“All people everywhere have seen the victory of our God.” – Psalm 98:3
Our God – a sovereign lion with the gentleness and peace of a lamb – led to the altar to be killed.
A sacrifice meant for death.
Yet a sacrifice meant for love – for reconciliation.
“Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani.”
“Some of the people there heard him and said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah!’ One of them ran up with a sponge, soaked it in cheap wine, and put it on the end of a stick. Then he held it up to Jesus’ lips and said, ‘Wait! Let us see if Elijah is coming to bring him down from the cross!’
“With a loud cry Jesus died.”
This is the victory of our God, and all people have seen it.
All people everywhere surrounding the altar with the slaughtered lamb laying on it – dead.
Singing, crying, weeping, “You are good.”
“The curtain hanging in the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The army officer who was standing there in front of the cross saw how Jesus had died. ‘This man was really the Son of God!’ he said.”
This is the victory of our God, and all people everywhere have seen it.
“‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said. ‘I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here – he has been raised!'”
Our God, Jesus Christ – the sovereign lion with the gentleness and peace of a lamb – slaughtered, placed in a tomb, raised to life, victorious over death and the sin that separates his people from him.
A sacrifice of atonement meant for reconciliation.
A sacrifice of atonement meant for victory and life!
“All people everywhere have seen the victory of our God.”
Even you have seen the victory of our God. What will be your response?
“Rule” does not always have be a negative term. While our first thoughts might associate the word with strict legalism, a rule or discipline can give our spiritual lives the direction we need, so long as Christ’s grace is not forgotten. In fact, with any rule, Christ’s grace must be a priority.
Moreover, within Christian history, a rule can be considered a set of guidelines or precepts. Consider something along the lines of “The Rule of St. Benedict.” I’m not advocating for the type of legalism often found in medieval monasteries, but I am saying that seeking to live by a set of rules and exercising discipline in that rule gives purpose and direction, and forms a foundation for our spiritual lives.
With modern Christianity in the United States being all over the theological and ecclesiastic-church-structure map, often finding itself bogged down in bureaucracy, and even acting like quite the circus, seeking to follow a general, simple rule might be something to consider. In the midst of so many distractions, a rule gives focus. Within the greater Christian Church, the following is a rule that those called by God to do ministry can seek to live by.
1. Seek spiritual formation.
Spiritual formation and cultivating one’s relationship with God come first. Silence, submission, solitude, and time with the Word – the Word as Christ and Scripture – help us understand our true identity in Jesus Christ and the Spirit working within us. These aspects are not all encompassing of spiritual formation, but they start a formation for it. Considering Christ’s greatest commandment, this could be considered as loving God with heart and soul.
Exercising a sabbath, committing one’s self to the fruit of the Spirit, showing humility, and ridding one’s self of arrogant attitudes are all examples of spiritual formation.
2. Exercise the mind.
Just as much as Christians are called to love God with heart and soul, we are also called to love God with our minds. However, learning as much as we can about God must be coupled with spiritual formation. Knowledge, in and of itself, is a tool, must be paired with wisdom, humility, and good judgment, and by itself is not necessarily the end goal. James reminds us that even demons know a lot about God; knowing a lot about theology is important, but it is not the singular factor that determines a Christian. If knowledge is strictly sought for its own end, knowledge can be easily manipulated.
However, we must always seek to challenge ourselves with information, think critically and in a balanced way, stretch and stimulate our minds, evaluate and discern intellectual ideas for what is good and bad, and learn as much as we can about God. Moreover, learning about an idea does not mean agreeing with an idea. Finally, Christians can have civilized dialogue with people about various ideas and philosophies, agree or disagree, and still cheerfully love our neighbors.
Exercising the mind means that intellect and heart go together, not against one another. Intellect and humility show the heart of a Christian. Intellect and arrogance do not and can become an opportunity for knowledge to be manipulated.
Loving God with our minds and seeking to learn as much as we can about God also involves a commitment to staying on the path and trajectory of historical Christian orthodoxy. This path is already at work through the Spirit moving in two millennia of Church history and should be studied.
3. Strive for good health.
We must also love God with our bodies. God created us with physical selves, in goodness, and out of love; therefore we must take care of our bodies. Physical fitness, eating well, and taking care of the overall wholistic health of our bodies and minds are very important. Moreover, doing this, and helping others to do this, allows Christians to maximize God’s gift of life for each one of us with our actions each day. It doesn’t mean maintaining the fitness level of a Navy SEAL or Special Forces Soldier, but it does mean being willing to put in the necessary work to take care of yourself and your body.
4. Live in community.
As Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus, one of the main roles of a church community is to build people in the faith. Community and the people around us help form, build, disciple, and encourage authentic Christians. Community keeps us accountable, helps us learn how to love people that we don’t always want to love, and spend time with one another. Being a Christian is not a solitary activity.
