Archive for April, 2011

Shocked?

When I was a student at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, I was assigned a Taiwanese roommate during the winter break.  My dorm was closed and he welcomed me into his flat. Not only was the cooking marvelous, but this graduate student was hungry to learn about Jesus.  When I told him I was in the divinity school, he explained what his buddhist priest said to him before he left Taiwan, “You must learn all you can about Jesus, the western Buddha.”  I remember walking with him across the town center on Christmas eve.  Hardened snow crunched with each step we took in the frigid night.  As we walked to church for the service I began at the birth of Jesus and told him the story of Jesus’ life.  He was greedy to know every detail.

One moment during this walk will forever stay with me.  As I told him about Jesus’ arrest and trial and crucifixion, the cold night silence was broken by the sounds of his sobs.  He had never heard about Jesus’ cross before that night.  The sheer brutality laid across the backdrop of Jesus’ love and innocence proved too much for him.  Of course, I knew all too well that from his culture men did not often cry in front of other men.  His response resulted from his shock at Jesus’ sacrifice and the human evil that intersected at the cross.

Years ago novelist Dorothy Sayers was asked by the BBC to write a series of plays for radio about the life of Jesus.  They asked her with no small amount of concern about how she would describe the crucifixion because she had a reputation for the scandalous.   In her letter to the BBC she said:

It is an ugly, tear-stained, sweat-stained, blood-stained story, and the thing was done by callous, conceited, and cruel people.  Shocked? We damn well ought to be shocked.  If nobody is going to be shocked, we might as well not tell them about it.

My new friend from Taiwan reminded me, who should have known so well, just how shocking Jesus’ death is.  It is his willing sacrifice, his loving sacrifice, his determined sacrifice, that shocks us to our senses.  It trumpets God’s determination to love his people despite what it costs and the fact that we do not deserve it, not even one little bit.  As theologian Beldon Lane has said:

Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty, and all embarrassment into laughter.

Let us remember this as we approach the celebration of Easter. O how great is the love the Father has for us!

Single?

Are single Christians forever destined to be second-class citizens in the kingdom of God?  A single woman in our church asked this question.  She knows what it means to feel excluded and receive this subtle message from Christian friends.  We live in a time when single adults abound.  The latest census reveals that nearly 50% of adults in America are single.  Of those, the largest number have never been married.  Here in Miami, well over 50% of adutls are single.  What place do Christians have in the plan of God?

First, looking at the Old Testament we see a picture of the covenant blessings of God.  It seems that the gifts of the covenant are conferred through marriage and family.  Abraham was told his offspring would be numerous, like the sand on the seashore.  Israelite men knew that they would not have a lasting name unless they had children.  As a result, there was no place in Israel for single adults.  Indeed, God commanded the prophet Jeremiah not to marry to show the people their spiritual condition.  Without children they would be cut off from the land.  Having a spouse and children was often the image God chose to explain the blessings his people would receive. Add to this the fact that your family’s land and inheritance could only be kept in the family if there was an heir.  In short, there was no conception of God’s covenant benefits outside of marriage and family.

Jesus’ coming changed everything.  He not only remained single, which was itself scandalous, but he taught about being single.  Here was the inheritor of all the promises of God, yet he never married.  Indeed, Jesus took the teaching of the Old Testament and applied it to those married and single.  No doubt marriage is a powerful covenant sign.  But in Jesus we learn that singleness is a covenant sign as well.

First, in Jesus people are joined to the covenant not by physical birth and bloodlines but by spiritual birth and the work of the Spirit.

Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. John 1:12-13

It is not natural descent that matters but God’s will and God’s grace.  This means that singleness becomes a covenant sign pointing to the fact that the blessings of the covenant come by grace as a gift of God, not through natural descent.  Furthermore, Jesus also redefined the family.  In Israel nothing was more important than your family.  But, Jesus revealed a new family, not a blood-family, but a new spiritual family.

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.

Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” Mark 3:31-35

Jesus’ words would be astonishing for his Jewish listeners.  Indeed, Jesus is redefining family for the people of God.  What we see Jesus doing is deconstructing the “natural” view of the kingdom of God and erecting a spiritual view.  His followers are not born.  They are born from above or born again.

The result of this is a new conception of the place of the family and singleness.  Indeed, Jesus redeemed singleness.  As a result we should not be shocked by an emergence of singleness as a calling from God and as blessed condition for God’s people.  The history of the early church makes it clear that Jesus’ followers got the message. Whereas in Israel singleness was considered freakish, among Christians singleness was much more common and also often praised.

Of course today the church continues to struggle with singleness because there is always a collision of the natural, characterized by family and children, and the spiritual, characterized by spiritual children and a living inheritance unrelated to blood family.  We need the presence of single Christians to remind us of the revolutionary way of Jesus, and what the kingdom of God is all about.

 

Note: Barry Danylak’s work Redeeming Singleness provides an excellent treatment of this topic.