Sticks and Stones

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.” I am old enough to remember a time when parents taught this pithy little rhyme to their children, and society at large believed it. We live in a new day, in which many Americans consider emotional injury as deadly, and more enduring, than physical injury. News accounts of emotional abuse, cyber bullying, and their mental health consequences such as depression, anxiety, and even suicide, pull at our heart strings. Girls, the lonely, and the young are at greater risk. Colleges, including those which my children attend, have safe spaces, trigger warnings, and strict rules against insensitivity and inflicting emotional trauma.  

When I was bullied as a second grader at Mulberry Elementary, Mitch routinely followed me across a large grassy field to the back gate in the chain link fence. He called me bad names, of course, but what I remember was being pushed back over a kneeling co-conspirator who had slipped in behind me. My awkward, backward fall was followed by a pummel of fists, and riotous laughter. My assailants ran away, and I was left to walk home, let myself in, and spend a few hours alone thinking about what happened, and how to prevent the same fate tomorrow. Mulberry’s administration couldn’t stop it, so I learned to avoid him, and to defend myself. Eventually my parents transferred me to a private Christian school.

Bullying today can be the same, but it can also be very different. In my youth, no one had cell phones, and Mitch’s only opportunity to cause me pain was during and immediately after school. He lived only two streets away, and knew where I lived, but never followed me home. Kids today, never more than an arm’s length from their cell phones, find it hard to escape the verbal and written, if not physical, jabs of their tormentors. Ganging up on someone, at least in social media, seems easier. Further, while spoken insults fade as soon as they are spoken, because that is the transient nature of orality, hateful words on social media can be read and reread until they become nearly unforgettable.  

But this discussion in US society is about more than bullying – it is about physical and emotional injury in any context. Physical injury comes from any physical agent, such as weapons, fists, or fire, and can be intentional or unintentional. Emotional injury comes from almost anything, such as words, photographs, or facial expressions, and can be intentional or unintentional. Though anyone can cause pain, those most able to hurt us, physically or emotionally, are those closest to us – our families, friends, schoolmates, and coworkers.

The phrase “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me” has fallen on hard times in the 21st century. No reasonable person, past or present, seriously debates that physical agents like sticks and stones can cause injury. Why then is this phrase, so widely believed and taught two generations ago, so reviled today? Did psychologists in 2018 discover something that no one knew in 1958? Of course not. The Bible describes the power of the tongue to destroy, likening it to a roaring fire (James 3:5-8). Religions and philosophers throughout time have understood the power of words to build and to break down.

The difference between 2018 and 1958 might be how we as a society perceive our ability to defend ourselves. Mitch pushed me down and hit me with fists, but I learned how and when to run away, how and when to kick the hidden assailant behind me, and how and when to hit Mitch back. Just like no reasonable person, past or present, seriously debates that sticks and stones can cause injury, no reasonable person argues that it is impossible to defend against them. Sticks and stones may indeed break my bones, but such an outcome is not inevitable. I can block blows, dodge rocks, run away, and otherwise defend myself.

Is emotional injury different? Can ridicule, shaming, and lies slip past our strongest emotional fortresses? Are we helpless against the barbs of others? Conventional wisdom, as evidenced by “microaggressions”, “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”, seems to indicate that there is no defense against emotional injury. Anecdotes about depression and suicide reinforce our belief in our impotence. Some opinions imply that not only is there no defense against emotional injury, there is also no recovery.

Did our fathers and mothers not understand this? No, because thinkers have pondered how to handle personal offense and emotional injury for millennia. The Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said: “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” Restated, we have the power to take offense, or not to take offense, at whatever our critics say and do. Elsewhere he wrote “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.” His powerful implication was that each of us has the power to accept or reject what others say about us. When we are ridiculed, shamed, or lied to or about, our initial flash of emotion may be sad or angry. But we have control over what we do then – how we process what was said. Once we choose what we believe and what we do, our emotions follow.

A coworker and I were leaving work one evening and a car passed. The passenger made a hand signal which I only barely caught out of the corner of my eye. My coworker said, “did he flip me off?” I replied, “No, I think that he was just waving.” Whether I was right or wrong didn’t matter – by assuming the best we rejected a potential injury to ourselves, and (probably) unnecessary feelings of anger towards the car passenger.

I teach my children that the statements of others say more about the others than about the children. When a professor complements my son’s work, the professor’s attentiveness, expertise, and good nature are more on display than are my son’s labors. When a schoolmate insults my daughter’s dress, the remark reveals far more about the venom in the heart of the schoolmate than my daughter’s choice in clothing. Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45),” and He was right. Though we can benefit from the opinions of others, we must take them with caution, carefully glean what is useful, and discard the rest.  

Therefore, just as people can defend themselves against physical injury, they can defend themselves against emotional injury. The verbal assailant has the power to attack but the intended victim has the power to defend. Does this mean that we can protect ourselves from all emotional injury? No, because some jibes, especially from those we love and respect, get through. No defense against emotional injury is perfect, just as no defense against physical injury is perfect. Are we blaming the victim for the pain imposed by someone else? No, we are all responsible for what we do, and will pay the price for our sins.  

The Bible tells us to fear God rather than man (Proverbs 29:25, Matt 10:28) – to value His opinion more than the opinions of other people (John 12:43). God loves us; each person is precious in His sight. Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for us (John 3:16). Our identity in Him is secure, regardless of what anyone, or any group, on the planet says about us. Christians are ultimately not judged by others, and we do not even judge ourselves. Rather, the Lord judges us (1 Corinthians 4:3-4), and we stand or fall before Him. We are valuable and beautiful because God made us so. Perhaps we should write a new phrase.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but if I cling to my identity in Christ, words will rarely hurt me.”

Adventures in Athens – A Bodily Resurrection

The resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter morning was physical, not just spiritual. Likewise, Christians do not live eternally as disembodied spirits, we will have perfect physical bodies.

During our recent trip to Athens, Anna and I wanted to see some of the key Greek places mentioned in the Bible. Philippi and Thessalonica were too far to travel during our stay, at least a six hour drive each way, but Corinth was close, just over one hour by auto.  About 12 miles west of Athens on the road to Corinth, however, lies another important Greek religious site, Eleusius and the site of one of the most renowned mystery cults.

The Eleusinian Mystery Cult

According to legend, the Greek god of the dead, Hades, kidnapped Persephone (AKA Kore), the daughter of the Greek goddess of the harvest, Demeter. Hades took Persephone into the underworld, and her distraught mother searched throughout the earth but failed to find her lost child. Eventually, Zeus forced Hades to give up Persephone, but because the goddess had eaten three pomegranate seeds in the underworld, she had to return there for three months each year. The three months that Persephone was absent was winter, when the earth was barren and little grew. When Persephone returned to the surface, the seasons were spring, summer, and fall; times of rebirth, growth, and harvest. Demeter ended up in the realm of a local king, Keleos, who built a temple to her. That temple became the site for the Eleusinian mystery cult that was popular throughout the Greek and early Roman periods.

Cult initiates walked the 12-mile pilgrimage from Athens to the Eleusinian temple.  Once they arrived, they began a multi-part rite, including initiation, dedication, and revelation. The rites were strictly secret so most of the specific people, acts and items are lost to history. However, opium was widely used, the story of Demeter and Persephone was recounted, and sacred objects were displayed.[1] Since Demeter was the goddess of agriculture, the harvest, and fertility, it is likely that sex played an important part in the festivities.

Michael, our tour guide, played a video in the van about Eleusinian mystery cult. The video commentator explained that since Persephone “died” but then “returned to life”, initiates into the Eleusinian mystery cult expected that their bodies would die but that their spirits would “return to life”, or even live on forever. Michael, a Greek Christian from the charismatic tradition, noted how similar this was to Christianity. I paused:

“Michael, this is not similar to Christianity at all. Many faiths, including Islam and Hinduism, teach that our bodies die and our spirits live on. Christianity teaches that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, His spirit as well as His body. Only followers of Jesus expect a bodily resurrection from the dead.”

Michael looked a little startled, but under the guidance of the Spirit realized the truth he had just heard. Later, while I was lingering over the Eleusinian ruins, he told Anna, “Your dad is right, and I had never really thought of that before.”

A Bodily Resurrection

The ancient Hebrew scriptures contain little about an afterlife. The departed simply “go down to Sheol” – the grave (Genesis 37:35). Longevity on earth is a great gift (Exodus 20:12), and a man’s name and influence will live on through his children (Genesis 12:1-3). The post-exilic prophet Daniel (c. 605-535 BC) provides the first clear mention of individual, bodily life after death (Daniel 12:2-3, 13). As a pastoral people who greatly valued the body, a disembodied afterlife would have been anathema. By the time of Christ, physical resurrection from the dead was a key part of Jewish, especially Pharisaical teaching (Acts 23:8). Jesus Himself confirmed the reality of bodily resurrection (Mark 12:18-27).

