Maundy Thursday : What is Love, Anyway?

(also in an audio version)

Love, v. 3.0

John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Whether we’re Christian or not, we’ve all been taught the Golden Rule: “do unto others as you would have others do to you“. Jesus said it too, in a positive restatement of something in the Jewish oral tradition. It makes life’s decisions a lot clearer by putting you in your own harm’s way. Think like that, and you won’t be so eager to do in your main rival at work or to stomp on someone to get what you want. We might pull up short if we felt in our own back the knife that we just started to twist into someone else’s. This is a good place to start: there actually is a standard for us to look to. Yet there are some things missing in the Golden Rule. There is, of course, the sado-masochist twist — someone doing unto others the torture he so craves from them. A more important problem, though, is that the Golden Rule keeps you in the center of it. No matter how many lessons you learn from doing unto others, they’re still your lessons, and it all still depends on your human capacity to love. That capacity is more like a dinner plate than a deep well. It’s too shallow when compared with the task at hand of living a different, loving kind of life.

Jesus takes us beyond the Golden Rule. The first step past it is when Jesus commends Deuteronomy 6:5’s Great Commandment about loving God, and the second like unto it, originally from Leviticus (you know, the book everyone loves to avoid), to “love your neighbor as yourself“. Jesus then looks at this not through one’s own love, but through what is meant by ‘neighbor’. Jesus calls on us to be a neighbor, moving the focus from ourselves to others, especially another who is in need.

But one more step is needed. For while this approach redirects our capacity to love, it is still our human capacity to love that is being given out. In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes the final step to setting this right, by giving a “new commandment“: “that you love one another, just as I have loved you“. This isn’t a plea, but a final charge to the believing few — a command (Latin mandatum, Middle English maundy). There is a new description: to love as Jesus loved. Right after He said that, He went on His way to setting a standard of love beyond our wildest imaginings : to the cross and the tomb. And there’s also a new power to love in a manner like that: He emptied that tomb, and went back to what is beyond death, sending the Holy Spirit to us in His place. What the Spirit puts into us is Christ’s love. That’s the bottomless well of boundless love. No longer do we have to dish out our own love in saucer portions, we can now drench everybody with love from beyond ourselves, so much so that it seeps into them. No longer must we be a better kind of person first; we can start loving from where we’re at, right now, because it’s not just our love, but also Christ’s. We can now dare to live the life of holy love, trusting that in the end there is no loss where that kind of love is found.

Father, you told us to love. But we are weak. We do not love as Jesus did, or anything like it. Send us your Spirit to change us and to make us love like the Crucified and Risen One, that we may carry out your mandate. Amen.

Bob Longman

A Maundy Thursday challenge: I’m not going to dump a load of guilt on you by telling you that you haven’t loved like this. You’ve heard that over and over again, you know it’s so, it’s become one of those ‘wish-you-coulds’. So, try something much simpler as a starter – think of just one person in your life, and then write down some new ways you can be more loving to that person. Then do it; you’ll learn how in the doing. After that, you can start working on doing the same thing for other people. But at least you’ll have begun.

Lent Midweek: God Provides

Luke 12:22-33

In reading books by the masters of spiritual discipline, there’s one quality they write about that we of this era find nearly impossible to really grasp. It’s called ‘detachment’. But what does that have to do with modern living? We worry about having more stuff. We fret about getting ourselves enough power so that we can fend off any enemy, or at least cover our backside when needed. What will I eat? What will I wear (and how do I accessorize it)? Where will I live? Will I live?

Jesus asks us to stop pushing long enough to start looking around. “Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothes”, Jesus says. He should know; he owned no land, grew no food, wore only the simplest of clothing, and his shelter was provided by people in the area of his ministry. His life was a daily experience of trusting that God would provide whatever material and bodily needs that might arise.

There is a reason behind this ‘detachment’, this independence from the stuff of this world, freedom from worry, and even from fear of losing your life. By detaching from that, you can put all your trust into the hands of the real provider of all that is – God. “Look around”, Jesus is saying. The birds benefit from what God gives, and so do the lilies. You will never get enough power to relieve you of all fear, nor can the mere fact of having goods spare you of the actual biological need to eat or be clothed. But if you trust that God amply provides, then worry and endless striving make no sense. Jesus calls on us to seek after the right thing — the Kingdom. The Father knows about whatever else is really needed, and will see to it that you get it.

Lord, thank you for not abandoning me like so many others have. Now, help me really notice the little ways you make good provision for me and for others. Help me to be true to you and to your kingdom. Amen.

Bob Longman

A challenge: think about the ways that you are part of God’s provision for others. (And if you come up blank, or close to it, then what will you do about it?)

