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How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?

How Can God Love Both Me And My Enemies?
The good news of Jesus isn’t just that Jesus loves me. Of course that’s part of it, but the rabbit hole of God’s love goes way deeper than that. The really radical gospel message is this: God loves my enemies. To be like Jesus, I have to love my enemies, too.

I often don’t let this sink in enough: the incomprehensible nature of God’s love. The message that Jesus loves me, that he loves those whom I love – that’s nothing special. Any God, any religious system is going to provide that. In any human religion, the center of the moral universe is always me and mine. But Jesus points completely beyond me. His message removes me as the center of the moral universe. God himself becomes the center.

The God that Jesus points to doesn’t belong to me. He doesn’t belong to those whom I deem good people. He’s the God of all people, all creatures, all creation. God sends rain on the righteous and unrighteous alike.

God loves my enemies as much as he loves me. Even when they’re hurting me. God loved the enemies of Jesus, even as they were nailing him to the cross. Jesus loved his enemies so much, he was willing to lay down his life and to suffer a shameful death.

To me, that’s still incomprehensible. I have to admit, I don’t get it. To write these words is one thing; digesting their truth is another.

What it will take for me to truly believe and embrace that God loves my enemies? Jesus died for his enemies. If I’m going to be like Jesus, I have to be willing to die for my enemies.

I must be prepared to lay down my life. Not because I have to, and not because I feel guilt. Certainly not because I feel righteous. I must be ready to give up everything out of love for those who hurt, betray, and steal from me. If I am to be like Jesus, I must love those who threaten me.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. It doesn’t just feel superhuman and supernatural, but inhuman and unnatural. Nothing in my genetic makeup encourages me to love my enemies, and to pray for those who persecute me. There’s no natural instinct to risk myself for the sake of those who hate me.

And yet that’s exactly what God calls us to do. What seems natural to us, what has become natural in this fallen world, is in fact unnatural. God created the universe good, in unity with itself and with the Creator. But we live in a broken version of the love and symbiosis that God built into the creation.

The fallenness of our present reality manifests itself in how we respond to enemies. In this broken nature, forgiveness is impossible. Violence and hate are easy. It’s hard to act on what we know is right.

I need God’s guidance to respond to this world with love. I need the Spirit’s help to be able to tell the difference between justice and vengeance. I need God’s grace to see the face of Jesus in those who disappoint me, make me uncomfortable, and threaten my life.

For me, this will mean baby steps. I want to embrace Jesus’ courage on the cross, to ask God’s forgiveness for those who want to attack and kill me. But I should probably start by forgiving those who stole my lawnmower.

I need to be faithful in small things if I want to be prepared for big challenges.

Most of all, I need others to be Christ to me. I need people in my life who forgive me when I’ve done them wrong. People who show kindness to me when I’ve intended evil to them. My salvation is linked to those who show the love of Jesus when I’m only filled with hate.

I thank God for the way that he reaches out to me through others. I’m grateful for those who shine God’s light on both the righteous and unrighteous. Even when the unrighteous person is me.

Related Posts:

The Kingdom of God is Not a Meritocracy

How Can I Stay Awake in an Age of Distractions?

Is the Church Strong Enough to Resist Trump?

Is the Church Strong Enough to Resist Trump?
After preaching my sermon this week at Washington City Church of the Brethren, I had a conversation with another attender about what it means to be followers of Jesus in the midst of an unjust system. We sadly reflected on the fact that, most of the time, most Christians have not been interested in disrupting the status quo. In most times and circumstances, the body of the Christian community has been a neutral, ineffective presence at best – and sometimes has even lent energy and enthusiasm to evil causes. 

With the rise of Trump and his proto-fascist movement, I and many other followers of Jesus are asking: What does it look like for the church to become mobilized in the struggle for justice – not just as individuals, but as whole communities? How do we muster the courage and energy to live in solidarity with the many people who may be marginalized, ostracized, and terrorized under this new administration?

Can we sustain the call to nonviolent non-cooperation with evil – not just as individual prophets and “voices in the wilderness,” but as whole communities gathered together in the power and presence of Jesus?

We have both positive and negative examples to draw on. There have been times when portions of the church – whole communities in the body of Christ – have taken effective stands for justice. During the civil rights movement, entire congregations were mobilized for direct action. The Quaker church was able to abolish slavery within their denomination 100 years before the rest of the country would fight a bloody civil war to settle the matter. There’s no doubt that the followers of Jesus are capable of mass mobilization for justice, even under great social and economic pressure.