Before Homer (751-651 BC), Greek mythology saw the afterlife as a miserable, gray, disembodied existence. In the Iliad, the Greek hero Achilles saw a vision of Patroclus, his friend recently killed by the Trojan hero Hector. Afterwards he said, “Ah then, it is true that something of us does survive…but with no intellect at all, only the ghost and semblance of a man.” In Homer’s second great work, the Odyssey, when Achilles himself was dead, the hero said to Odysseus, “Put me on earth again, and I would rather be a serf in the house of some landless man, with little enough for himself to live on, than king of all these dead men that have done with life.”  Achilles obviously wanted a body after death, as did the Jews before and after the Iliad.

Socrates and Plato distinguished between matter and immaterial, physical and spiritual, and diminished the role of the material, physical world. By the time of Paul, Athenians were happy to talk about god, gods, and the afterlife, but scoffed at the idea of bodily resurrection (Acts 17:22-34). It seemed so foolish – after a person died their body remained in the ground (or urn, or sea, or wherever it was disposed). The living could exhume bodies from hundreds of years before, seeming to prove that the dead do not rise again…ever.

Yet the Bible goes to great lengths to show that the Resurrected Christ had a human body. He talked (John 20:13-17), walked (Luke 24:13-31), could be touched (John 20:23-29), and even ate (Luke 24:41-43). The Apostles recognized His voice, His appearance, and even His touch. Jesus’ glorified body could do things no current human body could do. He moved through locked doors (John 20:19), defied gravity (Acts 1:9), and could vanish instantly (Luke 24:31).[1] Nonetheless, it was a physical body.After rising from the dead, Jesus was no ghost. He was a complete man – glorified body and perfect spirit.

Paul explicitly taught that Jesus Christ was physically resurrected from the dead (1 Corinthians 15), and that His followers will also be physically resurrected. They will have new bodies, arising from the seed of the old one – the perishable raised imperishable. The best Biblical evidence suggests that at death, our spirits proceed immediately to the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8), followed shortly by our glorified bodies (1 Thessalonians 4:16). Jesus Christ is the first fruit of bodily resurrection, even as the early grain was the first fruit of the Hebrew harvest (1 Corinthians 15:20). Christians are the harvest of resurrection to come.

Few of us imagine how life might be without a body. If we had no material component, how could we interact with the world around us, which is also material. How could we eat or drink – or play or work. Without physical eyes, how could we see? Without physical ears, how could we hear? How can one spirit touch another in any meaningful way? If human bodies and the material world were not important, why did God make them? When He said that the material world was “good”, did that somehow change after the Fall? Questions like this should make us question our Greek-style assumption that our bodies decay and we live on forever as spirits alone.

Conclusion

Too many Christian books, and too many Christian preachers, do not teach clearly that our resurrection in Christ will be a bodily, physical one, as well as a spiritual one. No other major world religion makes that claim, and then backs it up with historical data. If Christ is not risen, we are of all men most to be pitied. But Christ is risen, in body and in spirit. He is risen indeed!

 

[1] Some say that these miraculous acts could not have been done in the physical body and these passages therefore prove that Jesus was only resurrected as a spirit. Others argue for naturalistic explanations for these phenomenon (i.e. the disciples opened the locked door and Jesus walked in). I would suggest that the best option is to take the Bible at face value. Considering what we know of physics, it is theoretically possible through rare for one solid object to pass through another, to defy gravity, and to vanish. Let’s not assume that we know more than we actually do, Biblically or scientifically.

[1] Martin Booth, Opium: a History, u.s. ed. (New York: St. Martin, 1998), 17

 

 

Easter – Passover Seder for Christians

A Christian version of the Jewish Seder supper that you can share with your family during the Holy Week of the Easter season. 

My wife Nancy is the finest woman I have ever known, and I rejoice daily that we have shared over 27 years of married life together. One thing about her and her family that I have always found so appealing is how they celebrate holidays. For Nancy, Christmas is not a day – it is a six-week party. Easter is the same way. We feast on Fat Tuesday, pray on Ash Wednesday, keep the Lenten season special, and celebrate the Holy Week, even though we are not Catholic. One important part of our festivities is a Christian version of a Seder Supper. The Seder is an important Jewish tradition, looking back at the deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, and looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. As Christians and Messianic Jews understand that the Messiah has come, we celebrate Christ.

Jews might eat roast chicken for the Seder, since lamb was reserved for the Passover. Typically, our family eats lamb (or roast chicken) and unleavened bread. We have bitter herbs (horseradish), sweet charoset (apples, nuts, cinnamon), and grape juice. I am not sure where the following came from, else I would give credit. But I encourage all of our readers to celebrate the Seder, and celebrate the Savior who is the reason for it.

Celebrating PASSOVER: THE SEDER

 

The Candles

Leader (eldest male of the family)                                           

As we light these candles tonight, we pray that God will light our hearts with His Holy Spirit. We want to understand how God has redeemed His people.

The woman of the house (lighting the candles)

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe. You have your own. We light these festival lights in your Name.

 

The Four Cups of Wine

Leader

When we were slaves in Egypt, God heard our cries. He chose Moses to lead us out of Egypt. These are the four promises that God made to Moses.

Reader 1:  “I bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.”

Reader 2:  “I will free you from being slaves.”

Reader 3:  “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”

Reader 4“I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.”

Leader                                                                                           

We remember these four promises at Passover by drinking from our cup four times. The first is called the Cup of Sanctification, the second, the Cup of the Plagues, the third, the Cup of Redemption, and the fourth, the Cup of Praise.

 

The Cup of Sanctification

Leader (pouring wine into each cup)

(If you elect to fill the cup each time, instruct the, family to drink only one sip when it is time to drink the cup. if you want to drain the cup each time, pour only a small amount into the cups each time you are to fill them.)

This is the Cup of Sanctification or setting apart as holy.

Reader 1:  “I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians.”

Family (lifting their cups)

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. (All drink.)

 

The Hand Washing

Leader

We wash our hands to remind us that God is holy. As we come before Him, we too must be holy. As it is written:

Reader 4

“Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.” (Psalm 24:3,4)

Leader (lifting the basin of water)

Let us share together in this hand washing ceremony.

(Pass the bowl. Each person dips his hands and passes bowl to next person.)

Leader

Let us also remember how Yeshua (yeh‑SHOO‑ah, or Jesus) took off His clothes and wearing a towel, washed the feet of his disciples.   In doing this, he showed that he came as a humble servant. We know that this water cannot really make our hearts clean. The only way that our hearts can be made pure and holy is by Yeshua’s greatest act of servanthood, his death on the cross.

 

The Karpas (pronounced KAR‑pas)

Leader

We now remember the tears of our people when we were slaves in Egypt.  As it is written:

Reader 2

“The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.” (Exodus 2:23)

Leader (lifting the parsley)(Celery may be substituted for parsley)

Passover comes in the spring, when we see new life around us. The karpas, or parsley, reminds us that life is a gift to us from our great and mighty God. The karpas is also like the hyssop plant which our forefathers used to smear the blood of the lamb on the door frame.

(lifting the salt water)

When we were slaves in Egypt, life was not easy.  It was full of pain, suffering, and tears. This salt water stands for our tears.

Family (dipping their parsley in salt water)

Blessed are you, 0 Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the earth. (All eat karpas.)

 

The Breaking of the Middle Matzah

Leader (lifting the Unity, or the plate which holds the three matzot wrapped in napkins)

At Passover, three matzot are wrapped together. They are called the “Unity”.  Jewish teachers have many explanations for this.  We who know Yeshua look at the Unity and see God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

Leader takes the middle matzah out of the Unity, breaks it in two, replaces one half and wraps the other half in a linen cloth for the afikomen.)

I have taken the middle matzah and broken it in half. One half is wrapped and hidden. This is called the afikomen (pronounced ahfee‑KOH‑men), and it is an important part of the seder which comes after the meal. (hides the afikomen)

 

The Four Questions

Leader:  We now ask and answer the four questions. As it is written:

Reader 3

“When your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them.” (Exodus 12:26)

A Young Child:  Why is this night different from all other nights?

1)      On all other nights, we eat leavened bread. On this night, why do we eat only matzah, or unleavened bread?

2)      On all other nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables.  On this night, why do we eat only bitter herbs?

3)      On all other nights, we do not dip our vegetables even once.  On this night, why do we dip them twice?

4)      On all other nights, we eat our meals sitting.  On this night, why do we eat only reclining?

Leader

God has commanded us to answer these questions for our children. But we do so with thankful hearts, for the answers point to the great and mighty works of God.

Leader (lifting one matzah)

On all other nights we eat leavened bread, but on Passover we eat only matzah. This reminds us that when we fled from Egypt, we did not have time to let the bread rise Yeshua often compared yeast, which makes bread rise, with sin. He came to die and take away our sin.

Leader (lifting the maror, pronounced mah-ROAR)

On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on Passover we eat only maror, or bitter herbs. This reminds us of how bitter life was for us in Egypt. It also reminds us of life in slavery to sin.

