Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Promise of the Father [Acts 2.1-47] (8 July 2001)

Accompanying presentation (opens in a new window)

Last week we began our brief series of sermons on the Acts of the Holy Spirit. I have been using and will be using a number of slides. There is a lot of material in all of these sermons not only because there is much historical and geographical information, but also because Acts is a pivotal book in the history of God’s dealings with the world. Some of you like taking notes and I do not wish to discourage that. However, jot down only things that stick out to you that are not on the slides. If you want the information on the slides, I can email you the relevant documents. Of course, if you wish to write everything, suit yourselves.

So let us recap the salient features of the book. It was written by Luke around AD 80 and is the second longest book in the New Testament. It was addressed to Theophilus, who probably was Luke’s patron and whose name means “lover of God.” We saw that Acts happens in the Roman Empire, which extended to most Mediterranean lands. We saw that there were Jewish communities in most of the major cities of the Roman Empire.

From Acts 1 we learnt that Jesus asked the disciples to wait because there was a promise waiting to be fulfilled; because the fulfillment of the promise would usher in a new way of living; because the new way of living was essential to the task at hand; because the task at hand was a part of God’s purposes; and because God’s purposes include both the vision and the means of its fulfillment. They had to wait for the promise because the promise would bring a new vision and would provide the means for fulfilling the vision.

We also saw that we live in a new era in which we still need to learn to live in and walk in the Spirit; that Jesus calls no one without sending him or her back into the world as his ambassador; and that the life driven by the Spirit is one in which there are no strict patterns, in which what worked yesterday might not work today, and in which we are called to be ever sensitive to new ways of presenting the gospel.

Today we will learn from Acts 2 what the onset of this new life looked like, what their immersion in God’s Spirit did to the disciples, and what it meant for them and means for us.

Now the event of Pentecost is surrounded with a number of incorrect views. And unfortunately, whole theologies are based on some of these incorrect views. So, before we proceed to understanding what God is saying to us today from the story of Pentecost, let us dispel some of these errors.

First, Acts 2 does not record an occasion in which Christians experienced the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues. When Paul writes about this in 1 Corinthians, he makes it clear that the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues is unintelligible without the complementary gift of interpretation of tongues. The spiritual gift is that of ecstatic speech. However, in Acts 2 we have an instance of people speaking in other languages, which are readily understood by others who happen to be from various regions in which those languages were spoken. If we were to insist that this is an example of the gift of tongues, we would lose the impact—rhetorical and theological—of v. 8 where the listeners ask, “How is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?”

Second, the list of nations in vv. 9-11 does not imply that the whole of the Roman Empire, let alone the whole world, was reached at Pentecost. The nations in Acts 2 cover Asia Minor, North Africa, Mesopotamia, and Mediterranean Europe and in all of these nations there were Jewish communities. Luke’s point is not that Pentecost affected the whole world. It is well documented that the Roman Empire had trade relations with the Indian subcontinent and even China. A well educated and traveled person like Luke would have known about this. Yet neither India nor China is mentioned in Acts 2. Nor is Luke telling us that the church’s mission started at Pentecost. In fact, Luke portrays the church’s mission as an extension of Jesus’ mission. This is seen from four striking parallels between Luke’s Gospel and Acts. In the Gospel, Jesus’ ministry begins with his being baptized by John and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In Acts, the disciples’ ministry begins with their being baptized and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In the Gospel, Jesus is tempted by Satan. In Acts, the disciples are tempted to quench the Spirit by the accusation that they are drunkards. In the Gospel, Jesus’ first public act is to preach. In Acts, the disciples’ first public act is that of Peter’s preaching. In the Gospel, Jesus ministers mostly to Jews and occasionally to Gentiles. In Acts, the disciples minister first to the Jews and also to the Gentiles.

What Luke is telling us is that representatives of the entire Jewish Diaspora heard the Pentecost proclamation. We should remember that the gospel is proclaimed to the Jews first, and only subsequently to the Gentiles. This is one step toward the full proclamation of the gospel to Gentiles and we should not minimize its importance. We should certainly not neglect this point because to do so would be to make Peter’s sermon ridiculous from a Jewish perspective.

Third, Pentecost is a one-time event. There are no repeated outpourings of the Holy Spirit. If there were, it would make Peter’s use of Joel’s prophecy and Jesus’ promise in Acts 1 lack force. Some contemporary writers and teachers who talk about a second or third or final outpouring of the Spirit just do not grasp the huge point God made by pouring out his Spirit at Pentecost. We will get to that soon.

Now Jesus called this event of Pentecost “the promise of the Father.” There are two levels of interpreting the phenomenon of Pentecost. First, we can discern what the event tells us about the way things are. At this level we try to understand what the text says, trying to bring to light the salient points of the text. Second, we can ascertain what the way things are means for us. At this level we attempt to feel what those who first heard Peter’s sermon felt. This is the level at which we normally operate. For instance, when I was in Austin, one of my friends asked me, “Do you have the fourth of July in India?” The first level of interpretation would lead me to think of the specific date—July 4th. Yes, in India we don’t skip from July 3rd to July 5th. But that was not what my friend was asking me. At the second level of interpretation I would need to understand what the fourth of July meant to an American. Then I could conclude that he was not asking me about the date but about the celebration associated with it. In other words, he was asking me, “In India do you celebrate the fourth of July as Independence Day?” And so my answer would be, “No!” Independence Day in India is August 15th.

Since we operate on the second level, I will be concentrating on the second level. But in order to get there, let us briefly consider what the first level tells us. And for that we need to hear the text. I have asked Eric and Narcis to read for us the text for today.

Thanks Eric and Narcis.

Peter, though a fisherman by trade, is a very good analyst. He might have made a good scientist had he been born in our time. See how he works.

He makes three observations. He first hears visiting Jews say that they understand what the disciples are saying. He then hears the accusation that the disciples are drunk. He, of course, knows that the disciples are not drunk. 

Having made these observations, Peter begins his sermon with the assertion that the disciples are not drunk. Then he draws three points of conclusion, each following from the preceding one. First, he says that the phenomenon of Pentecost is actually a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. The Spirit has been poured out.

