Bible

Challenging the Institution

A young man from Montana who had gathered a small following of farmers and ranchers burst into the U.S. Capitol building the morning of the President’s State of the Union address. The young man with a burning passion bordering on manic rage began shouting and screaming and chased the lobbyists out of the Capitol building. He was fed up with the lobby system in the country. He felt that lobbyists, funded by wealthy individuals and organizations of both the liberal and conservative persuasions, were ruining the American political system. Because of the huge amounts of money these lobbyists were able to bring to bear in support of their specific issue the young man believed that the common man, the people Congress was elected to represent, no longer had a voice in their government. At the top of his lungs he shouted, “The Constitution provides for a Congress to represent the people in government, but you have turned it into an auction for the rich buying votes like they buy art!”

Now, this isn’t intended as a political statement. It is the closest contemporary illustration I could come up with to describe what Jesus did when he cleansed temple in Jerusalem.

On the busiest day in Jerusalem, when the Jewish people were traveling there to celebrate the Passover (one of the most important Jewish religious holidays), Jesus walks into the Temple, the center of Jewish worship.

In the Temple, there were people selling animals for sacrifice and changing Roman coins for Jewish ones. Like lobbying, this system of selling animals and changing money was intended to help the common people. It was a lot of work and money to transport animals for sacrifice to Jerusalem. The Roman coins were stamped with images of gods or the emperor and were considered improper to give in worship (this had to do with the prohibition on worshipping images). The farther one lived from Jerusalem, the center of Jewish culture and commerce, the harder it was to find Jewish coins. Those “selling oxen and sheep and pigeons and the money-changers” were there providing a service.

The problem was the people providing the service had corrupted the service. Like any vacation destination today the prices changed based on the anticipated volume of business. Basic economics, when the demand goes up and the supply doesn’t change the price goes up. This was a particular burden on the poor. Not only had it cost them a lot to travel to Jerusalem to attend the Passover celebration now they had to pay inflated fees for the sacrifices necessary to participate. Which, by the way, violated Jewish religious Law. According to the Old Testament, the rich were expected to share their Passover sacrifice and feast with the poor. The system intended to help the common people became institutionalized oppression of the poor.

Another issue with the animal-sellers and money-changers was the location in which they set up shop. They set up shop in the Temple. They were selling and changing money in what was called the Court of the Gentiles. This was the only area in the Temple where non-Jewish worshippers of the Jewish God, called “God-Fearers”, were allowed to worship. By setting up their kiosks there, the shop-keepers and money-changers were preventing the God-Fearers from worshipping God. The system intended to help the common people became institutionalized racism.

Jesus saw this and was enraged. I imagine him seething as he walked through the Temple court observing this institutionalized oppression and racism. The Bible says that as he fumed he found three strips of leather and wove together a whip. Once he had finished the whip he used it to chase out the people oppressing the poor and preventing the racial minority from worshipping God. As he did he shouted “How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” (John 2:16b).

Jesus saw institutionalized sin and challenged it. He would not let it stand.

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

Institutionalized sin is real. It can be seen in countries that don’t allow girls to be educated. It can be seen in governments that imprison people for religious or political reasons. It can be seen in corporations that turn a blind eye to violations of human dignity to save money on materiels. Institutionalized sin is real and it’s prevalent.

When Jesus saw institutionalized sin he challenged it. When Christ-followers see institutionalized sin we should challenge it.

What are some ways you can think of to challenge institutionalized sin?

Symbols of Sin Become Symbols of Joy

According to the Gospel of John, Jesus’ first miracle was one of his most famous and has become one of the most controversial. At some point early in his public ministry, Jesus and his disciples are invited to a wedding. If the accounts that I’ve read are accurate the first century Jews knew how to party. You’ve never experienced a party like a Jewish wedding in first century Palestine.

The wedding in the town of Cana would have been no different. Spirits were high and the wine was flowing. And therein lies the problem. The wine was flowing faster than the host intended. They ran out of wine before the party was over and this was a major faux pas.

This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus didn’t want the party or the host’s reputation to be ruined. Not far from where Jesus was standing when he heard the news were several large ceramic barrels used for ceremonial washing. You see, not only were the first century Jews great partiers, they were also spiritual hypochondriacs. They lived in a constant state of fear of becoming spiritually impure. (This is an issue that Jesus will address repeatedly in his ministry.)

The guests of the party used this water to wash their hands before they ate to ensure that they consumed no spiritual impurities. This hand-washing was not just good hygiene. This was religious ritual cleansing.

This water represented a way of relating to God that Jesus came to renew and improve upon. This water was symbol of why people don’t experience the love of God the way he intends. This water is a symbol of sin and evil and all the bad things we deal with because of sin and evil in the world.