Leader (lifting the charoseth, pronounced hah‑ROH‑seth)

On all other nights we do not dip our vegetables even once, but tonight we dip them twice. We have already dipped our parsley in salt water. Now we will dip our bitter herbs into sweet kharoset. This mixture reminds us of the mortar and bricks which we were forced to make as slaves in Egypt.

Leader

On all other nights we eat sitting up, but tonight we eat reclining. This is to remind us that now we are free from slavery. On the first Passover, we had to eat in a hurry, with our coats and sandals on, holding our staffs in our hands as we waited to be delivered from slavery. Now we may relax and enjoy this feast at our leisure.

 

The Story of Passover

Leader:  Now we tell the story of Passover.

Reader 1

Long ago, the Lord brought Abraham to the land of Canaan. God promised Abraham that this land would belong to his descendants. Abraham’s grandson Jacob left that land and moved with his family to Egypt to escape a famine. Jacob’s family grew, becoming our people, the Israelites.  Several hundred years passed and by this time, we had become a large nation.  The Pharaoh, or ruler of Egypt, feared that we would join Egypt’s enemies and fight against Egypt.  So Pharaoh decided to make us his slaves.  Even so, God blessed us with more and more children.

Reader 2

This made the Pharaoh even more nervous. He ordered his soldiers to throw every boy baby into the Nile River. One Israelite family hid their baby for three months. When they could hide him no longer, they put him in a basket and floated it out on the Nile River with his sister Miriam watching over him. The daughter of Pharaoh found the basket and decided to keep the baby and raise him as her own son. She named him Moses, which means “drawn from the water.”

Reader 3

Even though Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s court, he knew that he was an Israelite. He saw how we were mistreated by the Egyptians. One day, when he saw an Egyptian being cruel to an Israelite, Moses lost his temper and killed the Egyptian. He ran away from Egypt into a desert land where he worked as a shepherd.

Reader 4

The Lord heard our cries as we suffered at the hands of the Egyptians. He came to Moses in a burning bush and told Moses to go to Pharaoh. Moses was afraid, but he finally agreed that with the help of his brother, Aaron, he would go to Pharaoh and deliver God’s message to “Let my people go!”

 

The Cup of Plagues

Leader

Pharaoh did not want to let our people go. Every time Pharaoh said no to Moses, God sent a plague or disaster to Pharaoh and the land of Egypt. But Pharaoh hardened his heart and kept saying no. The tenth time, God sent the most awful plague. This plague caused Pharaoh to change his mind.

Family

“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn ‑ both men and animals ‑ and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt; I am the Lord.” (Exodus 12:12)

Leader

It was the Lord himself who passed over us and struck down the firstborn of the Egyptians. In this way he delivered us from slavery. As it is written: On that same night I will pass through Egypt.

Family:  I, and not an angel.

Leader:  and strike down every firstborn‑both men and animals

Family:  I, and not a seraph.

Leader:  and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt;

Family:  I, and not a messenger.

Leader:  I am the Lord.

Family:  I myself and none other. (Exodus 12:12)

Leader (filling the cups)

We fill our cups a second time to remember that many people died during the plagues especially the last one, in order that God’s people would be set free.  We also remember what it cost for us to be set free from sin and death – the lifeblood of Yeshua.  As it is written:

Reader 2:  “I will free you from being slaves.”

Leader

Each of the plagues focused on a being that the Egyptians worshipped. As we say each plague, we dip our finger into the cup and drip the liquid onto our plate. Think about how God showed himself much greater than all the false gods of Egypt.

Family (each plague is said loudly in unison while dipping a finger and letting a drop of wine fall onto the plate)

BLOOD! FROGS! GNATS! FLIES! CATTLE DISEASE! BOILS! HAIL! LOCUSTS! DARKNESS! DEATH OF THE FIRSTBORN! (Do not drink the cup yet.)

 

The Dayenu

(Pronounced die‑AY‑noo, meaning “it would have been sufficient”)

Leader

God has been so good to us! We do not deserve His great and numerous blessings. Any one of His acts of mercy would have been enough to show His love for us.

Reader 1

With lovingkindness He redeemed us from Egypt, bringing judgment on the Egyptians and their gods.

Family:  Dayenu.

Reader 2

With awesome power He divided the Red Sea, allowing us to pass over in safety

Family:  Dayenu.

Reader 3

With tender care He protected us in the wilderness, feeding us with manna and providing for our needs.

Family:  Dayenu.

Reader 4

With great goodness He gave us the Law on Mt. Sinai. With triumph He led us into the promised land of Israel.

Family (lifting their cups)

Dayenu! How many are your great blessings to us. For each act of goodness we are abundantly grateful. Most of all, we are thankful for Yeshua the Messiah. In Him we have forgiveness of sins and abundant and everlasting life. Hallelujah! (Drink the second cup of wine.)

 

The Passover Lamb

Leader (lifting the shankbone of the lamb) This shankbone of lamb reminds us of the lamb that each Israelite family killed on the night of the first Passover. God commanded that we take the blood of the lamb and put it on the top and the sides of the doorframe of their house. As it is written:

Reader 1

“Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door frames of the houses where they eat the lambs.” (Exodus 12:7)

Reader 2

“That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs and bread made without yeast.” (Exodus 12:8)

Reader 3

This is how you are to eat it; with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand.  Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover (Exodus 12:11)

Reader 4

“The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)

Leader

We who trust in Yeshua the Messiah believe that He is our Passover lamb. just as it was God Himself who redeemed the Israelites, so it is God Himself, in the person of Yeshua the Messiah, who redeemed us once and for all from sin and death. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Leader (lifting the roasted egg)

This roasted egg is a special Passover offering. It is a symbol of mourning, reminding us of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It is also a sign of new and eternal life. It is because of Yeshua, our Passover lamb, that we can have eternal life.

 

The Matzah

Leader (lifts the Unity)

Family

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Leader (takes the middle matzah from the unity, breaks it into olive size pieces, and distributes it to the family)

Let us now share the unleavened bread of Passover.

Family (holding the piece of matzah)

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe. You set us apart as your people and commanded us to eat unleavened bread. (All eat.)

 

The Maror

Leader (Pass horseradish. Each person scoops some onto a piece of matzah.)

Family (lifting matzah with bitter herbs)

Blessed are you, 0 Lord our God, King of the universe, who has set us apart by your Word and commanded us to eat bitter herbs. (All eat.)

Leader

The bitter herb reminds us of our persecution and suffering under the cruel hand of Pharaoh. just as the horseradish brings tears to our eyes now, so then did our great suffering bring tears to our eyes.

 

The Charoseth

Leader (Takes two pieces from the bottom matzoh and puts between them the charoseth, in a sandwich‑like fashion. Pass charoseth. Each person scoops charoseth onto a piece of matzoh)

Leader The charoseth reminds us of the mortar and clay bricks that we made as slaves in Egypt. (All eat.)

Leader

It was at this point in the Passover seder that Yeshua told His disciples that one of them would betray Him. When each asked, “Surely, not I?” Yeshua said that it was the one who dipped his bread into the bowl with Yeshua.

 

The Passover Supper

(Leader offers prayer of thanks for the meal. Supper is served and eaten)

 

The Eating of the Afikomen

(After the meal, the children hunt for the afikomen, the wrapped and hidden matzah from the Unity. The leader ransoms it back by paying money to the child who finds it.)

Leader (unwrapping the matzoh and showing the family)

We call this the afikomen, a Greek word. Jewish tradition has it that afikornen means dessert, but some scholars believe it comes from a root word which means “I have come.” Yeshua called Himself the bread of life. As it is written:

Reader 1

“Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry.”‘

Reader 2

… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”‘

Reader 3

“‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day”‘

Reader 4

“‘Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever.”‘ (John 6:35a, 51, 54, 58b)

Leader

The matzoh is a picture for us of Yeshua and what He did for us. Look at how the matzoh is striped. As it is written:

Family

“But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

Leader:  Look at how the matzah is pierced. As it is written:

Family:  “They shall look upon me whom they have pierced.” (Zechariah 12:10b

Leader

See how the matzah is unleavened. Leaven stands for sin. Just as this bread is without leaven, Jesus was without sin.  As it is written:

Family:  “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:9, 1 Peter 2:22)

Leader

The middle matzah from the Unity was broken, just as Yeshua, the Messiah was broken with suffering and death.  We wrapped it in a white cloth, just as Yeshua’s body was wrapped in linen cloth for burial. Just as the afikomen was hidden, so Yeshua’s body was hidden for a short time in the grave. Just as the afikomen was brought out of hiding, so Yeshua arose from the grave.

Leader (lifting the afikomen)

Family:  Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

Leader (breaking the afikomen and distributing it to all)

It was then that Yeshua added, “This is My body given for you; do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). Let us now eat matzah, remembering the broken body of the Lamb of God who takes awa

Leader (filling the cups)

Now we fill our cups a third time. (lifting the cup) This is the cup of redemption. It stands for the blood of the Passover lamb. As it is written:

Reader 3:  “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”

Leader

It was this cup, the cup of redemption, that Yeshua took after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Luke 22:20).  Just as the blood of the Passover lamb provided salvation for us in Egypt, so Yeshua’s blood provides eternal salvation to all who believe.

