Tagged: Christ

How (Not) to be Patriotic (Part 2): Citizens of a Different Nation

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Peter writes,

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:9-12)

Here is another thing about living in Canada. We are obsessed with identifying with our countries of origin.

My grandfather on my dad’s side was a Dutch immigrant. My grandmother on my dad’s side was from Georgia. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a fourth generation Canadian, whose family came over from Scotland over a century ago. My grandmother on my mom’s side was, I believe, born in Canada, but her family was polish immigrants that moved from Poland to England then to Canada.

Yet, for some reason when people ask me, where does your family come from, I say, “I’m Dutch-Canadian.” My last name is “Boersma,” which means “farmer” in Friesian Dutch. I can’t speak that language. I have never been to the Netherlands, let alone to the province of Friesland. I can really only claim this ethnicity in a minimal way at best.

This year my wife and I got the long form census from the government. Personally, I was very excited to get it. I want to be represented in the statistics. Then my wife filled it out without me. I felt cheated. Anyways. If I were to fill that out, I would say: Ethnicity: White or Dutch or something like that; Citizenship: Canadian; Religion: Christian.

This is how our secular-cultural mindset has taught us to think. Religion is just something that effects this small area of your life. It is compartmentalized. It is something that goes on in your head. It only relates to one aspect of your identity.

That is not how the Bible sees it.

There is something powerful about what Peter is saying here. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation… Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

According to Scripture here how would we fill out the census?

What is your citizenship? I am a citizen of God’s holy nation, the kingdom of heaven.

What is your ethnicity? I am a descendant of Abraham. I am a member of his chosen people.

What is your religion? See questions (a) and (b).

What Peter is saying here is that because of the work of the cross, we are not just one religion. We are a new nation, a new people, a new ethnicity, a new family.

There is a fascinating dynamic in the Sikh religion that I think Christians could take a lesson from. When Sikhism as a religion broke off from Hinduism and Islam (it is essentially a kind of hybrid of the two), the began to forge their own identity.

Now if you know anything about Hinduism, it had a strong insistence on the caste system. You were born into a family associated with a particular profession of varying importance: At the top were nobles and priests, then soldiers, then various working classes. These classes were highly prejudicial. If you were born a farmer, you had to be a farmer, and you had to marry a farmer’s daughter. You could not become a priest or marry a priest’s daughter. Of course, priests entailed a level of respect that farmers did not get.

The Sihk religious leaders saw the oppression of the Hindu leaders over the people and tried to liberate their people from the caste system. They believed, similar to Christians, that all people are equal under God. In an effort to do so, they started removing their last names, which indicated what caste you were from, and replaced it all with the same last name. So, today, all Sikh men have the last name Singh (which means “lion”) and all women have the last name Kaur (which means “princess”).

Kind of neat in my opinion. I am not suggesting we all change our last names, but think about it this way:

What if on my driver’s license it did not say, “Spencer Boersma,” but rather “Spencer Redeemed-by-Christ,” (hyphenated of course), or “Spencer Christian.” Or something like that.

It would reiterate that our identity in Christ stands first and foremost.

In Revelation, Christians who preserve, it says, will have the divine name on their foreheads. That is a way of saying those that follow God are at one with his identity; they are extensions of his being, one with him.

Think about our identity that way.

Before I understand myself as Spencer Boersma, I understand that I am at one with the God who calls himself the I Am that I Am.

Before I understand myself as human, I understand myself as God’s creation.

Before I understand myself as male, cis-gendered, I understand myself as one with Christ.

Before I understand myself as White, Dutch, and all the other ethnicities a descend from, I understand myself as a child of the promises of Abraham, incorporated by faith not by works.

Before I understand myself as Canadian, I understand that I am a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.

In an early church letter, the Letter to Diognetus, Christians were described this way. “Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.”

Every homeland, a foreign land, and every strange land, a homeland. That is how Christians live.

When you realize that you are first and foremost a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, you take the good parts of our culture and your leave the rest behind. You are ready to do anything, go anywhere, and be anything for the sake of Christ.

Amen.

 

 

 

Peeing in Peace: A Sermon on the Transgender Bathroom Laws

 

 

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“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”

This is what a pastor told me as we sat chatting at his house for lunch after service several years ago. I spoke at his church and my message was on drawing close to the love of the cross. Recently a friend of mine then had came out to his church and was driven out. He went suicidal, and seeing the whole thing, I was outraged at those Christians. One of my points challenged them to stop their hatred and conditional love of sexual minorities and thus to truly embrace the fact that we are all justified by faith not by works.

I thought this would be a controversial sermon, but it was met with unanimous approval. One lady even came up to me and said, “Pastor, what a fine sermon. One day you will become the next John MacArthur!” I choose to take that as a compliment.

At lunch the pastor turned to me and expressed that he also felt challenged by what I said. He told me that he was doing door-to-door evangelism one day – God bless him! – and a person greeted him and let him come in. As he started talking, the person shared startling information. This person appeared female, but was actually “intersex,” meaning that while she appeared mostly female, she had both male and female genitalia. Neither she nor the pastor I spoke with shared specifics beyond that.

She turned to him and said, “Do you honestly think that if your church knew this about me that I would be welcomed in your church?”

The man sheepishly tried to respond, and as he did he looked around and saw the pictures of her family. She apparently had a lover, who was female, and they had a child.

Overwhelmed, he turned to her and said, “Honestly….nope, my church would freak out.”

So, he thanked her for her time and dejectedly left. And as he turned to me, he uttered a statement indicative of the grand mess the church with its uncritical beliefs has gotten itself into:

“I did not even know theologically that these people could exist.”

