Tag Archives: Temple

Two Sides of Jesus

Two Sides of Jesus (CaD John 2) Wayfarer

“Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing…”
John 2:6 (NIV)

In yesterday’s opening chapter of John’s biography of Jesus, I shared that identity is a core theme of John’s narrative.

  • John identifies Jesus as the embodied, eternal Word through which all things were created, whom John himself saw glorified.
  • John identifies Jesus as a spiritual bookend to Moses; The law came through Moses, while grace and truth came through Jesus.
  • John the Baptist identifies himself as not the Messiah, but one who “comes before” and “a voice in the wilderness” preparing the way.
  • John the Baptist identifies Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
  • Jesus identifies his first disciples and gives Simon a new identity, as “Peter.”

In today’s chapter, John chooses two episodes to begin introducing the reader to Jesus. I couldn’t help but recall John’s words at the end of his narrative:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

John 21:25 (NIV)

So why did John choose these two episodes? First, Jesus acts out of His divinity. He gives in to His mother’s request to salvage a wedding feast for the host by miraculously turning water into wine. In the second, Jesus acts out of His humanity at the Temple in Jerusalem. He overturns the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple courts and creates a small riot.

I spent some time meditating on these two stories, and I found them to be a fascinating contrast which identifies two important aspects of Jesus’ person. Jesus channels divine power to extend compassionate generosity to a common, everyday person stuck in a very human social dilemma. John doesn’t even identify the bride, the groom, or the family who found themselves on the cusp of social humiliation by running out of wine for their guests. What a very ordinary human dilemma for Jesus to solve by miraculously producing 180 gallons of wine (and not just your average table wine, He produced the “good stuff”).

In the second episode, Jesus sets Himself against human corruption that polluted the religious institution and Temple system. The leaders of the Temple had a racket going. They extorted money and lined their pockets from poor religious pilgrims who came from all over the world to offer ritual offerings and sacrifices, forcing them to exchange Roman or other currency into Temple currency (plus taxes and fees, of course). No miracle here. Jesus very humanly channels His inner challenger to fire a shot across the bow of the powerful, religious racketeers. It is the opening shot of a three-year conflict that will end with the racketeers’ conspiracy to commit the legally sanctioned murder of Jesus.

Miraculously divine compassion for a common, everyday nobody.

Courageous human action against a corrupt “kingdom of this world.”

And even in the water-to-wine miracle, there exists a powerful metaphor that connects these two episodes. The “six stone jars” Jesus had the wedding attendants use were intended to be used by the religious leaders for their “ceremonial washing” water. The religious leaders will later accuse Jesus of refusing to follow their prescribed ritual “washing.” They will also accuse Jesus of being a drunkard. Jesus uses the water jars used for the religious leaders’ hypocritical cleansing to produce 180 gallons of “new wine.” And, I also can’t forget that there were six jars, and the number six is identified in the Great Story as “man’s number.” Man’s institutional religious hypocrisy is transformed into divine kindness and compassion for a nameless, poor commoner.

  • Fruitful acts of divine love and compassion towards others
  • Bold defiance of institutional corruption and hypocrisy

In the quiet this morning I find myself desiring to embody these two characteristics that John identifies in Jesus.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Of Riches and Rubble

Of Riches and Rubble (CaD Mk 13) Wayfarer

As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”

“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Mark 13:1-2 (NIV)

I still remember my first trip to Chicago. I had never been to a major city. My hometown of Des Moines was my only frame of reference, and even at a young age I knew Des Moines like the back of my hand. A person could get from one end of the Des Moines to the other in about 20 minutes. It just wasn’t that big. Chicago was a revelation. I and my friends went to the observation deck of the John Hancock building, and I stared out at city as far as my eye could see. It was impressive.

For Jesus’ followers, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and to the Temple, was a similar experience. As far as we know, the Twelve were from small rural villages in the Galilee, and the Temple complex in Jerusalem was the equivalent of the John Hancock building, the Sears Tower, or the Empire State Building.

