Pharisees

I’ve come to realize that I have a lot in common with Nicodemus. Both of us were raised into our respective faiths. He probably couldn’t remember a time when He wasn’t a believer in Judaism. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a believer in Christianity. He was educated about all aspects of his faith, as I have been … we both know a lot. But both of us also have questions that are not easily answered.

My last church taught me that no detail in the Bible is unimportant. So when I look at John 3, I try to picture Nicodemus and Jesus having this conversation at night. Night-time is pretty useful. In the clear light of day, somebody might see you having this conversation from far off – word would get around, you could lose your status. But at night you can more easily have that sort of conversation in complete secrecy.
It must be difficult to have a carefully crafted conversation with Jesus – Jesus inexplicably knew things, he knew thoughts. So at first glance, Jesus reply to Nicodemus doesn’t match up what’s said … I must conclude that he’s replying to what Nicodemus was thinking. From there, Nicodemus doesn’t try to change the conversation, but he tries very hard to understand the conversation. I have copied their conversation here so that it’s easier to follow along, Nicodemus’ words are in bold, and Jesus’ words in italics.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”
“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”
“How can someone be born when they are old?” “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”
“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit[b] gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You[c] must be born again.’ 8 The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”
“How can this be?”
You are Israel’s teacher,” “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.[e] 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up,[f] 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”[g]

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. 18 Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. 19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.

I keep on asking myself, what is it about Christianity that can make so many believers into modern Pharisees? How in the world did I almost turn into one? I’m thinking it was more of a gradual evolution from faith-filled fun childhood all the way up to high school. I was schooled in how to defend Christianity against the Theory of Evolution, passed the course on Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life with flying colors, and aced all the teachings of the Bible from sanctification to justification to millennialism (pre and post) and pretty much everything else. Morally – I was up there with the best of the best, always well-behaved, never broke any rules, and always a good kid. I could compare myself with those around me … I usually knew more, was better behaved, and I never missed a Sunday School or Wednesday evening gathering. To everybody I was a perfect Christian kid … but I was well on my way to being a modern pharisee, complete with perfectionist tendencies.

But like Nicodemus, I realized that for all my outward prestige and perfection, there was something inside that wasn’t quite right. FCCC, HBC, LC, HCC, RPC, LBC, and MFUMC – these are the initials of the churches that have contributed to my spiritual self, each teaching me something different about Christianity. Some of them were worse than others, some of them had potential and wasted it, some were o.k. in their own way. They – me – couldn’t see the Pharisee that I had become … that they helped make. But fortunately for me, God intervened on my behalf.

He showed me the imperfection of the Church in general and my imperfections too. He showed me how tradition for the sake of tradition was meaningless. He showed me that he cared to much to leave me a Pharisee … so He began to destroy what the Church had created. I haven’t figured out how to undo all of their teachings yet – I probably can’t if I try on my own. I may not be the world’s most sinful sinner, but the truth is that I need Jesus just as much as if I were … and I need to learn to rely on Him alone.

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Tangent

(Why you should be thankful I’m not vocal and in your Sunday School Class – I figured that I’d give y’all a rare glimpse into my thought process of what I’m like at Sunday School. The italics are the questions I’d be asking myself, or things I’d try to remember to look-up the answer to later or other thoughts. The regular print is an example of the sequence of events and the study – something that sounds very much like the little booklets that I’m used to. I actually wrote that too, but that’s to avoid copyright infringement and to make it easier for me to show you how and what I’m thinking.)

I’m usually the first one in class – my booklet is always the well-read one, bent with over-use and marked up with notations, question marks, and marked passages – both underlined and highlighted. But a few weeks in, it gets marked less and less as I lose interest. In the week between one Sunday and the next, I tend to find plenty of time to read through the upcoming study section and really figure out what it has to say. By the time that Sunday School comes around – it’s basically a simple review. No new insights are learned.

“5 For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; 6 and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; 7 and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. 8 For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins. 2 Peter 1:5-9” The Bible study leader reads from page 3 of the Bible Study.

It’s a safe and boring topic, I thought to myself, trying to look as if I was following along with the lesson. I wonder, when was 2nd Peter written? (~125 a.d.) 1st Peter? (~90 a.d.) I knew better than to actually ask these questions … the teacher probably wouldn’t know but thankfully a good internet connection can help you figure just about anything out: 2 Peter is the first New Testament book to treat the other New Testament books as scripture.It quotes extensively from Jude. It’s style and content is very different from 1 Peter.