For him, he believed that there was male and female and that was it (which is a pretty bad way to read Genesis 1-2). If you don’t fall into those comfortably, it’s your choice, your fault. However, in doing so, his beliefs prevented him from not only reckoning with the basic facts of life: that intersexed people (and this is something different than transgender) exist and they were born with both genitals in some way. It also prevented him and his church from having grace on people it should have been showing grace to. He admitted to me with deep shame that his church was not prepared to love the unloved.

The way we talked about this person was a matter of ministry: is this person loved by God? Is there a place for her in our church? Those are the important questions of us as a church. However, people are talking about this issue in regards to politics…

Once upon a time our laws were blissfully naïve to the existence of the full range of the children of God. Women went to the bathroom that had a person with a dress in it; men to the one with a person in trousers. We are told that trans-people have always been around, and it seems like these people used the bathrooms that best corresponded to how they looked, and the watching world was none the wiser. If they did go to a bathroom that did not correspond to how they looked, they did so at risk of ostracization and even being beaten up.

Lawmakers did one of two things: institute laws that prevented trans people from using bathrooms of their current gender or institute laws that protected them, giving them the right to use the bathroom of their current gender. Either way, people were not happy.

Now, I am going to talk about a sexual topic today, which we have to say always makes people squirmy. Sexuality is a dimension of the human person that is closest to who we are at our most vulnerable. Therefore, we are the most guarded and sensitive about those topics.

Obvious proof of this: how many couples here even go to the bathroom while their spouses are in the bathroom with them? I don’t like to even with my spouse being near me, let alone another man, let alone anyone else. Thank-you very much.

There was an East Side Mario’s in Hamilton. In the men’s washroom, there were urinals. Anyways, I went to the bathroom there, and I found that the urinals were only about a foot apart. No barriers. Another guy came in. He obviously had to go. Came up to the urinal beside me, and started going. Our shoulders were touching. I couldn’t stop. He couldn’t stop. It was very traumatic for the both of us.

All of that is to say, matters like sexuality, we are more sensitive to. People naturally will get upset about these kinds of things no matter what people say. People make knee-jerk reactions based on their sexual-disgust feeling. Evangelicals are particularly susceptible to this. They are ironically “liberal” reading their experience of bodily shame into Christian ethics. Where guilt and shame-based preaching abides, evangelicals fixate on matters of sexual disgust as their core political concern, forgetting far more grievous social sins. I have heard evangelical pastors say really idiotic stuff like, “I am not homophobic; I just think the whole gay thing is disgusting.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted this when we visited the U.S. He thought evangelicals resembled gutter journalists, obsessed with what people did with their genitals to the neglect of all other ethics. I think that is more or less true.

So, keep that in mind, and now let me sketch out a timeline of this kerfuffle.

Most people don’t even know that the legal battle in Canada is a done deal. A transgendered person can use any public bathroom that they feel corresponds to their gender.

In Canada, in 2012, the NDP proposed Bill C-27, which amended the criminal code to protect other “gender identities.” If you remember the Conservative party was in power at the time. Over the next few years, it went through various readings, eventually being fully passed in 2013. What is interesting about his (and you can look up all the transcripts of debates and votes on the internet) is that the bill would not have passed if 30 some odd votes were not given by conservative MP’s. On most of the votes that happened on Mar. 20, 2013, the bills were passed by 150 to 130, give or take. The 20-30 votes that were needed to tip the bill into being passed came from the conservative party.

This means the party could have prevented the bill if its leader demanded uniformity (which he often did). This to me smacks of the lip-service conservatism that says it is pro-life but does nothing about it (Harper actually quashed his own MP’s from trying to talk about it), or in this case, says it is against a bill, but lo and behold, supplies just enough to get the bill passed, but not enough for it to look like the conservatives supported it.

I say that because I am very weary of any political party claiming to be the “Christian option” in this day and age. At least as far as I understand the conservative party in Canada, it does not seem like the definite traditional-Christian party anymore. It seems like a house divided at best. This does not mean the liberals are “the Christian” option either, or the NDP. Christians are called to affirm that Christ is King and all other politics authorities are secondary.

I find in politics there is very little integrity. Politicians refuse to admit their faults. They will argue their points, even if they know they are wrong. They will demonize their opponents to win. They often have ulterior motives: making a corporation rich or appealing to a voter base. For that reason, Christians should always keep politics at arms length. Only the kingdom of God will restore society, not a liberal utopia or conservative nostalgia. We are not going to build the kingdom of heaven by who we vote for.

At any rate, the Bill was met with interesting protests from trans individuals. Take for example, Brae Carnes (first picture below), who posted in male bathrooms, exposing the obviously problem of making all transgendered people go into bathrooms that did not match their identities. I don’t think any conservative would want a person that looks like the next two individuals in women’s bathrooms either.

The issue changes when it has a face doesn’t it?

I think intuitively when you see just how far transitioned these people are that it would not be a good idea to force them to go to the bathroom of their birth gender. But there are lots of transgendered people that do not look that much like their transitioned gender. For them, going to any public bathroom will still be dangerous.

Many conservatives did oppose the bill under the notion that it put women and children at risk. Potentially a predator could come into a woman’s bathroom and claim to be a woman, and refuse to leave. There are a handful of examples that show laws the protect transgendered people have been manipulated by sexual predators. For instance, a man claimed to be transgender, and used it to living in a woman’s shelter, committing acts of sexual assault. There are those examples.

Certain places in Canada installed gender-neutral, co-ed bathrooms. I remember using one of these bathrooms at University of Toronto. Apparently these bathrooms were quite unsafe. They certainly were awkward.

