Tag Archives: John

When Systemic Power is Threatened

When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
Acts 4:13 (NIV)

There’s a lot of talk these days about “the swamp.” For Americans, this typically references what is perceived as the professional political class who corruptly rule from Washington D.C. oblivious to the day-to-day thoughts and concerned of the millions who carry on life outside the beltway. In the days of Jesus, Jews could easily have called the Temple in Jerusalem “the swamp.”

For Jewish people living in and around Jerusalem life revolved around the Temple. Not only was it the center of their religion, the only place where sacrifices and offerings were made, but it was also the center of political power. Life was dictated from the religious ruling class of priests and leaders in the temple who interpreted the law of Moses and told people what they could and couldn’t do. These priests, rabbis, lawyers, and scholars ruled over the people and claimed God’s authority for doing so. In reality, these guys had a great racket going. It was a system of power and corruption. They used their power to make themselves rich, lord over the common people, and consolidate their power and positions.

So it was that in today’s chapter, Peter and John’s healing of the crippled man and their bold proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection created a threat, a political threat, to the ruling religious class.

First, it threatened the priests own power and authority to have “unschooled, ordinary men” preaching so boldly. The religious leaders wanted common people thinking that only the educated and extraordinary teachers within the powerful ruling class in the Temple could speak for God.

Second, the miracle of the healing of the crippled man by such “unschooled, ordinary men” went against the narrative that God only works through the religious Temple system and its priests. They, however, had no similar miracles to point to showing that God was doing such things through them. If the common people began to think that the priests and teachers of the law were impotent it threatened their systemic stranglehold on power.

Third, the fact that Peter and John were speaking about this pesky teacher, Jesus, and proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead stirred dissension within the religious ruling class itself. Resurrection was a theological topic of hot debate. Those who believed in resurrection and those who didn’t were bitter rivals. You’ll note that it was the Sadducees (an anti-resurrection faction among the temple scholars) who had Peter and John arrested. The high priest is not going to want this miracle business to create an internal rift within the swamp.

Finally, the high priest and his cronies had to have been frustrated that this Galilean rabbi, Jesus, kept coming up. “Didn’t we execute him weeks ago? Can’t somebody figure out what they did with his body so we can be done with this?”

When you threaten a powerful system, that system will act to stamp out the threat to its power. The story of Peter and John healing the crippled man is like the pebble that starts an avalanche. This conflict is just getting started.

This morning I’m thinking about the many times in my life when I’ve watched systemic and institutional authority feel threatened and the ways that authority reacted to consolidate power and diminish or eliminate the threat. I’ve seen some doozies in families, schools, businesses, churches, and civic organizations.

In the quiet I’m mulling over my own circles of influence. In some I am the systemic authority. How do I respond to threats in a positive way, recognizing that my discomfort just might be reluctance to change in ways that would be positive for the system? In other cases, I’m an anonymous cog in a larger system with a penchant for initiating change. How can I do so in ways that are honoring to God and authority?

Prejudice, Comparison, and That Which I Control

Miriam and Aaron began to talk against Moses because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they asked. “Hasn’t he also spoken through us?” And the Lord heard this.
Numbers 12:1-2 (NIV)

Our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has spent the past eight weeks in a series on “Kingdom Culture.” In the prayer Jesus taught His followers to pray it says, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We’ve been talking about what it means to live and relate with one another as a part of God’s kingdom on earth.

The sticky wicket, of course, is that any group of humans in an organization tend to have relational struggles and conflicts over time. Despite what Dr. Luke described in Acts 2: 42-47 as an idyllic beginning, even the early church began to struggle rather quickly. Most of the letters that make up what we call the New Testament address relational struggles within the local groups of Jesus’ followers. Paul himself had famous rows with Peter and Barnabas.

It was no different for Moses and the Hebrew tribes as they leave Egypt and begin to be make a nation of themselves. In the previous chapter the conflict was with the whines of the “rabble” within their midst. Today is is Moses very own siblings.

What’s fascinating to me is that Miriam and Aaron at first complain about Moses’ wife being a Cushite. There were multiple regions referenced as Cush in ancient times. It is not known for sure who they were referencing here. At least some scholars believe that they were referencing Moses’ wife Zippora who was from the land of Midian. Whatever the case, they complained about Moses’ wife being a foreigner, but then immediately discuss what appears to be envy and jealousy for their brother, Moses’, standing and position. How very human of us it is to complain about one thing on the surface (Moses being married to a Cushite) that masks a deeper resentment (sibling rivalry, envy, and jealousy about brother Moses’ standing with God as leader and prophet).

