Friday, 29 April 2011

On being Thomian


The school I attended in Sri Lanka is St Thomas’ College. I reckon history has been unkind to St Thomas. Despite the adjective usually attached to his name – “doubting” Thomas – I reckon he’s actually a good model for a believer. That is, if you follow the correct Thomas.

The world is a big place. We can’t possibly travel everywhere & experience everything. So how do we gain reliable information about the world? Through people telling us what it’s like. When they tell us what it’s like, we can share some of their experiences. We can see what they see, hear what they hear, and thereby come to a reliable knowledge of whatever it is they’re telling us about. That works through time – we know history through the records of witnesses – and in contemporary time – people share their experiences with us.

And that’s the same way we can know about Jesus rising from the dead: through the testimony of the eyewitnesses. That’s the challenge Thomas faced.

John 20:24-25 (NIV 1984):
24 Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”
The disciples had seen Jesus – except Thomas; he wasn’t there. So he had a choice. All the other disciples were saying to him: Jesus is alive! We saw him! Thomas had to decide whether to believe them or not. And he decided not to.

And if you think about it – that’s really rude. The other disciples were Thomas’ friends. They’d lived together for three years; ate together; listened to Jesus together – they were family. Why should they lie to him? They’ve got nothing to prove. They’ve got no reason to fake a resurrection – to make up a story – to fool Thomas.

But in not believe them, he judges them. “You guys – you’re all stupid. You’re all imagining things. Or you’re lying to me. I’m the only one who knows the truth.” That’s effectively what he’s saying to them. And that’s really rude, isn’t it? He wasn't just Doubting Thomas. He was Rude, Arrogant Thomas.

When I arrived at my church here in St Mary’s, I visited my church members. Some of them have been here for decades. They told me stories of what it was like in the old days, when there was only one paved road, and there was a Dutch settlement.

Imagine if, when those people told me about the history of St Mary’s, I smiled patronisingly and said “we don’t believe in Dutch people any more.”

“But I am Dutch!”

“No – we’re in Australia now. Dutch people don’t exist. We’re all Australians now.”

That’d be really rude, wouldn’t it? I expect the people would get rather angry, and tell me, in a few choice words, where I could stick my being Australian…

Jesus was kinder than we usually are. He appeared to Thomas, so Thomas himself became an eye-witness. And Thomas could have been a hand-witness if he wanted – he could have felt the wounds. We don’t know if he really did – the bible doesn’t tell us – but he could have.

And then things broaden out to encompass us.

John 20:29-31 (NIV 1984):
29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” 30 Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Jesus says “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (v 29b). Oh, great - so faith is a leap in the dark, is it? I can’t prove it – but I want it to be true – so I just believe it, I just have faith. Is that what Jesus wants?

No. He wants us to believe based on the testimony of the books.

This passage is almost at the end of the Gospel of John. This Gospel – like the others – is the story of Jesus, told to us by one of his followers – a witness of what Jesus did and said, and of his death and resurrection. In this passage, John tells us why he’s bothered to write all this down. “Jesus did lots of amazing stuff,” John says. “I don’t have time to tell you all of it. I’ve written these down for you. So that you would understand who Jesus is, and, through knowing Jesus – the risen Jesus, who has defeated death – that you would have eternal life through him.”

In fact, the whole New Testament tells us about people’s experiences of Jesus. The disciples crowded around Thomas, and said to him: “we’ve seen Jesus – this is what it was like.” Just like that, the authors of the New Testament – Matthew, mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, James – they crowd around us, and say to us: “we’ve seen Jesus – this is what it was like.”

The only question for us is – are we going to be polite enough to listen to them? And through him, experience Jesus - the same way we experience & know about most things in life? Or are we going to smile patronisingly, and say “this is Australia – we don’t believe in Jesus any more”?

John wants us to believe that Jesus is the Son of God. “Son of God” could be another way of talking about the Christ – God’s chosen king over the universe (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7, 89:26-27). But in John’s Gospel, it also comes to me that Jesus is divine – the second person of the Trinity, the unique (“only-begotten”, Greek monogenous) Son of the Father. That’s why Thomas called Jesus “my Lord and God” (v28).

The first Thomas was really rude. He wasn't just Doubting Thomas - he was Rude, Arrogant Thomas. Confronted by Jesus, he changed, to become Trusting, Testifying Thomas. Which Thomas are we going to stand with? The rude, arrogant Thomas, who said “I don’t care what you say – I know better”? Or the Thomas who saw the wounds, and cried out “my Lord and God”?

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Jesus the temple

This follows on from my previous post on Jesus, the radical reformer.
John 2:18-22:
18 Then the Jews demanded of him, “What miraculous sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 The Jews replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple he had spoken of was his body. 22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.
The risen body of Jesus is the one true temple – the one place where God and man con come together in peace and harmony.

Jesus had taken charge of the temple. He was controlling the place, and dictating what true worship was. The Jewish leaders ask him: what right have you to do that? They want him to perform a miracle, to prove that he has the right to take over the place, and dictate true worship.

