Tag Archives: secularism

Living in the Intersection

The Readings: 

1 Kings 19:4-8; Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2;John :35, 41-51

 

In John 6:38, Jesus said, “I have come down from heaven.” The Jews murmured about this statement. When you read this verse, you can almost hear the susurration flowing through the crowd. “He came down from heaven?” “What does he mean, from heaven?” “Who does he think he is?” “Did you hear that? How could he have come from heaven?” “We know where he came from!” The whispers spread, but nobody actually wanted to confront Jesus after he had said “the name.” Jesus, the son of Mary and the carpenter, said, “I AM the bread of life,” and that was scary. Then Jesus said that he came from heaven. What gave him that idea? Yet nobody could quite explain how a carpenter’s son had fed five thousand people, either.

The Jews muttering about Jesus were exactly like contemporary secular thinkers who reject Christ on the ground that the notions of deity and heaven are myths. The Jews would never have gone so far as to say that God did not exist, but their faith that God existed did not extend far enough to wrap itself around a flesh and blood man who claimed that he came down from heaven.

The culture in the USA, bewildered over the question of whether Islam is or isn’t a violent religion, puzzled by the notion that a Christian could be spiritual and not religious, confused by celebrity writers and talk show stars who claim that every person is actually his own god, cannot wrap its communal mind around the idea that the universe of time and space actually is not all there is. There are a lot of religions and plenty more spiritual practices. They can’t all be right. Maybe they are all just a lot of wishful thinking expressed by good story-tellers. The culture is tired of trying to sort through all the myths. Pure reason says that if we can’t measure it, then it does not exist. There is nothing particularly wrong if people want to believe in the easter bunny or the tooth fairy or any sort of god or God Almighty, but the culture finds such ideas not particularly useful. The culture wants those ideas gathered up and swept out of the public forum. Put those fanciful ideas in little boxes, buildings, and let those who enjoy the fantasies go into the buildings and play their games all they want without bothering the rest of us.

The Jews were beginning to believe that Jesus was a good storyteller with great sleight of hand tricks who needed to be brought under control before he upset the Romans and made the government mad at the Jews for creating a public nuisance. That is the secular culture’s vision of Christianity, too – a public nuisance.

The Jews, of course, did have faith in God. They claimed faith in the God who, according to Jesus, had sent him down from heaven to earth. The Jews had a history with God, and one of the most important details of that history concerned the manna that saved their ancestors from starvation in the wilderness. They looked back to those days, remembered how Moses had taught the Israelites to eat the manna, and asked Jesus if he could show them something that miraculous.

Christ’s answer to the Jews was to point out that despite eating manna, all those ancestors were dead. Their wonderful story was wonderful as a time-space survival story, but even though the people who ate manna lived longer than they would have lived without it, they, nevertheless, eventually died. The miracle of manna was no different from the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. The people who ate manna, and the people who ate the miraculously-multiplied loaves and fish, were still destined to die. Ancient manna, Galilean bread – they were the foods of time and space.

Christ responded to the Jews the way he responds today to secular thinkers. He asked what becomes of the people who limit themselves to this world. The answer is that nobody gets out of here alive. Human beings limited to this world of time and space are limited to a world in which evil runs free and death is final.

Jesus closes with a reference to the bread in the Eucharist. He foreshadows his own crucifixion and the institution of the Lord’s Supper when he says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” When the communion server says to me, “The body of Christ, given for you,” I am reminded that Jesus died in the flesh for me, but he did not stay dead. He rose again. He lives. When I eat the bread, I am reminded that Jesus said, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.” The flesh of the living Christ is in, with, and under the bread I eat, and it nourishes my life eternal.

The lesson here is a reminder to all Christians that we live constantly at the intersection of time and eternity. We don’t live simply in the present. Our words and deeds have meaning in both time and eternity. Our lives, our testimonies to Christ, are both temporal and eternal. We cannot live in the eternal framework only when we are inside a church building. We cannot leave that eternal connection behind when we exit the building. Wherever a Christian goes, his location is always the same: the intersection of time and eternity. Our culture and secular thinkers in our government may think there can be a separation, but Christ teaches us that we are not discrete religious and non-religious persons. Each one of us lives eternally at the same time we live in time and space.

Christ’s interaction with the murmuring Jews should remind Christians of two things:

  • If the Jews who knew God and were, at least in theory, waiting for the Messiah could not accept him when they saw him, we have good reason to show compassion and love for the people in our culture who also do not recognize the Christ, in us or in the Bible. 
  • Our loving and faithful testimony will not always stir up a loving response. We can expect scorn and opposition, no matter how loving and faithful our behavior is.

