The Most Surprising Thing About Jesus

Every time I read the Gospels I’m surprised.

It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve read them, or how often I’ve even picked apart the original language text for exegesis papers — I am surprised by the figure of Jesus.

This has been going on for some time, but only ever since the Gospels have truly begun to shape my understanding of two quite important things: 1) who “God” is, and 2) just what the hell is going on here (in this world).Gospels

For the first few years of my life discovering Jesus, the particular 21st-century-evangelical flavor of Christianity that was given to me at 17  years old was a hindrance to this. But thankfully, I managed to become curious or pious or thirsty enough (or a combination of the three) so that I read the Gospels in their entirety for what each author had to say about Jesus, not just as a collection of illustrations to support our shortsighted, simplified, and skewed understanding of a smaller version of Paul than even what the New Testament gives us. (This is the hearing of the biblical witness which tries so hard to convince us that what was really only important about Jesus’s life is that it ended.)

If you’re like me, you have human memory and simply forget, and Jesus as we think of him is viewed through how the world presently is instead of seeing the way the world should be through Jesus. I’m sure the usual suspects are culprits in this, too: cultural Jesus and pop-Jesus and even, churchy Jesus.

But, the darker side to this at work perhaps even more than my bad memory or the warping power of culture is that I make Jesus in my own image. Jesus in my image is a Jesus I understand fully, a Jesus that comforts me and doesn’t challenge me, a Jesus that likes what I like and hates what I hate.

The Gospels confront and correct my understanding of who Jesus is, and leave me captured by the person, persona, personality of Jesus (to take full advantage of some Latin roots there). It’s not doctrine, as much as character. And not necessarily character in the sense of virtue (though it is certainly a part of it), but more in the literary sort of sense — who this person is.

Although the Gospels and each New Testament document presents him differently in all the details, it is this — the character of Jesus — that is the consistent core throughout the early Christian witness.

Now this guy is interesting. Sometimes I wish we had more material about him. There probably are some statements in the Gospel of Thomas and maybe some stories in a few others like the Gospel of the Hebrews that presents us with some accurate testimony about what Jesus did and said, but overall it’s our four canonical ones.

Only four. Yes they’re long for ancient biographies, but we only have a few of them for our entire life. I’ve been caring about Jesus for only a decade now, but I can go ahead and tell you some things that Matthew is concerned about or how John is just so weird or talk about the structure of each one. I’ve read them before. Multiple times.

But I still don’t get them, really.

Because the most surprising thing about Jesus, at least for me, is himself.

And since God is a God of surprises anyway, perhaps Jesus himself is the most important, urgent, and most characteristic surprise of all.

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What Jesus’s Death Kills

I just put the finishing touches, for now at least, on my translation of Ephesians 2:13-16.

This is the heart of a passage of Scripture that I have been thinking a lot about over the past couple of months. The borders of the larger segment are commonly drawn around v. 11 and v. 22.

Here’s my translation, with some of my thoughts:

And now, in Messiah Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of the Messiah. For he is our peace, the one who has made both “us” and “them” one and who in his flesh has torn down the dividing wall, the wall of hostility. He has abolished the law of commandments and ordinances, decrees and dogmas in order that he might in himself create of the two one new humanity—that is, making peace—and, that he might reconcile both “us” and “them” to God through the cross, having on it killed the hostility.