The teacher wrote goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love on the white board, reading them aloud one by one.

A translation of the Greek has the words virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness, and charity. It’s interesting to note which words have changed – possibly because it has a secondary meaning that’s usually associated with something too specific that would allow certain behaviors to go unchecked. 

Returning to the booklet, the teacher began to read the next section aloud, paragraph by paragraph, turning the pages as needed: “Living the Christian life can be quite challenging. Sometimes there are days when things just seem to go wrong. The car breaks down, a kid gets sick, the phone won’t stop ringing, the dogs are barking, the dishes are piling up and the house won’t stay clean for five minutes.”

That sounds more like a description of normal life – not the Christian life.

“It can be difficult to find the time to sit down long enough to study the Bible. There have been many times when I’m interrupted to deal with the kids or the dog and I seem to lose my place altogether. I find smaller Bible Studies such as this one to be an invaluable tool, like a wrench or hammer in my toolbox.”

One word: bookmark. Not that great of a metaphor. Why are all these books filled with sports or car or tool metaphors?

“Sometimes I feel lost without simple lists. I need a grocery list to know what to buy. I need a scavenger hunt list to know what to look for. In the same way, this is my go-to list for how to be a great Christian. The first item on the list is goodness. Goodness is one of the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is very interesting to me that goodness is the first item on the list – it must be very important or very necessary for the rest of the items on the list. If you have the first thing wrong, then everything that follows will be wrong too. That is why it’s important to get it right.”

I would have emphasized how very necessary the Holy Spirit is and it’s gifts are for us to be great Christians. Without it’s gift of goodness, then we would have to rely on our own goodness and that’s surely as disastrous a prospect as anything else.

“Then comes knowledge. Knowledge is not among the Fruit of the Spirit. Knowledge is also not wisdom, the Bible treats them very differently. We are not meant to despise knowledge, not the right kind of knowledge. But we are to be careful of the wrong kind of knowledge. Twice in Colossians the word knowledge is used: ‘We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of His will’ and ‘growing in the knowledge of God’ So we can conclude what he means here is get to know as much of God, as much about God, and God himself as much as possible.”

When was Colossians written? Colossians was written somewhere between 50 and 80 a.d. more likely the former while Paul was imprisoned. Apparently, they had incorporated pagan elements of worship in to their church and Paul wanted to set them straight about what belonged in worship and what didn’t.

“Self-control, sometimes called discipline, is the next item on the list. It is the last of the Fruits of the Spirit. Discipline is essential to being a disciple, a follower of Christ. Discipline means more than ‘to be punished’, it also means ‘to train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way.’ We should make it our habit to wake up early to study the Bible and pray. We should make it our habit to thank God before each and every meal – even our snacks! We should make it our habit to live in a controlled way that sets us apart from those around us living chaotic, uncontrolled lives.”

Disciple refers to students of Jesus, the term is found only in the four gospels and Acts. Jesus had many followers, but few of his followers became disciples. It’s the Latin equivalent of the Greek word mathetes which means the student of a teacher or the apprentice to a master craftsman. Disciples are students of a teacher, Apostles are messengers sent to deliver teachings or other messages. 

The teacher looked up at the clock. “It looks like we have just enough time left for a few minutes of discussion. Do any of you have any questions?”

What was the point of the book of 2nd Peter? What problem was it meant to solve? It criticizes false teachers this distort the apostles teachings. It also explains that God has delayed the Second Coming so that as many possible people as possible can be saved. Christians should wait patiently for the return of Jesus. Why are we reading about the Bible but not from the Bible? Because the Bible has been studied for centuries and decades and we only want to learn from a small part of it where we can really evaluate what it has to say through the lens of modern experience and application to our lives as Christians. What reason is referred to in this passage? “3 His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. 2 Peter: 3-4”- basically we’ve been given his promises that we may participate in the divine nature… everything we need for a godly life, He gives us. If he gives us everything we need, why are we trying so hard to get by on our own effort to be good, knowledgeable, self-controlled, etc? Should we not seek the Holy Spirit’s enabling and gifting us to be great Christians? Why don’t you teach me more about the Holy Spirit? How can I know that it is in my life, working through me? How can I know that it is speaking me, speaking wisdom to me?

