Category: Jesus

Beware the devil’s Jesus

0474209_610_MC_Tx304By Alan Bean

The Christ child has been born of Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid to rest in a manger. The angelic host has winged its way back to highest heaven.  So, what do we do now?

The incarnation reveals a God who pitches his tent with the poor, the undocumented, the slave and the outcast.  Infinite power takes up residence in a helpless child.  And the child really is helpless.  Minus the loving care of its parents, this spark of life would quickly succumb to cold, thirst and hunger.  Perhaps this is why the parents-to-be were subjected to an extensive angelic interview.  The risk of birth, demanded parents who could hold up their end of the bargain.

The Bible doesn’t dwell on the Messiah’s formative years.  Mark and John introduce us to a fully grown Messiah, and Matthew and Luke restrict themselves to a few childhood glimpses.  Matthew reveals the subtle dance between the magi and mad king Herod ending with the slaughter of the innocents and the flight into Egypt.  Thanks to mad king Herod, the Christ-child retraces the steps of a slave people, living in Egypt as an undocumented immigrant.

Luke shows the most interest in Jesus’ childhood, but even he doesn’t tell us much.  No one sees the newborn king but a band of scruffy shepherds–the most despised caste in Jewish society.  Next, Jesus is presented at the temple in Jerusalem and an old man named Zechariah thanks God for allowing him to see the salvation of God in human form: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

The old man grasped what no one else, even mother Mary, could grasp: still a nursing child, the claim of God was on the life of Jesus.  Only God would decide what sort of Messiah this baby would become.

The next time we see Jesus, he is a remarkably precocious twelve year-old posing theological questions to the leading Rabbis of the day and weighing their answers with rapt interest.  He is already wrestling with God’s claim on his life.

Luke and Matthew move swiftly from birth to baptism, then treat us to a blow-by-blow account of  what we call “the wilderness temptations”.  This is where Jesus decides what sort of Messiah God wants him to be.

The story reaches its dramatic high point when the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the earth.  All this can fall under Jesus’ power.  The only catch is that the devil gets to decide what sort of Messiah Jesus will be.  His plan doesn’t seem half bad.  The devil desires a messiah who transforms the hard rock of suffering into the warm bread of blessing.  Just give the people what they want, become the savior they desire, the devil says, and all will be well.

Most of us would take this deal–the devil is an excellent salesman–but Jesus says no. As we quickly learn, God is calling his Messiah to a very different vocation.

In Matthew, Jesus leaves the wilderness, calls his disciples, and climbs a mountain. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” he says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the merciful.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those hunger and thirst for justice.”

The shape of Luke’s narrative is a bit different, but the message is pretty much the same.  After leaving the wilderness, Jesus reads the scroll of Isaiah in the very synagogue where he learned to read the Hebrew Scriptures as a young boy.  It was here, in the synagogue, poring over the precious scrolls, that Jesus first realized God’s claim on his life.  Having said no to the devil, Jesus says yes to the messianic role he learned from Isaiah the prophet:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

Because he has anointed me

To preach good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind.

To set the captive free,

To proclaim the jubilee year of the Lord.

The kingdom gospel of Jesus is good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, the kind of jubilee-liberation where all the slaves go free.

These themes were central to the life and preaching of the first generations of Christians, the people who gave us our New Testament.  The church was an egalitarian community of slaves and free people, men and women, rich and poor, a rag-tag assemblage drawn from every tribe and kindred on the face of the earth.  Their mission was to model the kingdom values that sent Jesus to a Roman cross: caring for the poor, welcoming the stranger, forgiving the enemy, breaking down the walls that fragment the human family.

Which brings us back to the child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  The cute little tyke makes no demands.  According to the song, he doesn’t even cry.  He just lies there, cooing and looking adorable.  O come, let us adore him . . . before he grows up and makes demands of us.

In the Ballad of Ricky Bobby, the successful NASCAR veteran prefers the little baby Jesus to the grown up variety, and since he wins all the races and brings home the bacon, he figures he can pray to whatever kind of Jesus he likes.

“Dear, 8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent, we just thank you for all the races I’ve won and the 21.2 million dollars– Whoo!”

Taking their lead from Ricky Bobby, the other guests choose their favorite kind of Jesus:

Cal: “I like to picture Jesus in a Tuxedo T-shirt because it says, like, ‘I wanna be formal.  But I’m here to party too.’ ‘Cause I like to party, so I like my Jesus to party.”
Walker: “I like to picture Jesus as a ninja fighting off evil samurai.”
Cal: “I like to think of Jesus, like, with giant eagle’s wings.  And singing lead vocal for Lynyrd Skynyrd with, like, a angel band. And I’m in the front row and I’m hammered drunk.”