Casual readers may not realize that the temple in Jesus’ day was not the same Temple that Solomon built. That temple was razed to the ground by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. A generation later, it was rebuilt by Hebrews who returned from exile. Then, Herod the Great came to power around 37 B.C.

Like many egomaniacal tyrants, Herod had an edifice complex. He wasn’t Jewish, but he understood that his constituency was, and the temple in Jerusalem was the center of that constituency’s worldly power. Herod was shrewd. He knew it was in his political best interest not only to keep peace with the power brokers of the Jewish community, but he knew it would be even better if this potential threat to his power felt indebted to him. So, Herod decided to invest his vast riches to fix-up the five-hundred year old Temple.

Of course, egomaniacal tyrants with edifice complexes aren’t just going to do a little sprucing up. They have to spend their vast riches to build something that will bear their name (whether officially or unofficially) so the size of the project must be in relative proportion to the size to their egos. The original size of the Temple was relatively small compared to the impressive temples built by the Greeks and Romans. Herod made sure to not just rebuild the Temple itself, but he built an entire Temple complex around it. Sure enough, it’s still known today as “Herod’s Temple.”

That’s why, in today’s chapter, Jesus’ disciples are still exclaiming what a magnificent complex it is even after they’ve spent two entire days listening to Jesus teach in the Temple courts. They can’t get over the sheer size and architectural beauty of it.

And then, Jesus ruins the moment: “It will all be rubble 40 years from now.”

And, it was. The political tension between the Jewish people and their Roman occupiers will continue to grow. There will be wars and rumors of war. It will eventually boil over. The Romans will raze Jerusalem and Herod’s Temple in the year 70 A.D.

Enjoy the view while you can.

In the quiet this morning I couldn’t help but think of the spiritual lesson in this brief exchange. The rest of today’s chapter is Jesus’ prophetic foreshadowing of where the Great Story is headed in the climactic final chapters. It’s not idyllic.

Wars
Earthquakes
Famine
Deception
Tyranny
Families divided
Betrayal
Hatred
Exile
Darkness

I’m reminded as I contemplate it that every good story ends up there. The death eaters descend on Hogwarts. Gandalf and Aragorn stand surrounded and outnumbered at the Black Gate of Mordor. Aslan is bound and lying on the White Witch’s stone table. Jesus lies dead and buried in a borrowed tomb.

There’s always darkness before the dawn.

Without catastrophe there’s no eucatastrophe.

“Be careful what your heart treasures,” Jesus said. “Cars rust and end up at the dump. Today’s fashions will end up at the thrift store where nobody wants them. That expensive gadget will be obsolete in a year. Herod’s Temple will be nothing but rubble in a generation.”

“Invest in the only things that remain,” Holy Spirit whispers to me in the quiet. “Faith, hope, and love.”

I’m off into another day reminded to enjoy the view while I can.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Call and Response

Call and Response (CaD Ps 134) Wayfarer

Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord
    who minister by night in the house of the Lord.
Psalm 134:1 (NIV)

My nephew Sam and his family came to visit last Sunday to hear Uncle Tom’s message among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers and hang out with me and Aunt Wendy for the day. Sam mentioned that in their hour-long drive that morning they’d been listening to the music of an artist that his father introduced him to back in his childhood.

I love all kinds of music, and I consciously endeavored to introduce our daughters to all kinds of music. I even made compilation CDs of different genres and wrote liner notes to introduce them to some of the classic artists and songs of the genre. One of my favorites was Papa’s Got the Blues. In the liner notes, I described the connection between the blues and black gospel. One of the devices that both used is “call and response.” The lead singer calls out in song and the congregation/crowd responds with a word or phrase.

While the device is widely used in more recent musical genres, it is ancient.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 134, is the final in a series of “songs of ascent” that the editors who compiled the anthology of Hebrew song lyrics put together. The song is a fitting end to this section. It is comprised of only three-lines that were an ancient version of “call and response” that was sung between pilgrims who had spent the day worshipping at the temple and are leaving at nightfall Levites working at the Temple.