But even when we have hungered and thirsted for righteousness, our Christian ideals have not always been enough. During the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany, only a tiny portion of the Protestant Church resisted the blasphemous, genocidal violence of Hitler. And of those few communities that resisted, most did not dare go beyond advocating for religious freedom within their own churches. It was only a precious few individual leaders – most famous among them, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – who were willing to actively resist the fascist regime, despite the very real threat of torture and death. The failure of the German church in the face of Nazism was so devastating that, following the second world war, some Christians in Germany felt compelled to formally apologize for their lack of faithfulness.

Faithfulness unto death is not something that comes naturally for any of us. It is a way we must be taught by the Holy Spirit and the gathered community. It is a path that requires a lifetime of prayerful preparation and real-world training. Are our churches today providing this kind of training? As the time of trial looms before us, are we being prepared to meet it?

What is it that allows whole communities to come together and be willing to face suffering in the face of injustice? What kind of leadership is required to train and prepare communities to stand as one body in times of deepest darkness? Is the path of discipleship and courageous witness one that is ultimately individual, or can whole communities walk together in the way of Jesus, even to the cross?

If you are reading this essay, you exercise an important role in the body of Christ. You have a part to play in how we train and prepare the friends of Jesus to be faithful, loving, and courageous in the face of hatred and violence. It remains to be seen whether the church in our generation will be equipped and prepared to bear witness to the truth in the midst of a “post-truth” culture. How will you and I help to provide that leadership, training, and support in the days ahead?

The alternative would be to go with the flow of the culture, lose our witness and – if we survive at all – find ourselves expressing our regret in coming generations. Explaining to our children and grandchildren why we were not willing to stand up for those who were crushed by the rise of white nationalist tyranny. Why we chose our comfort and privilege over fidelity to Jesus and his upside-down kingdom. Why the gospel wasn’t powerful enough to make us different from the world around us.

The good news is that this does not have to be our future. We still have time to invest in one another, build communities that can stand in the face of oppression, and lend our hands to help those most impacted by the rise of the Trump regime. 

Let’s work together while there is still light.

Related Posts:

We’re All in the Wilderness Now. What Comes Next?

On Being Human in a Robot Age

Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?

Christmas is About Hitting Rock Bottom. Are You There Yet?
This is a sermon that I preached this Sunday (12/18/16), at the Washington City Church of the Brethren. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Matthew 1:18-25 & Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18.

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

Listen Now on SoundCloud

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas.

As an American, I have a stereotyped vision of what Christmas ought to look like. It’s a cold, dark, wintry time. We’re bundled up, rushing from our warm houses to gathering places like this one, and back to our warm homes. It’s a time for gathering with family and friends. It’s a time of reassurance. That though we are experiencing some of the longest nights of the year, the light of friendship, community, and faith still shines. We are together. We are loved. God is providing.

I like this vision of Christmas. I think it’s an authentic view into how God calls us to be a faithful, caring community to one another. It includes Jesus’ command to love one another. It captures the hope that he promises us through the resurrection – that no matter how long the night, there is a bright morning coming.

The baby Jesus is that bright morning. Amid the cold and dark of winter, he comes to us as the light of Christmas. He is born to a pair of righteous Jews – a carpenter and his young financée. This couple is living in a very dark, very cold night. They – their whole family, their whole nation – is living under a brutal military occupation by a foreign power. They’re living in empire that maintains its rule through total military dominance. An empire that puts down rebellions by annihilating entire cities and selling whole nations into slavery.

Along with the entire Jewish nation, Mary and Joseph are waiting, longing, praying for salvation. The salvation they’re looking for is very tangible. They’re hoping for a great military leader. Someone in the mold of King David, who will throw the Romans out of Judea once and for all. Mary and Joseph are waiting for God’s anointed one, who will finally establish the kingdom that God promised David – a reign of justice and peace that never ends.

Still, I can only imagine how shocked both Mary and Joseph must have been when they learned the role that God was giving them to play in this deliverance. Mary was just a young girl – probably little more than a child herself. Yet God spoke to her. He chose Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. The mother of the promised deliverer. The mother of the son of God.

It would be an understatement to say that this turned Mary’s life upside down. Nothing could ever be the same as before. Her entire life would be defined by this birth, this child, this relationship with Jesus. Despite all that, Mary said “yes” to God’s call. It would have been less surprising if she had said “no.” But she said “yes.” She was ready for this mission. She knew how great her people’s oppression was. She knew how badly they needed a savior. So she said “yes.”

