Did Jesus really love his own enemies?

So I’ve been on this kick of late that testifies to my own Christian faith by using social role theory. When we think about such roles, we tend toward our occupational and familial roles. Our roles evolve and can even improve over time. Sons and brothers may become husbands and dads. Even the friend roles we play evolve in the course of time. If nothing else, people die and we’re faced with grief over the death of a role as well as that of a loved one. And taking on new roles is not as easy as it may sound. But it typically happens to all of us. We play roles.

Social roles help us figure out our rights and responsibilities in life, and to keep these in some reasonable balance for the sake of our own psyches.

When we read of sociologists researching the effect of, say, marriage roles on overall happiness, we learn for example that wives who feel an imbalance on the side of responsibilities at home will feel more unhappy. Husbands who feel they have more rights than responsibilities at home are notoriously happy per most studies.

Lest I go on with this and stir family arguments of any sort, I want to stress that I think of Christianity as a social role within the larger human society. A Christian has rights and responsibilities. People who stay Christian, like those who stay married, have some sense of balance. Yet, there are those Christians who happily claim an abundance of rights and struggle to understand those Christians who feel over-burdened with social responsibility. The latter are as apt to leave the Church behind as over-burdened wives are to leave a marriage behind.

To be sure, we all do have role models for good or ill. People who teach us how to stay married are important in society. Usually it turns out to be those well-balanced at home in areas of rights vs. responsibilities. Comparing marriages, though, to Christian Churches, poor role models tend to really mess things up big time. We learn to grow our marriages and churches both from the presence of a positive, not negative, role model. From someone who is well-balanced in areas of both rights and responsibilities. Growing Christianity, like growing a family, requires being able to learn the role of Christian from someone who is well-balanced in both of these key areas of social role behavior. Could that be, oh, let’s say Jesus Christ?

Let me just tick off a few rights and responsibilities that I’ve noticed Jesus emphasizing for those of us who would choose the role of Christian for ourselves.

• We have the right to an abundant life
• We have the right to be lovingly pursued
• We have the right to be forgiven and given a new lease on life
• We have the right to resurrection after death
• We have the right to exercise our own free will and make our own decisions
• We have the right to fellowship or friendship
• We have the right to be reconciled with our wholly other God

And now for some responsibilities that correspond to these rights as Christians based on the role model or example of Jesus Christ himself.

• We have the responsibility for giving whatever abundance we receive
• We have the responsibility for lovingly pursuing others
• We have the responsibility to forgive others and grant second chances
• We have the responsibility to die to our selfish desires
• We have the responsibility to grant freedom to others in making their own decisions
• We have the responsibility to befriend others who are in need of fellowship
• We have the responsibility to reconcile ourselves with others, and to love even our enemies

This last responsibility is far from being least if we are to follow Jesus as our role model and example. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus frequently interacting with his enemies in ways that exercised both his own rights and responsibilities.

Who were the enemies that Jesus loved and went out of his way to reconcile with? They were the liberals and conservatives among his own Jewish people: the Sadducees on the left and Pharisees on the right. Both sought, in their own respective ways, to prove to Jesus that they were right and he was wrong. Both read their Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in ways that proved to them Jesus could not possibly be the Christ.

So how did Jesus model for us the way we, too, should love our enemies?

The Gospels of our New Testament suggest three ways in particular for loving one’s enemies based on how Jesus behaved in relation to his own.

1. Jesus attempted to reconcile with those who had something against him prior to offering himself sacrificially. You may recall how Jesus having these words to say in his Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

Just because Jesus didn’t achieve peaceful reconciliation with the Pharisees and Sadducees who were his constant enemies did not mean he did not try. He made no attempts to avoid them or to avoid his conflicts with them. He lovingly engaged them at every opportunity prior to his own death on the cross.

2. Jesus actively listened to and questioned his enemies. He didn’t talk to his enemies before he first listened to them. He assertively asked questions seeking to understand what they were really saying and meaning. A typical example of Jesus loving his enemies by asking questions comes from Matthew 22. Keeping in mind that his enemies were the religious leaders of his time, the conservative Pharisees who opposed paying taxes to the government showed him an official Roman coin called the denarius ”and he asked them, ‘Whose image is this? And whose inscription?’” (Matthew 22:20). If you don’t recall the rest of that story, look up the remainder of it now yourself.

Jesus was then confronted by his liberal enemies, the Sadducees, who were opposed to any belief in life after death. They concocted their own little parable of the wife who died after having married seven infertile brothers in obedience to the laws of Moses. Now in heaven, these skeptics wondered, whose wife will she be? To which Jesus replied, “But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you?” (Matthew 22:31).

