Faith and relevance in the 21st century

Category: Easter (Page 2 of 2)

A Lenten reflection

If you were walking around in a supermarket not long after Christmas you could have been forgiven for thinking that you had skipped a couple of months of your life, such was the proliferation of chocolate Easter eggs already for sale. We are a society addicted to consumption. We want it all and we want it now.

The temptation to succumb to the consumerist way of life is with us daily. So as we come into the season of Lent, which is about going without, it is timely to remind ourselves that Jesus faced the same temptations we do. In Luke 4 we read that Jesus was shown all the kingdoms of the world, in all their glitz and glamour, and was told it could all be his if he would just sell his soul. Those forty days in the wilderness for Jesus were a time of extreme testing and trial, and it is during Lent that we identify with this as many of us make our own sacrifices.

Jesus resisted all the temptations thrown at him during that time, because he knew a better way. Not an easier way, but a better way. What the gospels show us, and what Lent reminds us of, is that the way of Jesus is the way of the cross. In his day that meant nothing less than a death sentence. When Jesus told his disciples about this in Mark 8, it was the major turning point in his ministry. It was the beginning of the end. Sometimes referred as the Caesarea Philippi Declaration, this was the first time Jesus made clear to his disciples that he was going to go to Jerusalem to meet his death.

What we also see in this enormously significant passage is that the disciples just didn’t get it. How could they? They had a completely different mindset. Their idea of a messiah was one who would overthrow the tyranny of the Roman Empire. After all, that was something that the Jews had been pinning their hopes on for hundreds of years. They had been under the yoke of oppression for that long and they had had enough. So when Jesus came along and spoke to his disciples about self-denial and taking up your cross and that he was going to die, should we be surprised that they couldn’t deal with it?

If we ever needed it, Lent is a time for reminding us that following Jesus is a struggle. When we commit our lives to bringing in the kingdom of God in all we are and all we do, it can be easy for cynicism to easily take hold as we see corruption and injustice always seeming to win the day. How do we go on when it always seems to be two steps forward and three steps back?

Lent though prepares us for what lies ahead. For many it is a time to give up some indulgence, like chocolate or coffee (or something even more difficult like Facebook!). It is a time to identify with suffering, with going without, in order to realise more our dependence on the God of hope. In a world where we constantly face the temptation to want it all and want it now, Lent offers a different way. The way of Jesus is the way of the Cross. It is an unavoidable fact of life. There is no resurrection without death.

This year, let’s consider giving up something during Lent. It can not only bring us closer to God, but it also helps us identify more with those whose entire lives consist of going without. And by doing this, you may just find that you experience a joy that you would not otherwise experience; a joy that can give you strength to continue the good fight. As author Walt Wangerin says, “Joy knows suffering and still does not despair. Joy sees the suffering of others and does not turn away, but moves forward in courage, to comfort and to heal.”

The prophet Nehemiah also says, “the joy of the Lord will be your strength”. Jesus knew this. He knew it on the night he was betrayed and we can be sure he knew it during his forty days in the wilderness. The journey of struggle to set the world right is a long one. But it is one that brings life and joy, and that is why it is worthwhile. May that be your experience of Lent this year.

Still fascinated after all these years

I just watched an amazing video of a portrait of Jesus being put together by a wonderful artist. As I was watching, I realised how fascinated I still am by Jesus. After about 25 years of being a believer, he still challenges me, still draws me, still encourages me to strive on to be better than I am.

There is something amazing about this man who lived, died and, I believe, was physically raised 2,000 years ago. People of all persuasions have had their lives turned upside down, been given hope, been infused with meaning, and been turned around from self-destruction to self-giving love by the man from Nazareth. Kings and rulers, and slaves and peasants alike have been utterly transformed by him.

If you think of some of the things that make Jesus so fascinating, they are at once paradoxical yet at the same time make sense in him. Things like the fact that he makes the most outrageous, extraordinary claims of himself, yet not once does he come across as arrogant or self-opinionated. Or how about the fact that he actually intensifies the moral norms of his culture (“you have heard that it was said…but I say to you…”), and yet the most despised of ‘sinners’ in that same culture are drawn to him like metal to a magnet?

