Show Me the Way

                 As I went down to the river to pray / studyin’ about that good ol’ way                                                       And who shall wear the robe and crown / Good Lord, show me the way

Each year around Valentine’s Day our thoughts naturally turn to relationships, whether we are in a committed relationship or not. Even if we do not have what we would term a “significant other,” all of us have relationships of one sort or another: friends, family, coworkers, neighbors.  When I recently asked some members of my church to suggest sermon topics for Valentine’s week, one of the most immediate responses I received was, “How do we best relate to God?”

But before we ask ourselves, “How do we best relate to God?” we must first consider two other questions.  First, we have to ask ourselves whether we do, in fact, relate to God. Most of us would say we believe in God, or have faith in God, or even that we know God; but that’s not the same thing as relating to God. I am a big fan of U2. I *love* their music and I am a great admirer of Bono’s humanitarian work.  But week in and week out, that love and admiration does not have much impact on how I go about my day, other than making workouts and commutes more enjoyable.  Simply having love and admiration for someone does not make for a relationship. By definition, a relationship is relational–which goes beyond knowledge or belief.  The demons that Jesus encounters in the Gospels know who He is and why He has come, but that does not make them Christians–not by a long shot.

The second question is, “Is there only one best way to relate to God?”  In the evangelical world, we emphasize having “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” whatever that really means.  I say that because I’m not always sure what it means, even though  I frequently use that language to describe my own faith experience. As a Baptist, I believe I have to own my faith.  No one else can believe for me or intercede for me other than the Risen Christ in heaven or the Holy Spirit on earth.  No priest or saint can “do faith” for me if I don’t do it myself.  Thus, insomuch as I pray directly to God and to Jesus and prayerfully study Scripture on my own, I consider the relationship “personal.”  But otherwise it’s not really analogous to other “personal relationships” I enjoy.  Jesus never calls me on the phone or shoots me an email or invites me for coffee.  Lord knows I wish He would!

Part of my problem with the idea of having a “personal relationship” with Jesus may be that I’m a guy. Guys tend to have trouble with the concept of “relationships” in general.  Dave Barry once wrote that a guy in a relationship is like an ant standing on top of a truck tire. The ant is aware that something large is there, but he cannot even dimly comprehend what it is. And if the truck starts moving and the tire starts to roll, the ant will sense that something important is happening, but right up until the moment he is squashed his primary thought will be, “Huh?” (“What Women Don’t Understand About Guys,” 1996).

The more significant issue, however, is that Jesus never uses “personal relationship” language around the subject of salvation.  When asked, “Rabbi, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He never responds, “Have a personal relationship with Me.”  Instead, He says things like, “Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor” (Luke 18.18) and “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and love your neighbor as you love yourself” (Luke 10.25).  Love certainly stands at the center of His teaching, but the love He’s talking about seems to be a deeper, different kind of love than most of our earthly relationships are based on.

Furthermore, Scripture outlines a variety of  different ways in which God’s people relate to Him, among them prayer, worship, a concise list of thou-shalls and thou-shall-nots, dietary guidelines, repentance, the care of the needy, and the offering of (literal) sacrifices.  The Law of Moses prescribes many of these tenets, and a few of them, such as animal sacrifice and dietary restrictions have been dispensed with over time (see Psalm 51 and Acts 10 respectively for reasons why); but Jesus said quite explicitly that He did not come to overthrow the Law (of Moses) but to fulfill it (Matthew 5.17).  In Mathew 6, He says, “When you pray… when you give alms… when you fast… not if you pray or if you give alms or if you fast.  In Matthew 25, He says the blessed are those who feed the hungry, tend the sick, clothe the naked, and visit the imprisoned.  I read these teachings (and others like them) as clear indications that Jesus expects His disciples to engage in such “works.”  Even the Apostle Paul, who argues emphatically that we are no longer under the Law but justified by grace through faith in Christ (Romans 3.22-24), also says–with equal conviction–that we do not overthrow the Law by this faith.  “On the contrary, we uphold the Law” (Romans 3.31).  Can we, then, simply dismiss the “works” Scripture proscribes  in favor of a “personal relationship” with Christ?  Or can we (with any integrity) pick and choose which “works” are more and less important for us to engage?  Should we, for example, tend to prayer with more dedication than attending worship or Bible study?  Should we focus on keeping the ten commandments rather than fasting or giving generously to the poor?  I wonder.

We could spend a lifetime sorting this all out–and we probably should.  Humility is a key component of the contrition the psalmist says makes for an acceptable sacrifice to God (Psalm 51).  But the best place I know within the Bible to try to get a handle on how we should strive to relate to God most fully and most faithfully is John chapters 14 and 15.  I believe these two chapters give us an essential, if not comprehensive, guide to what God wants and intends for us, especially John 14.5-18.

The first thing we learn in this passage is that Jesus Himself is the way (John 14.6).  The road of faith we walk as His disciples is not gauntlet that we have to push our way through in order to prove ourselves worthy. Rather, it is a journey in Him.  It is a journey for Him.  He is both the end and the means of our pilgrimage.  He is the way, the truth, and the life.  And that means that faith in Christ is about becoming as much as it is about believing.

