Saturday, April 30, 2011

Church Talk 101: What is a "Disciple"?

It's a word we hear thrown around the church a lot, but I wonder if anyone really knows what a disciple is. The common consensus seems to be that if you are going to church fairly regularly and trying to lead a decent life and believe Jesus is the Son of God, then you are a disciple. In other words, "disciple" has become synonymous with "believer." But God's word implies a much deeper level of commitment. Webster's includes in its definitions "a convinced adherent" and I like this one. "Convinced" means you really do believe with all your heart; "adherent" means you are sticking to what you believe as if you were glued to it.

There is also the root word which implies that a degree of discipline is involved. Being a disciple is not a passive state of being. Rather it is active and proactive and demands time, sacrifice, and determination. There are no accidental disciples. This is why Jesus warned those wanting to become his disciples that there was a cost attached to that commitment: "Take up your cross and follow me daily" (Luke 9:23).

Disciples are also, in the classic Jewish sense of the word (and let us never forget that Jesus was raised as a Jew and lived in the culture of Judea), committed to serving their Rabbi (which term translates to both Teacher and Master) with the goal of becoming exactly like him. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our goal is to become exactly like Jesus. To help his students achieve this goal, the Rabbi required obedience from his talmidim (disciples). Not only were they his students, but also his servants. As Jesus reminds us, "The student is not above his teacher, nor is the servant above his master" (Matthew 10:24).

The end result of discipleship is a mature believer capable of taking on the role of rabbi for the next generation of talmidim. Every "graduate" of a discipleship program should continue to grow in knowledge and in faith so that he or she can in turn lead other students closer to Christ. That is what Christian discipleship is really all about. "Go and make disciples of all nations" is much more than a command to evangelize. It is a commitment to lifelong growth.

In the Church, we are all students of the one Teacher; we are all talmidim of the one Rabbi, Jesus Christ. We should be committed not merely to study the Word, but also to live by it. In short, our goal should be to become exactly like our Rabbi.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Unleavened Bread

It was inevitable.  As soon as I removed the cloth that was covering the loaves on the communion plate, one of my friends asked, "You got any syrup to go with them pancakes?" 

They weren't pancakes, but some loaves of freshly-baked unleavened bread. I had baked them earlier that morning. (Well, actually, I'd cooked them on my pancake griddle, but that's beside the point.) 

I've been privileged over the years to share communion with many different people and in many different congregations, each with its own traditions and interpretations of what communion means and how it should be served.  This was the first time, however, that I had hosted such a meal, and I'd given careful thought to assembling the elements of the meal. 

For me, there is no question that the first communion, known as "the Last Supper," was celebrated with unleavened bread.  The biblical reason for my belief is this: Jesus and his disciples were sharing a Passover meal (Matthew 26:17-19). The Feast of Unleavened Bread, which began with Passover and lasted a full week, was a time when God commanded that no bread with yeast be made or eaten (Exodus 12:14-15, 23:15, 34:18, etc.), and the fact that He established this as an "everlasting ordinance" for his people tells me that Jesus and his followers were eating unleavened bread at the Last Supper. In other words, when Jesus told us to "do this to remember me" (Luke 22:19), the bread in his hand was unleavened bread.  For that reason, I believe that when we "do this," we should also be eating unleavened bread.

There is a symbolic reason for this as well.  Biblically, yeast is often used to represent sin. The holiest of the Temple sacrifices - the burnt offerings, guilt offerings, and sin offerings - were never to be mingled with yeast (Leviticus 2:11, 6:17).  Jesus himself used this metaphor when he told the disciples to beware of "the yeast of the Pharisees" (Luke 12:1), and Paul also warns against "the yeast of sin and wickedness" (1 Corinthians 5:8).

As I was making the bread, I gained an even deeper appreciation for the symbolism involved.  First, the ingredients are simple: wheat flour, olive oil, salt, and water. 
wheat flour: In the gospel of John, Jesus speaks of his coming death and compares it with a grain of wheat (John 12:24).  In order for wheat to become flour, it must not only fall to the ground, but must be totally crushed, just as Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 53:5, 53:10).
olive oil: Olive oil was used in the bread offerings presented to God in the Temple (Leviticus 2:4).  Olive oil was also used to fuel the Temple lamps and thus symbolizes Jesus as the Light of the World (John 8:12).  Furthermore, olive oil was used to anoint kings (1 Kings 1:39), reminding us that the bread we are eating is the body of our King.
salt: Most people are familiar with the statement Jesus made in the Sermon on the Mount: "You are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13). He also told his disciples, "Have salt in yourselves" (Mark 9:50) when comparing salt with peace, and Paul compared salt with grace (Colossians 4:6).  What fewer people realize is that God commanded that every sacrifice brought to Him be salted (Leviticus 2:13).  [An interesting historical note: the Romans routinely flogged those condemned to crucifixion and followed the flogging by dashing salt water into the open wounds; thus, Jesus also was salted before his sacrifice on the cross.]
water: Until the other ingredients are mixed with the water, they are separate, dry, and inedible. It is the water that turns them into bread. Jesus referred to himself as the source of living water (John 4:10-14, 7:37-38) and said that his followers need to be born from water and the Spirit (John 3:5).
Not only are the ingredients of unleavened bread significant, but so is the process of making the bread.  This hit me really hard as I was kneading the dough, stretching it out (as Jesus was stretched out on the cross), and pounding it flat (as the nails were pounded into his flesh).  After cooking the bread on the hot griddle, I wrapped it in a cloth and laid it in a stoneware bowl (Luke 23:53).  Later, as my friends and I shared in breaking the bread, I was struck by the fleshlike texture of this bread; it didn't crumble, it tore