This morning I’m thinking about how common the human penchant is for prejudice, jealousy, and envy which leads to back-biting, quarrels, and conflicts both small and great. I’m reminded of Jesus’ conversation with Peter on the shoreline of the Sea of Galilee when he prophetically reveals to Peter the violent end he will endure. Peter’s immediate response was to look at John and ask, “What about him?

Jesus answered, If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”

I am so given to worrying about others, comparing myself to others, and seeking some sort of perceived personal equity with others. Jesus response to Peter tells me to stop concerning myself with useless and destructive comparisons. Each person is on his or her own respective journey, and their journey will not look like mine. My time, energy and resources are to be focused on my own journey, my own relationship with God, and the personal thoughts, words, and actions I control with my heart, mind, eyes, ears, mouth, hands and feet.

“One day,…”

One Day

One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, at three o’clock in the afternoon. Acts 3:1 (NRSV)

In yesterday’s chapter we read about the miraculous events on Pentecost. Incredible public spectacle, heaven-sent pyrotechnics, all twelve of Jesus’ core team members speaking fluently in languages they didn’t even know, thousands of people from all over the world choosing to follow Jesus and be baptized.

What struck me this morning as I began the very next chapter was the return to ordinary, mundane, every day disciplines of life. Three o’clock was one of the fixed times for daily prayers at the temple. Peter and John head to the temple for the religious observance just as they did every day at that time, just as they had done with Jesus when their traveling ministry was in Jerusalem. Back to the routine. Return to the grind. Doing the same thing we did the day before; Going through the motions of the same thing we do every day.

I have learned in the journey that God’s supernatural intrusions happen amidst monotonous routines. Those who follow Jesus are called to certain spiritual disciplines in daily life. Like punching the clock at a job on the line, the daily disciplines of life can be repetitive, monotonous, and somewhat boring at times. That’s life, such as it it. C’est la vie.

One day,” Dr. Luke writes as he begins to tell the story of the lame man. He doesn’t write “The next day” or “Soon after that.” Dr. Luke was a meticulous researcher and was very particular about the details of the story. The events of the third chapter happened on a random day some time after the events of the second. The spectacle had receded into past. Peter and John were back to every day life.

Today, I’m reminded that our life journey is filled stretches of time in which the daily, weekly, monthly terrain and the view look very much like the day, week, and month before. “One day,” as we trudge through our disciplined routine, God will surprise us with an amazing event, an unexpected companion, s stunning vista, a sudden curve in the road, or any number of possible new chapters in our own story. The key is to understand that we would never have arrived at that particular place on life’s road at just the right time had we not taken up the monotonous routine trek day after day after day after day.

Press on.

A Time and Place for Particular Discussions

source: Phil Renaud via Flickr
source: Phil Renaud via Flickr

He replied, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end. Daniel 12:9 (NIV)

When our daughters were small, they had all sorts of questions. They had questions about life and death, about bodies and babies. As a parent, there was wisdom required in answering appropriately for that particular time and place in their own cognitive and emotional development. Some questions received answers in simple word pictures. Other questions were deferred for a more appropriate time and place in their maturing life journeys. It is with great joy that we now get to have adult conversation with them over a great meal and a bottle of wine. And still, some questions have yet to be fully asked or answered.

There is, I believe, a parallel with how God reveals things prophetically throughout the Great Story. In today’s chapter, the phrase “everlasting life” is revealed for the first time:

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.

It is the only time this particular phrase, “everlasting life,” is used in the stories and writings of God’s Message before Jesus appears on the scene. God has waited to reveal it at this moment in the story. How fascinating that it makes its appearance at the end of Daniel. The time of the prophets is coming to an end. There will be a 400 year silence before the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ birth.

When Daniel, like a curious child, asks for more information he is put off. “Go your way,” he is told. “Go play,” I told my daughters when I had revealed all I had for them in the moment and it was time for them not to worry about the subject anymore. Daniel is told that the words are “rolled up (like a scroll) and sealed.” In other words, “this isn’t the time or place for the answer to be revealed.”

When Jesus’ follower, John, is given his vision on the Isle of Patmos some 500 years and several chapters of the Great Story later, the subject comes up again:

Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”  Revelation 5:1-5 (NIV)

There are appointed times for certain things to be revealed. This is true in life as we discuss things with our children. This is true in any good story, play, or movie. This is true in the Great Story as well. Faith is believing that things will be revealed to us at the right time. Until then, it’s okay if we go play.

Strong Women

VW FamilyWhen they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened. Luke 24:9-12 (NIV)

I am married to a very strong, intelligent woman. I have raised two very strong, capable daughters, and a very capable sister-in-law is living with us now. I’m surrounded by strong women and have been for many years. If there is even a hint of misogyny in the air, I’ve learned to recognize it because I’ve learned over time what sets the ladies of the VW household off.

