Regarding… Well, Nothing. A Very DANGEROUS Nothing!

This sermon was delivered to the local Church of Christ over the summer of 2013

Good morning!

I’ve been in construction all my life, and a few years ago I spent most of my summer working in Bismarck. Which means that I spent three nights a week in a hotel room. When you’re pulling twelve-hour days out in the heat, when you get in you don’t have the strength to do anything except ‘veg out’.

As I would flip through the TV stations, I noticed how many televangelists are still on the air. Most, if not all, of the time I disagreed with the salvation teachings that these ministers were espousing, but once in a while I’d watch one anyway.

Sin is still a popular topic among televangelists, apparently, as it ought to be for any preacher. But if you watch these guys, most of their sermons go something like this: America is doing this, or the Liberals are doing that … And I remember thinking to myself, well buddy, what are you doing? I’m beginning to think that maybe we preachers ought to preach about sin first within the context of what we’re doing wrong, instead of what everybody else is doing wrong. From there you can go on and lovingly point out the sin you see in others, but I’m thinking that we ought to start with ourselves. If other now-infamous preachers had taken that approach, people might not have treated them so harshly when they messed up.

So this morning I want to talk about sin, about what it is and what it isn’t, and to ponder some of the effects that it has on our lives. But before we dive into the topic, let’s have a word of prayer, shall we?

(prayer)

‘Sin’ is a word that the religious world has bandied about since the beginning. At least Western religion has bandied it about, because Western religion has always believed in absolute right and wrong. Eastern religions rely more on moral relativism rather than moral absolutes, and they lean more toward and ‘enlightenment and ignorance’ viewpoint rather than a ‘righteousness and sin’ viewpoint. Moral relativism may or may not work in the eastern world depending on what checks and balances it has, but it has been a spectacular failure in the western world. We should have seen that coming; Jesus did say, in Matthew 12:33, that a tree is known by its fruit.

So what is a sin? The Catholic Church has attempted over the years to quantify and label sin so the idea is easier to understand. While I applaud their need to understand and avoid evil, I think it’s difficult to define something that is very often fluid in nature.

My assertion, as many have heard me say before, that sin is a nothing. It’s a non-entity, a ‘no-see-um’. The epistle of 1 John uses the analogy of darkness and light to define good and evil, and I think that’s probably the best way to define it. Darkness isn’t anything. It can’t be measured and it has no characteristics of its own. Darkness just exists by default wherever there doesn’t happen to be any light. Light, on the other hand, does exist in its own right. It has a wavelength that can be measured, it moves at discernible speeds, and it can be broken into a prism. Every time it rains and you see a rainbow, you see proof positive of personality and character of light.

Light IS. Darkness is NOT. Darkness is just the absence of light; we give darkness a name because we need a way to describe it, but our need to describe it doesn’t change the fact that there’s nothing there to describe.

I think that way about sin. Sin is just the absence of righteousness. Sin exists wherever righteousness is not. You don’t have to work at being sinful; you just will be whenever you’re not working at being righteous.

I think this is really the only way to look at it. We have to think of sin as a void, as a non-entity. Because if we think of it as an entity in its own right, then we forsake our own religion and we become Eastern philosophers. Eastern philosophy believes that good and evil are two halves of the same coin, and that the universe maintains a balance between them. Problem with that is, we’ve all to some degree had to live out the consequences of compromising with evil. It stinks. It ain’t fun.

If you don’t think of sin as a state of nothingness, then you have to ask yourself a pesky question: Did God create sin? Scripture says God created everything, in Colossians 1:16. Satan may have been the first sinner, but did God create the IDEA of sin? Wouldn’t that make God more than a little malignant?

I think the simple answer to that is that nobody made sin any more than anyone made darkness. You don’t have to create a nothing. God made light and righteousness, and darkness and sin live live wherever light and righteousness are not.

Righteousness has identifiable characteristics. Turn with me to Galatians 5, starting in verse 22: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law.And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Righteousness loves. Righteousness is joyful. Righteousness promotes peace and is endlessly patient. It’s kind, good, loyal, gentle, and is capable of controlling its own responses.

Sin has no qualities of its own. CS Lewis once referred to Satan as ‘the ape of God’. His point was that Satan cannot create anything new; he can only mimic and blaspheme that which God has created. I agree with Lewis on that point. If you know anything about Anton LaVey’s orthodox church of Satan, NONE of their rituals or ceremonies are original. They’re just blasphemies and perversions of Christian ceremonies.

While evil has no personality of its own, it does take on anti-characteristics that twist and distort the manifestations of righteousness. Turn again to Galatians 5, but we’ll be starting a bit earlier this time, in verse 19: Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness,idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies,envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, and lewdness are just the absence of self-control. Idolatry, sorcery, dissension, contentions, and heresy are the absence of faithfulness. Hatred, jealousy, angry outbursts, selfishness, envy and murder are the absence of kindness.

What we’ve discussed thus far is the philosophy behind sin. Philosophy’s easy. When I was growing up, my friends and I loved nothing better than to crack open a bottle of whisky and debate philosophy for hours. Philosophy is a pastime for eggheads; it has its place, but it’s no good if you can’t move beyond philosophy to practicality.

I think we ought to all look at sin in our lives, but not because we like to dwell on sin. Rather, our sins tell us what righteous attributes we haven’t perfected in our lives.  Admittedly, this is a hard thing to do. When I look in the mirror and examine my faults, I always end up feeling like I’m going straight to hell. I just have to remind myself that this is what Christ came for: Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that God’s grace is sufficient to cover our weakness.

The flip side of that, though, is that if we don’t work at moving past our faults then God’s grace becomes dead to us. James flat-out says this in James 2:17. The irony of Christianity is that God readily covers all of our sins, but we are nevertheless commanded to put them to death.

So how do we identify sin in our lives?

Admittedly, a lot of what I’m about to say is subject to debate. Someone’s probably gonna disagree with me. That’s fine. When I’m being dogmatic about scripture, I’ll say so. The rest of the time, I’m just trying to spur thought. I don’t often see scriptural wisdom as a carved-in-stone, black-and-white thing. Rather, I see it as an evolution … and that evolution begins with debate, not by being handed trite altruisms.

That disclaimer having been given, I think the most glaringly obvious trait of sinful behavior is the refusal to take responsibility for its actions. Turn with me, if you would, to Genesis 3, beginning in verse 1: Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?”

2        And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden;but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ “

4        Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

6        So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate.Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.

8        And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.

9        Then the LORD God called to Adam and said to him, “Where are you?”

10     So he said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

11     And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you that you should not eat?”

12     Then the man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”

13     And the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

            The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

And there you have it. The WOMAN made me do it. The SERPENT made me do it. God’s question was ‘did YOU eat from the tree?” and yet both Adam and Eve began by talking about what someone else made them do. I think this is fairly instinctive for human beings. When you shirk the blame, you avoid taking responsibility for your destructive behavior. Problem is, those consequences are yours whether you accept them or not.

I remember years ago, when I was living in upstate New York, not far from Lake Placid. I was project manager for a fairly high-end construction firm. In retrospect, that was a horrible job for me. I like to work with my hands; I like building buildings, not planning them. Paperwork drives me completely insane, and most of all I’m a terrible politician; I have no brain-mouth disconnect at all, and when you’re the guy jockeying hundreds of thousands of dollars around every single day … that’s bad.

But I forced myself to fit into that mold anyway, and doing so made me miserable beyond miserable. And in my youthful stupidity, all I really did about it was drink. By 2007 I was going through nearly a bottle of whisky every night. Didn’t even bother with a glass or ice; just set the bottle on the desk and sucked on it like my life depended on it.

Over the years, I spent tens of thousands of dollars partying my time away. I ruined a number of friendships and family relationships, and I spent countless days being either incoherent or sick. You hear me now? I DID THAT. That’s Christ in me talking. THEN it was, hey man, I got a rough job. You gotta do something to stay sane, dontcha?

During that lost decade or so, I never stood in the mirror and went ‘what on earth are you doing?’ I should have looked at myself and said ‘hey man, that’s YOU clutching that fifth of Wild Turkey like it’s a baby bottle. You, you alone, and no one else. Not your job, not your boss … you.