Family (lifting their cups)

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. Let us drink with thankful hearts, remembering the Messiah’s sacrifice for us.

 

The Prophet Elijah

Leader (lifting the extra cup from Elijah’s place)

This cup is for Elijah the Prophet. In Jewish tradition, one of the children opens the door to see if Elijah will come to the sederAs it is written:

Family

“See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and terrible day of the Lord comes.” (Malachi 4:5)

Leader

We who believe in Yeshua believe that Elijah has already come.  Yeshua spoke of John the Baptist as the Elijah who was to come, and it was John who said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).  We set this place for Elijah to recognize that he has come in the person of John the Baptist.

 

The Cup of Praise

Leader (filling the cups)

Now we fill our cups for the fourth and final time. This is the cup of praise. We praise Him especially because of His promise to us:

Reader 4:  I will take you as my people and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:7)

Leader (lifting the cup)

With the cup of praise, we give thanks to God in the words of a psalm, just as Yeshua did with his disciples. After each phrase of thanksgiving, the family will join in saying, “His love endures forever.”

Leader: Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: Give thanks to the God of gods.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: Give thanks to the Lord of lords.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: To Him who alone does great wonders.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: To Him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader:  And brought Israel out from among them.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: To the One who remembered us in our low estate.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: And freed us from our enemies.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: and who gives food to every creature.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader: Give thanks to the God of heaven.

Family: His love endures forever.

Leader:  Lifting our cups, let us bless the name of the Lord together.

Family (lifting their cups)

Blessed are you, 0 Lord our God, King of the universe, who creates the fruit of the vine. (All drink.)

Leader

The prescribed order of the Passover service is now complete. May we remember throughout the year that our redemption is complete by the sacrifice of our Passover Lamb, Yeshua the Messiah.

Family:  Next year in the New Jerusalem!

How was your day?

My wife Nancy and I celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary last week, and I have been reflecting on our years together. She works from home, raising our five children, and caring for her high-maintenance husband. She is utterly precious, and I value her more than diamonds or rubies. Almost every day throughout these years, Nancy has greeted me at the door when I get home from work. Her smile is warm and her embrace warmer. She is genuinely glad to see me, and always follows a hug with “how was your day?”

For years I thought little about this question, answering “good”, “fair”, and “rough” depending upon a mix of factors – what happened to me, how my drive home was, and how tired I felt. If something big or bad happened, the perceived quality of my day was based on just a few minutes of real time. For example, although a fight with a co-worker or a rebuke from a boss may have lasted only a few minutes, the whole day might be ruined.

Eventually I realized the foolishness of judging my day by what happened in a few minutes. I trained myself to mentally cut the day into segments, and to notice how long pleasant and unpleasant events actually lasted. Once during my morning commute I was rear-ended by an inattentive driver on the I-395, south of Washington DC. The damage was minimal, but my schedule was thrown totally out of whack. That night when Nancy asked her inevitable question I said “my day was good, but this morning I had a rotten 45 minutes.”

My answer, though, was still passive. The quality of my day was based on what happened to me rather than on what I had done. Other people had the power to control my perception of how good or bad my day was. Since weeks, months, and years are ultimately only collections of days, others had tremendous control over how I perceived my life. I pondered the question “how was your day”, and considered several possible ways to answer it.

  1. The perfunctory “fine”. The asker is left to wonder if you are too tired to give a better answer, if you are trying to hide something, or if you care so little about them and your relationship that you don’t bother to reveal more.
  2. Based on what happened to you? This is probably how most people do it. A man who wins a sweepstakes probably feels like his day was great, even if his 20-year-old, 200,000-mile pickup truck was also stolen. However, “big” events, whether happy or unhappy, are rare. Our days are filled with “little” occurrences, and we tend to remember the unpleasant ones more than the pleasant ones.  Thus the passive answer to “how was your day” tends to give us a lot of slightly bad days.
  3. Based on how you feel at the moment? The evaluation of the day is skewed by the events that occurred just before the question was asked. Heavy traffic and “the guy that cut you off” on the way home can ruin the perception of an otherwise good day.
  4. Based on what you did? Judging a day based on what you accomplished is more active than judging the day based on what happened to you or how you feel at the moment. It also gives you more control – days that you accomplish a lot will seem better than days in which you accomplish little. “I took care of 18 patients” is a better answer than “So and so bad-mouthed me to the boss.” However, this answer still allows others a lot of control over how you perceive your life. If John, Muhammad, or Fernando prevented you from accomplishing all that you wanted, he can make your day worse, intentionally or unintentionally.
  5. Based on how you handled what the Lord brought into your life? God is sovereign over our world and our lives. He uses people and events to shape us and us to shape people and events. When the Lord says “work”, we work. When He says “rest”, we rest. When He brings someone into our lives who we perceive as a “bother” or a “waste of time”, we try to discover His purpose. The most irritating person may be teaching us compassion, or may provide a good occasion to practice control over the time that He has given us. God knows what we need far better than we do. Days that we trust, obey, and enjoy Him are the best days of all.

We have no record of how Jesus answered the question “how was your day”, or even that he ever got it. Nevertheless, His example is useful. Jesus was never passive, and likewise His followers are to be active in every area of life. We cannot let others control us, for we serve God alone. Seemingly little things, like the answer to the question “how was your day” slowly but inevitably shape us over the years. The summation of how you answer this question over time affects how you remember your life. It also affects how others think of you. 

One last note. While it is important to judge your day by how well you handled what the Lord brings into your life, there remains the danger of too much self-focus. Be sure that you spend more time thinking about God’s faithfulness than thinking about your own.

How was your day?  

Living While Dead

Our church regularly performs Infant Dedication, a ceremony in which the parents dedicate themselves publicly to raise their child as a Christian and the congregation dedicates itself to supporting the parents in this holy work. Parents choose a special verse for their child, one intended to guide them in the ways of Christ through their lives. Psalm 23:1, Jeremiah 29:11, John 3:16, and Philippians 4:13 are popular.

This is a difficult time for our family, with me retiring from active duty in the US Army and us relocating to a new state. Our friends face conflict; one father berating himself for being chronically impatient with his children and another for spending so little time with his. Several couples have become empty nesters in the past few years, and miss their children painfully. Many friends have reached middle age, doubt that their current work is meaningful, and don’t know what to do in the second half of their career. Perhaps a long forgotten baby dedication verse would give us all hope…and peace.

We all struggle with who we are, and with finding our place in the world. A young lady in my employ yesterday told me that she doesn’t need validation, but of course she does; we all do. Another explains and defends herself with almost every other phrase. Many people are emotionally crushed by the slightest insult, and others react angrily to the smallest correction. Relationships rupture over words spoken harshly or misunderstood. We delude ourselves into thinking that we are independent, and that we want to be. Too often we go through life alone.

The fires of our ambition consume our youth, our marriage, and our children’s most tender years, leaving us sitting alone in dark rooms with the walls covered in long forgotten accolades. The frost of our greed freezes our compassion into the ice of indifference, leaving us using people to get things rather than using things to bless people.  My uncle is selling the family business, one which has lasted for generations. He said that over the years he has spent a lot of time building it; too much time.

I do not know if I was ever formally dedicated as a baby, and certainly don’t know the verse if I was. If I could go back in time and select my own Infant Dedication verse, it would be Galatians 2:20.

“I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

This verse describes a progression; first Paul is crucified with Christ, then he is raised with Christ to live the life of Christ on this earth. In light of this truth, how should Christians live?

The Dead have no future, but Christ entrusts His future into the hands of the Father

When we are crucified with Christ, we give up all of our hopes and dreams for the future. We walk with Him, learning to follow His lead, and eventually He begins to reveal our future to us. He never gives us the whole picture at once, but divulges a little bit at a time, just enough for us to take the next step. God’s word is a lamp to us (Psalm 119:105), but ancient lamps are not like modern flashlights; they only illuminate a few feet ahead. With each step forward in faith, we see the next step.

What we find is that the God who made us gives us a better future than we had hoped for, but shorn of the poor priorities and sinful desires. If we delight in Him, He will give us the desires of our heart (Psalms 37:4). The Lord will not honor selfishness and ingratitude, but His plans will be full of excitement, fellowship, work, and love. We will suffer, but we will prevail. God gives us a future far more wonderful than anything we could have imagined. Fully following Jesus is the greatest adventure.

The Dead don’t struggle with who they are, but Christ knows who He is, the Son of God.

There are two reasons for Christians not to struggle with our identity; we are dead to sin and self, and we are sons of God. Charles Spurgeon famously said,

“Brother, if any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no gainer by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.[1]

The natural man is morally impoverished; unwilling to seek God and unable to be righteous (Romans 3:10-11). Every part of the moral nature of unregenerate man is corrupt. Never believe that man is inherently good; always understand that he is evil. Our disease is so bad that death to sin and self is the only cure, and so we are crucified with Christ. If we are dead to ourselves, why do we struggle with our identity? Does a corpse struggle with who he is? Do the dead try to make themselves look good to those around?

