Questions

Baptism = Identity

This week we’re continuing are discussion on the key moments of Jesus’ life and how they teach us to live the Jesus-life. The second event we’ll discuss is his baptism. For those of you playing at home you can find the story in Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; and John 1:31-34.

First, I think it’s important to clarify what baptism is. There are a lot of arguments in the church world about who should get baptized and the proper way to baptise people. I’m not going to get into that argument here. It’s not really relevant for this conversation. In first century Palestine, there were a lot of baptisms. They all seem to have two things in common.

(1) They were all ritual cleansings. When an individual was baptized they were admitting that they were impure in some way and needed to be cleansed of the impurity. The baptism actually or symbolically cleansed them from the impurity. (There is some debate among scholars regarding to what degree people considered the baptism actually cleansing or symbolically representing cleansing that had happened. I won’t bet into it here. What all agree on is that the cleansing originated in God.)

(2) Baptism involved identification with a group of people. The Dead Sea Scrolls tell of people joining the community of Qumran being baptized. The immediate context of Jesus’ baptism is the ministry of John the Baptist. You can read his story in if you look just before the passages about Jesus’ baptism listed above. I’ll summarize it here. John’s message was repent because God’s Messiah is on the way. Repent means to turn away from or give up something. Among first century Jews, this something was always sin. Those who repented were baptized to show this repentance and identify with the people who were ready to accept the Messiah that John would show them. It’s important to note here that the religious elite did not repent and receive John’s baptism. The reason seems to be that they did not accept that they needed to repent of anything because they followed their religious rules.

Into this context steps Jesus and he asks to be baptized by John. It begs the question, why? It can’t have been for cleansing. Jesus was pure. He never sinned. He is the only one to ever live a life without sin.

No, it wasn’t about cleansing. It was about identification. By being baptized, Jesus was identifying himself with the people who need to repent. Jesus was joining the “I know I’m a sinner and need to repent” group, even though that was not true about him.

The incarnation taught us that Jesus came to be with us because he loves us. Jesus’ baptism shows us he didn’t just come to live among us. He identified with us.

An example of the difference between living among and identifying with can be seen in the story of Hudson Taylor and the China Inland Mission. In the late 19th century many western missionaries traveled to China to share the story of Jesus. Most maintained their western culture and lifestyle while in China. They wore western clothes and ate western food. They lived among the Chinese people but did not identify with them. Hudson Taylor broke ranks. He identified with the Chinese people. He wore Chinese clothes. He ate Chinese food. He did everything he could to become Chinese. Who do you think the Chinese people trusted more? Who do you think was able to share more about Jesus?

How should this inform the life of a Christ-follower?

It’s not enough to live around and associate with people who don’t know Jesus. We have to identify with them. We have to become like them to the extent we can while continuing to honor the example and teachings of Jesus. We need to become part of the town we live in. We need to become part of our neighborhoods. We need to celebrate when they celebrate. We need to cry when they cry. We should be so embedded in, so connected to our communities that we’re missed when we’re not there.

Here are a couple of things that we do to identify with our community. We try to never turn down an invitation. If someone invites us to something we make every effort to attend. We are very involved with our daughter’s school. We care what’s going on there and are always available to help out. We invite people over to our house a lot. We host parties and have people over for dinner or to watch the game. We’re doing these things to identify with our neighborhood. We’re new to Ann Arbor and are working hard to become locals.

What ideas do you have for identifying with your community?

How Far is Heaven?

In this, the last post based on questions from Facebook, we’ll address the question, “Is there a heaven?” I did a little research on this question before writing this post, because I’ve never really thought about this particular question. Apparently, I’m not the only one. I looked in seven different theology books and five of my old philosophy textbooks and none of them directly address the existence of heaven. While it seems that not too many people think about whether or not heaven exists, a lot of people certainly consider hell. While I find it incredibly interesting that hell is more of a topic of speculation than heaven, that’s a different blog post. I’ll stick with heaven for this one.

At it’s root, the question appears to be focused on the evidence, or lack thereof, for heaven. This is very difficult for me because, in truth, I don’t have any hard evidence. I can’t point to heaven and say, “There it is!” I don’t have a well thought out and syllogism explain in unassailable logic how heaven must exits. It seems that Bono was right when he said in the song Walk On, heaven is a place that “has to be believed to be seen.” So instead of giving you something that I don’t have, I’ll tell you why I believe there is a heaven.

