Would Jesus Curse Your Fig Tree?

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.

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Yellowstone Wilderness; Photo by Patricia Verbovszky

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.

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Tree Roots; Photo by Patricia Verbovszky

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?

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Yellowstone Forest; Photo by Patricia Verbovszky

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

For more exegesis on the fig tree in Mark 11, see “Clearing Up Confusion In Cursing.”

Blood Worth More than Silver or Gold

The blood of Jesus Christ is precious.   It is worth more than all the treasures of silver or gold that the world could offer!   But Christ also calls us to live in a way worthy of his precious blood.  Do you desire this way of life?

The text for this sermon is 1 Peter 1:17-23.   I pray that these words will challenge you to seek after the precious blood of Christ.

Christ, the Way to God

I recently had an opportunity to preach to soldiers in the U.S. Army Reserve at a chapel service for WAREX in Ft. McCoy.   The text for this sermon is John 17:1-11.

I pray that this sermon challenges you to continue to place your faith in Christ.  I also pray that, if you are not a Christian, this sermon will encourage you to turn to Christ!

Crusades No More

God shattered Peter’s mindset when he received a vision of God; Peter realized, “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.”

As a result, Peter reached out to the gentile Cornelius, one whom it was illegal for Peter to talk to, and spoke the truth of Christ to him.

Peter changed his mindset toward “them.”   What is your mindset toward “them,” “the others,” “the outsiders?”

The main text for this sermon is Acts 10:34-43.  I had the opportunity to preach this sermon at the West Chester Church of the Nazarene on January 12, 2014, during the Sunday morning service.

I pray that the Holy Spirit challenges you as you listen and may God bless you.

Decisions

It’s been quite a busy summer for me.  As a result, unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to write many posts for my website.  I will try to post more articles this fall!

This morning I had a chance to preach at the church where I am an associate pastor, the West Chester Church of the Nazarene.  Here’s an audio copy of the sermon.  I pray that God will speak to you through it as you listen!

 

 

The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi

The prayer commonly attributed to the great 13th century Christian Saint of the catholic Church:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon:
where there is doubt, faith:
where there is despair, hope:
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not
so much seek to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Perhaps in praying and living these words in unity with the rest of the catholic Church, we may be a humble representative of God’s holy kingdom, empowered by the Spirit, with Christ as our leader, to a fallen world seeking the hope and healing that only the Father, the Son, and the Spirit can bring.

Amen.

Sexuality: Calling for an Authentic Conversation

by Ben Cremer

I have been mulling over several of Walter Bruggemann’s essays as of late. His exposition on our contemporary culture brings forward several needed elements that are essential for an authentic dialogue over the topic of human sexuality. In our mainstream culture, a cloud of ambiguity surrounds this topic; and the culture as a whole seems bent on keeping it that way.

We live in a culture that endlessly advocates and calls for freedom; specifically in this case, sexual freedom. What causes me to be apprehensive is that, as many people are demanding freedom in our mainstream culture, not many seem to explicitly contemplate over the ‘kind’ of freedom being demanded, or more importantly, in what is our mainstream culture’s understanding of freedom rooted? When I bring up the topic of philosophy in a conversation with acquaintances, it is generally met with a look of fatigue, disregard, or even an eye-roll. This seems to be the norm of how philosophy is perceived in mainstream culture – philosophy just doesn’t bear authority over how we understand reality. I think this general disdain towards philosophy is in defense of a deeply ingrained belief: the belief that we as individuals determine our own reality. Brueggemann helps us by showing how this belief and our culture’s understanding of freedom were shaped through a particular… philosophy!

Brueggemann rightly portrays our mainstream notion of freedom as comprised of several strong philosophical ideas. In summation: Descartes’s establishment of the human doubter as the norm of truth, Locke’s presentation of the human person as a rational, free decider, and Kant’s framing of the human as the autonomous actor and the one who shapes functional reality. He then writes, “This Enlightenment ideology has received its popular form in a Freudian theory of repression in which human maturation is the process of emancipation from communal authority that is extrinsic to the individual person and therefore fundamentally alien to mature humanness. Thus the human goal is movement beyond any restraints that come under the category of repression.”

Naturally, in our culture of freedom, we despise anything that calls for unquestioned and thoughtless allegiance. Yet, as good children of the Enlightenment, we have given our unquestioned allegiance to this fantasy of unfettered freedom – that we should be held accountable to no one. This idea shows itself in how our mainstream culture regards and expresses the nature of human desire. All that seems to be presented in mainstream culture is that humans have desires, individuals have a right to express those desires as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others, and anything that hampers this right of expression should not be tolerated. Consequently, this unquestioned allegiance to the Enlightenment’s fantasy of unfettered freedom presupposes our unquestioned allegiance to the whims of our individual desires.

This talk of human desire is necessary because of how much it plays into our mainstream culture’s understanding of sexuality. Much of how we define sexuality is framed within the context of feeling or desire. Much of what is determined about one’s sexual orientation begins, at least basely, at how a person feels towards the opposite, same, or both sexes. In mainstream culture, no serious questions are being asked on where our desires come from, how they are formed, of what are they comprised, how do they manifest themselves, how are they to be managed or, heaven forbid, can we be deceived by them? No, our conversation begins and ends with the individual’s right to determine and maintain a sexual identity. People will cheer the exercise of this ‘right’ as a sexual freedom not seeing it for what it really is, isolation. Sexuality at its core is an interactive expression – a way of communicating the self to and with the outside world. So, when we leave the deciphering of sexual identity completely up to individual desire through the lens of the individual experience, all that can really be accomplished is eloquent terms of sexual preference. Because the fantasy of the Enlightenment relegates individuals solely to silent experimentation within society by denying ambiguous thoughts and questions and a robust sexuality demands robust and open communication.

