Living the High Life: Seeing Jesus As He Is

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Mysteries and then some

People love a good mystery. In 2015, there were over 300,000 different books published in the United States alone, with the largest category (over thirty-four thousand books) being mystery and suspense.[1],[2] The best-selling of these, The Girl on a Train by Paula Hawkins, sold nearly two million copies according to the Nielsen BookScan ratings,[3] intimating that we love a good tale of suspense, intrigue, and mystery.

History, however, has proven to write its own share of mysteries and none stranger than the Dancing Plagues of the Middle Ages. John C. Waller, a historian at Michigan State University, wrote this about the plague of 1518,

Perched alongside the Rhine River on the western edge of the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg was a busy trading city, its fairs frequented by merchants from across the continent (Figure 1). Sometime in mid-July 1518 a lone woman stepped into one of its narrow streets and began a dancing vigil that was to last four or even 6 days in succession. Within a week another 34 had joined the dance. And by the end of August, one chronicler asserts, 400 people had experienced the madness, dancing wildly, uncontrollably around the city.

As the dance turned epidemic, troubled nobles and burghers consulted local physicians. Having excluded astrological and supernatural causes, the members of the medical fraternity declared it to be a ‘natural disease’ caused by ‘hot blood’. This was orthodox physic, consistent with Galen’s view that bloody fluxes could overheat the brain, causing anger, rashness and madness. But the response of the authorities was neither to bleed nor to provide cooling diets. Instead they prescribed ‘more dancing’. To this end they cleared two guildhalls and the outdoor grain market and they even had a wooden stage constructed opposite the horse fair. To these locations the dancers were taken so they could dance freely and uninterrupted. The victims would only recover their minds, said the authorities, if they persisted both day and night with their frantic movements. And to facilitate this supposed cure, the authorities next paid for musicians and professional dancers to keep the afflicted moving.”[4]

That dancing plague ended in the same year it began and a combination of Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment brought about theological and scientific understanding that flew in the face of such practices and they seemed to end, at least in that manner. However, no one knows for certain what caused or cured it.

The Mystery of Transfiguration

Some things in life are simply mysterious, they are beyond the realm of our consideration and to try and simplify them down to our humanity degrades the mystery and its holiness. One such mystery categorized in this way is that of the Transfiguration of Jesus. It is a moment the writer of Luke captures as a revelation of divinity for humanity or at least that is the common conception. M.C. Steenberg wrote of the event,

“The mystery of Christ’s transfiguration on the mountain is among the most potent moments of divine revelation recorded in the Scriptures, yet one with reference to which many hearers — historical as well as contemporary — feel a certain air of separation. ‘This is an event of Christ, for Christ. It is not an event for me.’”[5]

He goes on to write that the truth of the Transfiguration, as he sees it, connects this moment to us in both a mysterious and practical way. German theologian Rudolph Otto speaks of something he calls the mysterium tremendum or the mystery of the that which is ‘hidden and esoteric, that beyond conception or understanding’;[6] “It cannot be ‘taught’, it must be ‘awakened’ from the Spirit”[7] or as Donald Luther writes, “We long for the mysterion. We sense, we know, some have experienced indelibly the elusive presence.”[8]

This mysterium tremendum is what Peter, James, and John are encountering in the Transfiguration story. It is a moment beyond their understanding and comprehension, beyond the scope of their worldview or perspective. The writer of each of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) tries to convey this idea of holiness, wonder, and awe in their own way and I believe they do to help us seek the experience and live into it ourselves. It is an invitation to see this mysterium tremendum in our way and our circumstances. How is it then that we should view this story of Jesus glorification before the disciples? How do we embrace this as a part of our own story that we share and encourage others to engage?

Defining Transfiguration

Transfiguration is a change

The word ‘transfigure’ is not in the text. And in the story as Luke tells it, the disciples are said to be ‘weighed down with sleep,’ as they will later do at Gethsemane. They do not see the transfiguration itself but rather the results of it: they “saw his glory” (Luke 9:32). This gets to the important aspect that Luke is conveying.[9] The event on the mountain in Luke is a peculiar kind of miracle in Luke. Jesus’ face and clothes change and become bright like a flash of lightning – something like Moses’ face in Exodus 34:29-35. Three disciples see Moses and Elijah standing with Jesus “clothed with heavenly splendor” (Luke 9:31). Moses and Elijah – often seen as representative of the Law and the Prophets – discuss with Jesus his “departure” (in Greek, exodus).”[10]

