Sunday, April 25, 2010

God Works in Mysterious Ways

(A sermon based on the story of Ruth for Sunday, April 25, 2010)

The story of Ruth is in some ways a very particular story about a very particular woman who played a very particular role in God’s purpose of salvation. But the story of Ruth is also in some ways a story that has lessons that will enable every follower of the Lord who will take them to heart to follow him more truly and to serve him more ably. If we enter the story with open minds and hearts, it will surprise us, I think.

The story is set in the historical period “when the judges ruled.” Thus, in the English canon, it follows the book of Judges. The period of the Judges, which was the period between the conquest of the Promised Land by the Israelites and the establishment of the monarchy, was a troubled period. Although we tend to look back on some of the individual judges as heroes, the truth is that they were in the main leaders of less than sterling character. Also, the people of Israel fell habitually into idolatry and other kinds of sins; the book of Judges reports many heinous offenses against God and against people.

In the canonical order of the Hebrew Bible, Ruth follows the book of Proverbs, “so that the story provides an illustration of the noble woman commended in Prov 31:10-31” [Andrew E. Hill, “Ruth,” The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (HarperSanFrancisco: 2005), p. 383]. There is indeed much in the example of Ruth to commend.

The story opens with a hint and a problem. The hint comes in the revelation that Naomi and Elimelech were from Bethlehem. More on that later. The problem is a famine in Israel that caused the couple to take their two sons Mahlon and Chilion and go to Moab. The famine itself was a problem, of course, but so was the fact that it caused the family to leave the Promised Land for a foreign land. Such a move always proved problematic for Hebrew people; the most glaring example is, of course, the famine that caused Jacob’s family to move to Egypt.

Elimelech died in Moab. Their two sons married Moabite women whose names were Orpah and Ruth. Then the two sons died. Now we have three widows at the center of our story. When Naomi heard that the famine had ended in Israel, she resolved to go back home. Her two daughters-in-law set out with her. Naomi discouraged them from accompanying her. After many tears, Orpah decided to stay in Moab. Ruth, however, would not be dissuaded from staying with her mother-in-law. In very famous words she said, “Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God…” (1:16 KJV).

One thing that we learn from the story of Ruth is that the faithful life involves giving up and letting go (ch. 1). The narrative does not delve deeply into the reality of the kind of grief that is common to all members of the human family. A family had to leave its homeland. Three women lost their husbands. Naomi does honestly lament the calamity that has fallen upon her, but we’re not told much about the process the women went through in dealing with their grief. Still, the story does remind us that such events do come and that we have to move on through them and, insofar as is possible, past them.

But the narrative does delve deeply into the kind of giving up and letting go that finally makes the difference in discipleship. Jesus said that his followers have to be willing to give up their families, their home connections, their dependence on material things, even their very lives, if they are truly going to be his disciples.

Ruth left her homeland for another. We have to let go of this earthly homeland and to embrace our heavenly home.

Ruth left her family and her people. We have to let go of those attachments that can hold us back to embrace fully our membership in the family of God.

Ruth left her gods for the God of Naomi and of Israel. We have to let our false and limited gods go and give ourselves over fully to the one true God who has revealed himself in his Son Jesus Christ.

Jesus also promised us that it is in losing our lives that we will gain them. Paul said that he counted all his past accomplishments and connections as rubbish in comparison to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ. What we gain in letting go is a life lived in relationship to God. Nothing is too high a price to pay. Naomi models letting go for us.

And so Naomi and Ruth journeyed to Bethlehem. They had to eat, so Ruth went out to glean in the fields. Gleaning was the social safety net of the ancient world. The text says, “As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech” (2:3). Now, we all know that the full way to say that would be, “As it happened according to the grace and providence of God.”

Boaz noticed her and inquired about her. His servants told him that she was the Moabite woman who had come back with Naomi from Moab. She had asked to glean, they said, and she had been working hard all day. Boaz took it upon himself to take care of Ruth. She wanted to know why he was being so kind to such a foreigner as she.
Now, this is a love story, so we are allowed to think romantic thoughts and I think that they would be accurate. A courting ritual is going on here. But that is not the main point. The main point is that the Lord was rewarding Ruth for the kindness she showed Naomi in leaving Moab and coming to Israel. Boaz was the instrument that God was using to bestow kindness on Ruth.