For me the issue boils down to one simple reality. I believe Jesus. Not only do I believe in Jesus. I believe Jesus. Jesus said there is a heaven, and I believe him. Jesus told his disciples that he was leaving them to prepare a place for them. In Christian theology, we refer to that place as heaven. To one of the men crucified next to him he said that he would see him that day in paradise. I believe that the paradise he was referring to is heaven.

There are many other references to heaven in the Bible. There are other places where Jesus specifically addresses what will happen to us after we die. So, I have a question for you. Do you believe Jesus? Do you believe that Jesus was truthful in the things he said regarding what happens after this life? If Jesus was truthful then there is a heaven.

It Happens

This week we’re getting back to answering questions from people on Facebook. I’m going to attempt to answer a question that I’ve kind of been avoiding. There were a lot of versions of the question but the basic idea is: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” I haven’t been avoiding it because I don’t feel like I know how to answer it. I’ve been avoiding it because no answer is satisfying when you or someone you love is experiencing those “bad things.” In spite of my trepidation, let’s dive in.

When things seem to be difficult and it feels like we’re running around in circles, a friend of mine is fond of saying, “How did we get to this swamp in the first place?” To answer that we have to go back to the very beginning. Not only the beginning of this blog series posted on August 16th, but the beginning of everything.

In the post from August 16th, I talked extensively about how through human choice evil (or sin) entered into our experience. When the first humans sinned, evil entered and affected every part of God’s good creation. So because we choose evil, evil affects our existence. In short, bad things happen to good people because there is evil in the world.

Now, there are a couple of major objections that could be raised to that last paragraph. First, I included everyone in that statement “we choose evil.” I don’t know you. How can I say that you choose evil? That’s a very fair question. I don’t know you. I don’t know what you’re like. I come to that conclusion through a couple fundamental beliefs to which I hold. (1) I’m a theist. I believe there is a God that created everything. As the creator of everything, he defines the nature of things; including defining what is good and what is evil. (2) I believe that there are two primary ways in which that God communicates with us; the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and the Bible. The Bible clearly teaches that all people have inherited a sin nature from our first parents. We, therefore, all sin. A definition of sin is choosing evil, as God defines evil. Now if you do not agree with me on one or both of those points, then you will not agree with my explanation. That’s cool. I’m not presenting myself as an expert on the topic. I’m offering my biblically, theologically, philosophically, and experientially informed opinion. I would love to read yours. Please feel free to share it in the comments below and we can talk about it together.

On to objection number two: If God is really good, as we Christians claim he is, why doesn’t he prevent evil things from happening to good people? I believe there are two reasons. First, if God were to prevent all evil from happening to good people he would have to limit the freedom of choice. He would have to prevent evil people from making evil choices. He would also have to prevent good people from making choices that appear good but have potentially evil consequences. The freedom to choose is important to God. With that said, there is a doctrine known as prevenient grace. There is a lot of nuance in that concept. For our purposes here, prevenient grace means that God does prevent people from being as evil as they can be. If it weren’t for God’s grace, things would be much worse than they are. Even so, there is a line that God won’t cross. He will not totally supersede our freedom to choose. Second, the question “Why doesn’t God prevent evil from happening to good people?” begs the question, “Who is good?” Jesus said that only God is good. If that is true, then anything that does not line up with the character of God is evil. In which case, anyone who has ever willfully done something that violates Gods character is not good. That makes it very difficult to identify a good person. If anyone has lied, cheated, or willfully hurt someone physically or emotionally, they are ontologically not good. If that definition is true, then I’ve never met a good person. In that sense, it could be argued that bad things don’t happen to good people.

Let me be clear about something, I don’t believe that everyone deserves the bad things they experience. Jesus was very clear about that when his disciples asked him on that question. You can read the story for yourself in the Gospel of John chapters 9 – 10. Some people truly deserve the bad things they have to endure. Many people experience evil they don’t deserve.

