Category Archives: Jesus

Following Jesus, Ethics, Helicopter Easter Eggs, and HighMill Church

 

From where do we begin when seeking to follow Jesus? This is a legitimate question for any Christian seeking to break away from the label of “Christian” and wanting to resemble the very ethics of the One they long to follow after. But from where do we begin? Is it by seeking to copy what we see Jesus doing? Is it by measuring up the best we can to the level of perfection and holiness Jesus represented as told to us by Paul or Peter? Where do we begin in “following Jesus?”

These are valid questions. For some they do not make a difference. Others reduce all of Christianity to simply being a “great person.” But that isn’t right either. To be a Christian is to embody the ethics, life, and purpose of this radical 1stcentury reformer who was a poor, homeless, peasant. A wandering cynic perhaps or even millenarian prophet. The question still stands, where do we begin?

For many centuries the church’s launching point in seeking to emulate Jesus was through the study of the risen Christ and reflections of him post Easter. The ethics for many were confined to the teachings of Paul, Peter, James, and John. Of course, the Gospels have always played a large role, however even within those texts it was the aspects of Christ which were emphasized. The challenge is that all of these reflect the person of Jesus post-Easter. They reflect the collective consciousness which was being formed around the risen Christ and the church’s experience with Him.

Obviously, we cannot argue with the profound impact of the risen Christ and the resurrection. But when we speak of “ethics” we are speaking of the social constructs which govern our actions, thinking, and dispositions. The “risen Christ” tends to make this reality challenging. The “historical Jesus” however brings concrete action to this end. More than that, when studying the historical life of Jesus and how he interacted within the Judaism of his day we are given an image of what true Christian ethics are to look like. For example, Jesus dealt with various religious groups which compromised the ethics and truth of God’s original intent with Judaism. Might we still have same issue today with staunch fundamentalists and radical progressives within the Christian religion? Seeking to respond to this perhaps it would be wise to see how Jesus responded to the polar extremes of his day.

Christian ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas rightly argues that the appropriate place to begin is with the man himself. living in 1stcentury Palestine. He says, “You cannot know who Jesus is after the resurrection unless you have learned to follow Jesus during his life. His life and crucifixion are necessary to purge us of false notions about what kind of Kingdom Jesus brings. In the same way his disciples and adversaries also had to be purged. Only by learning to follow him to Jerusalem, where he becomes subject to the powers of this world, do we learn what the kingdom entails, as well as what kind of messiah this Jesus is.” (The Hauerwas Reader, 120-21)

 The key point Hauerwas makes is actually revolutionary to much of modern Christendom: to follow Jesus is to look more so at his life pre-Easter life than post. The purging Hauerwas speaks of is essential if we are to actually become “followers of Jesus.”

For far too long in my own Christian life I have encountered many individuals who claim to follow Jesus and yet only cling to the risen Christ as hope for their salvation. This reduces their life to a mere label and cerebral declaration—which according to Matthew 25 means nothing.

But trust me. I get it. I too love the soteriological aspects of atonement theory and everything else that goes with the theological “hodge podge” of our Savior. But if following Jesus is what we are focused upon then we must shift our thinking.

The church is long overdue for a renaissance of complete ethical and organizational transformation. To be so transformed to the point where our ethics resemble not Christians following a risen savior but rather an ethical paradigm that reflects a revolutionary rabbi from the 1stcentury fit into the 21st. Given a healthy hermeneutic, passion for people, and steadfast focus upon emulating the life of Jesus—it can be done.

My wife and I have this radical idea that the church we are building/planting at the present moment could mature so much so that each member—each ministry—each action might resemble the person of Jesus. To do so we would have to buck the common trends of modern evangelicalism and its infatuation with “sexy” trends. We would have to say no to helicopters dropping Easter eggs. We would have to say no to franchising our church plants as though they were Jimmy John’s cookie cutouts with 8 ft high holograms of myself. Trust me, I am not the best preacher. We would have to say not to the attractional model where it’s all about us and lucky you! —you get to come and reap the benefits and consumption of our product. Below sample what I believe when happens when we follow the “its all about the risen Christ and not the Jewish man living in 1st century” model.

Now, no. None of that. Rather a church that takes seriously the human side of this man. A Church that is radical in its giving. Offensive with its mercy. Abundant in its grace. Intentional in its work with poverty. Messy in its love. Firm in its orthodoxy. A church that doesn’t just say, “We are the hands and feet of Christ” but rather demonstrates “Join us in doing, seeing, thinking, loving, lifting, forgiving, mending, healing—as Jesus does.”There’s a big difference. Below represents what I believe, priorities and focuses of a heart longing to emulate Jesus of Nazareth. There could of course be many more images to represent the cares and concerns of Jesus as seen in Scripture.