Here it is important to pause for two brief observations. Joel says that the pouring out of the Spirit would cause people to prophesy. In Acts 2 the disciples are reported to be proclaiming the mighty acts of God. Contrary to some strands of Christian thought that hold that prophecy is foretelling the future, Peter tells us that prophecy is a declaration of the mighty acts of God. And the mighty acts the disciples mention are the death and resurrection of Jesus—events in the past from their point of view. So prophecy, far from being a foretelling of future events, is a recollection of what God has done and is doing. Prophecy emphasizes not the future but the implications that the past has for the present. Another thing is the language of prophecy. Peter quotes the portion of Joel’s prophecy that contains cosmic signs. Peter indicates that these have been fulfilled in the event of Pentecost. Yet, the sun did not darken. Nor did the moon become blood. How then could Peter say that these aspects of Joel’s prophecy were fulfilled? Here we need to understand what such language meant in the first century to a Jewish audience. The language is highly figurative. Such language indicated not that the world had come to an end but that events had happened that had changed things at the cosmic level. The world remained but a new era had dawned. We should keep this in mind when we interpret parts of the bible that contain such language. What Peter is saying is that Pentecost is a universe-altering event. So great was the change produced by Pentecost that it might as well have been that the sun had stopped shining. We use similar imagery when we say, for instance, “Hell would freeze over before I ever took drugs.” We are pointing not to the literal meaning of the words but to the mind-boggling change that would have to occur prior to my taking drugs.

So let us get back to Peter. Having concluded that the Spirit had been poured out, Peter remembered that Jesus had promised to pour out the Spirit. So he further concludes that this meant that God had exalted Jesus and had given him the Spirit. In other words, Jesus had become king.

With Jesus as king, the final conclusion Peter makes is almost self-evident. If Jesus is king, then the kingdom of God had begun in the reign of Jesus. In Peter’s words, “God has made Jesus both Lord and Messiah.”

We have thus far looked at what Peter said in his sermon. However, what did the Jewish audience think and feel when they heard this sermon? In other words, what is the second level of interpretation?

What implications did Peter’s sermon have for Jews? When Peter quoted Joel’s prophecy, what were the Jews expecting to hear? What were they accustomed to hearing in the context of this prophecy?

Joel’s prophecy is a last-days prophecy. The arrival of the kingdom of God would be marked with the pouring out of God’s Spirit. But when did the Jews expect this to happen?

In attempting to answer this question we must first remember that much of Old Testament theology is situated in the context of oppression—as in Genesis, Exodus, and Judges—or exile—as in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. It is here in the context of the loss of freedom that the visions of freedom were given to the prophets.

How would this freedom be accomplished? If one were being held captive, freedom—lasting freedom—would entail the defeat of one’s captor. But there is not much a slave can do to obtain freedom from an oppressive master. Hence, the Jewish people rightly expected that their freedom would come through their Messiah—that the Messiah would subdue their enemies, who also were God’s enemies. Following this the Messiah would inaugurate God’s messianic kingdom on earth. After this would come the resurrection, at which time God would raise righteous Jews to eternal life and unrighteous Jews to eternal damnation. This would reconstitute Israel as it was meant to be—full of righteous Jews obedient to the Messiah. God would then pour out his Spirit on Israel. Israel would naturally become a light to the Gentiles, on account of which righteous Gentiles would be gathered into God’s kingdom. This briefly was the Jewish timeline for the kingdom of God.

Incidentally, this is the timeline for most of the stories we know—fictional and non-fictional. Consider the story that fueled the Allied war effort in World War II. The evil Nazis were oppressing weak nations and weak people. There was nothing the victims could do. So they needed help from outside. The Allies provided just such help and succeeded in vanquishing the German forces. The Allies restored peace in Western Europe. Western Europe would then rise from the ashes and become economically prosperous. Eastern Europe, being communist, would remain impoverished. In other words, the spirit of capitalism would reign in the world. So Western Europe would appeal to Eastern Europe. Some East European nations would reject communism and be included in the world market. Other nations would be ignored or explicitly excluded. Very similar to the Jewish expectation, isn’t it?

But this is not what Peter preaches! The timeline he preached looks like this. We begin once again with oppression. But, rather than subdue the Romans, the Messiah is rejected and killed by God’s people. God, however, vindicates the Messiah and raises him from the dead. The Messiah ascends into heaven and begins his reign. He then pours out the Spirit as the power that fuels the spread of God’s kingdom. Peter does not go further with the timeline in this sermon. However, the rest of the New Testament tells us that there are two steps remaining. First, the outpouring of the Spirit implies that the gospel can be preached to the Gentiles. The Gentiles can be gathered into God’s kingdom. Second, Jesus’ resurrection is the first fruits of the general resurrection that will happen at the end of time.

The message Peter preaches contains two remarkable differences from the expected timeline. And these two differences were as important when Peter spoke at Pentecost as they are today.

The first difference is that the Messiah is rejected and killed by his own people rather than being accepted and then leading a violent revolt against Israel’s then primary political enemy—Rome. The second difference is that the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit happen while Israel still remains under foreign rule.

How do you think the Jewish listeners would have felt hearing that they had allowed their Messiah to be crucified by the very enemies from whom they expected him to deliver them? The fictional character that can understand this is Obi Wan Kenobi. As a youthful Jedi, he takes Anakin Skywalker to be his apprentice. This he does because he believes that Anakin would be the one to restore balance to the force. Yet, in the episodes that follow The Phantom Menace Obi Wan will watch as his deliverer, Anakin, sells his soul to Senator Palpatine. And all Obi Wan will be able to say to Anakin’s son, Luke, is that Anakin had died and become Darth Vader. Obi Wan had allowed his deliverer to be destroyed by his enemy. He had shot himself in the foot.

I’m sure Peter’s Jewish audience felt the same way. If indeed Jesus was their Messiah, then, by their own treachery, they had dashed all hopes for their salvation.

But then Peter also says that Jesus had been raised. What would this have done to the audience? It could only have meant that God had overturned the verdict to crucify Jesus. Jesus had been sentenced unjustly and the injustice had to be reversed. That is what we expect from a just God. It is much like the case when the U.S. President pardons a person found guilty by the Supreme Court. Such a pardon, whether one acknowledges it or not, undermines the authority of the Supreme Court. In Jesus’ case, so grave was the injustice, that resurrection, which was supposed to happen only at the end of the age, had happened while the present age was still underway. Jesus’ resurrection indicates a divine reversal of the sentence to kill Jesus. Does this not mean that God had defeated his enemies? After all, their harshest sentence against God—here the crucifixion of Jesus—could not stick.

But if resurrection, which was to be the hallmark of the age to come, had happened to even one person during this present age, it meant that we are in a period of unprecedented conflict. The age to come is pressing in on the present age.

So what does this mean for us today?

How many of you believe that, when Jesus saves us, he gives us his resurrection life? How many of you believe that, when a person becomes a Christian, old habits give way to new ones? How many of you believe that, when the Holy Spirit moves into a person’s life, that person is transformed?

We speak a lot about resurrection life. Unfortunately, when it comes to defining resurrection life, we come up short. We are unaware of the content with which to fill the phrase. But see how Peter’s audience responds. They hear that the resurrection has started and they realize that what this means is that the new age of God’s reign has begun even though the old age is still around. They realize that this means things have to change. Or, as Luke puts it, they were cut to the heart. But since only one person—namely Jesus—has been raised, only he knows what this raised life is like. So Peter’s audience asks, “What should we do?” In other words, “How do we enter into this new age you speak about?”