Let us never underestimate the tremendous power of basic human kindness. Here is a second lesson we learn from the story of Ruth: Kindness that pushes the boundaries leads to blessings (ch. 2). In fact, kindness of any sort usually leads to blessings because kindness tends to lead to kindness. That is not always the case, of course, because some people are just hard-headed and hard-hearted and thus will just never see beyond their own noses, but it is usually the case.

You may remember a public service announcement that ran for a while that opened with a man handing a toy back to the child in the stroller who had dropped it on a busy city sidewalk. The rest of the ad shows how an act of kindness done by someone and observed by someone else led to the observer performing an act of kindness that was observed by someone else who was inspired to do the same—and so on and so on until we come back to the man picking up the child’s toy.

Kindness works that way. Ruth was kind to Naomi. That inspired Boaz to be kind to Ruth. As Jack Sasson said, “Common people achieve uncommon ends when they act unselfishly toward each other” [Jack M. Sasson, “Ruth,” The Literary Guide to the Bible, ed. Robert Alter & Frank Kermode (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1987), p. 321].

That is especially true, I believe, when our kindness pushes the boundaries, and some boundaries were being pushed in this story. Ruth was a Moabite. The Moabites were, to say the least, not looked on with favor by the Israelites. Tradition had it that their family line began in the incestuous relationship between Lot and one of his daughters. The Moabites had tempted the Israelites to the idolatry at Baal-peor that had led to terrible judgment. As a result, Mosaic law prohibited the participation of the Moabites in the worship of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:3-6)[See Hill, p. 382]. Yet Boaz reached out in kindness to this Moabite woman who had shown love and fidelity to her mother-in-law and who had thus shown herself a person of character and quality.

We tend to think of people in categories, don’t we? It was one thing to say, “The Moabites are bad people and we are to have nothing to do with them.” But such is not so easy to say when you are dealing with an individual person. I don’t know to what extent Boaz struggled with this, but I can imagine him saying, “Well, I’ve always been taught that the Moabites are bad, but this Moabite sure seems good.” I think that much of our prejudice would pass away if we would learn to deal with folks one person at a time. Stereotypes and generalizations are the lazy way out. Dr. King had it right when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Don’t hear me saying that we are to be kind only to those who seem to deserve it or to those who seem good enough. We are to be kind to anyone and to everyone that we can. But I am saying that our kindness needs to push the cultural and societal and personal boundaries that we have accepted and that we need to understand that great relationships can be established for the sake of the kingdom if we are open to people as people and as God’s beloved. We also need to understand that we all have questionable backgrounds to some degree; we certainly are all sinners and come from a long line of sinners. Perhaps Boaz had some sympathy for Ruth’s position. After all, he was the son of Salmon (4:21) and Rahab (Matthew 1:5), and that Rahab may well have been the prostitute who helped the spies at Jericho.

It took some maneuvering, but Ruth and Boaz got married. It is at this point that we find the meaning of the earlier hint about Bethlehem. Ruth and Boaz had a son. Listen to what we are told about the progeny of that son, whose name was Obed: “he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.” So the Moabite Ruth was the great-grandmother of the great King David. The great king was part Moabite; he was a descendant of those despised and rejected people!

Of course, Jesus Christ was a descendant of that same line. What a family tree the monarch and the Messiah had! It just goes to show that God works through unexpected people in unexpected ways to accomplish his purpose of salvation. He works through people all around us in ways we either cannot see or refuse to see. He works through people that we would not think he would work through. He accepts people that we want to reject. It is all very surprising.

You never know. God may even work through you and me!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

If You're a Baptist, Please Read This

I hope that all my Baptist friends and readers, whether of the SBC or CBF variety or the conservative or moderate bent, will read this article by Dr. David Gushee and will join me in saying "Amen" and then living like we really do agree.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Let’s Put a Baptist on the Supreme Court!

