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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Nathanael: A Person for Such a Time as This, Part 2

Continued from previous post

     Of course, Judas finally lost his way.  He may have become disillusioned with Jesus, impatient with Jesus’ unwillingness to take up violence against the oppressors.  He may have simply lost his vision and started wanting some riches.  Whatever it was, he turned against the best friend he ever had.  He made a terrible choice, and he regretted it as a terrible mistake.  He could not take back what he had done, and his co-conspirators laughed in his face and mocked him.  It was too much for him, and he took his own life.  Jesus saw the good in Judas, but Judas lost sight of the good in himself.
     I need to stop and make an important point about this story.  Some Christians believe that when a person takes his or her own life, it is an unforgivable sin.  The first important thing I must say is that we have no justification to try to put limits on the forgiveness and grace of God.  God is able to forgive without our permission, without our understanding, without our agreement, without our acknowledgement.  God’s grace is immeasurable, and it is greater than all our sin.  Destroying a human life is a grave act, and it is not one to be taken lightly.  God has never take our sin lightly.  God came in Jesus Christ to face sin down, head on, with all seriousness and gravity.  Consequently, Jesus died on a cross because of the murderous ways of humanity.  Yet from that cross, he cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 
     One reason that some Christians believe that there is no forgiveness for an act like Judas’s is that they have accepted a mechanical understanding of our relationship with God.  We know that we ought to confess our sins to God and ask for forgiveness.  Many Bible teachers who have helped me learn to serve God have spoken of the promise in 1 John 1:9 as the “Christian’s bar of soap.”  “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Yes, it is true that we ought to confess our sins.  But it is not true that God is keeping a checklist and making sure that we stop to name everything we did and ask forgiveness individually for each item.  God is not operating a sin accounting firm, trying to catch us and nab us for forgetting to confess.  If that kind of mechanical operation were required, we would be caught up in another form of works-righteousness:  it’s like believing God will only save you if you will always name every sin and ask for forgiveness for each one.  It is a way of saying that salvation is just an input-output machine.  Put in the confession.  Take out the forgiveness. 
     So even if a person dies before she or he has a chance to ask for forgiveness, God is not sitting at a desk making sure that every box has been checked off.  God has known us and loved us even before we were born into this world, and God has not stopped loving us even until now.  What can separate us from the love of God?  When we have faithfully sought after God in this life, God stands faithfully with us through our best and worst times, welcoming us into our eternal rest.  God is free to forgive us, even when we have not lived up to our side of the bargain.  Though we are faithless, God will remain faithful, for he cannot deny himself.
     Another disciple, Thomas, remains mostly unknown until after the resurrection.  We know him as doubting Thomas, because he found it hard to accept the testimony of others that Jesus had been raised from the dead.  Frankly, I can see his point.  But what we have called doubting could also be called square dealing.  Thomas was not one to be impressed with fantastic theories, wild imagination, or fancy words.  If he were from the United States, he would have lived in Missouri.  Thomas would say, “Show me,” when the story sounded too fishy.  When someone’s explanation did not seem to add up, he would ask him or her to go over the story again.  Thomas asked people to “put up, or shut up.”  He wanted a practical, workable, realistic plan.  He did not want to be counting on something to appear out of thin air. 
     Jesus needs people who are not satisfied with endless talking and imagining what can be.  Some people need to bring folks like those back down to earth to start laying the paving stones toward progress.  Jesus needs people to keep it real, to be a down brother or sister who knows what’s jive and what’s real.  Jesus called Thomas to help keep his ministry team on the ground and dealing with reality.
     Simon the Canaanean was probably a Zealot.  That means he was committed to the overthrow of the Roman Empire and the reestablishment of a Jewish state in their homeland.  Jesus knew that Simon loved his people and hated to see them treated so badly.  He saw in Simon someone who could analyze the political and social world and recognize how power functioned and who was pulling the strings.  Jesus called him to follow because that kind of insight is needed if God’s people are going to live up to their mission to change the world.  Certainly Simon’s revolutionary ways needed to be tempered by the meek and nonviolent ways of Jesus.  But taking up the ways of nonviolence is not the same as just letting the oppressors do whatever they want.
     Jesus wants leaders who can see the political and economic injustices of the world and guide the church to take strategic action.  Some Christians who have this kind of insight may misuse it to manipulate power in the church.  Others may think the church has no use for their abilities.  But God wants all of our talents to be ordered toward the work of doing the will of God here on earth as it is in heaven.  When churches simply ignore the use and abuse of power in the community, they have truncated, or cut short, the gospel.  God is concerned about every part of our lives and every person in the community.  Using the wisdom God has given us about social strategies for change is what God has called us to do in the gospel.  That is good news for the poor and freedom for the oppressed.
