Friday, October 3, 2008

Called to Be Set Apart, Part 3

These principles are difficult to translate over into our present age. But this is meant for us, now, just as it was meant for Jesus’ listeners then. These principles not simply meant for when we arrive to Heaven. This applies to us now, not resisting an evil person, turning the other cheek, giving up coat and tunic, walking a second mile. That is meant for us today as well. This comes down to our allegiance.

Many of you know that last week my husband was granted US citizenship. It was interesting timing as these thoughts have been rolling around my head for quite some time. And as they called the people within the stadium to rise to their feet and place their hands on their hearts to pledge allegiance to flag, I could not do it. I thought of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who refused to bow down to the idol of King Nebuchadnezzar. I thought of the many times that God warns His children not to worship any other gods. I thought of the words of Paul who told us very clearly that our citizenship is in Heaven. And I could not rise, place my hand over my heart, and pledge my undivided allegiance to a flag made by man, representing an empire created by human imagination. Whether the pledge says “under God” or not, the pledge is to an empire and not to God Himself.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that my husband will carry the same passport as the girls and I, as it will simplify and streamline many of our travel obstacles. I also greatly appreciate many of the simplicities of life based on how things are set up here. But I struggle with the empire values, and cannot pledge my allegiance to it, because this could all be removed in an instant, and I would still pledge my allegiance to Christ the Messiah, regardless of which passport we carry. Now before you stone me for being an ungrateful traitor, let’s take it back to Scripture.

Jesus had warned his followers that they were to live the kingdom of God in this world, regardless of where in the world they were, and that the world would hate them for it. They were not to blend in to be like everyone else, but were to live distinct lives, severed from the peoples of the nations. The powers that be would drag them before governors and courts, beat them and insult them, feed them to beasts, and hang them on crosses. Look at what happened to Jesus himself. And hate his followers is what the world did – at least for the first couple of hundred years.

The young early church lived within the messy collision of kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Rome. The more the early Christians reflected on the life and message of their Messiah, and the more they tried to live the way of the gospel, the harder they collided with the state and its hopes and dreams, militaries and markets. In fact, Christians in those first few hundred years were called atheists because they no longer believed in the Roman gospel; they no longer had any faith in the state as savior of the world. They were called “renegades” and “rebels,” “enemies of the human race.” They refused to serve in the Roman military, refusing to pick up arms against another human being, just as Jesus himself told Peter to lower his sword against the Roman soldier. And so they themselves became the targets of violence and persecution.

Before there was Christianity or Christendom or even really a church, the movement of people following after Jesus became known as the Way, because their way of living stood in stark contrast to the ways of empire. They believed that new life through Jesus had begun, right now. Jesus’ constant reiteration of his vision of the kingdom of God coming on earth still rang in their ears. They believed the kingdom’s coming was so immanent, they could not help but start living it now.

Take a look at Acts 4:32-35:
All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.
Among themselves, they had completely eradicated poverty and formed a treasury for all. They had become a nation unto God while living in the midst of the empire, completely subversive to the empire around them. There was no welfare from the government. There was no outside aid or government funding. God provided resources through His Church. They were forsaking all that the empire had to offer, choosing rather simplicity and contentment to build and edify each other. Those who had too much gave it away, and those who had too little were brought up to par.

I found this quote from a first century follower of the Way and found it quite compelling:
“We who formerly treasured money and possessions more than anything else now hand over everything we have to a treasury for all and share it with everyone who needs it. We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.”
So, as beautiful as this sounds, it leaves me wondering what happened? How did this fall apart? The problem is that the followers of the Way went from being on the fringes of the empire, the outcasts and rebels of the society, to being baptized into the empire. The system that Jesus himself had rejected became the backbone of it all.

In the year 306 AD, a Roman Emperor named Constantine took over power. He was a military conqueror, and as legend has it, in the year 312, won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge after seeing a sign of the cross and hearing a voice say, “In this you will conquer.” It is interesting, considering that for Jesus the cross meant refusal of worldly ways of conquering. But the battle was won and in 313 AD the Edict of Milan was passed, which granted religious tolerance to all religions, especially Christianity.