Jesus takes this symbol of sin and how humanity isn’t experiencing God’s love and changes is to wine. That’s pretty impressive in and of itself. Changing water into wine is almost as good as walking on water (we’ll get to that on later.) Yet changing water to wine so that the party could continue is only a small part of what Jesus is doing.

For first century Jews, wine is a symbol of joy and God’s favor. Jesus took the symbol of religious fear and the consequences of sin and changed it to a symbol of joy. Jesus took something that reminded people that they couldn’t live up to God’s standards and changed it into something that reminded them that God loves them. One of the biggest transitions that Jesus leads us through as faith in God transitions from the Old Covenant to the New, from Mosaic Judaism to Christianity is the transition from focusing on the need to be restored to God to focusing on God’s love that restores humanity to him.

That’s really the story of the Bible. God created humanity to express his love to us. The first humans and every human after rejected this love by choosing to love themselves more than God. God desperately wants to restore his relationship with humanity. God sent Jesus to restore that relationship. We can experience the love of God through Jesus.

Jesus’ first miracle was a symbol of that story. He took a symbol that represented how we are missing out on God and changed it to a symbol of joy and God’s love.

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

All around us there are ceremonial washing vessels. There are symbols of sin and our separation from the love of God. They can be seen in poverty, racism, disease, suffering, hatred, anger … do I need to go on? As Christ-followers, we can’t let the symbols stand. We need to actively transform these symbols to something else. We need change these symbols to symbols of love and joy. We need to show people they can experience God’s love. We do this by expressing it.

Earlier this week, I saw a news story of a New York City police officer who did just this. He saw a homeless man sitting on the street without any shoes. On a whim he went into a shoe store close by and bought a pair of shoes for the man. He then went to the man and put shoes and socks on the man.

Very few things reveal the reality of sin and pain in the world that a homeless person who cannot even find shoes in the winter. Very few things express God’s love more than putting shoes on the feet of someone who desperately needs them. This police officer transformed a symbol of sin into a symbol of joy and peace.

May we all open our eyes and see the world the way this officer does, the way Jesus does, and may we transform symbols of sin and evil into symbols of joy and peace by expressing God’s love to a world that desperately needs it.

The Fellowship of the Gospel

When Jesus’ returns from his odyssey in the wilderness experiencing, for perhaps the first time, the temptation to sin, he begins public ministry. The Four Gospels place varying levels of emphasis on this initial phase of his ministry. We can see that it consisted of both preaching and miraculous actions (i.e. healing diseases and exorcising demons). In this context, Jesus calls his first disciples.

There are a lot of ways to approach this action. Jesus’ calling of his disciples is significant in many multifaceted ways. Today, I want to focus on the simple fact hat he did it.

Jesus called disciples to be with him and to learn from him. There are a lot of reasons why he did this. He wanted a community of people with whom to build relationships. He wanted people who would tell his story after he was gone. He was training the ones who would eventually be the leaders in his church. You can probably come up with your own more extensive list. At the end of the day, however, one thing we know for sure is that he called people to follow him. As a matter of fact, this is one of the few facts that has never been in dispute about Jesus. It’s virtually undeniable that he called people to follow him.

Jesus formed his own fellowship ala J.R.R. Tolkien (If you don’t get that reference, please go watch the first Lord of the Rings movie Fellowship of the Ring. Although you’d be much better served reading the book.). Jesus formed a community that would experience and express God’s love with him.

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

Jesus chose to live in community. Jesus chose to have imperfect, sinful, foolish, inexperienced, inefficient, ineffective people around him. Jesus built a community with which to experience and express God’s love. Every Christ-follower should do the same. Living the Jesus life means building community.

Not everyone will be a missionary or a pastor. Not everyone will plant a church or lead a gathering of Christ-followers. But, all Christ-followers should work to build community in whatever context they find themselves. People living incarnationally, living missionally, will build Jesus-centered communities.

What are some ways you build community in your context?

Jesus in Cloud City

After Jesus was baptized he went into the “wilderness” to be “tempted.” This is kind of a strange story to me. Throughout the Bible we’re admonished to avoid temptation. A few pages later in the story Jesus is going to tell us to pray that God will keep us from temptation and evil. Yet, Jesus is intentionally walking alone into a place where he will be tempted.

It’s like a scene from a movie. The hero, Jesus, has just been introduced as the hero and the one who will defeat evil. Usually at this point in the story the hero knows just enough to be dangerous. And the hero, prematurely, heads into battle virtually assured a sound thrashing. It’s Luke Skywalker heading to Cloud City to face Darth Vader before he’s ready. In the movies the hero is always defeated. Fortunately for us this isn’t a movie.