 

Now, am I being unfairly broad? Perhaps. However, because of the top set of images, there are so many who loathe Christianity and Jesus. The least we can do as the church is reframe our efforts and work hard to establish an ethos that looks more like Jesus and less like American/ Western pop Christianity. To resmeble a group of people passionate about Jesus so that we can care more about the bottom set of images.  It can be done but it will be difficult. The world is dying for a true expression—not of Christianity—but of Jesus. There is a difference.

To be clear, does all of this indicate that I hold a low Christology? No. I affirm the creeds in their entirety. As much as the next believer. However, I live on this side of the veil. And while on this side of eternity my focus is to live the life Jesus lived. Michelle and I both seek to lead a  church  movement that will demonstrate to a tired and worn down population what it looks like to resemble Jesus; demonstrating the ethics and life of a 1stcentury radical reformer who didn’t give a crap about religious piety—only the justice, love, and compassion of the Father.

In conclusion, Matthew 5:48 Jesus instructs us to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The essence of this verse, as well as the Greek etymology of “perfect” does not mean “free of sin or unalloyed.” It refers to a maturity and growth that is uncanny in its state and fully developed. It is a perfection that comes by learning to follow and be like this man whom God has sent to be our forerunner in the kingdom. That is why Christian ethics as a whole is an ethical system of principles, laws, or values, but an ethic that demands we attend to the life of a particular individual: Jesus of Nazareth. It is only from him that we can learn perfection and maturity the way God intends.

And so when you sit down to ponder how you can best follow Jesus perhaps It would be best for you to begin with a gospel or two. After that move right into the theological Christ and the reflections of the Church. While of course the gospels themselves are a reflection of the church’s view on this man named Jesus—they are still our best attempt at understanding the historical person of Jesus.

More musings on this radical person in the near future. Until then—I encourage you: live like Jesus. If you don’t know how please allow me to break it down for you simply: read what Jesus does in Scripture and then “Go and Do Likewise.”

The Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of Faith…

 

Jesus of Nazareth.

The most studied man in all of history. He is known throughout the world. His sayings are prevalent. His identity is debated constantly. And he still, after all these centuries, seems to be the most offensive individual to the masses. He both offends me with his love, comforts me with his encouragement, and disturbs me with his actions.

My journey of appreciation and admiration for this man began in April of 2002. I began to follow him with everything I had. I changed my entire life because of what I read in the pages of Scripture about his life. I saw that he lived a radical life of love and purpose and I knew that was the life for me. I knew that in the end it cost him everything and even still I would tell myself—there is no better way to leave this earth than to die for humanity. And so off I went.

I am currently a pastor of a church in Canton, OH. We are not a large church. We have faced an onslaught of challenges symptomatic of the state of Western Cultural Christianity. Where personalities are followed, commitment wanes, and when it gets tough—the church will bolt. It is extremely common with many of my seminary friends as well. In fact, this is the life of many Evangelical churches.

But through it all my wife and I have been obedient to the voice of God—even when it costs us. That has been what we are most proud of: our obedience. We like to remind ourselves that in the end we won’t stand before “people.” We will stand before Jesus. He desires us to create an environment with members, agendas, and leaders that reflect the core ethics of the Gospel. We aim to please him; not people. And so, we sleep very well at night. But through all these hard and trying years of ministry I/ we follow Jesus with the utmost passion. Michelle more so than myself. She outdoes me at every turn in her pursuit of living the “Jesus life.”

Like many, my beginning phase of following Jesus consisted of many shallow and immature understandings of what his sayings actually meant. I would use them as weapons against the “sinner” and I would stand with my nose down at many. I was the epitome of arrogance and pride. I continued like this for some time. My faith and religion were confined to a very legalistic and rigid approach to Christianity. Jesus for me was the strict judge who weighed my every thought and action. The problem was that my understanding of him as a whole was lopsided.

The lens in which I viewed Jesus for many years was confined to the theological Christ; not the historical Jesus. While yes, I am sure we could debate all day regarding the separation or unity of these two—it is extremely important we allow ourselves as Christians to look at Jesus as the Jewish reformer he was. It was when I began to understand this side of Jesus that the pretentious pharisaical part of me began to fall by the way side. And what I began to see with fresh eyes was a revolutionary man who inspired me more than any other.