The second thing we learn is that if we have seen Jesus, we have seen the Father.  When the Law was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, God warned him that no one could see His face and live (Exodus 33.20).  In Jesus, that fear is banished.  Not only can we now see God’s face and not die; we can see it and live more fully and abundantly than ever before. And not only can we see His face, we can also look Him in the eye.

He can look us in the eye, too. “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last… (John 15.15-16).  Jesus is the Way, and He wants us to know the Way.  That desire makes us His friends, in whom He confides, not His servants, whom He bosses around.  But friends–true friends–also challenge and confront one another. This is what it means for Him to look us in the eye even as we look Him in the eye.  He intends to hold us accountable for bearing fruit and abiding in His love, for that is the only way we can truly find our way to where He is preparing a place for us.

This, then, is the third and most important thing we learn from these two chapters: the nature of this radical,  all encompassing love that Jesus taught and embodied. The foundation of our relationship with God is the love God has for us and which He freely shares with us in all that Christ is, all He has done, and all He continues to do on our behalf through the agent of the Holy Spirit.  He chose us; we did not choose Him. We cannot earn it.  Jesus offers us this love as a gift.  However, the invitation to receive His love comes with a call to abide in His love, which means sharing it–living it–as well as enjoying it. It means “I am the Vine and you are the branches (John 15.5).  It means “if you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14.15).

To the best of my understanding, these declarations of Jesus mean that the love we share in Him should spill over into how we relate to one another–and even how we relate to Him.  “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15.12), He said.  Let my life in you and your life in Me impact how you treat each other, how you treat yourselves; let it affect how you go about your day: the choices you make, the actions you take. This is not an abstract love, of the sort I have for U2.  It is a palpable, active love–more akin to the love I have for my wife.  Because I love her, I do certain things and don’t do other things each and every day. Such choices are inextricably tied to the vows I made to her when I married her.  If I do not keep those vows, I would have a hard time convincing her (or anyone else, really) that I truly love her.  So it is with Christ.  If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  If we do not keep His commandments (or, at the very least, strive to) then how much do we really love Him?

Thus, I believe the “best” way can relate to God is, like love itself, a many splendored thing.  It is relational: a give-and-take between us and our Lord, as friends rather than slaves–abiding in Jesus as the Father abides in Him, and learning to love as He first loved us. It is personal, for our faith must be ours and ours alone.  But it is more than that. It is also missional, for we have commandments to keep, love to share, time and energy to give, and a story to tell about this Christ  who came not be served but to serve so that the world might know the Father’s love.  And, most of all, it is transformational, for we have fruit to bear and Christ-likeness to put on as branches of the true Vine.

We know this not only from Jesus’ words here in John, but from God’s work at the very beginning of creation.  In the opening chapters of Genesis, everything God makes–day/night, land/sea, plants/animals–is spoken into existence.  “Let there be…,” God says, and there is.  Presto!   But not humankind.  When God determines to make humanity in His image, He doesn’t say, “Let there be people.” Instead, He reaches down into the earth He has made and He sculpts us from the dust of the ground and breathes life into our nostrils.  We did not spring into being fully-formed in an instant.  We were shaped over time.  And God has continued to shape us over time; He continues to shape us to this very day.  He has formed all of us in His image and His ultimate desire is for us to realize the fullness of who we are in Him.  That is why Christ came: to remind us who we really are and to show us what we truly can be.  In Christ, God shows us the very best of heaven paired with the very best of earth.  That is what He wants for us.  That is what He wants with us.  And it doesn’t get much better than that.

Thanks be to God.

Christian Hissstory

I was wrapping up my work-from-home day a few weeks ago when my three-year-old daughters wandered into the bedroom and piled onto the loveseat where I was studying. They started leafing through my Bibles, sifting through every piece of paper within arm’s reach, and asking questions about everything in sight. I did my frantic best to engage their interest in what I was doing while trying to maintain my train of thought and prevent what was quickly becoming a landslide of my labor. Just as I began to get myself and my things together, Emmy abruptly halted her scrutiny to complain that the current song playing on my laptop (Jesus Christ the Apple Tree) was too slow. I set my stuff aside and scrolled through my iTunes library to find something more upbeat for her, hoping that would appease her long enough for me to get my books and papers put away. I congratulated myself as she started to grove to “You Can Call Me Al.” Then Mary spied my Anglican prayer beads on the side table. “Beads!” she exclaimed, with a zeal that forecast a tantrum of even greater force if Daddy did not indulge her curiosity.

“Now be careful,” I said, as I placed them in her outstretched hand. “These are special beads.” She studied them with her fingers and gazed at them intently.

“What’s this?” she asked, holding the beads up by the cross. “It’s a cross,” I said. “What’s a cross?” “It reminds us of Jesus.” “Oh,” she said.

As they sat on my lap and we listened to the music, Mary slowly pulled the prayer beads over the arm of the loveseat and across her own lap. “It’s a snake,” she giggled. I laughed softly, thankful that her imagination had taken her to an animal that glided gently over things. I watched her with fascination for a few moments until I managed to wiggle a hand free and turn my attention back to my laptop. Before long, I found myself trapped under a pile of snoozing toddlers. The invasion was over and the occupation had begun.