Michal Beth Dinkler writes,

“How should we understand Jesus’ identification as the “Son of God”? Many students of Luke consider this to be confirmation of Jesus’ unique Christological status. But in Luke’s context, the language of divine sonship is not unique. In the Hebrew Bible (with which Luke is intimately familiar), divine sonship language appears in reference to kings as God’s chosen representatives. In the Roman Empire, the emperor was typically divinized after his death; he would not usually be called a god during his lifetime, but rather, a “son of a god.” In Luke’s context, then, Jesus being God’s son is a claim to legitimacy. It means he is chosen and commissioned to carry out God’s will, to enact God’s kingdom here on earth.”[11]

What I see in this goes beyond the obvious Christological explanations of Jesus being God and being lifted before men that they can see him for who he is. As Dinkler says, “the language of divine sonship is not unique” but goes back to a long tradition in Judaism as well as other religions of the region including the Greek and Roman emperor worship cults. I think there is something else at work here, something deeper on the level of being. I think there is a change here, Jesus going from a human prophet to one shown as glorified by God. I think this idea of change is one of the major themes behind the story of transfiguration, a story of seeing Jesus become more than they thought he was. The reason for this, as Dinkler points out, is to live into the call of God’s Kingdom on earth, to be and bring a heavenly existence to an earthly place.

Transfiguration is changing from something to something

A colleague from a previous church once spoke of a movement, “If they call themselves the Emerging Movement what are they emerging from and what are they emerging to.” So, the idea of change in the passage shows us more: that change is from something to something. Jesus is being presented in the story as becoming altogether different, more than the being he was to them before. Jesus is changing before them and in that change they are seeing not only something that God is doing to/for Jesus but also the change God can and will make for them. What is the change?

It is the change from profane to holy, from being limited to this world and its tropes to a being in the image of God and living after the Way of Jesus. It is the first stage of change on the path to being a new creation, a new person after the fashion of Jesus. Theologian Fred Craddock put it this way,

“The conversation between Moses, Elijah, and Jesus is one of Jesus forthcoming ‘exodus’, what may be a spiritual example of the path to be followed as disciples, a path to leave the way of life and being that the disciples are still hanging onto in some ways and embrace the ‘glory’ of the path of God that Jesus walks. “One thing is clear: Jesus and his three disciples have an experience of God.”[12]

I believe what Craddock refers to as the ‘an experience of God’ is the goal of all who engage the path of Jesus and the person of God. This is the change we are talking about when we say changing from something to something. This is what we are seeking in understanding and living into transfiguration for ourselves.

If Jesus is our example, the example from Transfiguration is radical transformation into a new way of being, a way that imitates Jesus.

I came across an interesting article this week by Charles Carlston who wrote,

AMONG the many possible interpretations of the Transfiguration, one of the more common is that it was originally a resurrection appearance and was eventually transferred to the life of Jesus as a transfiguration story.”[13]

This was an interesting idea because it speaks to the ideas of transfiguration and resurrection being tied together as narratives of change, intended to encourage us to follow the example. An example of this is in the story of the mother of James and John asking Jesus for seats at his right and left hand for her sons. What she was asking for was a place of honor for her sons in the perceived earthly kingdom they expected Jesus to set up in opposition to the Roman government as their ‘Messiah’. In response, consider the question Jesus asks of the disciples and by extension all of us who choose to follow: “…Can you drink from the cup that I’m about to drink from?” We most often interpret this considering the impending crucifixion but I think we can also see this as a challenge. The challenge is this: can you live into the life I have lived and the ministry I have performed to claim those places of honor? Are you willing to live as people who are so devoted to the Way, so set on following that nothing, not even death itself, will deter you? A few chapters later in Matthew’s story this idea comes to life vividly in the Last Supper as Jesus blesses the cup and says, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven.”[14] Each time we gather around the table of communion we are not only participating the idea of being with Jesus in the Presence of God but we are also saying in effect, “We too are willing to drink the cup. We too are willing to walk the path wherever it leads. We too are willing to offer ourselves to be transformed and used for the good of the Kingdom of God.

See the change of Jesus and accept the invitation to be changed. Be changed from one who follows the paths that lead to pain and separation from God to one who follows in the Way of Jesus. Let the example of transfiguration and resurrection be a radical transformation into a new way of being, a way that imitates Jesus, amen


References

Carlston, Charles Edwin. “Transfiguration and Resurrection.” Journal of Biblical Literature (Society of Biblical Literature) 80, no. 3 (Sep 1961): 233-240.

Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. Working Preacher. 2017. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3005 (accessed 02 16, 2017).

Luther, Donald J. “The Mystery of the Transfiguration: Luke 9:28-36 (37-43).” Word & World 21, no. 1 (Dec 2001): 92-102.

Otto, Rudolph. The Idea of the Holy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1950.

Steenberg, M.C. “Two-Natured Man: An Anthropology of Transfiguration.” Pro Ecclesia 14, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 413-432.

Waller, John C. “In a spin: the Mysterious Dancing Epidemic of 1518.” Endeavour 32, no. 3 (Sept. 2008): 117-121.