I confess that until I read this article I had no idea what the religious makeup of the Supreme Court of the United States was but now I find that we are faced, if the reportedly impending retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens happens, with the possibility that there will be no Protestant Supreme Court justices.

Six of the current justices are Roman Catholic, two are Jewish, and Justice Stevens is a Protestant, although my extensive research (six minutes on the internet) has failed to uncover what kind of Protestant he is, although the smart money would be on Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Lutheran.

While I really don’t believe that there should be a religious test for a Supreme Court justice any more than there should be one for an elected official, which is Constitutionally prohibited, I still want to present my case for why the next Supreme Court justice should not only be a Protestant but should be that most Protestant of Protestants—a Baptist.

There are all kinds of Baptists, everything from American Baptists to Southern Baptists to Independent Baptists to Two- Seed-in-the-Spirit Predestinarian Baptists. In the Southern Baptist tradition out of which I come, though, we have effectively reduced our categories to two: (1) Conservative Baptists (or, as the Moderates call them, “Fundamentalists,” and, in their less kind moments, “fanatics”) and (2) Moderate Baptists (or, as the Conservatives call them, “Liberals,” and, in their less kind moments, “lost”).

So, in true Baptist fashion, I will use my terms as I choose to define them in offering, as a public service, the following three “Top 3” lists.

Top 3 Reasons that a Baptist Should be the Next Supreme Court Justice

3. A Baptist who has navigated the wars over “traditional” vs. “contemporary” worship styles would find most issues with which the Court deals to be a piece of cake.

2. A Baptist, especially one who attended Southern Baptist Convention meetings from 1979-1990 and who thus got used to going from being called every name in the book one minute to singing “There’s a Sweet Sweet Spirit in this Place” the next should have no problem making nice even in the midst of the most bitter ideological debates with other justices.

And the #1 reason that a Baptist should be the next Supreme Court justice:

1. Post-hearing covered dish suppers!

Top 3 Reasons that a Fundamentalist Baptist Should be the Next Supreme Court Justice

3. All the “grey areas” in the law would instantly disappear.

2. If you want your new Supreme Court justice to place an emphasis on “strict constructionism” and “authorial intent” when it comes to the Constitution you can hardly do better than someone who has practiced on the Bible.

And the #1 reason that a Fundamentalist Baptist should be the next Supreme Court justice:

1. “Opinions” would be replaced with “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” statements.

Top 3 Reasons that a Moderate Baptist Should be the Next Supreme Court Justice:

3. Would view separation between church and state as a Constitutional principle rather than as the imagining of infidels.

2. Has a sense of history that fosters a respect for the marginalized and oppressed.

And the #1 reason that a Moderate Baptist should be the next Supreme Court Justice:

1. Would always seek the middle ground--even if there isn't any.

I rest my case.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

We See Jesus—Glorified!

(A sermon based on John 20:1-18 for Easter Sunday 2010)

One day a few years ago I visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. I didn’t have much time so I picked up a visitor’s guide that identified some “must see” pieces in that massive collection. I walked from painting to painting and from sculpture to sculpture, briefly looking at each one and dutifully reading the brief description posted with each one.

As I stood looking at one of the paintings, I felt, much to my astonishment, tears welling up in my eyes.

I wish I could tell you that the tears came from my finally seeing a work of art that I had long desired to see but the truth is that I cannot tell you now and could not have told you five minutes after I walked away from it what painting it was that provoked that response in me. I wish I could tell you that the tears came from some deep and carefully cultivated appreciation for art but the truth is that I pretty much slept through the only art history course I ever took and that had been way back in 1978.

The best explanation that I have for what was happening within me on that June afternoon in front of that painting was that, while I couldn’t really describe what I was seeing and while had I tried to explain it I would have gotten it wrong, I knew that I was seeing something special, that I was seeing something that spoke from its depth to my depth, and that I was being confronted with something beautiful.

When confronted with the resurrected Jesus on this Easter morning, we might struggle with what we are seeing—and not seeing—as much as did those who came to the tomb early on that first Easter.