My journey in studying the Historical Jesus began in Seminary and hasn’t stopped since. I have grown to be both passionate and obsessive in understanding who he was so that I might live his life even more. In fact, donating half of my liver is 100% because of this man and how he inspires me to live. Through the Spirit of God, I have been able to do a descent job in emulating his life. I am still a ragamuffin—full of sin, missteps, and brokenness. But each day is closer to living his life.

In the coming weeks I will blog a few posts regarding Jesus as the radical reformer he was. Of course, we could go on and on regarding the divinity side of Jesus as we understand in our faith. It is however the historical part of this man that I believe the church would be wise in revisiting. For in the discovery of Jesus as the 1stcentury reformer we find the rule of life he beckons all of us to follow. A life that is conformed to the ethics and standards of the heart of Yahweh. More on this in the future. For this post however, I want to bring to the forefront an aspect of his life which is similar to many others of his day. An aspect that can be alarming to some and comforting to others. That yes Jesus was truly one of a kind—however he also hailed from a long line of similar reformers with the same agenda—reform Judaism!

John the Baptist and Jesus both are only the beginning of a series of prophets who bring about eschatological hope. They bring attention to the reign of God and his impending judgment and kingdom. Thus Jesus preaches, “Repent for the Kingdom is near.” As a rule, these reformers were regarded by political authorities as a threat to the status quo as well as a danger to society. They were continually sought after to be executed and tortured. Following John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth there were many other “sign prophets” like them.

For instance:

  1. In 36CE there was a “Samaritan prophet” who promised a crowd of people that he would point on Gerizim the missing vessels of the temple that Moses had buried. He brought his disciples. Unfortunately, Pilate was also there and massacred all of them. (Antt. 18, 85-87)
  2. There was a man named Theudas who persuaded a crowd to follow him with their possessions to the Jordan River. It was there that he said he would part the waters and they would cross with dry feet. Again, there was a blood bath and it ended bad. (Antt. 20, 97-99)
  3. In 52-60CE there were also numerous “anonymous” prophets who called on their followers to come with them into the desert. It was there they would see many signs and wonders. You guessed it… blood bath. (Antt. 20, 167)
  4. During this same era there was an Egyptian prophet who came and called individuals to follow him and he took them to the Mt of Olives. It was here that he promised the walls of Jerusalem would come crumbling down just as it happened in the Old Testament. (Antt. 20, 169-172; BJ 2, 261-263)
  5. In 60-62 CE there was a prophet who came on the scene and promised redemption and an end to the evils if people followed him into the wilderness. The romans put down this movement violently. (Antt. 20, 188)
  6. In 62-64 CE there was a man named Jesus son of Ananias who came from the country to Jerusalem with the message of judgment upon Jerusalem, the temple, and the people. This is very similar to the prophecy of Jesus who had said not one stone would be left standing in regard to the temple in Mark 14.

Josephus, the Jewish historian, gives us great detail regarding these individuals and the manner in which they lived. Even before the time of Jesus we see individuals similar to both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. What was their aim? To radically reform Judaism from within. With Rome coming in and occupying the territory, it brought serious challenges to the uniqueness of the Jewish people. While some wanted to make peace and accommodate this new culture pouring in (Hellenization) there were many others who wanted to stand against this cultural wave.

There were others (the sign prophets) who wanted neither. Their effort was to radically reform Judaism to an entirely new standard. They longed to see it realign with the true intents of the heart of God as they understood.  While of course this is an extremely simplified version of how this plays out; I believe it still hits it on the head. Jesus was a Jewish man ministering within Judaism longing to see Israel return to its place of being a light to the nations. In order to do so, both Jesus and John the Baptist understood radical reformations within the Second Temple era needed to take place. The parables, aphorisms, and actions of Jesus fall right in line with many others from his era—before and after. And so as we can see, the human side of Jesus is full of many unique aspects we do not often hear about.

Let us remember that as Christians what matters most is not what we know or can recite about this man. What matters most is the degree in which we appropriate the ethics and passions of this 1stcentury reformer into our modern day living. Because I can promise you this… the church and Christianity as a whole needs desperate reform. It is time to return to the dangerous and volatile ethics of this Jewish Rabbi. As we continue down this path we will see there really is a difference of the two. We have the Historical Jesus and the Theological Christ. A difference that, for me, has nurtured true joy and inexpressible freedom in faith like I never thought was possible.