Can we select the Jesus that suits our style, or are we stuck with the guy in the Bible who preached good news to the poor and release to the captives?

The devil would give us a Jesus who turns hard stones into the warm bread; but the God of Christmas trades the security of heaven for the pungent hay of a feed trough.  In Matthew’s telling, incarnate God is hustled across the Egyptian border with the soldiers of a mad king baying at his heels.  The God of Christmas identifies himself with the poverty of shepherds and the early chapters of the salvation story “when Israel was in Egypt-land; oppressed so hard he could not stand.”

The devil couldn’t buy a Messiah of his own choosing, and we can’t either.

Jesus and brain science agree: money kills empathy

science-103112-003-617x416By Alan Bean

Although you would never know it from listening to American preaching, Jesus linked poverty with the kingdom of God and affluence with sin.

The text of the first sermon Jesus preached was taken from Isaiah 61:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the acceptable (Jubilee) year of the Lord
(Luke 4)

Notice that all the recipients of kingdom blessing are poor, afflicted, marginalized people.

The last sermon Jesus preached prior to his arrest and crucifixion linked kingdom participation with practical ministry to the poor and dispossessed.  Kingdom people feel the pain of a hurting world and respond with creative acts of mercy that clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, visit the prisoner, and provide justice for the oppressed. (Matthew 25)

Jesus was about feeling the pain of the world and responding with acts of mercy. Feeling pain that doesn’t belong to you (empathy) and healing action are part of the same kingdom dynamic.  What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.

The American marriage between free market capitalism and American evangelical piety makes Jesus impossible.  His words are inconvenient at best and heretical at worst.  We want to love Jesus and ascribe to an onward-and-upward, God-wants-to-succeed, greed is good ethic.  We want God and mammon; Jesus and the blessings of capitalism.

And now the counter-intuitive teaching of Jesus is being confirmed by brain science?

A recent study by Canadian neuroscientists at the University of Toronto and Wilfrid Laurier University suggests that as financial and social advancement changes our brains–and not in a good way.  As money and social standing increase, the study finds, our ability to empathize with poor and marginalized people rapidly diminishes.

If you are building your world on the rock-hard words of Jesus, none of this will come as a surprise, but what’s the takeaway?

Jesus taught that affluent people (that’s me, and it’s probably you) can’t enter God’s merciful kingdom unless we rewire our brains.  As we climb the social ladder, the harder our task becomes.  Not only will we not feel the pain of less fortunate people, we will not want to feel their pain.

Moreover, we will find ourselves surrounded by people who propound clever theories to explain why helping poor people only creates dependency.  These arguments are sleazy, silly and self-serving, but, reinforced by prominent pulpiteers, pundits and politicians, they sound like common sense.  Stay too long in this echo chamber and Jesus is the one who sounds silly.  Eventually, we can’t hear him at all.  We still talk about loving Jesus, but we are worshiping a word, not a person.

So, what’s the alternative?

The first step is to take Jesus at his word, even if that word runs counter to the messages screaming from the smart phone, computer and television screens that shape our thinking.

Secondly, we must find a circle of like-minded disciples who share our desire to take Jesus at his word.  If you don’t have such a circle, create one from scratch (I realize that this can be socially awkward, but your salvation depends on it).

There is good news.  Mounting evidence suggests that American Christianity, evangelical, mainline and Roman Catholic, is beginning to feel the deep contradiction between Jesus and American common sense.  People who take the Bible seriously can’t lie to themselves forever.

Mercifully, Jesus wasn’t subtle about this stuff.

Dallas preacher says Jesus would seal the border

JeffressBy Alan Bean

The Rev. Robert Jeffress thinks Jesus would build a fence at the U.S. border so desperate children from violence-ridden countries would be discouraged from heading north.

“Yes, Jesus loved children,” Jeffress admits, “but he also respected law. He said, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars.”

In other words, Christians shouldn’t trouble themselves with immigration policy; that’s Caesar’s concern.

Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, once suggested that Barack Obama is preparing the world for the coming of Antichrist, so his “Caesar” reference probably doesn’t mean that we should leave immigration policy in the hands of the presiding president.  He means instead that everything Jesus said about welcoming children, and all the warnings he pronounced against those who harden their hearts against the pain of young ones, is irrelevant to American immigration policy.

Sure, Christians must be kind to the children they encounter within the suburban bubble, but the boys and girls of Honduras simply are on their own.