Additionally, community also means understanding the role of the greater catholic, unified Church and the place of all Christians throughout time and space. Within the greater authority of Jesus Christ and his Church, local churches and denominations are not ultimate authorities, nor infallible. Tribalism, denominational sectarianism, and myopic, tunnel-visioned views do nothing to help the body of Christ. We must seek to end these kinds of attitudes and tendencies. Christians must be willing to see orthodoxy and truth in other churches and denominations, partnering with one another and building one another up.
Community makes us humble. As individuals, we have to exercise humility in community and put other people before ourselves. Churches and denominations have to stay humble in the context and authority of God’s greater body – the people of God throughout history, all over the world.
5. Apply simplicity.
Don’t make things more complicated than they have to be. Making things as simple as they can be accomplishes the mission. Occam’s Razor, a rule which generally means that simpler is better, can often be applied to church organizations. Applying simplicity declutters our minds, declutters churches and denominations, and removes distractions, needless obstacles, and layers of bureaucracy that we have set up which, in the end, only take away from fulfilling the mission of God.
Hundreds of years ago, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement in England, preached a message on finances that can be summarized as, “Make as much money as you can and as honestly as you can, so that you can give away as much as you can.”
Work gives individuals a sense of dignity and accomplishment, as well as helps us interact with and witness to the people around us. Moreover, it allows individuals to be in a financial position where they can help others generously when others are in need. I’m sure many of us are familiar with the proverb, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a meal. Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.” Working allows people to be in a position to do both.
The reality is also that work within the church, even in official pastoral ministry, increasingly does not provide necessary finances to take care of one’s family and be as giving as one always wants to be, so it is important to understand that many ministers must look for paid work outside the church. Also, when ministers work full-time outside of ministry, they can better support their families, give to those who are in need, and empower other church leaders to run, lead, and take ownership in a local church.
Make money honestly. Be responsible and generous with it. Know that it belongs to God and you are only a steward of it. Don’t allow money to become an idol.
To conclude, here is a modern (really not so modern) Christian rule: Seek spiritual formation. Exercise the mind. Strive for good health. Live in community. Apply simplicity. Work.
While many people lead, leaders are also necessarily followers on some level. In writing from the viewpoint of the Church, many pastors, ministers, and elders follow the leadership of a bishop, superintendent, or similar position. The hierarchy continues upwards in many denominations and sects of Christianity.
Although superiors have expectations of those who work for them, followers, especially those who are also leading people themselves, have expectations of those who they work for in the hierarchy. In other words, expectations work both ways.
Recently, I came up with a short list of ideals that leaders would want to see from the people who lead them from the next line in the hierarchy. It’s definitely not exhaustive and in no particular order, but I hope this list shows some of the main considerations any leader would want as they also follow. I believe these lessons apply just as much to a church organization as they do to any other organization in the world.
1. Treat people with the same dignity and respect you want to receive. The measure, judgment, and whatever else that you give will be the same measure, judgment, and whatever else that you will receive.
2. Give people opportunities and chances to take initiative.
3. Give people opportunities to earn your respect.
4. Look at people’s potential. Consider accomplishments, but also give weight to their potential.
5. Give people opportunities to be a part of the team.
6. Be humble.
7. He honest. Don’t blow smoke or hot air.
8. Lead, coach, guide, mentor, and invest time in those you are leading.
In his biography of St. Anthony of Egypt (c. A.D. 251-356), St. Athanasius recorded Anthony saying the following in a sermon to those who came to him in the desert:
“Why not rather get those things which we can take away with us – to wit, prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, kindness to the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from wrath, hospitality? If we possess these, we shall find them of themselves preparing for us a welcome there in the land of the meek-hearted.” (Life of St. Anthony of Egypt, para. 17)
While these characteristics found in Anthony’s words seem rather simple, it can often seem difficult to put them into practice. He asks those who came to first examine their own motivations and work on the character of their hearts. However, beyond focusing inwardly and allowing the Spirit to work on our own hearts, there is the temptation to judge these characteristics in the hearts of others. Too often we ignore the difficulty of pulling the plank from our own eye in an effort to help others pull the speck from theirs. Even under the guise of trying to be helpful, it is a temptation that leads to pride, self-righteousness, and even wrath.
Are you willing to take time in silence, perhaps upwards of a half-hour to an hour, to simply pray, meditate, wait on the Spirit patiently, and ask God to illuminate the desires, emotions, and nature of your own heart?
Are you willing to be humble and meek-hearted before God and others, and be slow to judge others before you honestly look at yourself for a period of time, and then ask God to forgive selfish, prideful, or arrogant attitudes?
Are you willing to receive God’s grace and forgiveness for the nature of your own heart, and then extend that grace and forgiveness to others in whose hearts there may be some specks of dirt?