I think that sometimes we forget about Joseph’s role in this story, or maybe gloss over the courage and faithfulness that he showed in his response to God’s plan. But Joseph’s response was almost as miraculous as the virgin birth. How many men would accept their fiancée’s claim that their pregnancy was the result of an action of the Holy Spirit?

If you’ll remember from our reading a few weeks ago, the High Priest Zechariah had a tough time believing it when the angel told him that he and his wife Elizabeth would have a son. Surely they were far too old for that! Because of his inability to believe the word of God, Zechariah spent the next nine months mute, unable to speak about the message he had received.

Joseph, on the other hand, was able to overcome his doubt at an even more miraculous occurrence. Somehow, he was able to work through his doubts and fears that Mary had been unfaithful to him. He also had the strength of character to withstand the shame that certainly came on him when others suspected that he might not be Jesus’ father. He had the courage to raise Jesus as his own, trusting that God’s word to him was true.

I believe that Joseph was able to muster this kind of courage precisely because he understood what the stakes were. God instructed Joseph to name his son Jesus – Yeshua. Yeshua is a Hebrew word meaning “God saves.” Joseph understood that God was intervening decisively in history. God was acting to save Israel from its enemies, the terrible oppression of the Romans and their client dictator, Herod. God was finally fulfilling his promise, given throughout the Old Testament, that he would raise up a ruler to sit on David’s throne, to govern God’s people and administer justice forever.

Both Mary and Joseph understood that this was the great calling of their lives. They would be parents to the Messiah. They would raise the one who saved Israel.

Whatever other hopes, dreams, and ambitions Mary and Joseph had for their lives, they were willing to sacrifice those in order to be responsive to God’s call.

This could be because they were just amazingly faithful saints, with powers of discernment and compassion that exceed that of ordinary people like you and me. That’s possible. But I tend to think that there was something more profound at play here.

I believe that any of us can take selfless, heroic, terrifying action given the right circumstances. We just have to be desperate enough. Think about the stories you’ve heard of regular folks lifting up cars to save a loved one. Yesterday I watched a news clip of a young woman who found her dad trapped underneath a one and a half ton automobile. Without thinking about it, she knelt down, pulled up, and flipped the car over and off of her dad’s body. He lived.

That kind of amazing strength and power is possible for all of us when we are truly desperate. When the full force of our lives is channeled in one direction, the miraculous can occur. That’s what happens when a daughter sees her father being crushed under a car. It’s what happened when Mary and Joseph watched their people being crushed under the jackboot of Roman occupation. They had become desperate enough to take miraculous action. Their need for salvation had become so great that they were ready to cooperate with the Holy Spirit. To do things that would be unthinkable otherwise.

For Mary and Joseph, and for the whole Jewish people at that time, salvation was not a “spiritual” concept. It was not primarily about going to heaven when they died. It wasn’t about some kind of transcendental, spiritual escape in this life. For the thousands of Jews who were praying for the arrival of the Messiah, salvation was profoundly concrete. It was political. It was material. It was about saving the lives of their children. They prayed for a future where the Romans no longer insulted their faith and desecrated the holy city. No longer dominated and exploited their economy. No longer crucified their sons and husbands along the highway.

God’s salvation isn’t just a nice idea. It’s air to someone struggling to breathe. It’s water to a person wandering in the desert. It’s food to a mother whose children are starving to death. For that kind of salvation, ordinary people like you and me can do miraculous things.

As we remember the birth of the baby Jesus, as we celebrate the coming of God’s messiah, it is time to ask ourselves: Are we hungry for salvation? Do we thirst for it above all else? Are we prepared to see our lives disrupted in order to seek salvation out?

In a certain way, we’re at a disadvantage to Mary and Joseph. Compared to them, our lives are pretty comfortable. I can tell you for sure, George was not born in a cow stall. We had access to wonderful midwives who guided us through the birth, and there was emergency medical staff on call in case anything went wrong. We were so blessed.

For those of us who have spent our entire lives in the United States, we have known relative peace and stability. Even in recent years, as our country has begun to slip more deeply into hatred and violence, the insanity and slaughter has still been the exception rather than the rule. I grew up in a country where I and most people I knew felt that we were citizens in a democracy. Not subjects of an occupation. Not sheep to be sheared and slaughtered at the whims of a dictator. I’ve lived a truly blessed life.

So I have to ask myself: Do I really want to be saved? Do I truly hunger and thirst for righteousness? Do I really want the upheaval that comes with salvation? Or would I prefer to remain in a comfortable hell?

Our nation is entering into a time of great testing, and it remains to be seen whether which path we will choose. Will we embrace the baby Jesus, with all the disruption and trouble he brings? Will we carry this pregnancy to term? Or will we tell God, “No. I won’t have this child. No, I won’t claim him as my own. Find someone else, God. I don’t need that kind of disturbance in my life.”

