House of Mercy and Grace and Disgrace

NT; (c) Knightshayes Court; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

On another website, my blog post “Jesus- An Accessory to Murder?” was reprinted. I received a simple, maybe obvious, and yet profoundly important comment. In support of my message, Tobysgirl wrote:

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“As someone said, it’s like Jesus was born so he could be crucified, and his life means nothing at all.”

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Being that yesterday was the kick off to the Church calendar, these words are all the more significant.

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Often, maybe too often, I have noticed copious differences between the symbolic body of Christ (the Church) and the actual life of the crucified and resurrected God. It’s not anything novel, disgruntled followers have held up Ghandi’s “your Christians are so unlike your Christ” quote for some time now. But that doesn’t make it any less true or relevant. Sometimes I fear faithful skeptics will stop holding the Church’s feet to the fire in the name of changing trends.

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Some leaders of the faith have said this is much ado about nothing. They have said that too much spiritual investment is placed in His historical life, his actions and his strange statements containing curious caveats, after all, the gospels were written by authors with their own sets of biases and baggage. The Bible is all equally important (an idea I have always questioned). And the point is mainly the crucifixion and the resurrection. The bookmarks of the Christian calendar. The rest is more or less commentary…

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And with that, these leaders reduce those profound discrepancies to speculative intellectual gymnastics. Just twists and turns of a liberal agenda trying to move the Messiah to the wrong side of the aisle.

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I give you the story of Bethesda.

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In a corner of the town of Jerusalem, invalids and unworthy suds, washed themselves in what was called the “Pool of Bethesda”. It was a place with supposed healing powers. The name Bethesda itself meant, “House of Mercy” or “House of Grace”, AND it was also been translated to mean “House of disgrace”. A twin title that is fitting for what happened there.

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So a disabled man waits by the Pool of Bethesda, desperately trying to get in. In fact, he had been lying there for 38 years. The account in John goes:

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Soon another Feast came around and Jesus was back in Jerusalem. Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there was a pool, in Hebrew called Bethesda, with five alcoves.

Hundreds of sick people—blind, crippled, paralyzed—were in these alcoves. One man had been an invalid there for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him stretched out by the pool and knew how long he had been there, he said, “Do you want to get well?”

7 The sick man said, “Sir, when the water is stirred, I don’t have anybody to put me in the pool. By the time I get there, somebody else is already in.”

8-9 Jesus said, “Get up, take your bedroll, start walking.” The man was healed on the spot. He picked up his bedroll and walked off.

9-10 That day happened to be the Sabbath. The Jews stopped the healed man and said, “It’s the Sabbath. You can’t carry your bedroll around. It’s against the rules.”

11 But he told them, “The man who made me well told me to. He said, ‘Take your bedroll and start walking.’” (John 5:1-11).

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Unsurprisingly, this man did not recognize the ultimate healer before him. He had spent his whole life trying to make it into that pool. He was trying to fix the brokenness of body and spirit. He spent his years in a house of religion waiting for a rescue that would never show up.

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Everyone told him to sit tight. Everyone told him that the pool ahead held all the answers. Patience, dear paralytic. This water will wash your problems away. It is of the divine, it is not to be challenged. Grow your faith a bit. Isn’t your healing worth 38 years of your life?

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Then comes along a man who rips apart every curtain in the paralytics reality. The hope he had held for so long was nothing more than a myth. It was real for him, sure, but it wasn’t true. Too often we mistake that which we hold to be real to be true. The two aren’t the same. Some wells we see are nothing more than mirages.

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A message that seems to get lost in the lectures of stories like this is the moral relativism of Jesus. I am not saying Jesus is a flake, nor do I intend the adjective “moral relativism” to be used, as it normally is, negatively. In three gospels Jesus breaks the Sabbath law in substitution for another. That law was important once, but not today. Not now. Not while this man lays in agony at my feet. Again, the divine Son of God shows us what it really means to have humanity.

