Christlikeness: turning over the tables and driving out the money changers (consider with caution)

Then Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. He said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’
but you are making it a den of robbers.”

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them.

Matthew 21:12-14

There seems to be an understanding of Christ as the one who was meek and mild, and always nice. And that if we’re to be like Christ we’ll also always be nice. We should always love everyone including our enemies. But what does love look like at times?

At the very least, sometimes we need to say the hard things. This may not be true of most of us, although all of us on some scale will need to do this even if the truth spoken is only with reference to ourselves. Jesus did and said the hard things in “the cleansing of the Temple.”

We are not Jesus so that if we ever depart from the general way of Christ-like love: humility and gentleness with a deference to all, then we’d better do so with much caution. Our default should always be to have a love which accepts all just as they are, but sometimes we have to challenge the systems, authorities and powers. Even attempt to throw a wrench in them to stop the works.

We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

It’s my own opinion that Christ is not that much present among those gathered in his name who are really not that much about Christ’s business. Usually taking in more of a personal application of Scripture which is often good to that point but stops there. We as followers of Christ have to be willing to take the hard stand at times, to do and say the difficult thing. Although again for most of us, we simply live in a way that is counter-cultural, in contrast to all the wrong, and leave the direct confrontation to those gifted or set apart for that.

We have to think through this with the utmost caution. For some, including myself, there’s a strong inclination and temptation to see confrontation as a default. If something is broke, we want to fix it. If it’s wrong, we want to call it out in no uncertain terms. It’s better for people like myself to stop in our tracks and pray. And pray some more with others and give it time. But after that it might be good for us to gently yet firmly step in and speak the truth.

Just something to consider.

what are we here for?

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:17-20

After the “beatitudes” and the salt and light portion, in what’s called “the Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus says the above. What he is saying about fulfillment of the Law and Prophets and the necessity of the righteousness of his hearers exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees, those considered the foremost religious leaders of that time certainly involves piety along a host of issues such as alms giving, prayer, marital relations just to name a few. But it surely also involves an awareness of how the Law and the Prophets along with the rest of Scripture needs application then and in our present day within society itself. If what we’re about only has to do with our personal piety and the personal piety of those gathered with us, along with trying to bring others into that same circle, all with the goal of entering the kingdom of heaven, then we’re definitely not going far enough, and could well be missing the point. What after all is our piety for? Just for our own good and the good of those joined with us? Or for the good of all, even of the world, with a sensitivity to what is right and just and good.

Churches that major on individual application of Scripture, thinking that’s the way to help not only individuals, but society at large, really fail to see the entire picture or see it correctly, what is evident in the Prophets and elsewhere. We as God’s people are after all the salt of the earth, the light of the world, what Jesus said just preceding the above quoted Scripture. Salt and light is meant to make a difference in the world at large, not only in individuals in the world. Or at least so I think. If concern for the world and systems in it is added on as something going beyond what is required, as an extra, that’s not enough. Such actually should be a part of the whole.

Yes, only in Jesus is this worked out and completed toward the perfection and shalom that God wants. But that light that we have in Jesus should expose the darkness of the world, and at least advocate for something better within the systems in the world. As we await the return of the one who will clean up the mess once for all and forever. In and through Jesus.

a peace that’s not only personal

On that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city;
he sets up walls and bulwarks as a safeguard.
Open the gates,
so that the righteous nation that maintains faithfulness
may enter in.
Those of steadfast mind you keep in peace—
in peace because they trust in you.
Trust in the LORD forever,
for in the LORD GOD
you have an everlasting rock.
For he has brought low
the inhabitants of the height;
the lofty city he lays low.
He lays it low to the ground,
casts it to the dust.
The foot tramples it,
the feet of the poor,
the steps of the needy.

Isaiah 26:1-6;  NRSVue

“Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee” (KJV) is a well known verse turned into song. That this applies to us as individuals is wonderfully and blessedly true. But to be faithful to the biblical text, we need to read the context, the whole. We’ll then discover that it indeed has societal, global implications. It’s about a nation that maintains faithfulness. And that faithfulness as we see also in the context is with reference to justice, and specifically justice for the poor.

