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?

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.

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?

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.

What is Agape Ann Arbor?

Have you ever spent time thinking about what you’re known for? Joe Montana is know for being an amazing quarterback. Oprah Winfrey is know for being a media mogul. Snooki and the Situation are known for taking themselves way too seriously.

As we launch Agape Ann Arbor it’s important to establish what we want to be known for.  It’s important to establish our identity.  Agape Ann Arbor is a community experiencing and expressing God’s love.  The night before Jesus was crucified he gathered with his closest friends to share one last meal.  During that meal he gave that community their identity.  He told them that they were to be people who loved and loved well.  He said that the most distinguishing characteristic of their community would be the love they had for each other.

Unfortunately, many who call themselves Christ-followers, or Christians, have forgotten what our identity should be.  We’ve gotten caught up in making sure we look the right way, or say the right things, or vote the right way, or protest the right issues.  We’ve forgotten that our job is to love.

Agape Ann Arbor is all about cutting through the crap and getting down to what Jesus said his followers should be about.  Yes, there are things that we believe.  But those beliefs fuel our purpose to love each other and the city of Ann Arbor.  We will be known for how we love.

Contact us if you’d like to learn more about Jesus, or Agape Ann Arbor.  We’d love to get to know you.