Also, you can hear this, as an mp3.

Lent midweek, Feb 26-28 2013.

John 5:17-47

We see his face portrayed on a magazine cover. The name is spoken, and large numbers of people perk up their ears, all over the world. One of the most web-searched names on the Internet is his. There is no lack of interest in Jesus today, two thousand years after His death.

But they wonder: who is this Jesus? Some called him a prophet, some a healer, some a social reformer, some a teacher. Many people think of Jesus as a good man whose words were twisted by his followers. Others see him as a great leader crushed by authorities. Was Jesus aware of what he was doing, or of what would come from it?

John tells us that Jesus was well aware of who he is. Jesus says he does nothing on his own accord, but only what God, his Father, wills him to do. Jesus says what he does bears witness to who he is. But these deeds are miracles, acts of authority, of compassion, of knowledge beyond that of a mere teacher. And what do they bear witness about? Jesus as the Anointed One, the Son of God. More than a figure to be curious about or to make theories about — a person, indeed, to belong to, to trust, to follow.

Lord, let us bear witness of You as the God you really are, no matter what anyone else says about You. Amen.

———————————–

Luke 13:22-31

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, preaching and teaching. And people were asking him questions. (Jesus was as well-known for his unusual answers as he was for healings and for traveling from town to town.) Someone asked Jesus about whom God would be rescuing. He seems to assume:

  1. (1) that the burden of life was such that only God could bring about any rescue;
  2. (2) that God would take them into the Kingdom of God (described by Jesus elsewhere in his teaching in glowing terms); and
  3. (3) that it was troubling to him that only a few would experience this, and perhaps that the few would not include him.

Jesus replies by telling him about a narrow door into the Kingdom. It acts as a constraint, in that there are many who will try to go through but can’t. Jesus uses the image of the narrow gate in Matthew 7:13. There, it is the gate to life, and the alternative is the wide gate that leads to destruction. The Matthew verse has an immediate context of God’s goodness in the current life, and recognizing that which makes for good in this life and not bad. But the more interesting parallel is that in Matthew 7:21-23, Jesus says that many who did mighty acts on His behalf won’t enter the Kingdom, because they didn’t do as God wanted them to do. God tells them “I don’t know who you are, where you’re coming from. Go away!” Their lives had no consistency, they lived one way and then another. And that is not the way of the Kingdom.

Jesus then warns that some are last who will be first, and vice-versa. Notice that it’s not a total flip. Each time the gospels say this, it says that ‘many’ or ‘some’ of those who are last will be first. The saying isn’t meant to condemn all those who would be expected to be the first in just because they are first. Jesus is saying that being first or last doesn’t matter. Jesus here already mentioned the presence of Abraham and the prophets, who the listeners would assume would be there. It’s just that whoever bids to come in is called to go through the narrow door of living the life of love that God calls us to live. If you do that, God will recognize you as already being of the Kingdom, already part of the yeast that will make the Kingdom rise in the life we now live.

Bob Longman

Second Sunday in Lent – Luke

(Also in mp3.)

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, Luke 13:31-35

Shelter

One of the most striking images in the New Testament is the one Jesus uses here. Jesus is warned that he might be killed by Herod if he keeps doing what he’s doing. Jesus then notes that he is not in Jerusalem yet, so it is not the place for him to die. Jerusalem is the Big Shot place, the home of the Temple and headquarters of the authorities, the ones who usually do such killings. (Keep in mind : that is where he ended up dying. But that is yet to come.)

Then, Jesus lets his emotions out. “How I’d love to gather you under My wings”, He says, “but you would not be gathered.” This is God the Mother Hen, trying to hide the chicks from the fox (the Herods of the world). Important as that may be, the main thrust of Jesus’ saying is not in the image of God he uses, it’s in what the little chicks do. They refuse to be guarded. They won’t stay under the wing! The result is that they will be left “desolate”. Maybe the fox will have little chicken nuggets for lunch; or, they’ll just get lost in the cold world and freeze or starve. Their survival depends on the mother hen, but these bird-brains want nothing of it !

Who scurries out from under the wing?

  • Is it today’s person, master builder of her/his own personal world by way of modern technology?
  • is it the force-full, cocky macho street tough? Or perhaps those who love to fantasize about being one as they lay on the couch swilling beer and watching TV sports?
  • is it the one who has the business cable channel on their TV at all times, in order not to miss the market move or inside tip that will make him/her a multi-millionaire?
  • is it the church activist, bitter at the very idea of being tucked under the same wing as those they take to be their enemy, trying to push or pull them out from under the warmth of Christ’s body?
  • is it you and I when we want to keep power over our lives all to ourselves, not giving it over to God, or not really letting the other chicks of the flock snuggle up close to us under God’s wings?