Then HB2 hit. While Canadians dealt with this debate rather quietly and civilly, as we often do, for good or for ill, but when things happen in America, it happens like singing a bad campfire song again: “Second verse same as the verse, a little bit louder a little bit worse!”

North Carolina passed the law allowing organizations liberty to enforce that a person ought to go to the bathroom of their birth-gender.

The company, Target, refused. They said, if you are trans-gendered, you can use whatever bathroom you feel meets the gender you feel. Note that they are merely exercising the rights that HB2 gave them.

Conservative family values lobbying organizations protested this and organized a boycott of Target of almost 1.1 million signatures. I think organizing a boycott like that is foolhardy. Even if you are morally outraged at Target, there are so many more immoral companies out there that Christians are not boycotting, so by doing this to Target, this portrays that Christians really have uneven standards.

Also, think about it this way: Would you appreciate a company refusing to sell to you if it knew your religious convictions? Lets say an atheist bakery refused to bake bread for church communion? We would be outraged at the pettiness. Yet this is why I cannot see those conservative Christians they would refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding as anything but petty.

In wake of this, two particularly disappointing things happened:

First is that there is a story of a woman, who had short hair and was athletic, was followed from the woman’s bathroom and harassed by Christians in a public place because they did not believe she was a full woman. Now Christians are the ones straight people need protection from!

Second, the leader of one of these family values political lobbyist groups, Sandy Rios of American Family Association, admitted in an interview that her organization actually sent men into women’s bathrooms to scare women and children into agreeing with her agenda. That is the height of hypocrisy. Her organization claimed to be about protecting women and children from men in their bathroom, yet they are the ones sending men into said bathroom all for the sake of their political agenda. What if one was, as they argued, a woman that was raped? Again, there is this odd necessity to now protect bathroom from Christians.

We should note that if this is true, the American Family Association has very likely put more men in women’s bathrooms than there are instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws. While there have been instances of sexual predators abusing transgender laws, these instances are very rare. With good reason: How many times do you think a predator can get away with doing that? Predators need absolute secrecy, and it seems like only the really stupid ones would try to do that.

But given the whole debacle, the whole thing is really quite sad. Just plain sad.

Personally, I find the conservative politics the most abhorrent. It is mostly because Christians often back conservative politics, so there should a higher expectation of moral integrity, which is not there. But perhaps it is my own disappointment with the party I was raised to support. While liberalism worships sexual liberty in a problematic way, Christians who support conservative politics routinely come off as condescending and apathetic towards others. Evangelicals routinely ignore basic science on matters of gender. The persistently make one issue about another. Do conservative evangelicals really care about transgender people? Or do they just want their political sensibilities validated and codified?

They sound like they just want the church to flex its muscles and the world to bow down to them and wave fans at them for being so right. That’s probably most sad part.

Personally, I would rather say, “I don’t know but I care,” then be obsessed with have all the right answers, and coming off like I don’t care.

I know Christian pastors that harp on this issue and don’t even know a single transgender person. These pastors are not acting like the priests of Christ but acting like pharisees of the law.

Those that do this forget some very important facts. They read their Bibles, but not the book of nature. This much I do know about the science: There are people – less than 1% but that is still quite a bit – that are born with different configurations of gender. Some are born being physically male but have within them ovaries. Some are born physically female, but have within them testes. They often don’t discover this till years later, and then they understand why they feel “different.” Some are born with both genitals, believe it or not. Some are born physically male or female, but their brains are hardwired to be the opposite. There are all sorts of other examples like this.

When I hear of unique cases like this, I turn to God and reaffirm the strange but blessed diversity of God’s image in humans. He made us all; he loves us all; he claimed us with the dignity that belongs to his children. The more we lovingly draw close to others different from ourselves, the more we see the divine image.

If they are born that way, there is the unsettling truth that I could have been born that way too. So could you. We can’t control the circumstances of our birth.

I could have been born feeling like a female within, and being drawn to “girlie” stuff as my parents looked on with confusion and concern.

I could have had a disappointed father that always made me feel like half of a “true man.”

I could have been the one mocked in gym class change rooms as my peers invented new insults.

I could have been married with kids, trying to live a normal life, but never feeling like “myself” around them, or anyone else for that matter.

I could be the one dying of confusion, despair, and even self-hatred of why I am the way I am.

If this could be any of us, we must follow Christ’s command to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

How would I want to be treated in public? Hopefully just to be left alone. What kind of world would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a just one. What kind of church would I hope there be for me? Hopefully a compassionate one.

What they go through could be what any of us could be going through, and therefore it is our obligation to care and do something.

I am amazed at how many people don’t get this.

I often ask myself: Why cannot people be more rational? Why can’t Christians particularly have empathy? Or at least discuss things with a least a drop of honesty and integrity. So, let’s try to do that.

Note that there are two major responses to this debate:

(1) Liberals have made it their goal to proclaim that all gender is fairly fluid and that choosing the gender that one feels is the best approach. This usually involves hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery. How that works, I am not going to get into here.

(2) Conservatives tend to ignore the existence of true intersexed people, and emphasize that there are many others that are plainly gender confused because of the break down of the nuclear family. It is nurture not nature. The person had an unstable childhood, so their gender is unstable. In those cases, recommending gender reassignment surgery is a bad option. It causes more harm to an already unstable person. The best thing a society can doe is get back to the stability of the “good old days.”

Who is right? I don’t think either side has it completely. Let’s admit that. When issues polarize, there is very rarely one perfectly right side.