Peter answers that entrance into this new age is through repentance. Now it is not some abstract repentance that Peter speaks of. Later he says, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”—from this era defined by corruption, from this age that has been superceded by Jesus’ resurrection. So repentance is not simply a confession of personal sins but a rejection of the corrupt ways in which this present age works.

This is because resurrection life is the same as life in the Spirit. Such a life is characterized by a way of living that demonstrates that death has been defeated, that God’s new era is pressing in on this present era. So to live in this new era is to undermine all the values of this present era that are not in accordance with God’s character. And to turn from following the dictates of the era that is passing to following the dictates of the era God is birthing is repentance.

So if this era is characterized by lies, repentance will be to tell the truth. If this era promotes alienation, repentance would be to be in community. If it is defined by pride, repentance will be to be humble. If it operates on self-aggrandizement, repentance would be self-sacrifice. If it tells you to hate your enemies, repentance will be to love your enemies. If it convinces us that violence is necessary, repentance would be to act non-violently. If it denies and fears death, repentance would be to accept and embrace death. After all, if resurrection awaits us, death does not have the final say.

Such is the life to which Jesus invites people. Some of us have already accepted that invitation. But for many of us, repentance was not really defined or it was left at the level of personal sins when in fact it is a complete renunciation of the agenda of this age. Knowing this, it might be that God is leading you to redefine your commitment to Jesus.

Some of us were led to believe that repentance is only a matter of the heart, having no bearing on external acts. But to believe that death does not have the final say is to act as though death does not have the final say. Knowing that repentance is a public act, it might be that God is leading you to a new level in your commitment to Jesus.

And there may be others here who have not repented yet, who have not taken the step of trusting Jesus and of living in the resurrection life he gives. If you are wondering why you have heard this message and what you need to do, you are in good company. The people who heard Peter’s message also felt the same way. Then understand this. You have heard this message because God is reaching out to you, inviting you into his kingdom, offering you new life in the name of Jesus. This is the promise of the Father—that everyone who trusts Jesus will be saved from captivity to the darkness of this era and saved for the wonderful life in which Jesus reigns supreme, in which the Holy Spirit leads, in which God relates to us as though we were his children, in which death has lost his sting. If you wish to appropriate this promise I invite you in the name of Jesus to come forward. There are people here who will pray for and with you so that you too will receive the promised Spirit. Come, therefore, to the open arms of the lovesick heavenly Father.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Beyond the Wait [Acts 1.1-26] (1 July 2001)

Accompanying Presentation (opens in a new window)

Like the Gospels, Acts is an anonymous book. No author is mentioned, though church tradition has ascribed authorship to the Luke who is mentioned in some of Paul’s letters. For a variety of reasons, which I will not mention, no serious objection has been raised concerning this tradition.

The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts form a two-volume work as seen from the prologue of Acts. Luke’s Gospel, probably written around AD 75, is the longest book in the New Testament. As seen in the first slide, Acts, authored around AD 80, is the second longest book in the New Testament.

The Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are both addressed to Theophilus. This was a common Greek name meaning “lover of God.” It is not certain if Luke had in mind a specific person with that name or was merely addressing a generic Christian as being one who loves God. However, there are many parts of both Luke and Acts that seem to require knowledge of the functioning of the higher classes of Greek and Roman culture. This seems to indicate that Luke was addressing a specific person, most probably a cultured Greek who served as Luke’s patron—that is, the person who sponsored the production of such books as Luke would have written, including the Gospel and Acts.

Now in order to understand Acts, we must place ourselves as much as possible in the cultural milieu within which it was written. Let me make four brief observations. First, all the action in Acts happens within the boundaries of the Roman Empire. This is important to keep in mind, especially when we consider the spread of the Gospel that Luke records in Acts. As can be seen in the next slide, in the first century AD the Roman Empire extended to almost all the Mediterranean lands.

Second, many of these lands contained Jewish communities. This is seen in the next slide. The purple regions are those in which there were Jewish communities in the first century AD. These Jewish communities played an important role in the spread of the Gospel for, in almost all the places to which Luke takes us in Acts, the Christians went first to the synagogue and only later to Gentiles.

Third, the majority of the action in Acts 1-12 happens in the land of Israel-Palestine. As seen in the next slide, the Romans had divided the land into a number of regions over which they placed three vassal kings known as Tetrarchs. Archelaus ruled the blue region that included Judea and Samaria. Herod Antipas ruled the purple regions—Galilee in the North and Perea in the South. Philip ruled the orange region known as Iturea. The rest of the regions were controlled directly by Roman governors. Because of the almost arbitrary division of the land, a significant amount of political rivalry comes into play in the Gospels and in Acts.

Fourth, apart from the first eleven verses of chapter 1, the first seven chapters of Acts are situated exclusively in Jerusalem. The next slide shows a map of Jerusalem during the first century AD. Many of the places mentioned in the first seven chapters of Acts are on this map and we will come back to it as and when necessary.

So now let us go to the first chapter of Acts. The action begins on the Mount of Olives, seen on the next slide. It is from the Mount of Olives that Jesus ascends. From there, as I mentioned earlier, the disciples go to Jerusalem, seen on the next slide. In Luke 19, Jesus had wept over Jerusalem because the city had rejected him. However, in Acts he sends his disciples back to the same city. Later in Acts 1 we read about the famous apostolic-lot-casting scene. The next slide shows us a typical Jewish die that the apostles might have used, though they could well have used two simple stones.

Having briefly touched on some background issues, we might ask, “What does God have to say to us today?” In order to answer that question, I have asked Lauren to read for us the Scripture for today.

Thanks Lauren.

I recently came across a tract—actually from the size of it I should call it a manual! I still have a copy. It contains all sorts of instructions. For example it insists that believers should be baptized head forward rather than head backward. And it permits infants to be baptized. One need only wonder how we can baptize an infant with his or her head forward without causing permanent hydrophobia. Anyway, there are other wonderful practices—all of which have a bunch of scripture references that supposedly support the position. After going through it, I had to conclude that some sort of cult was behind this tract. Far from portraying a life this side of the resurrection, it made people all the more slaves to rules and regulations, denying them the freedom Jesus purchased at so high a price.

As an aside I must confess that I had come across real tracts—you know, the small pocket sized ones—printed by the same cult. That was a few months back and I disposed them all in a trashcan in the hope that these enslaving practices would not ensnare people. During the course of the sermon judge for yourselves if I did right or wrong.