In the 12 Steps addiction recovery program, they have a concept of “hitting rock bottom” For alcoholics and drug addicts, hitting rock bottoms is when the pain of using becomes greater than the pain of not using.

For God to send Jesus into the world, Mary and Joseph had to be at rock bottom. They had to know that the pain of receiving Jesus is less than the pain of accepting one more day of economic injustice, moral outrage, and spiritual darkness. To receive Jesus, the Jewish people had to know that choosing the way of cross is ultimately less painful than continuing to participate in the endless cycle of hatred, violence, and oppression.

Christmas is an opportunity to ask ourselves: Are we there yet? Have we hit rock bottom? Is the pain of living in a world of hatred, willful ignorance, and greed greater for us now than the pain that comes from following Jesus?

If we are, God will perform the miraculous in us. Like Joseph, we will become agents of his protection and healing. Like Mary, God will use us to bear Jesus into the brokenness of this world. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel – God with us.” Amen.

Feeling Lost and Confused? Just Stay Awake

In this Time of Darkness, We Can Be the Light

How Can I Resist the Age of Trump with the Love of Jesus?

How Can I Resist the Age of Trump with the Love of Jesus?
Denial is giving way to harsh reality. This is really happening. Donald Trump is going to be the President of the United States for the next four years. A Trump presidency threatens the safety and well-being of women, religious and ethnic minorities, immigrants, the LGBT community, and the poor. With its belligerent denial of climate change, the Trump regime represents a potentially catastrophic threat to the future of all life. Thanks to the increasing militarization and surveillance of our society under presidents Bush and Obama, this new administration is positioned to carry out a reign of fear and oppression.

When I contemplate where we’re at as a country, and what is likely to come in the months ahead, it’s hard to avoid the twin opiates of panic and denial. Each of us has our own personal favorite, but both of these reactions are a dodge from the hard work of looking reality square in the face. We are soon to be living under a Trump presidency. The level of brutality and injustice in our country, already at danger levels, are about to soar.

The reasonable, respectable voices of denial assure us that “everything will be alright.” But we know that’s not true. Things never were alright, and this election has made this reality plain for anyone with eyes to see. We have the dubious fortune to be alive in a moment of national and planetary crisis. We have every reason to be alarmed.

There are other voices – those of panic and despair –  that are ready to insist that Trump is already virtually invincible. Fascism is ascendent, they say, and the only way to defeat it is with a show of brute force. Few are making overt calls for revolutionary violence yet, but the dog whistles are already blaring on social media. Many on the Left and the Right are gearing up for armed conflict. Their caustic rhetoric ramps up a sense of dread and terror. It prepares us for violence.

This road is a tempting one for me. When I am pushed, I naturally want to push back. And the proto-fascist supporters of Trumpism are pushing very hard right now.

As a follower of Jesus, however, I am committed to a path of nonviolent resistance to evil. God has given us the example of the suffering servant Jesus, who faced humiliation and death at the hands of Empire. He spoke the truth fiercely. Jesus stood with the weak, the outsider, the poor. But when it came time to choose the manner of his revolution, Jesus renounced the sword and took up the cross. Through his death and resurrection, God reveals his power to redeem the evil of this world. Through the cross of Jesus, we discover a path that transforms enemies. God heals the world through the blood of the martyrs.

The way of Jesus is not merely one of embracing unjust suffering. In a way, that would be easy. We could accept the blows of evildoers, all the while feeling ourselves superior. We would not physically attack our enemies, but spiritually we would murder them.

The way of Jesus is so much more powerful than a smug pacifism that judges enemies while refusing to dirty its hands with fighting them. The way of Jesus is a struggle; it’s a very real warfare. It’s a war for our own hearts, and the hearts of those who oppress us. As insane as it may sound – as much as it goes against my own natural tendencies – we are called into a path that seeks the redemption and wholeness of our enemies. That includes Donald Trump, his evil counselors, and his millions of deceived followers.

The way of Jesus never cedes ground to evil. Just as Christ openly defied the Pharisees and the priestly rulers, you and I are called to put our lives on the line. We’re called to disrupt the systems of oppression that hold back grace and healing from the “least of these” in our society. We are also called to pray for those who persecute us. We are tasked not only with justice for the poor, but simultaneously with steadfast prayer and supplication for the salvation of oppressors.