Christ forbids the notion that there ought to be an “us” versus “them.” Eph. 6 :12 warns, For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” I worry about those Christians that excel at making enemies of the people they are called to preach reconciliation to.

At least as far as I have read, gender reassignment surgery has been shown to relive the anguish of some transgender people, but also in many cases create whole new problems. I am not a psychiatrist, so that is all I can say. Whatever a transgendered person is going through, we know it is going to be difficult. We should be honest about that.

Now, bring in politics. What do you do when a person identifies as a woman, but was born a man, and wants to use a woman’s bathroom? Some say, “Let them if it helps them feel some modicum of security and peace.” Others say, “I don’t feel comfortable with a person of the opposite physical gender being in that bathroom. The laws can be abused by predators.” Again, both have a point, but neither side have it all.

There seems to be a bunch of concerns here that all Christians should have:

  1. Transgendered people are valued and should be kept safe from harassment.
  2. We need greater awareness for the existence of transgendered people and what they go through.
  3. However, the concern is also that in doing so, society promotes the notion that our genders are fluid, which could cause physiological harm to some that need more structure.
  4. Women and children could be put at risk by sexual predators abusing transgender laws

You will notice that liberals tend to prioritize (1) and (2) while conservatives prioritize (3) and (4). But, if you can admit that both sides are trying their best to uphold justice some way, I think we can have a better way of thinking about his whole debacle.

We cannot be satisfied with any law that does not protect all vulnerably parties. We don’t get to choose who we defend the dignity of, one way or another. We are called to defend all people’s dignity. All people, not some, not just your kids, not just transgendered people either – all are made in the image of God. Everyone is. We don’t get to choose who to care about. All deserve our love in how we talk, think, feel, and write policies.

So, what should a Christian do? Should we advocate for the laws to stay the same? That did not happen, and there should be a law that protects trans people. Should we advocate for the bathroom laws to pass uncritically that can be abused? No. I think there needs to be further criteria to how the bathrooms are used. Should we advocate new ones that can further allow transgendered people to get beaten up and harmed, protecting the churches prerogative over others? No.

Many say we should move to installing gender-neutral bathrooms that are fully enclosed. That is probably the way things are going to go, but that sounds expensive. I don’t think companies can accommodate every public bathroom being converted that way. There does not seem to be a good answer here.

I think the obvious response for Christians, when the law of the land does not reflect the perfect justice of God is to pray and trust and hope.

I recently read through 2 Peter. Peter is encouraging a congregation with the hope that Christ will return and one day the world will be ruled by God not people. So, he says,

“We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13)

We are to live like exiles in a strange land, for we are citizens of a different kingdom.

This admits that the current situation does not have a comfortable solution that Christians should be happy about. If any law leaves a vulnerable party unsafe, we should not be happy about it. We need to continue to rethink, listen, and pray.

What does that mean? I don’t know. I don’t know the answers to many things in life. But as I said, I would rather say that I don’t know but care then that I know but come off like I don’t care.

I don’t know if I have a position, but I do know the posture: Christ. I don’t care much for politics, but I do care about the people. That is what we should focus on: the posture of Christ and the people in need of love.

I look at this world, and all I know is to cling to the love of Christ, the love he showed me, and the love I ought to extend. True religion is, according to the prophet Micah 6, “To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” The more I befriend people that much different me, the more I see Christ working around me. That is a humbling thing.

I know that politics is not the vehicle of the kingdom of God. The Gospel of our God loving all people, forgiving all sin is. Our world is broken, so we need to walk graciously in Christ, for our sake and others. There are broken people in it, like ourselves. If we are to love our neighbors, we need to listen to them and walk with them.

May you walk in the peace of Christ in this broken world, on this matter and all things.

Martyr’s Mirror: Living the Cross: Dirk Willems

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“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – Phil. 1:21

Like good Protestants, but bad students of church history, we are going to have to jump 1500 years into the future, to the dawn of the Reformation. In this room here, I imagine we have Christians from different denominational backgrounds like Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Mennonite, Pentecostal, even some Catholics as well. And some of you even know what those words mean! Those words tend to mean less today not just because we don’t know our church history, but also I think because we have a deeper recognition that we are all one in Christ Jesus, despite minor doctrinal differences in how we interpret our Bibles. It was not always so…

The first Baptists, called by their enemies, the “Anabaptists,” were radical Protestants that saw all the wars of religion, killing between Protestants and Catholics, and the concluded that faith has to be free and voluntary. They were committed to non-violence and refused to let the government legislate religious belief one way or another. This is what Baptist call the separation of church and state – more accurately it is the separation of faith from power.

Again, most Christians now affirm this in one way, shape, or form, but back then, the Baptists who preached freedom of religion and conscience, something we take for granted now as our un-revocable right as a citizen. However, back then, they were deemed enemies of the common good by the established churches and their governments, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. And so, authorities hunted the Anabaptists. This was a dark moment in European history, Catholics killing Protestants, vice versa, Protestants killing Protestants. Christians who all believed in the same Jesus, executing other Christians. What were they killing over?

Baptists held to believer baptism, Reformers and Catholics to infant baptism. In hind sight that is a terrible thing to fight over, let alone kill. It was petty. Yet, where state-religions were strong, so also was the need to control people to get them to believe, and so the Anabaptists, who dissented from this, were chased. Their punishment: they were often dragged to bridges and lakes and flung into the water to drown as a kind of ironic punishment for being re-baptized.

One man was arrested by the Dutch authorities for his Baptist convictions. His name was Dirk Willems, and he was imprisoned purely for saying he no longer believed what other Christians of his day believed. He never hurt anyone. The accounts say that he managed to escape the prison, slipping out of an unbarred window. It was winter time, and so, in order to evade his pursuer, he ran arose a frozen lake neighboring to the prison.