He says if they destroy the temple, he’ll rebuild it in three days. That would have been a miracle. The temple was about 450 m (approx 1,500 ft) from N to S, and about 300 m (approx. 950 ft) from E to W.

But he didn’t mean the physical temple; the real miracle was his resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is the proof of his authority to dictate true worship.

Jesus had to die to take the penalty for all our corrupt worship. Our worship, on its own, stinks. It’s always corrupt. It’s never good enough for God. Think of Jesus’ death as his once for all, eternal cleaning up of the temple; and his resurrection as a once for all, eternal rebuilding of the temple, where God can have acceptable, pure worship, led by the risen Jesus himself.

As people who now, in Christ, worship God acceptably, let’s be like Jesus – zealous for true worship.

We’re too relaxed. We’re too used to mediocrity, to false worship. Every shopping mall is a temple to the god dollar. The football field is the temple for many blokes. Islam says Jesus is a prophet, but refuses to worship him as God. Hinduism worships a pantheon of gods. We’re too comfortable with this. The culture of tolerance has doused our fervour.

Personal godliness, and a passion for evangelism, spring from the same root: zeal for the glory of God, in Christ. Christ was consumed by his zeal for pure worship. He expects nothing less from us.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Jesus the reformer

John 2:14-16:
14 In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves he said, “Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
When we read the account of Jesus clearing the temple, we instinctively cheer him on. But Jesus’ actions are actually rather strange. Because when we look carefully, we can see that this market was originally set up to help people worship God, not get in the way of it.

The merchants were selling “cattle, sheep and doves” (v14). They are sacrificial animals. God specifically permitted people to purchase sacrificial animals on site:

Deuteronomy 14:24-26
24 But if that place [the central place of worship, where the LORD puts his name] is too distant and you have been blessed by the LORD your God and cannot carry your tithe (because the place where the LORD will choose to put his Name is so far away), 25 then exchange your tithe for silver, and take the silver with you and go to the place the LORD your God will choose. 26 Use the silver to buy whatever you like: cattle, sheep, wine or other fermented drink, or anything you wish. Then you and your household shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice.
This makes sense. To transport an animal would have involved walking the animal a long distance. By the time they got to the temple, the animal would be tired and weak, and perhaps sick. What kind of a sacrifice is that? “Here you go, God. Have this weak, sick, animal.” It would be much better to sell the animal when it’s healthy, get a good price for it, and then buy another good, healthy animal from the merchants.

So the merchants are helping people to worship God – just like God commanded in the bible. What’s Jesus’ problem?

And the money changers were helping people worship God, too. A good Jew paid temple tax – that is, money given to the temple to pay the priests and maintain the temple.

Roman money of the time had images of Caesar, the Roman emperor, with proclamations that he was divine. For Jews, this was multiple blaspheme. No way could a human being claim to be God – least of all a pork-stuffed, multiple-God-worshipping, blood-sport-watching Roman Gentile…! And then putting that claim on a coin is idolatry – it’s creating an image of a false god. So there’s no way a good Jew could use that kind of coin to worship God. They had to exchange that blasphemous, idolatrous coin for pure, acceptable temple coin, and use that pure coin to pay the temple tax.

So what’s Jesus’ problem? The money changers are helping people to worship God. Aren't they?

Maybe Jesus got mad because the sales were exploitative. The merchants and the temple priests could have been working together, to rip off the worshippers, and make profit for the priests and merchants. It’s an old problem – Paul warns us to beware of “men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain” (1 Timothy 6:5).

But I don’t think that’s the particular focus that John’s giving us.

Matthew, Mark & Luke also tell us how Jesus cleared the temple, at the end of Jesus’ ministry, just before the crucifixion. They record Jesus as saying “stop turning God’s house of prayer into a den of robbers”.

John’s different. He shows us Jesus clearing the temple at the beginning of his ministry, and records Jesus says “stop turning my Father’s house into a market”.

That’s slightly different: house of prayer – den of robbers vs Father’s house – market.

John shows us Jesus the reformer. The markets might have been there to help at first. But over time, they became corrupted, and started serving people rather than God. Jesus, consumed with zeal for his Father’s house, was determined to clean the place up, and restore the proper worship of God.

This is perfectly normal. All human worship patterns decline, and become corrupt.

Just like normal life. Our home doesn’t stay magically clean; we have to wash the dishes, sweep the floor, vacuum the carpet, dust the furniture, mow the lawn…

That’s what we have to do to our normal patterns of daily, weekly, monthly and annual worship. We have to keep cleaning them up, getting rid of the rubbish, and constantly getting back to pure worship of God.

And it’s not just formal church practices. Worship is bigger than Sundays. Paul says “present your bodies as living sacrifices” (Rom 12:1). We need to examine our ordinary lives. What are we spending our money on? What are we spending our time on? Would Jesus approve of that TV show? Would he approve of that internet site?

A healthy church can never be comfortable and predictable. A healthy Christian can never be contented. Both are always reforming – constantly evaluating themselves according to the rule of the Bible, and seeking to fix what doesn’t measure up.

Christ was consumed by his zeal for pure worship. He expects nothing less from us.