Monday, July 11, 2011

What About Him?

John 21:20-23
by Daniel Harrell

This is my last look at Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances in John’s gospel. You’ll remember from my last look, before this last look, how our Lord magnanimously restored Peter the black sheep into Peter the able shepherd. The passage crescendoed with Jesus’ imperative: “Follow me!” Because of this imperative, and others like it, many Christians have taken to calling themselves “Christ-followers” instead of Christians. It also has something to do with the perception that the noun Christian has become trivialized and besmirched due to negative associations and many believers’ bad behavior. To be a “Christ-follower” erases any ambiguity as to one’s primary allegiance. To be a “Christ-follower” is to take seriously one’s commitments to the counter-cultural commands of gospel and practice all that it preaches. To follow Christ is to trust the Lord wherever he leads, no matter the road, whatever the cost, no turning back, no turning back.

This is why I’d rather just call myself a Christian. I’m not opposed to a little ambiguity. The gospels paint a daunting picture of what following Christ looks like. A man comes up to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” To whit Jesus replies, “Are you sure about that? Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Somebody else says, “I’m in Lord, but first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus says, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” To the rich man Jesus says, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor in exchange for treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” And then to everybody, “If you want to follow me, you must deny yourself and take up your cross to do it.”  For the original hearers, taking up a cross was not some metaphor for bearing life’s difficulties. Jesus said, “…you’ll be handed over to be tortured, and will be put to death and hated by all because of my name.” Jesus said that only those who lose their lives will find their lives. By which he did mean losing your life—a reality he made clear in predicting Peter’s own martyrdom.

However, according to this morning’s passage, following Christ need not always mean losing your life to martyrdom. Peter would be executed for his faith, but apparently John would live to a ripe old age—at least long enough to write his gospel. Both were faithful in their following. Not that this makes things any easier. In fact if you live a long time, it may make things harder. The admired Catholic author Henri Nouwen once wrote, “The movement from illusion to [truly following Christ] is hard to make since it leads us from false certainties to true uncertainties, from an easy support system to a risky surrender….” Nouwen’s faith forced a dramatic surrender later in his life. He gave up an acclaimed career as an Ivy League lecturer, best-selling author and counselor to the powerful in order to take up residence at a community for people with mental disabilities in Toronto. He devoted the remainder of his life in relatively quiet service to those with great need. It was a move many admired, but few emulated. Following Christ is hard to do.

Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a grocery store cashier in small town Georgia who wore a Roman’s 1:16 tie to work: I’m not ashamed of the Gospel was writ large all across it. (It was a necktie I presume.) You’d push your cart into line where he’d greet you with a wide, generous grin and then, showing genuine interest in how you were doing, he’d chew the fat while scanning your groceries (in big contrast to typical grocery clerks who mostly just chew their gum). After he’d totaled your bill and figured your change without the computer’s help, he’d bag your groceries, reach into his pocket and hand you a singularly wrapped lifesaver candy. Then he’d say with a wink and a tug on his tie: “You know who your lifesaver is, don’t you?”

Barbara Brown Taylor recalled how the clerk was dear, how he was earnest and how the next time she went back to the store—he was gone. She wrote, “I’m pretty sure that no one asked him to renounce his faith. The store manager probably just asked him to keep it to himself, or to save it for church where people couldn’t become so irritated by it. The man was not a threat, only an embarrassment. The tie, the lifesavers, even the unusual cheerfulness—these were too much for people who just wanted to get through the line and get home. A man who is not ashamed of the Gospel is out there somewhere looking for work which I imagine he’s done a lot of in his life. His following Christ, such as it is, takes the form of chronic unemployment.”

Granted, it’s not exactly what Jesus warned us about when he said, “you’ll be handed over to be tortured, and will be put to death and hated by all because of my name.” That would be in a place like Syria, where hundreds have given their life in opposition to the oppressive regime of President Bashar Assad. Up to this point, many Christians have been hesitant to enter the fray. While they oppose the ruthlessness of the Syrian government, they fear that the police state will be replaced by an Islamic state. They worry about a repeat of Iraq, where the Christian community has basically disappeared as a result of both persecution and exile. And yet, as one Syrian Christian has put it, “To follow Christ, to be a good Christian you have to side with the oppressed and not with the oppressors. It is scary,” but obedience often is.

Of course she and other Syrian Christians could simply deny their faith. Forsake Jesus and save their necks. Like Peter did so shamefully as Jesus stood trial and was sentenced to die, in effect double-crossing his crucified Lord. On the other hand what was Peter supposed to do? Jesus was convicted of crimes. He didn’t defend himself or refute any of the charges. Though we was able to change the weather and defeat the devil, he nevertheless let government authorities string him up. He acted as if he were guilty! He did say that once he rose from the dead they’d meet up again in Galilee, but what was Peter supposed to do with that? Rising from the dead is crazy talk. Which may explain Peter’s denials. Maybe he thought Jesus had lost his mind.

