Monday, August 28, 2006

Luke on My Mind #6

I admit it; actually, I confess it--I find "Sell your possessions and give to the poor" (Luke 12:33) a hard and difficult saying. Probably more than any other saying of Jesus--even "love your enemies"--I'm inclined to throw up my hands and say "I can't do that."

It puts me in the position of the Rich Young Ruler of Luke 18 and that is an very uncomfortable position in which to be. Now, with the Rich Young Ruler I can recontextualize, spiritualize and delegitimize the demand to "sell your possesssions and give to the poor." That was too specific, too tailored to the heart of that Ruler. Or, was it? Well, I can debate that one with myself.

But I can't "debate" Luke 12:33 which appears in the heart of Luke's rehearsal of Matthew's Sermon on the Mount material. It is "don't worry"--ok, hard but I can handle it. It is "seek his kingdom"--yes, Lord, I will do that. It is "don't be afraid"--yes, Lord, I'll trust you. And, then, like a lightning bolt to my heart, it is "Sell your possessions and give to the poor." And my heart stops and says, "uh, can you repeat that? I'm not sure I heard you right."

This is where my heart is, brothers and sisters. I don't want to sell my possessions. In fact, I want better possessions. I'll give mine away so I can upgrade, but not sell my upgrades so I can give to the poor. That does not make sense--at least not in the culture in which I have been trained, socialized and pampered.

So, what am I to do? Should I obey?

Perhaps I will have to start where this whole discussion started in Luke 12. Someone in the crowd asked Jesus to adjudicate between his brother and himself over inheritance. Jesus refused and pointed to their hearts--only they can act on the nature of their hearts. Life, Jesus said, "does not consist in the abundance of possessions" (Luke 12:15).

Ok, I know that, but what does it mean. Well, it means that we don't build bigger barns. This is the parable that Jesus told in response to this inquiry about inheritance. What do I do with the blessings God has given me? Do I build bigger barns so I can contain them, hoard them and consume them? Or, and I think this is Jesus real answer, don't build bigger barns. Instead take your increase and give it to the poor.

Perhaps that is my starting place on my journey to obey "sell your possessions and give to the poor." Perhaps I just need to start with the simple resolve to never build any more bigger barns. Perhaps I take my increases and give them to the poor. I can at least start there.

So, if you are troubled as I am by this saying to "sell your possessions and give to the poor," perhaps we start by not building any more "bigger barns." We start with using our increase to bless the poor, and then perhaps we can begin downsizing (selling our possessions) and increasing our giving to the poor. We start by not obtaining more before we start doing with less. I think God will honor that direction, but he will not honor the other option.

One more post on this to come and then I will be finished for a own heart cannot stomach the challenge. (Do you like my mixed metaphor?)

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Luke On My Mind #5

Practicing the kingdom of God entails fellowship with the poor. Jesus came to announce “good news” (gospel) to the poor and to liberate the poor from their oppression. He came to sustain the needy and supply their needs.

Acts 2:42 characterizes the early church as devoting themselves to “fellowship” (koinonia). This term can have a wide range of meaning, but in this concern I think it has a fairly narrow concern. Acts 2:42 enumerates the kingdom habits of the church in Jerusalem, and Acts 2:43-47 narrates their practice of them. Luke’s language directly connects 2:42 and 2:44—the church engaged in fellowship (koinonia) as they held all things in common (koina). Their commonality (fellowship) exhibited itself when they sold their possessions and gave to everyone who had need (2:45). Their fellowship was sharing their possessions with each other.

Clearly this was a habit of the Jerusalem church. Luke summarizes the fellowship of the church when he writes that there were no needy among them (Acts 4:35) because people, including Barnabas, sold land and possessions in order to meet the needs of the poor in the church. This ministry continued daily in the church as the widows were fed (Acts 6:1).

At this point I can almost hear myself saying, “Well, those where special circumstances and selling our possessions is a rather rare and unique event in the life of the church. We do not find ourselves in their situation any longer. Selling your possessions is a good thing if you are able and want to do so, but it is a higher calling to which we are not all called. After all, the Rich Young Ruler was told to sell his possessions as a test and it is not the call of Jesus to all of us.”

But if we believe that the early church is simply imitating Jesus, and that their “fellowship” was the continuation of the ministry of Jesus, perhaps we ought to think a bit more carefully about this model in Acts 2-6. Indeed, we need to see how it is rooted in the ministry of Jesus himself.

For the moment I will call attention to one salient feature of Jesus’ teaching in Luke and come back to this point in another post.

