Totally Religious But Skeptical

Be Bold Challenge With Lion Face

There is a fine point between cynicism and skepticism.  It is like fine point between going forward in a faith community with an engaged mind with critical thinking like the Drive gear and being too passive with ones mind on Neutral.  Neutral could mean that even a weak thing can push me around.  God, who is good, does not mind honest questions.  Thomas Jefferson addressed this saying, “Sit wisdom firmly in her seat.  Question with boldness even the existence of God.  For if there is a God, he must want honest questions rather than blindfolded fear”.

True spiritual seeking is not an objective experience. It is fully informed Christian is engaging all of the person.  If someone sells you Christianity allows no questioning, run!

There once was a man who grew up in a spiritual community that did not allow members to even read materials critical of their faith.  He started seeing holes in their doctrine and their history not adding up so he confided to someone to listen to his many struggles in faith.  Days later he was disfellowshipped and no one could speak to him. Supposedly, “blind folded fear” would be better with a focus on that group alone.

Below we see Jesus having a healthy attitude to skepticism and expanding the conversation to how “God so loved the world……” (John 3:16).  Too often those on spiritual journeys overlook the value of questions though Jesus does not.

The next day he decided to go to Galilee, and he found Philip. And Jesus said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the town of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him.” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered and said to him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than this.” And he said to him, “Amen, amen, I say to you, you will see the sky opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:43-51).

Phillip was dedicated to Jesus by the time he approaches Nathaniel.  When he approaches him he communicates on what they knew were their signs of hope in what Moses and the prophets said.  He uses a common faith related shorthand to communicate the historical context and momentum that is realized in Jesus.  This is an informed faith and culture perspective.

But Nathanael responds, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  He hears the deposit of faith context, yet the name of a backwater town seems too simple for any far reaching consequence.  He was likely a spiritual seeker to begin with or Philip would not have approached him right away.  His emphasis was on how God would bring out greatness from what is already impressive in the Old Testament history.

But my above statement rings true in how there can be subjectivity, a bias, that the seeker brings in applying the critical mind to a spiritual picture.  But the beauty of the pattern of Jesus is he dwelled among us.  He had a footprint without a flashiness or faith would be too easy.  When faith comes too easy it leaves easy.

This is why skepticism is valuable.  Skepticism is a way to look at the merits of something with honest questions.  For example, Mary asked Gabriel how she could be pregnant since “I know not a man”?  She was not punished for it since she was staying in touch with that which was revealed truth up to that point.  Skepticism is healthy because it protects the good.

Using skepticism is also good for one obtaining a personal ownership on the matter. An example is of two personality types in a cancer study.  They examined two personality types of men in their mid-fifties with the same cancer.  One was skeptical and wanted to know all of the process.  The other was passive with whatever the authority says.  Of the two, the passive had lower survival rates. Likewise too much passivity in the spiritual life with ones reason leads to spiritual death.  There, ownership saves.

Here is a true Israelite. There is no duplicity in him—- This is a turning point.  Jesus respect Nathanael’s response even in his error.  A true Israelite would highlights of salvation history engrained and Nazareth was not in one of them.  Though there is presumption or conjecture in Nathanael’s doubt there is a single-mindedness on the God of his understanding having continuity with earlier works.  Jesus sees him as a glass half full and is able to work with him. Jesus is open here to the hard questions of honest inquiry and compliments Nathaniel for that. For a future apostle who would pass on the faith, he sets the table for a refined balance of faith and reason.  “To believe is nothing other than to think with assent… Believers are also thinkers: in believing, they think and in thinking, they believe… If faith does not think, it is nothing” (Saint Augustine, De Praedestinatione Sanctorum, 2, 5: PL 44, 963).

You will see greater things than this—- Jesus honors the tenacity of Nathaniel.  In that, Jesus explains how and why his supernatural knowledge of the spiritual and physical location of Nathanael is a fragment for kingdom perspective.  By speaking of angels Jesus makes reference to something even larger than Israel since being the “King of Israel” is not the limit for Jesus because he was also the king of spiritual Israel to come.  This reference of angels ascending and descending goes to a transcendent nature of God’s kingdom.  Jesus makes a  vague reference to the life of Jacob that points to both that and how even more expansive the grace of God will be shown.