When we are raised with Christ, we receive His Spirit. Whatever goodness we think we have is not the point; Jesus’ goodness is what matters. The Son was morally perfect. His validation derived from the promises of Scripture and from the love of the Father and Holy Spirit, and our validation comes from the same place. We love others as Jesus loved them, but as His trust was not in men, neither is ours. Jesus’ love, His joy, His peace, His patience, His kindness, His goodness, His faithfulness, His gentleness, and His self-control become ours (Galatians 5:22-23).

Despite the Spirit of Christ in us, we continue to sin, both by both omission and commission. Paul describes this pitiful state in Romans 7; sin is so organic to us that we cannot shake it on this side of heaven. Nevertheless, since we are crucified with Christ, the hold of sin on our hearts weakens and one day we will be forever free. We need not struggle with our identity because we gain His identity. Day by day Jesus makes us more like Him (Philippians 2:12).

Dead men don’t have ambition, and Christ’s only ambition is the will of the Father

Dead men no longer want the praise of men; they no longer wish to be in the history books. Napoleon said that “glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever”, and that is the mantra of modern man. If there is no eternal life, earthly fame is indeed fleeting, but it is also meaningless. Glory has no benefit over obscurity if the end of both is the grave. If there is eternal life, goodness and not fame is what matters. And we know that there is eternal life.

Our dreams of personal glory must die when we are crucified with Christ. They must be replaced with dreams of God’s glory and obedience to Him. Our desperate striving to be better than everyone else, or at least feel ourselves equal to everyone else, give way to a burning desire to discover how good God is, and to share Him with others. The Creator is the ground of all reality; the root from which all else grows. The universe and everything in it are utterly dependent upon Him. All beauty, power, and goodness in the cosmos emanate directly from the Lord. He is worthy of an eternity of praise and a thousand lifetimes of study. The ambition of the Christian is to become like Him.

During His earthly walk, Christ’s ambition was to perfectly follow the Father, thinking, saying, and doing everything that He asked so that the Father would be glorified. The Christian has the same ambition. Some people will accomplish this as kings and presidents, others as cab drivers and secretaries, and still others as soldiers and doctors. Most people will glorify God as moms and dads. No role is better than any other; obedience is what counts. The lies that money, fame, and power are proper goals, that we should always be striving for more, and that one man can be better than another sucks days from our lives and life from our days.

Ultimately, God gives His people something far better than history books, in which other men decide the measure of each life, and which few people read. He gives us eternal life. In eternity, people won’t need to read about us; we can tell them our story ourselves.

Dead men don’t need stuff, and Christ only had the stuff that He needed to accomplish His mission

“You can’t take it with you”, “You are born with nothing; you die with nothing”, “naked you came from your mother’s womb and naked you shall return (Job 1:21)” are only three of the many ways of saying that in eternity, possessions don’t matter. Yet we buy more and more, filling our homes and emptying our wallets in the vain pursuit of happiness from things. When our homes overflow, we rent storage units and buy bigger houses for furniture, clothes, toys, computers, and hundreds of other things that we rarely use. Life is made of time, yet we spend time paying for our stuff, cleaning our stuff, moving our stuff, and storing our stuff. We break relationships when people misuse our stuff, and feel superior to others because we have more stuff. We are no different than the rich fool; one day while we are building bigger barns, our souls will be required of us (Luke 12:16-20). We think that we own our stuff, but in truth, our stuff owns us.

To crucified with Christ is to lose all of your stuff, and to be raised with Him is to live free from slavery to possessions. Like all material beings, Jesus needed material things to live on earth. But He only had what He truly needed to accomplish His Father’s mission. Jesus spent time with people, not things. To be crucified with Christ is to do the same.

Are you moving to a new location? Don’t sell stuff; give it away. Are you shopping for something new to make you feel better? Leave the mall and take a walk in a park instead. Did water damage ruin the stuff in a storage unit that you haven’t opened in years? Thank God for freeing you from those possessions.

Conclusion

The Lord is our Shepherd, God has wonderful plans for us, God loves us, and we can do all things through Christ. All those verses contain beautiful promises suitable to start a young life. But Christians young and old are also crucified with Christ, and He is living His life in us. If we understand these truths; if we live while dead, we will be more like Him forever. That is the most beautiful promise of all.

[1] David Dancing Before the Ark Because of His Election, http://www.spurgeon.org/sermons/2031.php

Seeking Signs

The US Presidential primaries are in full swing, and voters across the country are looking for signs. We want signs that a person is strong, signs that they can do what we want them to do, and signs that they can beat everyone who is running against them. We look for candidates with money, with an independent streak, and yet who agree with us. Our bizarre presidential election is the most vivid example, but races from sheriffs to senators feature the same drama.

Our need for signs is not only in politics; it is everywhere in life. Employers choose employees by looking at their training, experience, and ability to get along. None of these guarantee that the employee will be successful, but without a crystal ball or tea leaves to read the future, such signs are the best way a company has to choose the person with the best chance of accomplishing institutional goals. Patients seek signs that a doctor will make them well, and car buyers seek signs that a vehicle will make them happy. Interpersonal relationships are the same; men and women seek signs in choosing their friends and even their mates.

Jesus had been healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching the untrained, and performing miracles for two years when the religious leaders of the day asked Him for a sign in Matthew 12. Ostensibly, if Jesus produced the right sign, these men would believe Him. Ordinary men seek ordinary signs from each other – diplomas, resume’s, and physical feats. Jesus was anything but ordinary, and these leaders sought miracles from Him. I claim to be a physician and people want to see certificates and licenses. Jesus claimed to be the one and only God, and people wanted to see Him do things that only God could do. The Pharisees and scribes search for signs was different in degree but not in kind from what they saw, and what we see, in day to day life.

Why we seek signs

People seek signs not primarily to determine what to believe but to determine what to do. The first step is to gain information and the second step is to make a decision. Voters need to know about a candidate before they can decide whether or not to vote for him or her. Therefore the first reason to seek signs is to learn about something or someone. The Bible says that as we know a tree by its fruit, we will know a person by what he or she says and does. This “fruit” is a set of signs.

The second reason to seek signs is to delay making a decision that we don’t want to make. In this circumstance, “seeking signs” is usually called “getting more information”. Government leaders, business executives, and many others delay decisions until the issue resolves itself one way or another. Passive leadership is a trap; even if an organization chooses not to act, inaction should be a deliberate choice.

The third reason to seek signs is to help decide what to do. Sometimes we follow the direction that the signs lead, as when circumstances point toward taking a certain job and we take the job. Other times we go a different direction than where the signs lead. How many of us have been called to give money to a homeless man, or witness to a neighbor, or go on a mission trip, and we went the other way? God’s sent signs to Jonah that clearly pointed east towards Nineveh, but he went west towards Spain. Our works reflect what we really think, and those works are often inconsistent with what we say we believe. People seek signs both to justify doing something and also to justify not doing something.

The scribes and Pharisees had plenty of information about Jesus. They had heard Him speak countless times and seen His mighty works. They noted the compassion with which He treated the poor and the boldness with which He confronted injustice. They were not waiting for more information; these men knew enough about Jesus to decide whether or not to follow Him.

God’s answer

Jesus accused these scribes and Pharisees of being “evil and adulterous”. They had more than enough data to choose to follow Him, but they refused to do so. We do the same thing in many parts of our lives.

Our Creator gives us all of creation to declare His glory to us and His love for us, and we can choose to see Him in this sign or choose not to. The evidence for God is absolutely overwhelming; indeed almost every person for all of history has seen God in nature. Those who choose to see God in creation will enjoy His beauty, His power, His brilliance, and His love. After all, God does cause the rain to fall on both the evil and the good.

There have always been a small minority who refuse to see God in His creation. Those who choose not to see God in the universe will not enjoy those things. They may enjoy the physical world, but see only random chance or impersonal forces behind it. One of the great appeals of Darwin’s theory of evolution is that it provides a semi-plausible explanation for the existence of the universe without the need for God. For those who don’t want God or guilt to limit their conduct, evolutionism is a handy belief.

God provides signs of His work in every part of life. Our ability to love is a sign of His love, and the warmth of our relationships reflects the warmth of the relationship that we can have with Him. God provides people who know Him to minister to others, and the very existence of the Church is a powerful testimony to the truth of the Bible and the person of Jesus. Thousands of religious movements have come and gone over the millennia, but the work of Christ has remained. God has given us signs, but we must interpret them rightly.

Jesus harsh reply, however, is overshadowed by His spectacular promise. Despite their obstinacy, God would indeed give them a sign, one which was foreshadowed nearly 1000 years before in the example of Jonah. Jesus was about to do something that no one in history had ever done before; He would raise Himself from the dead. What greater sign could anyone do to prove His divine nature than to rise from the dead?

God’s warning

The scribes and Pharisees had refused to believe in Jesus despite His words and His works. Jesus healed hundreds if not thousands, but that was not enough. He fed over ten thousand, but that was not enough. He uttered millions of the most wonderful words ever to pass through human lips, but that was not enough. There was one last thing that Jesus could do to try to reach these hard-hearted men; He could conquer death. If the scribes and the Pharisees refused to believe in Him after that unmistakable sign, there was no sign that they would ever accept. Thus their doom was sure.