The guard chasing him, being a bigger man, fell through the ice. Dirk was home free. But then he stopped. What would Jesus do? His conscience pricked him, and he was moved with compassion on his persecutor. At great risk to himself, he dragged the man out of the icy water, warming him with his own body heat. Dirk carried the man back to the prison, accepting that if he retuned, he would be re-arrested. Sure enough, some prison guards did not care about his very obvious compassion and bravery, let alone the injustice of his charges to begin with, and sent him back to his cell.

For being a Baptist heretic and because he refused to let his own enemy die rather than escaping, Willems was burned at the stake 16 May 1569.

Can you imagine his thoughts? Turning to save the man that would imprison him, knowing that it mean confronting prison and the death penalty?

It seems difficult to imagine, but that is what Jesus did for us. While we were still sinners [still his enemy], Christ died for us.

Father, we pray for Christian unity, as Jesus prayed “May they be one as we are one.” Empower us to end our petty squabbles and focus more on you. Remind us that the only way we will show the world your son is by having the same reconciling love Willems modeled for his own pursuer. You teach us to love our neighbors as our selves and may we love even our enemies the way Christ loved us, counting their lives more important that our own.

Amen

Seven Final Words: Into Your Hands

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“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” Luke 23:46

Jesus at the cross began by praying; here he also ends by praying.

These are often words spoken on people’s deathbeds and at funerals. They are profoundly comforting words. They comfort because they remind us of the sobering but reassuring truth. One day, whether unexpectedly or at the end of a long life, we will die. Our physical lives will end. All that we are, had, and hold on to will cease.

This is sobering because we realize the truth that we cannot save ourselves. We cannot preserve ourselves. We cannot control the very foundation of our lives. Millionaires have died in car accidents and cancer just like the rest of us.

We cannot take this world with us. Celebrities pass away and their fame eventually with them. You can be buried with your money, if that is your will, but that is not you anymore in that casket anymore than that money is useful. What we are and have, ultimately and finally, is not up to us. It is up to whatever or more importantly whoever lies thereafter.

This is why it is reassuring, even liberating. It reminds us that at the end of the day, whoever we are, it is all in God’s hands.

Here, God in Jesus Christ is modeling for us the very essence of faithfulness: trusting God in the last moment of life, at uncertain threshold of eternity.

One way or another our lives are in God’s hands, the question is what will God do with us?

As Jesus said these words, we was dying on a Roman execution cross for the crime of blasphemy, while sinless, he made himself a sacrifice for sin. He gave himself up for us. I would emphasize that he did so, completely. We do not have to fear death because Jesus faced that fear for us.

He had the promise that God is in him and the Father will resurrect him, however Jesus was fully divine and fully human: prone to doubt, prone to uncertainty, prone to anxiety and fear. You can imagine the question is his human, all too human, head: Will my Father be faithful? Will he come through? We have already meditating on his cry feeling forsaken.

So, the comfort of these words must also be kept side by side with the pain of the cross, the willingness of the cross. It is a willingness that seems to admit that Jesus was willing to not only die trusting the Father but also embrace the possibility of the ice-cold silence and darkness of death and hell.

Understanding this fear perhaps explains why he pleaded that this cup may pass, sweating out drops of blood. “But not my will but yours be done,” he prayed. And so again, into your hands, I commend my spirit, as into your hands, all our spirits. It is always in God’s hands, not ours.

Just as he says this, Jesus breathes his last. Jesus dies. The Son of God died. God was found in death. God bound himself to the fate of death. God of infinite joy and life came into the finite space of wretched mortality.

When we think we are sinful and unclean, when we suspect that in our final breath we will disappear in judgment before an exacting God of judgment, we must remember that God died our death penalty. God entered our mortality. God became a rotten corpse, the very object of the consequences of sin, the very object of uncleanliness according to the law. The incarnation was complete, completed in the act of perfect atonement.

No piece of artwork shows this better than Holbein’s the Body of Dead Christ in the Tomb from 1520. Holbein depicts the remnants of the crucifixion on Jesus’ boy: the mangled, pieced, blacked hands, the stretched tortured body, the limp and lifeless face.

At the cross that mission was accomplished. Sin, death, corruption was defeated, but it was through Christ’ willingness to die.

Luke’s gospel reads, “Having said that, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ And when all the crowds who had gathered there or this spectacle had saw what had happened, the returned home and lamented.”

Matthew records that at that very moment, the curtain of the temple, the divide between God and man, was torn asunder.

If God is in Jesus Christ, he will not leave Christ to rot in the grave. And the Father didn’t. He rose to new life on the third day. God is love and hope and healing. As we are in Christ, we have the hope that, as everything is in God’s hands, one way or another, we can rest assured they are in good hands, the hands that are mighty to save us.

Final prayer:

Father, we pray recognizing the cost of the cross. We pray trying to understand its pain and shame. We will never understand its full weight, but give us enough understanding to receive it into our hearts. We pray that we would not just hear about the work Christ did, but receive it. We pray would not just look upon the cross, but take it up ourselves. That is taking up the life the cross demands of us, the love it embodies, the truth is sacrificed for. Do not let us leave this place without our heart changed with a new commitment to living out the way of our Lord Christ. Thank-you for your justice, mercy, and love. Thank-you that your cross comes with the promise of the resurrection. Amen.

Seven Last Words: Thirst

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“I thirst” (John 19:28)

In the beginning as Genesis two tells us, there was a stream that bubbled up and watered the earth. From the clay of this stream the first man was molded, from its water Eden was irrigated, and from there, the text says, out of the garden the stream became four great rivers. Here is the archetypal river of life, fountain of salvation.

