Wednesday, February 9, 2011

FirstFollowers (or, The Lay of the Land)

A few years ago I read an article in a magazine that had a list of the breakthrough
changes of the year. Magazines love lists. They included a religious one – Christians are paying more attention to the Jewish roots of Christianity and Jesus. Basically the article was saying Christians are starting to realize that Jesus was a Jew. Is that important? Of all the people born in the course of history, one had the choice of his birth place. And Jesus chose to be born from a pious, humble Jewish family in a backwater town. Do we think about Jesus as a first century Jew? To know Jesus’ story, to know Jesus in the fullness of his humanity I think we must learn something of his culture, family, and background. From there, maybe we can let our hearts really sing Be Thou My Vision. We can begin to be shaped by the JesusVision.

My wife (Biology major...I know, smart people right?) told me the images formed in our retina are actually upside down. Our eyes actually take in an upside down world. Our brains are what somehow adjust and flip everything right side up. In one experiment, participants were asked to wear special lenses that flipped the world upside down. In a few days the brain adjusted and they began seeing the world normal again. But when they took the goggles off, a very bazaar thing happened, without any special apparatus, they saw the world upside down. That means if they were playing dodge ball (always a good idea) when someone through a ball at their head, they would jump. (Is that right?) Within a day their vision returned to normal.

My hope is that we might have begin to actually see the world as it is through JesusVision - a vision that is upside down from what we think is normal. It is counter-intuitive, challenging, hidden. But if we so immerse ourselves in this vision, hanging on to Jesus and trusting God when it seems like everything is upside down, then in time, when we take off the goggles we will realize that what we once thought of as normal was really upside down, and the upside down reality of Jesus is actually right side up… and here and yet not yet...and near...and within our reach...and it belongs to children...and the rich have a hard time entering into it... and you have to lose your life to find it and it is called the Kingdom of God.

Okay...a little background about Jesus- Jesus grew up in a really beautiful place. A very small town that sits on a hillside 1,300 feet above sea level gives a sweeping panorama of Mt. Carmel by the ocean to the snowy peak of Mt Hermon to the North. Wildflowers, farms, fields... Three miles to the North , sat the gleaming city of Sapphoris, where for most of Jesus’ life Herod was having built a metropolis that included a palace, a pool, a gym, and a theater that could seat 4,000. The Greek actors, called hypocrites, entertained massive crowds. Jesus' step dad Joseph, might have worked on parts of this project. Although throughout Jesus’ childhood Herod the great made Jesus’ hometown area of Galilee one of the most prosperous provinces, only a few actually benefited. Landless peasants served the interests of wealthy landowners. Most families lived in poverty. A few bad seasons could spell disaster. Galilee had a reputation for rebellion against Rome and a laxity regarding religious matters.

Now in this area there were various Religious-Political groups one could join. I wonder which one I would have joined? Would it be the Zealot party? This was an extreme separatist movement that wanted nothing to do with Rome and was willing (maybe preferred) to use violence to meet their goals. Or maybe the Essenes. This ultra-separatist movement believed that Rome's occupation was God's punishment on Israel for their lack of faithfulness. They tried to get back on God's good side by creating dessert monasteries and holding to a strict moral code. Or maybe I would be less isolationist and more collaborationist. The Sadducees and the Sanhedrin Council both tried to work within the Roman system and because of this they were awarded certain privileges. And then there are the famous (infamous) Pharisees. They were moderates who waffled between working within the Roman rulebook but then sometimes advocated for isolation. They picked their battled carefully. Though compromising politically they were uncompromising about issues of religious purity. They were also cautious not to follow many of the false-messiahs that would often rally people together and then be crushed by the Romans.

Which of these groups do you think you would be most likely to join?

Now imagine your reaction to Jesus. His ministry, his teachings, his actions. Who would you have said Jesus was? Would you have become a follower? Standing on the edge of Jesus’ audience, watching him speak into the burning issues of the day, hearing his powerful stories, and hearing talk about his incredible miracles. I know I would at least be in intrigued. He seems to violate every political group and category. He is neither separationist or collaborationist… instead he holds out for a radically different third way, changing the emphasis from the Kingdom of Caesar and inviting all into the reality of the Kingdom of God!

But how could I reconcile within myself my values and Jesus obvious chumminess with those I call the worst kind of sinners? I want to like him, but he likes and spends time with sinners. I want to like him, but he doesn’t respect Sabbath keeping. In fact he seems to go out of his way to undermine our core convictions. Why doesn’t he just wash his hands like a good Jew before he eats? Why is he always trying to make some kind of point? What could he possibly mean? What could it all possibly mean? It can’t mean nothing.

Now imagine with me that Jesus has called some of his disciples and he is still gathering his team. Perhaps you are one of these intrigued Pharisees who is watching this whole drama unfold.

As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. 11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Matthew 9:9-13

I love Matthew’s exuberant, joyous offer. He might even be a little na├»ve. He just invites all his Friends who of course are all tax-collectors like himself and some other random notorious sinners. So this was such a bazaar dinner party that apparently news traveled fast and the Pharisees heard about this and were indignant. “Why does your Rabbi eat with such scum,” they want to know. Jesus hears about this and he is interested in defending his Friends and their worth.

Phillip Yancey observes that many of the people who were attracted to Jesus are the same people who are now repelled at the church. And maybe that comes from this natural result- many of the people who Jesus loved and spent time with, are the same people many Christians cannot love… I mean really love. "These are my kind of people," Jesus says. This is who I am going to spend my time with.

FirstFollowers of Jesus go where Jesus went and love the people Jesus loved… and still does. To the outcasts, the unknowns, the notorious ones, to those who know they need God. They try to create space and opportunities in their life to be present with people who may be very different from themselves. FirstFollowers of Jesus are not separatists like the Essenes nor are they compromisers like the Sadducees. They live a radical third way, living into the reality of the Kingdom of God and giving first and full allegiance to Christ the King. They are aware of but not overwhelmed by current events, because they live in and trust in the reign of God. FirstFollowers live simply, trust deeply and love courageously!

(History gathered from Phillip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew)

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