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.

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?

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.