Since nothing can be done for the unaccompanied migrant children on our doorstep, the most compassionate course is to build a border wall so thick and so tall that the poor little blighters will have no choice but to return to the violence and squalor that drove them into the arms of America.

That young girl of seven or eight, carrying her two-year old sister on her back has spawned a crisis of conscience among American Christians.

On the whole, we have responded admirably.  “This is an unfortunate, even awful, situation for everyone,” said David Hardage,  Executive Director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. “So much of what has happened and is happening is out of our control. What we can control is our response to human need. We will try to be the hands and feet of Jesus to those in need.”

Hardage sees Jesus standing on the side of desperate children, an assumption shared by most Texas Baptists.

Terry Henderson, state disaster relief director for Texas Baptist Men, compressed the issue to a simple question: “If Jesus was standing here with us, what would he tell us to do? That sounds kind of basic, but that’s the deal.”

That’s supposed to be a rhetorical question, but Robert Jeffress doesn’t provide the expected answer.  He thinks Jesus would slam the door.  Call it tough love. (more…)

Why seek the living among the dead?

By Nancy Bean

Easter IS the Common Peace Community IS the Resurrection

The Common Peace Community is our expression for what Jesus refers to as The Realm or Kingdom of God. The Common Peace Community is the resurrection and the life that Jesus talks about. Debating the resurrection as physical or literal or spiritual or metaphorical distracts from the meaning of Easter morning. The resurrection is communal. The resurrection is social.

In Luke, Jesus is revealed in the breaking of the bread at meal with his disciples. In John, Thomas intimately fingers the wounds, the frailty, of Jesus in order to experience the reality of the living Christ.

In his parables and in his ministry, Jesus invites his disciples and the crowds to participate in God’s life of community: the Common Peace Community where the dishonorable is honored, where the least is greatest, where the outcast is the cherished child, where the blind see, where the deaf hear, where the sick are made whole, where the prisoner is free, where the hungry is full, where the stranger is welcomed. (more…)

As Jesus Loved

Brent Beasley preached this sermon on Maundy Thursday at Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth

John 13:1-17, 31-35

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.  He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”  Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

. . . Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once. Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

There is actually nothing original or brand new in these words of Jesus that we are to love one another. The commandment to love one another goes back much, much further than Jesus himself. It is one of the themes that is cited again and again all through the Old Testament. And Jesus had certainly repeated those words again and again as he walked the ways of the earth during the days of his flesh.

So, what, then, is the special nuance that made this final mandate at the last supper so special and so memorable, as it is, right down to this very moment?

John Claypool, in preaching on this text, said that he believed what made Jesus’ words unique and special was that qualifying phrase that Jesus added: as I have loved you. Not just Love one another but As I have loved you, love one another. (more…)

Reader says Bible endorses capital punishment

Dudley Sharp

The ABP’s recent article on the mock trial of Jesus staged at First Baptist Church, Austin has sparked an angry response.  Dudley Sharp insists that the New Testament endorses the death penalty.  Moreover, he appears to argue that we should rejoice and be glad that Jesus was murdered by the Romans because, had he been acquitted, we would all be headed straight for hell.

It should be noted that the mock trial of Jesus does not primarily concern the death penalty.  However, as the ABP article notes, “audiences must vote for or against death for Jesus using their own states’ laws on capital punishment” and, as law professor Mark Osler observes, “that often leads to a conflict between deeply held religious beliefs and support for capital punishment.”

Here’s Mr. Sharp’s letter:

To: Dr. Alan Bean Executive Director, Friends of Justice
        Dr. Roger Paynter, Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church
        Dr. William Underwood, President, Mercer College (more…)

Putting Jesus back on trial

Alan Bean

On Maundy Thursday, Mark Osler and Jeanne Bishop will be staging their 12th re-enactment of the trial of Jesus, this time using Texas law and legal procedure.

If Jesus was tried in a Texas court would he have been sentenced to life in prison, death, or would he have been acquitted?  Holy Week is the perfect time to reflect on this question and this article from the Austin American-Statesman gives Osler and Bishop  an opportunity to explain why they are putting Jesus on trial all over again.

Some might take offense at the very idea of placing Jesus on trial, in Texas or anywhere else; after all, he is the Son of God and all.

But there were good reasons for hauling Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate in the first century.  As Jeanne Bishop puts it: “When you tell people to give to the poor and sell everything you own and follow me, or you’re saying, ‘Turn the other cheek; don’t resist an evildoer,’ those are subversive things.”

Drama asks audience to consider Christ, death penalty

By Juan Castillo

American-Statesman Staff

If Jesus were prosecuted today under Texas law, what would we do?

Would we sentence him to a life behind bars, or would we sentence him to death? (more…)