This isolationism is one of the reasons we have the puzzling argument in mainstream culture over being “born this way” and the idea that it is by “individual choice” that one’s sexual identity is formed. As if the two can really be separated and set against each other! Everything about who we are regarding how we relate to and identify ourselves within the outside world from the moment of birth is a conglomeration of genetics, brain chemistry, culture, physicality, biology, point in history, and choice. Individual choice has no say over the aforementioned human building blocks. Simultaneously however, one cannot live without making a choice somewhere along the way to participate or not to participate in a particular way of being in the world. Thus, attempting to make a distinction between choice and birth is reductionistic and harmful. The former denies free will while the latter denies the nature of growth. The irony of this fantasy of unfettered individual freedom is that enacting within it causes a legalistic relationship between our true self and our desires. For to make our unique, irreducible, unrepeatable identity known, we force our selves to pigeon-hole, reduce, and endlessly repeat a declaration of self to the outside world to maintain integrity and a place within it that isn’t subjugated to an authority. How often must we relearn Icarus’ lesson? That the freedom given to us through the wax wings of individualism, however intense, powerful, and passionate the flight may be, will always melt away in the heat of reality, leaving us in a shocking freefall alone. Our lives were brought forth through community, and for us to decipherer an authentic identity of self, including our sexuality, must be through an honest engagement within a loving and challenging community.

Our mainstream culture is made up of many separations of our own making. We have scripture separated from history and thus from the Church; the Church separated from Christ; spirituality separated from religion; information technology has helped us separate labor from learning; and we have the identity of the individual separate from community. These separations are neither loving nor challenging but deceitful; for they all detach the object from its context. Freud understood that sexuality is a sphere of endless inscrutability, the arena of our true selves and the place in our life for deepest deception and pathology. If we continue to operate under the assumption that the Enlightenment’s fantasy of unfettered freedom is the best atmosphere for the individual, endlessly praising the burden and isolation of self-determination, then we will continue to not ask hard questions of ourselves and others regarding sexuality. If we continue to deny that human desires can be self-deceptive we will continue choking on the idea that authentic sexuality is based on the ‘theory’ that unfettered human desire manifests pure truth. This illusion will only ever leave us with lifeless sexual ethics. We will continue to have raging disputes between equality and condemnation among individuals who think they are debating over sexual identity but are actually only debating over their differing understanding of how the unfettered human desire should be interpreted and expressed. Our culture is bent on producing autonomous individuals rather than fostering authentic persons.

If this continues, it will not matter how many governmental legislations are passed or not passed. Individuals will still be left secluded and alone left to forge out the ambiguity of sexuality on their own. This recipe will not only suppress an authentic understanding and expression of sexuality based on examined desires but will maintain coercive behavior that crushes and often misdirects true desire and cuts people off from authentic community. Many so-called religious folk have done great work in carrying out this coercive behavior under the banner of their fidelity to God. But Brueggemann tempers this condemning behavior with this corrective of enacting an authentic fidelity to God regarding sexuality. He writes, “such a perspective requires much more than embracing traditional mores, because fidelity means something quite different from “abstaining” or “staying married” or “being straight”. It means rather being in a relation that is genuinely life-giving and life-receiving, where the work of neighbor regard is practiced. And covenantal freedom means finding modes of fidelity congruent with one’s true self and the capacity to be emancipated from “legal” relationships that are in fact destructive and hopelessly demeaning.”

A word to we Christians: Humanity is made in the image of God: three holy persons, not Enlightenment individuals. No person of the Trinity is exploited, reduced, or oppressed by another person of the Trinity. But rather each person of the Trinity pours themselves out for the other—an authentic community. We, as human beings, were hardwired to reflect an image. If we choose our own way apart from God, we won’t stop reflecting an image; we’ll simply begin reflecting something else. Just as Adam and Eve found out in the garden, this type of “freedom from authority” will always lead to oppression and exploitation of others as well as ourselves. Apart from God, we do not know what nature to reflect and grow in to. Thus, ambiguity will then be our nature and ambiguity is what we’ll grow in to. We cannot be free to express or know our true self, including our sexuality, unless we are “dead to Christ” (emphases on WE). The unfettered freedom of the Enlightenment keeps us shackled to the haphazard whims of our human desires, even giving us ‘rights’ to do so, offering only a dismal cycle of perpetual ambiguity leading to oppression for ourselves and from ourselves to others. We must no longer accept these lifeless ethics of sex but make space available through humble service for us all to express our true self, no matter how we understand our self to be at the given point when it engages authentic community. Our mainstream culture’s unfettered freedom does not offer hope because it does not offer authentic change but rather smothers it. We have hope in Christ, because we are changed by Christ. In the midst of the authentic love of Christ in his body the Church, through humble body-to-body service of neighbor, we as both servant and neighbor are able to, as Keirkegaard wrote, “face the facts of being what we are, for that is what changes what we are.”

*Ben Cremer is the College Ministries Pastor at Kansas City First Church of the Nazarene and blogs at Constant Investigations. Ben is a graduate of Northwest Nazarene University where he earned a B.A. in Christian Ministries and a M.A. in Spiritual Formation. He is also a graduate of Nazarene Theological Seminary where he earned a M.A.T.S. with an emphasis on Church History and Christian Thought.