At the start of Acts, Luke takes us to the top of the Mount of Olives. Jesus has gathered his disciples there for a final meeting before his ascension. Jesus commands the disciples to return to Jerusalem and wait.

Quite naturally the disciples probably asked themselves, “Why wait?” To this perpetual question, Acts 1 provides a challenging, yet encouraging answer.

Jesus doesn’t just tell his disciples to wait but to wait for the promise of the Father, which he equates with the baptism with the Spirit. They are to wait because a promise is about to be fulfilled.

It is like being in the period between engagement and wedding. There is a promise waiting to be fulfilled but neither the woman nor the man should pressure the other to make the fulfillment come sooner because coercion is counter-productive to love.

The disciples hear Jesus mention the promise and immediately conjure images of a messianic kingdom in which they would hold prestigious offices. They ask Jesus if he were now going to restore Israel’s kingdom.

That was a valid question—but for an era that had closed. For the era that was about to begin, it was invalid. Not only was the time frame for God’s plan not their concern, as Jesus indicates; but also they had to learn that the new phase in God’s plan required some changes. Rather than sitting on thrones and lording it over others in some messianic kingdom, they were to be witnesses to Jesus and his resurrection, not only in Jerusalem, but also in wider Judea, hated Samaria, and the distant ends of the earth. Was Jesus a king? Assuredly! Did he have a kingdom? Every legitimate king has a kingdom. And so did Jesus. However, his kingdom was going to work differently. His high-ranking men would not sit on thrones. Rather, like their king himself, they would go out to bring the message of his reign to the ends of the earth. And his reign would also be different. Yes, there was a promise waiting to be fulfilled. But the fulfillment of the promise would usher in a new way of living.

It is like the day after the wedding. You realize that you are single no more; that now you have to share the bathroom; that—for crying out loud—there’s a beautiful woman lying next to you. Life is not the same again. And one would be a fool to want or even hope that things would remain unchanged. No! As Paul would say of a different context, “the old has passed away, behold everything is new!” Yes indeed, there is a new way of living.

A new way of living? Just saying that implies there was an old way of living. What was the old way? The Old Testament gives us a glimpse into this in many places. Since here in Acts the immediate issue is one of decision-making concerning Judas’ replacement, let us consider the issue of decision-making in the Old Testament. One example is Numbers 27.21 where God says about Joshua, “He shall stand before Eleazar the priest, who shall inquire for him by the decision of the Urim before the Lord.” Decision-making was left to the casting of lots because of the conviction that, as Proverbs 16.33 puts it, “the lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone.”

If this was the old way of making decisions, what was the new going to be like? There was no way of knowing. The disciples could have tried to guess. But they could only guess from their experience. And so they cast lots to choose between Barsabbas and Matthias. Peter names one overarching qualification Judas’ replacement had to have: the person had to have been a companion of Jesus during the entirety of his ministry. Sounds quite prudent. After all, we don’t want some new upstart who knows nothing about what the real Jesus was like to be an apostle! But here Peter and the other ten apostles made two grave mistakes: first, they presumed that it was up to them to choose Judas’ replacement when right from the start Jesus had been the one doing the choosing; second, they relied on the old way of making decisions.

Now Jesus wasn’t around to make decisions. So the apostles were justified in thinking that he would choose Judas’ replacement through humans. However, they had not glimpsed what the new way was going to be like. So they did not know exactly how Jesus would choose this twelfth apostle. Nor could they entertain the thought that Jesus could possibly choose a man who had never encountered Jesus prior to his death and resurrection. How would this person know what the real Jesus was like? Ah! But to answer that would be to jump ahead of the story.

So Peter and the ten apostles cast lots and chose Matthias. And we hear no more of him in the entire bible. In fact, even the Roman Catholics, who are so thorough about traditions concerning the apostles and other saints, only have the tradition that Matthias went to Armenia—a tradition that is also ascribed to Matthew, albeit with greater vigor. This leads to the conclusion that the tradition about Matthias developed because of the similarity between his name and Matthew’s. Indeed, Matthias is mentioned in Acts only to be placed in the sidelines because Luke wants to show Theophilus that there is a twelfth apostle—but he is not Matthias. And this twelfth apostle is essential to the task of Jesus’ church. So Jesus’ apostles had to learn—and they learnt through an arduous process—that there was a promise waiting to be fulfilled and that the fulfillment of the promise would usher in a new way of living and that the new way of living was essential to the task at hand.

Consider the situation when the French sent a warship to the Sandwich Islands to force the local government to repeal a tax on French brandy that was imposed to reduce drunkenness among the citizens of the Sandwich Islands. Faced with the prospect of war with a then super power and the task of saving his people, the king of the small colony… ah, but let’s read a contemporary report that begins after the captain of the warship gave the government a few hours within which to do away with the tax.

[Here read Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers 252-253. The book can be purchased from Amazon outside India or from Flipkart inside India]

The task of saving his people drove the king to employ new tactics—here nonviolence instead of violent retaliation. As Walter Wink comments, “If the Sandwich Islanders had been in possession of an army of one hundred thousand men, they could have mounted no better defense, with fewer casualties (which were zero) or less damage (which was only to a fort they proved they no longer needed).”

Coming back to Acts we may ask, “What in the world was the task at hand?” In response to the disciples’ question, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus tells them that they are to be his witnesses to the end of the earth. In the Old Testament, worshippers of Yahweh had to make their pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem. Here the disciples would need to go to the ends of the earth rather than stay in Jerusalem. But how would they know that they are bringing with them the very presence of the living God? Again the answer lies in the new way of living. When Jesus’ disciples live in this new way, Jesus, the new temple, goes with his followers to the ends of the earth. Here is a marked reversal of what we could call the old time religion.

Another marked difference is the focus. While the gospel is still proclaimed to the Jew first, it is not for the Jews only. No! God has rather purposed that the Gentiles would also believe in his Jewish Messiah. God has purposed that the Gentiles would also come to recognize the immense depth of God’s love. And God has purposed that the Gentiles would also be counted among those who return that love.

Going to the ends of the earth would necessitate coming in contact with Gentiles. And some of the Gentiles would want to know more about this Jesus who is proclaimed to have been killed by humans and to have been raised by God. But this is not to be a cause for worry because God has purposed that Gentiles would also be saved.

The disciples knew there was a promise waiting to be fulfilled. But they did not know that the fulfillment of the promise would usher in a new way of living and that the new way of living was essential to the task at hand and that the task at hand was a part of God’s purposes.