[1] http://www.internationalpublishers.org/images/reports/2014/IPA-annual-report-2014.pdf

[2] http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/69138-the-hot-and-cold-book-categories-of-2015.html

[3] http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/72566-the-bestselling-books-of-2016.html

[4] (Waller 2008), p.117

[5] (Steenberg 2005), p.414

[6] (Otto 1950), p.13

[7] (Otto 1950), p.60

[8] (Luther 2001), p.94

[9] (Luther 2001), p.95

[10] (Dinkler 2017)

[11] (Dinkler 2017)

[12] (Craddock 1990), p.133-135

[13] (Carlston 1961), p.233

[14] Matthew 26:27-28

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Living the High Life: Being Forgiven

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Casting the movie

When I was a teenager, I began reading a lot of the same books that my father read. Authors like James Patterson, Clive Cussler, Stephen King, and Dean Koontz became commonly sought out in the library. In fact, to this day my father continues the practice of weekly trips to the library for the latest from the stacks. Back then, we would go into the library and the librarian knew my father so well by his choices that she began to set aside new books by his favorite authors or let him know when the books would be released and purchased by the library system.

When we got our hands on the books, we would each read them and then the casting began. We tried to imagine the books as films, easy enough considering some of them were made into films within a reasonable time after their release. As we did, we would cast the roles of each character in the book based on the actors that were available and popular at the time. Sometimes the films would be made and the actors would be close enough to the book that we could live with their choices (like we had any choice in the matter) but sometimes the choices were just off.

One of our more interesting discussions was around the character of Alex Cross from James Patterson’s best-selling series of detective novels. The Alex Cross character is an African American former Washington, D.C. detective, FBI agent and psychologist who typically works on high profile cases involving hyper-intelligent criminals and serial killers. The character is a calmly analytical yet approachable man who shows a great deal of empathy for the people around him. My father and I had a few actors in mind, notably James Earl Jones as Alex Cross and Michael Clark Duncan as John Sampson, Cross’ giant of a partner. The choice made perfect sense to us given the calm, dignified demeanor of Jones and massive physical presence of Duncan.

But Hollywood, as usual, disappointed us.

The parts went to Morgan Freeman as Cross and Bill Nunn as Sampson. Both respected actors but neither really looking the part as we saw the story in our minds. Because that was really the key, the impetus behind our little casting exercise. We could see the story that we were reading in our mind’s eyes and the story we saw didn’t look like the story on the screen. There was something missing from their version, something that simply did not add up to what was in the pages.

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Casting the Gospel

This story in Luke is one of those that I find easy to see in my imagination. I can see the action as though it were a movie in my mind as I read the words. It’s not just the main players I see, but the entire scene as though it were happening in front of me.

Capernaum was a fishing village along the Sea of Galilee, two centuries old by the time Jesus sits down to the meal with Simon the Pharisee. As they sat in what was most likely a single-story house, Jesus and Simon might have enjoyed the breeze off the lake, a breeze of course, that came with the smell of fish but also other industries that were a part of the village. It was probably around sunset since it would be proper to invite a guest to the evening meal rather than one of the others. The disciples are not present in this story though I imagine they may have been nearby, talking with others about Jesus or perhaps seeking accommodations for the night. The room they gathered in was most likely the largest room of the house, one for cooking and entertaining. Although it doesn’t explicitly say it, the meal itself would have been tended to by Simon’s wife or daughters, perhaps a slave or servant if the Pharisee had one.

Meals as they were practiced were considered a holy act; to offer a meal to someone was a sign of friendship and trust, a sign that showed your acceptance of the guest. Consider the uproar of the Pharisees and scribes as Jesus accepts the invitation of the tax collecting traitor Levi also known as Matthew. The meal itself would have been served on a low table, laid out before those gathered on the best the house had to offer. Those eating would have been reclining, most likely on their left elbows to be able to eat with their right hands since most people were (and still are) right handed. Normally, the people would have washed their hands in a small bowl and often the host would offer to wash not only the hands of a guest but also the feet, since people wore sandals and people would have lie down on their dirty feet otherwise.

As the meal was brought out, the guest and his host were treated to the smells of a meat stew or if Simon were a wealthy man perhaps a roasted lamb which would have been customary for an honored guest. There would have been bread and lentils, possibly fruit of some variety, maybe figs. They would have drunk what we call a table wine since water was most often contaminated and unable to be purified.

The meal itself would have been a festive occasion as it was rare to have a guest of that magnitude. For us this would have been like throwing a dinner party for the most prominent citizen in town or even our region. It would be a sign of importance to have a prophet, certainly a prophet with Jesus’ reputation dining your home, something like having a head of state or celebrity dine with you. Everything would have been perfect and from the account in Luke it was. But that lasts only a short time before the party gets crashed.

