now, let’s begin our contemplation with the first way to approach this story.

Who were the Samaritans in the First Century?

Original Split

The history of the Jews and Samaritans is a complex one, much like a divorced couple giving two different stories.  But one thing is for sure: their history is rooted in schism.  Samaritans claimed to be descendants of the tribe of Ephraim and Manasseh (as well as the tribe of Levi).  After the death of Solomon, the Kingdom split into two parts: the Northern tribes of Israel whose capital was Samaria, and the Southern tribe of Judah with its capital at Jerusalem.

Return From Exile

The schism continues within the narrative of the Jews returning to their land and being given permission to rebuild their temple.  When the Samaritans (remnants of the Northern Tribes after the dispersion of the Assyrians) heard that the temple was being rebuilt, they, as kinsmen, wanted to help.  “They approached Zerubbabel and the heads of families and said to them, ‘Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do, and we have been sacrificing to him ever since the days of King Esar-haddon of Assyria who brought us here.’ But Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the heads of families in Israel said to them, ‘You shall have no part with us in building a house to our God; but we alone will build to the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus of Persia has commanded us’” (Ezra 4.2-3). Zerubbabel, discerning that the Samaritans’ worship of Jehovah had, over time, become a syncretistic religion, worshiping Jehovah as well as other gods of the surrounding nations, considered these descendants of the Northern Tribes no longer “Israelites” and thus not “fit” for helping in rebuilding the temple.

Maccabean Revolt

The last straw was during the Maccabean Revolt, when under Antiochus Epiphanes a holocaust of the Hebrew people was attempted in an effort to Hellenize his entire kingdom.  During this time the Samaritans, desiring to be spared, repudiated all connections of kinship with the Jewish people.  They were spared and this, above all, was the source of hatred by the Jewish people in the days of Jesus.  Jesus over and over refers to this history within His ministry (see Luke 4).  Jesus not only wanted to teach the Jews to love their historical enemies the Seleucids (Sidon/Syria), He wanted the Jews to learn to forgive and embrace their Samaritan brothers and sisters as well.

Due to their rejection during the time of the temple’s reconstruction in Jerusalem, the Samaritans had built their own temple on Mount Gerizim.

Mount Gerizim was the original place of the binding of Isaac by Abraham, and possessed a rich tradition of worship within the history of the Hebrew people.

“When the LORD your God has brought you into the land that you are entering to occupy, you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal.” (Deuteronomy 11.29)

The Samaritans, like the Jews, in the time of Jesus believed in One God, Yahweh, the same God recognized by the Hebrew prophets.  They taught the Torah as it was given by God to Moses.  Yet they worshiped on Mount Gerizim which they believed was the true sanctuary chosen by Israel’s God, rather than the sanctuary at Jerusalem which was associated with Judah’s God.  It is true that in Jesus’ day, the Samaritan religious belief systems had become a hybrid of the worship of Yahweh combined with beliefs associated with the worship of other Gods.

In the time of Jesus, both Jewish and Samaritan religious leaders taught that it was wrong to have any contact with the opposite group, and neither was to enter each other’s territories or even to speak to one another.  Josephus also reports numerous violent confrontations between Jews and Samaritans throughout the first half of the first century.

What we have to recognize and be confronted by is that Jesus ignores all of this.  He sees Samaritans as children of God just like Himself and treats them accordingly.  This is why the Samaritan woman was so shocked:

“The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)”  (John 4.9)

Jesus repeatedly confronted the tensions between the Jews and Samaritans.  He told the story of a good Samaritan, whose actions were so at variance with Jewish religious leaders.  Jesus’ story describes a Samaritan leper who is the only one of ten lepers (the other nine being Jews) to say “Thank you” and worship Jesus.  He rebukes James and John for wanting to call down fire on the Samaritans and destroy them.  Jesus did not relate to Samaritans according the script He had been handed by His Jewish culture. He rejected the rules He had been handed on how to play the game.

Notice, the woman reveals how the Samaritans still claim to be descendants of Abraham, still followers of Moses.

“‘Are you greater than OUR ancestor Jacob, who gave US the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it?’”  (John 4.12, emphasis added)

To continue the dialogue.

“Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain [remember the Hebrew people originally worshiped on Mt. Gerizim before the temple was built in Jerusalem], but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You worship what you do not know [Both the Jews and Samaritans had been influenced by Hellenization by this time, so this was not a jab at the “hybrid” nature of the Samaritan worship. The Jews too contained some level of “hybrid” from Greek influence.  Rather the Samaritans believed the Messiah would come from the lineage of one of the Northern Tribes of which they believed they were descended]; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews [the Messiah was to come through the lineage of Judah and thus the Jews, yet be for all people]. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.  God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  (John 4.20-24, emphasis added)

Let’s unpack this a bit.