But then Jesus gets raised from the dead. And he meets Peter in Galilee. He has breakfast with him on the beach and finally gets around to discussing those denials, a topic Peter surely knew was coming. Risen and vindicated, Jesus confronted Peter with the obvious: “Do you really love me?” he asked, not once, but three times so that Peter couldn’t miss the connection. Peter replied in the affirmative each time, the third time grievously so, knowing his word meant little when his behavior hadn’t matched up. But Jesus gave him another chance. He always does. He said to Peter: “Follow me!”

Yet even on the heels of this most amazing grace delivered in a most amazing fashion, Christ’s call to follow still shook Peter a bit. It probably had something to do with Jesus predicting Peter’s own crucifixion. It is much easier to be on the receiving end of Christ’s mercy than it is to live out its implications. Peter turned and saw the beloved disciple whom tradition identifies as John nearby. “Lord,” Peter asked, “what about him?”

Scholars split over Peter’s intent. Some, pointing out how Peter and John were intimate friends, attribute anxiety to Peter over John’s prognosis. Since following Jesus would prove deadly for Peter, he naturally was concerned for his friend. That’s why he asked Jesus about him. The problem is the sharp nature of Jesus’ reply: “What’s that to you?” he said to Peter. “You follow me!” Such a rebuke presumes a different set of motives. Did Peter feel unfairly singled out? Did he want to make sure he wasn’t the only one having to sacrifice his life? Was he afraid?

Whatever it was—whether chafed at being set apart or just plain old scared—we can all relate. It is much easier to be on the receiving end of Christ’s mercy than it is to live out its implications. To follow Jesus is to trust the Lord wherever he leads, no matter the road, whatever the cost. It means losing your life—be that your literal life or your literal lifestyle. It is a move from false certainties to true uncertainties, from easy support systems to risky surrender. Henri Nouwen was right. It’s hard to do—even when you do it.

Soon after arriving in Toronto, Henri Nouwen wrote a book entitled In the Name of Jesus which focused on Jesus’ restoration of Peter in John’s gospel. Transformed by the community he served, Nouwen wrote, “The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking of me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I had done until then. Since nobody could read my books, my books could not impress anyone, and since most of them never went to school, my twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard did not provide a significant introduction.… Not being able to use any of the skills that had proved so practical in the past was a real source of anxiety. I was suddenly faced with my naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, smiles and tears, all dependent on how I was perceived at the moment. In a way, it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again. Relationships, connections, reputations could no longer be counted upon. This experience was and, in many ways, is the most important experience of my new life because it forced me to rediscover my true identity. These broken, wounded and completely unpretentious people forced me to let go of my relevant self—the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things—and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.” This love, Nouwen wrote, was none other than the love of God in the name of Jesus.

While out at a pastor’s conference in San Diego several years back, I heard the late Mike Yaconelli describe how his life and ministry to teenagers was deeply influenced by Nouwen’s writing, especially this book, In the Name of Jesus. Yaconelli had this cheeky practice of tracking down authors who had impressionable impacts on his spiritual life (if they were still living) and paying them a personal visit to say thank you. So he located Henri Nouwen at his Toronto residence and made an appointment. Unfortunately, Yaconelli’s flight was delayed, he missed a connection, and was unable to let Nouwen know he’d be late—something to do with misplacing a phone number or something. He arrived at Nouwen’s home three hours late.

Having read many of Nouwen’s other books, Yaconelli was fairly familiar with what he could expect as he approached Nouwen’s door. Henri Nouwen’s grace and magnanimous love were legendary—I experienced it myself in a class I took with Nouwen in seminary. Though a class of 400, he took time to meet with each of us individually. Yaconelli would have rather been on time, but at least this way he’d get to see Nouwen’s godly love in action. Yaconelli knocked, not really expecting that Nouwen had waited around. But it turned out that he had. Toward the door came a dramatic stomping followed by a violent ripping open of the door that revealed not the love of God but the wrath of Henri. Irate, Nouwen lit into Yaconelli without mercy, without worry, without even asking what happened: “Where have you been!? Why didn’t you call?! Don’t you know you’re three hours late?! Have you no respect of others’ schedules?” A shocked Yaconelli could only yell back, “HEY BUDDY, IN THE NAME OF JESUS! OK?”

Nouwen fans will be relieved to know that he apologized and went on to share a memorable visit. But for Mike Yaconelli, it was that initial, stressful encounter that proved most memorable. Not because it tarnished Nouwen’s reputation, but rather because it reinforced how hard following Christ truly is—even when you’re doing it.