Emperor Theodosius ruled Rome from 379 to 395 and proclaimed Christianity as the state religion of the Empire, making it a crime not to be a Christian. It wasn’t long after that that the persecuted became the persecutor, and the church became the church of the militant and triumphant. The kingdom of God that had been known through a king who rules with a towel draped over his arm to wash feet, riding a donkey, and carrying a cross had become the empire of Christendom. In the name of the one who taught us to love our enemies, the church began to burn its enemies alive.

Now, these days we certainly aren’t burning our enemies alive, not literally at least. But I can easily say, the church is not known for the servant love that Jesus demonstrated. Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal and powerful. We saw this in the persecuted Church of Ethiopia this past summer. The Church is small and struggling, and yet loving and growing, and loving and growing. They are being forced to return to Jesus for absolutely everything because the powers of the government oppose them. And so they grow and struggle and give all they have, and love and grow and struggle and give all they have. It is amazing and humbling to see.

You see, when the empire took over Christianity, the doors of the church flew wide open for all to enter, but at a very great cost. Repentance, rebirth and conversion were exchanged for cheap grace, and the integrity of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus faded. The humility and servanthood that He taught and demonstrated were overlooked for power and influence. Christianity began to face an identity crisis as they tried to make disciples of all nations by imperial influence. Instead they baptized the empire itself, producing what so many liberal and conservative Christians today actually want – an entire empire run on the blood of Jesus Christ, a holy Christian state.

I found this quote in a very challenging book that I’ve been reading:
The greatest sin of political imagination is thinking there is no other way except the filthy rotten system we have today. Is it possible we can’t see the destructiveness of our economy and system not because we don’t know it’s terrible but because deep down we feel that it’s necessary and that therefore it’s hopeless to criticize it?
These days we have a president, not a Caesar, and so we don’t actually call him Son of God. We call him president. And we say that we can support a president while also worshiping Jesus as the Son of God. But how is that possible? Scripture says that you cannot serve two masters.

For one says that we must love our enemies, and the other says that we must kill them; one promotes the economics of competition, while the other admonishes the forgiveness of debts. To which do we pledge our allegiance?

For Jesus and his followers, the central question was, “How do we live faithfully to God?” But then the Church inherited a kingdom. And it wasn’t the kind of servant kingdom Jesus imagined and incarnated, not the kingdom of the slaughtered lamb; it was the dominant and coercive force in charge of the world.

And instead of faithfulness, the question became, how do we run the world as Christians?
How do I run this profit-driven corporation as a Christian?
How can we make culture more Christian?
How would a responsible Christian run this war?
How can we put a Christian into office to influence the life standard of this whole empire?

The history of the church has been largely a history of “believers” refusing to believe in the way of the crucified Nazarene and instead giving in to the very temptations he resisted – power, relevancy, spectacle.

We are seeing more and more that the church has fallen in love with the state and that this love affair is killing the church’s imagination. For those who might disagree with that, think about how much of the conversation about the two current candidates has been about their religious views. Which man is more Christian? Which man votes more Christian values? What if I agree with a some of one, but not all? And some of the other, but not all? Churches have begun to endorse candidates from the pulpits, risking losing their tax-exempt status, saying it’s their God-given responsibility to name God’s candidate. I have to say that that is just hog-wash. It has no place in God’s church. Whether some would call the tax-exemption hush money or not, the Church has no business getting involved in worldly affairs such as this. We have seen it in country after country, where the Church itself becomes divided along party lines. Pastors start saying things like, “if you don’t vote for so-and-so, you’re not welcome in this church,” or even questioning a person’s salvation based on how they vote. That’s ridiculous!

The powerful benefits and temptations of running the world’s largest superpower have bent the church’s identity. Having power at its fingertips, the church often finds “guiding the course of history” a more alluring goal than following the crucified Christ. Too often the patriotic values of pride and strength triumph over the spiritual values of humility, gentleness, and sacrificial love.