First, Jesus says the hour “is coming.”  By is now here he is saying that shallow outward signs rooted in space-time debates such as which mountain they worship on would not distinguish true worshipers. True worshipers would, through Jesus, worship God in Spirit and Truth.

Let’s look at what Jesus meant by Spirit first.  Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ use of “Spirit” here in John 4 is seen in 2 Corinthians 3 where he distinguishes between the Spirit of the Law with the Letter of the Law.  The original Hebrew people formed a community, centered in the teachings of Moses, to which certain promises had been made.  One did not earn a position within that community by following all the teachings of Moses.  One simply had to demonstrate a desire to join the community by endeavoring to follow its teachings.  Jesus comes to create a new human community, rooted in the Jewish community, but now centered around His own teachings.  Today one does not earn a place in Jesus’ new human community by following His teachings, but we do demonstrate that we desire to be a part of this community, and a part of this new world Jesus is creating, by endeavoring to follow the teachings of this Jesus in whom this new world is centered.  Jesus’ teachings are found in the Sermon on the Mount.  And although they are of the same “Spirit” of the “Law and Prophets,” Jesus’ ethical teachings are deeper, broader, and even more demanding at times, than Moses’ ethical teachings ever were.  Jesus’ teachings are a fuller revelation.  At times, following the Spirit of the Law in Jesus will be a deeper expression of the Letter found in Moses (see Matthew 5:21-28). Sometimes following the Spirit will be a direct contradiction to the Letter found in Moses. (See Matthew 5.38-43, as well as the woman of Luke 8, the woman of John 8, and the accusation of the early Jesus followers as being “lawless” according to the book of James.)  Which leads me to the next identifier, Truth.

John too contrasts the law that came through Moses with the Truth that came through Jesus.  What are we to make of this? It is true that both Jesus and Moses belong to the same moral trajectory.  Yet God through Moses was leading them as far as they could possibly be led in that time.  The Torah of Moses still included nationalism, polygamy, slavery, lex talionis (eye for an eye), the way of sacrifice (Matthew 9.13; 12.7), and violence against one’s enemies.  Jesus moves us further toward an understanding of God and the truth about God that eliminates all of these.  John states that you can have the Torah, yet still not truly see God until you meet Jesus (John 1.17-18).

There are some things between Moses and Jesus that are the same.  Yet there are some things within their teachings that are radically different. (In much in the same way I am teaching my 6 year old not to talk to strangers while I am teaching my 17 year old how to talk to strangers effectively.  Am I the same parent?  Yes.  Are these contradictory rules?  Yes.  Are my children in different places in their development and thus need different rules at different stages?  Yes.)

What Jesus is telling this woman is that He has come to initiate a new human community which would no longer be distinguished by external arguments over the Torah or the teachings of Moses (Do we worship on this mountain or that one?), but rather that this community would be centered around Himself, His teachings, which are from the same Spirit of the Torah, but offer a much Truer revelation of God, how God sees ourselves and how we are to see everyone else around us.

The woman finishes with:

“‘I know that Messiah is coming’ (who is called Christ). ‘When he comes, he will proclaim all things to US.’  “Jesus said to her, ‘I am he, the one who is speaking to you.’” (John 4.25-26, emphasis added)

Jesus said the time is Now!  This new community would no longer be defined by arguments over how to observe the Torah.  This new humanity would be centered around a new way of seeing God, ourselves, and others who inspire us to live according to the ethical teachings of Jesus found in His Sermon on the Mount.

Time is coming and Now is!

Christians, Jews, Muslims and Samaritans have all fought over this well, historically dug by Jacob.  Each has taught that it is wrong to associate with the opposite group. They have continued in the worship, not of the God of Jesus, but of the God of “us vs. them.”

Today, we must squarely face this first revelation of Jesus talking to this Samaritan at Jacob’s well to confront us.  Today we have Christians with different theologies who all claim to follow the same Jesus. We are told many times that it is wrong and even dangerous to associate with the “them” instead of just our “us.” A list of doctrinal truths and lifestyle behaviors has become the test of which ones are truly following God and who are not.  Today Jesus would say to this: “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem, but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we have multiple world religions.  Critics ask, “If all religions teach peace than why can’t they get along?”  They each teach, to varying degrees, that it is wrong or dangerous to associate with those who are of a different creed.  A creed has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say again, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today, we practice dividing the world between Jews and Samaritans by nationality. Consider the West’s attitude toward the Taliban: anyone who disagrees with this view is “sympathizing with the enemy” and probably a terrorist. Such disagreement must be met with violence. Anything less is unpatriotic or treasonable.  Tribal loyalty has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we practice dividing the world between Jews and Samaritans by economics.  Whether it is the refugee who appears at our border, or the foreign worker who threatens our jobs, we respond with territorialism rather than hospitality, self-interest instead of sharing.  Fidelity to capitalism has become the test of who are following God and who are not.  To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we practice dividing the world by race. It is appalling that any group bearing the name of Jesus would still practice segregation. We all drink from the same “Cup.” But some denominations still say that it is best for everyone not to integrate. In some areas, the complexion of one’s congregation is still the test of who are following God and who are not.  To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