Jesus had said to them that he was the light of the world, but it was in the dark that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb; it seemed that the darkness had in fact overcome the light. But that was not the case after all—it was not the case because when Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb she saw something most unexpected—she saw that the stone had been rolled away.

Does the unexpectedness of it get in the way of our seeing?

The stone that had been removed had allowed Jesus to come out of the tomb, but seeing it only let in a little light for Mary. She couldn’t know what it meant. But she knew that others had to know what had happened and she knew that she needed help in grasping what was happening. So, she went to tell Peter and John that the body of Jesus had been taken from the tomb. They in turn ran to the tomb.
Now we see the shining of partial light on the apostles and the experience of partial sight by them; they are struggling to see.

Are we struggling to see?

John gets there first, looks in, sees the burial cloths, but does not enter. Peter gets there, goes in, and sees the cloths. Then John goes in. There is no indication that Peter is at all getting what is going on. He is seeing but not believing.

John, though, sees and believes.

Perhaps the evidence of the burial cloths helped John along even it didn’t help Peter quite as much. The description of the burial cloths, which only John’s Gospel gives us, can be taken in two ways. First, it could underscore that the body of Jesus was not stolen because no grave robber would unwrap the body before taking it away. Second, the fact that the head wrapping was “rolled up” (NRSV) or “wrapped up” by itself, which is the meaning of the verb used, could mean to indicate that the body of Jesus had simply passed through it, leaving the head wrapping lying there as if it was still wrapped around his head. [Cf. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. Two (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2003), p. 1182.]

Based on what evidence was available and what insight he had been given, John apparently drew a conclusion about the resurrection without having actually seen the resurrected Jesus. He saw the glorified and resurrected Jesus without seeing him, so to speak.

Can you see him without seeing him?

That is good faith! That is necessary faith! It is faith that is based on the best light available; it’s the kind of faith that takes a leap and lands on the right spot. Still, it’s not as fully informed as it could be. “As yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

John had come to a point where he could believe that something had happened.

Peter was not there yet.

Are you seeing just a little bit of what it going on?

Where are you in the struggle to believe?

Should we make something of the fact that Peter and John went home while Mary Magdalene stayed around the tomb? Is it possible that we should wonder how, given what they had experienced and seen and what one of them believed, Peter and John could just go back home?

Does Mary Magdalene have greater expectations of seeing even more? But on the other hand, Mary is still locked into her grief. She is still weeping and when she sees the angels, she is still saying the same things: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Maybe the truth is that no matter where we are, no matter at what point in life we find ourselves, no matter where we are on the scale of unbelief and belief, the light of Jesus’ resurrection can break through to us so long as we are in a position to receive it.

Then Mary saw Jesus.

She didn’t recognize him; she thought he was the gardener. She didn’t know it was him even when he spoke to her. Maybe her sight was blurred by her tears and her hearing by her grief; maybe we are being given hints about the nature of a resurrection body. Regardless, it was when Jesus spoke her name that Mary knew it was him; it was in the affirmation of the personal relationship that Mary recognized Jesus.

And it is in the playing out of that personal relationship between Jesus and Mary that we learn something very important about the resurrected Jesus.

Apparently Mary made a move to grab hold of Jesus. It is a natural reaction, of course, to want to hold a person whom you thought was gone forever but who is now back. Jesus, though, stopped her. “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father,” he said.

I think that Jesus was telling Mary that the nature of the relationship between them had changed. At that moment he was physically present with her, although in his resurrected state; that, however, was not going to be the permanent situation. The permanent situation was going to be that he was going to ascend to his Father and his presence with his followers would then be, while still literal, spiritual.
And so it would always be for all of his followers—his presence with us, while literal, is spiritual.

The eyes with which we will see him, then are spiritual eyes.

But he is here and that is good news! The resurrection and ascension of Jesus created a situation in which Jesus could be fully present with all of us at the same time. In that new situation, which still exists, Jesus is with all of his followers all of the time.

In that situation a wonderful new family is created. So Jesus said to Mary, “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” He was already the Father and God of all of them, but now something wonderful and powerful would take place. It still takes place. We are all bound together in one family under the Fatherhood of God and through the presence of Jesus with us.