  • The Pauline letters are addressed to Gentile or mostly Gentile Ephesuscommunities. The “you” being addressed here is a mix of pagan groups who express fidelity to the God of Israel through Jesus Messiah. While an aim of this translation has been to keep as much of the original nuances of the original Greek as I could, “us” and “them” has no direct equivalent in the original language text. Instead, we have a word that could be translated “both” or “all.” In this letter, on the other side of the pagan mix we call “Gentiles” are members of Israel/the Jewish people. Messiah is their concept; mashiach is their word. Many translations rightfully bring in the word “groups,” in reference to Jew/Gentile distinction in this community. However, since in our Jesus community today this distinction is not really around anymore, I have chosen to use “us” and “them” to translate into our context what was in this ancient context the dynamic of the Gentiles being “those other people,” and the Jews being “we who have belonged to this thing since before we were born.” (And, depending on your ethnic identity, the “us” and “them” could certainly have been the other way around.)
  • There are certain English words that have been used so much within Christian contexts over the centuries that they become detached from their first-century context, and thereby lose much of their meaning. One of these is “Christ.” I try whenever possible to translate christos with another English word that comes to us by way of Hebrew, “Messiah.” We have become so accustomed to thinking of “Christ” as only another way of referring to Jesus that when we refer to “Christ’s love” and the like, we forget that we are actually referring to this: the love of the anticipated rightful, anointed, ruler of the ethnic group/nation of Israel who would show up to establish justice and peace for this particular ethnic group/nation–with perhaps the rest of the world graciously benefitting from it, as well.
  • Those on the outside have first and primarily been brought near, welcomed, invited in to a people, a community. It is ultimately God’s hospitality, but it’s communal hospitality nonetheless.
  • Lest we continue to perpetuate the misunderstanding that the Mosaic Law is a bad thing that God saves us from, the law, nomos, of things that I translate with four words here are actually two in Greek. There’s overlap in meaning between the two words that is fleshed out in English adequately only by bringing in a couple more. These are warped versions of good  things that divide people.
  • Markus Barth points out, “Most amazing is the fact that in Paul’s […] argument, peace between Jews and Gentiles precedes the description of the peace made between God and man. Verse 18 [“for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father”] shows that both dimensions of peace are inseparable.” The Gentiles/ethne/nations were “far off” not primarily in that they were far off from God. They were first far off from Israel, and then by extension far off from God. This is evident as well in v. 12 in that first they are “aliens and not citizens of Israel,” and then “strangers to the covenant of God’s promise.” The text translated here is an allusion to Isaiah 57:19, in which it is those of exiled Israel that are far and the peace is between them and God. Here, the peace is between Israel and the nations. Barth: “Paul was obviously unable to imagine a peace given by God to those far and near which would not also be a peace between the two. Peace is not simply a matter of the soul or of individuals only; if it is peace from and with God, then it is also peace among men. Only by changing man’s social relations does God also change man’s individual life.”
  • This is why my favorite all-purpose English translation, the Common English Bible, is tragically misleading in its rendering of this verse. It reads, “He reconciled them both as one body to God by the cross, which ended the hostility to God.” This translation actually goes further than other major English translations in how it provides an extra word to what is in the original simply “the hostility.” The only other major translation I’ve seen that adds a word here is the “looser” translation, the New Living Translation, which glosses it as “hostility toward each other.” That is exactly what the idea is here, and is what in this vision Jesus’s death kills.

Now, to tell us what I think all this means, I could extend this out and have more blog posts, a sermon, a series of sermons, or a book or whatever.

Instead, let’s just read this. We need this read, and read again. At different parts of the day, in different places, with different people–preached, taught, memorized, meditated on, and made real.

The Biblical Way of Assessing Spiritual Gifts

While this is a long essay, there was still no way as I was writing it to include every detail. Please give me your feedback, especially constructive criticism. What I have to say about spiritual gifts is not what you may typically hear in many circles. I’m convinced that this way of understanding spiritual gifts is truer to what the texts actually say about them. I’m also convinced that this understanding is vastly more beneficial for our vision of who God is and who we are as his community than some of the more common views. However, I’m of course limited in my understanding of God and in my ability to interpret the biblical text. So I invite your help. Thanks for reading!


“SPIRITUAL GIFTS”

“Spiritual gifts” are widely regarded as those particular abilities that are given by God’s Spirit to individuals when they become believers. Since these gifts are listed for us in the New Testament, our responsibility–as the discussion regularly goes–is to discover for ourselves which one(s) we have so that we can then engage in the appropriate activities to put our gifts to use. So-called “spiritual gifts assessment” tests have become a popular way for Christians to try to make this discovery.community

There are significant problems with this view, and foremost among them is that it’s not at all found in the New Testament.