Let me tell you that my misogyny detector was going off loud and clear when I read this morning’s chapter. The women who had been strong followers of Jesus (and, at least in the case of Joanna, most certainly a financial supporter) come running back from the empty tomb sharing what they witnessed. The response of the men:

But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense.

BEEP * BEEP * BEEP * BEEP * BEEP

Mistake. These were not flighty women. They had been companions and supporters of the cause for a long time. This was not one raving lunatic, it was several people all saying the same thing. The men, however, dismiss the ladies and their account. Only Peter and John had enough of a shred of faith to make a personal investigation of their claims.

Today, I’m thankful for strong women in my life, and I’m grateful for the life lessons they have taught me. I have had to learn a thing or two along my journey about my own prejudices of gender and the subtle misogynistic notions that I’ve held. I love that Jesus cared deeply for women and honored them in sharp contrast to the deeply misogynistic culture of His day. I like to try and follow that example.

Outside the Systems

Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. Revers...
Bronze prutah minted by Pontius Pilate. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of his marriage to Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.
Luke 2:1-2;19-20 (NIV)

In yesterday’s chapter, Luke related the story of Simeon who told Jesus’ mother that Jesus would cause the “rising and falling of many.” Now he lays out the political landscape of the day. The land at that time was under Roman occupation, so the Roman emperor (Tiberius Caesar) ultimately ruled along with the Roman governor in charge of the occupational force (Pilate). Then there was the local civic leaders, the sons of Herod the Great who operated the region as a client-state of Rome. For the people of Israel, they also answered to the religious authorities led by the high-priest Annas and his son-in-law, Caiaphas. Talk about a political mess.

Into this midst of this mess strides John, the cousin of Jesus. Luke introduced us to John’s story in the first chapter. John is out in the wilderness. While visiting Israel years ago I visited an archaeological site in the wilderness of southern Israel. At the time of Jesus, there was a community residing there who lived frugal, hermitic lives very similar to the monks in medieval monasteries. This community preached and practiced baptism and archaeologists had unearthed baptismal pools. Because the men were celibate in this community, they took in orphans as both a community service (orphans were a huge societal problem in that day) and to perpetuate their ranks.

Luke does not delve into the particulars of John’s life, but we know that his parents were old when he was born. It is quite possible that they died while he was young and he was sent to this community to be raised. There, he would have been taught to live off of the land, would have been educated in the scriptures, and they would have instilled in him the importance of ritual baptism.

I find it interesting that Luke lays out the landscape of political power, then introduces us to John who suddenly appears on the landscape like an ancient prophet out of the desert.  John is not from inside any of the political or religious systems of that day. He is an outsider, preaching against the corruption and greed which the political systems bred. It would land him in prison.

Today I am thinking about the systems in which I live and work. Political systems, corporate systems, religious systems, and family systems. It’s amazing how we live within these systems and are influenced by them constantly without giving them much thought. I find it fascinating that both John and Jesus were outsiders. The Kingdom of God, which Jesus would preach to the world, is not an earthly Kingdom or system. Despite humanity’s constant effort to institutionalize it (which always leads to corruption), it remains a calling for those who are willing to follow a path outside of earthly systems.

Remote Yet Relevant

Map with seven churches
Map of the seven churches addressed in the Book of Revelation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. Revelation 1:3 (NIV)

I will confess to a certain amount of apprehension wading into the Book of Revelation on our chapter-a-day journey. I have read the book many times. I have studied it in depth and have taught classes on it on multiple occasions. Prophetic writing has a unique style and substance and it’s easy for inexperienced readers and spiritual seekers to get lost in the symbols, metaphors, and word pictures. Thus, my apprehension.

I will also confess to a certain amount of excitement, as well. It is a fascinating book. It even professes a blessing on everyone who reads it. Thus, my excitement. Here we go!

First, a little context and background. The book was written by John, Jesus’ disciple, who also wrote the Gospel of John and the three letters of that name. At the time of the writing he was an older man exiled to the Greek island of Patmos where it is believed the Roman Empire ran a penal colony. John had been sent there because of being an outspoken teacher of Jesus. It was the time of the Roman Empire. The number of people choosing to believe and follow Jesus were swelling rapidly. Rome saw this as a political and economic threat and so the persecution of Christians was beginning to grow. The Romans were demanding that everyone worship the Roman Emperor as God or face the death penalty.

The message of Revelation was addressed to seven churches in the region of Asia Minor who were facing this growing persecution. For many followers of Jesus around the world today, there is a strong identification with the seven churches. Persecution is a present reality for most followers of Jesus around the world. Just last night I saw a headline about North Korea condemning 33 Christians to death because of their faith and desire to share it.

Today I am reminded that while the Book of Revelation may seem strange and remote, its the context and overarching message are extremely relevant 2000 years later.

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