This brings to mind a colorful character from the Old Testament: Gideon. An angel appears to him and gives to him the task of freeing the Israelites from the Midianites. There was no doubt of the task at hand or of God’s approval. Yet Gideon had to ask for three signs before he was convinced. But that’s not where I’d like us to focus. Once he is convinced, he gathers thirty-two thousand men. God says that these are too many. So Gideon orders those who are faint-hearted to leave. When they do, he is left with ten thousand people—still too many for God. So God has the ten thousand demonstrate their water drinking skills. All but three hundred kneel and drink by cupping one hand. That is how humans would drink from a stream. The three hundred, however, lap at the water like dogs. Can you imagine it? See how ridiculous it looks? So inconvenient! In order to choose this way of drinking, these men would have to have had extremely bad coordination! And God chooses the three hundred who are so badly coordinated that they choose to drink water in a strange way. Then God arms them with trumpets, jars, and torches—which would require three hands, mind you. In other words, God chooses a handful of uncoordinated men and gives them way too much to handle. And the Midianites were defeated.

What this tells us is that God’s purposes include both the vision and the means of its fulfillment. The means may seem utterly strange to us—as it must surely seem in the case of Gideon I have just cited—but that is no excuse for going with what is tried and trusted. Not after Jesus’ resurrection! The task at hand for the disciples was to be witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth. They may not have seen how this would be possible. But it was God’s purpose and their job was to trust he would provide the means for its fulfillment.

Now Gideon is best known for putting out fleeces. It is another example of making decisions by casting lots. That was okay for Gideon because he was not the recipient of the promise Jesus made to his disciples. For the disciples, having received the promise of being baptized with the Spirit, and having received Jesus’ command to wait for it, casting lots was not a sign of faith but a regression to a familiar habit that had no place in the new life of the Spirit. And because of this regression the Twelve, as they are called in the Gospels, in Acts, and in some of Paul’s letters, could not easily accept Jesus’ legitimate twelfth apostle once he had been revealed. And this is one reason why the divide between Jewish Christianity and Gentile Christianity grew, as it need not and indeed should not have.

We see the same thing in the life of Abraham. Rather than rely on the creative powers of God—as he certainly does later—he initially relied on the then common and accepted practice of concubinage. And to this day—as the bible foresees—there is enmity between the descendents of Ishmael and those of Isaac. Abraham and the apostles failed because they were unable to imagine a new way and because the wait was excruciating. But waiting is the true measure of faith. For to wait implies a willingness to give God the time to act in the manner he chooses.

So what in the world does this mean for us? We are no longer in the situation of waiting for the promise, for the Holy Spirit has already been poured out on us. How do we make decisions beyond the wait of Acts 1?

We can certainly rely on old ways that have stood the test but by doing so we might only be severing the possibility of the Spirit’s leading us along new paths. In other words, we still need to learn to live in and walk in the Spirit.

In the early sixties Bob Dylan wrote a song “The Times They Are A-Changin’”. Last year he wrote “Things Have Changed.” And indeed, for bearers of the message of the gospel, things have changed. Some of us may bemoan the rise of relativism and postmodernism. But we are faced with the fact that people think and act from a commitment to relativism or postmodernism. Ignoring this fact will be to behave like an ostrich that sinks its head into a hole. However, once we acknowledge this fact, we are faced with the task of changing. We do not change our message. But we change the way we present our message.

We are living in a world that is much different from the one in which our parents grew up. Human nature has not changed but possibilities open to humans and expressions of human nature have changed. And we are even more distant from the world of the apostles.

For instance, in the LA area, life is rushed. People barely have the time to have a meaningful conversation. It would seem then that quick evangelistic methods that rely on tracts would be most appropriate. However, sociological studies show that people are increasingly craving deep friendships and not finding them. In fact, many such studies indicate that the rise of gang membership among youth is related to the need to have friends and meaningful relationships in a society that elevates individualism above everything else. In such an atmosphere presenting the gospel in a few minutes will be to consign the persons concerned to the fragmented, friendless, relationship-less hell they are already suffering. Rather, we should find out what it is about gangs that attracts youth to them despite the inherent dangers. Then we need to design strategies to reach youth—strategies that provide meaningful relationships without diminishing the fact, which we ourselves have perhaps forgotten, that being a bearer of the gospel is dangerous business.

This is why we are seriously thinking of ways to reach the people in this community and your suggestions are welcome. And your collaboration in this task to which Jesus has called NUPC is invaluable. Remember, Jesus calls no one without sending him or her back into the world as his ambassador. As he told his disciples “you will be my witnesses” so he tells us.

Now you may find this application too vague. “Give me something concrete” may be the cry of your heart. But I cannot give blanket applications because Jesus sends each of us with a different task—though the tasks may overlap. In fact, if I were to give you a handful of application points, I would be denying each of you the joy of spending time with God and waiting for his Spirit to prod you in the direction he wills. I am certainly willing to spend time with you before God to unearth the wonderful treasure that is his will for you. Indeed we cannot accurately understand God’s will without the assistance of other Christians. But that means that each of us needs to be willing to bare ourselves before God and in that soul-searching nakedness to find the path the treading of which would lead us to the warmest embrace God has for us.

We still are living in that new era ushered in by Jesus when he poured out his Spirit. It is the same Spirit that was poured out on the apostles that is now poured out on us. But, as we will see in the weeks to come, the life driven by the Spirit is one in which there are no strict patterns; in which what worked yesterday might not work today; and in which we are called to be ever sensitive to new ways of presenting the gospel—the one message that there is salvation only in the name of Jesus.

With that intense commitment to listening to the Spirit, let us prepare ourselves for communion. Let the eating of the bread and the drinking of the juice be, for all of us, a celebration of the new life for which Jesus as saved us.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Wind Blows Where It Wills [John 3] (9 January 2011)

The saying, “Hindsight is 20/20” provides a good warning. If you wear glasses or are a medical practitioner dealing with the eyes you know that 20/20 is a way of indicating normal – we might even say, perfect – eyesight. Looking back on our salvation history as recorded from Genesis 1.1 to Revelation 22.21, we Christians are often guilty of just such “hindsight”. I say guilty because, as a result of this hindsight, we have often not placed ourselves in such a position that would allow us to experience that history of salvation. And very often the characters who come on this stage of salvation history become one-dimensional – often vilified. We think that they should have known better.

Nicodemus is one such person. There are two main things about him that make us think less kindly of him. First, he comes to Jesus at night. In most places in the Gospel according to John the word ‘night’ carries with it the connotation of darkness. But does that mean it does here?

I remember when I was at seminary, a classmate of mine was grumbling because of the way the professor interpreted John 16.33 “I have conquered the world”. The professor said that Jesus is saying that he has conquered Satan, the ruler of the world, and not the people in the world whom he came to save. My classmate said that if world meant Satan then John 3.16 would mean that “God so loved Satan”!

Ridiculous as that sounds, and is, it serves to underscore the fact that language is fluid. We must let the context in which the word appears dictate what the word means in that context!