Maybe this sounded like a more “realistic” path a few months ago, back when many of us assumed that Donald Trump could never actually become president. Maybe loving our enemies seems more palatable when our enemies are already defeated. But that’s a cheap gospel of personal convenience and comfort. It is precisely in this moment, as evil rises and our freedom and safety come under threat, that it is most critical that we obey Jesus when he tells us to love our enemies.

We have real enemies now. We know who they are, and their evil plans are clearer than ever. And we must love them. Even as we hold them accountable. Even as we stand against their brazen attacks on our liberty and safety, we are commanded to love them. This means speaking to the inward witness of Christ within Donald Trump, his regime, and the millions of ordinary Americans who have put their trust in him. We are called to love them, even as they mock us, hurl insults, and threaten us.

We are called to love our enemies as we resist them. In Christ the aim of resistance is to bring about healing and redemption for the whole of the creation. This creation includes even those who are most visibly twisted by evil. Our warfare – the Lamb’s War – takes no prisoners. Each and every one of us is to be redeemed and restored in the light and power of Jesus.

This is a challenging path, to put it mildly! The most difficult part for me at this moment is discerning what specific, concrete actions God is calling me to take to resist the spread of white supremacy, misogyny, and destruction of the earth. How do I work against the spread of this culture of death, while never allowing myself to use death’s own weapons? How do I fight fire – not with fire, but with the cleansing water of Christ’s love?

These are no longer theoretical questions, if they ever were. The time has come for us to make the reign of God visible in bold, radical, faithful ways that shake us out of the stupor of panic and denial. What does it look like to invite others into the fiery, prophetic, and loving way of Jesus?

Related Posts:

Jesus is Lord. Trump is Not.

Trump Will Be President. We Must Resist.

This Wall Is Coming Down. Which Side Are You On?

This Wall Is Coming Down. Which Side Are You On?
This is a sermon that I preached at the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering on 10/9/2016, near Washington, DC. The scripture readings for this sermon were: John 16:29-33 and Zechariah 4:6

You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon is significantly different from the written text.)

Listen Now On SoundCloud

As the Second World War was nearing its end, the Nazi order was falling apart, and the Allied powers raced to carve up Europe and establish the conditions of the peace.

At war’s end, Germany was divided into four military jurisdictions. The Russians controlled the east, while the US, Britain, and France controlled the west. The German capital of Berlin was divided the same way, despite the fact that it lay deep within the Soviet jurisdiction of East Germany.

As you can imagine, tensions were running high from the beginning. Having a western military enclave in the midst of Soviet East Germany was deeply frustrating for the Russians, and the Soviet leaders did everything they could to push the western Allies out. Probably the high water mark of these tensions came in 1947 and 1948, when the Soviets closed off the roads to the city, hoping to starve the western powers out. In what became known as the Berlin Airlift, the US and its allies succeeded in holding out for almost a year, supplying the city with around-the-clock air deliveries of food and other vital supplies. By the summer of 1948, it was clear that West Berlin would remain under Allied control.

Still, West Berlin represented an ongoing problem for the Soviet-aligned authorities in East Germany. The western powers worked hard to make West Berlin a showcase of democratic governance and capitalist economics. With its shining buildings, modern jobs, and free markets flourished, many East Germans weren’t satisfied to watch from across the line. By 1961, about 20% of East Germany’s population had defected to the West – most of them passing through West Berlin.

That year, the East German government finally had enough. They decided to close the “West Berlin loophole” and end the massive brain drain out of East Germany.

It started as check points and barbed wire around the whole of West Berlin – 91 miles. Soon, they erected concrete barriers, walling West Berlin off like a city under siege. Over time, the East German government kept developing taller walls. They installed a broad “death strip” in the middle, where those trying to flee across the barrier could be shot on sight. By the time the wall was fully developed, it was massive – with concrete sections twelve feet high and four feet thick. Barbed wire, observation towers, and regular canine patrols sought to ward off any who would dare attempt entry into the forbidden city.

It wasn’t until 1989 that the standoff began to fall apart. In the face of widespread protests and a weakening Soviet grip, the repressive East German government was teetering on the edge of collapse. Even in this environment, it was a huge surprise for ordinary Germans and people around the world when the East German government announced that the wall would be opened for free movement of people, effective immediately!

In response to this dramatic news, the people of both East and West Berlin were out in the streets that very night, celebrating. That weekend, more than 2 million East Berliners crossed over to the west, holding one of the greatest street parties in human history. Ordinary people began to physically dismantle the wall with hammers and chisels. Berlin was free, and very soon all the rest of Germany would be, too.