Members of the Hebrew tribe of Levi were responsible for the care, upkeep, and activities of the Temple (except for priestly acts that could only be done by descendants of Aaron). The lyrics of the song picture exiting worshippers blessing the Levites who will remain at the Temple to perform their duties through the night. The pilgrims sing:

Praise the Lord, all you servants of the Lord
    who minister by night in the house of the Lord.
Lift up your hands in the sanctuary
    and praise the Lord.

The Levite(s) then bless the worshippers as they exit:

May the Lord bless you from Zion,
    he who is the Maker of heaven and earth.

The reality is that “call and response” is actually a broader spiritual theme in the psalms and in the Great Story. Many psalms begin with a “call” to God anticipating the “response” to the song, prayer, and petition. In 1 Samuel, God “calls out” the boy Samuel who is confused until the priest instructs him to provide the response “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” In the Jesus story, a blind man incessantly “calls out” to Jesus and Jesus responds by healing him.

In the quiet this morning I find myself meditating on the spiritual notion of “call and response” which works in both directions. God’s Word and Spirit may “call out” to me. Am I listening? Will I respond? How will I respond? At other times, I am like the songwriters of the psalms, calling out to God in faith that God will respond. Either direction, there is an interaction that is relational.

“Here I am!” says Jesus in Revelation 3:20. “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice [calling] and [responds, as in] opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.

Refuge Within

Refuge Within (CaD Ps 46) Wayfarer

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.

Psalm 46:1 (NRSVCE)

It seems strange in today’s world, but when I was a kid we walked to school and we would walk home. There were safety patrol members standing at the busy corners to make sure kids didn’t walk across the street when the sign said “don’t walk.” It was a sea of childhood humanity flooding out of the school and making a daily pilgrimage home.

Once you were off school grounds, of course, there was no adult supervision. It’s amazing how quickly we learned that there was safety in numbers, and since I had older siblings I had the advantage of knowing a bunch of kids older than me. I could tag along and feel the relative safety of being with a “big kid.”

The real goal, however, was home. There was a certain sense of safety once I got to my own block. That was my territory. I was known there. I experienced real safety, however, once I was inside my house. Any fear of bullies or anxiety of potential trouble melted away. I was safe at home.

Today’s chapter, Psalm 46, is a song that celebrated refuge. For the ancient Hebrews, home base was the walled city of Jerusalem. The temple was there on Mount Zion. For the Hebrews, God was there in His temple. Their warrior-king was there in his palace. Troubles may rage, but they celebrated the safety they felt being safely in the place God resided. For those who remember growing up singing the great hymns, today’s psalm was the inspiration for Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

As I have written about on numerous occasions, Jesus changed the entire spiritual landscape. He made it clear that God’s “temple” was not a bricks-and-mortar edifice. When I open my heart and life and invite Jesus in, God’s Spirit indwells me. The temple is me.

How radically that changes the metaphor of refuge. Refuge is no longer without. Refuge is within. Writing to the followers of Jesus in Phillipi, Paul explained that God’s peace, which is beyond human comprehension, guards my heart and guards my mind. Though troubles may surround me on all sides, I may find a peace within sourced not in me, but the Spirit in me.

In the quiet this morning, I’m taking comfort in that.

Very early in the Jesus Movement, believers began a ritual of “passing the Peace.” They would say to one another “the peace of Christ be with you.” It was a tangible way of reminding one another of this spiritual intangible of God’s refuge within.

In this world, we have lots of troubles. Jesus told us to expect it, and not to worry about it because He overcame the world. The beginning of another work week. Here we go.