Today we practice the way of dividing the world between Jews and Samaritan in matters of gender. I know of religious communities that teach that women should not be permitted to be in a position to teach men.  They say it’s morally wrong to place women in an egalitarian position with men.  One’s position on gender in religious leadership has become the test of who are following God and who are not. To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

And lastly, we see this way of dividing the world between the heterosexual majority and the homosexual minority.  Protestors carry signs that proclaim “God Hates Fags!”  “Love the sinner Hate the Sin!”  “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve!”  It is argued that “they” must be opposed or “they” will corrupt “our” children. One’s position on gay marriage has become the test of who are following God and who are not.  To this Jesus would say, “Neither this mountain nor Jerusalem but My ethical teachings in My Sermon on the Mount.”

In all the ways that we divide each other, ways that cause us to see others as “the enemy,” ways that echo the First Century’s divisions of Jews and Samaritans, we have forgotten the first teaching of Jesus: We are all children of the same divine parents.  On the inside, we are all the same.  Jesus died and was resurrected to save us all from the ways of Cains against Abels.  These divisions will one day cease.  One day we will all, once again, sit at the same table.  It’s this table practice that Jesus put on display in His ministry, and it was this table practice that got Him killed.  I know we are addicted to our exclusive clubs, but Jesus is offering us the privilege, in our present age, of putting on display what the beautifully restored inclusive age to come will look like. We are called upon to show how the world will look when transformed and restored by Jesus.

If Jesus were alive today, He would tell the story of the good Catholic (if He were among protestants, or the good Protestant if he were among Catholics, or maybe the good “both” if he were among Eastern Orthodox). He would tell the story of the good Muslim, the good Hindu, or the good Buddhist.  He would tell the story of the good terrorist, the good immigrant, the good “welfare recipient”.  He would tell the story of the good ordained woman priest or female preacher, the good gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer.

I know what your thinking.  You’re thinking “But, but, but, but . . .” Whatever is wrong with the “other” group you are having a problem with, remember, the Jews had persuasive arguments, rooted in the Torah, against the Samaritans as well, and yet Jesus ignored all of that and extended His invitation to them as well.

Whomever our “them” is, whomever we have labeled as “the enemy,” we are going to have to confront Jesus going into Samaria, stopping by the well to talk with this Samaritan, and inviting her to embrace Him as her Messiah. He broke every “us and them” rule that existed that day, and the question we followers have to ask ourselves is, do we?

Jesus is seeking to create a new humanity, centered in Himself, comprised of people of all our present ways of dividing ourselves. Are we helping Him, or are we standing in His way?  It is Jesus and His new world rooted in His Sermon on the Mount by which this new humanity will be defined.  Nothing else, and nothing less.  I have a sneaking suspicion that we choose to dived ourselves by these periphery standards to give us a sense of assurance in the midst of the fact that we are all, to a large degree, hiding from the fact that we find Jesus ethical teachings too radical to follow.  We are not following the Sermon on the Mount, so we have to come up with lesser things to distinguish others as different than ourselves by.  The very first teaching of Jesus is that we are to stop this way of dividing ourselves. We are all in a process.  And as we are in this process, we must remember that we are all children of the same God and that Jesus is seeking to restore and reconcile us all to Himself and to each other.  It was Jesus’ radical inclusivity that got Him killed.  We must be careful or we may one day see that the hammer and the nails are once again being raised, and in hands that belong to us.

HeartGroup Application

1.  This week I want you to spend some time with Jesus. Ask Him to show you whom your own “Samaritan” is that you feel should be excluded, shunned or simply not associated with.

2. Ask Him to show you what these people look like through His eyes rather than your own.

3. Journal what He shows you and share what you discover with your HeartGroup this upcoming week.

Next week we’ll look at the shocker: This wasn’t just a Samaritan, but it was a “woman” within the context of First Century, Palestinian, Jewish, patriarchal standards.

And the week after that we’ll look at Jesus’ relation to her, not as a Samaritan, nor as a woman, but as simply a human being with a past she felt ashamed of.

Stay with me over the next few weeks.

It’s a beautiful picture of God, a beautiful picture of how God sees each of us, and a beautiful picture of how we too are to see each other.  The picture will emerge, but we first have to fit together all the pieces of the puzzle.

Wherever this finds you, keep living in love, loving like Jesus, till the only world that remains is a world where love reigns.

I love you guys,

I’ll see you next week.