But, there is talk in the New Testament about the Spirit working among God’s people in such a way that it means this: We should be able to assess how God is at work in each individual part of the community through the gifts that each person has been given.

So, what is this biblical way of “assessing spiritual gifts” all about?

 

DO NOT BE IGNORANT ABOUT SPIRITUAL THINGS

The New Testament passages that routinely feature in discussions about what we call “spiritual gifts” are all written by Paul, and the most significant one by far is found in the twelfth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian church.

Since New Testament epistles are, in a major sense, arguments in which the author is making a case for something, we have to ask, as we would in any argument that we’re trying to understand, Why did Paul bring that up?

One of Paul’s chief concerns in this letter is unity among the followers of Jesus at Corinth. The immediately surrounding parts of the letter are, after all, about what is happening during their corporate worship when they share in the ceremonial meal that Jesus inaugurated. It appears that when they gather, some members are being disrespected, excluded, and basically devalued.

Paul considers it important in light of this problem that the Corinthians not remain ignorant about spiritual things (v. 1). Since, as he writes, no one can even make the basic Christian confession and submit to Jesus’s lordship apart from the one Holy Spirit that is at work among them (v. 3), if anything is happening among the Corinthian believers it is because the Spirit of the one God to whom they all belong is working through them.

So how can they know that they are indeed already unified because of the living, moving, active presence of the one God, referred to here as the “Spirit”? What can Paul show them so that their first question becomes about how they are they living into that which most powerfully and completely unifies them already?

As part of his solution, Paul tells them that yes, they are all quite different from each other, and indeed, when they gather, there are varieties of “gifts,” “services,” and “workings” that are observed. These three terms are basically used synonymously, with Paul also describing them as “manifestations of the Spirit for the common good” (vv. 4-7).

For example, he says, one person over here speaks wisdom, another over there speaks about knowledge, another over here speaks about faith, another over there heals, another works miracles, another prophesies, another discerns, another speaks in other languages, another interprets. And all of this “by the one Spirit,” as Paul emphasizes repeatedly.

Paul doesn’t let the Corinthians forget that which we so often lose track of. We are prone to read the biblical story (and even look at the stories of our own lives) and forget who the main character is. This is about God. We want to begin and end our conversations about what the Gospel is with our own sinfulness and our own salvation, while the Gospel is the message of good news about Jesus as Lord of the world, not a message about our problem and the solution to the problem (though what the Gospel means for us certainly does include that). In much the same way, we want to make a discussion about how God gifts the community through his Spirit into a discussion about what spiritual abilities we can now claim for ourselves. All when in fact the conversation is actually about the one God who has always meant to make a people (1 Samuel 12:22), and how God is doing just that among actual communities.

Notice too, that Paul assumes that these gifts/services/workings (i.e., manifestations of the Spirit at work for the good of all of them as a community) are verifiable on their part. They can already see these things taking place among them, even if they are only glimmers of what could be.

 

THIS IS NOT ABOUT ME

The point is certainly not, then, that these ways in which the Spirit is at work through them, like speaking in other languages or healing, should be happening, but, since the church members haven’t gone off by themselves and taken their spiritual gifts assessment tests, they don’t know what they should be up to.

Rather the point is who this Spirit as the only source of these gifts actually is, and what this then means for the Corinthians’ life together as a community. Their communal life should reflect who this God is and what God is up to in the world. For them as for us, this calls for unity.

As with any theology, any statement that we make about God, how the Spirit is at work among our community is not something we can access through pondering it by ourselves but by engaging in the pursuit of a faithful life lived in service to neighbor, and to our God who empowers us on this journey and equips us for our tasks.

With the way that many parts of the church in our own time deal with the idea of “spiritual gifts” with assessment tests and other ways of discovering your spiritual gift(s), way too much stock is placed in our own understanding of ourselves and we miss what is actually the most important lesson that Paul is teaching the Corinthians: Open your eyes to see how God is at work through others–the same Spirit equipping them for their role in the community is the same Spirit who is active in you, even as we all play our own particular parts.