     Thaddaeus may be the one we know least about.  His name probably meant strong-hearted.  He may have been, like Simon, a Zealot.  But whether or not he was part of that movement, Jesus needs people who have strong hearts, courage to act, and love that does not fade under pressure.
     There was another James in the list, and it tells us his dad’s name was Alphaeus.  We also know very little about him.  Some think he might have been a cousin of Jesus.  Maybe because his dad’s name is given, it means he was from a famous family.  In either of these cases, it seems that a key aspect of his calling was his connections to people.  When Jesus calls us, he calls us in the midst of our relationships.  He expects us to be a lifeline to those around us.  As friends of Jesus, we become part of a chain, the so-called six degrees of separation, by which we link one another to Jesus through our witness, our service, and our caring relationships.
     That brings us finally back to Nathanael.  What I find particularly compelling in this story today is what Jesus said about the man.  “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”  Jesus calls Nathanael an honest man.  Nathanael tells the truth.  He says what he thinks and not what he thinks Jesus wants to hear.  Jesus admires this characteristic in a world where flattery and fluffy talk are the rule of the day.  When everyone is thinking it and no one wants to say it, we need a Nathanael to break the ice.  When the doublespeak has fogged our vision, someone needs to speak up and tell what is wrong.
     Jesus calls people like Nathanael who will be willing to take the heat and tell the truth anyway.  It’s not the same thing as saying everything that is on our minds.  That might turn out to be cruelty, rudeness, and half-truths.  But when people are beating around the bush, the church needs someone who will make things plain.  When the competing stories leave everything fuzzy, someone needs to lead the way toward a clear picture of things.  When everyone is afraid, someone has to name the problem.
     Jesus saw Nathanael as the person for such a time as this.  Jesus’ elder cousin and mentor, John, was being discredited by powerful people.  The fledgling movement was under attack.  Political intrigue between powerful Roman, Herodian, and Jewish leaders seemed to shift the landscape everyday.  Nathanael was ready to say what needs to be said.  Jesus could help him find the truth that everyone needs to hear.
     On this weekend we remember a man who might have been any ordinary man.  Martin Luther King, Jr., was a preacher’s son who was blessed to get an excellent education.  He was ready to fit into his role as an urban pastor, doing the expected duties and nothing spectacular, but Jesus had a task for him.  While he did not fully know what gifts and talents he had, Jesus needed a Nathanael to tell the truth.  Jesus needed a Simon to see the political landscape and think strategically.  Jesus needed a Peter to step out boldly when everyone else was timid.  Jesus needed a Son of Thunder to blast forth the trumpet of justice.  Jesus needed an Andrew sold out to God, longing to know and love God better in all dimensions of life.  Jesus needed a James who would use his connections to build a movement and bring more and more people into the vision of freedom only Jesus could offer. 
     And in our day Jesus needs a Nathanael who will stand up to the bankers and to say God expects them to be stewards of the people’s money, not gamble it away and steal it bit by bit.  God needs a Nathanael in whom there is no deceit to remind the public officials whom they serve and whom they need to protect.  God needs a Nathanael to tell our neighbors and friends that Jesus came to give us a life in which loving God and loving one another shape the parameters of our existence.
     Jesus is calling us today to be a person for such a time as this.  Whatever our gifts, whatever our abilities, whatever our talents, whatever our skills—Jesus has sized them up.  Jesus has a place for them.  Jesus has a place for you.  Jesus has a place for me.  Jesus is calling us to walk in his way.  Jesus is calling us for such a time as this.
     If you have never answered the call to follow Jesus, you need to know that he has looked you over, sized you up, and said, “Follow me.”  Jesus can take whatever mess you have made of your life and put you on the right way, the way to life, the way to a future and a hope.  God is ready and able to forgive whatever you may have done. 
     You may have been sitting at home, or sitting in church, for some time, thinking you have nothing Jesus could want.  You may have become discouraged about your life and your usefulness to God.  I’m here today to say that God has not made any junk.  God has not populated this world with useless people.  God has a plan for your life.  God has a job for you to do.  If you are ready to take up the gospel call and stop sitting on your hands, then Jesus will make it plain what you need to do.  Don’t let yourself become deadwood in the building God is building.
     Jesus is telling us to “Come join in.”  Follow Jesus on the way to life.  There is a job for you to do, a place for you to stand, a reason for you to live.

1 comment:

Roosevelt Ethridge said...

I do concur, Forgivenenss is unmeasurable. It is a common practice for us to try to measure forgiveness based on the persons sin. Also, God is looking for more Nathaniels. People who will tell the truth despite the consequences of once reaction to the truth. These type of people are needed and should not sit idol waiting especially when there are causes that need addressing in our society. Injustice is not right and there should be a voice to address it.

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