Brennan Manning writes:

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“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learns where the outcast weeps.”

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Our arrogance is the stone, Christ is the flesh. Spiritual purposes of the law cannot be fulfilled if it goes against the heart residing in Christ. They had obviously misunderstood something, and their misunderstanding had consequences to Kingdom Come. To the message of the Messiah. To the very name of the pool as the “house of grace”.

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David Dark, in one the must-read books for followers of this generation, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, writes:

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“Churches, government, marketing schemes and other unsound structures are always with us. Reforming them, de-constructing them, or renouncing their stratagems altogether will often be an ethical imperative. But to begin to get out from under a bad con isn’t to escape a place where everything is permitted, some religious-free zone void of awe or wonder or a sense of the holy. We break with sacred cows all the time, but when we do, it’s generally because we’ve stumbled on something that strikes us as more sacred than what we once feverishly sought or bowed down to. This, too, is religion- ever inescapable, always worth questioning, and, perhaps, reaffirming. What do we hold sacred? Is it worthy? Have we begun to ask the right questions?

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha decided there was something more sacred than material wealth and privilege that surrounded him in his formative years. Jesus of Nazareth taught that healing people on the Sabbath was more important than keeping the Sabbath rules. Muhammad asserted that the hypermaterialism of the ostensibly religious merchants of Mecca was displeasing to the one true God. Martin Luther King Jr. persuaded thousands that their worship of racial privilege was unjust, evil, and an abomination in the sight of God. Sacred cows are called into question. Community standards are confronted. Religion happens. You’ve got to lose your life to find it. You have to learn how to die.” (The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, pg. 33, Bold emphasis mine).

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We can never mistake the will of the majority with the will of God. That much I know to be true. If anything, the story Christ reaffirms this, over and over and over again. The majority crucified Christ. He bucked both religious and cultural opinions. He was an outlier. Weird. Cast aside as a crazy man, or worse, a con man.

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When I hear speeches from the Pope or Conservative evangelicals, I cannot fall prey to the fallacy that somehow they know Jesus better than I OR that I know him better than they do.

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As they cannot stop questioning me, I cannot stop questioning them. We loosen and we bind one another from what we think we know in order to find the deeper truths that neither of us can fully claim. Norms change, people change, opinions shift. Strangely, we can be largely separated on so many things, yet intimately tied by our belief in a savior. Maybe that’s the beauty of the body.

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Jesus turned the religious structures upside down. It makes sense that the pharisees didn’t see God in flesh while he was tearing apart their reality stitch by stitch. He told them that they got the Sabbath wrong. He told the paralytic that he was living for a lie.

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He told everyone that Satan is the Accuser, not God.

He told them that love is the answer, not legalism.

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Systematically, he removed every burden that bore down on the religiously devote. He overcame the love of power with the power of love. Freedom in the truest sense of the Word. Our God doesn’t clasp handcuffs on fresh converts. He releases them from every lie of this world. From shame, hunger, sickness and oppression. He bestows love, grace, hope and freedom. Sweet freedom. The Sabbath reformation strikes me so deeply because it’s the transformation of a relationship based on slavery to one of blessing. Like the difference between a Master and a Father. As Jesus once said so beautifully,

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“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27, NIV)

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There are times when we all must pick up our bedrolls and walk off.

Or rather, run off.

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Run into the arms of the redeemer who holds no guest list in his hands. Someone who is ready for me, before I even think about coming back to him.

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Run away from judgments handed down from high horses. Run away from decrees that seem to discipline only people like you. Run away from easy answers. Run away from religion.

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Fall into questions that don’t require a thirty-second response. Fall into risks that make your faith true. Fall boldly and fall fearlessly.

Fall until you feel the arms of the almighty catching you.

If Jesus says you can walk, walk on.