The human body is about 50-80% water, and doctors recommend that a person drink about 2 litres of water a day to be healthy. It is no stretch of the imagination that we can say that water is life.

Not surprisingly, there is a persistent image of water in Scripture as a source of cleansing, purifying, and revitalizing.

John, a master story-teller, makes use of the theme of water and thirst throughout his Gospel. Disciples are baptized in water. Those entering the kingdom of heaven are born of “water and spirit” (Jn. 3:5). Jesus poured out water to wash the disciples feet, the quintessential act of servanthood.

One instance is particularly applicable. Near the beginning, a woman comes to the well in Samaria, who has been married five times and is living with a man not her husband. Jesus meets her there, and asks her for a drink. She protests, saying the well is deep. Jesus uses this to tell her that there is water that will make her thirsty again, and than there is living water form which she will never be thirsty again. While naïve and uninitiated, she tells Jesus that whatever this is, she wants this water.

She does not understand what this water is, but she is thirsty for it. She is thirsty for water that is more than water. She is thirsty for compassion, for love, for forgiveness, for truth.

Of course, this water is eternal life, and this water is found in Jesus.

The Samaritan woman is, as we all are, thirsty for salvation.

Psalm 42:1: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.”

Yet, here on the cross, Jesus, the God-man, the one who is life, who is living water, is now thirsty. In this beautiful use of irony, water does not mean water, and thirst does not merely mean thirst: Thirst is the thirst of the soul. Jesus becomes thirsty.

As Jesus cried out in thirst, they gave him sour wine. The offering was not a malicious gesture as sour wine was considered better for quenching thirst, often used by soldiers like modern-day Gatorade. But Jesus’ thirst here is more than just thirst.

Psalm 63:1: “God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”

The Scriptures say, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.” (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ, the son of God, the son of man, died representing all humanity before God and representing God to all sinners. He died in our place. He took on our pain. He took on our thirst.

His parched throat mirrors the desert wasteland of our souls.

In John’s gospel, as he died, after crying out “I am thirsty,” a soldier pieced Jesus’ side and it says water flowed out. Here we see another allusion to Psalm 22: “I am poured out like water.” Water flowed out of the one whom was thirsty. Through Jesus’ death, water flows. Through Jesus taking our place, God dying as a sinner, our souls will one day drink of the river of life.

So the vision in Revelation 22:1-3 says,

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse…

In this passage thirst, water, and the overcoming of the curse are intimately connected. We are all thirsty. We thirst for Jesus. Jesus is that water that restores us to vitality perfectly. We know this because Christ bore our curse. Jesus is the only thing that refreshes our parched, dry souls.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Jesus made this promise, and here on the cross, he cries out thirsting for justice himself, dying from the oppression of a corrupt religious and political system. Yet his thirst was not for vengeance, but for the healing of sick, sinful souls. So Revelation depicts a day here water flows from the New Jerusalem “for the healing of the nations.”

Jesus is righteousness. Jesus is truth. Jesus is forgiveness. Jesus is living water.

And because of the cross, because Jesus chose to be at one with the thirsty, to thirst in our place, we are free to drink of the water of life; We are free to drink of the resurrection reconciliation.

So Revelation 22:17 says, “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”

Father,

We realize that we thirst for you.

We may think that we thirst for other things – money, safety, popularity, health – but it is you that we ultimately thirst for.

Thank you for becoming thirsty, taking on our thirst.

May we drink of the water of the river of life that flows from Christ who died in our place.

May the day come quickly that we see all nations gathered to be healed by the water of the river of life.

Let all who are thirsty come to you, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

Seven Last Words: Forsaken

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“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

In his book, Night, Elie Weisel gives his bitter account of the Holocaust, an event so horrifically evil it unsettled the very core of his Jewish faith. He was only a boy when he saw  the execution of an innocent man, starved, emaciated, beaten, broken – broken of his very humanity. He was robbed of his dignity by people devoid of their own humanity, the Nazis.

This man was hanged in front of all the other prisoners: the poor man was made into a spectacle of the Nazi’s brutality as the audience was made to watch, feeling the full measure of their own powerlessness. Weisel, a boy, was made to watch.

As this happened, someone called out, “Where is God?” That man had had enough, the injustice caused him to cry out at the risk of his own execution. “Where is God?!” As if to say: How can he not be here? How could he not intervene in a moment like this? The crowd could give no answer as he indicted God in a crime of cosmic proportions.

“Where is God?” the voice rang out again, again and again.

Elie Weisel, a young man at the time, felt in his heart the only possible explanation: Where is God? God is dead. He died there in those gallows.

Weisel saw this admission as the very moment his faith collapsed into a bitter semi-atheism. His hope in God was shaken.

But as Weisel reports, he did not lose faith, for while he felt hurt by God, the prospect that there was no God at all rendered the events of the Holocaust even more tragic: no God to denounce the evil as fundamentally wrong, no God to command compassion rather than indifference, no God to offer the promise of restoration.

Weisel’s shaken faith, I think, is an honest faith. Faith calls for nothing less than honesty about ourselves and our world, and that honestly about our world calls for nothing less than the honesty of being deeply upset over the tragic injustices of this life.

But to have that honesty in faith means addressing that frustration and lament before God as Jesus did: “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?”

This phrase comes from Psalm 22, a psalm written by David, who was a righteous man that was attacked by his king, his friends, and later, even his own family. He spent much of his life on the run, hunted like an animal.