“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” – Galatians 5:22-26 (NRSV)
“For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” – Matthew 6:14-15 (NRSV)
Often, the challenge of the church is to not be the High Council, the Pharisee, the Herodian, the Sadducee, or the scribe. It’s not necessarily that anyone who’s a part of a church tries to become like one of these people. No one does. More often than not, attitudes just start to creep into our lives and hearts slowly. Then one day, after months or years, a Christian, whether an average person or leader, has an experience where he or she suddenly wakes up and realizes that they’ve adopted a religious attitude that Jesus taught against.
Just a few days before his crucifixion, Jesus encountered challenge after challenge from these same leaders of Israel. Reading between Mark 11:27 and 12:44, Jesus encountered all of these groups in a single day at the temple, one right after the other. They all confront his authority, seeking to trap him in one way or the other. In his typical way, Jesus wisely outmaneuvers each of the challenges, condemning the overall attitudes and agendas of each group.
The popular accusation that we so often see today is to call someone a Pharisee. “You’re such a Pharisee!” We see legalism, hypocrisy, and turning extra-biblical conclusions into gospel law.
Remember, though, what Jesus taught in Matthew and Luke about logs and specks in our eyes and our neighbors’ eyes? In confronting the spirit of the Pharisees, we need to be aware that we don’t become Pharisees ourselves! Grace, humility, and forgiveness are essential, as well as having an attitude of being willing to walk an extra mile with the other individual, no matter how much we disagree.
But don’t forget about the other groups. The High Council recognized Jesus’ authority, but did not want to really acknowledge it. The Sadducees and Jesus were very opposed theologically. The Herodians allied themselves with the rulers. And the scribes could be self-righteous and manipulative.
While Jesus constantly challenged the Pharisees, he saw the dangers of the others. He called out members of the High Council with the parable of the tenants. He simply told the Sadducees directly that they were very wrong. And he preached publicly about the self-righteousness of the scribes. Jesus warned against pride, arrogance, condescension, and smugness. These are the very attitudes we must also watch out for in our own hearts.
Too often, in challenging the Pharisees of the church, we unintentionally adopt the spirit of the Sadducees or the scribes of the church. Without realizing it, we engage in arguments and conversations that are arrogant or condescending, masked in a falsely humble assumption that we’re simply correct. And even though we appear to be listening to another’s thoughts and opinions, we’re really only giving lip-service to them instead.
The Sadducees, scribes, and other religious leaders might’ve been more intentional in their arrogance. And unfortunately, outright arrogance can be an easy temptation to fall in to today as well.
Be careful though. Because one day you might be arguing with someone who you consider to be the “least of these” qualified to challenge you about Christianity, interpreting scripture, the ins and outs and details of Christian rituals and sacraments, or politics, philosophy, or whatever other situation or field you might be discussing, and it might just be Jesus telling you, like he did with the Sadducees, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God?” and “You are quite wrong.”
Contrasting all those encounters, there is one encouraging conversation that Jesus had that day at the temple that points us in the right direction. Confrontation after confrontation, Jesus goes against religious leaders trying to trap and manipulate him. Finally, though, a lone scribe comes and has a conversation with Jesus, revealing the true point of the kingdom of God: love God with everything that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-34). In fact, it’s the scribe who says, “This is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
To love God with everything that you are and to love your neighbor as yourself means setting aside arrogance, condescension, and presuppositions that just assume we’re right because we’re right, even in the often subjective world of theology and the too often political world of the church.
So be humble and be willing to authentically listen and engage with others who think differently than you, even theologically and even if they are in the same theological tradition. Set aside arrogant attitudes masked with false humility. With that, the smell of self-righteousness will disappear as well. Loving God means loving your neighbor, no matter who they are, and that must be done genuinely.
Say no to the attitudes of the Pharisees, but also say no the spirits of the Sadducees and scribes. Be humble, repent, and be willing to forgive and ask forgiveness for these types of attitudes and spirits.
Love God. Therefore, love your neighbor as yourself. These two commands are much more important than any other debate or attitude out there, within Christianity and outside of Christianity.
In the first few chapters of John’s Revelation, Jesus addresses the seven churches: “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write….” “And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write….” As well, he asks John to write messages to the churches in Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. In addressing each of these churches individually, he addresses the entire Church – what we need to watch out for, what we must be rebuked about, and what we are doing well on.
Whenever followers of Jesus read these first few chapters, the question hopefully comes up of what Jesus would say to our church today. Would it be an encouraging word? Would it be a rebuke? Would it be a warning?
Since I live in the United States, I often ask, “What would Jesus say to write to the angel of the church in North America?” That’s certainly a loaded, but important, question. I’m sure Jesus would both rebuke and encourage. But I think he would also say that we’re a confused church and that we’re wandering all over the wilderness.