More on this and the Historicity of Jesus next time.

The Marks of Love…

We had just completed our first lap on our floor. With each aching step—slower than a snails pace—my mind began to swirl. “God this is hard. I am in serious pain. How long is this journey going to be? Is this child going to make it and do well? Is my mother going to be OK?” It was only day three.

My routine in the hospital was pretty simple. Each day began the same. Around 3:00 or 4:00am  I would be awoken for vitals and meds. It was hard to go fall back asleep, so I would usually stare at the ceiling and then decide I would get up and go on a walk with the help of a nurse. Then it would be back to my chair and then eventually back to the bed when I felt the need to spice it up. This process would repeat itself throughout the day mixed in with some Dr visits, reading, and mindless staring out the window at the Cleveland skyline. Bedtime was uneventful. Find the best position to sleep. When you find it… don’t you dare move. Take lots of meds. Get your nightly blood thinner shot and try to sleep off the pain.

But that day three morning was something. We came to my favorite spot on the floor. It was a window that looked outside. I loved going to it during my walk and watching the cars and everyone outside. Granted I was only in there for three days but at this point but my body felt like I had been steam rolled by a semi-truck. People and nature watching took my mind off of what I was feeling.

But during that morning’s routine I broke down. As Michelle and I stood at the window—one hand on the glass and the other grasping my IV pole—I sobbed. I couldn’t control it. Alarmed, Michelle asked what was wrong. All I could utter was, “It’s just so much… everything is hitting me. Hard.” I knew this moment would come. I am sure it will return at a later date.

Everything Set In…

What was hitting me was a wide array of emotions. There were the emotions of worry involving my mother. Which haven’t left. The emotions of wondering how the recipient was doing. I felt an odd mixture of humility, shame, and guilt watching Michelle and my nurses do literally everything for me. I went into the hospital as healthy as I could ever be. But in just a few short days I was experiencing something physically and mentally I was ill prepared for. Sure, I had knowledge, testimonies, and reading material. Nothing really prepares you to have a surgery like this.

The picture on the left was taken the night before. The picture on the right was a few days later. The bandage is covering a hole in which a drainage tube went up into the area where my liver was cut.

But there was something else that caused me to break down the morning of the third day outside of concern and worry. In that moment I was also overwhelmed with the reality of sacrificial love. The love that motivated our decision had finally set in. It went from talk to now something I see in the mirror, feel in my body, and it was costing me so much in that moment.

I had done interviews before this surgery. I had talked with Fox News out of NYC about “love” as the core motivator. I talked with a reporter from the local news about how common sense this decision was; because of “love.” A local newspaper wanted to do a story when they caught wind of everything and so we did. There too I explained that all of this was coming from a desire to “love” well—just as I would assume Jesus would.

But here is what I realized. We can use this word “love” quite easily. We can speak of a love for a friend, spouse, or God. But to bring costly action into the statements of our love; well it ceases to be just “love” at that point. It now becomes a love with some added adjectives: compassionate and sacrificial. That kind of love will almost always leave a mark.

It could be a mark that you bear on your body. It could be a mark that scars your soul. A mark that stays with you forever. Regardless, it is usually a mark that results from you loving sacrificially—with everything you have.

How did Jesus love?

I was asked a question by a reporter off the record before the surgery. “How is it that you are able to easily accept this kind of pain and struggle for someone you don’t even know?” Quickly I responded, “Didn’t Jesus? Wasn’t he reckless with his love? Wasn’t he driven by compassion and sacrifice for those he didn’t know?” Awkwardly, his response was, “I guess so.”

I really love Jesus. He is everything to me. I love him not only for how my life has changed because of him. But mainly for his example of costly love. The bleeding heart of Jesus was open to all those who were (are) lost, in anguish, in guilt. Thirsty for life, for love, for acceptance. He came to heal, to save, to free from bondage, to give rest, to empower—so that each one might know they are valued and honored. That’s how Jesus loved. It wasn’t easy and it was costly. So costly that his end was marked with torture and rutheless exectution.

While in recovery I have been prompted to study two areas: the life of Jesus and His desire for his church. Thus far In my study of the book of Luke I have realized a few simple things about his life. With this costly love in mind (the kind of love that is sure to leave a mark), Jesus was fully present to each person he encountered. He received more fully the pain of every person he came across. Strangers. Neighbors. Enemies. Family. Friends.