Why does John bother to tell us that Nicodemus came at night? He also tells us that Nicodemus was part of the Sanhedrin. Very likely Nicodemus had other responsibilities during the day. And Jesus himself was a busy man during the day! If Nicodemus wanted serious time with Jesus, he could not do it during his coffee break! And at lunch time Jesus was often feeding thousands of people! So Nicodemus came at night. John tells us this because this is something that would stick out as unusual. And it would help us remember him later in the Gospel. He is the only non-disciple character who shows up more than once in John’s Gospel. And his appearance in public at the time of Jesus’ burial should help us see him in a different light. Indeed, even in John 7 after Jesus says, “I am the light of the world” we see Nicodemus restraining the other leaders from falsely condemning Jesus.

The second thing about Nicodemus about which we look down on him are his questions. “How can people be born when they are old?” he asks and then compounds the issue by asking, “How can these things be?” To us he seems like a very dense person, someone incapable of understanding what we take for granted.

But you see, in v.3 Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless one is born anew” by which he does two things. First, he affirms that Nicodemus has been born anew! It sounds strange to us who think of Nicodemus as being an outsider. But Jesus is saying, “You recognize my works as being the works of God only because you have been born anew.” Jesus’ works are the means by which the kingdom of God advances. If Nicodemus recognizes that Jesus is doing God’s work, then it must mean that he is born anew.

Second, Jesus throws out a phrase, that we think is uniquely Christian, in order to challenge Nicodemus. Jesus uses the phrase ‘born anew’. I have intentionally said ‘born anew’ rather than ‘born again’ because we have gotten comfortable with ‘born again’. We think we have a firm grasp of what it means.

And so did Nicodemus! You see the phrase ‘born anew’ was used to describe a Gentile convert to Judaism. Any Gentile who wished to start practicing Judaism would have had to be baptized – an occasion considered to be a new birth, just as in biological birth one is taken out of the waters of the womb into the air of one’s life outside the womb.

You see, it was a phrase that had spiritual meaning but one that was never applied to a Jew. It was as shocking as my seeing something called ‘chicken Danish’ at a bakery here. A Danish is sweet. You can fill it with custard or fruits or chocolate, but not with meats! If a Dane walked into the bakery she would certainly ask, “How can these things be?”

We think Nicodemus did not understand. Oh, but he understood. He understood very well. What he did not understand was how this could apply to him. He was asking in effect, “How is this applicable to me when I am a Jew, one who is already an heir of Abraham’s covenant?”

And Jesus responds by asking, “You are Israel’s teacher and even this you do not know?” English is sadly impoverished in many regards and it shows up right in this verse. There are two Greek words that can be used in a question with a negative. One implies a negative answer such as, “Did you not go there?” to which the expected answer is “No I did not.” The other implies an affirmative answer such as, “Did you not go there?” to which the expected answer is “Yes I did.” According to John, Jesus expected Nicodemus to give an affirmative answer. “Even this you do not know” to which Jesus expects Nicodemus to answer, “Yes I do know this”.

And again English shows itself impoverished when we realize that the word “you” could be singular or plural. Jesus expects Nicodemus to say, “Yes I understand.” And then he says, “I tell you (singular) the truth, we – that is, you and I – speak of what we – that is, you and I – have perceived and we – that is, you and I – testify about what we – that is, you and I – have experienced, and yet you (plural) do not accept our testimony. The switch from singular to plural indicates that Jesus has switched to addressing a wider audience that cannot include Nicodemus since Jesus has implied that Nicodemus is already an insider, someone in the know, someone who has perceived and experienced this ‘new birth.’

With this understanding in the background, we have a few questions. “Why did Jesus expect Nicodemus to answer, ‘I am a teacher of Israel and yes I do know of what you speak’?” Also, “What is all this about the wind blowing where it wills?” And finally, “What does this mean for us?”

So why did Jesus expect an affirmative response from Nicodemus? If Nicodemus were a teacher of Israel, he must have been well versed in the scriptures – the Old Testament. After startling Nicodemus with the phrase ‘born anew’ Jesus introduces the Spirit. He is asking Nicodemus, “You are a teacher. What do the scriptures tell us about the Spirit and the people of Israel?

And Nicodemus’ mind would have gone to Isaiah 44.3 “I will pour my Spirit on your offspring” and then to Ezekiel 11.19 “I will give them one heart and I will put a new spirit within them” and also to Ezekiel 36.27 “I will put my Spirit within you; I will take the initiative and you will obey my statutes.” All passages in which God explicitly states that , in order for the covenants to remain intact, the action of the Spirit is necessary even within a Jew. Even the Jews need to be ‘born anew’.

Jesus expected Nicodemus to know this and he gives him a case study – Nicodemus himself. Jesus has already affirmed that Nicodemus has been ‘born anew’. Now Jesus likens the Spirit to the wind, which blows where it wills. What in the world does all this mean?

Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, why do you think I said that you have been ‘born anew’? Your words affirming that I have come from God indicated to me that you were ‘born anew’ just like the sound of the wind indicates that it is there.” The Spirit cannot be apprehended by any specific action. But the Spirit does leave traces of grace.

Paul would speak of the fruit and the gifts of the Spirit. He would write, “No one can say, ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Spirit.” And Jesus would elsewhere in John’s Gospel say, “This will be the indication to people that you are my disciples – that you loved one another.”

So what does all of this mean for us? What is Jesus telling Nicodemus and, through him, us? Here are three things we can take away.

First, it is possible to be acted upon by the Spirit without one’s knowing it. Nicodemus had been ‘born anew’ but he did not even know it. Hence, it is possible that someone has been acted upon by the Spirit without our knowing it. We should be very cautious. As Gandalf tells Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

Second, it is crucial to develop the ability to discern the effects of the Spirit. Jesus says, “You hear the sound the wind makes.” No matter which direction it is blowing from, the wind causes leaves to rustle. So if we hear leaves rustling it is very likely that wind is blowing! In the same way we must attune ourselves to recognizing the effects of the Spirit. 

Third, but at the same time no one can claim to be able to predict or dictate how God will act through his Spirit. If there are no leaves we cannot expect the wind to cause a rustling sound. The wind blows where it wills. “How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus and Jesus overturns all his preconceptions. So often we see Christians who have experienced the Spirit in some manner insist that the Spirit must act in that way. We make our experience of the Spirit the template by which the Spirit must act. What idolatry! What presumption! The Dane may just have to come to Bangalore to see that Indians can very well make ‘chicken Danish’!

The new birth is necessary in order to be able to perceive God’s kingdom. And it is an immersion in and emergence through the Spirit. It will always manifest itself. But its manifestations are varied and none of us is qualified to set the bounds or give a checklist.