The Party Crasher

My father is a stickler for locks. Every night of my childhood I remember my father walking through the house and checking every window and every door to be certain that the locks, chains, and all the other security paraphernalia was engaged as it should be. Apparently, Simon was not quite so careful. According to Luke’s account, someone found out that Jesus was at his house that evening. The townspeople labelled this woman as ‘a sinner’ and what that meant could be a range of things but speaking generally, she was someone deemed irreligious or outside the practicing faith.

This woman, in an act of will and audacity, barges into Simon’s home with an alabaster jar, an expensive accessory for the time that would have been used to keep perfumes and oils cool due to the nature of the stone. As she does she takes a place at Jesus feet, kneeling behind him but still close enough to him to touch his feet. And she begins to cry. I want you to think about that for a moment because I think too often this gets glossed over in the grander tale. She cries. There is a depth of emotion that this woman has been holding within herself that in this moment, being before Jesus, overflows in her tears that fall on his feet. In her embarrassment or perhaps as an act of conscious humility, she uses her hair as a towel to wipe Jesus tear soaked, mud encrusted feet. In much the same way he treated her, she is taking the dirt of the road, the path Jesus has walked, off his feet and onto herself. She then pours what is assumed to be an expensive oil, as I believe, both an act of cleansing and anointing. Some commentators have tried to make more of this and read more into this moment than I think necessary. I believe the truth in the story is that she has been forgiven by Jesus of something not mentioned in the story and is showing her love, her appreciation, pouring out her heart in thanks before someone who refused to see her as only a sinner. The fourth century church father Asterius of Amasea wrote,

Showing her unworthiness and utmost timidity through her manner and assuming a place to the rear, she did not simply stand but took a position behind his feet, loosed her hair, and made her grieving soul a matter of public business by her actions. Shedding tears on the feet of Jesus with great feeling she begged for mercy. And she poured forth such tears that she wet his feet. And wiping her tears with her hair she again displayed her perfectly circumspect humility. (Horn. 13.10.2-3)[2]

I think this was her primary motivation here, humility before the face of one who had shown her mercy, shown her grace in a society that had written her off as one who had missed the mark and would never hit it. It was humility born from a deep, intense need to show some semblance of gratitude for Jesus’ seeing her as a human being rather than a broken animal.

Simon of course can’t see this. He has prepared a meal for an honored guest, a great prophet with the intent of perhaps discussing Jesus’ teaching and ministry, matters of the Torah and religious observance. He may have spent a good deal of extra money to provide the food for the meal and maybe paid for extra servants; perhaps offering to help find food and lodging for Jesus’ disciples if he himself were not able to feed and care for them in his own home.

Into this great festal moment walks a piece of street trash, a sinner, and a woman no less. Does she not realize who he, Simon is, a teacher of the law? Does she have no sense of decorum or understanding of how polite society should respond and act in these situations. This was his home and she, an uninvited guest barges in and starts harassing his guest. She is out of place, completely hysterical, and has no reason to even be in his home. And worst of all, Jesus is letting her. Jesus, the great prophet is letting this filthy, unacceptable, unclean sinner touch him, making Jesus himself unclean.

And Jesus does what he has done to this point through his ministry; he turns it into a teaching moment. He sees the sneering, incensed expression on Simon’s face and hears the frustrated breathing and makes the obvious conclusion, “Simon assumes I don’t know what kind of woman she is. He assumes I may not be the prophet people say I am.” And as usual, Jesus makes his point in story. He tells of two people who are indebted to the same man, one owing a small debt and the other a much larger debt. When it becomes apparent that neither man can pay, the two debts are cancelled and both men are freed from their obligation. Jesus asks Simon, “Which of the debtors will love the lender more?” Simon gives the obvious answer and walks into the snare saying, “I guess the person that had the largest debt cancelled.”

Jesus then points out that it is Simon, not the woman, who is out of order. It is Simon with his focus on the meal and the discussion and the preoccupations with himself who has forgotten the simple courtesies of honoring the guest. Simon should have offered to clean Jesus feet or at the very least have a servant do it. Yet it is the woman, a sinner written off by polite society who provides this most basic act of civility and does so with the extravagance of providing tears to wash with and her hair to dry with. Not only that, she anoints his feet with oil, providing healing for Jesus’ feet from the road and leaving them without the smell of the road as they sit around a low table close to the food.

Why does she do what Simon has failed to do? Because like the story, she recognizes that she has been forgiven of a great weight and has felt that weight removed from her. Simon, he seems to feel nothing but the desire to be an equal to the great prophet, to show off his skills as an interpreter of the law. That of course is not in the story but it was common among great teachers and prophets of the time, a sort of invitation to a verbal sparring match to teach or be schooled depending on how the discussion went.