Just because his enemies failed to understand Jesus did not mean he did not seek to understand them by asking them questions. Jesus routinely listened prior to talking.

3. Jesus loved his enemies by trying to help them rather than trying to please them. If you have experience loving your own children, you will know what I mean here. Sometimes the very things we do trying to help others will displease them most. Yet, we do so anyhow out of love. Again using Matthew’s Gospel as an example, in chapter 21 we read the familiar story of Jesus turning over the money-changers’ tables in the Temple courtyard. “Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. ‘It is written,’ he said to them, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it ‘a den of robbers’” (Matthew 21:12-13). Doubtless, this did not please his enemies. However, what Jesus was urgently trying to do was help them learn the lesson of Jeremiah 7, where God declared through the prophet that the religious leaders of Judah, prior to the destruction of their Temple, had turned it into a “den of robbers” (Jeremiah 7:11). Jesus was trying to help his enemies avoid the destruction of their Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D.

Just because his enemies failed to accept the help Jesus was seeking to provide them did not mean he was not lovingly trying to help them examine their choices in time to prevent their horrible consequences to come.

How well do we confront rather than avoid conflict with our enemies as followers of Jesus? How well do we listen to and question our enemies in order to understand what they truly mean? How well do we try to help our enemies even when we know they’ll not be pleased by our efforts? In other words, how well do we follow Jesus as our role model for being a Christian who loves our enemies as Jesus loved his own? These are questions each one of us may do well to answer for ourselves if we would dare assume the role of “Christian” in today’s world.

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Can Jesus be Lord if he’s not even our role model?

Some of you may have a mentor in your life. Some a life coach. Some a therapist/counselor/pastor.

Everyone has a role model.

One of the stranger jargon words for those of us who claim the Christian faith is “Lord.” Who in today’s world has a Lord in their lives? Except for British, Irish, Scottish parliamentarians, and such. Yet, we talk about having a relationship with Jesus as Lord.

Jesus as Lord? Really?

I’m thinking it might work better to talk about have a relationship with Jesus as role model.

Wondering if maybe Jesus might at least be qualified to show us how to be a Christian. And if it works out to follow him as a role model in this way, maybe we can then move on to someday calling him Lord. Which, by the way, means “absolute authority” as in “Master God.” That’s what the word Lord meant in the biblical Hebrew, Adonai, and in the Greek Septuagint, Kyrios.

Somehow, I figure Jesus would even accept starting out as our role model. Kind of like in Matthew 10 where he sends out his original twelve disciples to just do the things he did. Then, as in Matthew 28:19-20, he sends his remaining 11 disciples to teach others to do the same things. Perpetual role modeling. Each one teach one. That’s when Lordship finally kicks in.

Well, it worked for those original disciples of Jesus. They kept it going for another 10-15 years or so until a dude named Saul catches on after seeing this guy named Stephen who faced his own death, tortured by stoning til he would draw his last breath, forgiving those who were torturing him even as Jesus himself had done earlier. Then Saul takes on a new name, Paul, accepts a new role model named Ananias. Goes through about 20 or so more years with Jesus as his primary role model until it comes time for his own death. Then he writes a letter about this time to the Philippian churches. Time for him to remind everyone else to follow Jesus as their role model. Only here’s how he did that reminding (re-mind-ing):
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-8)

Maybe this was just Paul trying to psych himself up enough to face his own death. Probably was that, at least in part. He goes on to write, “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13) But I think it was more like saying “make Jesus your role model throughout life. It will make you stronger when it comes to loving your neighbor — even your enemies, helping the people who are hurting, even the ones who are hurting you, and overcoming every possible adversity. Even death.”

One thing about role modeling is that it happens more in deeds than in words, more in showing how and not just saying what. Jesus showed others how to live, and die. These others then did the same for their own “others.” And it’s all still going on today when what we might call “red letter Christians” continue to do whatever Jesus says to do, and stop themselves from doing what he says not to do. It starts with being humble. Take a one-down position in relation to others. Be a servant, not a master. Do the dirty work nobody else wants to touch. Love unconditionally. Do what Jesus would do. Follow him as our chief role model in life.

Wish I could say I was better at doing all that myself. Sadly, I’m not. Especially when it comes to loving my enemies like Jesus loved his. That’s a tough one. So maybe I’ll also follow Paul in writing about it for my next blog. Stay tuned: Next time is: The Role of Enemy Love. Time to figure out how Jesus did just that in relation to his own many enemies. Didn’t just tell us what but showed us how.  Which is what real role modeling is all about.