On our way to Goa this December we saw near Chitradurga a vast array of wind turbines – windmills, you may call them, though there is no milling happening! From inside the car we could not gauge the direction or speed of the wind. However, we could see the orientation of the blades and the direction in which they were rotating and the speed with which they were rotating. And I explained to Prayerna what this told us about the direction and speed of the wind. The same gusts of wind made the different turbines move differently. The same Spirit moves in and through each one of us differently.

The wind blows where it wills!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Blurring of Lines [Matthew 13.24-30] (21 July 2002)

For the associated PowerPoint presentation click here.

Just recently Prayerna began liking the botanical characters in Veggie Tales. I know probably more Veggie Tales’ songs than I care to confess to. However, the lyrics of one song have struck me as quite interesting. Here’s a snippet. “If your friends tell you that you gotta be cool/ Remember what you learned in church and Sunday school/ Just check it out/ The bible tells us what it’s all about.” The implicit assumption is that the bible recommends one kind of behavior and that we happen to know exactly what that kind of behavior is. If we dig further, we could say that there is the assumption not only that there is one kind of behavior, but one set of beliefs.

How comforting! We all like to be assured that issues of life and death are black and white. After all, if the song can claim black and white status for behavior that is trivial for the most part, certainly the bible will tell us in clear cut terms what behaviors and beliefs to adopt for issues of eternal consequences.

So let us see what the bible says about such things. Turn with me to Matthew 13.24-30.

Let us set the parable in context. The Gospel of Matthew contains five long sections of teaching initiated by Jesus. That is, these are teachings given not in response to a query or claim made by someone else. The first is the Sermon on the Mount in chapters five to seven. The second is the so-called mission discourse in chapter 10. The third is the series of parables of the kingdom of God in chapter 13. The fourth is the teaching on church discipline in chapter 18. Finally, in chapters 24 and 25, Jesus teaches about the coming of the Kingdom of God. The parable we are dealing with is in the third of the speeches. The parable is the second in a series of seven parables.

Before going on to the parable, we must consider three things that are essential to the interpretation of parables. First, we must treat each parable on its own terms, without merging it with other parables. For example, in the first parable, humans are compared to various kinds of soils. In our parable, we are different kinds of seed. In the third parable, suddenly, we are birds nesting in a tree!

Second, we need to remember that a parable is not an allegory. An allegory is a story in which each element represents something in real life. For example, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is an allegory. In an allegory, the characters are clearly defined. We know, for example, that Evangelist evangelizes. That is all he does. Obstinate refuses to believe anything, while Pliable believes everything. In other words, in an allegory, the characters are one-dimensional.

In a parable, on the other hand, the characters are true to life. C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia are examples of parables. One of the children, Susan ends up not believing, while Emeth, an opponent of Aslan, ends up in Aslan’s kingdom. Because of this fluidity, the purpose or meaning of a parable does not lie in identifying one-to-one correspondence between its elements and real life.

This gets us to the third point. The meaning of the parable lies in our identifying with a character in the parable. I know this is a little vague. So let me use our parable as an example.

In the parable, Jesus describes a common scenario in first century peasant life—a family feud. The enemy of the main character tries to subvert his plans by scattering weeds into the field.

This reminds me of chicken rice. Not only is that the name of a Singaporean delicacy, but also the title of a movie that Pauline and Simon had Alice and me watch with them. The story in the movie involves two feuding families, both of which happen to run stalls selling the delectable chicken rice. However, both stalls are in the same food court. This comes to the notice of the authorities, who must decide which stall to close. The movie shows each family trying to insure that the other family’s stall will be closed. One family places rats in the other family’s stall. The second family places roaches in the first family’s stall. And so on.

In the parable, the goal of the enemy is to frustrate the plans of the protagonist. Remember, the meaning of the parable lies in our identifying with a character in the parable. To help us do this, Jesus starts us on our journey of interpretation by making the following allegorical identifications in his explanation in vv. 36-43. 

We, twenty-first century, English speaking, city slickers are separated from Jesus’ audience in three ways—time, language, and geography. We must learn to hear Jesus as his first audience would have heard and understood him.

The good seed Jesus refers to is the wheat seed, which obviously produces wheat. In the first picture, you can see what wheat looks like. The weed that Jesus refers to is known as darnel or rye-grass. The second picture shows what darnel looks like. As you can see, the two are very similar. In fact, it is only when the wheat grains mature and dry on the stalks that darnel can be differentiated from wheat.

In addition, the roots of darnel are wiry and become entangled with the roots of wheat. The master in the parable rightly observes that the reapers would uproot the wheat if they chose to uproot the darnel.

A third fact about darnel is that its tiny seeds are hallucinogenic before they dry up. In dealing with darnel, one can become intoxicated and begin to imagine all sorts of things.

These three facts about darnel and wheat give us a clue to what Jesus is telling us through the parable. He is telling us two things. First, it is difficult to distinguish those who follow him from those who reject him. Second, the lives of those who follow him are intertwined with the lives of those who reject him. Third, there is a right time and place for divine justice—and it is not now!

Now I have often heard the interpretation that the master restrains the reapers just as God shows patience and waits for unbelievers to believe. This goes completely against what Jesus is saying. After all, darnel remains darnel and wheat remains wheat. No farmer allows weeds to remain in the field because he thinks that they might—just might—overnight become good food!

The master in the parable does not hope that the darnel would become wheat. Rather, he is concerned about the wheat that he planted. He wants the wheat to ripen and dry so he can reap an abundant harvest.

Moreover, the master is not worried about the presence of the darnel among wheat. Rather, he is worried that his reapers are unable to do the important job of distinguishing darnel from wheat. What if they mistake a stalk of wheat for darnel just because the grain has not yet grown on the stalk? What if they think a stalk of darnel is standing alone and uproot it only to find three stalks of wheat also land in the fire? What if, while handling the immature seeds of darnel, the reapers begin hallucinating and think that they need to save the darnel and destroy the wheat?

You see, the master’s main worry is not that his crop has been contaminated and has become impure but that justice might be dealt out swiftly and prematurely. After all, premature justice is justice miscarried.

Throughout church history, the church has been preoccupied with identifying true Christians.

Do we not all still do this? Do we not try to draw all kinds of lines to assure ourselves that we are in and that others are out? We use all kinds of markers to draw a sharp line between those who are saved and those who are not saved. Like the Veggie Tales’ song, we approach the issue of salvation as though it were cut and dry. We assume we know exactly who is in and who is out. Moreover, we even assume to know why?

And we even manage to fool ourselves that we are not disobeying Jesus’ words in Matthew 7.1-2 where he tells us, “Do not condemn.” Let us be honest. To believe a person is not Christian is to believe that that person is going to face God’s judgment. It is as good as saying, “You are headed toward hell!”