Yes, we can personalize and enjoy this passage ourselves. But we’ll miss a lot, even the point of this passage, if we focus only on that. One of the most serious weaknesses of precious promise books, whatever good they actually do have. It’s a city no less, given to justice for the poor. Something which needs to be heard loud and clear today. What churches should be about. A central part of the expression of our faith. In and through Jesus.

pray and love, love and pray (the theme I keep returning to)

The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers. Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins.

1 Peter 4:7-8; NRSVue

I keep coming back to the same theme again and again: Love and pray; pray and love. I have often thought I would enjoy or at least appreciate being a part of a monastic (married) order. The idea is not just here and there, now and then practice of this and that, but a regular communal practice of scripture readings, prayers, and partaking of Communion together. That is not likely, so I try to practice it faithfully when it’s offered with others, as well as in my own practice. I am thankful for the newish Mennonite hymnal, Voices Together, which has a helpful morning and evening office in the back which keeps me in scripture, and in regular prayer.

I see the world at a dangerous place, maybe a precarious tipping point. Climate change with catastrophic consequences ahead if it’s not addressed forthrightly, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, racial injustice in the United States and in many other places in the world, an attack on democracy by an authoritarian rule which is even cloaked with the name “Christian” and is often ardently supported by Christians in a deadly and idolatrous union of church and state, and I’m sure there are numerous other concerns that deserve attention. You may not agree with all I list here, or you might see things somewhat differently. What we will agree on is that these are difficult times.

First of all we have to make sure that we’re aspiring to be followers of Christ. Christian is not enough, and especially with ties to a Christendom which fails to see the radical nature and difference of Christ and Christ’s kingdom in this world. While we hope and pray for the best of each nation in which we live, our citizenship and allegiance is elsewhere. We are citizens of anything in this world in a loose, secondary sense. We pay taxes and give due honor and respect and want to contribute to what is good, but as aliens.

I think of those younger: children and grandchildren. What they will be left with. Yes, people like to remind us all the time that “God is in control,” but remember that God lets people have the consequences of their ways. What is important for us who name the name of Christ is to really be led by the Spirit as Christ followers. The fruit of the Spirit evident in our lives.

And what more can we do than love and pray? Good works must follow, or our prayer and love will be empty, hollow, or at least not as full as it needs to be.

As is pointed out in the passage above, this requires self-discipline on our part along with a maintaining of constant love in the community, an attitude with corresponding actions supporting both. What I want to be about, growing in that, whatever else I think. Not letting up and seeking to live that out with others. In and through Jesus.

trying to see the big picture

Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD!
Why do you want the day of the LORD?
It is darkness, not light,
as if someone fled from a lion
and was met by a bear
or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall
and was bitten by a snake.
Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light,
and gloom with no brightness in it?

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them,
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like water
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Amos 5:18-24; NRSVue

Trying to see the big picture, things as they really are will require both an openness and sustained effort on our part. Amos is a prophet who certainly saw, something inherent within prophets, earlier called seers, receiving a vision from God. And often that vision had everything to do with the times in which they lived, seeing the current situation in light of God’s revealed will, eventually in light of the kingdom of God which was and is meant to bring flourishing to all of humanity, to all of creation.

Amos’s words, indeed his calling was not an easy one, certainly true of all the Hebrew prophets. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed Amos’s words in the most difficult task he undertook of seeking racial justice, equality, and reconciliation. King’s passion was rooted in the gospel, the good news of Christ, and the vision cast through that, calling America to the best in its tradition, though it’s not certain that the US Constitution advocated for individual liberty for all, but that’s another topic, and well beyond what I could address (interesting article on this). But after decades and decades, not to mention centuries of wrongdoing to the Africans enslaved in America, the United States went through the upheaval it did hitting against the climax of the Civil War. Yet not ending with that as more was in the works given that much was not healed and made right. True to a significant extent right up to the present day, in fact becoming most evident in recent times.

