We Shall Overcome

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I recently visited the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and Museum. I was moved by a speech I heard in its entirety.  Johnson gave this address to the nation after the march and subsequent violence in Selma, AL as Martin Luther King, Jr. and others faced civil inequality head on.   Many civil rights leaders, black and white, described this speech as giving them the courage to continue on.  Here is the ending:

This time, on this issue, there must be no delay, or no hesitation, or no compromise with our purpose. We cannot, we must not, refuse to protect the right of every American to vote in every election that he may desire to participate in.

And we ought not, and we cannot, and we must not wait another eight months before we get a bill. We have already waited 100 years and more and the time for waiting is gone. So I ask you to join me in working long hours and nights and weekends, if necessary, to pass this bill. And I don’t make that request lightly, for, from the window where I sit, with the problems of our country, I recognize that from outside this chamber is the outraged conscience of a nation, the grave concern of many nations and the harsh judgment of history on our acts.

But even if we pass this bill the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.

And we shall overcome.

To summarize, Johnson was saying, “This is going to be really hard, but it is worth the struggle. You (insert any name) can do this.” In Matthew’s inspired recollection, Jesus opens up the first of five recorded discourses, what we know as his sermon on the mount, in a similar way. Jesus is laying out some challenging instructions in this sermon for life in his kingdom. To follow will require joining him in working some late nights and weekends carrying a heavy cross.  He lovingly bids us to overcome with him, the confines of sin and death.

His words convey empathy and love, “You’re blessed when you live like me in this kingdom.” We often read the opening list (the Beatitudes, Matthew 5:1-12) as if, then statements. If you are poor in spirit, then you will get the kingdom of heaven. I think they are better understood with the template of the last one: blessed, when statements, “You are blessed when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Mt. 5:11-12) Read this way, the Beatitudes are personal and courage giving, characteristic of Jesus’ words.

I read them like this:

Amy, you’re blessed when you are left out and rejected. It hurts, I know, but the kingdom of heaven, a great home, is yours, love.

Amy, you’re blessed when you mourn. You live on earth, where sorrow abounds, but you’re part of my kingdom. Comfort here is like no other, because I’m redeeming it all!

Amy, you’re blessed when you demonstrate my humble nature. Even though it seems like you’re getting stomped on, we know something they don’t: we (as God’s children) inherit all the good stuff of creation!

Amy, you’re blessed when you’re hungry and thirsty for me. The hunger pains and dehydration are perfectly satisfied by me, the bread of life and eternal, living water.  You have access to me, my Spirit, 24/7.

Amy, you’re blessed when you show mercy – even when they don’t deserve it. When you forgive, you are reminded that you have undeserved, unearned mercy, new every morning, in me!

Amy, you’re blessed when you struggle for purity in your heart. It’s worth it, because you see God through a lens of purity!

Amy, you’re blessed when you do the hard work of making peace. That’s God’s nature; when you do it, you reflect your Dad!

Amy, you’re blessed when you suffer loneliness, hurt feelings, and deep pain from other people. I know how that feels. It’s devastating, but we can still rejoice and be glad. We’re not alone in his kingdom. Others have gone before us, and have overcome. A crown, proof that we are son and daughter of the King, is ours already and awaits us in the future.

Amy, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise…what I’m about to tell you is a really good way to live!

The kingdom of heaven is ours, friends, and WE CAN do what Jesus will ask of us in his sermon on the Galilean mountain side.

We shall overcome.

Holy Words

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“There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic.” ― Diane Setterfield, The Thirteenth Tale

Jesus’ first spoken words in the Gospel of Matthew highlight a theme of the book, “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt 4:4, NRSV) The Word values words. He is sustained by the words Father, Son and Spirit spoke through prophets and poets and historians of old, recorded in ancient Scripture, even as he, God’s Word made flesh, now speaks them. The author of the text, Matthew the tax collector, one of Jesus’ closest twelve disciples, records more words of Jesus than any other gospel account. Perhaps the words of his teacher, friend, and master pierced his skin, entered his blood, and worked their transformative supernatural power.

My dad is a great storyteller. He can put words together in ways that engage listeners young and old. I’ve watched him push my children, nieces and nephews on a swing for hours, engaging their minds and their hearts with stories that reveal truths about God. They are mesmerized, and remember the stories long after my dad has forgotten them. They trust my dad because he invests in them, loves them, and speaks in words that they can understand, about topics they know and care about.

I think Matthew encountered a master storyteller in Jesus, a rabbi like no other. He and other listeners were blown away because Jesus spoke with great authority, yet connected with them personally and with loving simplicity.  His words revealed deep truths about God while mesmerizing the listeners with stories they could understand. They remembered his words, because God the Son invested in them and loved them, modeling and then expounding on life in the kingdom.

Jesus’ words, however, were never docile. They always created tension. He called his followers to be all in, sold out to laying down their lives, and taking up a daily cross (a representation of humiliation and shame). He demanded they leave everything behind to follow him. He compelled them to live counter-culturally, to take the law to a new standard of radical purity. He infuriated religious people. He claimed to be the Son of God and Son of Man, the anointed one, Christ, Messiah (a king in the line of David), a teacher, a servant, a friend, Lord of lords, and Savior to all. If his claims were true, then his words were the very words of God! This truth caused listeners to either hang on every word, or run away.

God spoke through prophets, priests, judges, and kings, but he spoke a life-giving Word, himself in flesh, and his words change everything. We have the words preserved by a guy who remembered hearing them! We can still hang on every one, read and apply them, meditate on them, and let them work their mysterious inner miracle inside of us! The Spirit of God continues to speak, as he and his words now reside in us, as living and active as we are! I hope the words of Jesus in Matthew, over the next few weeks, will take us prisoner and simultaneously set us free.

