Are You Offended?

homeless woman with dogs
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/livenature/256934977/">Franco Folini</a>

Luke 7:18-23

When John’s students told him all of this, he summoned two of them and sent them to ask Jesus, “Are you the one we’re waiting for, or should we look for someone else?”

When they arrived, they told Jesus, “John has asked us to ask you if you’re the one we’re waiting for, or should we look for someone else?”

As they looked on, Jesus cured many people of their ills and injuries. He rid many of evil spirits, and restored sight to several blind people. Then he told them, “Go and tell John what you’ve seen and heard. The blind see. The crippled walk. The defiled are made pure. The deaf hear. The dead live. The poor are given relief. If you’re not offended about this, you’ll be alright.”

Hard as it may be to imagine, some folk talk a good line about taking care of the sick, the troubled, and the poor, but when it it starts to really change lives, they take offense.

It’s the difference between actually changing people’s economic or social position, and offering a handout that just gets someone by one more day or one more meal. One is revolutionary, the other is just patronizing. One is the real thing, and the other is – well, you may as well look for someone else.

Think about it. If you’re poor, good news – real good news – is not that you’re going to be able to stay the night in a homeless shelter. It’s that you’re not going to be poor any more.

For some people, that’s pretty offensive. It means you might actually have to treat “those people” like equals.

A Vision from God

man walking into vortex
Image credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/h-k-d/6431002755/">Hartwig HKD</a>

Galatians 1:10-12

┬áSo, whose approval do you think I’m looking for: people’s or God’s? Do I sound like I’m trying to win a popularity contest? If I were trying to suck up to people, I wouldn’t be working for Jesus, would I? Friends, I want you to know that the story of Jesus I tell doesn’t come from other people. I didn’t get it from some storyteller who taught it to me. I got it in a vision, straight from Jesus himself.

I admit that when someone tells me he or she has had a vision from God, my first impulse is to be a little bit skeptical – no very skeptical. The problem with visions from God is that they’re impossible to confirm or deny. There’s no proof one way or the other. All you have to go on is what the person who claims the vision says. Even if that person is someone you like and generally have a high regard for, you still might wonder if their “vision” is a sign that they’re coming unhinged. Should you be concerned for them?

Still, you can’t disprove it either. Nor should you try. I’d suggest that the basis for buying someone’s claim about a vision from God (or any kind of vision, for that matter) is by watching to see if it makes any real difference in the life of the person who had it. Do they change their course of action. Do they take action change their life’s trajectory? Do they change their priorities? Do they focus in a way they hadn’t before?

In other words, even though you can’t duplicate their experience, or experience it vicariously through them, or see exactly what they saw, do they live as if what they saw was really real? If they do, then even if the way they describe it seems far-fetched, there’s probably something to it. Otherwise, take it with a grain of salt.

Paul may not have been perfect. He may not have been always able to implement things in an ideal way. He may have been abrasive. He may even have had some of the details wrong. And he was a terrible theologian. But what he says he saw changed his life. There was something to it, and his passion for it changed the world – maybe not precisely the way Jesus had in mind, and probably beyond what even Paul himself had in mind – and he pursued it without regard for what anyone else thought of it.

For better or worse, and probably both better and worse, Paul was, if nothing else, a visionary. Like all visionaries (Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Adolf Hitler, John Kennedy, George Washington, Ronald Reagan, Albert Einstein – the list goes on) he’s not perfect. Visionary does not imply “good.” What makes them visionaries isn’t their goodness or perfection, it’s their vision that leaves the world a different place, for good or ill or both, behind them.)