Funny thing is, when someone does take responsibility for their actions, sin usually ends up taking a backseat. One morning in 2007 I woke up after whisky and cocaine bender, and sat up in bed and said hey, I am sicker than I‘ve ever been. I have to cut this mess out. The simple use of that word ‘I’ instead of ‘they’ made all the difference in the world.

Funny thing is, I wasn’t even a Christian then. Sin is sin, whether one is in Christ or not. Benjamin Franklin wrote that ‘sin is not hurtful because it’s forbidden, it’s forbidden because it’s hurtful.’ Everything that God condemns as sin, He condemns because it’s bad for us. God is loving, as it says in 1 John 4:7, and He only wants the best for us.

Another characteristic of sin is that it keeps doing the same dumb thing over and over again, hoping that something different will happen this time. I remember when I was younger, I had this very post-modern, secular humanist view of romantic relationships. Immorality wasn’t something that particularly bothered me. And over the years, I wondered why every attachment I formed would fall to shreds in very short order.

I know now why I couldn’t find a stable relationship; immorality breeds heartache, and nothing more. (You young people, you teenagers… you’re hearing me now, right? I’ve made all the mistakes you’re tempted to make now, and lemme tell ya… you DON’T wanna do it!) Relationships only succeed if they are selfless. Your point of view should be ‘I am going to serve this person’s emotional needs as their boyfriend, girlfriend, fiancée, or spouse.’ It should be about what you give, not what you take. And when you introduce sex before you say ‘I do’… you’re taking something that doesn’t belong to you. You’re eating your dessert before your dinner, and guess what? It’s gonna spoil your dinner.

When you introduce immorality into a non-marital relationship, you poison the relationship. Immorality is not selfless, it’s selfish; it’s not about what you’re willing to give, it’s about what you think you can take. There’s an old saying: As the twig is bent, so the tree is inclined. A relationship, even a marriage, that began in sin is going to be crippled. There’s no way around it. Can God heal those marital wounds that were caused by sin? Sure He can. But God only promises to HEAL THE WOUND. The SCAR you carry is your own burden. God cannot and will not violate our free will, and with free will comes the curse of living out the result of our choices. I am haunted every single day by the choices I made. I live with the guilt, and a lot of my negative behavior is born of emotional issues that I caused by my choices. Fortunately, the cycle’s been broken; I met and married my wife now in accordance with God’s standards, and it’s been amazing. Sinful foundations leads to bad marriages, but righteous ones lead to healthy marriages.

I just wish I hadn’t learned the hard way.

The last identifying mark of sin that I wanted to mention is this: Sin lives in perpetual self-denial. People whose lives are defined by sin cannot help but trivialize their behavior.  Someone once said that an evil man doesn’t think he is ‘that bad’, but a good man knows that he is evil. There’s a lot of truth to that, I think. I remember when I was baptized back in 2007. I had a friend who kind of turned on me, to the point that I really stopped thinking of him as a friend. He eventually came around and apologized, and we were able to patch things up. I know now why it went like that; evil hates the presence of goodness, because where goodness is, evil looks even worse by comparison. John 3:19 says ‘And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.’

What I’ve never forgotten was an email that this friend sent me shortly after I became a Christian. “Why the major change?” he wrote. “The person you were before wasn’t that bad.” I was so tempted to respond ‘Are you completely INSANE?! You were with me when we got thrown out of bars and busted by the cops. You were there when we chugged gallons of booze and snorted piles of coke. You were there when we got into fights for hitting on other men’s wives and girlfriends. You were there when we passed out, threw up, drove drunk, and did God knows what else. What part of ANY of this is ‘not that bad?’

But his question to me betrayed our difference in paradigm. He was using the sliding scale by which the world judges wrongdoing. I had been led toward the absolute standard of God’s Word.

The terrifying this is that I still look in the mirror and accuse myself. My batting average for being able to rein my sins of attitude is about seventy-five percent. About one in four slanderous, coarse, or complaining thoughts that I think I’m going to spit out. James 3:10 says that ‘Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be so.’ Ephesians 5:4 says that ‘neither coarse talk, foolish jesting, or filthiness ought never to be named among Christians’. The letter to the Philippians is all about being content, not fretful and fussy.

Over the years I’ve occasionally gone and drank a bit more than I should. My days of hard partying are long over, thank God, but if I don’t carefully monitor myself I can wander into debauchery without even realizing it.

Sins aren’t just actions or words, they’re also attitudes. I have struggled since the beginning of my walk with God to adopt a purely Christian perspective on people. My ability to look at others through God’s eyes wars constantly with my temptation to view everything through a cultural lens. What does God say about that? Romans 3:9 says ‘What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin.’ God does promote or honor any culture except his own; I have a devil of a time looking at the concept His way.

I am not what I should be. I never will be. The question we should ask ourselves, though, is this: It’s not ‘am I what I should be?” It’s am I better than I was?’ Moving past sin isn’t a light switch, it’s a journey.

Back to this idea of sin being an empty void: The only way to fix a void is to put something in it. Turn with me to Matthew 12, starting in verse 43: “When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none.Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.”Jesus knew that you can’t just push away evil and then remain in a state of neutrality. You have to take that emptiness and fill it with righteousness. You have to take the evil that is you and replace it with Godliness. What did Peter say in Acts 2:38? He said ‘Reform and be immersed, each and every one of you, under the authority of Jesus the Savior to accomplish the removal of your sinful state, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ I realize that’s probably not the wording you’re used to, but that’s exactly what the original Greek says. The wording we generally use is based on the King James Tradition.

Peter, like Jesus, understood that sin can’t be beaten just by resolving not to sin. It has to pushed away with active righteousness. When God washes away our sins in baptism, he puts in Himself. One of my pet peeves is our habit of referring to the Holy Spirit as an ‘it’. The Holy Spirit is not an ‘it’, He is a ‘He’. The Spirit, like The Father and Christ, is God and can be prayed to, worshipped, approached, and interacted with just the rest of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit is not a vague cosmic influence like ‘The Force’ from Star Wars; He is God Inside Us. And He is what pushes away our sinful emptiness. I very often explicitly address prayers to the Spirit, because He is the closet facet of God to me. The Father is in Heaven, Jesus is at His right hand… but the Spirit is IN me!

If you don’t want to be lewd and impure, focus on practicing self-control. If you don’t want to deal in hatred and outbursts of wrath, instead focus on being kind. If you don’t want to fall for heresies, be faithful to God by diligently study His Word. In the end, if you don’t want your soul destroyed by hellfire then quit focusing on hell and think about actively getting to heaven. Don’t focus on an evil Nothing; work on creating a good Something. If you’re not going forward the only other direction go is backwards; there’s no sideways, and there’s no state of stasis.

I think a good way to accomplish this is by being more honest with one another. The Churches of Christ in particular – and I mean the church at large, not necessarily this congregation – is exasperatingly tight-lipped about sin. We’ll preach about it, but we won’t admit to it. What did James say? ‘Confess your sins one to another, and pray for one another so you can be healed’. That’s James 5:16. 1 John 1:9 says that if we confess our sins we will be healed. It’s not ‘hey let’s debate scripture so I don’t have to talk about who I really am.’ It’s about applying scripture by saying ‘hey man, I need to talk about what I’m struggling with.’ This is why I really appreciate the men’s morning class, and I’m betting the ladies’ prayer group is just as cathartic. They’re good places to heal from sin, because they consist of open, uncensored discussion. We say in men’s class, ‘what’s said in men’s class STAYS in men’s class’… and thus my lips are sealed. Scripture never said you had to tell EVERYBODY, it just says to tell SOMEBODY. I’m not sharing any details, but lemme tell ya… the details I’ve heard are pretty raw, and that’s how it’s meant to be.

Confession is good for the soul. Both the Christian and the Secular man know this.

So let’s think about that as we leave today. We all have sin in our lives. Can’t help that. Even the best of us sins in every other thought, every other word, and every other action. But we also have God, and God has given us one another option. Don’t focus on what’s wrong; fix what’s wrong by focusing on what’s right.