Jesus makes the most pressing claims on our lives, yet at the same time gives us grace upon grace – undeserved love. He demands total commitment yet never demands anything he doesn’t do himself. He tells us to love our enemies, and does it himself. He tells us to walk the extra mile, and he walks it himself. He tells us to take up our cross and follow, and he takes it up himself, even unto death on the most brutal, completely humiliating implement known in those times: a Roman cross.

This is a man like no other. The most intelligent minds in the world, such as former Head of the Human Genome project, Francis Collins, to the child who sits in wonder at the fact of Jesus’ love, come away transfixed, never the same again. 2,000 years later, Jesus appeals to great minds and little children alike. And throughout those 2,000 years, thousands have been transformed in a way they cannot explain but for the presence of a love outside of themselves. As Bono said once when it was suggested to him that this Jesus stuff is a bit outrageous: the alternative is that thousands of people throughout history have had their lives turned upside down by a madman – now that’s outrageous!

I read a bit of the Bible every day. I have read about Jesus for years; I have written about him and I daily try to live my life as he did, but still I find myself drawn to him, still I find myself wanting to be like him, still I want to learn more from him, and more than ever I am convinced that only in him lies the life and hope that we all strive for.

As I ponder, I can only echo the famous words of Dr James Allan, written almost a century ago, of this One Solitary Life:

He was born in an obscure village
The child of a peasant woman
He grew up in another obscure village
Where he worked in a carpenter shop
Until he was thirty

He never wrote a book
He never held an office
He never went to college
He never visited a big city
He never travelled more than two hundred miles
From the place where he was born
He did none of the things
Usually associated with greatness
He had no credentials but himself

He was only thirty three

His friends ran away
One of them denied him
He was turned over to his enemies
And went through the mockery of a trial
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing
The only property he had on earth

When he was dead
He was laid in a borrowed grave
Through the pity of a friend

Nineteen centuries have come and gone
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race
And the leader of mankind’s progress
All the armies that have ever marched
All the navies that have ever sailed
All the parliaments that have ever sat
All the kings that ever reigned put together
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life

To paraphrase Paul Simon, I remain, of Jesus, still fascinated after all these years.

The death that stops the world

Every year in my home town of Melbourne, we have a public holiday for a horse race. The Melbourne Cup is the race that stops the nation, and the day is famous for people getting together over a BBQ, having a flutter, and watching the horses go around the track.

As I drove to a church service this morning, my mood was one of stillness and quietness. I felt the solemnity of this holy, holy week when the Passion of Christ brought the whole of creation close to its darkest hour. Then I turned on the radio to see if there would be any discussion of this most holy of days in the Christian calendar. As I flicked through the radio stations, I heard talk of last night’s football, and what the Aussie dollar was doing against the Greenback at the moment. I felt a sense of sadness as I realised that the world doesn’t stop today. Everything continues as if this day is just like any other, and not the commemoration of the most important event in history.

I turned the radio off, wishing that the world would stop and ponder. Cultures need times of ritual, times of being still, times of remembrance. We do it on Anzac Day, as we should, and we all stop on Melbourne Cup Day, as well as Grand Final Day. But a postmodern, post-Christian, culture, no longer has an overarching story to tie itself to. Easter for us is a holiday, a chance to have five days off in a row, a rare luxury in our busy year. People ask me if I’m going away over this time, and I’m glad to say I am not. For me it’s not about that. I want to stay and ponder, stay and remember a bigger story, a story which is the foundation of all our stories. I need this story, and I am convinced our society needs it too. After all, for all the destruction that the church has caused over the centuries, it has more-so been a force for the most incredible good in our Western culture. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the foundation of that.