And the whole world was left wondering – how did this happen? How do you go from shoot-on-sight, concrete barriers, and razor-wire bunkers to free movement, literally overnight? How could the Soviet-backed regime in East Germany that seemed so powerful, collapse under its own weight in a matter of months? In January of 1989, the long-time leader of East Germany, Erich Honecker had predicted that the Berlin wall would easily stand for another 50 to 100 years. How could he have been so wrong?

It makes you wonder what kinds of nonsense we’re taking for granted today. Think of some of the institutions, authorities, and economic forces that seem so invincible right now. Will they last another 50 to 100 years? Could it be that they’ll collapse in the next few months?

One of the things that made Jesus so special to his first disciples was the way that he could see beyond appearances. Jesus saw through the veneer of holiness and authority of the priests and religious leaders in his society. He saw beyond the bristling power and raw brutality of the Roman occupiers and their puppet dictator. While most everyone around him imagined the future as an extension of the past, Jesus saw that the past, present, and future have one sovereign author.

When the priests insisted that their systems of power and social control would last forever, Jesus predicted a day not too far off when the Temple would be laid waste. And when the Roman rulers threatened him with terrible torture and death, Jesus could see to the end of them, too. He saw past the pomp, grandeur, and violence of human ambition. He bore witness to the truth – to a kingdom that has overcome the power of death.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Take courage. I have conquered the world!” Crucified by the powers and raised from the dead, Jesus Christ has unmasked the rulers and authorities of this world who claim their own self-sovereignty and deny the power of love. Jesus has revealed the bankruptcy of the powers, the emptiness of their threats in the face of the all-powerful, never-ending, fearsome love of his Father. Our Father.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, but the spirit of this wall is alive and at work in the world today. There are millions of us in our country right now whose primary solution for the very real fear and grief we feel is to “build the wall!” How much we’ve forgotten. It wasn’t so long ago that building walls was recognized as a signature mark of authoritarian regimes and oppressive dictatorships.

And yet, this idea of building walls is nothing new. How many of you have actually seen the wall that divides the United States from Mexico? You wouldn’t forget it. It’s taller than the Berlin wall, for one thing – 21 feet tall, and six feet deep. On the US/Mexico border – today, before we “build the wall” – right now there are 580 miles of border fence. That’s six times longer than the Berlin wall.

There are many other walls throughout the world – walls dividing Gaza and the West Bank from the rest of Israel/Palestine. Barriers separating eastern parts of Ukraine from the rest of the country. Border fences holding back a tidal wave of desperate refugees who are seeking refuge in Europe. We live in the age of the high wall and guard tower.

But I don’t want to dwell here, reciting a litany of injustice. Because Jesus didn’t. Jesus was perfectly capable of delivering a stunning critique of the powers that be – both the local ones, and the big powers like the Roman Empire. Yet his most important message was not a criticism of the dying world of greed, selfishness, and human ambition. Rather than wallowing in the propaganda of Empire – reflecting on the apparent strength of the darkness that binds us and separates us from one another – Jesus offers us peace. Jesus offers us victory. Jesus offers us a kingdom that is right now, here in our midst. Jesus tells us, “Take courage. I have conquered the world!”

In preparing to speak to y’all tonight, I have felt very clear that the heart of the message is this: We don’t need to be afraid.

We live in an age of fear. Have you noticed? All the television channels are dialed up for maximum terror. Every news item, every advertisement, every weather alert, practically every piece of media that we commonly encounter is designed to tap right into our most base instincts – our lizard brains that know very little beyond fight, flight, and… another f-word.

We need to be real about this. I know that we know this. Intellectually, I think that every one of us in this room realizes that we live in a culture of fear and manipulation. But do you enter your day prepared? We are in a spiritual warfare here. The powers of evil – Wall Street, the Pentagon, cable news, Facebook ads – this whole culture is busy seeking to pull their false world over our eyes.

Don’t be afraid. Have courage. Jesus has conquered the world.

But stay awake. Stay awake with Jesus, and don’t be fooled by the siren-song lullaby of marketers and politicians. Stay awake and keep watch, because the Holy Spirit is on the move.

The Holy Spirit is here tonight. The same power that overcame the Berlin Wall is right here with us, ready to break down the walls that separate us from one another. From love. From the truth.

We can’t do this on our own. We can’t stay awake without help. We can’t see like Jesus sees unless he guides us. But the good news for those of us gathered here tonight is that Jesus can. He will guide us. “Take courage! He has overcome the world.” And we can, too.