“And what about you? Have you anything to add?” The leader asked me last of all. I shook my head no. “Well then, we’re dismissed, next week we will start right where we left off with perseverance. I’ll see all of you in worship.”

Outgrowing

If I think back – I can sort of remember attending VBS. I’m thinking it was well before Lifeway would have mass produced a themed VBS in a box, so all decoration was made by the ladies that usually organized and ran the whole thing. I remember being in a big room, all of us were in the front, leaving the back section deserted. They would take the roll of who was there – this particular VBS, there were two bowls on the edge of the raised floor just in front of the pulpit. Girls were supposed to a marble in one bowl and boys in the other. Girls always outnumbered the boys as far back as anyone could remember, but everybody was always encouraged to bring more friends to see if the boys would ever win.

Then one of the adults would turn on the cassette player and try to teach us the motions that went with the music. We all knew that there would be a big performance on the last day, but it never seemed that we could keep up with the music, the motions, and each other at the same time. After that a snack and then everybody would split up, half to do the crafts, half to the attend the Bible teaching. Truth be told – I don’t really remember anything specific about any of this part.

VBS was one week, inconveniently always in the summer, and really nothing special – especially if you were already a regular attender. That church had a second program which had some things similar to VBS, but it was every Wednesday – an after-school club where we’d show up, learn something from the bible, build a craft, and sing some songs – it always ended in a big meal and one game that everybody played together. I remember one where we taped together two foam plates, decorated them like UFOs and threw them around to see which table’s design was most sound. If you were lucky, older kids would be option to learn how to create a Bob Ross style painting.

But once you’re at a certain age, you don’t attend VBS … you’re supposed to help run it. We would be assigned to assist the adults with making the snacks or preparing the crafts ahead of time so that the children could finish them without having to use tricky materials like the hot glue gun. By now, churches were buying Lifeway’s themed VBS in a box, so much of the preparation had been done for them.

I guess that’s where the outgrowing begins, when you’re no longer a young child – the all important future of the church – and it slowly stops being for and about you. Most churches tend to lose large numbers of young adults just at the end of High School. Even more in the years after college slowly drop out. Some churches retain them better than others with good ministries, but some churches lose them because of not-so-good ministries.

It struck me how this trend carries on well into older classes. It’s not just the 20 somethings that seem to feel as if they’ve outgrown younger ministries, but the 30 somethings, 40 somethings, and 50 somethings can feel much the same way – even more so given that few churches really represent or minister to such a wide age gap very well.

Perhaps that’s why so many people of all ages are leaving behind churches that seem to have seven year old children and septuagenarian elders, but nothing for the in-between people where they don’t feel singled out, completely ignored, or uncomfortable by generational differences. If you ask me – the church that doesn’t live in the present won’t have a future either.

Servants

On the one hand, we have our expectations – based on our best understanding of the teachings we’ve received from centuries of believers and thinkers, and on the other hand we have stories about how people expected one thing and got another.

Case in point, when Jesus showed up, the Jewish people were checking off the list of the prophecies that he matched up with. Right ancestry, right place, right time … when he came announcing that the kingdom of God was at hand, that was all the proof they needed to get thing started. They expected Jesus to be this great king who would unite Israel (like King David) and represent God when it came time for battle to free them from their Roman overseers. They expected the God their ancestors told them about – the one that devastated Egypt with 10 Plagues just to free them from their powerful oppressors. But what they got was a traveling miracle-working rabbi whose ministry lasted three short years. He never advocated for the people to take up arms against the Romans or that they organize a rebellion against them.

Two thousand years later, we have lots of wonderful teachings, some from Jesus, some from Paul, and a few contributions from others. People pour over the book of Revelation and teach about it like any day now it’s words will come true. We expect it soon and exactly as described, but there is a possibility that we too will get something very different than our expectations will allow. I sort of wonder if the reason why Jesus was missed is because of the expectations he didn’t fulfill … I also wonder if we’re missing Him now because of the expectations we have for the End Times / Rapture / Tribulation.