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So how would YOU define “Christian?”

It’s hard to miss being aware that the very word “Christian” is poorly defined in today’s world. It’s hard to think of a word in our English vocabulary more loosely defined. It has so many meanings as to essentially mean nothing at all anymore.

Being a resident and citizen of the United States, I think of the word “American” and note that many of my fellow citizens consider themselves uniquely “American.” Yet, we are only one nation among many within the two American continents. We have no right to in any way exclude Canadians, Mexicans, and those throughout central and south America who are equally “American” residents and citizens. To not be inclusive of other nations within our two continents would be like Germany claiming they were uniquely European. Sounds more like Hitler than like any Germans I have ever met. They all seem to understand the difference between a nation and a continent, never confusing the two at all.

So what is a “Christian?” Who is included? Who is excluded? Can we at least be more clear than “Americans” sometimes are about that definition?

Ask non-Christians or the “nones” who are increasing daily in number even here in the United States (of America). Anecdotally, I have done so enough to gain such responses as “people who go to Church,” “people who are nice to each other,” “people who vote Republican,” “people who are opposed to homosexuals,” “people who don’t believe in abortion, or in a woman’s right to choose,” “people who say they have been born again,” “people who think they own the government or the constitution,” or “people who hate Muslims.” That’s quite a range to choose from right there.

Ask Christians themselves and I’m willing to bet you’ll get a rather different but equally broad range of definitions.

Ask Christians on Facebook and you’ll do even better. You’ll start World War III.

Ask Merriam-Webster and you’ll get “one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

Ask the Bible using the Koine Greek word Christós (Χριστός) and you’ll find 3 references: Acts 11:26 noting the name given to the disciples of the way of Jesus as taught by Paul and Barnabas in Antioch, Acts 26:28 noting it as a term of derision used by King Herod at Paul’s trial, and I Peter 4:16 when the apostle Peter wrote in the context of those suffering for the sake of Christ’s glory. That’s a rather small sampling, wouldn’t you agree? Not to mention three very diverse examples.

Which is why I’m now asking you. How would YOU define the word “Christian?”

Let me bump the question up a notch: How would you define the term in a way most likely to interest a non-Christian in becoming a Christian?

So here’s the reason I’m even raising these questions in today’s world. Actually, I have a couple reasons:

1. Though growing in numbers throughout the continents of Asia, Africa, and even South America, Christians are declining in number in North America and Europe (with the possible exception of in the United States prior to the deportation of millions of Mexican Christians, which would significantly lower our numbers here. And keep them lower after building a potential wall to keep more Mexican Christians from entering illegally to gain work to feed their families back home).

Psst! I’d better watch it or I’ll soon find myself walled off from any privilege of calling myself a “Christian,” or even an “American.”  I may have already flunked one litmus test!

Because of the increasing number of “nones” and now “dones” who have chosen to leave Christianity because their own definition does not fit with their actual faith or belief system, there’s at least some hint that we have a “definition” problem on our hands that is itself in quest of a solution.   Agreed?

2. Social movements are always born or grown by the positive performance of social roles.
Okay, that’s my own belief. It’s a bit of a Heldism. Don’t even try Googling it. But do let me say what I mean by it.

First, a bit of background. Back in the 70’s in grad school at Ohio State, I took quite an interest myself in what is labeled “Social Role Theory.” Social Psychologists like Talcott Parsons. George Herbert Meade. And so on. They believed that human behavior was largely assigned by one’s closest society or social grouping. The assignment occurred not as a formal set of rules and expectations, or printed “job description” handed out and kept on file, but as behaviorally modeled by group leaders. Roles are taught and learned within relationships between leaders and followers. One’s identity, and one’s behavior, is formed by these “social role models” who establish “norms of acceptable behavior” in that society or social group, per this theory.

Let me throw out an example. Let’s take the role sometimes titled “social bully.” Most likely, in this theory, bullying behavior occurs because a leader in that family or larger society is a bully. Leaders cause followers who reinforce leaders to create more followers. All said and done, you have a social movement of bullying on your hands. Until enough people stop following the leaders. The leaders then fizzle out themselves.

Are you getting this? If so, then consider also: Christianity has a leader for our “role model” who started a social movement (called Christianity) aimed at establishing a better society on earth that Jesus called the Kingdom of God. And it worked!!! For about three centuries! That’s quite awhile! (Longer than the United States has existed within America.) And all because the people who identified as Christians were following the leader, Jesus Christ, as their social role model. They performed their assigned role so effectively that the movement grew. They followed their role as most effectively defined (modeled).