The peace of Christ be with you, my friend.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Tent to Temple to Table

Tent to Temple to Table (CaD Ex 25) Wayfarer

And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them.
Exodus 25:8 (NRSVCE)

Our children posted a rather hilarious video of Milo over the weekend. At first, we couldn’t figure out what he was doing shaking his bum towards daddy’s legs. As we listened to the audio it became more clear that Milo was making like the Stegosaurus on his shirt and shaking his spiky “tail” to protect himself from the predator, played by daddy, whom I presume was cast in the role of a T-Rex. Yesterday, on our Father’s Day FaceTime, we got to witness Milo reprise his role for us a shake his little dino-booty for Papa and Yaya’s enjoyment.

It’s a very natural thing for us to make word pictures and games for our children and grandchildren to introduce them to concepts, thoughts, and ideas that are still a little beyond their cognitive reach. Even with spiritual things we do this. Advent calendars with numbered doors help children mark the anticipation of celebrating Jesus’ birth. Christmas gifts remind us of the gifts the Magi brought the Christ child. Wendy often recalls the Nativity play she and her cousins and siblings performed each year with bathrobes and hastily collected props which helped to teach the story behind the season.

In leaving Egypt and striking out for the Promised Land, Moses and the twelve Hebrew tribes are a fledgling nation. Yahweh was introduced to Moses in the burning bush. Moses introduced the Tribes to Yahweh through interceding with Pharaoh on their behalf and delivering them from Egyptian slavery. Yahweh has already provided food in the form of Manna and led them to the mountain. In today’s chapter, God begins the process of providing a system of worship that will continue to develop a relationship of knowing and being known.

As I described in my podcast, Time (Part 1), we are still at the toddler stage of human history and development. The Ark of the Covenant (yes, the one from Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the plan for a giant traveling Tent to house God’s presence, are all tangible word pictures that their cognitive human brains could fathom revealing and expressing intangible spiritual truths about God.

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve observed that as humanity has matured so has God’s relationship with us. Jesus pushed our spiritual understanding of God. “You have heard it said,” he would begin before adding, “but I say….” I have come to believe that Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection were like the “age of accountability” in which we talk about when children become responsible adults. Jesus came to grow us up spiritually and to mature our understanding of what it means to become participants in the divine dance within the circle of love with Father, Son, and Spirit. On a grand scale, God is doing with humanity what Paul experienced in the microcosm of his own life:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.

1 Corinthians 13:11

I have also observed, however, that human beings have a way of getting stuck in our development. Many adults I know are living life mired in adolescent patterns of thought and behavior. Many church institutions are, likewise, mired in childish religious practices designed to control human social behavior, but they do very little to fulfill Jesus’ mission of bringing God’s Kingdom to earth. Again, Paul was dealing with this same thing when he wrote to Jesus’ followers in Corinth:

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh.

1 Corinthians 3:1-3a

There is a great example of this from today’s chapter. God provided the Ark of the Covenant, and a traveling tent called the Tabernacle, as a word picture of His presence and dwelling with the wandering Hebrew people. It was a physical sign that God was with them. Once settled in the Promised land, the temple that Solomon built in Jerusalem became the central physical location of God’s presence. When Jesus came, however, He blew up the childish notion of the God of Creation residing in one place. Jesus matured our understanding of God’s very nature and the nature of God’s presence. With the pouring out of God’s Spirit to indwell every believer, Jesus transformed our understanding of God’s dwelling and presence. “Wherever two or three are gathered,” Jesus said, “I am among them.” The place of worship transitioned from the Temple to the dining room table. After the resurrection, Jesus was revealed during dinner in Emmaus, making shore-lunch for the disciples along the Sea of Galilee, and at the dinner table behind locked doors where the disciples were hiding.

Wendy and I have this quote from Brian Zahnd hanging on the fridge in our kitchen:

“The risen Christ did not appear at the temple but at meal tables. The center of God’s activity had shifted – it was no longer the temple but the table that was the holiest of all. The church would do well to think of itself, not so much as a kind of temple, but as a kind of table. This represents a fundamental shift. Consider the difference between the temple and the table. Temple is exclusive; Table is inclusive. Temple is hierarchical; Table is egalitarian. Temple is authoritarian; Table is affirming. Temple is uptight and status conscious; Table is relaxed and ‘family-style.’ Temple is rigorous enforcement of purity codes that prohibit the unclean; Table is a welcome home party celebrating the return of sinners. The temple was temporal. The table is eternal. We thought God was a diety in a temple. It turns out God is a father at a table.”