This whole process, from start to finish, involved me personally in the death of Christ in a way no other communion ever has.  I hope, in the future, to give others the opportunity to share in this experience by inviting them to bake the communion bread with me.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The End of a Matter...

When I first began to follow the Lord, I took as my "life verse" Psalm 69:6

May those who hope in you
   not be disgraced because of me,
   O Lord, the LORD Almighty;
may those who seek you
   not be put to shame because of me,
   O God of Israel.

For eighteen years, I tried to live by these words; I tried to be the best Christian I knew how to be.  A few years ago, though, God knocked me down a few flights of steps (spiritually speaking) and I began to see the audacity of my goal.  At that time, He also gave me a new "life verse," one of His choosing rather than mine: Ecclesiastes 7:8

The end of a matter is better than its beginning;
    a patient spirit is better than a proud spirit.

I confess, until that moment I had never thought of "patience" as the opposite of "pride," but the more I considered it, the more I began to see the truth of the relationship between impatience and pride.  The patient spirit acknowledges God's timing in everything; the proud spirit knows what it wants and wants it NOW.  I've always known that I struggle with pride; I've always known that I struggle with impatience; but until I took this verse to heart, I never realized that the two were actually the same thing.

For a few months now, I've been wrestling with impatience.  Wrestling?  Well, that may be putting it too mildly.  I'm more giving in to it than wrestling with it.  I'm positively sick with it.  I've been waiting SO LONG now, you see.  It's time.  Why can't God see that?

"The end of a matter is better than its beginning."  Amen!  I just want to get to the end.  Now.  NOW.  The beginning has been dragging on too long.

That word -- "too" -- causes me a lot of trouble.  It is definitely a proud word, an impatient word, a judgmental word, a covetous word.  "Too."  Think about it.

That is taking TOO long.
You are spending TOO much time on that.
I want some TOO.

I'm like Goldilocks, wanting what I want and wanting it now, rejecting what I have because it is TOO this or TOO that.  And in the process, I am leaving behind a wake of half-eaten and broken things; the only future I am building for myself is a nap in the belly of an angry bear.

"The end of a matter is better than its beginning."  Why?  Could it possibly be because the end comes in God's timing rather than my own?

My friend likes to eat raw cookie dough.  I prefer to wait until the cookies come out of the oven...and then some.  See, I like my cookies crispy, but not burned.  If I leave them in the oven too long or at too high a temperature, they turn to black rocks fit only for the trash...a MAJOR disappointment.  If, on the other hand, I take them out too soon, they are soft and chewy.  Edible, but not satisfying.  Even when I bake them to within a few seconds of burning, if I eat them before they've thoroughly cooled, they are soft and chewy.  For me to REALLY delight in a home-baked cookie, I have to be PATIENT.  And then, yes, the end is FAR better than the beginning.

According to God, my life is like a home-baked cookie.  I need to be patient and wait for the end of the matter, or I will be less than satisfied.  My biggest problem is that I can smell the cookies in the oven, and they smell SO good that I just have to nibble now.  In my pride, I convince myself that they are ready now.  It doesn't matter how many times I've made the same mistake; I manage to convince myself that THIS time the cookies are going to be crispy, and I worry that if I leave them in any longer they will get burned.  I've missed out on a lot of good cookies through impatience; I wonder how many other delights I've robbed myself of through my proud impatience.

So if you're reading this, do me a favor, please.  Ask God to give me patience.  I can smell the cookies, and they are going to be DELICIOUS if I can just force myself to wait a bit longer.  God willing, I will even be able to share these cookies with my friends.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Best Friends (but Not Forever)

I've noticed something.  Maybe you have, too.  The authors of the four gospels didn't like Judas Iscariot.  None of them had anything good to say about him, and John flat-out called him a thief.

I think that's the reason we get him all wrong.