It’s that simple.

Regarding Cults, Their Leaders, and the People Who Join Them…

March 26th, 1997…

I was nineteen years old, and I remember hearing the news report for the first time. Thirty-nine members of California’s ‘Heaven’s Gate’ commune were found lying in bunk-beds, dressed in matching black clothes and Nike sneakers. Each had a bag tied over his or her head, and all had perished from self-administered doses of vodka and Phenobarbital.

Their googly-eyed leader, Marshall Herff Applewhite, claimed that the passing comet Hale-Bopp hid a mystical spaceship. Only by ‘shedding their human containers’ could the Faithful be ‘beamed’ aboard the spaceship, after which they would enjoy an epic eternity in the Great Beyond. (Applewhite himself was found among the dead.)

Applewhite was obviously a nut case, and his followers also had a few loose screws. There were a number of disturbing events that led up to the mass suicide, one of which was this: Many male cult members (including Applewhite himself) submitted to castration in order to shed all ‘human desires’. (On a similar note, the Branch Davidian leader David Koresh insisted that all wives and daughters be turned over to him, because only he was ‘pure’ enough to breed.)

Cults are weird, man!

In one sense, I don’t get it. I mean, I’d be damned if I’m gonna have my ‘nads cut off, or drink poison, or hand my wife over to some tin-pot dictator like a party favor. On the other hand, I was once a member of the cult founded by the self-anointed ‘prophet’ Kip McKean. While McKean’s cult doesn’t (insofar as I know) demand the surrender of one’s virility (or wife), the group nevertheless remains notorious for its coercive and abusive control mechanisms.

I think the reason that some people join cults – or at least, the reason I did – is that they’re hoping to have all the accurate, reliable, and complete answers about Life handed to them on a silver platter. Blindly accepting the teachings of some self-described ‘Messiah’ is much, much easier than sorting out those answers for oneself! Some people mistrust themselves so much that they’ll follow any lunatic who’s more assertive than they are. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh talked just enough trash to get his followers to hand over their life savings… which he used to acquire nearly a hundred Rolls-Royces, which he then proceeded to drive like a maniac. Dwight ‘Malachi’ York ran his mystical ‘Nuwaubian Nation’ cult with the apparent end of gaining sexual access to young girls, and so did Tony Alamo of Alamo Christian Ministries.

I can identify two different kinds of cult leaders: Those who are/were actually crazy enough to believe their own baloney, and snake-oil salesmen who just teach whatever happens to be enriching and empowering to them.

Marshall Applewhite and David Koresh were crazy. How do we know this? They died alongside their flocks, swallowing their own delusions hook, line, and sinker. On the other hand, Charlie Manson tried to get outta Dodge before he was arrested, and Japanese cult leader Shoko Asahara harbored no intentions whatsoever of facing the consequences of his actions.

Going ‘way back, I think that Joseph Smith (the Mormons) and Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah’s Witnesses) were of the ‘crazy’ breed of cult leaders as well: Both predicted dates upon which the world would end within their own lifetimes! There’s no reason to do that except lunacy…

A sane man would realize that the world’s failure to end by its ‘due date’ just might damage his reputation!

But L. Ron Hubbard (Scientology) wasn’t crazy, any more than Charlie Manson or Shoko Asahara. I just finished reading his book Dianetics, and lemme tell ya… Scientology was crafted from day one to become (as the producers of TV’s South Park put it) ‘a global scam’. I don’t think Hubbard was a nut at all; I think he was just pure evil.

Another question that interests me is this: Why do the wealthy – and celebrities – so love to join cults?

The Beatles were involved with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and George Harrison went on to join the Hari Krishnas. The brother of Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols was found dead along with the other Heaven’s Gate cultists. Members of the Beach Boys were involved with the Manson Family. John Travolta, Tom Cruise, Kirstie Alley and many other actors have been involved with Scientology over the years. And most recently, Allison Mack (of TV’s Smallville) and India Oxenburg (daughter of Dynasty’s Catherine Oxenburg) found themselves entangled in Keith Raniere’s cult, Nxivm. (Two heiresses from the Seagram’s whisky family were ensnared by Nxivm as well.)

So why do the wealthy and famous so love to join cults? I think there’s a two-fold answer to that question: Number one, cults attract the wealthy because cult leaders court the wealthy. Duh!

But why do the rich and famous fall for their shenanigans…?

The answer, I think, is pretty simple. The wealthy and the powerful are the same as everyone else, in the sense that they seek a sense of spirituality. As wiser men than I have pointed out, humans are inherently ‘theotropic beings’. We were created in the image of our Creator, and we cannot long abide the lack of a spiritual dimension in our lives.

God, however, has certain expectations of us, rules that He sets into place for our well-being. As Benjamin Franklin put it: ‘Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but forbidden because it is hurtful’. For your average shmoe, God’s expectations aren’t that troubling. I don’t have to worry over-much about falling into adultery, because I’m a not a rock star with beautiful women throwing themselves at me after every concert. I don’t hafta sweat drug addiction all that much, either, because I can’t afford drugs. I firmly believe that people are only as good as they have to be, which is why Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that Christianity was the secret of American greatness…

That’s also why America sits upon a precipice now, teetering on the brink of anarchy and collapse: Without accountability to our Creator, people begin to behave like animals. And that, I believe, is why celebrities are easy prey for cults: They’re seeking a convenient sense of spirituality without the inconvenience of moral expectations. I mean, celebrities can afford lots of women and drugs, so they don’t want some religion cramping their style!

The Rajneeshis, the Manson Family, and the Nuwaubians were all about as depraved as they come. I think Anton LaVey (of the Orthodox Church of Satan) summed up the attraction of cults fairly well, in writing about his own: Satanism condones any type of sexual activity which properly satisfies your individual desires — be it heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or even asexual, if you choose.

But not all cults are debaucherous in nature; many lean more towards monasticism. What’s the appeal of these groups?

Much like a battered wife feels that she ‘deserves’ her husband’s abusive and controlling behavior, I think there’s an element of emotional dependency there. When I was in McKean’s cult, the painful manipulation I experienced mimicked elements of my own unhappy childhood. Because I’d been so conditioned to being controlled and suffering verbal abuse, the outrageous actions of the ‘ministry’ just struck me as… well, part of a normal ‘family’ relationship.

Cults are never ‘normal’!

An understanding of God is a good thing. It draws us into a deeper knowledge of ourselves by virtue of a deeper relationship with the Deity who created us. Enlightened Faith draws upon the nobler side of human nature, and brings out our best qualities.

Cults, on the other hand, are nothing if not a perversion of faith! They pull us deep into the blackest abyss of our own soul, by appealing to needs born of lust, or abuse. Cults draw upon the dark side of human nature, and bring out our very worst qualities.

On the other hand…

Maybe Marshall Applewhite is riding happily around on a comet somewhere…

Nah!!!

Fire and Blood: A Fable in Seven Parts

Author’s note: Fables are not my strong suit. Nor is writing in the present tense. But sometimes breaking one’s mold is satisfying, and more than a little cathartic…

Part I

In all the world, there is none so graceful, so beautiful, or so powerful as the Phoenix.

The awe-inspiring bird of ancient myth soars high above his world, transcending even Time itself. He soars in, out, and through all the ages of men, carried aloft by wings be-feathered with incandescent flame. He turns his piercing eye toward the doings of mankind with open scorn, his plumed head un-bowed. Un-bowed… before man, beast, and even the Almighty Himself.

For who is greater than the Phoenix? He is the dragon-bird of the Heavens, the Watchman of the Ages.

Perhaps he had a beginning, or perhaps he never did. Perhaps someone plucked him from the pyre of his birth. Or perhaps he is simply timeless, without beginning and certainly incapable of ever coming to an end.

In his travels the Phoenix gazes often upon the mountain of the Almighty. He finds it in odd places sometimes, the mountain, and always unexpectedly. Sometimes it rises from the desert, overlooking the heathen hordes of the Middle East. Sometimes it appears on lush isles, surrounded by the resort cities of America, the modern Roman Empire. But always it seems to follow the glorious Phoenix, the mountain, and always the great dragon-bird turns and sails disdainfully away from it, flicking his crimson tail feathers in irritation.