This Sunday, when the server hands you bread and says, “The body of Christ, given for you,” listen intently for the voice of Christ in your heart, reminding you, “Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” When you leave the sanctuary and step out into the street, remember that no matter where you are, you are at the intersection of time and eternity. May all your words and deeds invite others, no matter how incredulous or scornful they may be, to join you in that blessed intersection.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The book of Mark tells the story of Jesus’ early ministry in a way that sounds quite incredible. He goes from one miracle to another. He is a major celebrity. Townspeople welcome him as a star, and the religious leadership feels quite threatened by him.

In Mark 6:1-6, however, nobody feels threatened. In fact, nobody is impressed, either. In Nazareth, Jesus is not a celebrity. Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Everybody knew Mary and Joseph, and they knew that Jesus was the oldest of the children. In this text, people rattle off the names of Jesus’ brothers, they know his sisters are still in town, probably married, and they know that until he started wandering around the countryside, he worked as a carpenter. Despite all the rumors about miracles and exorcisms and healings, Jesus looks just the same to the residents of Nazareth as he ever looked when he was sawing pieces of lumber for his father.

It isn’t simply that they know him, however. They are at great pains not to be impressed. I think Nazareth was a lot like the town where my grandmother lived, the town where my dad grew up. When we visited there, all the men and women of my grandmother’s generation made sure we all knew that to them, my dad was not an important civil engineer with the highway department. To those ladies and gentlemen, he was that kid Billy that Doran used to take fishing on Peedee Ditch. He was the one who didn’t pay attention in Sunday School. My dad was an adult, but the people of his home town kept him humbled by the fact that they knew all about his childhood behavior. To them, he was no celebrity.

Jesus was faced with the same problem. Mark writes that Jesus simply could not help the people of his home town. Why not? Because they had no faith. In Mark 5, Jesus healed a woman who merely touched his robe, because she had faith. Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, because when the little girl’s parents listened when Jesus said, “Do not fear; only believe.” The people of Nazareth had no faith in this carpenter-turned-rabbi, and they weren’t about to let him pull the wool over their eyes. They knew him.

Sadly, they did not know him. Their self-confident appraisal of Jesus shut down their ability to see who Jesus really was.

Our culture has the same problem. Lots of people think that Jesus is just another god in a pantheon of charlatans, idols and myths. They think they know all about religion. They think human beings have outgrown their need for faith, miracles and salvation. Our generation is too sophisticated to learn how to find Bible verses and name the twelve apostles. In the twenty-first century, people are busy trying to save the world from pollution and global warming. They feel that God is a needless dead weight from the primitive past. They are not impressed by people who talk about Jesus.

Christians living in the US today face the same problem Jesus faced in Nazareth when they try to talk to their friends about Christ. In fact, if they simply carry a Bible or wear a necklace with a cross pendant or suggest prayer in response to a national tragedy, they may encounter a stronger reaction than mere dismissal. They may encounter angry rejection at the very idea of trying to foist off such partisan behavior on other people. Recent events have shown Christians how completely secular our culture is becoming, all because people with no connection to any faith believe that people who have any faith whatsoever are ignorant, immature or perhaps a little crazy.

Our culture believes it is too well educated and too mature in its understanding of all things religious to swallow the idea that humans are sinful and need to be saved or that there could possibly be a God who cares about humans. In the face of such rejection it is hard for Christians to say or do anything that might persuade someone otherwise. Jesus could not do major miracles for the people of Nazareth because of their lack of faith.American Christians can hardly make a big impression on Americans who hold a secular worldview for the same reason.

We can learn something from the way Jesus handled the situation. He made himself available to Nazareth, and after they had enjoyed their condescending scorn, he simply continued to do what he had been doing before he arrived there. In fact, he multiplied his work by sending the disciples out to do the same thing. Jesus did not give up on people when they rejected him.

We must not give up either. Even though the American culture is trying very hard to shut down public expression of Christian faith, we who know Christ cannot take it personally. The culture is rejecting us because we are annoying “little Christs” just what the word Christian says we are. We have one calling, to be like Christ. We must forget about any insults to ourselves and go forward just as Jesus did telling the good news and loving people we meet along the way.

To the people of Nazareth, there was a contemptible familiarity about Jesus, a familiarity they could not see through to the truth. To us, secularism may appear to be contemptibly familiar, too, and we may simply not want to deal with it anymore. Jesus did not give up on people because of the scorn of Nazareth. Likewise, Christ does not call us to protect our own self-image and dismiss those who dismiss us. Christ calls us to tell the good news and make disciples even among those who reject us with the same condescension the people of Nazareth showed toward Jesus.