Thursday, January 17, 2008

Persecution 101

Last time we sat in on the apostle's first missions training session. Their class continues as Jesus points out the downside of preaching the Kingdom.

“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves. But beware of men, for they will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. But when they deliver you up, do not worry about how or what you should speak. For it will be given to you in that hour what you should speak; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father who speaks in you. And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved. Now brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; and children will rise up against parents and cause them to be put to death. When they persecute you in this city, flee to another. For assuredly, I say to you, you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes." (Matthew 10:16-23)

Why does there always seem to be a down-side? Try to imagine what is going on in the minds and hearts of the twelve as they hear these words. Jesus has just told them they will have the power to heal the sick, cast out demons, even raise the dead! But even this will not be enough to satisfy some people. They will be hated, put on trial and scourged! Scourging is no slap on the wrist! Metal shards woven into the strands of the whip tear the flesh away from the bone. This, they are told, is what it will cost you to declare the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

No wonder they are encouraged to walk such a fine line - "wise as serpents and harmless as doves." Even in this Jesus turns the world upside down. Since the garden of Eden the serpent has been looked upon as the lowest of the low, but now Jesus declares that in the new kingdom there is even something to be learned from such as this. But don't learn too much, lest the adversary hold us to account for that. The shrewdness we learn from the serpent must be tempered with the peace of God, represented by the dove, lest any should declare we mean them harm.

But there is hope even in this, "he who endures to the end will be saved." We will hear him say this again before the gospel is over; it will be echoed in John's Revelation in the phrase "to him who overcomes..." Paul will echo the same in his first letter to the Corinthians - we must finish the race to win the prize. Endurance, it would seem, is the key. It is not enough to simply begin - we must finish, we must endure. But not on our own strength, for on our own we could not succeed. He gives them more hope - the Spirit of your Father will speak through you. Our heavenly Father does not give us a task without giving us the means to accomplish it.

Even so, the task is never ending. "When they persecute you in this city flee to another." Don't stop, don't give up, move on - endure; because "you will not have gone through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes." This enigmatic statement has troubled believers for two millennia. Was Jesus referring to His resurrection? Or are there even today cities in Israel that have never heard the Kingdom Gospel from the very beginning? Or are the cities of Israel any city, anywhere, that Jews call home? Whatever it's meaning, one thing is for certain - the task started by the heir is not complete, and will not be complete until He himself returns, and so we continue for the one "who endures to the end shall be saved."

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household! Therefore do not fear them. For there is nothing covered that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Whatever I tell you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in the ear, preach on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a copper coin? And not one of them falls to the ground apart from your Father’s will. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven." (Matthew 10:24-33)

There is a scene in one episode of the science fiction series Babylon 5 in which Vir, an aide to one of the alien ambassadors, is being dissuaded from seeking an audience with a group called the Techno-mages by the spectre of a house-sized monster with extremely large fangs and claws. The rotund diplomat holds his ground, refusing to be intimidated. Eventually the illusion is removed and a spokesman for the group says, with a hint of respect, "You do not frighten easily", to which Vir replies, "I work for Ambassador Molari; nothing much frightens me anymore."

So it is with the fear of the Lord; it is a matter of perspective. The curse of small minded people is to be obsessed with the details. They are so busy focusing on the object of their fear they cannot pull away to see the bigger picture. Here Jesus encourages the twelve to do just that. If they are to be the heralds of the Kingdom of God they must learn to see beyond the immediate, to pull their gaze from the purely physical and catch a glimpse of the heavenly. They must learn that death is not an end in itself, as final as it may appear to be. What are the threats of those who oppose the kingdom compared to the majesty of the one who rules it? This then is how we conquer the fears that assail us in this world - with the fear of God - which is the beginning of wisdom. (Psalm 111:10)

“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’; and ‘a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.’ He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it." (Matthew 10: 34-30)