What qualifies us to make such a judgment? Do we really know the person as Gods does? Yet, we do it all the time! From the general principle that those who believe in Jesus will be saved we frighten people with the opposite—those who do not believe in Jesus are going to hell.

However, drawing for the parable, what if the person we are frightening is a child of the enemy? Can you envisage a farmer speaking to a stalk of darnel and saying, “You know, all the weeds are going to be burnt. You don’t want that to happen, do you? Why don’t you just become wheat?” On the other hand, what if the person is a child of the kingdom, who has not matured? Can you imagine the farmer speaking to a stalk of wheat and saying, “You know, wheat stalks have wheat grains. You don’t have any grains. You must be a weed. Don’t you know that the weeds are going to be burnt?”

The absurdity of the two situations should give us pause. Jesus has warned us sternly against drawing conclusions about the eternal destiny of people. Yet, we do it all the time and say we are following Jesus. What hypocrites we are!

Moreover, in the parable Jesus says that even the angels are unable to make the distinctions we make without a thought. How prideful we are!

In the parable, Jesus tells us that the lines are not as clear as we think they are—or, at least, wish they are. The lines are blurred. How do we know for sure that I am not a weed that just looks so much like the real thing? And how do we know that Saddam Hussein is wheat that has not yet matured?

But if the lines are blurred, whom do we witness to? And whom do we evangelize? May be we need to redefine what we mean by those terms. If by those terms we mean ways by which we attempt to bring people into the kingdom, our parable warns us against even attempting such a thing. For to attempt to bring someone in is to first assume that the person is out, which, as we have seen, is merely condemnation disguised.

However, these terms did not originally refer to bringing people in. Rather, to witness to Jesus was merely to give testimony about Jesus—testimony that he brought the kingdom of God to this earth, that he healed many, that he raised many, that he taught marvelous things, that he upset the status quo, that the authorities put him to death, that the Father raised him, that he reigns now with the Father, that he has sent his Spirit to continue his mission through his people, that he will come again to consummate his love for us.

Similarly, to evangelize was to announce the good news through deeds and words—the good news that God has brought his kingdom to earth in the person of Jesus.

Simple things these are. There is no pressure in these to bring people in. We are merely telling anecdotes about a very good friend. But these are no inconsequential anecdotes. These are anecdotes around which history turns.

Do you wonder why so few of us ever share the good news about Jesus? I sure did. But as I have thought about it, I have come to the conclusion that we have done it to ourselves. In our attempt to have a pure church, through our desire to know who is in and who is out, with our penchant for drawing sharp lines we have taped our mouths and cut off our hands.

Think. Think of a close friend who does not believe in or follow Jesus. Do you not wish this person shared your faith? But how do you approach him? If you begin to share about Jesus, you know that, at some point, the person is going to ask you why what you share is so important. What do you say? You could say, “If you don’t believe this you’re gonna fry!” Or you could say, “I believe this. And do know how much my life has changed since?”

Which option is easier? For my part, it is easier to talk about how Jesus has changed my life. I can talk about that as easily as I can talk about how Alice, Prayerna, or my parents have changed my life. And when it is that easy, people will realize that it is easy precisely because it is so real.

Moreover, which option is honest to our parable? Since Jesus warns us against premature judgment, I cannot sentence someone.

The key to the parable lies in v. 29 where the master says, “No! For in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them.” Jesus’ point in the parable is that the two kingdoms—the kingdom of God and the counterfeit kingdom of Satan—grow simultaneously. Between the time when Jesus first announced the kingdom of God and the time when he returns to bring the kingdom fully, the true kingdom and the fake kingdom exist side by side. More to the point, it is extremely difficult to differentiate between the two kingdoms. Indeed, according to the parable, it is impossible!

It is sad that, despite what this parable teaches us, through most of church history, the church has been preoccupied with identifying the signs of the true kingdom. Many answers have been suggested. Some describe what a Christian ought to be. For instance, a Christian must live a pure life, which raises the question, “What behavior is off-limits?” Or a Christian must be baptized, which raises the questions, “When?” and “How?” A third approach is that a Christian must believe in Jesus, which raises the question, “Believe what?”

Other answers describe what a true church should be. For instance, a church must teach biblically sound doctrine, which raises the question, “Which denominations are orthodox?” Or a church must administer the sacraments, which raises the question, “What are the sacraments?” Another approach is that a church must be led by the Holy Spirit, which provokes the question, “How does one decide?”

A third set of answers deal with the effects of the kingdom on society. For instance, the kingdom promotes prosperity, which begs the question, “Why then was Jesus a pauper?” Or the kingdom promotes health, which requires the question, “Why then do we still suffer?” Or the kingdom promotes virtue, which begs the question, “Why then are we so devoid of character?”

My point is that all these approaches ignore what Jesus has told us—that the two kingdoms are difficult to separate. More precisely, the kingdom of God exists where we often do not see it, namely outside the church. And the kingdom of Satan exists where we hope to be safe from it, namely in the church. If you doubt this last claim, read the letters to the churches in the last book of the bible.

The news that the two kingdoms are difficult to differentiate must have been hard for the disciples to take in. After all, in first century Palestine, the line between the unrighteous, whom God would condemn, and the righteous, whom God would bless, was very clear. For them, the Romans were the unrighteous and the Jews the righteous. And here Jesus was saying that the line was not that clear. More to the point, he was saying that even attempting to draw the line was ridiculous.

I have driven home the main point of the parable in a number of ways. The line between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan is blurred. We are faced with the crucial question, “Why does Jesus tell this parable?” In other words, “How are we to respond to the parable?”

How we are to respond, of course, depends on the character with which we chose to identify. The only two characters open to us are the wheat and the darnel. The first question Jesus’ audience is faced with is, “Are you wheat or darnel?”

The most common knee-jerk response to the question is, “Of course I am wheat!” There is hardly anyone who would openly claim to be the offspring of Satan! We all function within a worldview and belief system that assures us we are children of God. And it is here that the parable asks us the world shattering question, “How are you so sure?”

Given what we know about how similar wheat and darnel are, we can appreciate the question. How indeed are we so sure? As I have said, every method we develop to determine who is a child of God and who is not merely leads to questions that Christians have answered in a variety of ways. How indeed am I sure that I am a child of God?

The second question Jesus’ audience is faced with is, “Is the person next to you wheat or darnel?” Again, following the logic of the parable any definite answer we give forces us to answer the question, “How are you so sure?”

This parable is masterful in that it asks us the same question without regard to the character with which we chose to identify. And like a good parable, it traps us and ensnares us until it is not we who are interpreting the parable but the parable that is interpreting us.

The parable challenges every boundary drawing bone in us. It questions every inclination we have to make hedges around ourselves. It rebukes every attempt we make to determine who is in God’s kingdom and who is not.