When a Book Club Is Not a Book Club

wine and cheese spread
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/jdickert/390774242/">I love butter</a>

2 John 7-11

The world is full of liars. They say Jesus was a hoax. People who say that are liars. They’re the Antichrist. Watch out! Don’t lose everything you’ve worked so hard for! Claim what’s yours!

If you don’t stick with Jesus, but go out on your own, God help you. If you stick with what you’ve been taught, God and Jesus will stick with you.

If someone tries to tell you something else, keep away from them. It’s like inviting trouble to invite them.

There was once a book club. It was a nice book club. Everyone loved to get together to discuss what they were reading at their weekly meetings.

At one of their meetings, the hostess served wine and cheese. It was lovely. Everyone agreed. What a lovely touch, having such elegant refreshments. Over the next few months, more and more of the members, when it was their turn to host the club’s meetings, began to serve wine and cheese.

It was so lovely that club members soon began inviting some of their friends. “Come to our book club,” they said. “We have wine and cheese.”

It wasn’t long before many of the club members started showing up for meetings without having read the material. In the moments of awkward silence when nobody had anything to say about the book of the week, discussions began to center around the wine and cheese. A year later, the group still called itself a book club, but they no longer bothered to read or discuss any books at their wine and cheese meetings.

True story. Is your church about doing the Jesus thing, or is it about the wine and cheese?

Or, as the Elder would say, “Watch out! Don’t lose everything you’ve worked so hard for! Claim what’s yours!”

Not a Super Hero, but an Authentic Human

woman holding self-portrait
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrs_logic/4548681436/">Mrs. Logic</a>

Mark 8:27-38

Jesus took his students with him to Caesarea Philippi. As they were traveling, he asked them, “Who are people saying I am?”

They said, “Some say you’re John the dunker. Others say you’re Elijah. Others say you’re another truth-teller.”

He asked them, “What do you have to say about me?”

Peter said, “You are the anointed one.”

And so Jesus told them not to tell anyone about him.

Instead, Jesus began to teach his students that the authentic human must suffer and be rejected by the rulers, the religious, and the bureaucrats, that he must be executed and three days later return to life. He said this was no secret.

Peter took Jesus aside and berated him, but Jesus turned his back to Peter, and as he looked at his other students said to him, “Get behind me, Satan. You don’t speak for God. In fact, you’re thinking is quite banal.”

He called the crowd and his students together and told them: “If you want to be my follower, you’ll have to put your willingness to be executed for treason against your overlords ahead of your own concerns. If you’re concerned with saving your own skin, you’re as good as dead. But whoever dies for me and and for the sake of this mission will really live. What’s it worth to have the whole world if you’re dead? Really, what will you trade your life away for? Whoever is embarrassed by their association with me and what I say because you want to fit in with all the cheating and corruption going on – the authentic human will consider them embarrassments when that one comes with the splendor of God commanding heaven’s legions.”

Notice the sharp contrast in this episode between Jesus’ self-understanding as being the authentic human and Peter’s identification of Jesus as “the anointed one.” The anointed one, the messiah, is someone who was commonly understood to be the hero who would come with super-human powers to rescue the people, who remain passive pawns in a divinely ordained game of geopolitics.

Jesus immediately rejects Peter’s understanding of the mission. Far from being a super-man with extra-human power, Jesus begins to teach them about being authentically human. The term traditionally, literally rendered, “Son of Man,” comes from the book of Daniel. Some recent translations, in the interest of inclusive language, have rendered it “the Human One.” But what’s at stake in the human one is what it means to be authentically human.

Mark’s Jesus insists that to be authentically human is to be willing to suffer, to be rejected, even to die, in order to take the side of the oppressed and abused. There is no glorious rescue from beyond. There is only the human work of restoring to the human family those who have been dehumanized for the profit of the rulers, the religious, and the bureaucratic task-masters. Mark’s Jesus insists that the only way to truly live, to be immortal, is to give oneself completely over to that cause. Paradoxically, fitting in, going along to get along, failing to stand up to the powers of oppression inevitably lead to an inauthentic unsustainable humanity. For Mark’s Jesus, authenticity is life, in-authenticity is death.

For those, like Peter, who are hoping for a knight on a white horse to sweep in at the last moment and save the day, the messianic expectation is bound to end in disappointment. Moreover, the misappropriation of Jesus’ mission as a messianic rescue mission will even lead those who insist on it to become unwitting agents of the very oppressors Jesus has come to stand against. Jesus turns and offers his back to Peter’s betrayal, and at the same time implores his own students, and anyone else who will listen in the crowds, to take the opportunity to join the ranks of an authentic humanity.