Then he had a dream: a stairway rested on the ground, with its top reaching to the heavens; and God’s angels were going up and down on it. And there was the Lord standing beside him and saying: I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth, and through them you will spread to the west and the east, to the north and the south. In you and your descendants all the families of the earth will find blessing (Genesis 28: 12-14).

Jesus relates to Nathanael in the Old Testament reference, knowing his bias, and emphasizes how individual journeys have meaning partly in God’s grace to everyone and, sometimes, through humble beginnings.  Personal conversions should add up to God’s agenda for the world that engages God’s grace to humanity.

Philip was only extending the invitation of Jesus.  Jesus promised in the context of making disciples and baptizing them in the Trinitarian formula (Matthew 28:20) that he would be with us to the end of the age.  How deeply he will do that is up to us, as we ask honest questions but open to the fullness of Jesus.

 

Being Shown The Way

you-are-not-alone

If one thinks of conversion superficially, there is a tendency to see it as solitary at first and with an emphasis that it stays that way.  But what if ones conversion experience is meant to start with someone else’s take on Jesus?  There is the message of the good news of Jesus Christ but messages typically come through messengers.

In western society we have a common phrase, just tune into the right channel, that one can accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. Can that be valid as the central point of ones Christian faith?  A decent scan of the Bible and Church history will show that Christianity is communal or relational as well.  The evangelism and ongoing conversion of the experience is meant to be in both a communal context and ones personal decision.   This effects the person and the world can be effected by God through such a person.  Taking this fact in one way, this is what it can mean to be an evangelical Christian which can apply to Christians of any community.

In Protestant Christianity a common term is “led to the Lord” where someone makes a personal decision for Christ to be Lord and Savior but some mortal person was greatly involved in proposing Jesus (hopefully not imposing). Often converts of the last 2,000 years have converted through someone being an instrument of the grace of conversion.  But to give way to the idea that someone else knows more than you on an eternal subject takes humility.

Such was the case for a fisherman named Simon from the town of Capernaum who would one day be a fisher of men.  This is the beginning of the story of Jesus lived through his life.

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John had said and who had followed Jesus. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah” (that is, the Christ).  And he brought him to Jesus.Jesus looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You will be called Cephas” (which, when translated, is Peter (John 1:40-42).

Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother-  At the moment that this story takes place, Simon is just Simon.  The narrative throws in the full title with the hindsight of who Simon becomes, is better known as, and the irony that Andrew seeks him out. Again, to have the gospel proclaimed to us at any level will have some level of humility inherently tied to it.  Before Jesus, like any of us, was indeed lost without Jesus and needed to be found by Jesus vicariously through Andrew.  In away, Simon had to be found by the Church; albeit loaded with only two people.

The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon–  What can be lost on the reader is that the conversion experience of Andrew is expressed too. Andrew’s expression of conversion was in part to share the extent of Jesus that he knew by that time.  Andrew had seen Jesus pointed to in the foundations of faith, be favored by the Father, and had been able to “come and see” where Jesus lived. Those beautiful experiences of “in-reach” should inevitably being expressed in outreach.  Jesus impressed something on Andrew that had to be shared and soon.

You will be called Cephas –  Many Christians of good conscience see Cephas and see a verse that Simon Peter is the first pope.  Others see the title as symbolic.  I must confess, I have a bias.  For a moment, I would like to step back from that controversy and point out that Jesus calls all of us to be on mission of some kind.  To be converted to Jesus is not to have a mental assent or a goose bump.  We are to express that grace according to the individual calling of God on our lives and at some point we should see in our decision for Jesus his specific calling for us. Jesus leaves a deposit into the heart of this man as a point of reference.  Weeks later, Jesus returned to this man while he is working on his boat and adds to the foundation of this moment.

which, when translated- This may seem like a peripheral detail but not with more thought.  The conversation from an objective perspective was three men chatting in Aramaic on an average 1st century day in Roman-ruled Palestine.  But in a spiritual hindsight when one reflects on conversion stories there is a beauty in extrapolating the relational dynamics and apply it to more than one place or culture.  That said, the disciple John departs from the Greek so the reader can be especially in the feel of how personal Jesus was and give a reminder how down to earth the background of the gospel must be read. Jesus is applicable to every scene because his presence is always practical to each culture and through each culture.