Maybe we, as a body of believers, need to rethink our involvement in the business and ways of this world. Our responsibility and allegiance, first and foremost, belongs to the One who died for us. And this is not the Way that He modeled for us. Let us re-imagine what the Christian life could/should look like. I know for me, I want to be part of a revolution. My soul is hungry for a revolution. One that is marked by radical living, stunning humility and sacrifice, compassion and love, community and servanthood. I want to be a part of recreating the Way of Jesus, not just on Sunday mornings, or Monday nights, or life groups gatherings, but life and every aspect of it. Maybe you’d like to join me in exploring what that would look like. Maybe you’d like to imagine with me what it would be like to truly live set apart.

Grace and peace.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Called to Be Set Apart, Part 2

****Today we will continue with the talk. Much of the talk today, and tomorrow's as well was inspired by/taken from Scripture and a very dangerous book called "Jesus for President." I don't like the title of the book, but found the teaching to be very challenging and in line with Scripture. It tends to go against cultural teaching and cultural norms, which tends to ruffle feathers. But does it line up with the Word of God? That is the question to be asked.****

In Africa there is a tribe called the Maasai. They are generally located in southwestern Kenya into Tanzania, but you can find patches of them spread out all over those regions. When we were in Africa, I always loved seeing a group of Maasai men because they stand out so incredibly as such a beautiful people with a rich heritage that they are proud of.

They are easily identified wherever they go by their characteristic Maasai clothing, which is typically a bright red and blue checkered cloth wrapped around them, with brightly colored beads around their necks. Their earlobes are typically pierced, with large, LARGE holes left in their lobes so that they hang low. They are typically shepherds or herdsmen, so I usually see them with a large wooden walking stick.

They are characterized with loyalty and honesty. Everyone that I have talked to about the Maasai, simply say, “Ah, good men. You can trust a Maasai.” They are indeed warriors of old, and one can see that they are proud of their heritage, but they are known by their integrity, among each other, and outside their tribe as well. They stand out wherever they are as they cling to their identity as a tribe. It is easy to pick a Maasai out of a group; it is easy to know who they are. They cling to who they are, regardless of where they are, staying true to the nature and the legacy that has been created for them.

Every time I would see one, I was left wondering, ‘What would this world be like if we as Christ followers had such a reputation?’ What if others were to say of us as Christ followers, “Ah, those Christians. Good people. Men and women of integrity. You can always trust a Christian.” What if we were that easy to pick out of a crowd? Instead, I hear often that the Church is classified as angry, judgmental, hypocritical, harsh. It’s not really appealing or attractive to an on looking world.

We talk about reclaiming America for God, all the while I am wondering if America is what God wants us to reclaim, an empire just like Rome in Jesus’ time, with the ideas of consumerism, greed, and lust almost overwhelming us as a people. I wonder if God doesn’t want to reclaim us alone, outside of the empire of America, followers of the Way who look to Him as King, president, decision maker, provider, protector.

I wonder if we as a body of believers shouldn’t be looking to redefine the Church as a nation set apart, united from one congregation to the next, rather than divided by party lines or worldly labels like “liberal” and “conservative”, driving the empire and its values out of us as a united body, rather than us launching an offensive to drive the wrongs out of the empire. But rather than placing our hope in a transnational church that embodies God’s kingdom, we assume America is God’s hope for the world, even when it doesn’t look like Christ.

In order for us to think about what it looks like to be set apart from the nations around us, I want us to look at the teachings of Jesus and the formation and life of the early Church. I am hoping that by looking at this, we can draw out a better picture of what it is that we as a people have strayed from. There came a point in our history that we said, “We want to be like all the other nations.” It was not God’s way. It was not the Way of Jesus. It’s time that we as a body explore, question, and struggle with what we are doing so that we might once again be truly set apart. It’s time for a revolution.

Jesus came at such a time in history when there was a powerful empire ruling over most of the world. It was a superpower, not too different from out own today. It was a violent time in history, as the word of Caesar was: Submit to Rome or die. Jesus, as the Messiah, became the hope of Israel to overtake the Roman government and reclaim their nation for God. Many of the messages and teachings that Jesus gave in His time here on earth were directly subversive to the Roman government, hijacking their words and terminology and redeeming them for Kingdom glory.