For the Almighty is really just a crutch for the weak, is He not? His worshippers grovel at the feet of their deity, their praise mixed always with barely concealed terror. They are addicts to religion, those weak-minded mortals who must need cling to the idea of a Greater Being. But not so the Phoenix… The Phoenix has sailed through all the ages alone, dependant on none, and will continue to do so.

The immortal Phoenix has no need of either the Almighty or His mortal servants. Do they love their master, really… or do they simply desire release from the fear of death?

Either way, the Phoenix is his own being, an entity apart.

As the sun rises over Eden, hits its zenith over the half-built Sphinx, and sets behind the crumbling Mount Rushmore, the Phoenix flies effortlessly across the fluid eonic winds – ageless, changeless, and proud beyond all measure.

For who, in the end, can be greater than the Phoenix?

Part II

The mammoth trumpets loudly, calling out in anguish as golden claws tear into its hide.

Crimson wings beat about its head, forcing it to the earth in unwilling surrender. It thrashes like a fish, a massive hulk of struggling sinew, fur and tusk. Its piteous cries tear into the frigid Siberian air, mingling with the vicious snarling of the hungry Phoenix.

At last the great mammoth dies, as everything must in the end. It settles into the snow, spreading a scarlet stain upon the pristine white blanket.

The Phoenix throws his head up in triumph, his chilling victory scream piercing the still, frozen night as blood drips from his razor-sharp beak.

While the Phoenix hunts here often, he disdains to actually eat here… For what union can a creature of fire and flame have with the never-ending ice? Grasping his kill in his curved talons, the Phoenix takes wing toward another age, another place.

The Phoenix drops his prey atop a high, lonely mountain, one whose peak pierces the cloud barrier. Here mankind will hinder him not; here, he may continue to remain the stuff of mystery, of myth.

Of course, every boon has it price…

For where mankind is not, the celestial becomes more tangible. Here there be the guardians and warriors, the protectors and killers of mankind; they flock about the Phoenix curiously, cherubim, seraphim, and nephilim all. The winged, ethereal creatures – male and female both – flit about the Phoenix as he feeds, the ghost-like tendrils of their clothing just brushing the great dragon-bird, their touch as light as a whisper.  

It is not long before their presence becomes odious; the Phoenix rises from his gorging, his tearing of flesh and cracking of bones, and snaps angrily at the celestial minions who come too close. This is his prey, his kill, and he is determined that they should hinder him not.

They eye him but coolly, completely unbothered by the rage of the mythical Phoenix. He is merely legend, their indifference seems to say… But they are the sort that pre-dates even legend. As such, they are beyond even the Phoenix’s reproach and retribution. They are as numb to his attempts at rebuttal as Death was to the mammoth’s frantic trumpeting.

The Phoenix will later tell himself that he’d eaten enough, that he was about to leave anyway. He takes wing furiously, leaving his gory, dismembered meal to sully the mountain’s craggy peak, and leaves this hell of angelic torment.

He’d eaten enough… really, and truly, and the celestials mattered no. They had nothing whatsoever to do with his leaving.

Really.

Part III

The Almighty is an elusive thing, easy to see, easy to identify but hard to follow, and impossible to pin down.

The Phoenix resents Him mightily for this.

Sometimes the Almighty is obvious but distant, a shining form that tops of the mountains from which he views the entirety of His creation. It is then that the Phoenix resents Him the most, for He is untouchable then, unfathomable and omnipotent; His very presence seems to scorn the mighty Phoenix.

The Almighty, in His untouchable, all-powerful form. How the Phoenix hates Him!

Often the Almighty becomes Spirit, the sentient, changeless phantom. This form, also, the Phoenix dislikes. But he is not so afraid of Him then; he cannot see the Spirit of the Almighty, after all. But he can sense Him, and he finds him frightening nonetheless. The Spirit is separate from the God upon the mountains – but yet He is the same singular, sovereign entity that is the Almighty.

Some days, though, for brief, passing moments, the Almighty becomes simply… mortal. A perishable vessel of flesh. A man, much like any other.

The Phoenix cannot say why he even recognizes this incarnation of the Almighty, this Son of Man. Perhaps he can sense the Spirit within Him, or perhaps the tangible Almighty simply shines even more brightly upon Him.

The Son of Man, too – like the mountaintop Almighty, or the Spirit – is also the Almighty Himself, yet the Phoenix grasps this not. One thing, however, is certain; the Phoenix does not fear the Son of Man. He follows Him daily, floating effortlessly on astral winds, watching as the human Almighty does very human things with His time.

Some days the Son of Man works at mundane tasks, wielding hammer and saw as lustily as any carpenter. He sweats, bleeds, laughs and grunts like any other man intent on building the buildings that house his world.

Yet sometimes the Son of Man pulls away, to pray, to connect with the Almighty upon His mountaintop – this Almighty who is also the Son of Man. Sometimes He wanders the known world with those He has chosen, His select followers. The Phoenix, if he would follow, is forced to fly far and wide, watching from a distance as the Son of Man spreads whatever news He carries to the far corners of His humble nation.

Sometimes the Phoenix lingers within the age of the Son of Man for a time, and sometimes he travels to another, leaving the Almighty-made-flesh to His own devices.

Today, however, the Phoenix is earthbound, watching lazily, preening his crimson feathers disdainfully as the Son of Man stands at the foot of a tall mountain, speaking quietly to his closest friends. The Phoenix cannot hear His words, nor does he care to. He is simply here to observe, to find some new reason to cast scorn upon God and Man both.

The Phoenix raises his plumed head, suddenly intrigued.

The Son of Man has risen above his followers, hands outspread, moving aloft as though pulled by unseen strings.

Now, thinks the Phoenix with macabre humor, Man has learned to fly?! Smiling with his hooked, cruel beak, the Phoenix lunges from beneath his shade tree.

Far, far above the awestruck assemblage, the Almighty shines from His mountain. The Son of Man sails toward Him, as though somehow drawn by the majesty of the Frightfully Eternal.

Determined suddenly not to be denied a privilege handed to a mortal – even a wholly Divine, Immortal Mortal – the Phoenix flies upward, determined to follow the Son of Man into whatever heaven might await Him atop the mountain.

And who truly knows what really waits at the top of the mountain of the Almighty? Only the Almighty Himself, and His Spirit… and the Son of Man.

But soon, the Phoenix vows silently to himself, he too will know.

Part IV

Straining more with each flap of his thunderous wings, the Phoenix rises higher and higher, following the Son of Man as He ascends toward the mountaintop.

Flames lick at the tips of his wings the beat at the chilly air, but the Phoenix worries not. These are not the flames that consume, but the flames that illuminate, that the world may see the Phoenix and stand in awe.

The Phoenix breaks through the clouds and then through the atmosphere, breaking into the Eternal Night as he struggles to overtake the Son of Man. The Son looks serenely down at the Phoenix, shaking his head a little. Silly bird, He seems to be saying. You cannot seize my world for yourself, any more than you can seize the wind

The Phoenix pays Him little heed. He merely redoubles his efforts, determined not to be outdone by anyone, divine or otherwise.

Still the Son of Man rises, moving past star and planet, through the Endless Nothing toward the mountaintop heaven.

The Phoenix begins to tremble more and more with each passing stroke of his wings. Tarnished feathers fall from his aching wings every now and again, drifting slowly toward the atmosphere, where they disappear in flashes of flame and puffs of smoke.

The Phoenix is slowly overtaken by a dawning realization, the sinking feeling that he might actually be able to die.

Still the Son of Man rises serenely, paying the Phoenix little mind.

The ageless beast continues his ascent, but with increasing sluggishness. He hangs his head low, his plume all but gone now, diminished feather by missing feather until it is no more.

One… last… flap, one last desperate plunge toward the Son of Man – who is all but out of sight.

The bedraggled tail feathers that once pointed toward the earth point suddenly skyward, and the Phoenix begins to fall.