I sometimes feel like the college student studying in the library for the final test. I happen to glance outside and I can see the others on the commons. Some are also studying, but not everybody out there has it all figured out. I could help tutor a struggling classmate, or encouraging one that almost has it figured out not to give up yet. But I’m just so busy studying the material that I don’t bother applying it’s teachings, after all, the final test is coming up soon and I want to give the right answers.

Of course, it’s easy to volunteer your time with an established ministry in your church. If they’re known for setting up a 5k run to minister to athletes, or oil changes to minister to single parents, odds are they’ll have plenty of experience knowing how to get things started, what things they’ll need along the way, and who they can count on to help them once things get busy. But with my last few churches, they have almost no ministries at all to this community.

My church isn’t feeding shut-in elders that are going hungry, they aren’t feeding struggling families in this community, they aren’t providing coats in winter, they aren’t visiting elders at the retirement facilities, they aren’t involved in prison ministries, they aren’t reaching out to addicts who are trying to break free, they aren’t doing anything anywhere in the community – sure they have some activities, church dinner, church fitness classes, and church small group classes, but nothing that reaches outward … only inward. I keep on asking – as a brand new person to this church, how do I help the church begin an outward ministry? Do I have the right to tell them that their teachings are great, but their application is terrible? Are we so focused on having all the right answers for the final test that we have forgotten to be servants in our community?

Recipe

A few years ago, I acquired a red cookbook for my mother. This book was something special – it wasn’t made to cater to health concerns, food allergies, or any trendy diets – it was made to honor good old fashioned American cuisine, meaning if it was unhealthy or if your grandmother cooked it – there was a recipe for it somewhere in this cookbook. Not long afterwards, we discovered our food allergies and haven’t really used the red cookbook all that often since then, but I’d like to share one with you now:

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Stir dough and add nuts and chocolate chips
  • 1 cup butter
  • bake for 30 minutes
  • 1 cup coconut, shaved
  • let cool
  • Stir flour and eggs together
  • bake for 45 minutes, baste, bake for 15 minutes

You might be guessing by now that these are not serious instructions – but as a matter of fact, they are. They’re taken from pages 32, 45, 67, 68, 71, and 73, each of them from a different recipe. I can see why you might be confused. Let’s try a different book:

  • Jude 1:21 “keep yourselves in God’s love as you wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ to bring you to eternal life.”
  • Romans 5:5 “And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
  • Isaiah 55:6 “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.”

I’m getting a little concerned about Christianity – mostly because we’re not making very much sense these days. Some people I know are thoroughly grounded in Scripture so much so they can pull out five or six verses from five or six different books of the Bible to support one theological position. They’ll take one verse over here talking about one thing, and apply it to situation over there talking about something very different. In the same way taking parts of a recipe from different pages of the cookbook is a recipe for disaster, so is borrowing verses from different parts of the Bible to say one unified thought.

Some of the Bible is metaphor, some of the Bible is sarcasm, some of the Bible is wisdom, some of the Bible is stories told by Jesus, Some of the Bible is long, boring lists of people, or rulers who probably didn’t do a good job, or things, some of the Bible is history, some of the Bible is poetry and song – and sure the Bible clearly says a lot of things, but it’s not always clear what everything in it means.

Few things I dread more than making a statement of faith / creed / beliefs, because I know that I can’t say ‘I believe in this because of verse A, G, and U’ or ‘I believe in that because of verse B, H, and T’ without considering the story / context surrounding each and every one of the verses. I’ve also been asking myself – ‘is it okay to only believe in Jesus? I’m not sure I care about or believe in young earth creationism, pre-millenialism, cessasionalism, etc.’ The way I see it – only one thing is needed and that is more than enough for me.

Senses

Humans are emotional creatures – we feel things deeply. Our bodies aren’t built just to react to our wounds physically, but also emotionally. Likewise, our spiritual selves are also our emotional selves. Unfortunately, religion and society both have unsaid rules about how much emotion is proper for any given instance. Too much emotion in a man is weakness, too much emotion in a women can only be solved by slapping some sense into her, neither one is taught to accept their emotions and express them fully. So we don’t feel. We bottle things up. We put on a happy face. Keep a stiff upper lip – as the British would say. But does it work?