In this example, the scribes and Pharisees were about to make a poor choice, and they would unfortunately pay dearly for it. Non-Christians today must make the right choice or pay similar consequences. Christians, however, also need to trust and obey God, both in small and large matters. Our eternal salvation is not at stake, but our effectiveness is. Luke tells us that to whom much is given, much is required (12:48). God gives us little signs which He expects us to follow, and faithful obedience in these little things enables faithful obedience in the big ones.

Conclusion

Seeking signs is a common and important human activity; God even commands us to do. The error of the scribes and Pharisees was not in seeking a sign, but in choosing poorly with the information that they already had. The Lord’s grace to them, and to us, was and is overwhelming. But we can still choose to disbelieve. If we do, if we close the door to our last hope of salvation, we have no hope.

The Weight of Sin

One of the most famous passages in Scripture is the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53 to 8:11). I encourage you to read the actual story, but the general storyline is that the Jewish religious leaders hoped to trap Jesus. They caught a woman, whom they had probably set up, in the act of adultery. They brought her, but not the man involved, to Jesus to judge. The Law of Moses was clear; people engaged in adultery were to be stoned to death. If Jesus had said to release her, He would have been in violation of the Mosaic Law. If He had said to stone her, He would have lost popular support, and been party to an injustice because the guilty man was not present.

In an amazing display of compassion and wisdom, Jesus told her accusers that whoever in the group was without sin should cast the first stone. None of them, even the most sanctimonious, could claim to be sinless, and so they melted away into the crowd. Jesus and the woman were left alone. He asked the woman “where are they that condemn you?” and she replied that no one remained. Jesus then said “neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.”

As magnificent as that story is, a source of comfort for weak and wicked humanity, too many have misinterpreted the conclusion. Jesus said “neither do I condemn you” and therefore many readers get the impression that the woman’s sin didn’t matter. This fits neatly in the modern Western narrative which accepts sexual sin without a blush. In this view, if anyone should be condemned, it is Moses who laid down the death penalty for adultery. Jesus becomes the modern progressive who does away with antiquated concepts of sin and judgement.

Had the accused person been caught in child sexual abuse or wife beating, and Jesus said “neither do I condemn you”, we would be outraged, in spite of our “progressiveness” and supposed tolerance. We sluff off adultery and other sexual sin because we believe that anything is permissible between consenting adults, even though such sin destroys our bodies and tears the fabric of society in ways that other sins do not (1 Corinthians 6:18). We rank sins by how bad we perceive them to be, and woe be to the one who forgives someone who has done something that we think is terrible.

For the theologian, this passage is problematic because Jesus is the judge. In the last days He will judge all mankind for their deeds, sending those who love and accept Him into eternity with Him, and sending those who hate and reject Him into eternity without Him (Matthew 25:31-46). Also, Moses did not invent the concept of sin and the penalties de novo; he got them from God Himself. Therefore God (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) defined the sin, set the punishment and retained the responsibility to judge.

In reality, Jesus’ statement “neither do I condemn you” tells only half of the truth. The woman’s adultery was added to the weight of all of the sins of all of humanity over all of time. In the final judgment, Jesus will condemn every man and woman for their sins. And then, in the greatest miracle in the universe, He will step from the Judge’s bench to the Accused’ stand. The Lord will move this poor woman, and all those who accept Him, from the ranks of the defendants into the ranks of the innocents. Though sinless, He will place Himself among the guilty. From there Jesus will accept His own condemnation and receive the punishment that He Himself decrees. These events happened only a few weeks from when this story took place; on the day that the Lord went to the cross. We agree with Jesus’ action in this story not because we understand the greatness of His work, but because we don’t care about the sin.

We try to convince ourselves that there is no sin, or that we don’t have any, or at least that ours are not as bad as the other guy’s. Our mistakes are unavoidable, our pettiness is someone else’ fault, and our cruelty is a product of our society. We are victims, not perpetrators, of the evil in the world. Though we try to believe this, we cannot. Our pain is real, and our consciences, no matter how seared by our deeds, never quit whispering truth.

Jesus’ answer was perfect; I am not so bold as to second guess the Creator. However He could have said “neither do I condemn you, because I will take the penalty for your sin upon Myself.” Though He did not use these words, that is exactly what He did. The salvation of man is not based on our definitions of sin and the consequences; these definitions come from the nature of God Himself. We do not have the right to say “neither do I condemn you.” All any of us can do is realize our own awful wickedness, fall at Jesus’ feet in love and thankfulness that He took the eternal death penalty for us, and tell others the good news.

Sin has great weight, and it will crush us. We will never know reality without acknowledging and repenting for our sin. We will never know love and freedom, and never be in harmony with God and man, without accepting God’s magnificent sacrifice for that sin.

The Inevitable Incarnation

In 1819 using a razor and glue, the former American President Thomas Jefferson, one of the most brilliant men of his age, cut and pasted passages of the New Testament to create The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, popularly known as the Jefferson Bible. Jefferson’s Bible removed all of the miracles of Jesus, most mentions of the supernatural, the Resurrection, and all mentions of His divinity. In a letter to William Short (1820), Jefferson wrote that “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God.” Thomas Jefferson clearly regarded the man Jesus as a great moral teacher, but rejected the concept of Jesus as God.

He was not alone. The Koran teaches that Allah has no son, and that those who believe that he does will be destroyed. Many critics throughout history have lauded Jesus for his moral example but lambasted early Christians for making him God. Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of Christianity; without Him Christianity could not exist. At the same time, Jesus is the stumbling block of Christianity; the gospel as written in the New Testament is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks (1 Corinthians 1:23).

Islam teaches that Allah spoke to Mohammed through the angel Gabriel in a cave on Mount Hira (610 AD), reciting the teachings that would later become of Koran. Buddhism holds that Gautama achieved enlightenment through meditation sitting under the Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya, India (c. 528 BC). Mormonism insists that Joseph Smith received the revelation of God on golden plates delivered by the angel Moroni (1823). Judaism affirms that God inscribed the Ten Commandments on stone tablets on Mount Sinai and gave them personally to Moses (Exodus 31:18), providing the rest of the Law through subsequent revelation. Many other religions have similar stories; that a special human received divine guidance which he subsequently used to found a religion.

Jesus is unique. He did not claim to be a man who transmitted the word of God, He claimed to be God (John 8:58-59) and Man who was the Word of God. There is no record of Jesus receiving golden plates, stone tablets, words in a cave or under a tree, coming down from heaven. The extant record states that Jesus Himself came down from heaven. Religious prophets throughout time have said “follow these teachings and you will be right with God” while Jesus metaphorically said “eat my flesh and drink my blood (John 6:29-58)” and “if you have seen Me, you have seen God (the Father) (John 14:9-11).” Jesus’ enemies knew His claims, and hated Him for them (John 5:18).

Jesus claimed to be God Incarnate; God in human flesh. His claims were unlike any other religious leader in history, and these claims were either true or false. If true, then Jesus really was the Son of God and God the Son; fully human and fully divine. If His claims were false then He either knew that they were false or He did not. If Jesus knew that His claims were false and made them anyway then He was a terrible deceiver, not a great prophet and moral teacher. He was also a fool because His claims cost Him His life. If He did not know that His claims were false then He was crazy. In this case also, He could not have been a great prophet or moral teacher. We are left with a dilemma. Jesus could not have been merely a prophet or great moral teacher, as Mohammed and Buddha were reputed to be. He was either God, unspeakably evil, or insane.

Another question arises. Every other religion posits an enlightened human leader, but Christianity requires an incarnation of the divine. Not an incarnation in the sense that Zeus became a swan to seduce Leda, Queen of Sparta, but an incarnation of the One God: All Knowing, All Loving and All Powerful. Not an incarnation of the temporal gods of the polytheist traditions, who themselves sprang from the primal matter and energy of the universe, but an incarnation of the eternal God who created the primal matter and energy of the universe. Such a thought is almost offensive to the thinking man, and it is no wonder so many people oppose it. Nonetheless, this Incarnation is the central tenet of Christianity. The next question is…why was an incarnation necessary? Taking the claims of the Bible at face value, just as with the Koran and other religious texts, this article will address that question.

Share Information

Gabriel met with Mohammad to share God’s teachings, the same reason that Moroni met with Joseph Smith and Jehovah met with Moses. The information was contained in language and stored in a physical medium, whether written recitations, golden plates or stone tablets. The knowledge that could be transmitted was limited by the language involved and the physical properties of the chosen medium, such as size. While extra-biblical texts suggest that Mohammad and Smith might be good role models, none claim that they were perfect, much less divine, and even less an incarnation of the One God.