“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” – those are Zechariah’s words to us. The Lord of Hosts – that means, the “Lord of Armies” – he’s a conquering God. In Jesus we worship a conquering God. Not a conquerer like the world understands it – not a bloody tyrant of guns, germs, and steel – but a loving God who overcomes the darkness with light, hatred with love.

Still, I have to ask myself: Why did the Berlin wall fall when it did? How could it be that the rulers and authorities of East Germany were so confident in the oppressive order they had established? How could the leader of East Germany, the very year that his government would collapse, how could he predict that the wall would stand for another 50 or 100 years? And why did most of the world believe him?

We live in an age of wall and guard tower. We live in a time when there are so many Berlin walls that remain standing, seem invincible. Here in this city where we meet. Our nation. Our world stands divided on so many levels. Our friends and family – we ourselves – have been deceived. We have traded the truth for a lie. We’ve chosen to live in darkness and despair, rather than dwelling in the victory and power that Jesus promises. In this age of walls, barbed wire, vampire capitalism, and ecological catastrophe, it feels like the powers of death and oppression are eternal.

We are here tonight to declare that these powers have already been defeated. Jesus has conquered them. They stand naked and empty. Their authority has been stripped away by the blood of Jesus. Think of the Berlin wall the day before its gates were opened. Judging by outward appearances, it was as solid and fearsome as ever. But the Spirit of Jesus could see deeper. He saw to the heart of the matter. He knew with infallible, loving justice that that wall would fall tomorrow.

The injustice we see in the world today has already been conquered by the sacrifice and Spirit of Jesus. As his friends and disciples, it is our great privilege to walk with him in revealing the spiritual nakedness of Empire, and the spiritual emptiness of its walls. Each one of us is invited to take up a hammer and begin chipping away at the dead edifice that stands so fearsomely before us.

And, like the people of Berlin, we are called to the greatest street party the world has ever known. Even when it hurts. Even when it seems like we can never win. The Holy Spirit gives us confidence to be like Jesus in this world of walls, bombs, and guns. “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.”

Take courage. Jesus has conquered the world!

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So You Want a Revolution?

So You Want a Revolution?

So You Want a Revolution?
When I became a Christian, following Jesus seemed like the most revolutionary thing I could do. The teachings of Jesus are radical. The way the early church lived out the gospel inspires me to go deeper, give more of myself, and nurture a grander vision for what human community could be like.

The more I read the New Testament, I more I find myself pushed towards a lifestyle that challenges our present society to its foundations. In contrast to the radical individualism of consumer capitalism or the enforced conformity of most religious communities, the way of Jesus demands both radical openness and profound submission to the guidance of the Spirit.

This revolutionary new reality plays out in love for enemies. We find it when we choose relationship and trust rather than money and self-interest. It comes alive in the healing power of forgiveness and the daily practice of justice.

The freedom of the gospel looks like insanity to middle-class, safety-conscious America. For those of us who are a wrapped up in the world’s priorities, the simple act of forgiveness looks like weakness. The Christian’s refusal to take refuge in wealth and privilege seems like adolescent silliness at best. At worst, the humble-yet-prophetic way of Jesus can activate the defense response of those in power. Violence. The emperor does not like being told he’s stark naked.

My years as a Christian have been filled with a sense of longing. I’ve yearned for the revolutionary days of the early church. I’ve looked back to the fiery, apocalyptic campaigns of the early Quaker movement with admiration. And I’ve wondered: What must we do to ignite this kind of movement in our own time and place? What must I do to be part of God’s continuing revolution?  

I know a lot of other people are experiencing this same yearning. We live in frustrating times. Stuck times. Times in which we all find ourselves longing for upheaval and change.

I hear words like “revolution” being thrown around a lot. In Christian circles, the word “revival” is often a popular choice. Heck, even I’ve used this word once or twice. Quakers and Christians of all stripes throughout the world are longing for revival – the restoration of that movement-church fire, the Holy Ghost power of a people gathered by God to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world.

It’s a beautiful vision. It’s the right vision. And it’s a vision that we are completely unprepared for.

I’ll be completely honest: For a long time, I’ve blamed God for the lack of transformation in my own life and in the communities where I’ve served. I’ve been baffled at the lack of forward momentum, Spirit-led change and healing despite how much I and many others have prayed for it. Looking back to the miracles of the early church and the prophetic Quaker movement, I’ve been perplexed. If God could do that in the first century and the sixteenth century, why won’t he do it now? Why doesn’t Jesus send the Holy Spirit like he used to?

I’m seeing now that I’ve been wrong to blame God. The Holy Spirit is alive and ready for action any time we call on her. God isn’t the problem. I am. We are.