In review of this encounter of the three men, one can draw out the profoundness of a properly composed Christian community.  This is not a matter of social conjuring of excitement or group think.  Any called out community that is centered on Jesus Christ has a distinctive of thinking of the other, proclaiming the person of Jesus, humility, knowing his call on our lives and echoing that relational aspect through the world and through the ages.  That is the Church that Jesus builds one person at a time and one pair at a time.  Such are the followers of the Way.

Conversion to The Fundamental Good

Fundamental_Form_logo

Flash in the pan experience can take us only so far if we want to change the fundamental things in us.  We have to go deeper for it to matter.  Transitions that matter for the person have to go from the inside out.

For two disciples of John the Baptist there were two days of transition that were ending one time of discipleship and getting ready for another.  They saw the baptism of Jesus but for whatever reason following Jesus was not meant to happen that very day though much was illuminated about him.  But for them a conversion of heart began.

But the next day, like many who hear the gospel and understand it, is a time of action to make conversion real or inaction that makes it all like a goose-bump that fades.

 The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, “Look, the Lamb of God!” When the two disciples heard him say this, they followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come, and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they stayed with him that day. It was about four in the afternoon (John 1:35-38).

Look, the Lamb of God!– -Just like the passover lamb was the game changer in the time of Moses, so from this point forward everything changes.  And just like the time of Moses where the lamb had to be consumed in all, so Jesus must be received fully. Jesus is being pointed to as one who would in fact give of himself fully.  Such giving seems foolish to the world.

What do you want?– – Jesus asks them something that could be considered a test.  Their response can say a lot of what they are looking for in light of the teaching they already had. When God draws us to himself in the context of initial or ongoing conversion, it is fitting to reflect of what we want and if it really matters.

Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?– – They come to Jesus on the right terms in obedience and are teachable to the Teacher.  This is what matters.  What is more, by asking the “Rabbi” where he is staying they want more than a quick answer but to abide, metaphorically, in the schoolhouse.

But coming to God with the requests that matter and are thus consistent with his nature is also a partnership initiated by God the Father.

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. (John 6:44-45)

Come, and you will see– – – Unlike many other times, Jesus does not answer the questions with a question.  This could be seen as a matter of the simplest questions being the best ones generally.

To fully understand what is being covered here, consider the beautiful things in life that are appreciated in themselves.  If I take out my keys, and one asks why, I answer that I am going to my car.  Asked more, I could say which freeway.  If I finally say that I am going to have coffee with my daughter, the question why would not make sense.  This is because certain things, the fundamental goods, are without need of being put in a definable box.  If Jesus was just somebody to do business with, then the meaning is dry. But this beautiful movement forward is both greatness in the person and a dynamic of the Holy Trinity at work. Jesus is The Fundamental Good and fellowship is an end in itself.

they went and saw-  Taking these verses, one could think this is a small real estate story.  But, considering they were sent off to “behold the Lamb of God” we can see these disciples took in that day something deeper about him.  Ideally, the ongoing process of the believer is to keep your eyes open to God.  This is where the believer stays in a state of purity.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8).  It is not seeing God’s plan but seeing God.  Again, God is the Fundamental Good.

they stayed with him that day— To experience the passover lamb in the Old Testament is not a fast food experience but is communal.  What we see here are the apostles John and Andrew coming to the man they call Teacher and connecting with him in a meeting of dwelling.  The natural follow up for the convert is to join Jesus where he is and stay there.

There is something to be said about joining Jesus such as in the context of prayer: It is normal.  That is to say, much of the lifestyle of being a Christian that has a relationship is not sensational.  The day before this narrative was sensational.  Some heard a voice and some perceived the Holy Spirit to come down on Jesus as a dove.  But to an uninformed eye, these were just three men that were under the same roof, likely sharing a meal and talking.  No flash and no snappy one liners.