In the end, what is Jesus response? To Simon, a lesson on self-importance and egoistic thinking, a reminder that being great is not a matter of taking your place as head of the table but being willing to serve despite it. It is the lesson in humility that Simon has apparently missed and needed to be reminded of.

To the woman, Jesus simply makes three statements, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” You are no longer bound to the mistakes of your past. You have shown by your heart and actions that you truly believe the message of grace and peace that I have preached and lived before you. Your conscience can now be clear, you soul at ease.

Living Forgiveness

For us as followers of Jesus, what does this story teach as a way of being? I can see several things that we can take away from this, most notably the idea that seeking forgiveness is an act of humility and only in humility can we find true forgiveness. If we cannot admit that we have made a mistake, how can ever hope to have be forgiven or correct it? It is in being humble or as Jesus teaches in three different stories elsewhere, “…those who are last will be first. And those who are first will be last.”[3]

I think we can also learn from this story that forgiveness is an extravagant experience worthy of an extravagant response. We who need it should realize the great gift we are being given in the offer of forgiveness, the offer of having our relationship restored either with God or with one another. We who are being asked for it should realize the great gift we have to offer in granting restoration and peace to another who is seeking to make amends for mistakes we all have made ourselves at one time or another, whether the exact mistake or different ones. Again, the words of Jesus ring true from the Sermon on the Mount, “If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”

Let us be a forgiving people, both of ourselves and others, that we may know and share the grace and mercy that God has offered us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


[1] Anthropological and archaeological information taken from Life in Biblical Israel, by Philip King and Lawrence Stager (see bibliography for more information)

[2] (Cosgrove 2005), p.677-678

[3] Matthew 20:16

Living the High Life: Speaking from Experience

 

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Scenery seen

The naturalistic theologian James William Buffett once wrote, “Don’t try to describe the scenery if you’ve never seen it.” You can always tell when someone has really experienced something and when they are relating the experience of someone else. There are certain details, certain minutiae that are simply not a part of their story.

For instance, Frank could become just about anyone he wanted to become. He was the master of the bluff, the connoisseur of con artistry. Over the course of nearly a decade, Frank impersonated a pilot, an attorney, an undercover officer, and several other occupations. But even the best of criminals has some degree of conscience and Frank had to draw the line when he began impersonating a physician at a Georgia hospital.

Frank met a ‘fellow physician’ while staying at the River Bend apartments near Atlanta under the guise of ‘taking some time off to do research.[1]

For eleven months, Abagnale impersonated a chief resident pediatrician in a Georgia hospital under the alias Frank Williams. He chose this course after he was nearly arrested disembarking a flight in New Orleans. Afraid of possible capture, he retired temporarily to Georgia. When filling out a rental application he impulsively listed his occupation as “doctor”, fearing that the owner might check with Pan Am if he wrote “pilot”. After befriending a real doctor who lived in the same apartment complex, he agreed to act as a supervisor of resident interns as a favor until the local hospital could find someone else to take the job. The position was not difficult for Abagnale because supervisors did no real medical work. However, he was nearly exposed when an infant almost died from oxygen deprivation because he had no idea what a nurse meant when she said there was a “blue baby.” He was able to fake his way through most of his duties by letting the interns handle the cases coming in during his late-night shift, setting broken bones and other mundane tasks. He left the hospital only after he realized he could put lives at risk by his inability to respond to life-and-death situations.[2]

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This story is of course about the exploits of Frank Abagnale, conman extraordinaire turned FBI consultant and security specialist. The story demonstrates that a little knowledge is not only dangerous but also will expose itself for the little knowledge it is in time. For all the times that Abagnale got away with fraud, he had to constantly run from one situation to the next because eventually, someone with more knowledge and experience would recognize his lie. People, some sooner than later, will know a fraud when they see it.

What is experiential faith?

Faith has much in common with Frank’s story in that real faith stands up to the test of scrutiny where the faith of an imposter will be found out. The truth is in the experience of faith, in the authenticity of our interactions with God and other believers who have experienced faith. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talks about false prophets or those who would declare a falsehood as the truth by saying,

You will know them by their fruit. Do people get bunches of grapes from thorny weeds, or do they get figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree produces good fruit, and every rotten tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit. And a rotten tree can’t produce good fruit. Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is chopped down and thrown into the fire. Therefore, you will know them by their fruit.” – Matthew 7:16-20

In other words, those that have seen the scenery can describe it.

Faith is existential and must be experienced to known. What do I mean by existential? The Christian life is a collection of moments and experiences defined in relation to the presence of God and the understood effect they have on the consciousness of individual people experiencing them. In other words, it is the total connection points you have had with God over the course of your journey and how those connection points have affected that connection between you and God. It’s the scenery that you have seen and the connection you have to seeing it that makes up your experiential knowledge of God and it is that experience that defines who you are now and the potential directions you might go from here in your journey.