For many, this post might seem incredibly depressing. Why in the world would anyone believe this or follow a God like this? Here’s why I do. I have experienced some bad things in my life that, in my opinion, can only be explained by the existence of evil in the world. Yet, I have experienced many more good things in my life that can only be explained by the existence of an entity that is powerful and good and loves me. I call this entity God. As I read the Bible, the description of God I find describes remarkably well the God that I’ve experienced. The Bible also says that in spite of all the bad things in the world, this good God who loves me will ultimately conquer sin and evil and those that love him will live with him for eternity. This gives me hope that this life means something and there is value in enduring the evil that will come today because there is a better tomorrow.

What about you? How would you respond to my friends’ questions? Why do bad things happen to good people?

In the Name of Love

We’re continuing our blog series answering questions that people have asked us. This week we’re taking a break from the theological to answer a more practical question. Why do we call ourselves Agape Ann Arbor? This is probably the easiest question to answer of them all.

The vision of Agape Ann Arbor is to be a community experiencing and expressing God’s love. The foundation of this vision comes from something that Jesus said to his followers the night before he was executed. He said that he was giving them a new command, a new way of life, they were to love each other in the same way that he loved them. Then he said that the world would know they were his followers by their love for one another. In other words, people looking at this new community built around the example and teachings of Jesus would know who they were by the way the experience and express God’s love. The one distinguishing characteristic of Jesus-followers is not what they do on Sunday, who they vote for, what music they listen to, or what books they read. The distinguishing characteristic of Jesus-followers is how they love.

I don’t mean to be overly harsh or critical here but if you call yourself a Jesus-follower and you’re not known for how you love people, you are not following Jesus.

So, back to the name. You didn’t think I forgot did you. That wasn’t some wild ranting rabbit trail. It’s all connected.

Agape, pronounced ah-GAH-pay, is a Greek word that means unconditional love. For the ancient Greeks, agape was the highest possible form of love. The New Testament authors used the word agape to describe the love of God; unconditional, unrelenting, unending, love. We are a community in Ann Arbor seeking to experience and express God’s love. We are Agape Ann Arbor.

Christian Recruiting

At lunch the other day, a friend asked me an interesting question. He asked, “Why do you feel the need to recruit?” Here’s my favorite thing about his question. He used the word recruit. I’ve never heard it put that way before. I’ve heard evangelism (the Christian term of which no one seems to know the definition), outreach (an equally vague bit of Christian jargon), and proselytize (typically used pejoratively by people who are not Christian). But, I’d never heard recruit used in that context before.

As a member of the Michigan Air National Guard, I have a specific view of recruiting. It generally involves a young naive person who is looking for purpose and a job. Someone in a uniform (The Marines always have the advantage at this point.), extols the virtues of serving in the (insert branch of service here) and tries to get them to enlist. The goal for US Military recruiters is to fill the ranks of the US Military.

Living within walking distance of the University of Michigan I’m exposed to another view of recruiting. The NCAA Division I football coach. This conjures up thoughts of middle-aged men with personalities too big for their bodies wearing polo shirts enticing young naive boys to play football at (insert school here). The goal of the college football coach is to get the best talent possible to win football games.

We Christ-followers recruit too. The uniform is different. The recruits are often different. But, most importantly, the motivation is different. When someone chooses to follow Jesus, I get no direct benefit.

OK, you might argue that I get the benefit of people attending Agape Ann Arbor. That’s a fair critique. So, let me answer that before I explain my motivation. First, there is no prerequisite to attend an Agape Ann Arbor gathering. We don’t care what you believe. You’re welcome to hang with. Everyone is welcome. Second for a lot of people who decide to follow Jesus, Agape Ann Arbor isn’t a good fit for them. They’re looking for a church experience very different from our community gatherings. They’re looking for a more typical expression of American church. Agape Ann Arbor is anything but the typical expression of American church. I have a lot of friends who are pastors of different churches. I’m happy to connect new Christ-followers with those communities.

Truly, I don’t get a direct benefit from someone choosing to follow Jesus. So, why do I do it? There are three specific reasons:

First, Jesus changed my life. Jesus has given me direction and a purpose. Through Jesus I experience God’s love. This is the most meaningful thing in my life. I honestly believe that everyone who follows Jesus will have this same transcendant experience. I love people. I want people to be all that God has created them to be and I think that can only happen through Jesus. So, I share Jesus with people hoping they will follow him.