We who think ourselves secure stop thinking that way when that which is bigger than us shows its force. Like, say, a hurricane and flood. Or an earthquake and tsunami. Or an economic downturn that leaves many — perhaps even you? — out of a house or a job, with no idea what’s coming next. The world we create for ourselves gets shown to be a cartoon world, with liquid eraser dumped all over it. When that happens, many people scurry back to God, only to run away once the threat is gone. Keep in mind the lesson of the current hard times: God is there, and God cares, even when we think ourselves to be beyond danger’s reach. Because God knows we aren’t.

Lord, teach me to trust you and your love for me. Tuck me under your wings. Keep me safe from the foxes prowling in my life. Amen.

Bob Longman

A challenge: Most of us know at least one person or family who’s lost much during the current economic upheavals. Think a moment about some way, small or large, in which you can lend a servant-hand to them. Then, do it.

First Sunday in Lent

(Also, as an mp3 audio file.)

Scriptures :
Genesis 9:8-17; Genesis 2:15-17 and Genesis 3:1-7; Deuteronomy 26:1-11.

Psalm 91; Psalm 103.
1 Peter 3:18-22

Matthew 4:1-11;
Luke 4:1-13;
Mark 1:9-15.

At the Rainbow’s End

In Genesis 9, God is blessing Noah and his sons, after the flood. At several points, it doesn’t sound all that much like a blessing (for instance, in v. 5, God tells them they and the animals will all eventually die). But then, God does something striking: the God of All, the Flood-Maker, the Flood-Remover, is now bound to fragile, small, perishable beings. (This is called a ‘covenant’, a sort of contract, only, this is one that’s declared unilaterally.) The God of the Flood is promising that the earth as a whole and all its creatures, including Noah and his descendents, will never again be destroyed by flood. And the sign of this daring act of solidarity is the rainbow — the colors that signal the end of the storm, the start of the sunlight. The rainbow is the beautiful natural sign of the arrival of what is hoped for.

That was just step 1 in the Creator’s promises to the created. More kept being added — more covenants, with Abraham and David. However, none of these covenants by themselves did much to treat the long-term illness. That took the ultimate act of loving solidarity: God living as a human being. Going through a creaturely life. And going through death, from other creaturely hands. The start of this was to be born. Then, to live out the divine, Spirit-powered mission. A mission that began when John the Baptist baptized Jesus. Jesus called on people to live differently, for God was about to set things right. Indeed, the mission led to death, but then to life again, leading to a covenant that those who follow Jesus would find that when the storm of life itself is over, there is a new day at the end of the rainbow.

Father, teach me to put my hope in you. Help me to trust in what You have declared will be. Lead me to thank you for what You’ve done. Guide me to be a part of Your continuing mission. Amen.

Bob Longman

Epiphany (06 January)

(also known as Three Kings Day, or the Forthshowing)

Matthew 2:1-12

This has been a strange time, it has. You’ve met angels. You’ve traveled long distances (for back then). You’ve given birth in the barn or garage, with a bunch of animals looking on. You’ve had some local shepherds come by and give the baby their propers. You’re finally in a room, where most anyone who comes by goes googoo blubbering over your baby, as they usually do. But then comes this.

What would you think if foreigners – total strangers – came up to you from seemingly out of nowhere? Rich ones, to be sure — top officials from some nations out east where they go around obeying stars and doing other strange things that a good Jew knows better than to do. It’s not every day that folks in such a splendid wardrobe come to Bethlehem, and when they do they seek the fanciest digs in town to hang out in. So what brings them here? And what is their interest in your baby? To buy him? Steal him? Kill him? To report to Herod about him (and we all know what kind of a wacko Herod can be)? One of them goes into his robe — is he pulling out a… a… knife??

Whew… It’s a container, full of — precious incense! And he’s giving it for your baby !!! And what’s this? Another guy is pulling out of his traveling case… gold ! They’re giving your baby the royal treatment — quite literally — the gifts they give to new kings and heirs to the throne !

Epiphany means the ‘showing forth’ of Jesus for what He really is — the One who is the true and rightful ruler over us. But unlike earthly kings who surround themselves with guards and armies, He chose to leave Himself at our mercy, where we could do Him harm, even kill Him. Just like the rest of us. Even from the very start, as a baby, the risk was there, and it would eventually come through. (That’s what lies behind the third gift, of burial-fragrance). His task was not one that could be done from strength and safety, but only from exposure to danger and death.

Father, let us live by the light you shone through Your Son, that we, like the magi of old, can show Him to all for what He really is. Amen.

Bob Longman