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RR

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Four Visits from Christ BEFORE he was Born

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So as the season swings into the climax of Christmas, I find myself searching for the weirdest elements in the story cause I’m weird. I look for the stuff that’s not taught in Sunday Schools or sung by carolers. None of it is really critical, what I am writing is mostly speculative, but, alas, to those lovers of scriptural surprises, enjoy!

It wasn’t until a couple years ago, when I was so close to a sweet nap in the middle of my Christian theology class that my professor said something that got my attention. “Jesus came BEFORE he was baby. Well… he may have.” I think he saw I was close to snoozing, when I looked up he was looking directly at me, so I blinked at him a couple times to let him know “okay, I’m listening.”

Some of these stories are eerily similar to a Christmas flick with a surprise visit from Santa. Like the ones where the janitor, who no one has ever seen before, shows up in the nick of time to impart lifesaving wisdom and as the characters walk away scratching their heads, they take a look back only to find He. Has. VANISHED.

Of the many possible moments of Christ’s early appearances, four really intrigued me.

1.  Melchizedek

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After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and his allied kings, the king of Sodom came out to greet him in the Valley of Shaveh, the King’s Valley. Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine—he was priest of The High God—and blessed him:

 

Blessed be Abram by The High God,
Creator of Heaven and Earth.
And blessed be The High God,
who handed your enemies over to you.

 

Abram gave him a tenth of all the recovered plunder.

(Genesis 14:17-20, MSG)

 

The appearance of the Melchizedek is so peculiar because there is no other reference of him in the Old Testament stories (except in the Psalms). It was like he suddenly appeared out of thin air to Abram. Yet, even while there is no evidence of a historical relationship between these two, Abram gives him 10% of his loot, suggesting a previous understanding.

And He celebrates the Passover with bread and wine before there even was a Passover. (Reference to Jesus’ last supper?”

AND THEN this weird blip on the Old Testament screen makes a huge mark in the book of Hebrews.

“For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues a priest forever.” (Hebrews 7:3)

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2. The Wrestler

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As an angry mob raced to his doorstep, Jacob sent his family across the river to safety and chose to wait the gang out. We are told in Genesis that he starts wrestling with a “man” until the break of day.

The upper hand falls to Jacob, as he is able to overtake the mysterious figure by morning.

The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”

Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ’til you bless me.”

27 The man said, “What’s your name?”

He answered, “Jacob.”

28 The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”

(Genesis 32:26-28, MSG)

I could write a million more posts on the meaning of this story alone (I love this story). It is so familiar to how I feel 99% of the time about my own relationship with God.

 

Always wrestling.

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3. Abraham’s visitors

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Remember when God laid a verbal smack down on Sarah with his, “yes you did; you laughed” in response to her lie? Well, that may have been Jesus.

Jesus:

56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

58 “Very truly I tell you,”Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”

(John 8:56-58, NIV, emphasis mine)

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4. Furnace Angel

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When the Angel came to rescue Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, he was called an interesting name.

“But look!” he said. “I see four men, walking around freely in the fire, completely unharmed! And the fourth man looks like a son of the gods!” (Daniel 3:25, MSG, emphasis mine)

Pastor Mark Driscoll believes without a doubt that this is Jesus… Not sure if I am beyond a doubt and I am equally unsure of how I feel about agreeing with Pastor Mark on anything, but it’s interesting to think about. Like a son of the Gods.

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Important to note is that none of these appearances (if they were in fact Jesus) are the same thing as what happened when Christ was actually born. If these were examples of Him, they are what are called Christophanies, essentially nonhuman appearances. Or, as I like to think of them, teasers to the main event.

When Jesus was born, he was fully human.

Which makes his birth even more spectacular. He came to “dwell” amongst us. No longer was he intervening on our behalf by simply stopping by for quick fixes, only to dust off and head home. He put on skin and walked alongside the worst of us. He healed the sick, defended the vulnerable and died a criminal’s death.

The God who chose to stay with us.

RR