Did Jesus Make a Mistake?

man yelling
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ben_haines/2648400778/">Benjamin Haines</a>

Mark 1:40-45

A contaminated man came and knelt in front of him. “You can purify me if you dare.” Enraged, Jesus took him by the hand and said, “Of course I want you to come clean.” And so he was. Then Jesus told him in no uncertain terms, “Go back to the priests and pay the legal fee for the certificate of reinstatement they refused to give. There’s spit in their eye!” But instead he went out and blathered it all over town, so Jesus couldn’t go into town openly. People had to come out to the boonies to see him instead.

[See also, previous comments on this passage.]

Leprosy isn’t about Hansen’s disease. It’s about contamination. It’s about designating certain people as unacceptable. Who’s in and who’s out. Today, we have lots of leprosy tests. We’ve just changed the name of the test slightly to litmus test.

There are the biggies that churches and politicians love to argue over: divorce and remarriage, gay and lesbian, liberal and conservative, sprinkling and immersion, infant and believer. On and on it goes.

This little snippet in Mark, though, isn’t about any of those. It’s about someone who is just plain difficult. Starting with his attitude, “If you dare,” and ending with his refusal to follow orders. Is it any wonder he’s been branded a pariah by polite company? He’s got an attitude problem and a problem following directions. He’s the loud, obnoxious guy at the party that nobody wants to talk to, who’s ready to tell you everything he knows but doesn’t want to listen. He’s the one, who when you see him coming you say, “Oh, God, not him!”

He’s been so obnoxious that he’s been thrown out of the party altogether. Now, he’s coming to Jesus. Maybe he can tell Jesus a thing or two. Maybe he wants to see if Jesus is everything everyone has been saying about him. Responding to this challenge, Jesus’ response is right to the point: “Of course. Be clean.” It’s simple acceptance of who he is. “Yes, you can be in my company.”

There is a second part to Jesus’ answer, though. Jesus refuses to let his movement become sidetracked by any competing agenda. Jesus says, in effect, “Sure you can be with me, and here’s what it involves. Go back and tell those who’ve excluded you that you’re not going away. You’re back in.” It’s here that everything goes wrong, because instead of getting with the program, he misuses his encounter with Jesus as a license to be all the more obnoxious, to the point where Jesus isn’t able to go into town any more either. In effect, Jesus has become contaminated. This man’s “leprosy” has infected Jesus.

So, what to do about the obnoxious people? Did Jesus make a mistake? Yes and no. From a public relations standpoint this encounter is a disaster. It is, however, a typical result of offering a genuine welcome to everyone without exception: there will be some who just don’t get it and will make your life harder. The good news is that, if you don’t allow your mission to be sidetracked by the temptation to go into “damage control” mode, there will continue to be others who do get what you’re about, who will go out of their way to be a part of what you’re doing, like those who had to go out to the boonies to see Jesus.

Not everyone will understand what you’re about. Not everyone will be receptive of it. Some may even spread misinformation about it to claim some status for themselves. None of that is as important as being true to your mission.

Getting By (With a Little Help)

Walking together
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/3386629036/">Ed Yourdon</a>

1 John 4:1-6

Friends, don’t believe just anyone. Check to see if they follow God. There are lots of imposters. You’ll know the ones who follow God because those who follow God know that Jesus was human. Anyone who denies Jesus was human isn’t from God. In fact, that’s the indication that they’re totally against God. You’ve heard about these people. Now here they are.

Kids, you are God’s, so you’ve already won. They’ve lost. Jesus in you is greater than their worldly machinations. While what they say appeals to unenlightened folk, and they get lots of people listening to them, people who know God will listen to us. We’re God’s. We can’t expect people with no interest in God to care what we say. It’s the difference between being bent toward truth or falsehood.

It can be immensely frustrating to be working hard at something you really believe in, only to have it seem to go nowhere. That frustration is even more intense, when you see someone else, a competitor, enjoying what looks like tremendous success.

  • An “Old First” church struggles along downtown barely keeping its doors open week by week looks enviously at the booming success of the newly built suburban church with hundreds of people.
  • A little human service agency with two people sitting in secondhand office chairs in their closet-sized office on the third floor looks enviously on the international non-profit conglomerate with it’s own 3-acre retreat center, complete with a duck pond.
  • A start-up businesswoman on a mission who finds herself suddenly in a head-to-head competition with WalMart.
  • A divorced woman with three kids wondering where the next rent payment is going to come from while her ex-husband is on a cruise to the Bahamas with his new girlfriend.

In each of these cases – and in your case, too – the stakes are high. The frustration and pain is real. John says that, contrary to appearances, the underdogs win.

In the meanwhile, though, until the real results of your life’s work are announced, two things:

  1. “People who know God will listen to us.” Find those people. Get with those people. They are your lifelines. And,
  2. Remember that your mission is your mission. What “they” are following (if they’re following anything) doesn’t add or take away anything from what you’re called to do. You’re “from God.” They’re doing something else. You’re not competing with that other church, that other organization, that other company, or even that other person. Your primary competitor is you. If you can do better today than you did yesterday, you win. Every day you can hang on is a day that you win.

Don’t believe just anyone. Believe in you.