He resists, of course, managing a feeble movement of his twitching wings every now and then. But to no avail; he has reached the end of his strength, and he is utterly spent. There is no help for him now… For who would bother to aid him who has scorned all?

The Phoenix hits the atmosphere with a rush of searing pain, and a sudden stab of fear. Like the returning space capsules of the modern age, the force of re-entering the firmament causes massive heat.

As his body begins to simmer and scorch, the Phoenix realizes that this is not the sort of flame that illuminates…

This is the sort of flame that consumes.

The Phoenix stares downward with bulging eyes. Gone is the stunned crowd who watched the Son of Man ascend into heaven; gone is the lush valley of earlier, the tree beneath which the Phoenix preened his once-lovely feathers.

The earth opens up slowly, a hungry maw of flaming fissures, cracks that scar the face of the earth like veins on a dying man.

The Phoenix plunges down, down, exhausted beyond recovery. He looks upward painfully; the Son of Man is far beyond his gaze.

Gone is the crowd, the followers of the Son.

There is no one to listen, no one to hear as the Phoenix crashes into a fissure and begins to burn.

Part V

The Phoenix lifts his head wearily; exhausted, he lets it fall. The flames in which it lands are unbearably painful, yet he lacks the strength to fly away.

His wings crack ominously as he rolls over; his crimson feathers burn one by one, curling away from his blistering flesh in withering clumps of smoldering ash.

So this, then, is Death. To burn yet not be consumed, to suffer and yet not die.

Squawking weakly, the Phoenix struggles to his knees. His golden claws melt and drip away, and his toes dig into the softened earth. Looking skyward with smoke-blurred eyes, the Phoenix looks skyward at the stars, toward the sky that was once his playground.

The Son of Man is up there somewhere, while he – the great Phoenix, the timeless demon-bird – wallows here, in the flames of his own making. All that he ever knew, all that he ever wanted although he’d taken it for granted, is up there… nearly within the grasp of his twisted talons.

So close… and so far that it may as well be on another planet. Life, liberty and all that is good are just out reach but within easy eyeshot, tormenting, mocking.

The Phoenix flops painfully toward a shadow at the edge of the fissure, dragging his broken wings painfully behind them. Maybe it is cooler here; maybe, he thinks, the fire is not quite so hot.

He curls up in the crack, covering his de-plumed head with his spindly, tattered wings. Gone is the glorious creature of ages both past and future; gone is the Watchman of the Ages. Only this tormented beast remains, worse off than any creature who ever perished beneath his grasp.

The Phoenix lays his head down. Groaning, his breath coming in short, ragged gasps.

He feels something beneath his head, something that shouldn’t be here, something that should not have survived the flames.

Ever curious even in his agony, the Phoenix blinks the smoke from his eyes and peers through the darkness.

A scroll. He’d lain his head upon a scroll, something perishable, a creation forged of parchment and ink. Something easily destroyed by flame and heat… yet here it is.

Bits of his burnt and melted feathers cling to the scroll as he unfurls it, his need for distraction overcoming even his pain.

He reads the first few words aloud, mouthing the words with a smoke-blackened beak. In the beginning

‘In the beginning’, here at the end of all that is worthwhile, the end of all joy…

But he can sit out there, wallowing in the flames… or he can hide here in this crack that barely hides him, where even the flames lick inward every once in a moment, and read.

In the beginning…

Part VI

The Son of Man stands at the edge of the fissure, looking down upon the Phoenix.

The Phoenix looks up, knowing what he must do. He knows why the Son is here, and what he came to do. He knows for what purpose he has been given the scroll…

But such a loss of pride! Such a humiliation, to do what the Son expects of him!

The Phoenix groans as he looks around. He had once lived for his pride, valued it above all else. But now he knew better.

For as long as he clings to his pride… he will burn. It was not the Son of Man who threw him into this furnace, but he himself, and by virtue of his own pride, his own sin. And there was no help for him, by his own effort; he could only, by his own effort, do nothing but sit here and burn.

Giving in at last, the Phoenix raises his voice and cries out to the Son of Man, begging for mercy, for redemption. Screeching, he recants his pride and his rebellion; he wails out a raucous song of repentance and supplication.

As though He had been waiting for just such a cry, the Son of Man readily raises His arm.

His sleeve falls down His arm, revealing a gaping hole in his wrist. Blood pours from the wound, as though the wound is yet fresh, and deliberately un-bandaged. The Phoenix stares in disbelief, wondering what on earth this has to do with his cries for mercy.  

The blood gushes into the fissure like a flood, slowly beginning to fill it. The Phoenix thrashes about in alarm, frightened. He is burnt nearly beyond recognition, still in terrible agony… but what good is this blood going to do him?!

The blood pours in, filling the fissure, rising like a flood…

The Phoenix raises his beak above the rising tide, squawking in terror… But his cries are cut short by an abrupt gurgle. The blood covers even his head now, and there is utter silence.

There is only the Son of Man…

And the fissure full of blood, the sanguine pit that once held an eternally dying Phoenix.

Part VII

The Phoenix stands up, flexing his golden claws… claws that, moments ago, had been melted beyond recognition.

He raises his head slowly, the head once crushed in defeat, the head whose plume had been burned to ash. He clicks his once-scorched beak and surveys the dusky-gray sky above with piercing eyes, eyes undimmed by neither smoke nor tears.

He looks to his left, to his right as he spreads his wings. His crimson feathers gleam wonderfully even beneath the slate-colored dawn, and his shoulders and breath ripple with fluid strength and renewed resilience.

The Phoenix looks over his shoulders and eyes his tail, a glorious thing meant to flow behind him like a trail from a comet.

Awed by his new being, the Phoenix looks around. The blood soaks the fissure yet, the Pit that had once been his Hell. The Pit in which he burned and died a death of sorts, the Pit in which he lay feeble and wounded and tormented by Death that refused to become something final, and clean.

The blood boils yet, but only a little as the heat dies; already it is cooler here. The Phoenix cocks his head, listening to the dead leaves scattering in the breeze above. They make a rasping sound, pleasantly reminiscent of trees limbs, scratching gently on a windowpane on a cold, windy night.

Smiling, the Phoenix crouches a little, holding his wings behind him…

Shrieking like a resurrected banshee, the triumphant Watchman of the Ages lunges from the Pit, soaring toward the clouds in a geyser of color and flame… The sort of flame that glorifies, that illuminates; the flame that consumes is dead now, extinguished once and for all by the outpouring of blood.

Ah, the Blood…

Confused – suddenly unsure of himself – the Phoenix looks downward, gliding for a moment upon a convenient breeze.

The Son of Man stands by the edge of the fissure yet, watching the Phoenix circle the sky, His wrists bleeding yet. Yet the Son of Man seems unconcerned about this, as though He doesn’t mind bleeding. As though He was so eager to watch the flames die that the blood bothers Him not; He seems in no rush to seek a bandage, or healing.

The Phoenix looks up, peering beyond the veil of time…

He looks out across the courtyard, toward the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The great works of man, from Colossus to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon…

He stares across the golden bridge into the New Sodom, imagining it falling into the bay when the Father’s vengeance comes to the city at last…

He watches with growing hunger the migrating mammoth herds of Siberia, and the hustle and bustle of the glory that was once Rome…

And he suddenly realizes that none of it matters. Vanity, meaningless…

Empty.  

The Phoenix circles a little, and looks down upon the one thing in his life of arrogance, death, and re-birth that ever did matter.

Making his decision, the great dragon-bird abandons the skies that he once so loved, and plunges toward the earth.

The Son of Man raises his arms, smiling His gentle smile, as though He’d been waiting. His wrists bleed yet, but perhaps they must; perhaps there are other flames that need snuffed, other victims that need re-birth.

The Phoenix skids to the earth at the feet of the Son, bowing his head in a gesture never before known to him… And there he remains. He spreads his wings, lowering them humbly to the ground, waiting.

Come with me, the Phoenix seems to stay. Let me be your beast of burden; let me be that which bears through all time, to do the work which you came to do. Let me be that which carries you across the sky, in all your glory.

The Son of Man lays a gentle hand on the feathered head before Him, spilling a few more drops of blood as He does.