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the ancient Hebrew people struggling to mature their understanding from a polytheistic society with over 1500 dieties to the one God who is trying to introduce Himself to them in ways they can understand. I am reminded of the ways Jesus tried to mature our understanding of God even further. I find myself confessing all of the ways through all of the years of my spiritual journey that I have refused to mature in some of the most basic things Jesus was teaching.

As Wendy and I sit down together to share a meal together this week, my desire is to acknowledge Jesus’ presence. To make our time of conversation, laughter, and daily bread a time of communion with God’s Spirit. I think that’s a good spiritual action step.

Bon a petite, my friend. May you find God’s Spirit at your table this week.

If you know anyone who might be encouraged by today’s post, please share.

Spiritual Horticulture

Then [Jesus] said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it.

In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots.
Mark 11:14, 20 (NIV)

Over the past three or four years, Wendy and I have worked on a phased landscaping plan for our yard. I’m glad to say that this past year was the final phase (for now). I have never been very good with plants and often joke that I have a brown thumb. Nevertheless, I have been growing in my proficiency as I try to keep the lawn, bushes, trees, flowers, grasses, and shrubs alive.

One of the fascinating things for me to watch is what happens when we plant multiples of certain plants. They may look exactly the same when I planted them, and while they are in the same bed and treated to the same amounts of light and water, one of them will die. I’m sure there are very good reasons why this happened (that I don’t care to spend time figuring out), but it always leaves me scratching my head a bit.

In today’s chapter, Mark tells a curious episode of Jesus and a fig tree. He and His followers were walking from the temple in Jerusalem back to where they were staying. Jesus sees a fig tree and looks for a fig to eat. Finding none, He curses the tree and says, “May no one eat fruit from you again.” The next morning on their walk back to the temple, the disciples find the fig tree withered.

I found myself pondering this rather curious episode this morning just as I would scratch my head wondering why in the world that one arborvitae on the north side of our lawn didn’t make it.

As I am fond of saying, God’s base language is metaphor. Jesus rarely did anything that was not intended to be a metaphorical lesson, so there is little doubt in my mind that the cursing of the fig tree was not just a moment of hunger-induced rage. So, what was that all about?

Jesus and the disciples have arrived at the epicenter of Jewish worship and power. In Jesus’ day, the temple consumed about 25% of Jerusalem area-wise and first-hand accounts say that as many as two million spiritual pilgrims would visit to celebrate the Passover. Passover was the festival which annually memorialized the Hebrews miraculously being freed from enslavement in Egypt (e.g. The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and Yul Brenner). Being at the temple would have been a huge deal for Jesus’ followers. Think Times Square on New Year’s Eve, New Orleans on Mardi Gras, or Washington D.C. on the 4th of July.

As Jesus passes the fig tree they have just left the temple. They arrived late in the day and Mark records that they only had time to “look around” at the temple, the crowds, the courts, and the merchants. For Jesus and the disciples, who were from the simple, backwater region Galilee, I have to believe the sights, sounds, and smells of the awe-inspiring location would have been what was on everyone’s minds as they walked.

As I mulled this over, I was reminded of another episode from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ story. This happened during the very same visit to Jerusalem:

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”

Matthew 24:1-2 (NIV)

Then there’s the metaphor of “fruit” which Jesus repeatedly used in His teaching, especially when talking about the religious leaders who ran the very temple they’d just exited:

Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Matthew 7:17-19 (NIV)

As I connected the dots, the metaphorical meaning of Jesus’ actions with the fig tree came into focus. The temple and the Law of Moses had been intended to bear good, spiritual fruit in the lives of God’s people, their community, and the world. Instead, it had become a corrupt, institutional religious system centered on power, prejudice, and greed. It was a religious tree bearing bad spiritual fruit. In the cursing of the fig tree, Jesus was providing a prophetic word picture to His followers consistent with what He had been teaching them all along.