Jesus the resurrected is Jesus in our midst. Jesus the resurrected is Jesus in our hearts. Jesus the resurrected is Jesus as the unifying force of our family of faith. Jesus the resurrected is our assurance of the grace and hope and love of God. Jesus the resurrected makes us who we are.

Do you see him? Do you see the glorified Jesus? Do you see the resurrected Jesus? Can you open up the eyes of your spirit just a little bit more so that you can see him?

I’m back in front of that painting that I knew far too little about and that spoke to me from places far beyond me. I have tears in my eyes. Perhaps those tears cloud my view of the painting but perhaps it is exactly those tears that reveal that I have in fact seen it.

Is something stirring deep inside you on this Easter morning? Do you have a sense of deep speaking to deep? Look closely; peer through the tears. You just might be seeing the resurrected Jesus.

Friday, April 2, 2010

We See Jesus—Crucified

(A meditation based on John 19:16-42 for the 2010 Good Friday Tenebrae service)

I don’t know how many people saw Jesus hanging on the cross; it was a good number, I imagine. We are told of quite a few people being there, such as his mother and some of his followers as well as some Roman soldiers. We are also told that a lot of people were able to read the inscription that Pilate had placed on the cross since the place of crucifixion was near Jerusalem.

I am sure that no one who saw him hanging there ever forgot it.

We need to see him there, too, and we need never to forget what we see.

We need to see him being faithful to the very end.

We need to see him having been betrayed by one who had walked with him.

We need to see him having been denied by the one who was perhaps closest to him.

We need to see him having been rejected by the very people he came to save.

We need to see him having been executed by the very kind of worldly power that he came to reject.

We need to see him with the nails in his hands and feet.

We need to see him humiliated by the soldiers who gambled for his clothes.

We need to see him hanging between two others who had been crucified.

We need to see him with a sign hanging over him that mocked him even as it told the truth about him.

We need to see him making sure, even as he died, that his mother would be cared for.

We need to see him, in case we doubted the reality of his humanity, speaking of his thirst.

We need to see him expressing the completion of his ministry and of his life.

We need to see him when the spear pierced his side.

We need to see him being taken down from the cross.

We need to see him being placed in the tomb.

We need to see Jesus, crucified, dead, and buried.

For God.

For love.

For grace.

For sinners.

For all.

For us.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Great Expectations

I heard about a pastor who would, at the conclusion of the Easter Sunday service, say, “I’d like to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to all of you that I won’t see again until then.”

On the one hand, I think that’s tacky and I would never dream of saying something like that.

On the other hand...well, let’s just say I’m not immune to temptation.

Simply put, I cannot for the life of me understand folks who are church members and professing Christians who hardly ever, as people used to say, “Darken the doors of the church.”

Now, I’m not being judgmental; it is way beyond my abilities and way above my pay grade to be able to determine the status of someone’s relationship with the Lord. Besides, there’s no guarantee that someone who is there, as people also used to say, “every time the doors of the church are opened,” has an ounce of real Christianity in her or him. There’s also no guarantee that someone who never darkens said doors isn’t filled to the brim with it.

Think of the legalist, for example, who thinks that because she “forsakes not the assembling of yourselves together” she has somehow fulfilled a major requirement of what she takes to be the Christian law. Somehow and some way she has concluded that going to church checks off some great big box on God’s scorecard and so she feels smug and secure in the knowledge that she’s one of the good people.

I got to thinking about that kind of person at tonight’s Maundy Thursday service, when, as I was delivering the Communion meditation after reading John’s narrative about Jesus’ last night on earth, a narrative that does not include the institution of the Lord’s Supper but does include our only account (thank you, John) of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet, I started feeling a little embarrassed that we weren’t washing any feet at our Maundy Thursday service. I had planned to say—and I did say, because I don’t think I’m wrong about this—that Jesus’ example was an example of sacrificial self-emptying service and that it is more important that we serve each other in daily ways that make a difference than that we wash each other’s feet, not that there’s anything wrong with actually and literally washing each other’s feet, too.