I bought a pair of shoes a month not so long ago that I thought fit but didn’t. I wore them a few times thinking I could break them in, but they were just too small. I was so frustrated because I’d paid $40 for shoes that retailed for $60 but were now going cost me $80. The store wouldn’t take back shoes I’d already worn, so I’d have to buy a second pair. I went back to the store, one of those big box shoe warehouses where the shoes are strewn all over everywhere, and found a replacement pair that fit just right. I put them on my feet and put the ill-fitting pair in the new shoebox the others had just come out of. I sat there for a moment and said to myself, “You know, these ones I’ve worn don’t look that bad. I’ve only worn them a few times. What’s really wrong with just putting them back on the shelf and calling it even?” But then my other self said, “You can’t leave them here and walk out! You’re a Christian for Christ’s sake! Go pay for the shoes!”

So I halfheartedly walked up to the cashier and told her what happened. She said, “Wow, this means you’ll be paying $80 for a pair of shoes that only costs $40. You know you didn’t have to tell me you’d worn these other ones. They don’t look that bad. Besides, nobody ever checks.” I wish I’d had a lifesaver in my pocket.

It is much easier to be on the receiving end of Christ’s mercy than it is to live out its implications. To follow Jesus is to trust the Lord wherever he leads, to the point of losing your life—or losing a measly 40 bucks. It is a move from false certainties to true uncertainties, from easy support systems to risky surrender. Following Christ is hard to do even as we do it. So why do we do it? Jesus wondered himself. Earlier in John’s gospel, after many had abandoned him because of his difficult demands, Jesus asked his disciples, “Wouldn’t you all rather go away too?” To which Peter replied, “Lord, to whom would we go? We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God. You have the words of eternal life.”

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Hit and Run to Jesus

Romans 8:1-4
by Daniel Harrell

A couple of years back I walked up on a dear friend distraught over sideswiping a parked car as she tried to parallel park her minivan on a city street. Regrettably, she’d left a sizeable scrape on the front bumper of the other car and was in a quandary as to what she should do about it. Huge dollars signs rattled around in her head, both in terms of repair costs but also in terms of jacked up insurance premiums. Couldn’t she just flee the scene and chalk up the mishap to “life in the city”? The damage appeared mostly cosmetic. Besides, she noted, the car was a piece of junk. What was one more scrape? The owner probably wouldn’t even notice it.

Granted, this ethical line of reasoning was somewhat dubious—especially for someone professing to follow Jesus. Still, I could empathize with her plight. If you’ve ever dented a parked car’s fender, you know the temptation to just drive away. Ruthless insurance companies and predatory body shops can be like salivating dogs over fresh meat. My propensity for extending grace did tempt me to grant my friend a pastoral dispensation and allow her to leave the scene of her crime, but better judgment compelled me to advise she at least leave a note. Owning up to your faults is the Christian thing to do. However I also informed her that the good news, at least in this instance, was that she wouldn’t have to actually write the note because the car she hit—was mine.

Her distress descended into mortification. She started apologizing profusely and pleaded my forgiveness, promising to pay whatever damages her parking blunder caused. Just send her the bill, she said. But I told her not to worry about it. My car is a junker, having endured countless bumps and scrapes due to my own parallel parking exploits. Yet my friend felt horrible. She wanted to make amends. But I assured her everything was fine. It was no big deal. She responded with genuine gratitude, thankful that if she had to hit a car that at least the car she hit was mine. That I considered it no big deal was to her an act of magnanimous grace.

Some might use this introductory tale as an illustration for the magnanimous grace of God. Rather than condemning us for our own sinful ways, God nobly considers it no big deal to forgive us without our having to pay a dime. The problem, however, is that my apparent magnanimousness was really nothing of the kind. It came as close to resembling God’s grace as I come to resembling God. True, my friend felt she’d received mercy from me, but in reality it was mercy that cost me nothing. My car really isn’t that important to me. Sure, I’d prefer people not run into it, but I own an older model precisely because I expect that they will. I wasn’t four months in Minnesota before a hit and run crunch took out a door and mirror in a suburban parking lot. But what if my friend had sideswiped my brand new Subaru instead? Would I have been equally willing to let the accident slide and pay for the damages myself? What if she had rendered my car undriveable? Or what if knowing it was my car, she had backed into it on purpose? What if she had hit me? That would have been a very big deal and forced me up against the harder realities of grace.