 

AND THIS IS NOT ABOUT ME KNOWING WHAT MY SPIRITUAL GIFTS ARE

In light of all of this, Paul’s point is also not that the Corinthians are supposed to figure out what their gifts are so that they can serve God through engaging in the appropriate activities. It’s rather that, in their working together to become unified as the body of Christ, they realize that God is at work in such a way that it reveals how every single member plays a special, crucial, undeniably valuable role. So, no more disrespecting, excluding, and devaluing each other. It has no basis–not with the God we serve who is at work in all sorts of ways, but especially in our service to each other as a community. (As a side note, it makes perfect sense in Paul’s argument that the very next chapter is about what love actually is.)

After all, this is about the Holy Spirit, the divine pneuma, which is a word chosen by the New Testament authors not because it refers to something static (such as a gift lying dormant until we happen to discover it), but because it is the word for wind, which is an invisible force that is always on the move. After all, Paul in his own language doesn’t actually refer to his topic here as “spiritual gifts”–he talks about them as manifestations of the Spirit, or simply as gifts (the word here actually means something like “expressions of grace”), services, and workings. God is revealed in God’s moving activity among people–what in the world has led us to believe that we can best detect God at work by sitting down to answer some questions about ourselves as individuals and examining the test results?

Paul doesn’t make this argument about the Spirit’s gifts/services/workings so that I can gaze inwardly and determine what gifts I have so that I can then make decisions for my own life based on that knowledge. This is not about what I should try to see in myself, but about what I must see in the person who may have been relegated to the corner but–as hard as it may be to believe–is my sibling in the Holy Spirit community.

 

THE UNBIBLICAL WAY OF ASSESSING SPIRITUAL GIFTS

Since it is has become so common to hear how important it is to know what your spiritual gifts are, but this is not actually the biblical message, where did the idea come from? I haven’t done the research on tracking the origin of this view, but I can go ahead and make a few clarifications that would help us begin to see what is the biblical vision.

A regular feature of teaching about spiritual gifts is that Christians receive them at the moment they become believers, but Paul says nothing of the sort. Aside from the fact that the New Testament as a whole isn’t as concerned about this point in our lives as much as we are, it appears that this teaching is based in the assumption that these gifts are permanent. If they’re permanent, they must be given at some other point than simply when need arises, so conversion tends to be the go-to timeframe. But nowhere does Paul say that you’ll always have a particular gift, or that you’re not gifted by the Spirit in all sorts of different ways all the time or at different times. As Gordon Fee points out, the plural used in Paul’s Greek words for gifts/services/workings “probably means that these gifts are not permanent, but each occurrence is a gift in its own right” (Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God 166).

Likewise, another problem is that we take the different gifts/services/workings/manifestations of the Spirit that Paul lists and make them the total inventory of possibilities for how the Spirit gifts people. But in reading Paul, it’s necessary to realize that when Paul provides lists, he is never exhaustive. Just because Paul lists ways that we sin (as he is prone to do), doesn’t mean he’s covered all the ways that we could possibly be sinful. And just as he provides lists of virtues or the ways that the Spirit of God empowers us, doesn’t mean he has exhausted all of the possibilities there, either.

In his lists, Paul is actually giving examples in order to paint a picture of what it means to be in rebellion against God, or to live faithfully, or to be gifted by the Spirit. With how difficult it would be to assign a proper name to all of the ways that we could possibly sin, how much more so would it be difficult or rather impossible to name most of the ways that the Spirit gifts and empowers us, much less to even be aware of them.

Again, Paul never says that you will know what your spiritual gift(s) are, nor that it is incumbent upon you to discover your spiritual gift(s). The Spirit is at work among faithful people surrendered to God, thankfully in ways that are not restricted to our limited understanding.