There’s no question that just like during Amos’s time, we are up against what seems to be intractable forces, or to try to make it clearer, it seems like the fallout is here, that we are going through a perfect storm as it were, that the result of our ways (I include myself in that, too) has pressed in on us. That people on both sides have had enough. During Amos’s time the poor and oppressed could do little. During our time there is both the sense in which they think they can do more, but those who give up are often tempted to despair with a few giving into violence. And those whites who feel their lives are needlessly threatened by all of this, a few of them are ready for violence as well.

Both Amos and Dr. Martin Luther King’s call is entirely different. It is about stepping back and trying to see the big picture both in terms of what actually is, and what God would have be. That comes through being in scripture (Hebrew scripture and the New Testament- considering the Apocrypha with that) and prayer. And doing so in community, but all of this with an eye to try to see the current reality. Listening to everyone, especially those who are marginalized or feel that way. The poor, the stranger, and in this time where I live, first of all the people of color beginning with African Americans and the indigenous, and along with them all others: refugees, Muslims, Chinese, etc.

Unless we do this, we’re not actually seeing as either the prophets or Jesus saw. With the goal of acting in the love of God which Jesus brought with the willingness to suffer in love and out of that same love, for others. Knowing that the good news in Jesus is one of reconciliation of all, involving working through everything that means. In and through Jesus.

what to occupy ourselves with

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. As for the things that you have learned and received and heard and noticed in me, do them, and the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:8-9; NRSVue

What do we occupy ourselves with: our thoughts, what we see, what we hear, as well as what we actually do? Paul tells us here that we’re to take in what is good not just in terms of Christian good, but of all the good that is in human culture. It has been pointed out that the terms here are Roman and Greek, not so much Jewish. In other words, we might say that the door was being opened to take in all that is good in human culture. For me that includes a daily not just dose, but immersion into classical music. I personally enjoy other kinds of music as well, but that is the genre I settle into again and again. What you enjoy may be quite different. But whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing and commendable; anything with excellence or that is praiseworthy, we’re to “take account of” (Greek according to NRSVue footnote) such things. That will require some sifting. Some things I take in with more care, because there’s quite a bit that is not good to sift out.

And Paul makes the point that the recipients of this letter were to follow his example. That reminds me that we’re to look up to those who seek to follow Christ, especially those who are seasoned in doing so. With the implicit challenge that we too want to live lives that others can emulate, not at all so that might think we’re great because we’re not. But so that they might see Christ in us, even as we see Christ in others.

In and through Jesus.

the one constant

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Hebrews 13:8

Scripture points us to Jesus, and God’s fulfillment of all things in and through him. One might want to say that Scripture is the constant, and it’s certainly central in all traditions of the Christian faith, of the faith itself, as we might put it. But it points beyond itself to Jesus.

This doesn’t mean for a moment that we shouldn’t pay close attention to all the details in Scripture, because indeed we should. Pre-Christ, during his time on earth, and post-Christ we might say, meaning after his ascension. Jesus made that clear:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter,[a] not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

Matthew 5:17-18

And what is accomplished includes everything. The church should be the light in Jesus which both exemplifies the beginning of that, as well as speaking out on it by those who are pastors and theologians and lay people who learn from such and are so gifted.

Jesus is the one forever constant, and God’s will fulfilled in him. To bring us into the fullness of God the Source of All Being, the Eternal Word, and the Holy Spirit. To right all wrongs and make all things new.

And the church is central to the beginning of this now. In and through Jesus.

the gospel and salvation is personal in more ways than one

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

Most often in the Christian tradition I’ve been a part of for decades, the gospel and salvation is personal with reference to our individual relationship to God, and to each other. And that’s good insofar as it goes. But we need to take personally the entire vision God casts. Yes, we have only our small part in that, but it’s our God-given part, and therefore a gift fitting into the whole.

We have to take this personally where we live: among our loved ones, in our neighborhood, in the church, at work, and in the world beyond where we live. In the words of Micah: we’re to do justice, to love kindness and mercy, as we walk humbly with our God. Simple, yet profound.