I had a terrible time with this passage when I first became a Christian. Likely because I was reading a more literal translation which reads, "Unless a man hates his mother and father he is not worthy of me." Tough to wrap your head around that, especially when you consider how important family was in the cultures of the 1st century. Eventually I figured out that what Jesus was talking about was a love so great that all other loves appeared as hatred by comparison - hard to imagine a love that strong. And yet, we see this happen time and time again. My own mother never understood why I followed God in any way other than the way she taught me. She never once came to hear me preach, or tell stories, or sing. In her mind rejecting the tenants of her faith meant I had rejected her. It is this that Jesus warns us about. The greatest enemies of the kingdom will often be those we love the most.

“He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.”

'Nuff said. Till next time - Shalom.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Heir Sends Out the Twelve

Happy New Year Everyone! The play has finished its run, (thank you for your support), the trappings of Christmas are packed away for another year; what say we get back to work...

These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaritans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give. Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food.
“Now whatever city or town you enter, inquire who in it is worthy, and stay there till you go out. And when you go into a household, greet it. If the household is worthy, let your peace come upon it. But if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. And whoever will not receive you nor hear your words, when you depart from that house or city, shake off the dust from your feet. Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!

Matthew 10:5-15 (NKJV)

As I mentioned last time, in this second session of teaching Jesus lays out some ground rules for how the twelve should conduct themselves while they are out on the first ever missions trip. As with most of Jesus' teachings what He has to say seems counter-intuitive, starting with His target audience.

So far we have seen that the most remarkable examples of faith have come from the Gentiles that Jesus has encountered along the way. And yet, Jesus is very clear to his band of followers that they are to focus on the "lost sheep of the house of Israel." Even 1st century market analysts might be inclined to suggest that since the focus groups showed a better response among the Gentiles, then maybe, in order to ensure better success with this inaugural campaign, it should target Gentile communities. Jesus' admonition to seek out the lost sheep of Israel makes it clear that popular response is not what He is after. He is the 'Son of Man' to be sure, but he is also the Son of the Father, and for millennia God has desired to see the people He has called come into fellowship with Himself.

After 400 years of silence the kingdom Gospel is finally being offered to the people and it must be offered to the People of God first! God made a promise to Abraham, to Moses, to David and to all their descendants that the new covenant would see Israel made complete in her relationship to the Creator of all things - Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise. "To the Jew first and then to the Greek." (Romans 1:16)

Jesus' next instruction must have taken the twelve aback to at least some degree. "Heal the sick?" "Cleanse the Lepers!?" "Raise the dead?!!" The twelve had seen Jesus do all these things and, as far as we are told, were never given step by step instructions as to how to do any of them. So incredulous does this sound that down through the centuries scholars of all stripes have debated their "real" meaning. As one commentator put it...

"To be sure, Jesus healed people, cast out demons, raised the dead, and performed many other mighty deeds, but we are not Jesus. So how, in the name of heaven, is the church supposed to do what He did? ... We do not, in fact, have the power to touch lepers or cancer patients and cause them to be healed in an instant; we cannot shout "Be gone!" at the raging forces afflicting a diseased mind and expect the illness to flee; we are not able to stride into a funeral home and, with a word, raise the dead from their caskets." (1)

And yet, from the gospels to the journeys of Paul, and until the present day we have heard testimony after testimony of disciples of the Heir to the kingdom doing just these things. What then are we to make of Jesus instructions? How do apply them equally to both camps?

It seems to me that the key point here is that the mission of the twelve is not a new mission. It is, in fact, the same mission upon which Jesus Christ Himself was sent. A mission that was set out in the words of the prophet Isaiah...