But then I heard myself saying, “Besides, you know how we are…if we did wash each other’s feet we’d be prone to conclude that, having made that great sacrifice, we had kept that rule and checked off that requirement and we wouldn’t serve each other in real life like Jesus showed us and calls us to do.”

Anyway, some church folks are that way about attending church, I’m afraid; they come to the service and may even sing the songs and may even give some money and so they check off those boxes…but they don’t do much loving God and loving people in their daily lives.

My ruminations on this subject got me to thinking about the ways I think about people.

I have realized that the bottom line is this: I’m harder on folks who do come to church than I am on those who don’t—and I may be harder on those who come a lot than I am on those who come a little. By “harder” I mean that I have higher expectations for those who participate more regularly than I do for those who participate sporadically—and certainly than I have for those who participate not at all.

While I’m at it I should note that I’m harder on me than I am on anybody else; after all, I’m the pastor/preacher/minister/parson/priest/prophet/theologian/PRP (professional religious person) and so, to paraphrase Paul, if you think you have reason to boast, I have more—I mean, I am there ALL the time, even on weekdays and sometimes on an old-time Dr. Pepper schedule, by which I mean 10:00, 2:00 and 4:00 (ask your grandparents) and so it stands to reason that I would expect me to be more righteous, loving, gracious, forgiving, gentle, and kind than anyone else.

Besides, that’s what everyone else expects of me.

They and I need to remember, when they and I get to thinking that I’m some kind of spiritual Superman, that the truth is, to quote those modern theologians Five for Fighting, “I’m only a man in a funny red sheet” or, in my case, in a funny dark suit and a really nice tie. Anyway, I’m not meant to fly with clouds between my knees.

Of course, I can’t expect other people to be more than they can be, either.

But I don’t. Really, I don’t.

I do, though, expect—or at least very much want to expect—that we who are professed followers of the Lord Jesus Christ will take full advantage of every opportunity that we can through corporate worship, group and individual Bible study, regular times of prayer, and acts of service to grow in our relationship with the crucified and resurrected Lord who we maintain, after all, has made all the difference for us in this life and the next.

Moreover, I very much want to expect that in taking advantage of those opportunities we will grow in ways that go to the heart of who we are so that our integrity and genuineness will always be increasing.

When you get right down to it, my attitude is not about expectations—it’s about hopes and dreams, specifically, my hopes and dreams that Christian people will grow in their faith so they can live the full lives of love, grace, and service that God intends and desires for them.

And I’ll never give up—not on any of us—even though we all, even those of us who may have come a long way, still have a long way to go.

We See Jesus--Serving

(A meditation based on John 13:1-17, 31-35 for Maundy Thursday 2010)

On Friday we will see the crucified Jesus.

On Sunday we will see the resurrected Jesus.

But here on Thursday we see the serving Jesus.

That sight tells us a lot about Jesus.

See him there, kneeling before his disciples—including Judas who will betray him and Peter who will deny him and Thomas who will doubt him and the rest who will desert him—and washing their dirty feet.

See him there, the great King, the promised Messiah, the Son of God—assuming the position of a slave.

See him there, just a little while before he will be arrested, just a few hours before he will be crucified—not contemplating his fate, not getting his affairs in order, not bemoaning his destiny, but serving his friends and at least one of his enemies.

We talk a lot about how we want to be like Jesus and about how important it is that we be Christ-like in the ways that we live as we can be but sometimes it’s hard for us to imagine what such living would look like. We frankly struggle over what it means to “be crucified with Christ” and to “be raised to new life in him.” We don’t doubt that we are but we’re not sure how to live it out.

We see Jesus crucified and we wonder how to join him in that—it sounds mighty hard.

We see Jesus raised and we wonder how to join him in that—it sounds mighty hard.

We see Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, serving them until the very end—and, well, it still sounds mighty hard, doesn’t it?

Isn’t that odd, though? After all, it’s a simple act, this washing of the feet, and even if we don’t feel compelled literally to wash one another’s feet, we know what Jesus wants us to do in light of his example, since he told us:

“You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them” (vv. 13-16).