Jesus isn’t defeated. Satan does his best to tempt Jesus. But Jesus wins. I’m confident I would have failed the test. I would have failed the first temptation. Jesus didn’t. Jesus never sinned.

So what? Who cares? Why is this important? Looking at the story 2000 years later, with two millennia of church history and theology behind us, it’s no surprise that the God-man didn’t sin. He’s Jesus. Of course he didn’t sin. He’s the guy that really did walk on water.

It’s important because he experienced what we experience. There is no temptation that you or I have ever experienced that Jesus didn’t experience. Every temptation I face Jesus has experienced it. Every temptation you face Jesus has experienced it. Don’t believe me? Take a break and read 1 Corinthians 10:13 and Hebrews 4:15. Jesus faced it all. He faced more and worse than you and I ever will because he faced it all.

Most of the books I’ve read and lessons I’ve heard emphasize Jesus’ success in facing temptation. They focus on Jesus’ magnificence and his divine strength. Or, the focus on his strategy in facing temptation as a model for us. Both of these things are incredibly important, but there’s something even more important.

He was tempted.

Jesus was really tempted.

The temptations weren’t imaginary. They weren’t merely annoying hoops to jump through so that he could get on to the important work of dying and resurrecting. Jesus faced temptation. He knows what it’s like to be tempted. When I’m tempted, Jesus knows what it feels like. When your tempted, Jesus knows what it feels like.

By being baptized, Jesus identified with us. By being tempted, Jesus learned to empathize with us.

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

Empathy is underrated. Empathy is important. Empathy is what moves us from merely identifying with the people around us to loving the people around us. Empathy is a necessary component to loving our neighbor as ourselves, particularly when our neighbor is different from us. Empathy is necessary to express God’s love.

Oftentimes, Christ-followers forget how important it is to empathize with people who don’t know Jesus. We have a penchant for looking down on people that don’t conform to our social/moral standards, whether they’re really Jesus’ standards or not.

We forget that sin is sin is sin. The drug addicted homeless person pan-handling downtown or the power-addicted CEO that ignores that pan-handler everyday as they walk to their office is no worse than you. The fact is, we all have sinned. We’re all tempted. We all need Jesus.

Jesus knows what it’s like to be tempted. Jesus empathizes with us when we’re tempted. Jesus empathizes with them when they’re tempted. Jesus models for us that we need to empathize with people different from us. It’s vital to expressing God’s love.

What barriers do you think people face when it comes to empathizing with others.

Incarnation: A Fancy Word for Living in the Neighborhood

This week we’re going to start a new series. In our Open Letter we said we’re about Jesus. In our Introduction Video I said we were about “living the Jesus life.” That begs the question, “What does it mean to be ‘about Jesus’ and ‘live the Jesus life’?” The best way to answer that, I think, is to look at Jesus and his life. In this series we’ll take a look at the 12 most significant moments in Jesus’ life and how they should inform the life of a Christ-follower.

Jesus is Born
The first has to be his birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both have great birth narratives. My favorite, however, is the one found in the Gospel of John (probably not surprising since my dissertation is on John’s writings). Here’s how John tells the story of Jesus birth:

In the beginning the Word already existed.
The Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He existed in the beginning with God.
God created everything through him,
and nothing was created except through him.
The Word gave life to everything that was created,
and his life brought light to everyone.
The light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness can never extinguish it. …

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.
So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son (John 1:1-5, 10-14).

Jesus has existed eternally as the second part of the Trinity. He is God. Always has been. Always will be. At a point in history, about 2015 years ago, Jesus was born into this world as a human baby. The theological term for this is the Incarnation.

How should this inform the life of a Christ-follower?
The incarnation leads us to talk about living incarnationally. Jesus chose to enter into the lives and stories of people. He chose this for one reason, to reveal God. He chose to live among us as one of us to express God’s love to us.

Living the Jesus life, being about Jesus, means living incarnationally. An outside observer of Christians in America may be led to believe that the goal of Christianity is to get people to spend as much time as possible in a church building and get them to invite others to do the same.

Now let me clearly state, there is nothing wrong with attending church services. Nor is there anything wrong with attending activities that take place in a church building. I just don’t think that should be the goal of individual Christ-followers or churches.

The incarnation teaches us that we should live among the people that Jesus created and loves and express God’s love to them. If our only friends are other Christ-followers, if all of our activities revolve around a building where religious services are held, if our only goal for others is to get them to got to the same building, we’re missing the lesson of the incarnation. We need to get out among people that Jesus loves at work, at PTO meetings, at social gatherings, in bars and coffee houses and express God’s love. Just like Jesus did.

Where do you think the best place to express God’s love to people who don’t know him would be?

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.

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.