We’re not ready for the spiritual revolution we dream about, precisely because it is a dream. Far too often, our ideas of revival are a fantasy of spiritual highs, supportive community, and connection with God. But when’s the last time you fantasized about losing your home, your bank account, your sense of security? Does your imagined revival include beatings, persecution, and social ostracism? Does your vision of the beloved community involve sacrificing career, enduring hardship, becoming a community that our culture laughs at and punishes?

Mine neither.

Lots of Christians talk a big game about revolution and revival. (I myself talk about both.) But it’s all a delusion if we aren’t ready to embrace the cross, the sacrifice that comes when we choose to be friends of Jesus. I’m weary of all our talk of revival – I’ve gotten fed up with my own words! You and I have no business talking about revolutionary transformation of our society when we have yet to take seriously Jesus’ call to repentance. 

The whole Christian movement is founded on the idea that we must profoundly change our way of life. If we think that we can follow Jesus but keep our toys, our security, our status, and our noble conceptions of ourselves, we’re going to be very disappointed. I know I have been.

How much longer will we chose to wander in the wilderness of conformity to the 21st-century capitalism, self-centeredness, and the world’s conception of what’s important? How long will we refuse to let go of our dreams about community and embrace the real relationships that make the church a revolution – not a club? When will the numbing effects of our opiate religion make us so nauseous that we resolve to sober up rather than choking on our own vomit?

Jesus has told us time and again that the way to life is narrow. The passion and beauty that we admire in the early church and other Spirit-filled movements has always emerged from sacrifice and struggle. Until we repent – until we turn away from our involvement in the consumer-capitalist war machine and all its false promises – we will never be that community we dream of. But if we do embrace this challenge, Jesus has promised us life, real life. Gathered in his victorious and comforting Spirit, revival is possible. 

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What Would You Do If ISIS Killed Your Child?

What Would You Do If ISIS Killed Your Child?
I recently read a blog post by a US Army chaplain, who talks about his struggle with Jesus’ call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. In a military context, he regularly finds himself asked some version of the question: “If ISIS killed your child, would you pray for them?” His answer? “Yes, while I am on my way to kill them.”

I understand this answer. It’s my natural answer, too. When others wrong me, I want to strike back. I want revenge. There’s something deeply human in the idea that we can somehow restore a measure of order, balance, and justice to the world through violent retribution.

But for people like that army chaplain, and for any of us who claim Jesus as our Savior, Lord, and Teacher, this is not an answer that we can ultimately accept. Jesus has commanded us to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. The meaning of Jesus’ words are clear, unambiguous. If we take the Bible seriously – and, more importantly, if we take Jesus seriously – we must embrace the way of love for enemies.

Jesus’ actions are even clearer. Through his saving death on the cross, he demonstrates for us the way that God handles the sin, darkness, and horrible injustice that has spread like a cancer in our world. Jesus died for us while we were still sinners, apart from God. Jesus died for us when we were his sworn enemies. Jesus’ death was no accident. We killed him.

Yet God in Jesus demonstrates a reaction that is so foreign to our broken human nature. Where we rush to seek bloody vengeance, Jesus allows his death to become a doorway to forgiveness, healing, and transformation for we who have been the murderers.

In Jesus, we discover that our own rush to judgment and violence is a reflection of the fallen order – the darkness that God would free us from. When we become friends of Jesus, when we choose to follow him, we are led inevitably into an encounter with the cross – and that cross disarms us forever.

Nevertheless, we are called to a certain kind of warfare. The life of a disciple is full of struggle, since we are called to go against the grain of the surrounding society. History has shown time and again that many who choose to follow the way of Jesus will be subject to trouble, persecution, even death. In the midst of this challenge, our war is one of selfless love that stands firm in the face of hatred, evil, and darkness – exposing it to the light for all to see.

Violence, oppression, and all sorts of evil hide behind a veneer of respectability and authority. The role of the prophetic church is to issue an invitation to see what’s really happening behind the curtain. As disciples of Jesus, we are given authority to unveil Empire, challenging all the powers and principalities that twist our society and harm our communities.

And when they come for us, when they slander and attack us, we have only one defense: prayer for enemies, and the courage to continue our powerful witness in the face of social pressure, threats, and violence.

Is that the kind of church you belong to? Do you want to? I’d like to invite you to join us for the Friends of Jesus Fellowship Fall Gathering (October 7-10). We’ll be exploring how we can actively, imaginatively, and faithfully follow Jesus in a chaotic and broken world. Registration is open now. I hope you’ll consider attending. Together, we can live more deeply into the way of courage, the way of the cross, the way of Jesus.

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