Sunday, February 3, 2008
WHAT JESUS DID NOT SAY
They did not understand the saying which he spoke to them.
Jesus said to them, 'My food is doing the will of him who sent me, and finishing the work he has given me. Don't you say, "Four months more and then comes the harvest"? But I tell you to open your eyes and look at the fields -- they are gleaming white, all ready for the harvest!'
This figure Jesus used with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, 'Do you love me?' He said, 'Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.' Jesus said, 'Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.' Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, 'Follow me!' Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them... When Peter saw him he asked, 'Lord, what about him?' Jesus answered, 'If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.' Because of this, the rumour spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, 'If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?'
He said to them, 'It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you shall be my witnesses.'
(Luke 2: 50, RSV; John 4: 34-35, Phillips; John 10: 6, RSV; John 21: 17b-23, NIV; Acts 1: 7-8, RSV)
There were many times when Jesus' followers misunderstood him. Worse, there is evidence that they developed their own beliefs, theories and practices around their misunderstanding. Then they dignified their errors by claiming that they were acting by his word and with his authority and blessing.
Such phenomena have blighted the church in every period of history, including the present. We are probably all guilty of it to some extent.
After Peter had renewed his confession of love for Jesus, as they walked together by the Sea of Galilee, Peter became curious about what Jesus had in store for others. He enquired about John. Jesus replied, 'If John lives on until I come again, what business is that of yours?' That was the fact. But it didn't take long for the simple, direct word of Jesus to be woven into a theory about the second coming. The rumour spread that John would not die before Jesus came!
So when John was knocking ninety, speculation intensified and the air was filled with anticipation of an imminent Parousia! Some left their crops unsown and unreaped. Some deserted their families and neglected their houses. So the Gospel writer felt it was high time to set the record straight. 'Jesus did not say that John would not die,' he insisted. 'He said only that if John lives on until I come, what business is that of yours?'
Such beliefs are held sincerely. That makes them all the more damaging. Apartheid is held by many sincere people as a divinely ordained order of society. This kind of thing usually happens when law is exalted above love, doctrine above relationships, and orthodoxy is mistaken for faith.
Christianity is not about speculation and theory. It is about loving relationship, obedience and real life.
The main reason we 'go off on such a tangent' is that it avoids the real and costly demands of discipleship. Sure, it is done unconsciously. It is a way of avoiding the 'follow me' demand. We take a word of Jesus, and rationalise it for our own comfort or prestige. Historically this has led to crusades, inquisitions and the proliferation of cults. Each claims the authority of the divine word.
But Jesus relentlessly brings us back to the issue, as he did with Peter. When the first disciples wanted to speculate about the time for the kingdom to come he said bluntly, 'It isn't for you to worry about times and seasons. These are set by the Father's authority. Here's the real issue -- you are to be witnesses to me. Here, first, then beyond. And now!'
We must not build on what Jesus didn't say. We know what he did say, both to Peter and to us: that is -- 'Follow me'!
Happy are the simple followers of Jesus Christ who have been overcome by his grace, and are able to sing the praises of the all-sufficient grace of Christ with humbleness of heart. Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who by following Jesus Christ, are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world.
Happy are they who know that discipleship simply means the life which springs from grace, and that grace simply means discipleship. Happy are they who have become Christians in this sense of the word. For them, the word of grace has proved a fount of mercy.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
If we were willing to learn the meaning of real discipleship -- and actually become disciples, the church in the West would be transformed, and the resultant impact on society would be staggering.
History is a distillation of rumour.
Thomas Carlyle, History of the French Revolution
Rumour is a pipe/ Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures/ And of so easy and so plain a stop/ That the blunt monster with uncounted heads/ The still-discordant wavering multitude/ Can play upon it.
William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2
Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system... Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Lord, when I confess you as the truth, I become painfully aware that there are mechanisms within my being which are there for my protection. They protect me from emotional overload. But I have learnt, ever since I was little, to use them for self-protection. I can shut off unpleasant and demanding thoughts, I can rationalise my own actions and words, I can even convince myself that what I think, believe and do is your will and command. If I were totally honest and open, I would have to admit that many of them are self-justification for my own will. I don't always read your word deeply and honestly enough, I put words into your mouth, I argue from your silences.
I don't do this to be evasive or dishonest. At least, not consciously or deliberately. It happens because, like Peter, I am too afraid to face up to what Jesus is really saying to me.
It's more comfortable to develop theories -- even theologies -- which enable me to spiritualise your demands. It eases my conscience when I commit myself to doing something which is good -- but which is often a substitute for the best.
The words of yours I most need to hear are clear. They are not veiled in mystery. They are really too clear for my comfort.
But, like you did to Peter and to the rest of your followers, you relentlessly bring me back to the central issue. One by one you knock away the props of my excuses and rationalisations until it is again just you and me facing each other. No theories, no institutions, no programs, no techniques, no excuses and no bypaths open -- nothing in between. And it is then that I am compelled to hear your two most disquieting words -- 'Follow me'. I can no longer say, 'Lord, what about him? or her?' That's none of my business. I must follow. Please help me to be honest and faithful in my following.
And above all, remind me that following you also means being with you. And you in me. Following you means being in your presence, with your companionship, drawing on your strength.
May it be so today -- in all my tasks and responsibilities, small or large. Amen.
May the God of peace, who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you perfect in all goodness so that you may do his will. And may he make of us what he would have us be through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Hebrews 13:20-21 -- NEB
Rowland Croucher, ed., High Mountains, Deep Valleys (Albatross/Lion), chapter 46