God Made a Promise. Will You?

rainbow
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicholas_t/150069741/">Nicholas T.</a>

Genesis 9:8-17

God said to Noah and to Noah’s sons who were with him, “Here’s my deal. It will apply to you, and all your descendants, and to everything that’s still alive with you: birds, domestic animals, wild animals, everything that made it off the ark. My deal with you is that I’ll never again drown every living thing and wipe out the whole world in a flood.” God said, “The sign of my deal between us and everything still living, and for all time, is this: I’ve put my rainbow in the clouds. That’s the sign of my deal with the earth. Whenever rainclouds gather the rainbow will be in the cloud to remind me of my deal with you and everything living. The flood will never rise again to drown every living thing. I’ll see the rainbow in the clouds, and I’ll remember my deal. It’s a deal between me and every living creature on earth.” God told Noah, “This is the sign of the deal I’ve made between myself and everything living.”

God has vowed never to wipe out all life on the planet. Well and good. We no longer need to worry about that.

But God has not vowed to prevent us from wiping it all out. It’s not a thought that likely occurred to the ancient storytellers that humans would one day be the planet’s greatest threat. Nevertheless, that is our reality. God is not nearly so dangerous as people are.

Perhaps if those who professed to believe in a God who’s pledged not to wipe out all living things simply made a commitment to do as their God did and make the same pledge, we’d be well on our way to mitigating the modern threat. What if we did what God did. What if we made ourselves a sign: something that would appear to us in every encounter where we are tempted to behave destructively. A proverbial string tied around our finger.

But more than that, God’s covenant with Noah marks not just a change in a particular moment. It marks a change in the way God will habitually deal with the world. It’s an ongoing behavior modification plan. God repeats it over and over again, like someone trying very hard to learn a new habit. To save the planet, God’s humans are going to need to change a few habits, too. Whatever will be the sign of your new habits, repeat them over and over. See a rainbow. Change your behavior.

Are You Standing on Ceremony?

mass baptism
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/simonhn/1355067853/sizes/z/in/photostream/">Simon Helle Nielsen</a>

Acts 19:1-7

While Apollos stayed in Corinth, Paul went inland until he reached Ephesus. When he arrived, he found some followers and asked them, “Did you receive the divine spirit when you believed?”

They said, “We’ve got no idea what you’re talking about – this divine spirit.”

So Paul asked, “What kind of baptism did you receive?”

They said, “John baptized us.”

Paul said, “John’s baptism was about people’s changing their lives, and to teach people to believe in the one coming after John, namely Jesus.”

When they heard this, they agreed to be re-baptized in Jesus’ name. And then, when Paul prayed over them, the divine spirit came over them and they began to speak in strange languages and to speak of the future.

In all there were about 12 of them.

This story has its roots in the need, early on after Jesus, to distinguish Jesus followers from those of John the Baptist. It’s entire aim is to clarify that Christianity is the “Johnanity 2.0,” the replacement to which everyone must immediately upgrade. The new version comes with a “divine spirit” that enables instant foreign language ability and soothsaying.

Jesus himself never says anything about baptism, except to acknowledge that many people went to John for it (for example, Mat 11:7 and parallels). He never implied that John’s baptism was insufficient. In fact, the gospels are unanimous in representing Jesus as having received the divine spirit at John’s baptism.

Nevertheless, as the Acts story has it, Paul deputizes these 12 other disciples to become the authorized agents of Jesus to the old school, the isolated, and the laggards who haven’t yet got the new official version of the story.

As problematic as it is, there may in fact be a case that “someone’s religion isn’t good enough.” But it’s not likely what everyone usually thinks of when such accusations fly.

Because as problematic as it is, historically, institutionally, and ethically, this story does have one hugely important take-away. It implies that standing on ceremony as one’s intention to change your life isn’t enough. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The difference between Jesus’ baptism at John’s hands and the same symbolic action undertaken by these 12, is that Jesus did something about it. These other 12 just went back home to resume life as it always had been. The ceremony hadn’t changed anything. And, if you will extend Paul the benefit of the doubt, it may have been their unchanged-ness that caused Paul to question whether they really believed anything substantial at all.

In this regard, there are certainly any number of modern examples of “disciples” who have been baptized, but who nobody would ever know for all the difference it’s made in their character.