Forty years after the events described in today’s chapter, the Roman Empire would tear down the temple and reduce it to rubble. They would also destroy the genealogical records necessary for determining who was able to perform priestly duties, sacrifices, and care for the temple according to the Law of Moses. In essence, the temple “tree” had been cut down for good.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself reminded that the same metaphor of “fruit” would continue to be central to the teaching of Jesus’ followers:

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Paul’s Letter to Jesus’ followers in Galatia 5:22-23 (MSG)

As I enter this post-Easter week in a world turned upside-down, I’m reminded that Jesus was never about being a religious rule-keeper. He was about being a cultivator of the spiritual fruit of love in life and relationships. And, I desire to have a green thumb when it comes to spiritual horticulture.

Now, if I could just figure out what the heck happened to those Pencil-Point Junipers by the patio. Oh well. Not as important.

Taking a Wrecking Ball to the Edifice Complex of Christianity

Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
Luke 21:5-6 (NIV)

When I was a child, I attended a small neighborhood church that was liturgical in practice. This meant that the sanctuary was laid out in a very specific way that catered to the ancient liturgy. There was a lectern on one side that was “lower” and served common uses such as announcements and a non-clergy member reading scripture or a responsive reading. Then there was a taller lectern on the other side which was only for the reverend to preach his sermon. There was an altar where communion was served which most people in the church believed sacred space. Children were taught to stay away and be careful of offending God by going where we weren’t allowed or treating the space disrespectfully.

As a young man, I attended a giant church that had no such liturgical trappings. In this church, everything was functional. It was all about the audience’s experience. Great lighting and great sound that allowed for a great product. The pastor of this church was rabid about building bigger and better buildings for the weekly show and attracting bigger names to perform in the area.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve had to come to terms with the “edifice complex” I was taught, have witnessed, and in which I confess I have participated. There is definitely something to be said for a nice, functional space for a local gathering to meet, organize, worship, teach, learn, pray, meditate, and serve one another and the community. More about that in a moment.

There is also the spiritual reality that Jesus exemplified and taught. It was a paradigm shift massive as to be difficult for people to believe and embrace 2000 years later. It is simply this: God does not dwell in buildings.

God is omnipresent (that is, everywhere) because Jesus is the force of creation holding the universe together: “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Jesus said that after his death, resurrection and ascension, He was sending Holy Spirit to dwell in us: “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:16-17). Therefore, God’s “Temple” is no longer a place in Jerusalem or a bricks-and-mortar edifice down the street. God’s Temple is the bodies, hearts, minds, lives of those who believe and follow: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

For the first few centuries after Jesus’ ascension, local gatherings of believers met in one another’s homes where they shared meals, worshipped, prayed together and supported one another. Some scholars estimate that over a million followers of Jesus were meeting regularly in tens of thousands of homes around the known world.

In 312 A.D. the Roman Emporer Constantine became a Christian and Christianity quickly became the state religion of Rome. The Jesus Movement, almost overnight, became the Holy Roman Empire.

[cue: Star Wars: Vader’s Theme]

Empires are concerned with controlling masses. Controlling masses requires authority that people will respect, follow, serve, and obey. One way to control the masses is to control their religious beliefs and routines. Therefore:

  • Only “priests” or “ordained clergy” can preach, teach, marry, bury, and absolve you of your sins. (You are a “common” person with no access to God except through the Empirical structures)
  • Only individuals appointed by the supreme authority and his minions (Caesar, Pope, Cardinal, Bishop) are allowed to be priests or ordained clergy. (You have little hope of becoming clergy unless you jump through many difficult and expensive academic and religious hoops set up by the Empire’s institutions. Probably not unless you know someone or a have a lot of money to bribe, oops, I mean, “donate” to the Empirical authorities – which is how we will wind up with wealthy children and corrupt individuals becoming the Pope)
  • The words used for teaching and the worship of God will now only be sung, written, read and spoken in Latin, which the uneducated masses will not understand. (This makes it easier for the Empirical religious authorities to control said masses of uneducated followers as they become dependent on the Empirical authorities for everything including knowledge, forgiveness, salvation, the salvation of loved ones prayed out of purgatory, and et cetera [<– that’s Latin, btw])
  • Worship must now be centered within an opulent, massive, awe-inspiring structure that stands out in the middle of the squalid little local shacks and structures people live in and use for daily business. (The Empirical institution thus reminds people wordlessly, day and night, that both God and the Empirical institution are higher, better, and different than you are in your poor little common life. It is both something for you to ever reach for and something to which you will never reach without the Empirical institution itself making a way for you)

And, that was the beginning of the edifice complex for followers of Jesus. I find it a fascinating contrast to today’s chapter. Jesus is in Jerusalem. It is the last week of His earthly journey. Jesus has spent most of His three-year ministry speaking to crowds on hillsides, fields, and from a boat to throngs of people sitting on the shore. He also spoke in small-town synagogues. His followers of backwater fishermen and men from small towns in Galilee were awed by the massive Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus, however, shrugged it off with the foreknowledge of what would become of it:

“As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”

A couple of thoughts this morning as I ponder these things along side of almost 40 years regularly journeying through God’s Message:

  • I believe a functional, central location for followers of Jesus to gather is a good thing.
  • I believe that making meeting spaces beautiful, inviting, welcoming, clean, and efficient are good things, even God-honoring things, for everyone who gathers there.
  • I believe that architecture is both a highly specialized craft and a creative art form that can powerfully embody and express many things with breathtaking beauty.
  • I believe that the churches and cathedrals built throughout history are works of art that have much to offer in both history lessons and inspiring us creatively and spiritually.
  • I also believe that a building can become an object of worship rather than a setting for it.
  • I don’t believe that a church building, it’s rooms, altars, stained-glass, podiums, and decorations are sacred in any way (though they can be special in many different ways and on many different levels).
  • I believe that it is the individual human beings of simple and sincere faith who gather within a church building and it is their corporate and collective worship, prayer, and fellowship that are sacred.
  • I believe that a church building and an institution’s emphasis can subtly convince individuals that they attend the church rather than being the church as Jesus intended.
  • I have observed very sincere individuals who believe the following, perhaps without giving it much thought: God resides in the church building. I visit God an hour every Sunday to pay respect and spiritually make the minimum premium on my eternal fire insurance policy which, I hope and trust, will get me into heaven and avoid hell. I leave God there at church to go about the other 167/168ths of my week.

This morning I imagine Jesus shrugging as he looks up at the Temple. “It’ll be a rubble heap in about 40 years,” He says to His disciples.

Then what is sacred? What lasts? What remains?” Simon the Zealot asks.

You are sacred, as is every person in whom my Spirit dwells,” Jesus replies. “What remains? The faith, hope, and love that is in you and flows out of you, Simon. And all fruit your faith, hope, and love produce in those whom you love. You are my church, Simon. You are God’s temple. And, you are more beautiful than this temple or any building a human being could construct.

What Jesus actually taught was that when individuals believe and follow, they become living, breathing, active temples of worship in which God’s Spirit dwells. What is sacred and/or profane is what we put in, what flows out and how we relate to God and others from the inside out.

Weeping and Joy in the Valley of Infertility

No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.
Ezra 3:13 (NIV)

For the past month, our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been in a series entitled “Summer Stories.” Each week an individual has shared experiences from their own personal stories and the spiritual lessons they have learned from them.

Last Sunday, it was Wendy who chose to stand and share a piece of her personal story. When she and I married almost fourteen years ago, she was 33. She not only gained a husband but two teenage daughters. Nevertheless, having children together was something we wanted to do. We tried for many years.