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon Me,
Because the LORD has anointed Me
To preach good tidings to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives,
And the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD
Isaiah 61:1-2a (NKJV)

Wherever there is suffering, wherever there are those who have been beaten back by their circumstances, by illness, by oppression, by their own short-comings, the mission of Jesus Christ continues. It matters not whether that suffering is relieved by miraculous intervention or the hard work of dedicated individuals driven by the love of Christ in their hearts. Actually, Paul went so far as to say that motivation wasn't even an issue: "What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is preached; and in this I rejoice, yes, and will rejoice." (Philippians 1:18 NKJV)

And so Jesus' mission is to continue through the twelve. And what is more, just as they were not charged for the blessings they have received in the capacity to do these things, so too they must freely distribute the blessings of the kingdom. One cannot help but wonder if Jesus is engaging in a little hyperbole here; can you imagine for a moment walking across the barren Judean wilderness in bare feet?! Without food or extra clothing!? Even if we take into account that the word "provide" ("take" in some translations) in this passage can also mean "acquire", we are still left wondering. Judas, we are told, held the purse strings for the group. Could the disciples not do what it would seem that Jesus did, at least in some fashion?

I would suggest that the point here is dependency. Take a look at the kind of men that Jesus has gathered about Him; fisherman, tax-collectors, zealots. Men who by their very nature are self-reliant in the extreme. Ostracized from society by their trade, politics, or lineage they have had little choice but to learn to rely on themselves alone. This, it would seem, they must unlearn if they are going to be of any use to the Kingdom of Heaven. For in the Kingdom strength and ability comes from one place only - the Father.

It is a lesson we too must learn, for in our society as well, self-reliance is regarded as a virtue to be admired. It is all too easy to get the task done on our own strength, in our own time, by our own means. Reliance on God and God alone does not come easy, it is so counter to what we have been taught most of our lives.

Jesus' instruction regarding those who reject the message also seems counter to what we would think the gospel requires. In the time of Jesus so great was the disdain of the Jewish people for the Gentiles that when forced to pass through a Gentile town by need or circumstance, they would upon leaving, stop and shake the dust from their sandals so as not to contaminate the rest of the country with Gentile dirt. In making this admonition, Jesus, in the minds of the twelve anyway, levels this kind of contempt on those who reject his message. And as if that were not enough, He goes on to give Sodom and Gomorrah a better shot on the day of judgment than these who refuse the twelve their hospitality.

What are we to make of this? Have we not always thought that we must never give up hope for the salvation of our loved ones? And even that of strangers? Here too, I think, is a lesson to be learned, even for us today. The Kingdom Gospel does not coerce or bulldoze its way into peoples lives. It does not hound, or badger, or insinuate itself into their thinking like an inquisitor trying to extract a confession, or worse yet, a salesman trying to secure a contract. Instead it relies on a sense of responsiveness in the individual. It goes where it is welcomed and bides its time where it is not. It is not a matter of racking up another successful strike, stamping a little cross on the side of our plane like some WWII dive bomber. It is a matter of allowing the Holy Spirit to prepare the hearts of those who would receive him and reaping where the harvest is ripe.

By instructing the disciples to "shake the dust off their feet" Jesus seeks to prevent them from making the mistake far too many Christians make today - taking possession of the spirit's responsibility. We too easily accept the lie (and a lie of the enemy it is) that we have failed God and Jesus if those to whom we preach the gospel do not readily embrace it. We convince ourselves that if that person dies tonight without the assurance of salvation in their hearts it is our fault for not being better preachers of the kingdom message. Down-trodden we berate ourselves and shy from the task at hand, fearful that we are doing more harm than good.

But we are not responsible for how others respond to the message, any more than the apostles were to blame if no one in the village would offer them a place to stay. And if they do not listen to us, often we need to move on and allow the Holy Spirit to continue His work so that another might come along at another time when the harvest has ripened a little more.

But sometimes, those who reject the kingdom Gospel do more than just refuse to respond. Sometimes they take offence and seek to prevent the message from being delivered. Jesus has words on this matter for the twelve as well, which we shall look at next time.

Until then... Shalom.

(1) "Matthew" Thomas G. Long, Westminster John Know Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1997 - page 117.