There is a line that is practically forgotten in Luke’s account of Jesus “don’t worry” sermon in Luke 12—part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6. We all recognize that we should not worry about our food and clothing just like the lilies of the field and the birds of the air don’t worry. That is difficult enough to obey, but Jesus says more. We also recognize that we should seek the kingdom of God and that just as God has given us the kingdom, he will give us all that we need. That is difficult enough to practice, but Jesus says more…in Luke.

Indeed, the Gospel of Luke contains a sentence that is not in the Sermon on the Mount. It is a sentence that I wish were not there. I want to relativize it, manipulate it, contextualize it, minimize it….I want to do everything I can with it except obey it.

Jesus says—not to the Rich Young Ruler, but to the same disciples (all his disciples) to whom he says “don’t worry,”—he says….”sell your possession and give to the poor (Luke 12:32).

When I read that the early church in Jerusalem was selling their possessions and sharing with the poor (fellowship), and that this was habit (they were devoted to it) of early Christians, I am challenged to think that just perhaps Jesus was serious about “selling our possessions and giving to the poor.”

In our materialistic American culture, it is a hard saying and it may the place where we fail to follow Jesus more than any other.

More on this theme later....

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Luke on My Mind #4

I like to call it "practicing the kingdom of God." With deference to Brother Lawrence, I like this language in addition to "practicing the presence of God." But there is overlapping meaning, I think.

What I call "practicing the kingdom of God" is what James A. Harding called the "means of grace," that is, the communal/individual habits of piety we find in Acts 2:42. They are: listening to God (the apostle's teaching), sharing with the poor (fellowship), gathering in the presence of God (breaking bread), and prayers. Indeed, these were daily habits in the early church--the apostles taught daily in the temple, the church ministered daily to the widows, the church met in their homes to break bread daily, and they went to the daily prayers in the temple.

But I call them "practicing the kingdom of God" because I don't think these habits have independent or autonomous status. They are not "new laws" from the mountaintop of Pentecost. Rather, they are the continuation of the ministry of Jesus. Jesus himself taught daily in the temple, fellowshiped with the poor, broke bread and ate at tables with people, and prayed habitually. The early church, as a group and as individuals, is imitating Jesus--following Jesus and doing the ministry of Jesus.

Jesus heralded the "good news of the kingdom" and practiced the kingdom. The church continues the same--we hearld the good news and practice the kingdom habits through which God breaks into the world to transform it and us.

More on these habits to come.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Luke on My Mind #3

As one reads through Luke, a person cannot help but be impressed by the constant reference to prayer in the life of Jesus and then in the lives of his disciples in Acts. I won't take the time to list all the places where prayer functions in the Gospel of Luke--there are many resources for that (or just use a concordance). However, I do want to point out what I think are three levels of "prayer" or forms of prayer--whatever label we might give them.

1. Jesus prayed alone. There were moments when he spent all night in prayer. For example, his wilderness time was alone--forty days (Luke 4). During his ministry Luke says "he often withdrew to lonely places and prayed" (Luke 5:16). And this might be particularly true on special occasions or moments of momentous decision as when he prayed all night before selecting the twelve (Luke 6:12). Solitude was something Jesus valued at time (Luke 4:42) but he also did not let the need for solitude hinder his ministry with people (Luke 4:42).

2. Jesus prayed with a few. I don't mean here the twelve, though we could think of them as few. Rather, I mean he had an inner circle within the twelve with whom he regularly prayed it seems. For example, ascending the Mount of Transfiguration to pray, he took Peter, James and John with him (Luke 9:28). Though Luke does not point out in his account, Jesus took those same three with him deeper into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. Jesus had an inner circle with whom he prayed, and I think everyone does. We each need those two or three or four people with whom we pray, who hold us accountable, to whom we confess our sins, etc. We need the habit of regularly praying with the same few who know us and we know them--a circle of trust, intimacy and caring.

3. Jesus prayed with the many. We could say the tweleve are many, but also in the temple with the many. He prayed in public groups. He engaged in public prayer and rituals of prayer (as in the temple). He taught his disciples to pray at their request. We all need the experience of corporate prayer where the community offers a litany for the world, for the church, for marriages, for peace, for justice. We all need to participate in that public witness before the world.

Perhaps the Garden of Gethsemane illustrates these three levels/habits. He goes to the Garden to pray with the twelve (many), then takes three with him a bit deeper into the Garden (the few), but ultimately goes alone to a place to pray (solitude). I seek to imitate those three habits in my own life--praying with the many, the few, and alone. I encourage you to find a regular habit of prayer in your own life, and the model of Jesus is not a bad one to follow.

If we are disciples of Jesus, then we will follow him in his prayer life, his prayer habits. Those habits say something important about him and our habits will say something important about us. To follow Jesus--to be his disciple--is to be a praying person.