Second, I believe in a literal heaven and hell. I know that’s not a popular belief. According to the statistics I’ve read, I’m in the minority. That’s OK. It’s still true of me. I believe that people have the choice to experience heaven now and forever through Jesus or experience hell now and forever without him. Since I believe this to be true, I believe I would be the biggest selfish jerk on the planet if I didn’t share Jesus.

Third, one of the last things Jesus said to his followers after his resurrection and before he ascended into heaven was to go make disciples. Jesus literally told his followers to go recruit followers. I love Jesus. If you love someone, you do what they ask as a loving response. Since I love Jesus, I do what he asked me to do.

I feel like there’s one thing I need to add to this. People are not projects. I don’t make friends with people to “get them in.” I make friends with people because I love people. If my friends never choose to follow Jesus, it makes me sad because of what I believe about him. But that doesn’t change how I feel or what I believe about them.

If you’re my friend. You’re my friend because I love you and like hanging out with you. Your choice to follow Jesus or not is your choice. That’s between you and Jesus. It does not change the fact that you’re my friend.

Don’t Obey Every Command in the Bible

Here’s question three in our series on questions from Facebook. This question actually comes from a discussion i had with a friend over lunch last week. In a nutshell her question was “How do you decide which commands to obey in the Bible?”

It’s a very good question. She had observed that there are commands in the Bible that people do not obey. In particular she pointed out the passage where parents are supposed to publicly execute violent children (Exodus 21:15). Clearly no biblical theist, whether, Christian or Jew, in North America follows this biblical command. So, if we say that we believe “the Bible has authority over those who live in relationship with Him” (Check out our “What We Believe” page for more on our beliefs.), why don’t we obey everything in the Bible?

The answer has to do with how we interpret the legal portions of the Bible. The Bible is made up of many genre’s of literature. A majority of the Bible is narrative, but there is also prophecy, poetry, epistolary, and legal literature. By legal literature, I mean the specific laws found primarily in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The Old Testament legal code can be divided into three different sub-sections; (1) moral, civil, and ritual. The moral code covers issues on morality and ethics (i.e. the Ten Commandments Exodus 20). The civil code covers how the Nation of Israel was to be run judicially (i.e. the issue regarding children cited above or provisions to care for the poor Leviticus 19:9). The ritual code covers issues of Israelite religion and worship (i.e. the ritual sacrifices found throughout Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers).

Since these three subsets of the legal code have different purposes they should be interpreted accordingly. The moral code is the simplest to interpret. Morality and ethics don’t change with culture or time. “Don’t murder” applies any where at any time. There is very little need to interpret such statements. Christian theologians and pastors believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection fulfills the ritual code. For us, everything regarding the temple and the rituals surrounding it point to Jesus. We, therefore, do not perform these rituals anymore, but we read them and they help us better understand the necessity and efficacy of Jesus’ sacrifice.

The civil code is the trickiest to navigate and the one skeptics and people overtly challenging Christianity often use as proof-texts against us. The first thing that is important to realize with regard to the civil code is that it is the laws intended to govern a specific nation, at a specific time, in a specific environment. It’s more like the United States Code, than the Constitution. It lays out how the fledgling nation of Israel will deal with criminal and civil issues. It is a time-bound code. It is not intended to be applied universally. But, the issues it raises are universal. What do you do with a criminal? What do you do with a thief? The civil code lays out how Ancient Israel was to deal with such offenders. In the 1st century a.d. both Jesus and Paul told the early Christians that it was their responsibility to follow the laws of Rome. Throughout the New Testament, there are references to Christians following the laws and obeying governmental leaders. For Christians today, we are to follow the laws of whatever nation in which God has placed us. We are called to be good citizens and do our best to support what ever government is appointed over us.

To bring this in for a landing, it is against U.S. law for me to execute my unruly child. I, however, am not obligated to permit a child committing criminal or abusive acts to continue to do so. In our country we have a host of resources to protect parents and correct extreme behavior. If my child were committing criminal acts they would have their day in court and if convicted would pay the appropriate consequence from community service to juvenile detention.