On the hour of their decision to follow Jesus they believed with obedience in coming to to him, inquired, saw and stayed.  Coming to Jesus is nice, staying is everything.  Getting a quick question answered gives knowledge.  But dialogue with Jesus grants wisdom.  Such dialogue we can have today if we just ask and immerse ourselves in the presence of the Lord.  The reader may ask if it is an audible voice to which I would say that is not necessary.  This is because today and every day we can approach Jesus while Jesus approaches us and that is an end in itself.  Jesus can be our Fundamental Good- – if we let Him.

Day 2- Right Principles as Whole People.   

Incesne with angel

I like stories of drowning people being saved by a good lifeguard.  The images that come to mind are often the flapping in the water, gasping for breath and tunnel vision right before a powerful hand swoops in to save the day.  The intervention in those stories range from the lifeguard being fully in the water to being anchored in something that floats.  The trick is that the lifeguard may not be received in full trust as a gift to be received fully and simply.

To this point of not receiving that help is a story by Watchman Nee.  There once was a man who got a cramp and was drowning in a lake.  A champion swimmer stood by fully dressed and did not move until the man began to go under.  When he did, he got out of his sweats and saved the man.  When asked what took him so long he said that the drowning man had to be at the end of himself or they both would have drowned.

When John the Baptist formally presents Jesus to the crowd he uses words for  Jesus to fulfill in several dimensions and continues to fulfill when we cooperate.

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He is the one of whom I said, ‘A man is coming after me who ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’ I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” (John 1:29-34).

Behold, the Lamb of God– – Where a lion is known to conquer, the lamb is known to be conquered and consumed.  Jesus is proclaimed as one who would give all and not take like kings of old nor exploit the resources of the people.  Jesus is counter-intuitive as a gift for our redemption that we are unable to obtain for ourselves.  So we depend on Jesus for that.   Jesus is wholly self-giving.

takes away the sin of the world– Here is indicated that the gift of self is beyond Israel but to the world (John 3:16).  The gift is not tied anymore to a temple in a certain city but is universal.  Salvation as a gift for the world is shown in the Church which Jesus founded and as early as 110 AD was called that by Ignatius- – Catholic. And before Jesus came this was foreshadowed of Jesus being re- – presented by the people of God like this.  Jesus is wholly accessible.

From the rising of the sun to its setting, my name is great among the nations;

Incense offerings are made to my name everywhere,

and a pure offering;

For my name is great among the nations,

says the Lord of hosts (Malachi 1:11).

he existed before me–  Here John shows Jesus to be beyond the time of a human life span.   The gift is divine.  After all, one can look at the gospel of Luke and see that John was conceived three months before Jesus if one views Jesus only according to the flesh.  John opens  a perspective  later seen more fully by Paul that, “from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer” (2 Corinthians 5:16).  The gift transcends understanding.  Jesus is timeless and thus must be discerned with eyes for the eternal than the timely.

I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from the sky and remain upon him– The only time before that the Holy Spirit had come down on a single direct object was the temple of Solomon.  One more reason that Jesus said,  “I say to you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matthew 12:6).  The gift is consecrated because Jesus is that gift and he is holy.

will baptize with the Holy Spirit– – Christ through His humanity and in partnership with the Holy Spirit brings in those who are His with adoption that is beyond a legal transaction.  If it was only legal, the relationship between God and the believer would be contractual in what I have is yours.  Instead it is “I am yours”.  To have a relationship with the Blessed Trinity that is covenantal is to be in synch to the original creation of humanity.  “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba [Daddy], Father” (Romans 8:15)! The gift is intimate and is forward towards oneness.

Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God– – John has already spoken that Jesus must increase and he must decrease.  By saying this officially, John steps back for Jesus to shine.  He does continue to baptize but the traffic continues to be more to Jesus.  Just as John yielded to Jesus, so in the process of conversion and formation towards Jesus there is a yielding to happen.  This yielding to Jesus as the gift is informed by how he redeems, transcends understanding, is consecrated, is universal, and is intimate. To hear John’s words right, is the beginning to getting Jesus right.  Such is the fulness of the proclamation of the gospel in the Church that Jesus wants. To yield is to be on mission in disposition.  And to be on mission is to be sent.  And to be sent is to be apostolic.    In one sense, all who have “testified” to the fulness of Jesus are apostolic.