One way to understand the cross – perhaps the most basic way – is to understand that Christ died, “according to the Scriptures” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Jesus embodies the story of Scripture. He is the word of God.

He is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” He is the “stone that was rejected that is now the corner stone” (Psalm 118:22 cf. 1 Peter 2:7). He is the perfect Passover lamb, slain as a sin offering for us, etc.

Jesus fulfills this scripture as the rest of the psalm shows:

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. (vv. 16-18)

In claiming these words as his own, he is not merely fulfilling the Scriptures. He is showing God’s solidarity, his oneness, with all the forgotten of this world. Jesus in crying out in forsakenness, embodying the cry of the oppressed, the abused, the victimized, the neglected, the humiliated – all who feel that God was not there when they needed him. Listen to the rest of the Psalm:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

    Why are you so far from saving me,

    so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

    by night, but I find no rest (vv. 1-2)

But I am a worm and not a man,

    scorned by everyone, despised by the people.

All who see me mock me;

    they hurl insults, shaking their heads.

“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,

    “let the Lord rescue him. (vv. 6-8)

I am poured out like water,

    and all my bones are out of joint.

My heart has turned to wax;

    it has melted within me. (v. 14)

This is the lament song of a soul in despair. This is also the words of God in Christ.

In Christ, God knows what it is like to be abandoned, betrayed, tortured, humiliated, blamed, and executed.

Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the subject of personal betrayal: his best friends and students ran, denied him, and even received money to betray him.

Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the victim of religious corruption and abuse. He was accused of blasphemy for his message of forgiveness: that God is with us, sinners. He was tried falsely by corrupt priests who didn’t want their sins exposed or their power taken away. As John 8 tells us, Caiaphas, the high priest, ironically saw Jesus as his sacrifice to save their religion.

Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the target of political oppression. He was brought before the magistrate, Pilate, who ultimately cared only for order at any cost. So, he gave Jesus over to his psychotic soldiers for torture, humiliation, and finally execution by the slow death of the cross.

The cross is a rare kind of anguish. It is the slow death by bleeding out from the torture and nails. Hanging on the nails meant one’s diaphragm would be stressed, causing the person to gasp for air. The subject would hang there starving to death, slowing hallucinating in a delirium of despair as people stand there and mock. Nailed there, few pictures of the atonement render it accurately: few picture the victims unclothed and naked, exposed to desert sun that would blister exposed skin. (Ironically, no crucifix renders Jesus naked – an accurate depiction of the cross is still too scandalous, even Christians!) And the nakedness of exposure was more than physical: hanging there naked, the victim was exposed to the scoffers, jeering, removing whatever dignity remained. Jesus had the added pain and humiliation of a thorn crown pressing into his head and a sign above, mocking his claim to the throne of David.

How could God let this happen to Jesus? How could he have forsaken him? Where is God?

The answer is right there. God was right there. God was in the man who was godforsaken. God revealed that he is with those who feel forsaken by God.

Jesus, Immanuel, “God is with us,” is here as God bound to our fate, our death, our despair, our pain, our sense of the absence of God. He loves us so much he stands with us in our darkest moments.

This does not make sense by our worldly logic, but this is the logic of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it well when he said, “Only a suffering God can save us.” Only love that is willing to suffer with a victim, feeling their pain, willing to take their pain as his own, can disarm the anguish of suffering.

Jesus cried out, “My God why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus deserved justice’s vindication, but he gave it up to live in solidarity with those whom justice has forgotten.

Jesus deserved the throne room of heaven, but chose a crown of thorns.

Jesus deserved to inhabit heaven, but instead he chose to harrow hell.

So, we return to our Holocaust anecdote: Where was God as an innocent man died in the gallows of the Holocaust?

God was with that dying man. He was in that dying man. He was dying for that dying man. God is that dying man, “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

God did die that day, but not in the sense that would lead us to atheism.

God did die that day, because he is love; he is suffering love; he is a God that refuses be far away from those who feel forsaken.

God refused to stand far off as his beloved children suffered. It is that same refusal of a God that chooses to suffer with us that refuses to leave suffering forever forsaken in our broken world. If God suffers with us, we know that God did not cause our suffering. If God suffers with us, we also know that he would not will this suffering to be without end. A God of love is a God of hope for us.

We know this because three days after the cross, Christ rose from the grave. Suffering will stop because the cross leads to resurrection.

So the Psalmist affirms in his suffering that one day…

The poor [i.e. the oppressed, the abused, the abandoned] will eat and be satisfied;

    those who seek the Lord will praise him—

    may your hearts live forever!

All the ends of the earth

    will remember and turn to the Lord,

and all the families of the nations

    will bow down before him,

for dominion belongs to the Lord

    and he rules over the nations. (vv. 26-28)

There will be a day when suffering stops, when tears are wiped away, when hunger is satisfied, when wounds are healed, when pain turns to praise, when repentance and reconciliation reigns.

There will be a day of perfect justice, perfect mercy, and perfect peace.

That day is coming because the God who died on the cross, rose from the grave. Death could not change the impassible character of a God who is boundless life.

The cry of the cross was answered with the triumphant joy of resurrection. Let’s pray…

Father,

We ask with Jesus sometimes, “Why have you forsaken us? Why all the injustice? Why all the destruction? Where are you?”

God, remind our broken souls that you were with us in the times that seems like you were absent. Help us to look to Jesus and trust that you are not far off. You are with us. You are for us. You bear our pain.

You did not abandon us as you did not abandon Christ. Soften our hearts to let go of that pain and anguish, knowing that you have already taken on that pain in the cross.

Lord, allow the wounds of our past to heal in the same way the cries of Golgotha were answered with the resurrection.