So no, I don’t obey every command literally in the Bible. I do, however, do my best to live out the spirit of every command as modeled and taught by Jesus.

PS
If you’re interested, there’s a really good book by A. J. Jacobs about his year trying to live literally every command in the Bible including an entertaining anecdote of him stoning a confessed adulterer, The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible.

Can’t Avoid Death or Taxes

This is a continuation of a series we started last week answering questions I solicited from friends on Facebook. This week’s question: Why do people die?

Celtic Graveyard

I think it’s important to remember, we weren’t created to die. We were created to live forever in a perfect relationship with God, the earth, and each other. The issue of death is closely related to the issue of choice that we discussed last week.

The first humans were living in a pure relationship with God, the earth, and each other. God gave them the gift of free choice. In the middle of the Garden of Eden the symbol of that choice was the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God gave the people the fruit of every tree in the garden for food. The only prohibition God had placed on them was that they could not eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The penalty for choosing to eat from that tree was death.

I know, that seems harsh, right?

It seems really harsh to me, anyway. It helps, however, to understand what the Bible says the nature of death is and why that choice merited such a penalty according to the Bible.

Death at it’s core is separation. That’s what makes it so painful isn’t it? When someone we love dies we feel that separation deeply. We feel loss. While the feelings are different because the stakes are different we feel loss and grieve anytime we loose something. When a pet dies, a dream dies, or a relationship dies, we feel loss. We feel pain.

When the first people at that fruit they died. Immediately they were separated from God, the earth, and each other. The first thing they did after they ate was hide from each other. They made clothes to hide their nakedness from each other. In the very next scene we find them hiding from God.

This all resulted from the choice they made to eat that fruit. Why did they eat that fruit? Life was good. All their needs were provided for. They were content. Then someone deceived them. They were told that something was missing in life. They were told that God was holding out on them. They were convinced that life wasn’t as good as it could be. They were told they could “be like God knowing good and evil.”

It wasn’t a lie. God knew the difference between good and evil. He had experienced it firsthand when one of his closest friends, the angel Lucifer, betrayed him. After eating the fruit, the first humans knew the difference too. They had first-hand experience of evil. They betrayed the God who loved him and suddenly, they knew evil. And they died. They were separated from God, the earth, and each other.

According to the Bible God is the source of life. He created life. He breathed the “breath of life” into the first human. The ultimate fulfillment of our separation from God, the source of life, is physical death.

That’s a very truncated answer. There’s a lot more that can be said and I’m happy to converse more with you about this in the comments if you’re interested. But, I’d be remiss if I didn’t add one more thing. Physical death isn’t necessarily the end. The story of Jesus is that he conquered death. By conquering death for himself, he conquered it for all of us. The Bible says that through Jesus our relationships with God, the earth, and each other can all be restored and we can receive what the Bible refers to as eternal life.

I Respect Your Choice

A few weeks ago, I sent a message to many of my Facebook friends asking them, to share one question they would like a pastor to answer about faith or Jesus. I received several great responses. Over the next several weeks I’m going to attempt to answer those questions. I will be as honest and thorough as I can. Due the fact, however, that this is a blog, I’m going to be brief. I want this to be as readable as possible. I will have to leave a lot out. The advantage to this being a blog, though, is that you can interact with us right here. If you want to engage more regarding any of these questions, please jump in. We’d love to talk to you. Also if you have a question you’d like us to address, post it here or contact us through this website. With that said let’s dive in.

One of the most intriguing questions I was asked had to do with why Christians don’t seem to respect the faith choices of others. It made me very sad to read the stories of rejection experienced from people calling themselves Christ-followers. That is completely antithetical to the teachings and actions of Jesus.

Choice is one of the greatest gifts God gave us. It’s central to the story of the Bible and God’s relationship with us. At the very beginning God created humans. God provided everything they needed. He put them in a lush garden that provided all the food they needed. He created two people so that they would have companionship. He gave them meaningful work so that they would have a sense of purpose in life. At that time, in that environment, people had an amazing connection with God. The Bible describes it as that they walked with God in the cool of the day.