Let me do this for you, the Phoenix seems to say. Please, not because you need my help…

But because it would be my honor, for I love you.

FINIS

Regarding Joy… and also Ren n' Stimpy: A Sermon

The following is a transcript of a sermon delivered to the local Church of Christ over the summer of 2014.

When I was pondering the topic of Today’s sermon, I texted Lee and asked him what he thought I should do. His response was, ‘why don’t you preach about ‘the joy of salvation?’

Now this presents a bit of a problem for me. Generally, preaching about joy and God’s love someone else’s job, not mine.

The reason I’ve never been that adept at preaching about love and joy and sunshine is because I am a product of my environment.  See, in the South, talking about joy isn’t the preacher’s job; it’s the choir’s job. We southern folk kinda do this ‘good cop’, ‘bad cop’ thing that’s designed to keep you spiritually off-kilter. The service opens with rousing songs about ‘glory land’ and ‘the blessed shores of Canaan’ and the ‘chariot that’s coming for to carry me home’. And just when you feel all hyped up about heaven … the choir sits down. And when they do, up comes this black-clad ghoul of man and he drones on and on about hell, and damnation. And just when you’re so scared that you’re about ready to wet the pew, up comes the choir again. I got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in …

You dig?

And I’m assured that this how it’s supposed to work, since this is the ‘authorized New Testament pattern of worship’ that the Lord’s Restoration Church rediscovered in the 1950’s.

But that’s why I’ve never been good at preaching about joy; because I was always the preacher, and never a part of the choir. But be that as it may, Lee presented me with a bit of challenge, so here we go: ‘The Joy of Salvation’. But before we dive into the topic, let’s have a word of prayer…

What does it mean to have the ‘joy of salvation’?

For starters, that statement is so archaic that it’s pretty well lost any meaning. A dear friend of mine who leads a church in North Carolina says that language is like a pair of underwear. When it’s new, it’s stretchy and it’s comfortable and it fits well. But when it gets old, it sags and it’s uncomfortable and it just doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. The English language is like that, particularly in a religious context.

For instance, how many of us use the following words outside of a religious context: ‘Faith’, ‘repent’, ‘baptize’, or ‘communion’? We don’t, and consequently a lot of us are kind of fuzzy as to what those words actually mean. If we were to replace those words with ‘trust’, ‘reform’, ‘immerse’, and ‘memorial’, things would probably make a lot more sense to a lot more people.

The phrase ‘the joy of salvation’ has been bandied about so much that few of us stop to think about what it means. So let’s break this down: What is salvation?

The Greek word for ‘salvation’ is soteria, a word that means ‘rescue’ or ‘safety’. It’s related to the word soter, which means a deliverer or ‘savior’. I bring that up because ‘savior’ is another one of those pesky ‘underwear’ words that no one really understands anymore.

To receive salvation is to be rescued. But rescued from what? In order to understand that, we actually to leave this awkward ‘joy’ topic for a moment and revisit a topic with which I’m much more familiar: Hell.

I’ve done lengthier sermons on this before, but I’m gonna put it in a nutshell today: Turn with me, if you would, to Mark chapter 9, starting in verse 42:

“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.43 If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched —44 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

45     And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched —46 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

47     And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire —48 where

         ‘ Their worm does not die

         And the fire is not quenched.’

“For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.

Notice that Jesus uses the phrase about worms and fire three times. What he’s referring to is the ancient-world habit of throwing all of their garbage outside of the city walls and burning it. This cosmic landfill that Jesus calls Hell is so awful that the fire never goes out because it’s never finished burning up all the garbage. And the worms don’t die because they have an endless food supply of sin and awfulness.

Damnation is the opposite of salvation. We have all sinned, and we know this instinctively. We cannot stand before Almighty God stained with that sin; we know this instinctively as well. And we can’t offer ourselves as atonement for our sins because we’d be a flawed sacrifice because we’ve sinned. Without a third-party soter, or deliverer, we’re only fit for the great cosmic landfill.

With said deliverer, we receive soteria, or ‘rescue’. Let’s look at it another way: Turn with me to Colossians 2, starting in verse 8:

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.9 For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily,10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.11 In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses,14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

That phrase ‘record of debt’ is interesting. In Greek it’s cheriographon to dogma, literally the ‘writing of law’. Some translations say ‘written charge’, or ‘handwriting of ordinances’. After a fairly exhaustive study, the best translation I can think of for ‘record of debt’ is ‘arrest warrant’. In the Greco-Roman world, if somebody brought you a cheriographon to dogma, you’re in trouble and somebody wants to talk to you … more’n likely a magistrate.

What Paul meant by saying that Jesus cancels the ‘written charge’ is this:  in Christian Baptism you get a free pass, spiritually speaking. No one’s coming after you anymore.

Lemme tell you a story. When I was around eighteen or nineteen, I got into a lot of trouble. Nothing terrible, mind you, certainly nothing worthy of any weird registry or anything like that … just the usual string of silly mistakes that a lot of young men fall into.

Eventually, my buddies and I attracted the notice of the Camden County Sheriff’s Department in North Carolina. The only thing that saved my bacon was that I lived in Virginia; it’s very difficult to investigate someone when they live in the next state over … but several of my Carolinian friends did end up getting busted.

For years, every time I went to North Carolina I was looking over my shoulder. Is today the day I find out that they actually do have a warrant out for me? Is today the day that they get me? That’s not a good feeling!

But in America, virtually all offenses except for murder and certain types of abuse have a statute of limitations on them. In other words, if oh-so-many years go by after a crime and the police have yet to find sufficient evidence to file a charge, they have to drop it. They can’t make you look over your shoulder forever.

By the time I hit my mid-twenties, the statute of limitations had expired on everything I’d been involved in. Let me tell you, I have never felt freer in my life! I felt like this huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I’d messed up, for sure, and I deserved at least some sort of consequences, but it wasn’t gonna happen. I was off the hook: the legal system had given me soteria: Salvation.

So that’s what salvation means, in the Biblical sense. We earned ourselves a place in the great cosmic dumpster fire, and we had an outstanding arrest warrant. But Christ canceled the warrant with His death, and receiving his salvation by faith in baptism keeps any more arrest warrants from being filed. 

But I said that today’s topic was ‘the joy of salvation’, yes? The ‘salvation’ part of that phrase is fairly elementary, but for a ‘doom n’ gloom’ guy like me the ‘joy’ part is harder to figure out.

Let’s look at some passages of scripture where the word ‘joy’ is actually used. I always place a great deal on context, so I will tell you up front: These passages of scripture are completely unconnected. We’re just looking for uses of the word ‘joy’.

1 Chronicles 15:16: David also commanded the chiefs of the Levites to appoint their brothers as the singers who should play loudly on musical instruments, on harps and lyres and cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.

That passage is from the Old Testament, originally rendered in Hebrew.  I can’t make heads or tails of Hebrew and I’m too dumb to try. So what I did is I went to the Greek version of the Old Testament, the version that was actually quoted by Christ and His Apostles. The Greek rendering of the word ‘joy’ there is euphrosune. The word has a distinctly emotional connotation, and it actually is the root of the English word ‘euphoria’.

Let me see if I can give you an illustration of what euphrosune actually means. Y’all remember a cartoon from the nineties called Ren and Stimpy? If you’re my age you watched it when you were little. If you’re an old crisper like Lee, your kids watched it. Anyway, Ren was a Chihuahua, and Stimpy was cat. And whenever something would excite Stimpy, he’d dance this goofy little jig and he’d sing ‘happy happy/ joy joy/ happy happy/ joy joy …’ That’s euphrosune: A euphoric mental state that leads to outbursts of goofiness.

That’s one definition for the word ‘joy’. Joy can be a hyper-excited state of mind, a state of mind that is not so much logical as it is instinctual. Think of King David stripping down to his skivvies and dancing like a loon in 2 Samuel 6. That’s euphrosune joy.      

Now let’s look at 1 Chronicles 16: 27: Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place. The word joy there is the Greek kaukhema.  That word can be either positive or negative, depending on the context.  It can mean to ‘boast’, or it can mean to ‘glory’. Let’s look at another use of the same word to get a better idea of what it means. Let’s go to Romans 2:17: But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast in God…

The word for ‘boast’ there is kauchaomai, the same word used in 1 Chronicles 16;27, albeit in a slightly different tense.