Even the Christmas story itself, penned by Luke, was inspiring to the Jews of that day who were looking for hope from the ruling empire, as it talked about a Savior being born, a Messiah, the Lord. These were words that the Jews knew quite well, but had heard them in relation to Caesar. Caesar was called Savior, even Son of God, and Messiah. So, according to Rome, they already had a Savior. His name was Caesar. And Caesar had a gospel; it was “Submit to the empire or die.” But now in Jesus a different kind of Savior was being proclaimed, and he had a different kind of gospel and a different kind of Kingdom.

Jesus was urging his followers to be the unique, peculiar, and set-apart people that began with Abraham being called to the wilderness. He was calling them to reject the ways of the empire, the values of the dominant and militant, and return to a simple Way. He didn’t pray for the world in order to make governments more religious and have their laws reflect more religious values; He wasn’t hoping to redeem the government and nation of Rome.

He called Israel to be the light of the world – to abandon the way of the world and cultivate an alternative society in the shell of the old, not merely to be a better version of the kingdom of this world. This sort of political language doesn’t exactly harmonize with the contemporary church language of “reclaiming America for God.”

What Jesus taught for us as His followers was this: Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it (Matthew 10:39). He taught us sacrificial love, humble and submissive. He taught enemy love with imagination. Jesus teaches us to refuse to oppose evil on its own terms. He invites us to transcend both passivity and violence through a third way. He teaches us that indeed freedom is actually free, that it is a reflection of the state of the heart.

For instance, look with me in Matthew 5, starting at verse 38:

You have heard that it as said, “Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.”

(This command was given to the Jewish people back in Exodus 21:24, and it too was meant to set the people apart. This was a limitation on evil done, so that violence would not escalate in retaliation. For instance, if someone cut off your finger, you could not turn around and cut off their arm for revenge. This was a limiting factor of justice to set the people of Israel apart from the warring, violent nations around them. And now here, Jesus takes it one step further.)

But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. (Well, now that’s new.)

If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.

(Now, what Jesus is describing here is a slap. In orderly Jewish culture, a person would hit someone only with the right hand. If you hit someone with the left hand, you could be banished for ten days. So a person would have to use a backslap to hit someone on the right cheek with the right hand, like an abusive husband to a wife, or a master to a slave. It was a slap to insult, degrade, and humiliate, a slap meant for an inferior. By turning the cheek, the person made the abuser look them in the eye, and the abuser could now only hit them with a fist, as an equal. By turning the cheek, the other person said, “I am a human being, made in the image of God, and you cannot destroy that.” Do not cower and do not punch back. Make sure the person looks into your eyes and sees your sacred humanity, and it will become increasingly harder for that person to hurt you.

And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.

Take off all of your clothes and hand them over, exposing the sickness of their greed. Nakedness was taboo for Jews, but the shame fell less on the naked party and more on the person who look on or cause the nakedness (Gen. 9:20-27) (93). Following Jesus’ suggestion would be a way of saying, “You want my coat. You can have it. You can even have my undies. But you cannot have my soul or my dignity.”

If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

For a first-century Jew, it was common to be asked to walk a mile with a soldier to carry their supplies. Jesus was saying to walk it with them willingly, even further than asked. Get to know them, not as an enemy but as a person. Talk with them and woo them into our movement by your love.

As Jesus taught such things, no doubt that He angered and upset a number of people. The people were looking for a conqueror. They were looking for someone to overthrow the empire of Herod once and for all and reclaim Israel for God. Reclaim Israel for God. Sound familiar?

We'll finish it up tomorrow. Grace and peace in all things, y'all.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Called to Be Set Apart, Part 1

****This is from a talk that I gave to a women's gathering this past Monday night. While some received it and are contemplating it, some have rejected it altogether. Either way is okay, for it was for me to simply put it out there, to challenge, and to give us all something to chew on. We are all still bonded by the blood of Christ that covers us, and I will cling to that. Enjoy.***

I am a firm lover of the Word of God. I stand in awe of its transformational power for our individual lives, because I am living proof of it. If there ever was a mess in life, it was me. Many of you already know my story or have heard my testimony shared before, but so that everyone is on the same page, I’ll give you the nutshell version.