Trekking together through the valley of infertility may be the most difficult stretch of life’s journey that I have experienced to date. I’ve heard experts say that tremendous stress either brings married couples closer together or it tears them apart. Looking back, I can certainly appreciate why many marriages don’t make it through the valley of infertility. It is a long, lonely and trying slog on multiple levels. We plumbed depths of grief and relational stress I didn’t think was possible during those years. Wendy’s message, however, was not about the pain as much as it was about her discovery of joy at the end of that journey.

I couldn’t help but think of her message as I read the chapter this morning. The exiles return home to Jerusalem and begin the arduous task of rebuilding God’s temple which lay in ruins after it had been destroyed decades before by the Babylonians. After laying the foundation for a new Temple, the people gathered to worship and praise God. Those who were old enough to remember the original temple wept while the others shouted their praise until “No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping.” 

Yeah. I get that. That description captures our journey through the valley of infertility pretty well.

In the quiet this morning I’m thinking of one of the points that Wendy made in her message: “One can’t simply ‘choose joy’ any more than you can simply choose to get up off the couch and run a marathon.” As Jeremiah observed in his lamentation (over the destruction of the same Temple the exiles are rebuilding in today’s chapter): “Weeping lasts through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” In the valley of infertility Wendy and I learned that you can’t always distinguish the sounds of weeping and the sounds of joy, because they are often the same thing.

For any interested, here are both the audio and video of Wendy’s message, posted with her permission:

Everyday People Making a Difference

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
Acts 6:6 (NIV)

When I became a follower of Jesus as a young person, it so happened that my sister and a handful of other young people from our mainline Protestant church had made similar decisions. Excited about what God was doing in our lives, we had some great ideas about how we could share the good news. We thought it would be cool to do a series of meetings over a weekend with live music and to invite a good speaker that people would want to hear. So, we took our idea to the pastor and educational administrator of our church. Our idea was shot down immediately.

This was the first of many run-ins I’ve had along my journey with institutional churches. Most traditional, institutional churches have been historically hierarchical (and patriarchal, as well). Authority is given from the top-down, and power is dispensed and brokered just as it was among the temple priests and teachers of the law in Jesus’ day; Just as it is in almost any large institution. My friends and I were shot down because we were just kids, our idea was not approved by the denominational institution, and the speaker we wanted, while highly educated and capable, wasn’t credentialed in our particular denomination.

The thing I find fascinating in reading through the book of Acts is this early, dynamic explosion of faith. Thousands were choosing to follow Jesus, believe His resurrection, and give everything to what had become a “movement.” But it was different than the institutional Temple where it began. The Temple divided people. There was a section for women, a section for Gentiles (non-Jews), and a section only for priests. The followers of Jesus, however, met together. Everyone met together, ate together, and prayed together whether old, young, male, female, Jew, Gentile, slave, or priest.

In the institutional, hierarchical Temple, only priests and approved teachers of the law had the authority to do certain things. When the Holy Spirit pours out in and through the followers of Jesus, suddenly the “unschooled, unlearned” believers began teaching and speaking with spiritual authority. Signs and wonders began to be displayed through all believers, irregardless of education, age, gender, tribe, or social standing.

In today’s chapter, a man named Stephen is described as having performed many signs and wonders. He speaks in a synagogue and, filled with Holy Spirit, argues circles around the institutional lawyers and teachers. Stephen wasn’t one of the twelve. He wasn’t an original apostle. He was just another member of the “Body” of Christ. He was simply an every day believer, filled with Holy Spirit, ministering to people whenever, wherever he could.

Last night there was a meeting at our house with brothers and sister from among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers. Those who sat around our dining room table are going to be teaching in the coming weeks. There were two pastors from our local gathering’s staff, but there was also a banker, a diesel mechanic, a corporate middle manager, and a small business owner. Everyday people, male and female, older and younger, classically educated and not, all together using the gifts of the Holy Spirit in obedience to the Greatest Commandment so the Great Commission can be fulfilled.

Jesus’ mission was never about building or protecting an institution. It was about every day people connecting with God and loving others so that anyone and everyone can make the same connection.

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?