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.

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.