When you truly hear the biblical text by taking into proper account the context of Paul’s argument and the real nature of his concerns, Pauline exegete Gordon Fee’s words about what he describes as “[o]ne of the fads among evangelicals in the final decades of the twentieth century …  of finding your spiritual gift” ring all the more true when he admits, “I could not imagine Paul understanding what was going on at all!” (163)

 

THE BIBLICAL WAY OF ASSESSING SPIRITUAL GIFTS

Since Paul is not concerned with individual members of the community knowing what spiritual gifts they have, as he hasn’t said anything to indicate that it’s their responsibility to find them or that it’s even possible to always know what they are, it is crucial to take into account that which he has emphasized is his concern. Paul writes about these spiritual gifts/services/workings and manifestations of the Spirit for the sake of unity and the functioning together of a body “for the common good” (cf. vv. 12-31). It is much more beneficial for the Corinthians and for us to know that each of us is gifted and plays important parts in the body of Christ than it is for individuals to be able to claim a particular ability.

Paul may be more concerned with the action of prophecy within a community than he is with a particular person being a prophet, much less he or she being able to determine that she or he is a prophet. So it’s not primarily a matter of personal discovery or even personal ownership, either. We want to talk about “my” spiritual gifts, when Paul would be asking about our gifts as a community. If someone has the gift of prophecy, the first thing this means is that the community has a prophetic voice.

One other passage in Paul in particular shows how this is primarily a matter of the community, that what really counts as a “spiritual gift” isn’t necessarily something that enables someone to perform a particular role or function, it doesn’t have to be something someone always has, and it doesn’t always have to come what we would think of as “straight” from the Spirit. In Romans 1:11-12, Paul writes, “I long to see you that I may impart to you (plural) a gift of the spirit to strengthen you (plural), “that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours (plural) and mine.”

What we see here in Romans is not that particular individuals in the community have been gifted by the Spirit as they became believers individually, and now they have to find out what they are so they can take appropriate action. Instead, we see here in Romans that the spiritual gift would come as they experience as a community shared time with Paul. Also, the gift that Paul anticipates imparting is that there would be mutual encouragement and strengthening of those believers in that time in that place and in those circumstances. It’s not something you would find on a spiritual gifts assessment test, and to try to do so would miss the point entirely.

So if you want to know what your spiritual gifts are, it’s the case with discovering anything else theological, such as the more basic question of God’s existence, or even God’s relevance—join the community and do this thing, take this journey with us, and trust that you are equipped and empowered by God’s Spirit as we all are. Maybe someone else will see particular gifts/services/workings in you, but more importantly, perhaps you will see the ways that the Spirit is at work in someone else. And most importantly, maybe you’ll have the assurance that it is happening even if you don’t know it, or you won’t know what to call it even if you do.

Footnote: There is no distinction made in the Bible between what we think of as “spiritual” and “natural” gifts. Someone may be what we would call “naturally” good at developing plans and may also be what we might want to call “spiritually” capable of healing. Aside from the fact that this is grounded in our arbitrary distinguishing between what is miraculous or not, in whatever way the Spirit’s activity is manifested for the common good of the community, that it is a gift. Everything is a gift. And anything through which God works is spiritual in nature, and that’s the most important thing that could be said about it.

A Pure Ambition: Being About the Work

My Bright Abyss by Christian WimanWriting is something I envision myself doing more than I actually do it.

I have thoughts on certain topics that I believe I should make available for people to read: what the Bible is, for example, or the significance of the fact that Jesus taught in parables for how we think about God, or church and salvation as  inclusion, or what humanity is about.

I am even convinced that a fictional story about Memphis, Tennessee during the Civil War era and the years soon after is waiting to be written– or perhaps unearthed from the richly complicated world that Memphis was during that time. I also believe, although the subject matter belongs outside the realm of my expertise, that it falls upon me to write that story.

No matter how far I have gotten–or not gotten–with these projects, the work to be done is my motivation for writing.

I’ve thought about it, and I’ve decided–to add any other motivation to this would be to exploit the work. Either I’m fully interested in and invested in the questions to be answered and the stories to be told, or, I’m seeking the next stepping stone on my career path. Or I’m using it as a way to impress people. And then I’m not about the work. The work is about me.

I readily admit that my ambition is such that my confidence in the value of the work to be done leads me to believe that there are some things I have to write that people should read.

Now that’s quite a remarkable statement I’ve just made. In a world in which endless streams of prose are available through our keyboards, I’m actually surprised I can say that.