The design for a people that are transformed and have ongoing connection to the authority of Jesus as Lord is one with the traits above.  And to water down these traits with a forgetting this kind of encounter is to move with the world that God wants to redeem through Jesus.  To hold on to these is to be the Church that instead moves the world as the “pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Timothy 3:15).

Preparing For A Meeting 

Mountain Temple“I like your Christ but not your Christians”.  So is quoted Mahatma Ghandi regarding his encounter with western Christendom.  His encounter with Christianity could be said to be one that was English culture, English customs and English power all in a very imperial and oppressive context.  This was not an encounter with the Christianity of Jesus but his broadest view he had was skewed.  If one uses the ministry of John the Baptist as a lens, one can get a preview of how to perceive all the gospels.  It is no coincidence that Jesus as an adult in all four books is directly preceded then personally hailed by him.  If one get John right, then one has a better chance to get Jesus right.  But if we stay in a premise that puts Jesus as any other reactionary figure, we will only react to the ups and downs of life with a blunted experience of Christianity.

[t]he word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert. He went throughout [the] whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one crying out in the desert:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight his paths.

Every valley shall be filled

and every mountain and hill shall be made low.

The winding roads shall be made straight,

and the rough ways made smooth,

and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’” (Luke 3:2b-6).

A voice of one crying out in the desert-  It should not be lost on those who seek something more than what the world offers that the view it takes to convert has to be from outside of ones assumptions of complacency.  To cry out from especially our realization of lack is hard.  But it is harder to be hungry for God if you are full of yourself.

Prepare the way of the Lord- The mystery of what comes next after one repents is moot- – if one does not repent.  Calling out ones failings to the mercy of God is getting out of God’s way to bless you.  The crossing of the Red Sea is also implied.  It was the great Exodus.  In Greek it was the exhoda which is the “way out” of the bondage of Egypt.  However, the “way” of the Lord is hoda meaning “way”.  Jesus identified himself as the “way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).  Jesus is more than a way out of physical slavery but of spiritual slavery which is far worse.  The early Church were “followers of the way” because they celebrated the latter freedom in Jesus with each gathering.  It is almost like a scriptural undertone of messianic expectation for then but it applies to those who turn to Jesus now.  We are called in conversion to embrace the meaning of preparation.  Doing such, we might as well have the joy of the Lord along the way between those times of grace one can experience.

Every valley shall be filled- The natural question is on what it would be filled with.  The best filling of this void is not by a thing or event but by God who is the great I AM.  “Our hearts are restless until we find rest in you” (Augustine).  Jesus’ name means God saves and as we see a few verses later salvation is what all will see.

every mountain and hill shall be made low– – My first thought in reflecting on this line is that the elite would be brought down since John had his own dealings with the religious elite of his day.  Mary addressed this in her fiat “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. (Luke 1:52).  But if one sees in the Old Testament how hill and mountain are used, there is a historical interpretation.

Who may go up the mountain of the Lord?Who can stand in his holy place?

“The clean of hand and pure of heart,

who has not given his soul to useless things,

what is vain.

He will receive blessings from the Lord,

and justice from his saving God.

Such is the generation that seeks him,

that seeks the face of the God of Jacob.”

Selah (Psalms 24: 4-6)

Who may go up the mountain of the Lord?Who can stand in his holy place?– – It is a psalm of celebration in approaching the temple of God with the Ark of the Covenant.  This reference is shorthand that an encounter with God is a tangible presence that can be sensed from the deepest part of the heart.

For the Old Testament this was the closest way a personal encounter with the divine could be expressed due to the standards of that day. The presumption was formality with a specific focus on ceremony about God but not God directly.  Jesus changed everything because in Him “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). God was untouchable but in Jesus the divine is touchable.  John the apostle elaborated on this.