Allow the cross and resurrection to inspire us. Give us the grace to live out what your promises demands. Convict us of the courage to confront the injustice of life with Jesus’ innocence. Convict us of the empathy to confront the suffering of this world with Jesus’ solidarity. We pledge to act in trust, compassion, and hope, knowing that you will restore all things.

Amen.

Seven Last Words: Mother Mary, Brother John

 

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“Woman, behold your son” … “Behold, your mother!”  (John 19:26)

While it is easy to see this passage of Christ looking to his mother, Mary, and instructing her to embrace John, the beloved disciple, and John vice versa, as a simply provision undertaken by our Lord to ensure his mother is cared for, these passages offers us glimpses of something deeper. Let’s look at both John and Mary here.

Why is Mary told to refer to John as a “son” and John to refer to Mary as his “mother”? The provisions of care do not necessitate this, yet Jesus insisted. He could have just said, “John, take care of her.”

Some have seen this as Jesus recommending a relationship between Mary and the disciples.In Christ, there is a new family, a global family, of the redeemed that all began at the cross. Mark 3:35 says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Here we see the constitution of that family, gathered around the crucified Jesus, listening to his instructions, and so, compelled to treat one another as family.

But it surely meant more than that for John. Mary and John are among the few that actually stayed close to Jesus. They did not flee like the rest of the disciples. John was allowed near the crucifixion site, perhaps because he was so young.  We know this because only boys too young to serve in the military could come near the execution site for fear of uprising to save the crucified.

This helps us understand why John sometimes refers to himself as the “beloved disciple,” who “reclined at Jesus’ side.” Peter would have been much older, the eldest of the disciples, possibly. It is also possible that John was the youngest. He was only a boy, small enough to need hugs from Jesus. He may have seen Jesus has a father figure.

Jesus taught us to call God, “Abba” (Daddy). John may well have called Jesus, “Abba.”

John is standing there, watching his father figure die. So, this was more than provision of care to Mary, it was recognition of mutual support. They would need each other. You can understand Jesus’ words now as commissioning the young John. “It is time to be a man, now John, take care of Mary, treat her like your mother.”

As we see John’s writings through the New Testament, particularly in his epistles, John took up this commission well. He was an apostles of family and love through and through. He constantly refers to his congregation as his “little children,” not unlike what he was when he learned his essential instructions from his master.

We know from church tradition that John’s dying words to his church was, “Little children, love one another!” Love shun through John’s writings at all points, especially in passages like 1 John 4:7-12:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

His church was his family, and love was his ministry because Jesus was his hero.

Can we look to Jesus like John did?

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Now, Mary: Protestants have often forgotten the importance of Mary. We have done this out of understandable reasons: it is out of discomfort with how high Mary is elevated in Catholicism. But as Catholicism raise Mary too high; Protestants are guilty of not raising her high enough.

In church history, veneration of Mary began because of how Mary pointed to a proper understand of Jesus. Jesus died in the flesh (contra some who denied his humanity) because Jesus was born to a human mother: Mary was the guardian of Jesus’ humanity, the theotokos, “God-bearer” in Greek.

But, sadly, Mary was elevated to a kind of co-operator with Christ in some Catholic theology, which Protestants simply feel makes her into an idol. But we should ask is how do we properly adorn Jesus’ mother so that she once again safeguards her son’s high place? We might phrase this better by asking, how does respecting Mary as a mother – us looking to her motherly qualities – how does that bring us deeper into appreciation of Jesus? Or, how does understanding Mary as mother deepen our understanding of Jesus as our brother?

The picture displayed above renders this clearly: eyes too sorrowful to see clearly, but too concerned to look away; hands, clenched praying perhaps both that her son would be faithful to the onerous task she bore him for, but because she bore him, praying pleading with God to relent of the suffering her son is feeling.

To look to Mary as our mother is to look at Jesus’ hanging on the cross, not as an abstract idea, a stale doctrine, a historic account, or an expression of our own sentiments, it is an attempt to see the cross for what it is, and not bypassing it too quickly.

Seeing the cross as our salvation can too readily jump from its tragedy to the benefit we get out of it. We can easily see Christ as suffering on our behalf and we can say, “thanks,” and continue on our merry way. We can selfishly forget the cost of the cross. We can easily look at the cross for what we get out of it, not what God put into it.

When we look to Mary as the mother of Christ, we also look at the cross through the eyes of a mother. Someone’s son died on that cross. Someone’s little boy, her pride and joy, everything she lived for, is being murdered mercilessly, dying that miserable death.

And do you not think that it may have occurred to her that while she knew Jesus was dying for her sins, she would have gladly died in her sons place just to save him from the pain? Don’t you think even that she would have gladly refused her own salvation if it meant saving her little boy’s life?

It is only when we look at the cross through Mary’s eyes do we appreciate the cost of the cross for us. It is the cost of a life more precious than our own.

It is only when we lament the cross through Mary’s tears are we ready to say thank-you to a God that gave so much we will never understand.

It is only through the love of Mary for her Son that we ready to love the world as Jesus loved it.

Lord,

May we love as John loved. May we look to you as our daddy, our father figure. So close to us that we can “recline at your side.” Help us to remember that we are beloved disciples, not just disciples. Draw us closer into the family of God. May we treat your sons and daughters as brothers and sisters. Give us opportunities to be big brothers and sisters to others.

May we mourn for you as Mary mourned. And in our mourning, let us remember the provision that Jesus gave at that very moment, the only true provision against the tragedy of this age: You gave us the church, the family of God. Help us to take care of one another. Help us to love one another.

Amen.