So today, like the disciples, I sit and ponder. But unlike those confused and absolutely bewildered, disillusioned men and women, I know the outcome. As Tony Campolo says, I know that even though it’s Friday, Sunday’s a-comin’. But they didn’t know. They were completely and utterly defeated. Just a week earlier Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey, the symbolic action of the Messiah coming in to overthrow the oppression of Rome. Hailed by all and sundry, this was their moment of glory. But a week later, Jesus tells them again that his kingdom is not what they think. No wonder, when their king gets down and starts washing his disciples’ feet, does Peter protest vehemently. Foot-washing was something that only slaves did, not Messiahs. Such an act was completely beneath the dignity of a king, and Peter had to remind Jesus of the fact. But the kingdom of love is one of humble service, of laying down your life for the other. Jesus was providing an example for his followers. Once again, he was practising what he had preached over the previous three years, that whoever humbles themselves will be exalted, that life is found not in our own glory but in the lifting up of others.

Such action is what changes the world, and such action is the way that God meant it to be. For God is a God of life and love, of sacrifice and humility, and we have the privilege of following in this most counter-cultural of ways.

I wish the world would stop today, and not just today, but over the next few days. I wish people, especially Christians, would stop asking me what I am doing over Easter. As if it shouldn’t be obvious. I wish Christians would stay and ponder as well, rather than seeing this as a great chance for a holiday, no different to the rest of the world. But then, as always, I have to look at myself. By staying and pondering, am I claiming the moral high-ground, something which I have no right to do, ever? Am I ignoring the very words and actions of Jesus today, the one who laid down his life and put love of God and neighbour above himself? This is what the death that stops the world challenges me with. God change me, and help me to know anew the magnitude of your sacrifice.

Earthquakes, the carbon tax, and Easter

Sight have just put up my article on what Easter has to do with the realities of today’s world of earthquakes, fighting in Libya, child poverty, and the carbon tax. Often we talk about the wonder of this time of year – the most important in the Christian calendar – but we don’t know what relevance it has to do with the rest of the world. Check out the article here.

The biblical meta-narrative in Australia

Fascinating article in today’s Age about the declining knowledge of basic biblical stories in society in general, and yet despite that, the importance with which they are still held by many in our secular culture.

Some non-religious people interviewed for the article were still in favour of the biblical stories being told in our culture. Despite our overwhelmingly secular and postmodern society, there is still a need for a meta-narrative, an overarching story, even if many people might not believe in its historical veracity.

The biblical narrative of a loving God coming to Earth in the man Jesus Christ still resonates with something deep in the human psyche. Somewhere amidst the rampant consumerism and desperation to get by and get ahead, there is still a desire to ground our lives in something outside ourselves.

For all the good points in the article though, I find it incredibly sad and barely believable that a university anthropologist can seriously compare Jesus to Batman, Bob the Builder, and Thomas the Tank Engine. Apart from the pathetic comparison though, the Christian faith is also not about a set of values; it is about relationship and reconciliation, the setting to rights of the whole of creation, to God and to each other. It is about transformation of the human heart, something which Batman nor the other people characters mentioned above, even claim.

What is perhaps sadder is that a survey by Barna in December 2010 showed the declining biblical literacy rate amongst Christians, including theological students. While Barna is US-based, my conversations with people show the same to be true in Australia. It matters what we believe.

'Are you going away for Easter?'

One of the pastors at my church mentioned last week that people had been asking her if she is going away for Easter. She said she felt like replying ‘no! And that’s the whole point’. When she said that I felt a little pang of conviction, for I have asked the same question alot recently. Easter is just another holiday for most Australians, including many Christians. I wonder if they sell cards at this time of year in the US which say ‘Happy Holidays’ like they do at Christmas time.

The point my pastor was trying to make was that Easter is ideally spent with other believers in community, for that is what Jesus did on his last night on Earth. He spent it with his friends over a meal. But we see this time of year as a chance to get away and have a break. And in so doing we lose what Easter is really about: God coming to earth as a human, relating with us, teaching us, and above all, saving us. Reconciling the world to himself, and in so doing, reconciling people to each other, God is his own community – Father/Mother, Son and Holy Spirit.

Lord, help me to remember the reason for this season. You coming to die and then being raised to life, to give us the life that is truly life.

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