Of divine and human things

Bear one anothers burdens

 “When you meet anyone, remember it is a holy encounter. As you see him you will see yourself. As you treat him you will treat yourself. As you think of him you will think of yourself. Never forget this, for in him you will find yourself or lose yourself”

     This is a quote from A Course in Miracles.

The words come to my mind when I reflect on the Gospel Reading for the Second Sunday in Lent, from Mark 8:31-38. In verse 35 Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”. Rebuking Peter, Jesus said, “For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (verse 33).

In Mark 8:29 Peter had confessed, “You are the Christ”, when Jesus asked his disciples, “What about you? Who do you say I am?” Peter’s response is in contrast to the crowd’s thought that Jesus was either John the Baptist, Elijah or just one of the prophets. One has to concede that Peter – and the disciples – saw “the Christ” in human perspectives, not in God’s design.

In fact, the central message in this Gospel Reading is denying oneself, taking up one’s cross and following Jesus. That, as Jesus warned his disciples (prompting the rebuke) means following on his path: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed” (verse 31).

Divine things reside in the soul of every human being: Love, peace, compassion, forgiveness, and happiness. These are “the things of God” as the NIV renders verse 33. Yet, tragically, as we all can see from the chaos, strife, greed and vengeance in our world today, we are driven by human things – the personality that is the product of the five senses.

In Lent we strive to tap into the soul because that is where we find divine power to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as true disciples; and that is authentic power. Think for a moment: The same energy expended in weapons, wars and destruction can also be channeled to peace and preservation. One is the human mind the other divine mind.

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Suffering for the Kingdom of God

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Because of my own self-consciousness as a sinner, Lent is my most profound season of the church calendar. Lent reminds me – and I hope all of us – of Jesus’ passion and his journey to the cross. I lived in Jerusalem for some years, and my most enduring memories revolve around the Good Friday processions along Via Dolorosa, or the way of sorrows. Yet, Good Friday and via dolorosa are merely the climax of Jesus’ vocation from the moment he publicly proclaimed – according to Mark 1:15 in the Gospel Reading for the First Sunday in Lent – “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”.

Our own vocation, as we were reminded last Sunday – on Transfiguration Sunday or the Sunday before Ash Wednesday – entails bearing the cross.

My thoughts are right now revolving around “the kingdom of God” and “the good news”, and in fact the two are connected. The kingdom of God is in contrast to the Empire, whether it is the Roman Empire or nationalism and patriotism, just as the good news is in contrast to the Roman proclamation of good news or the good tidings of Isrealites’ release from captivity, or even today’s economic prosperity and record stock prices.

The good news transforms the empire into the kingdom of God: Transformation from anger, war, revenge, jealousy and competition to forgiveness, peace, goodwill and the common good. This transformation is seated in the heart, in the soul of every human; when we reach there, we build the kingdom of God. It is in the present, it begins now, not in some future time.

In this Season of Lent, Jesus is calling us to walk in his footsteps, practicing forgiveness, peace and goodwill. This Way of the Cross is difficult, often beset with temptations to follow the easy ways of the empire. Let our hearts and minds cling to the prayer in the Collect for this Sunday: “Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weakness of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save…”

Following Jesus means coming down from the mountaintop

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This Sunday’s Gospel Reading from Mark 9:2-9 begins with these words: “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves”. To understand the lessons appointed for this Sunday – the Last Sunday after the Epiphany –  we would need to understand the significance of the events of the “six days earlier”.

There are three significant events preceding the mountaintop experience.

First, there was Peter’s confession of the Christ in Mark 8:27-30. This took place at Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” They replied, John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. Part two of the question was, “What about you? Who do you say I am?” Then Peter replied, “You are the Christ”.

In the next verses (31-33) Jesus alludes to his passion, “that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected” and even be killed! This was too much for Peter. That was not the kind of Christ he had in mind. His Christ was exulted and powerful, a warrior messiah.

The third thing is in the following verses (34-38) where Jesus called together his disciples and the crowd that was following him and warned them that following him entailed denying oneself and taking up one’s cross.

Thus, Jesus was preparing his disciples; he is preparing us, for the vocation of discipleship. Similarly in the First Reading from 2 Kings 2:1-12, Elijah prepares his student, Elisha, to carry on the ministry after his departure.

In the liturgical calendar this is the last Sunday of the Epiphany season. On Wednesday – Ash Wednesday – we begin the Lent Season when we focus on Jesus’ journey to the cross and the cost of our own vocation as we follow him.

Peter was mesmerized by what he saw at the top of Mount Tabor. Indeed, the view of the Jezreel Valley below is breathtaking; and when you add the company of Jesus, Moses and Elijah in their dazzling appearance, no wonder he suggested making the mountaintop a dwelling place.

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The lesson here is this: Following Jesus is not the equivalent of life of glory on a mountaintop. To be Jesus’ follower one must be prepared to get down on one’s hands and feet and get dirty. To be Jesus’ follower one must be ready to suffer, be rejected and scorned and even bear the heavy cost of persecution and martyrdom.

What is the cost of discipleship for you?

Simply being

Can we just be human?

On the surface it may seem rhetorical, or perhaps an impossible proposition, but let us reflect on it for a moment.

I read somewhere recently that Pope Francis said that if he tried to change who he is he would make a fool of himself – or something similar to that. Now, think about it. He is Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a man of personal humility and compassion. That is who he is in his core. That is what we relate to.