What was from the beginning,

what we have heard,

what we have seen with our eyes,

what we looked upon

and touched with our hands

concerns the Word of life—

for the life was made visible;

we have seen it and testify to it

and proclaim to you the eternal life

that was with the Father and was made visible to us—

what we have seen and heard

we proclaim now to you,

so that you too may have fellowship with us;

for our fellowship is with the Father

and with his Son, Jesus Christ (1 John 1:1-3).

So how is this mountain made low?  It is in how Jesus is the eternal Word of the Blessed Trinity and he chose to become flesh in a leveling of the field (John 1:14).

The winding roads shall be made straight- A frustrating thing occurs on a winding road.  One would wish they can go from Point A to Point B like the birds fly.   Such is the role of increasing simplicity in someone who is increasing in their relationship to God.  God does not self-reveal as a calculus equation.  God is beyond our understanding so the straight path is giving up the pretense we can put God in an overcomplicated box.

the rough ways made smooth– -Rough ways is a loaded term.  If someone is walking on ground that is uneven or filled with thorns then such is the stuff that the human body takes in only with endurance to get the walk over with.  A smooth path in relationship is how one can see the other in a way that is against the design of the person.  The smooth path to God is the honest one.

all flesh shall see the salvation of God– John is speaking to both of the comings of Jesus.  Jesus would soon be on the scene and His presence would be on foot, on the cross, in communion and someday in the clouds.  In the last one, Jesus would go from being seen by many to all.

that seeks the face of the God of Jacob- – This is noteworthy in returning to the theme of God’s presence.  Jacob had a tangible wrestling match with God and he was transformed with the new name of Israel.  God transforms the proud to be humble and the humble to those exalted.  Ultimately shown in the end with Jesus with his name being the greatest name, a transformation can happen if we truly seek his face.  “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9)

Do I wish I was a pilgrim that day at the exchange of the life in Christ I have now?  Even the idea of following Jesus in only up to the cross?  No, due to the life in Christ I can have with him now.  There is knowing him after the flesh like then, but receiving him in the greatest reality that can be experienced now is far better.

And as much as I can have hope in that, I would like to leave you with the hope of the Christian faith in completely coming to full circle in the future in Jesus. This is the ultimate “way of the Lord” we prepare for in onward growth that is so fitting to those called by his name.

     Who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

coming in human likeness;

and found human in appearance,

he humbled himself,

becoming obedient to death,

even death on a cross.

Because of this, God greatly exalted him

and bestowed on him the name

that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that

Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father (Phillipians 2:6-11).

Charged Forward

wheat barnConversion is often thought as a one time thing.  And thank God, people say, because conversion can cost a lot.  But what if conversion is an ongoing process?  James wrote in his epistle to people who were already Christians that the engrafted word can save their souls (James 1:21).  A theology term used to signify this is ongoing justification.  This is the continual and active surrender to God’s grace.   The heart must be soft for conversion to happen.  Such and approach is then ready for the proposition of change. In the preaching of John the Baptis, he spoke truth to all for change whether they were political  or religious elites or common soldiers in a corrupt system.

I am reminded of a sermon that Abraham Lincoln heard.  The congregation thought it was elegant with lots of flighty words.  When it was over he was asked what he though to which he said it was the worst sermon he had ever heard since it did not challenge him to action.  A call to action was needed for freedom for the slaves but all the more for the world in slavery to sin.  Like Jesus to come, John know that the compassionate thing to do would be to call for hard change or the softness of heart would not be there.   The hope is that among each of those groups were at least some of the soft hearted ready to be challenged.  And maybe, in some cases, the hard of heart become soft.

 I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  (Matthew 3:11-12).

I am baptizing you with water, for repentance-  This could be getting a blank slate but without the understanding of what one is getting next.  A hard part is that those who went to the Jordan River knew the sins and their pleasures yet they acknowledged need for the kingdom of God.  Such humility had to come with a radical trust in God to handle what comes next.  But they had a reference to go by in the baptism of Moses.  “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2).