Here’s another way to ask the question: If Jesus was on the way to a meeting of the North American church, and while on the way he saw a fruit tree, would he curse it?
It’s what he did while on the way to the temple.
On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard it. -Mark 11:12-14, NRSV
In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” -Mark 11:20-21, NRSV
Would Jesus actually curse your fig tree?
It seems like a harsh question. It’s a question that many people have a hard time even asking because the idea of Jesus cursing a harmless tree goes against the popular narrative of a culturally hippy Jesus who gives everyone nice feelings of rainbows, butterflies, skittles, sunshine, and unicorns growing in our tummies, and says yes to whatever so long as whatever makes our minds happy and our hearts flutter.
Mark and the other gospels actually tell us a different story of Jesus. Jesus is one who loves unconditionally, forgives, heals, and makes people whole, but also one who challenges authority, debates with a sharp mind, grows impatient and angry, and one who strikes terror into the hearts of disciples and townspeople with his demonstrations of power. The wealthy young man man who came to Jesus even went away grieving, the Pharisees wanted him dead, and the crowds were calling for him to be crucified.
Jesus convicts and asks for hearts to change, and that can be painful.
And, yes, Jesus is also one who curses a helpless fig tree.
When he comes back the next day, it’s withered away, down to the root, and on it’s way to death.
There’s a reason, though, that Jesus curses the tree. Jesus has been known to act out parables before, such as when he healed the blind man in two stages to show that the disciples had not been understanding clearly the first time around. He is doing the same here – bringing a parable and a lesson to life.
The first day in Jerusalem, Jesus entered on a colt, went to the temple, and left. The second day, Jesus passed by the fig tree, cursed it, and went to the temple where he caused mayhem, overthrew tables, and cursed the place. Then he left. The third day, Jesus passed by the fig tree and it was withered away. He went to the temple again where members of the Sanhedrin asked him his authority. He clearly demonstrated his authority when he cursed the fig tree and it withered.
The fig tree represents the temple, the temple system, and everything that went along with it. It’s reasonable to conclude that some of the main reasons for Jesus cursing it were corruption and religious leadership that were leading the people of Israel astray, as well as the possibility that temple ministry that did not allow for gentiles to worship in the way accorded by the law.
Additionally, by Mark’s account, these events occurred only a few days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion. More importantly, with his death and resurrection, the temple system would be obsolete and no longer the place of God. Mark 13 even records this account between Jesus and a disciple:
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” -Mark 13:1-2, NRSV
If the fig tree represents the Jewish religious system of Jesus’ day, what would Jesus say to the fig tree of our modern Christian religious system?
This fig tree grew in the spring. The tree would have been leafy and, if it had any fruit, it wouldn’t have been edible at that time. It would not have grown good fruit until late summer. From a distance, the tree appeared healthy; but when Jesus got to it, the tree either had inedible fruit or no fruit at all.
What kind of fruit is your church growing? What kind of fruit is the church in North America growing?
Have we ended up with inedible crops of self-righteousness that say, “Look at me! Look at us!” Or do our trees produce edible crops of true righteousness from Jesus Christ and the Spirit that point back to God?
Are we more concerned about maintaining systems and fruit that look delicious on the outside, but meanwhile a worm has eaten out the inside, and when we take a bite, the fruit is actually rotten?
Have we become a church that is run either by Pharisees or Sadducees, both pointing fingers at the other, while we miss the point of what it means to be truly like Christ?
Are we a church that is singularly focused on Jesus, allowing him and his Spirit to lead and breathe life into us? Or are we too wrapped up in ourselves and our interpretations of whatever the hot topic is to realize that we are lost, wandering in about 30 different directions all over the forest, and arguing about how to hold the compass?
What is your fig tree like? Would Jesus curse it? Or would Jesus bless it?
I know we all want to Jesus to bless our tree. It’s our gut reaction to say that, of course, Jesus would bless it. And I’m sure there are some that would do all sorts of theological dancing to justify Jesus blessing our various trees, no matter that kind of inedible fruit was growing on them. Obviously no one wants Jesus to curse the tree.
But he did. And he didn’t even ask it to get better. He cursed it. And it withered away, all the way down to its roots.
These are words that need to be reflected on through prayer and time with Jesus and his Spirit. Jesus’ actions here are challenging and convicting, especially for our modern church. It’s a passage in scripture that should be taken seriously by any local church. But especially for the church in North America, this enacted parable can be a hard one to swallow.
The edible, enriching fruit of Jesus Christ is out there. Go after it. In some places, Jesus would bless the fig tree. Unfortunately, though, there are other places where Jesus would walk by the fig tree and say, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.”
“For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” -Mark 4:25, NRSV