Theologian Paul Tillich says it is “…the striving for union with ultimate reality…as a way of life.”[3] This striving comes out of our experience with God and our connection born out of that experience. We understand this as our spiritual walk, our faith journey, our faith life, and countless other ideas but they all lead back to the understanding that we as part of Creation are connected and connecting with God through a variety of means (means of grace as we say in Methodism) to accomplish an existential or experienced faith.

What did John experience?

The story from today’s reading in Luke points to the reality of existential faith as Jesus is questioned by disciples, or followers of his cousin John the Baptist. John sends them from his prison cell, as we can learn from the same story in Matthew, and he sends them with a burning question that is on everyone’s mind, certainly everyone living in the Galilean region, “Are the one who is coming or should we look for someone else?”

The one that they are referring to is the Messiah, the promised one, the redeemer of Israel. But what did that mean? I think understanding the question is key to understanding their experience with Jesus. I believe all shared experiences have certain things in common. First, they have a topos, or physical place that they happen. Second, they have a chronos, a defined time such as Sunday, February 12, 2017 at 10:30 in the morning. And finally, they have a atomos, or a moment, a circumstance that creates the setting in which the experience happens.

I believe these three things are common for all shared experiences and the story we read in Luke is no exception. It happens in Galilee, a province conquered by Rome four generations before when the Hasmonean kings were overthrown. It happens at a time when the Jewish people are still looking for a means to take back their land, a land they held independently mere decades before. Into this experience, John the Baptist sends a question, the ultimate question of their life, the universe, and everything else, “Is Jesus the one?”

The truth is we are always looking for a Messiah. We are always waiting on the person to show up and fix the things that are broken in our lives, the things we cannot or do not know how to fix. Whether it is a religious, political, or personal leader; we are looking to hit the fix it jackpot and have all our problems instantly dealt with so that life is no longer the difficult drudgery that many people feel it is.

It is interesting to me what Jesus says in response to this, “Tell John what you see.” He doesn’t send John’s disciples back with a teaching or a doctrine. He sends them back the experience of witness, having seen the reports of Jesus work and ministry substantiated with the purpose of letting John decide whether Jesus was the modern Messianic figure they were looking for or if they needed to look elsewhere.

The power of story, a part of the power that has propelled the gospel for the past twenty centuries, is tied to the power of experience, of sensory interaction with moments in time and place. This is the power that Jesus invokes by responding to the question in the manner he did. The disciples have borne witness to the reality of Jesus as a holy prophet of God, a healer of the broken, a restorer of those whose lives have fallen apart. This is the story they carry back to John the Baptist, the story they share that they themselves have experienced.

What is our experience?

Robert J. Karris wrote, “Luke’s stories of Jesus’ eating habits proclaim to his readers the gospel that God is imminent to creation, that God longs to be with God’s creation, and that God will remove all boundaries which impede that communion.”[4]

I believe this idea of communion is a good way to express existential faith in that communion is the experience we have of being in the presence of God. Communion is not just the moment we spend together eating bread and juice in front of the church, communion is a deep, abiding experience where the presence of God is intertwined, interwoven with our presence in such a way as to guide us into moments of transcendence and guidance along the path of salvation that we walk. Following Karris’ comment, I believe this is the divine desire of God, to be with us, imminently connected, that we can know the heart, mind, and being of God to the best of our finite nature.

While this is the goal and the hope, we do not always make this connection. Life gets in the way and we find ourselves distracted by our interactions and experiences with others that move us on differing paths from the path of communion with God. We chase our baser emotions and desires and find ourselves disconnected and discouraged by our experiences, wishing that we could somehow undo things that have been done and unsay things that have been said.

Yet, God has offered two paths that lead back to the Divine path no matter the circumstance: grace and mercy. These two paths intersect with our paths over and over to give us opportunity to find our way back to communion with God and connection with others. Grace and mercy offer us the opportunity to make the mistake of taking a wrong path and know that we can find reconciliation and loving support to guide to the place of communion that we have left.

How do we share that experience with others?

Have you seen the commercial about the raccoons eating the nasty garbage? You know, the Geico commercial where a group of raccoons are all rummaging around an overturned trash can and one of them says, “Woah, this is awful, try it.” The raccoon here is trying to create a shared experience by inviting the other to know just how bad the garbage tastes.

Conversely, the Psalmists writes, “Taste and see how good the Lord is! The one who takes refuge in him is truly happy!”[5] This is how we share existential faith with others, we invite them into our lives that can see for themselves the wonders of spiritual communion with God as we walk the journey of life together. It is in letting them see the work of God in you as you walk the path that they will develop a desire to experience what you have experienced and walk as you have walked. This was the invitation extended to each of us and this is the invitation that we must extend to others.