Basically, to take ‘joy’ in something could mean to give credit to that something. Whether you are boasting or glorying, you are giving the credit to someone else.        

So to have joy could mean to be euphoric, or it could mean to simply pass along the credit for something. Now let’s look at Romans 12:12: Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.

The word ‘rejoice’ there is chairo, which means to be cheerfully happy. Not euphoric, mind you. You’re not dancing around going happy happy/ joy joy. You’re just … content.

These passages I’ve chosen were chosen at random, but there is one letter in the New Testament that is known as the ‘joy epistle’. It’s Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, and it’s a letter that was so powerful that it was plagiarized almost in its entirety by Polycarp decades later, and re-circulated from there.

The context of Philippians is … well, Paul was in the slammer, chained to a wall. This context is given to us in Philippians 1:3-13: I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,4 always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy,5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now.6 And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.7 It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.8 For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.9 And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

12               I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel,13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

Now you notice in some of the examples I’ve given you regarding the word ‘joy’, I just gave you the definition of the Greek word. But here’s the thing about scripture. God will never leave you hanging an entire point of doctrine based on a single word. For instance, the word ‘baptize’ means ‘immerse’. Inarguable point. But for those who question this, scripture tells us that Phillip took the Ethiopian into the water. That John baptized in the Jordan because there was much water there. Sometimes if you wanna know what a word means in scripture, you don’t just look up the word in the concordance. You read a story, and it’s less likely that you’re gonna make a doctrinal mistake that way.

So let’s take a good, hard look at Paul’s story, shall we? We’ll be starting in Philippians 1:18: Yes, and I will rejoice,19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance,20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death.21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith,26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again.

27               Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,28 and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God.29 For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake,30 engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I had and now hear that I still have.

            So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy,2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12               Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

14               Do all things without grumbling or questioning,15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,16 holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain.17 Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all.18 Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me.

Let me give you a reality check here. Paul was IN JAIL!!! The only letters we have of Paul’s are the ones that the Holy Spirit allowed to transcend time and decay, the ones that were divinely capable of changing lives. But who are we kidding?! Paul was really good friends with Priscilla and Aquila. And I’ll bet you my next paycheck that at least once they got a letter like this: ‘Dear Priscilla and Aquila. Yep, they caught me again. I was preaching at the temple, and the centurion beat me half to death with the butt of his sword. Yeah, it kinda hurt. Anyway, I only lost two teeth this time. They got me chained up now. I was asleep when they threw my bread under the door, so the rats ate it all. My cellmate’s crazy. I thought he had a demon so I tried to cast it out, but it looks like he’s just crazy after all. Anyway, miss you guys. Best Regards, Paul.’

Philippians was written not from the point of euphrosune joy. Paul was not dancing around his cell. Honestly, I doubt that it was even written from a perspective of chairo joy; I’m not sure how cheerful you can be when you’re fighting with the rats for your dinner. Paul was not euphoric, and I seriously doubt that he was cheerful.

And Philippians gives us a whole new spin on the words ‘joy’ and ‘rejoice’.  One of my favorite books ever, one that I’ve read a dozen times over, is Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass. The book just has this madcap genius to it that never gets old. I remember this one passage in which Alice is having a conversation with a gnat, of all things, and the gnat asks her this: ‘what sort of insects do you rejoice in?’ To which Alice replies, ‘I don’t rejoice in insects at all, because I’m rather afraid of them …’

And in this exchange Lewis Carroll gives us a similar definition for ‘rejoicing’ that Paul does. To rejoice in something is to move toward it, and to cling to it no matter what. Alice didn’t rejoice in insects because she ran away from them, but Paul rejoiced in his salvation because he ran toward it. Paul actually admits to having suicidal thoughts in Philippians, but Christ is the one thing he held onto, no matter what.

And I think that’s the last and most important definition of ‘joy’: What you find joy in is the thing that you turn to when everything else has failed you. You don’t have to be euphoric. You don’t have to be cheerful. Jeremiah was ‘the weeping prophet’. Jesus was ‘the man of sorrows’. Your eternal salvation is not determined by your mood, and thank God for that!

If anyone would know that, it’s me. I’ve been suicidal. I’ve had alcohol issues. I’ve cheated death on several occasions. I’ve been divorced, and psychologically unstable at a number of times in my life. I’m not euphoric. I ain’t always cheerful, either. But at the end of the day, God has still graced me with the ability to look toward Him for comfort. I look at my past and I see ruin. I look at America’s future and I see martial law, economic collapse, and death. (I’m not trying to spark a political debate here, mind you. I’m just saying that’s how I see it.) It takes all of my will to look past the bleak future I see in this life, so that I can embrace the afterlife beyond … but I can nevertheless do it. And that ability is one of the very definitions of ‘joy’.

Some things in Christianity are inarguable, and changeless. You wanna be a Christian? You have to believe that Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God in the Flesh. You have to be willing to move past the sins of your past. You have to be immersed in water to wash away your sinful state, and you have to do your best to live as a Christian. Those rules are changeless, ageless, and not subject to debate. You either accept them or you live outside of Christ. It’s that simple.

But not everything’s that way. Some things in our faith are subject to interpretation, to individual understanding and practice. When we use the phrase ‘the joy of salvation’, the word ‘salvation’ is an inarguable point. We were sentenced to hell, and Christ saved us from it. Pretty simple.

The word ‘joy’ is not so concrete. Some of us will be euphoric. Some of us will be content. Some of us will keep our pointing finger straight up, making sure that Jesus gets the credit for everything that we do.

And some of us will be like me, hanging onto hope by our fingernails, trusting in Heaven when our entire future on this world looks like a living hell. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how you define the word joy, because scripture itself defines it fifty ways from Sunday.

Define the ‘joy’ however you will, and then live for it! Take joy in your salvation, however you understand the phrase.

That’ll be it from me, unless anyone has an accusation of heresy. (Someone? Anyone?  Gonna get me one of those someday …)

Regarding Football, and the Roman Empire…

If a man watches three football games in a row, he should be declared legally dead– Erma Bombeck

Karl Marx, the author of The Communist Manifesto, once wrote that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses’…

Religion’s got nothing on ESPN. If only Karl Marx could have seen that one coming! His cynical statement instead would have read ‘organized sports are the opiate of the masses’.

Now don’t get me wrong; I like watching the occasional game as much as the next guy, especially American football and boxing. I was pretty good at baseball as a kid, too. And I can’t wait to see my college football team (James Madison University) take on the North Dakota State Bison. (The Bison are the ‘New York Yankees’ of college football, with a little bit of the Galactic Empire mixed in. I think Darth Vader is their head coach.)

But sports are meant to be just that: Entertainment. Today’s culture, however, has twisted athletic competitions into something subversive; they’ve gone from being an amusement to being a willful, destructive distraction.

Sadly, this applies across every layer of American life: individual, familial, and societal. What’s amazing to me is not only how obvious this fact is, but how few people see it. When I talk about the concept, your average person looks at me like I’m completely insane. Which is weird, because our culture readily acknowledges the negative consequences of internet and video game addiction.

So let’s break this issue down, and first look at the individual results of being an obsessive sports nut…

At this level, the cultural malaise affects mostly men. As I’m fond of pointing out, men and women possess complimentary-yet-opposite natures. (Yes, sparky, men and women are actually different! Go figure.) Women (painting with a broad brush, of course), are collectively collaborative but individually competitive; that’s how they corral off husbands for themselves, and then coordinate with the neighbors to make sure all the children are looked out for as they play outside. Men, on the other hand, are individually collaborative but collectively competitive; that’s how we form teams and armies, and then try to kick some other army’s rear end.

Because men enjoy competition on a collective level more than an individual one, team sports are extremely seductive to them. (Boxing is the exception to this, but exceptions don’t disprove a general rule.) Men’s interest in team sports is fine in moderation, but it’s incredible how sports – especially in this age of satellite TV and hi-speed internet – often seem to consume men’s lives. I’m in construction, and half of my co-workers do nothing on their days off except watch sports. When they’re at work, the topic of the day is usually everyone’s Fantasy Football League. (I always breathe a sigh of relief once the Super Bowl is over.)