If I had to come up with a reason as to why this movement is now in at least partial decline, borrowing from social role theory itself, I’d say that enough people have stopped following our leader, Jesus Christ, as to weaken his leadership within our society. And when any society has a leadership problem, it has a “definition of role” problem. Which lets the air out of the entire balloon. And the movement itself begins to shrink.

I’m going to try in my next blog to get at why I think we can start this movement over again, using Jesus Christ as our role model, and as an example using Paul as the Jesus follower who became an effective leader / role model himself. I’ll try my best to interest you in becoming a Christian as defined……through role modeling…….by Jesus and then Paul. I’ll start with Paul’s letter to the Philippians noting how he followed the lead of Jesus who followed, and performed to perfection, the very role of God under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.   Got all that?

Spoiler alert: read Philippians 2:5-11 and then 4:13.

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9-11 and the question of vulnerability

This morning I was extra proud of my wife, Sue. Next May 27th, we’ll have been married 50 years. And I’ve never been more proud of her!

In our Christian worship service today she was interviewed by Chaplain Steve Peterson of the Whispering Pines Chapel where we attend when here in Colorado’s high country near the YMCA of the Rockies, Snow Mountain Ranch campus. Steve asked Sue to share her thoughts and feelings, and faith, as regards her experience of 9-11.  This was the sermon.

So why ask Sue?

Because her younger and extra close sibling, Chuck Jones, was a passenger on American Airlines flight #11 from Boston to LA where he was working on a business project. It was that flight, 9-11-01, that would hit the first (north) tower of the World Trade Center, touching off what is now referred to as America’s war on terror.

Sue told of her own terror that day upon learning that her brother was one of the first victims. She laid out her vast array of honest emotions. Total authenticity. Total vulnerability. She told what it was like for her then, over the last 15 years hence, and the things that have hurt her as well as helped her along the way.

One thing about grief, as you may well know from your own past experience, is that the stage called “acceptance” means you accept that it will never really end. There is not closure. Only acceptance that we can go on living even without closure. Closure after a wound like 9-11 for all concerned is merely a want to, not a have to. Going on with life anyhow is our “have to.” Forgiveness is only partial closure. The incision is closed but the staples can never be removed. The fracture heals but the arthritis never goes away, for all you old geezers like me who get what I mean.

So I’m thinking today about human vulnerability more than usual, I suppose. Thinking of how it makes us human. How it makes us relatable. How it makes us acceptable.  And it crosses my mind that the USA has never had more friends around the globe than we had after our day of greatest vulnerability ever.  On 9-11-2001.   We were never more relatable. Never more acceptable. Canada to the north. Mexico to the south. Nations east and west. They loved us. They were more proud of us than ever before!!

Because. We. Were. Vulnerable.

Seems counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? Yet, the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian churches about his own vulnerabilities and about God’s Spirit within him offering these words of reassurance in II Corinthians 12:9-1, “but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

So what do you suppose the church universal might learn from all this?

Could it be that the world is waiting for the church to reveal our vulnerability for a change? To get off our high horses, admit our hypocrisies, our hubris, our “I’m right and you’re wrong about God, the Bible, etc. etc. etc.” and get on with the acceptance that we are, after all, only human? Could it be that the world (and for too many Christians the USA is the whole world) we think has “turned away from God” has really turned toward God quite well?  And together with God is waiting for us to simply start removing the log in our own eyes as self-identified believers in Christ? Could it be those we accuse of being secular are simply waiting, and waiting, and still waiting for us to be honest and authentic for once in our lives? Could the world be watching with a justifiable smirk when one of our “family values” preachers is taken to prison for sexual rape of a minor?   Or one of our anti-gay-sanctity-of-marriage  pastors is divorced on grounds of adultery?   Could humble pie be the largest slice of our proudest piety?

Jesus made himself vulnerable in front of an audience that saw this mostly naked man writhing in pain, in tears, in agony while on the cross he far more than hinted we, too, must take up if we would be saved. So what’s stopping you and me from being his followers?  From being saved?  From being vulnerable?   And from actually making a positive difference in this world?

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Do we work for fear or for love? Can we serve two masters?

In the past month while on vacation from about everything that has interfered with completion of my book, “Love’s Resurrection: it’s power to roll away fear’s heaviest stone,” I’ve tried to open my mind not only to God’s Spirit within me, but to the world I see “happening” around me. It sounds trite, perhaps, to say with the biblical epistle-writer, John, that “the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:4), but this is a verse that resonates with me a lot these days. I trust in its truth.