I love that imagery. It reminds me of the walks my wife and I used to take in the evening when our daughter was a baby; or walking with my daughter to and from school through the woods, now that she’s older. At those times we have the most amazing conversations. That’s what it was like for the first humans with God.

Now back to choice. Those first humans were given the amazing gift of choice. Most importantly, they had the choice to maintain that relationship with God or to go their own way. Essentially the choice was to let God be their god or choose to make themselves god.

This choice was symbolized by a tree in the center of the garden. It was called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (different, by the way, from a Tree of Knowledge which is not found anywhere in the Bible; all due respect to Steve Jobs). The only prohibition God placed on the first humans was not to eat the fruit from that tree.

They chose to disobey God. There’s a lot more to the story. But, the result is the same. They used the gift God gave them to choose and they chose themselves over God. One of the lessons of this story is that while the gift of choice is good, not all choices are good. And let’s face it, ever since then the human race has had a propensity to make bad choices haven’t we?

The result of that first bad choice was disconnection. The Bible says that the choice to disobey God caused us to be disconnected from God, from the earth, and each other. The results of that choice were devastating. I don’t think we fully appreciate the effects of that choice because we never experienced the world before that choice.

Anyway, here’s where the Christian perspective on choice comes in. Orthodox Christianity teaches us that God was distraught about the position in which we found ourselves. God loves us and wants a relationship with us like he had with the first people. But ever since then, we’ve rejected him in favor of ourselves.

This is where Jesus comes in. God sent Jesus to restore the relationships that were broken because of that first choice. Jesus came to teach us how to live lives where our relationships with God, the earth, and each other are restored. Then he willingly died on our behalf restoring those relationships and his resurrection is the evidence that he accomplished what he came to do.

Now for a moment, suppose the biblical story is true. Suppose that God really created people. Suppose God loves us and desperately wants a relationship with us. Suppose that the bad choices we make prevent that and all of our relationships. Suppose that Jesus came, lived, died, and rose again to restore those relationships. Suppose that following Jesus with your whole life would allow you to experience those restored relationships. Wouldn’t that be pretty cool? If that were true, wouldn’t you want to experience that? If that were true, wouldn’t you want everyone you know and love to experience that?

Those of us who call ourselves Christians, Christ-followers, Jesus-freaks, or whatever other Facebook moniker is in vogue today believe that this whole story is true. Speaking for myself; I’ve experienced it. I believe with all that I am that this story is true. Because I’ve experienced this, I want everyone to experience it. I think following Jesus (or choosing not to) is the most important choice in life.

Now back to the misguided judgmental Christians that prompted these questions and indirectly this blog post. It is wrong to look down on other people because they don’t choose to follow Jesus. It is wrong to look down on other people because the choose to follow Jesus differently. It is wrong to look down on people because of the choices they make. It’s even wrong to look down on people because they choose to be Buckeye fans. (That joke makes more sense if you live in Ann Arbor.) At the same time, it’s a very human act to look down on people who choose differently from us. We look down on people who choose different political parties than us. We look down on people who choose to drive different cars than us. We look down on people who support different sports teams than us. We look down on people who make different faith choices than us. It’s not OK. It’s not right. But it is true.

It is also very human to overcome our human limitations. I think that’s why I like the Olympics so much. I get to see people overcoming human limitations to do something extraordinary. Oscar Pistroius from South Africa is a perfect example of this. A double amputee overcame not just physical limitations but cultural limitations of bigotry and mistrust and ran in the Olympics. He is one of my heroes.

In a less spectacular way there are Christians overcoming our human limitations and learning not to look down on people who choose differently than us. Agape Ann Arbor is a community of people trying to do that. We are a group of people that are trying to truly live the way that Jesus lives and love the way that Jesus loves.

As I close this incredibly long-winded post, I’d like to say one more thing. Remember, Christians believe that choosing to follow Jesus is the best choice anyone can make. While many people do a poor job communicating this out, encouraging someone to follow Jesus is truly an act of love. If you believed Christianity were true, wouldn’t you want other people to experience it too?

I believe the story of Jesus is true. I believe that following Jesus is the best choice anyone can make. I would love for you to choose to follow Jesus. But ultimately, I respect your choice.