Jesus, according to Biblical testimony the Incarnation of the Divine, broke the mold. Whereas Moses and Mohammad could only report on what God said, Jesus’ every word and His every action revealed God. He was the perfect example of how God would react in everyday situations faced by humans, because He was God and Man. As John wrote, the incarnation provided so much information about God that the world could not hold all the books that could be written about Jesus (John 21:25). It had to be that way, because God is totally different from man and we need as much information as we can get to know Him. Furthermore since we can only understand Him by analogy to human experience, we had to see God in human experience to translate His nature into our lives. The gospels show the work of the eternal God who voluntarily limited Himself in space and time. Several hundred pages could not provide man all that he needed to know about God, the most foreign of all personages. Further, if the Almighty is interested not merely that man holds a certain set of beliefs but that he acts in a certain way, He must show him, not just tell him, what to do.

A skeptic might protest that though Jesus’ life revealed legions about Him, moderns have only the Bible, a long book to be sure but still a small glance at Him. While a valid point, the issue is not so much the amount of knowledge but the type of knowledge. While other texts are heavy in rules, the gospels are heavy in stories. While other holy books mention battles and political domination, the New Testament mentions day to day struggles of regular, usually unremarkable, people. If the wholly-other God were trying to tell mortal man how to live, coming to earth and living among them would be the most logical way to do it.

Therefore, the first reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share information with man.

Share Suffering

Suffering and death are inevitable parts of human existence. Religions handle these realities different, with some such as Buddhism denying their reality and others such as Islam telling their adherents to submit to suffering and death now because paradise is coming. Suffering among the gods in polytheistic religions was common, such as when the storm-god Baal was “killed” by the sea-god Yam in the Canaanite mythology or when the chief of gods Osiris was “killed” by the underworld god Set in the Egyptian mythology. However, suffering in these traditions was due to rivalry between deities, not suffering for the sins of mankind. In Islamic tradition, Allah, like the god of Aristotle, is beyond suffering. In ancient Hebrew tradition, however, which is the soil out of which Christianity grew, Jehovah suffered for His people, as seen in the example of Hosea.

In the Christian faith, man suffers, but God suffers far more. Each person suffers a certain amount in his or her life and then the suffering ends at death. God, however, bears all of the suffering for each person who has ever lived. He does it directly as noted in the Old Testament, and even more directly in the person of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus bore all of the suffering and all of the sin for everyone. One amazing thing about the gospel is that while we suffer, our Creator suffers with us, and ultimately He suffers more. As preposterous and even offensive as it sounds, the God who holds the universe together suffered and even died for the rebellious creatures He made.

However the mystery here is even deeper. Man is inherently wicked in his moral nature and therefore predisposed to sin. Since the inevitable result of sin is suffering and death, man is destined to suffer throughout his life and ultimately die. To completely understand and completely share in the human experience, God would also have to suffer and die, even though He would do so without sin. In fact, Hebrews 2:10 teaches that Jesus Christ was made complete through His suffering and death. What a mind bending thought! Jesus was God Incarnate, with every attribute of the Father in its fullest extent, and yet He had to suffer to be the Savior of Man, and was thereby made complete.

Therefore, the second reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share suffering with man.

Share Salvation

In most religions people are given a list of things to do to attain salvation, often including praying, giving money to the poor, or going on a pilgrimage. There are also moral rules or standards of conduct, which adherents must follow. These standards are communicated by the deity to the prophet and then to the people, whose standing in the religion and ultimate destiny is determined by how well they follow the rules.

Two assumptions underlie this process. The first is that the people want to follow God and the second is that the people are able to follow God. To meet these assumptions mankind has to be morally good; not perfect, but good. He also has to be competent enough in himself to understand physical as well as spiritual truth.

Christianity makes neither of these assumptions, largely because of the Hebrew experience. In the Torah, Moses clearly laid out the blessings that would come when the Hebrews followed Jehovah (Deuteronomy 28) and the curses that would come when they did not (Deuteronomy 27). Nonetheless, the history of Israel was by and large a history of man failing to meet God’s standards and ultimately rejecting Him.

Rather than relying on man to secure his own salvation, the Christian faith relies on God. Since He is utterly holy and man is not, there can be no association between God and man. For man to encounter the fiery holiness of the Lord in his weak and sinful state is to face inevitable annihilation, as the Hebrews perceived on Mount Sinai (Exodus 20:18-19). Man no more wants to encounter the real God than he wants to march into the sun. For the relationship between humanity and God to be restored, men had to live a life of perfect righteousness. No one can do this, so God Himself became a man and did what mere man could not. The Lord had to hide the power of His glory in human flesh, live a sinless life, suffer and die. Furthermore God took all of the sin in history upon Himself and paid the logical price…death. In doing so as a man God enabled men to transfer their sin, and its penalty, to Jesus, to know Him and to believe in Him as they could never before. Because Jesus rose from the dead, all those who believe in Him will rise also.

Therefore, the third reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share salvation with man.

Share the Spirit

Most religions do not have a concept of the trinity, in which God eternally exists in three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Therefore the Christian concept of the Spirit of God dwelling in man does not exist in other faiths. In the ancient Hebrew religion the Spirit of God indwelt people for a time but departed when they chose evil, such as Samson (Judges 14:6 cf. 16:20) and Saul (1 Samuel 16:14).

Christianity is different. The New Testament teaches that the Spirit of God dwells in believers forever, beginning the moment that they accept Christ. Why could the Spirit do that now when He could not before? Recall that God cannot coexist with sin; His very nature snuffs out sin in His presence. When man still bore his own sin, such as the ancient times, the Spirit could not abide in man. When Jesus took the sin of man, the man had no sin, and the Spirit of God could abide there. Only once Christ had cleansed man from his sin could the Holy Spirit come and live within him. This does not mean that believers in Christ do not sin but rather that their sin is imputed to Jesus Christ and in the judgment of the Father, they are clean.

Therefore, the fourth reason that the Incarnation of God was inevitable was to share God’s Holy Spirit with man.

Conclusion

The Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is the foundation of Christianity, and yet it is also one of the greatest obstacles to others accepting Christianity. It is literally a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. Nonetheless it was the only way that God could restore the relationship between Himself and man which had been broken by the first sin in the Garden of Eden.

For all his insight, Thomas Jefferson could not see that Jesus of Nazareth could never have been just a moral teacher, and he could not see that man by his nature needed more than instructions and willpower to be reconciled with God. Man needed God to become man and restore fellowship. Therefore, however mysterious, once God decided to redeem man, the incarnation became inevitable.

Singular Events and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ

Last Easter I was reading an article in the Washington Post about the Resurrection of Jesus, a popular topic at that time of year. Considering the source, I knew that the author’s conclusion would be something other than affirming the physical, bodily resurrection that is the cornerstone of authentic Christianity. As Paul wrote, “if Christ is not raised then our preaching is vain and your faith also is vain (1 Corinthians 15:14).” Genuine Christians may disagree on many things, but to deny the bodily resurrection of Christ is to deny Christianity; no real Christian can do it. The article met my expectations, stating that the sightings of Jesus after the crucifixion had a “dreamy sense” and suggesting that His resurrection was either spiritual or illusory altogether. This is a standard line of secularists and others seeking to discredit Christianity. Unfortunately, such people never provide reasons for their arguments except that “people can’t rise from the dead.” This apriori assumption makes it impossible for those who hold it to ever believe in the resurrection of Jesus.

On the face of it no other reason is necessary because in all of human history, as far as many people know, everyone has died. There have been many stories of people physically rising from the dead, but most are rendered suspect by the circumstances. Was the person really dead? Did they merely resuscitate? Is the whole story a myth? In most cases, it is impossible to verify the medical diagnosis of death, which is typically brain death. In other cases, the story bears all of the traits of myth, such as the Egyptian story of the “resurrection” of Osiris. Considering the purported resurrections commonly noted in history, it is easy to conclude that since everyone else died and stayed dead, Jesus must have also. If this is true, there must be some other explanation for the story in the Gospels, and Biblical Christianity must be false.

If one analyzes the accounts in the Bible and grants that they are largely historical, it is hard to reject Jesus’ resurrection. I have written about that in On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ and On the Physical Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Today I would like to discuss the underlying assumption: people can’t rise from the dead.

Critique on the apriori assumption that bodily resurrection is impossible

Language limitations

The first major problem with the statement “people can’t rise from the dead” is that two conditions are required to support it. First, that no one has ever physically risen from the dead and second, that there is some impenetrable barrier, physiologic or otherwise, to a body regaining life after it has lost it. If anyone has ever risen bodily from the dead then the statement “people can’t rise from the dead” is false. If anyone rises in the future, the statement is false. If it is possible that someone could conceivably resurrect in the future, the statement is also false. It is safer to say “people don’t rise from the dead” or “people haven’t risen from the dead”. Still, since no one has perfect knowledge, “people can’t, don’t or haven’t risen bodily from the dead” is too much for any mortal, in good conscience and intellectual sincerity, to say. The honest skeptic can affirm no more than “in my experience, personal and educational, no one has ever risen physically from the dead. Therefore I reject the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

If Nothing Exists Outside the Natural Universe

Someone might contend that the laws of nature make resurrection impossible. However, the Laws of Nature as they are known in modern science are basically theories which have been confirmed repeatedly by multiple observers over time. They are not laws in the legal sense that something is forbidden but laws in the scientific sense that something is impossible. As such, there is always a “danger” in science that a natural law will be challenged, or at least modified, by an event which conflicts with it. Thomas Jefferson recognized the advance in understanding of natural laws when he wrote “that there are means of artificial buoyancy by which man may be supported in the Air, the Balloon has proved, and that means of directing it may be discovered is against no law of Nature and is therefore possible as in the case of Birds, but to do this by mechanical means alone in a medium so rare and unassisting as air must have the aid of some principal not yet generally known.” In another example, the Newtonian concept of the universe was highly functional and supported soundly by observations in the 19th century. However, further discoveries challenged it, and today the concept, while still helpful, is recognized as incomplete.