My own experience of God’s indwelling presence is that my mind hears God’s whispers even above the world’s shouts sometimes. Not always. But sometimes. The world drives me through my bodily senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, taste. It drives me in the default direction of fear in response to the unknowns of this world, and there are many. Yet, the world has no power to drive me crazy if my mind also listens for the God who draws me through my soul’s very real connection with the omnipresent and omnipotent Holy Spirit. This Spirit draws me to love in ways that cast out fear.

Talking about fear, WTH is going on with our crazy nation’s Presidential race this year?

I’ve now been around for 70 years and voting in elections for 52 of these. My first ever vote was for Barry Goldwater, a Republican whose would-be policies were somewhere to the left of today’s Barack Obama. Yep. That’s how far the ground beneath our nation has shifted in those 52 years. That’s how crazy we’ve become!

No POTUS has dropped more bombs on America’s declared enemies than President Obama. Not even close. Yet, I recall 52 years ago a television ad used by the LBJ campaign associating the Republican Goldwater with a giant mushroom cloud after an atomic bomb where this little girl was left alone to pluck the pedals off a surviving daisy. Or something like that. Anyhow, the message was FEAR!!!! The ad worked. Fear worked. Goldwater was defeated. And perhaps a new chapter was written in the annals of American political science, or at least our PR campaigns.

So today’s level of political fear is now off the charts crazy, or so my own mind has reasoned. Maybe my mind is crazy and all else is sane, but I’m just telling you how I now think. Right or wrong, I seem to hear God’s still small voice whispering “love is the only anti-dote” to this crazy fear in the world.

Love is really hard for me these days. It requires two things in particular that are difficult. One is letting go of my own assumptions, and replacing them with active-listening, empathy, and understanding (as opposed to misunderstanding the “other” in my life Jesus referred to as neighbor). The other difficult thing is letting go of control. The latter is critical because holding on to control over the “other” Jesus called neighbor means letting go of influence. And love is all about influencing that which we cannot control, and empathizing with those we cannot otherwise always understand.

Some of you know that since my retirement last year, I’ve worked at answering what I experience as God’s call to finish what I’ve now come to call “our” book. I know. It’s presumptuous for me to claim any sort of divine inspiration. Yet, I do believe we are all divinely inspired whenever we choose in our minds to love instead of fearing the world’s many “others.” I do believe that’s the Holy Spirit indwelling in every invisible soul inside every invisible mind within our visible bodies and world of sensational experience.

Asked recently to write a synopsis or abstract describing this book, which is still in the final editing stages, I came up with this:

Abstract: This book wraps both an informed psychology and informed theology into a singular thesis aimed at helping lay Christian believers reduce the health risks of high stress and anxiety within today’s “worried” western culture. This thesis, centered upon the biblical Prodigal son, builds a new paradigm in which God’s love never seeks to attain certainty of outcomes nor control over people, but rather finds purpose and pleasure only in influencing others and empowering their own preferred narratives. Love’s healing properties cast out the fear in our human minds and societies, even our Christian churches, which otherwise seek out certainty and control in ways that lead to sin’s separation from our most NON-controlling God of love. The author, through both personal memoir and scholarly discourse, offers readers a model for stress reduction based on letting go of control and its underlying fears. Noting the history of Great Awakenings both nationally and personally, the author gives notice that the movement of God’s Spirit serves to draw us in love away from wherever our world drives us in fear. Where fear drives us to take control over the “other” in our lives, love draws us to give influence. In this way, we are saved from the sin that separates us from God’s fearless love. The cross, in this paradigm, becomes the symbol of God’s letting go of fear and control that He may have the power to save us from our fearful and controlling sin. Where fear dominates human discourse, love renews the divine narrative. The lead title, “Love’s Resurrection,” conveys hope for all of humanity as, both personally and corporately, we take up our own cross, let go of our own loveless fear, and find resurrection into God’s fearless love. Such is the stuff of all “Great Awakenings” and Prodigal returns.

I would like to think of it, on this national Labor Day 2016, as my own labor of love in a world that is entombed in its own fear. In any case, happy Labor Day as you celebrate your own hard work of love in today’s world. Be encouraged! Your own labors of love will succeed in giving influence wherever your taking of control in this world has failed.

For “the ONE who is in YOU is greater than the one who is in the world” (I John 4:4).

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love” (I John 4:18).

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