Society has some views of what – not necessarily who – a pope is. How a pope dresses (may be red shoes), how he speaks (like a diplomat trying not to step on toes), even how he walks.

Presenting a public image is not confined to any single person, group, vocation or profession. However, quite often, that public persona is removed from who the person is.

Perhaps you have heard a journalist remark how an individual sounded or appeared presidential even though he or she has not made a decision to run for president. So a candidate would talk, walk or laugh differently from the same person when not campaigning.

I remember one parish pastor who was truly gifted with humor. That gift made him who he was and people could relate to him through that gift. One day he mentioned – during the sermon – that a parishioner had said to him: “You cannot be making those jokes! You are a pastor!” He never made dirty jokes or something like that; he simply had this gift for humor. That was who he was. But, that society had a view of what a pastor is, and the two were not the same.

Often we get so sucked up into what we are, what we should be and appear to be, that we miss being who we really are – human. We obsess – subconsciously – with the image of professional, scholar, clergy, counselor, diplomat, preacher, warrior and what have you, and overshadow our being.

At the end of the day everything we need is already given. Our being – being one with God and with one another – is the greatest and indeed the all sufficient gift for all life.

Imagine going back to this principle. Imagine living the authenticity of humanity.

What kind of world do you see?

Book Review

SURPRISED BY SCRIPTURE – Engaging Contemporary Issues

By N. T. Wright

Published by Harper Collins (2014) 240 pages

N.T. Wright has been described by Newsweek as “the world’s leading New Testament scholar” because of the unusual combination of gifts of “scholar, churchman, and leader” in one individual. These qualities stand out so clearly in his latest book, Surprised by Scripture: Engaging Contemporary Issues.

The book is about scripture and N. T. Wright writes not as an apologist or a reductionist, but as a faithful Christian seeking to understand the bible without presumptions. People hold certain assumptions, for example, that the bible offers particular views on topics such as science and religion or ordination of women. The “surprise” in the title, the author notes in the preface, is the fact that, one, the view in the bible is not what people may have expected and, two, where they thought the bible offered no position, it actually does.

The 12 chapters of this book deal with 12 contemporary topics, including the “divide between science and religion”, the Resurrection, ordination of women, the so-called rapture, problems of evil and tragedy, modernity and idolatry, the role of the church in politics, and apocalypse. They originated as lectures and papers the author delivered to audiences, mostly in the United States, and now compiled into book form.

His observations are therefore western oriented – U.S especially, and U.K too – but the lessons derived there from are universal.

At the core of western culture, N. T. Wright observes, is 18th century Enlightenment. Paradoxically – because many do not know this – the Enlightenment is a modern form of Epicureanism. In Epicureanism, the gods were seen as far removed from human affairs. Thus, humans could do their thing without regard to the gods. Similarly – and unwittingly – the Enlightenment relegates God to the spiritual, debarring God from the world.

The Left fights for separation of church and state, for example, (and the U.S Constitution clearly spells it out). God has no business in public affairs. The Right, though desiring God in politics and public affairs, unwittingly affirms the separation, through literalism of scripture as evident, for example, in the debates over creationism and evolution.

This is a captivating book, a must-read for every serious Christian. How can one understand, for example, the almost fanaticism of American debates over creation and evolution or obsession with the rapture and end-time?

I strongly recommend this book.

 

 

Strength through humility

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The Collect for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany directs us in asking God to “set us free from the bondage of our sins and to give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ…” There is abundance of life in Jesus Christ and that abundance should actually set us free. Sadly, as it happens in contemporary society, especially in western culture, we are in bondage precisely because there is so much that life has to offer.

The Epistle Reading for last Sunday (the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany) had Paul telling the Corinthian Christians that he was free as to what he chose to eat or not to eat. There is complete freedom. Yet, in spite of such freedom his choices would aim at bringing glory to Christ rather than his own gratification (1 Corinthians 8:1-13). This Sunday’s Epistle Reading (1 Corinthians 9:16-23) continue from there, pointing out, “Though I am free… I have made myself a slave to all”. Why? So that Christ would be lifted up.

Indeed that is the meaning of his claim that, “to those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law)…To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law)”. Why? So that Christ would be lifted up. He has made choices, becoming one of the weak, among the weak, a slave, among slaves, “for the sake of the gospel” – for a cause greater than himself and his freedom.

We can by now see that this is essentially, humility. It is only through humility that we can abandon the sin of pride, power, prestige, and security, to be weak and vulnerable for the sake of the Gospel.

When we surrender to God’s sovereignty – which is what humility is all about – then we are truly strong and secure, as the First Reading from Isaiah 40:21-31 asserts: “God gives power to the faint and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint”.

This is the same theme that runs through the Psalm for this Sunday (Psalm 147: 1-12, 21): “The Lord is not impressed by the might of a horse, He has no pleasure in the strength of a man. But the Lord has pleasure in those who fear him, in those who await his gracious favor”.

In the Gospel Reading from Mark 1:29-39, when Jesus retreated to a secluded place to pray after miraculous deeds in Capernaum, “in the morning, while it was still very dark…Simon and his companions hunted for him” and when they found him they informed him that everyone was searching for him? Why do you think they were looking for him? Elsewhere in the synoptic gospels we are told they wanted to make him king.

Yet, according to the Gospel, Jesus said to his disciples: “Let us go to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do”. Is that humility or what!