He took that pain and suffered with them in solidarity. He touched the deepest need in each person. Whether it be a cry for love, value, acceptance, vulnerability, or intimacy—he met each need. How? By demonstrating compassion. Grace. Mercy. Patience. Forgiveness. Kindness. By demonstrating sacrificial and costly love.

Jesus didn’t express this kind of love for the hell of it. He did it to demonstrate how Yahweh desires his children to live. It was the forging of a new way in how to love and welcome the poor and befriend the powerless, the strangers, and enemies.

Make no mistake. His followers were watching. They saw how Jesus lived—simply and poorly—open to each moment and each situation. Always open to the will of His heavenly Father. They saw how he was motivated. It wasn’t by a codified law or concrete set of legalistic expressions of righteousness. They knew. It was a motivation of costly love which came from above. A love the world had not known and was most definitely not prepared for.

Jesus the Agitator…

Jesus disturbed and agitated those who found him too radical, utopian, and unrealistic. Sadly, for those of us who love radically, we often hear these same accusations.

They would say,

“How can one give up wealth and share with the poor?”

“How can one renounce violence?”

“How can one love one’s enemies?”

“How can one live without security and money?”

“How can one become like a little child full of faith?”

“How can one eat his flesh and drink his blood?”

“How can one live in solidarity with sinners, rejects, and the broken?”

Those who questioned and wanted understanding were those who could not fit his ways and teachings into their own ideas and thus refused to trust him. As a result, they turned away. They found it impossible, unreasonable, and downright dangerous to accept the newness of his message. As I said in a previous post—Jesus was a badass in the purest sense of the word. He didn’t care what the “Righteous Monopoly” said.

As a result, his exression of love was costly. It left many marks in his young life. It was so costly that he even broke down in tears one lonely night in a garden. Perhaps then too Jesus was realizing just how costly this love was about to be.

Make no mistake. In no way could I equate my action with His. Ever. For goodness sake, he is Jesus who was crucified and tortured. I am a sinner saved by the glorious grace of God. I am nothing special nor of value. Only Christ within me.

However, the motivation of love is the same. Not only for me in giving a portion of my liver to a stranger but for all who would seek to love sacrificially. It will cost us like it cost him. It will hit us like a right hook out of nowhere as we fully realize just how costly and painful it will be and we just might be driven to tears. All of us at one time or another will have that opportunity in front of us. But what kind of love will we choose?

The Pain We Feel…

I beg you do not run from the pain this radical kind of love will bring. Pain is not the ultimate evil to be shunned. Neither is suffering. We must not flee it or be overcome by it. Those who flee pain flee people and opportunities. In fact, I believe Jesus invites us to accept pain. Nay, embrace it. To walk with it and even more to discover that it can be transformed by love into sacrament—a gift that brings life and enables new depths of love that is more akin to the love of God vs. the love of Man. Famed author and creator of Le’ Arche Jean Vanier dedicated his entire life to this kind of love. Much of what I have written here echos his teaching and example.

And when its all said and done… if your transition into a life of love that is compassion-driven, painful, and sacrificial—if that love bears marks upon you… be proud. Maybe take a picture with it so you don’t forget. Those are marks that will stay with you forever reminding you that you did your best to love like Jesus. And as you can see… that’s the only kind of love that can truly change the world.

Choose Compassionate and Sacrificial Love…

Love One Another. Give Compassion. Love All.

In conclusion I leave you with this: be compassionate. The world has enough hate, anger, and malice. What the world needs is compassionate love. A compassion that is best described by a beloved Dutch Priest named Henri Nouwen:

“Compassion is not a stooping down of the privileged to the level of those without privilege below. Neither is it a reaching down a hand from those above to the unhappy ones below. Nor a friendly gesture of pity to those who haven’t “made it.” Quite the opposite. Compassion goes and lives among people and in places where suffering and pain lives. God’s compassion is total, absolute, unlimited, and unbounded. It is the compassion of those who go to the forgotten corners of the earth and stay there until they are sure that not a single eye is still crying. It is the compassion of a God who doesn’t simply act like a servant, but whose behavior of service is the direct expression of his divinity.”

That.

Let’s do that and do it well. With no regrets.

And if it causes pain, leaves a scar across your stomach, or a mark on your heart.

If leaves you weary, broken, and tired…run down and even taken advantage of to an extent.

If you are told you are utopian, unbiblical, naïve, or reckless in your attempts to love like Jesus…

Well, who gives a damn.

I know Jesus doesn’t.