Quantum theory suggests that singular events of any type are possible, and this would include a bodily resurrection. All that would be required is that the fluctuations occur in a way that supports that restoration of the body to life. If quantum theory teaches anything, it teaches that nothing is impossible.

As a result, no honest skeptic can contend that natural laws refute the resurrection of Christ; they can only assert that the laws of nature make it extremely unlikely that such an event occurred. However, the Laws of Nature are continually being modified and expanded in the Halls of Science, and who is to say that in 10 or 100 years we will not have unlocked the scientific secrets of resurrection? Again, the best an honest atheist can affirm is that “in my experience, personal and educational, the idea of resurrection violates the Laws of Nature. Therefore I reject the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

If Something Exists Outside the Natural Universe

If anything exists outside the natural universe but cannot affect the natural universe, that “something” is irrelevant from our perspective. If that “something” can affect the natural universe, then it is difficult to judge what it can or might do. If, as Christians contend, that “something” is a personal God who created the natural universe, then for Him to bodily resurrect a man from the dead is not only possible, it is easy. To create something from nothing, truly nothing, not preexistent matter in the form of quarks or whatever, is far harder than to reverse the process of decay implicit in death.

What If Our Comparison Group is Wrong?

Jesus was a man, but according to the Church He was also more than a man. Therefore the experience of other men, staying in the grave after death, may not apply to him. As portrayed in the Bible, Jesus was a singular man, and His resurrection was a singular event. People may assume that since no other human seems to have risen from the dead, Jesus could not have done so. However, this may be making a generalization beyond what these data support. Perhaps we should not compare Jesus to other men but should compare Jesus to other men who were just like Him; fully man and fully God. If so, since no other man like Jesus exists, we do not have an appropriate group for comparison and therefore can make no conclusion on the basis of routine human experience whether or not Jesus could have risen bodily from the dead.

Are There any Other Singular Events that We Can Compare to the Resurrection?

The other most famous singular event is the “Big Bang”, the expansion of the Universe from a near-infinitely hot and near infinitely dense point of matter somewhere in nothingness. To say that the Big Bang occurred in space and time is ridiculous because the Big Bang created spacetime and so it could not have occurred in what it later created any more than a man can be born in a house which he was to build. Further, the Big Bang cannot account for the initial existence of mass and energy; they have to be presupposed for the theory to work. Even the seemingly scientific notion that the Big Bang occurred from random quantum fluctuations presupposes the existence of energy. Many scientists find overwhelming evidence that the Big Bang caused the universe, but no matter how compelling the theory is, it cannot explain how something, our universe, came from nothing.

It is difficult to compare the singularity of the Big Bang with the singularity of the Resurrection, but there are some parallels that we can draw. The Big Bang is supported by scientific evidence such as the expansion of the universe and cosmic microwave radiation, and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is supported by historical evidence such as the Biblical and extrabiblical accounts. Many would make the point that scientific evidence is more reliable than historical evidence, but without historical evidence we would know nothing about any nonrepeatable event. Even more, without the historical evidence (oral and written) of scientists and mathematicians of the past, we would know nothing about science. The transmission of knowledge from one generation and one land to another requires historical evidence, so it is unreasonable to reject it on the basis of it not being scientific. To reject the Resurrection of Jesus because it is only attested to by historical evidence is to reject every past event for the same reason.

Further, while mankind can still see the direct evidence of the Big Bang, we can also see the direct evidence of the Resurrection, the existence of the Church. Mohammed was a conqueror and Buddha was a prince so we would expect their opinions to outlive them, including the religious ones. Jesus, however, was a poor itinerant preacher in a small province of a mighty Empire. There have been countless such men in history, and they and their movements have all been buried by the sands of time. Jesus and His movement, however, has endured and grown into the largest religious force on the planet. It has done so on the strength and power of His resurrection. Perhaps the existence of the Church is to the Resurrection what the cosmic radiation and the expansion of the universe is to the Big Bang?

Conclusion

This article does not prove that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead, and it never intended to. Hopefully, it has demonstrated that the statement “people can’t rise from the dead” is unprovable at best and more likely incorrect. As such, it is an illogical basis on which to reject the resurrection of Jesus. It is not those who believe in the resurrection who are unscientific, it is those who reject it on this faulty assumption. Everyone should evaluate for themselves who Jesus is, and part of this vital question is “Did Jesus rise bodily from the dead?” However, their starting point should be “while extremely rare, bodily resurrection from the dead is possible.”

 

The Problem is the Soil

Last week I was writing a commentary on Matthew 13. Verses 1-23 contain one of the most famous parables of Jesus, the Parable of the Sower. In it some seed fell on a hard path, other seed fell on stony ground, part of the seed fell on thorny ground, and more seed fell on good ground. The seed which fell on the walking path was devoured by birds before it could take root, and that which fell on stony ground took root but the ground was so shallow that the young shoot was scorched in the hot sun. The seed which fell on thorny ground also took root but the young plant was smothered by the weeds around it. Only the seed that fell on good ground produced a harvest.

In the chapter, Jesus explained that the seed was the gospel, the good news of the Kingdom of God, and the various types of ground represented the hearts of the hearers. Typically when lessons are taught on this passage, they describe the foolishness of the sower for wasting so much seed on unsuitable ground, or focus on the types of ground. Teachers spend little effort discussing why the ground is the way it is.

As Jesus’ hearers knew, the farmer was the key to transforming poor ground into good ground. He plowed the ground, breaking up the hard parts so that the seed could take root. Plowing also exposed hidden rocks and weeds that the farmer removed by hand. It was long and painstaking work but the farmer knew that at the end he would get a good crop. The seed is a constant; there is no indication in the parable that the seed that fell in one place was any different than the seed that fell in another.

In this parable the seed is the gospel. It is the same no matter who sows it or where it lands. As each seed carries within it the potential for new life, so each presentation of the gospel carries within it the potential for new life. The ground represents the hearts of the hearers, but unlike earth which must be tended by others, each man must tend his own heart. The gospel is effective no matter where it lands but the hearer is responsible to listen and obey. The hearer must keep his heart from the hard cynicism of this age, remove the rocks of sin, skepticism, and pride, and pull the weeds of desire for money, fame and power.

In the church we spend a lot of time trying to craft just the right lesson and just the right sermon. While we must always ensure that the genuine gospel is preached, and must do our best to communicate effectively, this emphasis on the preacher is in error. The gospel is powerful regardless of the vessel it is coming through because it is the word of God. The story of Jesus needs no help from man to do its eternal saving work. Perhaps the best preachers, rather than spending 19 hours per week preparing a sermon and 1 hour per week praying for his congregation, would spend 5 hours per week preparing and 15 hours per week praying. Since the preacher cannot prepare another man’s heart, but the Holy Spirit can, perhaps petitioning the Spirit to move in his church and community is the best thing that a preacher, or anyone else, can do. Perhaps this, and only this, can bring revival in our world.

We make the same mistake in school. In Bible times, students would gather around a teacher, standing while he sat, to hear him. The teacher would make the lesson as interesting and useful as possible, but the onus for learning was on the student. If the student didn’t learn it was his own fault, not the instructor’s. Today we spend countless hours and untold dollars trying to make the seed of knowledge grow in hard, stony or thorny hearts. Perhaps that is why we fail.

In truth, the modern Western culture makes the same error in every area of life. We bemoan the lack of leadership, and while our leadership has often failed, how often do we bemoan the lack of followership? Just as Jesus could not work miracles in Nazareth because of the villagers’ hard hearts (Mark 6:4-6), their refusal to believe, so even the best leaders cannot lead men and women whose stony hearts refuse to follow. The finest leader cannot bring stability to the man who has no root in himself and no depth of character. Such a troubled man can neither effectively respond to the gospel nor effectively learn or follow. The same is true for the man who is overcome by cares for worldly things. Perhaps the teacher and the leader would do well to imitate the preacher, making prayer the first priority.

In our haste to avoid placing blame, and especially to avoid “blaming the victim”, we ignore the fact that parishioners bear responsibility for their spiritual growth, students bear responsibility for their learning, and followers bear responsibility for their following. So long as we refuse to believe this we will misunderstand the gospel, misunderstand the world in which we live, and fail to attain the life the God wants for us.