I didn’t grow up in the church, necessarily, but had some rather rough beginnings. At the age of 18, I was a victim of rape, and rather than talk to someone and seek help, I self-medicated with any drug or alcohol I could get my hands on. By the time I was 19 years old I could not stand to be sober and could not imagine life without my drugs. I was very scared, hateful and angry to everyone who dared cross my path. I moved out to Tucson in the summer of ’97 with my family, supposedly for a fresh start, but all it meant for me was fresh set of drug dealers.

In December of 1999, though, everything changed. Jesus met me in such a desperate place, in such a desperate way, that all I could say was, “If you don’t save me, I know I’ll die. I just know that I’ll die.” Thus began the transformation of me, with God systematically cleaning out the dross of my life and replacing it with a little bit more of a reflection of him.

I tell you this so that no one in here makes the mistake of thinking that I’ve got it all together. I was an absolute wreck of a life, and on many levels, am still quite a mess. But by God’s grace, He has transformed me into something that He chooses to use for His glory, and continues to transform me by the power of His Word and His grace and mercy in my life.

I have come to realize through this journey that when God is trying to teach me something new, He generally sets up themes for me to learn from. This is probably because I am such a hard head, but it just seems to take me a while to catch on to something new. So, these past few months, He has graciously been speaking to me about being set apart. And since He’s been speaking to me about, I’m going to share it with you.

The reason being is that this is a huge concept, and I am finding that it is increasingly difficult to put into practice in this day and age. When God speaks in His Word about us being His chosen people, being a royal priesthood, being a sanctified nation, what does that look like in normal, everyday lives? How do we live that out? Are we living that out?

I do not pretend to have any answers here. I am not a professional theologian and I am not paid clergy. I am a seeker of truth, and I am hoping that, if nothing else, I raise up lots of questions within you to struggle with. Maybe together, as a people united, we can struggle together and flesh out what it means to be set apart.

Let’s start by looking at some Scripture to determine what it is that God actually said in His Word to us as His children. We’re going to start in Exodus:

- Exodus 19:5-6 – Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
- God called His people a “treasured possession unto Him.” They were distinct as a holy nation, made distinct among the nations by the lives that they lived and the ways that they interacted with each other.

- Leviticus 20:26 – You are to be holy to me because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.
- KJV – for I the Lord am holy, and have severed you from other people.
• The Hebrew word for severed, and set apart is badal – separate, divide, to make a distinction, difference, to withdraw from, to set apart
• God severed His people apart from the other nations, to be different, withdrew them from the people around them.

- Deuteronomy 7:6 – For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.

- Deuteronomy 10:14-15 – To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today.

It is here that we are going to make the transition from the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Covenant. So where we have seen the Word of the Lord speaking about a holy nation, He has been speaking directly to Israel. But here we see that He is also referring to us, as followers of Christ, as being part of that holy nation.

- Galatians 3:28-29 – There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

- 1 Peter 2:9 – But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, 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.

So, if this is the Word, what do we do with it? How now shall we live according to the Word which we have heard? What does it mean for us as followers of Christ to live lives that are holy unto the Lord, set apart for Him, distinct among the peoples? I don’t know about you, but I find it very easy to look just like everyone else.

Even the ancient Israelites struggled with that. Look at 1 Samuel 8, starting in verse 4 through the end of the chapter.

Here is a nation that was called out by the King of kings Himself. YAHWE literally severed the nation of Israel from all the other nations, withdrew them from other peoples, fought battles on their behalf, and led them to the land that had been promised to them for centuries. He had called them by name to be different from the other nations, and yet their cry was to look like all the other nations. Their request to be like everyone else.

I don’t know about you, but I find it very easy to get into routines and habits here, to-do lists, chores and errands, so that really and truly, at the end of the day, my life doesn’t look much different than my neighbor, who doesn’t know Christ. Now don’t get me wrong. I’ll wake up early, on a good day, and have my quiet time with the Lord. We pray before we eat a meal and give thanks at the end of the day.

But what about the rest of the day, the part of the day where I actually have to interact with the world to get my chores and errands done? Am I set apart? Would anybody else be able to identify me as a follower of Christ, other than by the cross around my neck? So what does it mean for us, in this day and age, to be a holy nation? How did Christ intend for us to live? be continued tomorrow.
Grace and peace, y'all.