With my wife at the store, I settled in for what might be a lengthy (and wonderful) stint as a human mattress. Before I got too comfortable, though, I lifted the prayer beads from Mary’s relaxed grip, fearing they might vanish into the mysterious depths of the sofa cushions, and returned them reverently, if awkwardly, to the table. In the process, I thought again about how easily those beads had become a snake in her hands. Then I wondered if that was the real reason why I should handle them with care. Such metamorphoses are hardly confined to the innocent and playful workings of a child’s mind.

All of us who call ourselves disciples of Christ would do well to remember that faith can slither as well as soar, especially as we round the final bend of Advent and see Bethlehem coming clearly into view. The coming of Christ into the world is the most special of God’s good gifts. It stands alone as an act of love and grace. But one thing Christmas has in common with all the rest of God’s good gifts is that the babe lying in the manger can be misused in human hands: can be, has been, and will be. It’s a story as old as Eden: God provides for humankind and humankind exploits God’s provision for their own purposes rather than God’s, thinking we can better provide for ourselves. The serpent who tempted Eve is alive and well, and it still has our ear, coaxing us down ever closer to the ground and away from the heights of heaven we could be climbing. And the true genius of the serpent’s guile is that he has found ways to make us think we are soaring on the wings of eagles when, in fact, we are sliding on our bellies.

The train of thought I was trying to hold onto during my daughter’s initial onslaught was for a sermon on Acts 6-8, which tells the story of Saint Stephen. He, like the Twelve Apostles, was filled with the Holy Spirit in the days following Pentecost. They all proclaimed Jesus as The Righteous One, the long-awaited Messiah. They taught. They healed. They performed miracles. They did all the things Jesus did in His earthly ministry (John 14.12), and just like Him they rankled the establishment. God was on the move and He was moving His people—again—just as He had in the days of Abraham and Moses and Joshua, expanding both the depth of His relationship with humanity and the breadth of His Kingdom. But the people didn’t want to hear it. They certainly didn’t want to hear about how they were ignoring God’s movement, if not actively opposing it, just as their ancestors had done long ago. Stephen’s words make them so angry that they grind their teeth and stone him to death. They think they are defending the faith; in reality they are deliberately covering their ears, refusing to listen to what God is trying to say and stooping to the lowest possible means to preserve what they think belongs to them.

Sadly, Christian history is replete with similar stories—stories about the people of Jesus following the crowd’s lead rather than Stephen’s example, and for the same reasons. The Crusades, the Inquisition, Jim Crow Evangelicalism, Deutsche Christen, even Country Club Christianity all derive from the fact that we like our faith the way we like it. But our God is a God who refuses to be beholden to our preferences. He is a God who does new things because He is a God who shines light into darkness, and He is a God who pushes boundaries, challenges assumptions, and defies conventions because it is around the walls of such earthly institutions that shadows tend to fall. Often these walls go up in the first place because the serpent charms us with his designs. “God did something big, powerful, and truly amazing here—once,” the serpent says to us. “Let’s build a grand monument to it. We’ll be able to see it better when we can go inside, close the door, and get out of this glare. We’ll be safe there…from attack and, if need be, for attack.”

Stephen stands tall as an exemplar of Christian faith because he was open to God, not closed down: open to the new workings of the Spirit, open to allowing God to confront him, open to confronting others in Jesus’ name, and open to practicing grace as well as claiming it. He was willing to wade into the shadows and be a beacon of God’s presence there. To be “caught up” in the Spirit is apt language to describe what happens when the Spirit gets a hold on us, as it got a hold of Stephen: it lifts us off the ground and over the walls of our own building.

Many of those who will not be with us around the manger this Christmas will not be there because the last time they tried to draw near to Christ, someone threw a stone at them. For this reason, we who pilgrimage to Bethlehem this Christmas must be mindful of what lies in the shadows of the stable. One of the things Jesus is coming to do is to expose the underbelly of serpentine religion—wherever it lurks: in the hearts of spiritual authorities, like Caiaphas, when they make idols out of doctrines and power structures (Matthew 26.59-66); and in the hearts of disciples, like Peter, when they define Jesus’ Messiahship on their own terms rather than heaven’s (Mark 8.29-33). Some of those shadows around the manger most certainly belong to us. Are we willing to make acknowledging and facing those shadows part of our pilgrimage? We should. We need to. Christ is coming to call all of us—all of us—to repentance, so that He might then baptize us with the fire of heaven’s light and send the shadows running. The serpent can’t harm us when it has no place to hide.

My daughter Mary, who fittingly shares the name of Jesus’ mother, taught me a powerful lesson that day. She reminded me that Jesus is truly special. We should make our way to Bethlehem with haste and without reservation to rejoice with the shepherds and sing with the angels. We should cry out with zeal when we see Him, and gaze at Him intently. We should revel in the great gift God has given us. But we should also make sure we handle Him with reverence and care, like we would handle any baby: concerned more for what He needs from us than for what we need from Him. What we need from Him is taken care of. He is with us.

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