But I can only say that, and be justified in doing so, if I’m all about the work, and not if the work is about me.

So how do we justify, and how would we ever manage to find genuine virtue in, “how to get more traffic on your blog”?

Here’s the struggle: I want that, because I want the work to be about me.

But, God forbid. Seriously. Goodness and virtue and a life well-lived come through generous enrichment of the shared human experience, not through pouring into that which I only end up hoarding for myself.

I have to decide, and put some energy into the decision, to not live for the number of followers, likes, mentions, or favorites. That’s a master I refuse to serve.

I’ve been reading bits here and there of the poet Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer.

Wiman writes:

I once believed in a pure ambition, which I defined as an ambition for the work rather than oneself. But now? If a poet’s ambition were truly for the work and nothing else, he would write under a pseudonym, which would not only preserve that pure space of making but free him from the distractions of trying to forge a name for himself in the world. No, all ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self … the need for approval, publication, self-promotion–isn’t this what usually goes under the name of ‘ambition’? The effort is to make ourselves more real to ourselves … So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence, your nature on nature, then your ambition is corrupt and you are pursuing a ghost.

Were Wiman and I to ever have a conversation about this, I would submit that it’s actually quite important to have a name, a face, and a story behind what is written. Every work of art or piece of craftsmanship is in some sense communication, and in communication it’s important to know who we’re speaking with. Names are not the problem, and so anonymity is not the solution.

Wiman cuts to the heart of the issue, however, right there in that last sentence.

Silent Retreat Reflection – Peace

A couple Saturdays ago, I sat down to breakfast and ate the best biscuit I’ve ever had, but I couldn’t tell anybody.

The Joy of Silence

My friend Michelle who encouraged me to attend ended up joining the Advisory Board of the retreat center. She took this photo on her retreat last year and is in charge of the retreat’s presence on social media.

I, along with everyone around me, had agreed to refrain from speaking since the evening prior and until lunchtime the next day.

About fifteen of us were participating together in a Silent Weekend Retreat at (the aptly-named) Our Lady Queen of Peace Retreat Center in Stanton, Tennessee.

So, on that Saturday morning, soft music played and we enjoyed our food with the morning sun rising over the spring landscape. I didn’t get to compare my experience with that of someone else, I couldn’t Instagram it, nor did I have any device at all to let everyone know what an enjoyable time I was having.

I just sat, shared a meal, and truly tasted the best biscuit I have ever eaten.

Over the past year, my friend Michelle, who keeps a great blog over at Pen and Hive, had been telling me about her experience at the first Silent Weekend Retreat that Our Lady Queen of Peace had held in the spring of last year.

I knew that if I had the opportunity to participate in the next one, I would have to take it.

With my phone in my glovebox and nothing with me but hotel-stay necessities, my Book of Common Prayer/Bible combo, and a few carefully selected books , I set out into the hours before me.

I could not have anticipated then how much the silent hours would have to say to me, and how so much something could have come out of seemingly nothing.

This will be the first in a series of posts about what I gathered from my time spent in silence, or at least, what I gathered from the silence that can now be put into words.

These five posts are each going to be focused on a certain theme, and you’ll soon discover a certain (mildly regrettable) pattern; when I was sharing about the retreat upon my return, I realized I kept using p-words. Of course, I thought that would be appropriate for a blog series.

So, my first theme from the retreat (and my first p-word) is peace.

The weather welcomed me to take a seat by the pond, partly shaded under the newly sprouted leaves overhead. This is where I spent most of the nearly two days.

The silence I became acquainted with by that pond seemed like it had a personality, as if it was a character I was spending the weekend with, considering the way it interacted with me differently through various stages.

Perhaps the earliest of these stages was relief. I was relieved to be away from schedules, distractions, the possibility of anything which might add complexity, complication, uncertainty–the raw materials out of which I am so prone to produce worry.

There was nothing that could come up that I would have to respond to, and there was nothing that could have demanded my attention.

There was no striving, there was no grasping. I had everything I needed.

Here, any conflict or unrest would be of my own making. And anything I lacked would reveal just how much I had.