 

Breakfast at the Beach

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I love breakfast. Breaking the fast begun the night before has a unique quality of anticipation and expectation. Eyes unfocused. Body disorganized. Mind perplexed. Stomach unfilled. The mind and body are screaming for fuel, empowerment for direction and focus for the day. Caffeine, carbs, and protein seem to fit the bill.

As the gospel of John comes to a close, Jesus has died, but death hasn’t won. The tomb is empty, but confusion remains. The disciples’ eyes are still blurry and their minds are still baffled as to what following a risen Lord looks like.   They don’t realize that what they need is a good breakfast, a breakfast on the beach.

The epilogue to Jesus’ story, John 21, opens on the Sea of Galilee sometime after Jesus’ resurrection.   Jesus shows up at work for Peter, James and John, Thomas, Nathanael, and others.   Fishermen by trade, they’ve returned to familiar waters, unsure how to continuing “fishing” for men now that their rabbi has relocated.  Jesus returns to the very place that he called these guys to leave their nets and follow him, a place where they’ll recognize his voice and his fishing instructions. (Matthew 4:19)

Jesus finds them fasting, so to speak. They’ve been out all night and have been unproductive, no fish to speak of. At one word from Jesus and a change of direction for their nets that defies logic and common fishing sense, they haul in a mother-load.   Rather than the result of their own effort, this catch points only one direction, to Jesus himself. No one is going to beat Peter to his Lord and his God!  He grabs hold of his loin cloth, jumps in the water half-dressed, and swims ashore.

When the others meet Jesus on the beach, he’s waiting for them at a charcoal fire, a painfully familiar site for Peter. It’s here that Jesus calls them to eat with him, breaking their fast with the bread of life and living water. He restores the disarray their bodies are experiencing with fish and bread, but he heals their histories and renews their mind with the power of his Spirit!

It’s on this beach, around a warm fire and with a full belly, that Jesus lovingly restores Peter, giving him three opportunities to reverse his denials and declare his love for Jesus. Jesus empowers Peter to do kingdom work, to continue to fish for men and to tend to sheep, the church, and even to endure suffering in his name.   He empowers John and the others to do the same, and he does the same for us today. It would not be on Peter, John or any of the others’ skills or strength that the gospel would advance after Jesus’ departure, but on the collective work of the Spirit in each one as his remaining body, the church.

Peter and John understood that the Spirit is not merely a spiritual influence, but is rather the Spirit of Jesus himself living in his followers. In one of his letters, John said “The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.” (1 John 3:24) Peter spoke of the Spirit of Christ in his followers that pointed the way that they should go in one of his letters of encouragement to the church. (I Peter 1:11)

Gary Burge said it this way, “The work of the church is not religious energy fueled by our sense of commission; it is a call to work, wed to a divine empowering; it is ministering knowing that Christ himself (through the Spirit) is ministering in and through our efforts.”

Just like breakfast fuels the mind and body, so the Spirit fuels the church. Jesus left both on the beach that day. Eat up and drink deeply!  Jesus is alive in you today!

Blood and Water

 

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It’s impossible for me to eat fried chicken and not think of my grandparents. Not only did my grandmother make the best fried chicken in the universe, but it’s also the only thing my grandparents ever went “out” to eat. Fried chicken and Mamaw and Grandaddy just go together.

For the apostle John, throughout his entire gospel, it’s impossible to read about water and not think about God’s Holy Spirit. The two simply go together for John, as they did for the Jews as well. When God inspired him to write his gospel, it’s no wonder that this rich symbolism would permeate the masterpiece, as he worked to define Jesus as God.

On the cross, John takes the symbolism even deeper. Water is now mixed with blood, and pours forth from Jesus’ dead side. (John 19:34) For a Jew, blood was the only appeasement for sin, as detailed in God’s Mosaic Law. Blood took on new meaning at the Feast of Passover. Just as a pure lamb, whose bones were not broken, was sacrificed in Egypt and its blood shielded a home from death (Exodus 12:45, Numbers 9:12, Dt. 21:23, Ps 34:20), so Jesus, on the day of preparation for Passover, presents himself as a Passover lamb, whose bones were not broken, producing precious, life-giving blood. This blood was shed once for all, a living stream of atonement for all who would take cover under its gracious protection. (Hebrews 9:13, 22)

For a Jew, water was a ritual source of purification in the Law, a washing and renewal system synonymous with the Spirit of God. For every condition of uncleanness, a washing with living water was required.   At Passover as at the Feast of Tabernacles, the Jews especially remembered the water that flowed from the rock for Moses and the Israelites in the wilderness. It became a symbol of God’s abundant, life-sustaining provision for his people, a mark of their status as his chosen people. Out of Jesus abdomen flowed the water he had promised in John 7:37-39, part of himself, his Spirit, given to humanity upon his glorification to remain incarnate in each believer, his newly chosen people.

When blood and water flowed from Jesus’ pierced side on the cross, it more than displayed his humanity. It confirmed his divine purpose, and secured life for you and me. God the Son, fully man and capable of the cruel death sin demanded, and fully God, uniquely sinless and singularly qualified to reconcile himself to his people poured over and into us blood and water. Our part is to accept the gift and walk by the Spirit he left us.

John sums it up well in his first letter. “This is he who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree…And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (I John 5:6-8, 11-12)

Paul says this way to Roman Christians and to us, “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.  Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” (Romans 8:16-17) Fried chicken reminds me that I am loved and part of a wonderful family.  So water, a basic element of our bodies and our world, reminds us that we are loved by the King, who gave his blood and his Spirit to make us a part of his family forever!