So there it is: Jesus, who is our Teacher and our Lord, who is our Master and our Messiah, stooped down and became a servant to those who were his servants; he emptied himself and gave of himself and offered himself and sacrificed himself and humbled himself—and told us to do the same thing for one another.

No doubt Jesus was aware of the power in the irony of what he was doing but I can’t help but think that he wasn’t terribly self-conscious about it. To the contrary, I believe that Jesus emptied himself and gave of himself and served others because it was his heart, it was his nature, to do so. I also believe that such should be the goal of our lives as Christians—we want to grow in our faith and in our walk with Christ and in grace and in love so that it becomes our heart and our nature to think of others before we do ourselves, to give for the sake of others rather than to grasp for the sake of self, to seek to serve rather than to seek to be served.

In the meantime, perhaps we need to develop the discipline of serving each other until it becomes our nature. Perhaps we need to serve others whether we want to or not and whether we feel like it or not, all the while practicing the disciplines of prayer and Bible study and devotion that will, along with acts of service, grow our hearts and spirits in the right direction.

After all, Jesus did put it in the form of a command, didn’t he? “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (v. 34). He is our Lord and Teacher; if he said do it, we should do it!

But make no mistake about it: the goal is not to serve like Jesus because we think we have to; the goal is to serve like Jesus because his love so overflows in us that we want to.

Like I said, while it may sound simple it still sounds mighty hard to us and that because we still have a long way to go. And really, to get to the point where we serve each other because we want to do so is in fact tied in with our being crucified with Christ—our dying to ourselves—and with our being raised to new life in Christ—our coming to live Christ’s kind of life in the world.

In that room, gathered with his disciples on the night he was betrayed and denied and deserted, we see Jesus serving. When we leave this place with that picture still in our minds, I pray that we will see ourselves and that we will see each other serving one another—not in our minds but in reality.

April Fools for Christ

(Note: This is a reprint of my post from April 1, 2007.)


Today is April 1st and thus April Fools' Day. The extensive research I did on the subject (five minutes looking at a web site or two) revealed that the origins of the day are uncertain. The roots of the day probably lie in various pagan observances that were marked by such jocularities as dressing in costumes and playing pranks. While some efforts have been made in the past to Christianize the day, there’s really no connection. And I’m not advocating for one.

Still, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a day when we remind ourselves that Almighty God did some mighty foolish things in carrying out his plan of salvation. They were foolish, that is, as the world reckons foolishness. He chose to have his Son come to earth to live as one of us. He had his Son leave his unrestricted existence to take on the limitations of human life. He had him leave his heavenly home where he was adored by angels to come to earth where he would be despised and rejected by people. He had him live a life in which he showed compassion and love and acceptance to the worst outcasts of his the society in which he lived. The Father chose to have his Son give his life as a ransom for undeserving and largely ungrateful humanity. He chose the Cross as the way for his Son.

So maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a day to commemorate the foolish things that God did in Jesus to bring about his plan of salvation. Wait, we do have such a day. It’s called Good Friday.

Also, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a day when we remind ourselves that we are called to be fools for Christ. I’m frankly not too sure that very many of us really live in the foolish ways that our Lord calls us to live.

Here is what Paul said as he reflected on what it meant for him and his companions to live as “fools for the sake of Christ”: “To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13).

It is God’s “foolish” way for his followers that we live lives that don’t characteristically lead to comfort, to prestige, and even to success as the world reckons success. Our lives are to be so counter-cultural, so opposite from the ways of the world, that we are looked upon with suspicion and even with contempt by those whose lives are ruled by another ruler. In such living lies our witness, because in such living lies the kind of weakness in which God’s strength is made obvious. Obviously, though, we need to be reminded.

So maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a day on which we can be reminded of our call to be fools for Christ. Wait, we do have such a day. It’s coming this week and every week. It comes any time that we have the opportunity to experience the risen Christ in our lives, to read the Bible that teaches us of his way, to be inspired by people who have lived and who are living the Jesus kind of life, and to let God’s grace and our faith truly take hold so that we show his love in those powerfully foolish ways.

It’s the day called Every Day.