I don’t know whether you’ve kept up with the trial of 18-year-old Michael Swanson, the severely disturbed kid who murdered two convenience store clerks apparently for fun down in Iowa. He was convicted last week for the first murder, grinning a mocking grin as the judge read out his life sentence. What would it mean for the family of the murdered store clerk to extend grace to their mother’s killer? To declare it “no big deal”? How to forgive anyone who so monstrously robbed them of someone they held so dear? The heinous nature of this crime demanded justice, not mercy.

Christians hold that the demand for justice accords with God’s own just and righteous character, a character codified in stone, that law to which the apostle Paul referred in the passage read for you a moment ago. Most familiar to us as the Ten Commandments, the essence of God’s law is sublimely summarized by Jesus as the ethic of love. Violate love and you violate divine law, evoking, the Bible repeatedly warns, heaven’s most righteous justice. Because God is always the one ultimately violated, the penalty is always of ultimate severity. “The payback for sin is death,” Paul famously forebodes. When it comes to God’s law, there is no wiggle room. Love or lose, these are the options.

The starkness with which Biblical judiciousness is portrayed has always troubled people who confuse God’s mercy with benign indifference. For them, a permissively loving God would never condemn anyone. Yet such a depiction remains as ludicrous as the reputedly kind and loving family of the Iowa store clerk never condemning her killer. “But wait,” you say, “that family loved their mother, not her murderer. Our Heavenly Father reputedly loves us as his children—even more so. How could such love ever express the sort of wrath the Bible so fiercely depicts?” You already know the answer from your own experience. You know your fiercest anger is reserved for the people you care about most. It’s their betrayals and offenses which cut most deeply. Love and fury have never been mutually exclusive. Indifference is the opposite of love, not hate. “How can a loving God be so ferocious?” You know the answer.

Yet because fury is a function of love; the love still remains. And since we are talking about God’s love, the love remains with unrelenting ferociousness. Therefore Paul writes: “What the Law failed to do, weakened as it was through the flesh, through human defiance, God did himself.” If God was ever to have the loving relationship with sinners he so desired, He would have to make it happen. Which he did not by rendering our sin “no big deal.” That would mean he didn’t care. God did it, Paul writes, by sending his Son in a human body like ours in order that he might take on our sin and our condemnation too. For Christians the cross is the expression of God’s passion, in all its darkness and light. Justice gets done and love does too.

Which is how Paul can so boldly declare that there is now—right now—no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. The law of the Spirit of Christ sets you free from the law of sin and death. You are free to live and to love as God intends. There is no longer any excuse for pettiness or gossip, or grudges, or deception or dissention or any of the many things the love of God stands against. Our righteousness arrives as free gift, but it survives as obedience—as faithfulness to the Spirit—which is true freedom. That’s why owning up to your faults is the Christian thing to do. Only when you get your mercy can you get your freedom and be free to love.

I had a friend with whom I would attend AA meetings once a year to present his annual medallion for sobriety. The meeting ran like AA meetings have run since their inception: first names only, an acknowledgment that you are an alcoholic, an empathetic welcome from the crowd. When I stepped up to the podium to present the medallion, instead of saying “Hi, my name is Daniel and I’m an alcoholic,” I said, “I’m a minister” to which the crowd nevertheless compassionately intoned, “Hi Daniel.” They understood. We’re all a mess.

One evening, this drunk guy crashed the meeting—slamming chairs, screaming and cursing at everybody. He tried to pick a fight with some of the guys seated quietly toward the front. You could hear a communal sigh. The speaker kept on speaking. Everybody basically just let the drunk make a fool of himself. For some reason I was surprised by this. I asked my friend about the protocol: “What do you usually do when a drunk person disrupts your meeting?” My friend cleverly asked back, “What do you usually do when a sinner shows up church? We’ve all been there. Some day he’ll hit rock bottom and when that happens, we want to make sure he always knows that help is here in this place.”

An alcoholic lives one drink away from tumbling back into his or her personal abyss. While AA does not associate with any religion, denomination or sect, its got the gospel written all over it. Person after person at the meeting described how their alcoholism robbed them of their livelihood, their marriages and children, their homes and all of their dignity. It was never until they owned up to their fault, confessed their futility and their need for God that they ever stood any chance at redemption. As every recovering alcoholic discovers, you cannot save yourself. It’s a humiliating realization, but the redemption is unbelievably sweet—a miracle was how one man described it. “Sobriety,” another remarked, “is freedom.”

Which is what Paul meant when he wrote we’ve been freed from the law’s indictment so that we might live according to the law of love. Obedience is freedom. Christ frees us from our addictions—be they to the substances we abuse or to the selfishness, pettiness, envy and anger we harbor. Christ frees us from our faults that we might enjoy the fruits of a life lived well. There’s solid rock at the bottom. So confess your futility. Get our mercy, get your freedom and get the help you need from God to faithfully love and live according to his Spirit.