May we find persons of peace in our lives to journey with us and journey well. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


[1] Abagnale, Frank W.; Redding, Stan (2008). Catch Me If You Can. New York: Random House, Inc. p. 277. ISBN 0-7679-0538-5. Retrieved February 10, 2017.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Abagnale

[3] (Tillich 1952), p.159

[4] (Karris 1985), p.348

[5] Psalm 34:8

Living the High Life: Being Healed

In the past several years, I have heard a number of people say – myself included – “I’m getting off Facebook. I’m shutting down my Twitter account. I’m done with Instagram, Snap Chat, and every other social media app.” Usually when I press the issue, they offer one of two reasons: ‘I spend too much time playing on my phone’ or computer with it or ‘people are so mean to me/each other and I don’t want to hear it anymore.’ I can agree with both of those but in the past year I have certainly seen the latter reason emerge more predominantly.

LTHL Poster

For the audio version, click here: https://clyp.it/soriilvq

The damaging nature of social media

In the past several years, I have heard a number of people say – myself included – “I’m getting off Facebook. I’m shutting down my Twitter account. I’m done with Instagram, Snap Chat, and every other social media app.” Usually when I press the issue, they offer one of two reasons: ‘I spend too much time playing on my phone’ or computer with it or ‘people are so mean to me/each other and I don’t want to hear it anymore.’ I can agree with both of those but in the past year I have certainly seen the latter reason emerge more predominantly.

I had the intention of finding some of these posts as a part of the sermon but honestly, I can’t see the point in preaching a sermon on healing and reading that kind of vitriol. Just trust me when I tell you that internet trolls make things like hatred, misogyny, profanity, and the like their own personal art forms and seek to attain Rembrantesque levels of proficiency. Having dealt with a few trolls, I can safely say the best method is either blocking them or ignoring them. Author J.K. Rowling responded to an internet troll this week, not for the first time I’m sure. Per an article on the website Refinery29:

The author, who has been vocal about her feelings about the immigration ban on Twitter, has gotten plenty of flak for it by some Donald Trump supporters. One Twitter user was particularly peeved by the British author and declared they would take it out on her work — which, uh, they already bought. (No one said Twitter trolls were the most logical of the bunch.)

In a tweet screencapped by the author — one in which she blocks out the name and account information — the user states:

“glad i caught this article on yahoo. i will now burn your books and movies too.”

It took a mere sentence for Rowling to eviscerate the hater:

“Well, the fumes from the DVDs might be toxic and I’ve still got your money, so by all means borrow my lighter.”

internet-troll-cartoonLooking at this, and many other articles and posts, brought the thought to mind, “If there are this many damaged people in the world, lashing out at other people who simply disagree with them, where is the church? What are we as a people attempting to follow the Way of Jesus doing to address the pain, fear, and other unhealthy emotions behind these commentators who are obviously expressing their negativity out of their personal damage?”

What is healing?

Throughout the New Testament, stories abound of healings, particularly in the gospels.

In both the sayings of Jesus and the stories of his healings, therefore, the reader encounters the fundamental conviction that God wills the wholeness of human beings. To construct a Gospel theology of healing, it is on the foundation of this conviction that one must build.[1]

John T. Carroll goes on to assert that “healing” is “a central ministry of the Christian community” in the New Testament. If that is true, and I believe it is, what does that look like for the church now? How do we act as healers in a world that is so polarized by politics and rhetoric? I think our story from Luke this morning may provide for us a path to follow as we recognize certain aspects of the story speaking a truth about being healers in a world that needs healers.

Recognize and identify the need from your perspective and theirs – practice compassion

In the story from Luke seven, Jesus comes upon two different situations with several layers of need to address. In the case of the centurion’s servant, Jesus is dealing with the servant’s need to be healed, the centurion’s need not to lose his servant, and the Jews need to remain on good terms with a gentile, one friendly toward their people. In the case of raising the woman’s son, Jesus is dealing with loss of family, an only son, and the pain of having to bury your own child. Jesus in seeing these situations must assess all these aspects to offer compassion to the people involved.

Offering compassion is the recognizing and identifying the need in the truest sense. Compassion is literally defined as ‘suffering with’ someone but the Greek word used in the New Testament goes even deeper than that. The Greek word means “to feel what someone else feels in the deepest part of their being” or “in the depths of their bowels.” It is the ultimate expression gut feeling but one shared with another human being in their time of pain and heartache. This compassion is born when hope finds itself in the presence of suffering and responds with mercy.

In these two stories from Luke seven, Jesus is acting out of this compassion. In the Message version, the text in the story of the woman’s son is translated as “When Jesus saw her, his heart broke.” In other words, Jesus shared this woman’s feelings of pain and loss with her, his heart breaking as her had broken. In both stories, Jesus sees the need not only as one offering healing but as one in need of healing.