What Paul communicates about the experience of covenant in the experience of the Israelites is in part that God grants defining moments in relationship to his people through the senses like in the Red Sea.  It can be inferred that Jesus was inspired in part from this as a Jewish man who taught about how one needs to be “born again to enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:3) but some translations say, “born from above”.  Therefore if one is baptized through Jesus into His community rather than the symbolism of John the material and the mystery come together as “baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). To sum up, the baptism of John or any kind of honesty about ones sins is what you turn away from, which is honorable, but it is in the fulness of turning to Jesus that full salvation exists.   This baptism of John os to stop sin.  What comes in the gospel is that, the forgiveness of sin and having ones lifeline transformed by life that is eternally based.

but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I-  John minimizes his personal power but points to the power in the Messiah instead.  Repentance with Jesus is turning from acts of sin but the freedom in obedience to lift up Jesus.

He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.-  The baptized at the Jordan did not know the theology one can have on the context of those words, but what one could surmise from these words that the Messiah would be a uniter and a purifier. It is interesting the role of the Holy Spirit is described in agricultural terms.  It is because non-life objects like chaff have no seasons but just are.  They are “as is” and not respondent to the ups and downs of seasons. But Jesus indeed gathers his wheat into his barn.  In those days, barns were not seen through an LLC lens but were part of the homestead.  The repentance with John is the blank slate pointing to the need to go home in some manner with this Messiah to come. To convert is to come home.

Not only does the baptized of that day confess sins as a people but confess a hope of belonging in some way and someday with a community. One could imagine that John proclaims the hope of this wheat gathering like an employee of an orphanage helping the children to be ready to be adopted by a good Father.  Wheat grows, consumes and reproduces if gathered in the right place as the living things they are.  Chaff is dead.  The time for repentance from dead works is now so that the wheat, or living works, would be unveiled of God’s sustenance.

This leads me to point to Hebrews 6:2 again on the reference of “repentance from dead works and faith in God”.  The opposite that can hold one back is a false sense of piety and overemphasis on individuality. Furthermore, it would be dependence in ones dead works and faith in self. In other words, ones “chaff”.  The best that could look like would be a form of godliness but not living it and thus denying the fully intended power.

Going forward, much can be attained in living out the knowledge of the difference by leaning on the grace of God as one can also see in Hebrews 6:2 with then “instruction of baptisms and laying on of hands”. These normative steps are the fuller expression of conversion in baptism and being confirmed by the Church in the laying on of hands.   The early Church and the ongoing Church are the wheat barn.  Gathered together  in the Holy Spirit and purified by Christ, we can walk fully in the life of Jesus and know Him by the power of the Holy Spirit in history, mystery and majesty.

Day 1- Humbled Together

The BeginningWhat is the classic conversion story regarding faith?  Is there such a thing?  Can it be run “by the numbers” like a formula?  In Christianity, there are patterns of surrender, but it is best not to see it through a mechanical lens.

An important factor is that Jesus never shamed anyone towards the surrender of conversion.  Shame does not work since it is sort of another flavor for fear and the scriptures teach us that, “perfect love pushes out fear” (1 John 4:12).  Shame and legalism complicate the search for Jesus in ways that take us from simplicity, or in other words, the basics of love.

There is a story I like about the famous American football coach Vince Lombardi.  His team lost a game once that he felt would not have got away from them if they had stayed rooted in the fundamentals of the game.  He then had the next several days full of drills that a high school foot ball team would do.  The re-rooting had to happen.  One can be refreshed on the mission by renewing their perspective of what started them on mission.  Love is the basics and at the heart of the mission.

Such was the case for Jesus the winter before the Cross.  He had been in Jerusalem twice in the last three months or so.  Shame and legalism were the themes of his adversaries and they rejected his love out of principle.

He went back across the Jordan to the place where John first baptized, and there he remained.  Many came to him and said, “John performed no sign, but everything John said about this man was true.” And many there began to believe in him (John 10:40-42).

The Jordan River was full of  the meaning of conversion for the Jewish people.  Just as Moses parted the Red Sea in leaving Egypt, Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan as the people of Israel entered the Promised Land.  It had been seen as a place of going from slavery to the full benefits of being children of promise.  Being children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob meant a context of covenant with God as a person.  To go from one level of relationship with God to a higher one is part of what covenant means.  It means more than “What I have is yours” but “I am yours”.  In the thoughts and feelings of Jesus one can imagine in this later stage of his public life something like nostalgia on how he began ministry before at the baptism by John.  That was where a model of Christian conversion began to be lived out and modeled in one fateful week in part by Jesus himself.