No – it does not. I keep on thinking about what Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.” I think all people can relate, and Christians can in a special way. You know how it is at church, you’re expected to go around, shake each others hands and say hello. You know that if you said what was really going on, these Christians would distance themselves from you, so you just say, “I’m fine.” Instead of supporting each other as we deal with our grief, anger, resentment, sadness, and all the other ‘negative’ emotions – we continue to fight our battles alone.

We were not made with emotions so we could simply ignore them. We were not made with Borg on / off switches for our feelings. Our spiritual struggles are emotional struggles too. Let’s not forget, Jesus was an emotional guy. He didn’t clear out the money changes out of the Temple with a smile and by asking “please.” He wept – the shortest verse in the Bible. The Pharisees called Jesus a glutton and a drunkard, he had a reputation for partying, he was also known to have made friends among the tax collectors and other sinners. He struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane to emotionally prepare himself for what was to come – when he felt exposed, isolated, made fun of, and abandoned, when he was hurt and bleeding, and when he was dying on the cross.

My Ecuadorian friend once told me that sadness shared is sadness divided, but happiness shared is happiness multiplied. I like that thought, to carry it out, we’d have to stop fighting our battles alone. We’d have to stop bottling up how we feel. We’d have to stop placing a limit on too much emotion. We’d have to stop calling people weak … because winning the toughest battles will very much depend on the strength one person gets from the unconditional love and support of their friends, family, and fellow believers.

Graded

Every now and then as I’m channel surfing, I’ll stop on the christian channel to see if there’s any interesting insights. At one point, the speaker was talking about the Rapture / Tribulation and said something to this effect: “Now some Christians want to have one foot in the world and another outside of it … they want to be just Christian enough to get the benefit, but not too christian. But it is only the Godly Christians that will be worthy.”

Um, Since when is there a Graded Scale to Christianity? Does it look something like this?

A- to A+: Christians who have believed since their childhood, fast-tracked to be pastors and leaders of the church, managers of multiple ministries, experts of Biblical knowledge, masters of interpretation and application of Scriptures (too christian)
B- to B+: Christians who have believed since they were young adults, important but not leaders of the church, dedicated to one ministry, lovers of the Bible (too christian)
C- to C+: Christians who have a history before they got to know Christ, they’re not perfect people but they really really love God, so they get bonus points for that. (not christian enough)
D- to D+: Christians who had a long history before getting to know God, their past has followed them into the church, but at least they seem to like Jesus, so they have that going for them. (not christian enough)
F- to F+: Christians who were minutes from death at the point of conversion. At least they joined the right team. (not christian enough)

It’s easy to look back on what we’ve done and give ourselves points for how well we follow scripture (+1 for each time any command was obeyed), how often we serve our communities (+1 for helping those in need, +1 for volunteering at soup kitchens, +1 for food drives, +1 for fundraisers, etc.), and for putting our all into our ministries (+1 for participation, +1 for organizing one). They can add up over the years – and surely we say to ourselves, “I’ve put in the effort, I’ve done everything in His name, surely I’m building up treasure in heaven – lots of it!”

Matthew 20: 1-16,
“20 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. 2 He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
3 “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4 He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5 So they went.
“He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. 6 About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’
7 “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered.
“He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’
8 “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’
9 “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’
13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.””

This isn’t the Parable of the First Workers, who showed up first, worked all day, and was duely rewarded for their extra effort compared to the last arrivals. This isn’t the Parable of the Right Workers, who showed up, worked the correct way and was rewarded for not making any mistakes as opposed to the last arrivals who clearly did not know what they were doing. This is the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, but it’s all about how the Owner cared more for the workers than his profit margins. He was true to his word, paying them what was agreed – and he paid everybody the exact same amount, the first worker and the last, the best worker and the worst, the most diligent worker and the laziest.

No, Mr. Televangelist, there’s no difference between the worldly Christians and Godly Christians in God’s vineyard, there are no F- and no A+ on our official records. Not all people are supposed to follow in your footsteps, have multi-million dollar ministries, dozens of books published, and a television audience hanging on our every word. Many Christians will have had histories, and those histories will help us to reach people that are too intimidated by your apparent perfection to realize their best possible future. Jesus said that Tax Collectors and Prostitutes were further ahead in the line than the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes were … I don’t think that has changed. Every Christian with a history is further ahead in the line than those without because they get that it’s not their own effort that will ultimately save them.