This means we really do want to understand what is going on around us. If we’re part of a church and denomination involved in such with good works, we can be thankful, and we can learn a lot from them.

This is to become a part of who we are, as well as what we’re about. What we’re aspiring and learning to do day after day, week after week, and year after year. In and through Jesus.

the gospel and salvation is not only personal

Of Solomon.

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy,
and crush the oppressor.

May he live[a] while the sun endures,
and as long as the moon, throughout all generations.
May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass,
like showers that water the earth.
In his days may righteousness flourish
and peace abound, until the moon is no more.

May he have dominion from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.
May his foes[b] bow down before him,
and his enemies lick the dust.
May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
render him tribute,
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts.
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations give him service.

For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight.

Long may he live!
May gold of Sheba be given to him.
May prayer be made for him continually,
and blessings invoked for him all day long.
May there be abundance of grain in the land;
may it wave on the tops of the mountains;
may its fruit be like Lebanon;
and may people blossom in the cities
like the grass of the field.
May his name endure forever,
his fame continue as long as the sun.
May all nations be blessed in him;[c]
may they pronounce him happy.

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
who alone does wondrous things.
Blessed be his glorious name forever;
may his glory fill the whole earth.
Amen and Amen.

The prayers of David son of Jesse are ended.

Psalm 72

The vision cast in Scripture is that of the kingdom of God encompassing the earth, a rule in which no one is left behind with particular attention payed to the multitudes which either are left behind or given secondary status now. And that vision includes judgment against rulers and peoples who are directly or indirectly involved in oppressing the poor and marginalized, or who have failed to give them needed help.

God’s heart is especially toward the downcast, and God expects God’s people to have that same heart. If our faith is only about how well we’re getting along in life, even growth in Christ-likeness yet without expressed concern about this, then we’re failing to see and seek the realization of this vision so clearly cast in scripture after scripture.

What we’re referring to here involves not just personal sins, but systemic evil as well. When any people for any reason are relegated to a secondary status and worse, than it’s a mistake to suppose that it doesn’t involve something wrong in the works. Often the poor are looked down on, just as James reminds us, and those of another ethnicity and culture as well. Yet Jesus will have none of that. If we’re followers of Christ we’ll learn to develop discernment and a sensitivity to the same.

If we really want to be biblical, then we’ll develop a passion for this. Precisely what the psalmist wrote about in Psalm 72, above. Yes, to be completely fulfilled someday in Jesus. But that light present now in Jesus, a part of what the world should see we’re about in the present, as the church. In and through Jesus.

we bear witness to a better day

In the last days

the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.

Many peoples will come and say,

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the temple of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.

Come, descendants of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Isaiah 2:1-5

Today in the United States is Memorial Day when Americans who lost their lives in military service are honored. We indeed should remember them and their sacrifice. But we as followers of Christ and the church of Christ ought to point to a better day when violence is not only the last resort alas unlike today, but when war will be no more.

That thought sounds so unreasonable when there’s so much violence and evil in the world. We have to remember that violence is not ended with more violence. Sooner or later that cycle continues as old grievances surface. Unfortunately what ought to be and what actually is are so far apart. It’s like you have to use a hopefully sanctified imagination to think of anything which could be different.

Violence is a fact of life, embedded in the human existence. There is not the necessary trust in God, in Christ with the hope/anticipation of the resurrection to make the commitment to something else. But if churches of Christ aren’t doing this, then what does that say about our witness? Are we just supposed to be okaying, even strongly supporting military action and wars of the state? Surely not.

We in Jesus point to a better day. By how we live along with our telling of this. We encourage nations to make peacemaking the priority, along with trying to understand and address underlying issues behind the violence. Realizing indeed that all violence will not be vanquished until Christ returns. Nevertheless doing all we can to point ourselves and others to a better day. And hopefully seeing that played out more in creative ways in opposition to oppressive regimes, with the commitment to do good to the distressed, and ultimately to all. A tall order indeed. But a large part of our calling. In and through Jesus.