Theologian Michal Beth Dinkler puts it this way:

To be clear, these actions are important and valuable ways of serving others. But when we are able to maintain our distance or stay in a place “above” those we serve, such acts easily become acts of pity, rather than compassion. This is the problem with the idea of serving “those less fortunate”: we are somehow “more” and they are somehow “less.” We still have the power.

Real compassion, as embodied by Jesus, runs counter to our culture’s constant call to succeed, to impress, to be effective. Real compassion is a call to suffer with the powerless. To quote Nouwen again:

‘Compassion means going directly to those people and places where suffering is most acute and building a home there. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unconditional, without reservation.’”[2]

If we are to act as healers, we will have to develop our ears to hear not only the words people use but the depth of emotion we hear behind them; we will have to develop our eyes to see not only the pain of the situation but the pain beneath the surface that may not have found its way to the surface; we will have to learn to speak truth and comfort with the love and peace that we ourselves would like to experience, applying the principle of ‘doing to others’ to our words and actions.

Address the issue at hand as it is

Several years ago, Heather and I got the hospital bill after Donovan was born. As I was going through the charges, I noticed something strange, a charge for a femur implant costing an additional four or five thousand dollars. For those of you who are not up on your anatomy, the femur is the large, upper leg bone in the top part of your leg, in fact, the longest bone in your body. Now, for those of you who have given birth you may have felt like you needed a femur transplant after all was said and done. Heather, however, had a caesarian so there was no reason to have needed a prosthetic replacement for her upper leg bone. While the medical staff did their jobs well, accounting and billing needed a bit of work. Specificity is important.

As you might guess, healing requires specificity, particular in that it has to be discriminating about what needs to be healed and focusing on that above other things. In the two stories from the text, we have one person who is in danger of losing his life and one who is already beyond life. It would not make sense for Jesus to give them a new pair of glasses or help them with chronic halitosis or anything other than the maladies they were suffering with. Jesus brought one man back from the brink of death and the other from death itself because that was the nature of their need. It was about addressing the issue as it is not as we might hope it would be.

We need to practice this kind of specificity when it comes to walking with people down the painful stretches of their paths. Advice on how to fix a lawnmower is not useful if the yard is zeroscaped. We need to take the time to know them, their walk, their struggles, their joys, their pains, and work toward healing with them from there. It is in walking with people and encouraging them to be focused on the things that are damaged that people are healed.

Practice presence

A good friend of mine, Doug Lyons, works with a group called Soul Repair. They specialize in dealing with veterans who have encountered what is called ‘Moral Injury’ or damage to their moral system after returning from war. Soul Repair deals with things like suicide, homelessness, unemployment, divorce, depression, and poverty.[3] One of the most powerful aspects of the ministry is the practice of presence. Soldiers coming back from combat are notorious for not wanting to open up and share their pain brought on by their experiences, mostly because they assume if you haven’t been where they have been you would not understand.

The exception is that a soldier will talk to another soldier, especially one who has seen combat. Something about sharing common experience makes us as human beings more open. When it comes to being agents of healing, the practice of presence or ‘being there’ with another person is invaluable. When you practice presence, even and sometimes especially silence, you open the door for the person hurting to see you as a safe place. Consider Job’s friends. They came to him and sat for seven days without saying anything. When they did start talking, Job probably wished they were still silent, but their quiet presence became a sign of security and safety to Job who would eventually have a very long conversation with them about a great many things.

When we practice presence, we give people the opportunity to feel safety and security in a difficult time and the space to explore what healing might look like. Our calling to presence is one of being in the moment with someone, focused on them and their needs, with the intent of helping them seek healing.

Practice makes perfect

To practice the ministry of healing with Jesus is to practice being in the face of suffering. Again, If we are to act as healers, we will have to develop our ears to hear not only the words people use but the depth of emotion we hear behind them; we will have to develop our eyes to see not only the pain of the situation but the pain beneath the surface that may not have found its way to the surface; we will have to learn to speak truth and comfort with the love and peace that we ourselves would like to experience, applying the principle of ‘doing to others’ to our words and actions.

We do this by feeling what someone else feels in the deepest part of their being; taking the time to know them, their walk, their struggles, their joys, their pains, and work toward healing with them; and giving people the opportunity to feel safety and security in a difficult time and the space to explore what healing might look like.

Let us go from here to learn and offer healing to a hurting world. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, amen.


[1] Carroll, John T. “Sickness and Healing in the New Testament Gospels.” Interpretation 49, no. 2 (April 1995): 130-142. ATLASerials, Religion Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed February 2, 2017).

[2] The article quoted is from workingpreacher.org (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3002). The quote within is by Henri Nouwen, (Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (Doubleday, 1982), 27.)

[3] Soul Repair: Recover

ing from Moral Injury after War By Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriela Lettini. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 2012. p.93