This became obvious to me last week as I was lunching with my friend Robin.  She was surprised to find that, reading Beloved Disciple, she actually liked Yehudah Ish-Kerioth.  She started thinking that maybe she was wrong in identifying him as Judas, because he was a fun guy with a sense of humor and Yeshua (Jesus) hung out with him more than anyone else.  "No," I assured her, "he's Judas, all right."

"Well," she said, "then that's just one more reason to like this book. I never thought of Judas that way before."

Few people have.  Why is this?  After all, the Bible is clear when it says Jesus was betrayed by a close friend.  He himself quoted the psalm that prophesied this tragedy: 
Even my close friend, someone I trusted, one who shared my bread, has turned against me. (Psalm 41:9)
I don't know about you, but I like my close friends.  I even like my not-so-close friends.  That is (in my opinion) the definition of friendship.  I can't say the same for all of my acquaintances, nor my family members, nor my students.  But my friends ... them, I like.  So if Judas was a close friend of Jesus, it makes sense that Jesus actually liked Judas.  In my mind, that makes Judas a likable guy.

Betrayal is a funny thing (not funny-ha-ha, but funny-strange).  It can only happen where trust exists.  Where there is no trust, there can be no betrayal.  Some people think (because of the way John worded his gospel) that Jesus knew right off the bat which one of the Twelve would betray him, and that Jesus chose Judas as his betrayer, and that he never really got close to Judas emotionally because -- after all -- Judas was a scum bag.  If this were the case, however, there would have been no betrayal.

Let me use a parable to get this idea across.

Jim was low on cash.  He owned an expensive painting but he knew that, in the current economy, he couldn't sell it for even half of what it was worth.  "If only someone would break into my house and steal it," he reasoned, "then I could collect the insurance."  Jim was no idiot, though.  He knew he'd have to involve the police and that whoever stole the painting would have to be caught.  Otherwise, the insurance company (and the police) would suspect that Jim had stolen his own painting.  So Jim, being no idiot, decided he needed a new friend.  He started hanging out in all the wrong places until, sure enough, he became acquainted with a man who was known as only marginally honest.  He bought the guy a beer and invited him to go fishing, and within weeks the two of them were inseparable.  Jim's other friends were leery of Bob, but since Jim vouched for him, they tolerated his presence at their get-togethers.  No one was really surprised, however, when Jim's valuables disappeared ... around the same time that Bob left the state.  "He betrayed me!" Jim said again and again.  "Well," his friends replied, "next time maybe you'll listen to us."

Betrayed?  Hardly.  Yet this is the way so many of us have been trained to view the relationship between Jesus and Judas.  Now, I don't think I'm contradicting the scriptures here.  Jesus DID know who was going to betray him: one of his closest friends.  And he chose all twelve of them knowing that one of them was going to turn on him; he chose twelve men who had the capacity for betrayal, and he allowed himself to become emotionally attached to every one of them, accepting the fact that one of them was going to turn against him.  Many articles and commentaries have explored the possible reasons Judas had for betraying Jesus, but few have asked the more important question: why was it Judas and not one of the others?

At the Last Supper, each of the disciples asked Jesus who the betrayer would be.  "Is it I, Lord?  Is it I?"  I wonder how many times, earlier in their friendship, Jesus had looked into each face and asked, "Is he the one, Father?  Is he?"  Obviously, toward the end, Jesus knew it was Judas.  But did he know this -- would he allow himself to know this -- right from the start?  Or would that have negated the prophecy by turning a betrayal into something less painful?

I honestly think the whole betrayal thing started out as a misunderstanding.  Jesus said or did something, Judas misunderstood, and the rest is history.  Why do I believe this?  Think about it ... how many times in your own experience have two good friends become enemies overnight over a simple misunderstanding?  Do you think maybe this is the reason Jesus tells us to go first to the one who has wronged us?  To avoid a misunderstanding turning into a war?

I cannot think of another thing that's as painful as betrayal.  And yet, most betrayals could be averted by clear communication.  It is when we rush into reaction -- as Judas did -- that a misunderstanding escalates into something that destroys relationships, destroys marriages, destroys ministries, destroys careers, destroys reputations ... destroys lives.

I don't know you, but I do know this.  If you are ever betrayed, it will be by someone you love, someone you like, someone you trust.  You can easily avert that betrayal: just stop having friends. (Hermits are never betrayed.)  If that seems like too drastic a measure, then try Plan B: when someone you love says or does something that you don't understand, go to that person.  Listen more than you talk, and find a way to work it out.  Don't let a misunderstanding cause you to throw your best friend under a bus and then hang yourself.  Don't follow the example set by Judas ... who, by the way, was a great guy.  He had some issues, but don't we all?  Don't we all?