Three years before, the soil of John’s ministry was a prime place for Christ and the community he founded and would begin its foundation in an act and sign of repentance.  One could call the people being baptized as going to the “Church of John” in that with his baptism they were saying they loved God more than their sins and were ready for God’s kingdom to come in fulness. This was a hunger for God’s grace that they could come and receive while putting aside the dirt of the weary journey. The baptism of repentance is good in an admitted need for God.  It is like the 12 Step model in admitting that you have become powerless and cannot manage your life alone. It is even admitting your wrongs and their very nature.  Such admission is the beginning of wisdom but not conversion in fulness: a conversion of the heart.

For Christ and his followers, this had other contexts and those contexts were of fulfillment partly in experiencing the beginnings of the Church which Jesus would found.  Jesus was proclaimed by John to be the Lamb of God and baptizer in the Holy Spirit.  Some who saw him being baptized heard a voice in the baptism that this was the Son of God.  It was in this scene that some began to believe in him and among them two who would become apostles.

Of the pilgrims mentioned above, it is worth considering what they were thinking.  John said that Jesus must increase and he would decrease.  That was significant but still lacked something.  There were no stumbling blocks in the crowd in Jordan.  They had not heard the harder truths yet.  They also did not know what it would be like to have a continued relationship personally with Jesus in tandem with such hard truths.  Does that make their belief in Jesus meaningless?  Not necessarily.  It just means that they believed with obedience to the point that they could with what they knew.  But the call of the price of discipleship would come soon enough like it does to anyone who takes the daring step of seeing Jesus as more than just a nice guy to believe in a savior like hero.  The core message of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord.

One can look at the epistle to the Hebrews which speaks of the foundations of personal conversion, encountering God in His covenantal nature and eternal view.  Below is a general outline for salvation from ones conversion into eternity within in the context of community.

“Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity, without laying the foundation all over again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:2)

So what is it like to do those things in an experience that is ideal and clear?  One can see in other scenes in the gospels how a conversion to Jesus is murky with condemnation and cynicism.  What I will address next are ways Jesus can show up when the heart of the person is ready, the context is ideal and still have healthy skepticism come along for the ride.  With that in mind, I concentrate on the first 7 days  where Jesus sheds the garb of a carpenter and steps up in the public favor of the Father and models conversion for the world to follow.

To be clear on theology, Jesus was not a convert.  But Jesus made a point in these first days of going public to show what conversion looks like.  The unveiling of Jesus as the wisdom and power of God is not an enigma but a mystery that the humble can always at least get the gist of.  One such humble person was John son of Zechariah baptizing people along the Jordan River.  To a great extent, if one gets his lens, one greatly gets who Jesus is and offers.  It is that Jesus atones for the sins of the world.  Even the worst.

  In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea [and] saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” …… At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. (Matthew 3:1,5).

Repent- A wise man with a dramatic addiction recovery story said that if he meets someone like he used to be that has a history of bad character and cannot describe their own turning point then he hesitates to trust them.  Conversion is a choice and is a turning point.

the kingdom of heaven is at hand!–  Conversion is towards a constant relationship that it rooted in heaven.  It is not about politics, culture or any other schemas that humans conjure up.  God is above the fray and his purest state of kingdom starts and ends in heaven but can be grasped on earth.

baptized by him…. as they acknowledged their sins-  Conversion is a redemption process and is meant for a healthy community context.  The call to Christ, is a call to community.  It is no surprise that in many early Christian communities the norm was for some to stand up to confess sins and receive the grace of the forgiveness in the name of Christ at a church meeting.  Even looking at today in 12 Step meetings there is a confessional quality as someone says “I am…..and I am a(n)…. “  While 12 Step is an honest program, Christianity is more than that.

To know the call of Jesus is to have the norm of knowing that call from honesty into change.  In that, we can all be works in progress. Such is the beauty of the Savior’s work on all who seek him in a community of loved sinners coming out of the shame of our failings.  We are all hungry for that even if we do not know it.