It strikes me: we’ve never really known peace, and yet, we can identify it.

Perhaps it is this: that peace is what we’re made for, and it is that to which we’re ultimately destined.

Our hope is anchored there, and our anticipation makes us ache. Sometimes, we get glimpses.

They are never complete.

Tasting and seeing more than experiencing and having.

But, only in the present time.

When, Where, and with What the Kingdom of God Matters

All the time, everywhere, in everything.

There we go — the answer to the question right at the beginning. “All the time,” “everywhere,” and “everything” … keeping it rather simple.

It was obvious anyway, what the answer was. No need to build up to it as if I was going to say anything different from what you expected. And there also is no need for us to go through the trouble of dividing up “all the time” into some times, “everywhere” into some places, and “everything” to some things.

Yet, this is what we do.

Yep, we can do some pretty impressive work on “all the time,” “everywhere,” and “everything,” especially when we use them to talk about what God has to do with us.

My home is the American South. For many of us here to be brutally honest about what we believe in regards to when, where, and with what God’s dominion has something to say, we would end up with something like, “Thank you, God, for letting me feel good about voting Republican, holding conservative values, and going to heaven when I die, but you’ve got nothing to say about the food on my plate and how it gets there, the time I spend (or don’t spend) advocating for the victimized, or the ways I’m exploiting and abusing the earth instead of taking care of it and ruling over it on your behalf, as you created me to do.”

When, where, what?

Sometimes, some places, some things.

But what about how, and who?

What about, when God says something, how does he say it? Or, when God wants to do something, how does he do it?

What if the how question has a who answer? What if the kingdom of God comes through all of human life–through human work and human rest? Or is it that God only matters for religion, so that we are accountable to God to be Christians but not accountable to God to be proper humans? To do and become what we were created for in the first place?

The kingdom of God means more all the time than it does at any one time, it comes everywhere instead of remaining in only some places, and it has something to say about everything–not just some things.

Clothes and Palm Sunday

Today is named for palm branches, which must have been the best party favors available in first-century Jerusalem when Jesus was welcomed into the city as if they were welcoming their king.

In most churches on Palm Sunday, leafy branches are waved around and brooches in the shape of the cross made from bark are pinned to our lapels as we welcome Jesus as king at the beginning of the week that will end with his rejection and death.

Palm branches are explicitly mentioned in two of the four Gospels, Matthew and John. Mark does mention “branches of the field,” but Luke makes no mention of any branches at all.

As I’ve noticed this for the first time as I’ve read over the Gospel accounts this morning, this is not to say that palm branches aren’t as important as we think. But, I’ve also noticed something else for the first time:

Taking all four Gospel accounts of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday into account, what the disciples and the crowds do with their clothes is a more prominent feature of these accounts than what they do with branches.

In Matthew and Mark, the disciples put their clothes on the animal (animals in Matthew) for Jesus to sit on, and the crowds take their clothes and spread them on the road for Jesus to ride on. In Luke, where no branches are mentioned, clothes are still mentioned–they are laid upon the animal and spread out on the road (in Luke it appears that it’s only the disciples who do this).

Only in John, who so often is the exception, are palm branches brought out to welcome Jesus but clothes aren’t mentioned at all. Overall, however, there is a whole bunch of clothes being given up.

I doubt that branches–whether from the field or from palm trees–were any more valuable in first-century Jerusalem than they are today.

But our clothes. The crowds weren’t bringing out what they had set aside to take to the Salvation Army, they were taking off the clothes they were wearing–probably their outer layer, which, just like for us today, would be the most expensive layer.

I’m not sure what I think or even want to say about this observation, other than simply sharing that as I’m waving my palm branch outwardly, I’ll be doing my best to inwardly strip away my Sunday best down to my undershirt for it all to be trod underfoot as Jesus comes to be enthroned.

Afterward, maybe I’ll be thinking about next year’s Ash Wednesday, as once again, I’ll kneel, be reminded that I’m going to die, that I’m from dust and I’m returning to dust. What difference will it make for me to think of the cross of ashes on my forehead to be made of what’s left of what I had given up, to welcome my king …?