Why is this a problem?

Here’s why: Because such men know little to nothing about politics, sociology, or religion – you know, the fundamental building blocks of a healthy community. The numbers vary based on exactly which statistic you look at, but the statistics all agree in one area: The number of ‘low information voters’ turning out for political elections is alarming. We basically have dimwits running our republic; they simply refuse to put in the time necessary to educate themselves on the issues of the day.

Yes, a lot of these people are just plain stupid by nature. (As Winston Churchill was supposed to have said, the best argument against self-rule is a fifteen-minute conversation with your average voter.) But how many of those know-nothing voters – whose ignorant choices influence government – can tell you what Tom Brady’s stats from last football season were? How many of those voters, I wonder, made their foolish decisions at the polls because they were too busy memorizing Tom Brady’s stats to research the candidates?

Men were meant to lead families and so create a stable world in which women and children can thrive. Being glued to a digital sports feed 24/7 doesn’t serve that end, and the epidemic is worse now than it ever was. In addition to television, newspaper, and radio – the old methods of providing a ‘fix’ to sports addicts – now everybody and his uncle is carrying a ‘smart’ phone with a high-speed data plan.

And it’s very easy to tell the sports addict from the casual sports fan: Just try talking to him about anything else except sports. Not even a deer in the headlights looks that confused!

But let’s look beyond the individual for a moment. What does sports addiction do to families? Obviously, it creates pseudo-absentee fathers. But it has even more devastating effects on children, education, and civic finances.

Sports addicts tend to aggressively push their kids into athletic programs. This is a terrible thing in a world where – with two working parents, day care, after-school programs, etc. – children have very, very little ‘down time’. Sports just add an extra layer of stress and commitment to modern life, and this is a serious problem. It’s a problem because in order for a child to grow into a smart, well-rounded, intelligent adult, he or she must have a certain amount of un-allocated time in which to explore his or her own interests. What good does it do Junior to score fifty goals in the hockey championship if he grows up to be a boring dunce?

It was also very frustrating to me, as a minister, to see how many families often skipped church because ‘Junior had a baseball tournament’. What exactly are we teaching our children about priorities, here? Jesus is only important if there doesn’t happen to be a ball game?

Our school system is part of the problem, not the solution. Sports do not qualify as ‘education’! A traditional western education, historically, was deeply rooted in the arts. But this became a hindrance in America and Europe, where our governments have become increasingly socialistic; it’s easier to foist socialism onto a dumbed-down society than a well-educated one. Sports teach group-think and mindless conformity; the arts teach individual creativity and innovation.  Intellect is the enemy of socialism, and thus arts programs are scuttled and under-funded in favor of sports programs.

Over-funding school sports is also an incredible waste of taxpayer money. At my local university, the college built a new research building for its science program. The building was small, with a modest construction budget. The building’s purpose? Oh, you know… just doing agricultural research so we can do a better job of feeding the world. No big deal.

That selfsame school built a new athletic complex shortly thereafter. It’s the second largest building in the city, and it came with a price tag that was nearly nine figures.

How do I know this? I helped build both the research building and the athletic complex! I was on and off the research project in a matter of months…

But the athletic complex took two and a half YEARS!

About the same time that the athletic complex was being built, our city passed a ninety million dollar school-bond referendum. Property taxes and ‘special assessments’ (a predatory, capricious tax unique to the American Midwest) went through the roof. This money was all supposed to be used for ‘educational purposes’.

Guess what? Half the money went for sports-related expenditures, the most notable being a huge hockey arena. Think about that: Homeowners were jacked tens of millions to fund Junior chasing around a hockey puck.

To make matters worse, school sports programs are damaging the career prospects of students, particularly boys. I had an apprentice recently who was a promising worker, but he had to quit his trade because his shoulder was too severely injured from playing high-school football. How many talented tradesmen, I wonder, have we whittled out of the workforce by crippling them before they even got started? Only one percent of college athletes become professionals, and I’m betting we injure way more than one percent badly enough to impact their career choices. Over the years I’ve gotten apprentices with bad shoulders, knees, and backs due to sports injuries; many of them were forced to change careers because of their handicaps.

All of these factors combine to create a less stable society rather than a more stable society. Sports-addled dads don’t pay attention to their kids, and kids don’t have the down time they need to develop versatile intellects. Churches – which, as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, are the backbone of American greatness – are suffering ever-decreasing attendance. Citizens are over-taxed to pay for programs that have nothing to do with education, and our government is populated with second-rate incompetents – elected, in part, by men who understand nothing about politics except the propaganda commercials they saw during ‘the game’.

An empire loves nothing more than citizens who are too dumb to notice their own government’s malfeasance; as Rome and Greece were, so is America. History always repeats itself, and this is not the first time that sports have been used to ‘dumb down’ a society, or to amuse it into complacence; Rome and Greece did the same thing, so much so that their respective social fabrics tore completely apart.

When Greece fell, its collapse ushered in the rise of Rome – the most brutal empire in human history.

When Rome fell, it caused a power vacuum that led to a thousand years of savage feudalism.

Wanna avoid the next Dark Age?

Read a book sometime. Listen to music once in a while, instead of some yahoo re-hashing how awesome so-and-so’s ‘home run’ was yesterday. Give your kids some free time, and tell ‘em that a sport is off-limits if it would cause them to miss three Sundays out of four.

I’m honestly not saying that sports aren’t fun once in a while; I’m just pointing out the need for balance. It’s not about the activity; it’s about indulging in it to the point of excess.

You addicts KNOW who you are!

And ironically, it’s almost certain that none of you are actually reading this…

Upon This Rock…

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. I tell you the truth, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you to where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

                                                                                     John 21:17-19

            The story of the Apostle Peter has long held my fascination.

            Peter, originally known as Simon, was born the son of a fisherman named Jonah. It was Christ Himself who gave him the name ‘Peter’, by which we know him today.

            The word that Jesus used when He dubbed Simon ‘Peter’ was the Aramaic cephas, which means ‘rock’. The gospels, however, were written in ancient Greek so that the early Church could easily understand them; ‘rock’ in Greek is petros, which in English is Peter.

            It would seem that ‘Peter’ was a nickname or a term of endearment, since the word cephas was never used as a name.

            My belief is that Jesus had a twofold reason for bestowing such a name upon Simon. I believe that He saw in Peter great potential, potential for strength of both spirit and character. I think that the moniker was also the manifestation of Jesus’ gentle sense of humor, as Peter was indisputably the most hardheaded of the Disciples/Apostles.

            Peter was among the first chosen by Christ to be part of His ministry; when he first encountered the Messiah, he was fishing with his brother Andrew on the Sea of Galilee. That was a perfectly normal thing for a man to be doing. Scripture doesn’t say that Peter was a deeply spiritual man, or learned. Quite the contrary; it says that he was a fisherman, and when he met Jesus he was just… well, doing what fisherman do.        

Scripture says that those who believe do so by Grace. Peter, in this sense, was immediately granted Grace in unbelievable measure. This Jesus just walks up and shouts out, ‘Hey! Come follow me. I will make you fishers of men.’

If someone were to shout that to you or I, we’d probably laugh and throw a fish at Him. Maybe some of the other fisherman did; Jesus got picked on a lot like that.

But Simon simply answered, ‘Okay’. He dropped his net and, along with Andrew, went ashore and threw his lot in with Christ. I’m betting some other fisherman stole his abandoned boat and I don’t think he really cared, for such was the finality of his instantaneous decision to follow the Lord.

Peter was in many ways a weak man, more than a little impetuous and somewhat arrogant. I think he was also a man of extremes; his great, awe-inspiring words and actions were almost always followed by behavior that earned him much-deserved rebuke.

For instance, it was Peter who first made that legendary confession; ‘You are the Christ (or Messiah), Son of the Living God’. At which point Jesus praises him mightily; ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in Heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys to of the kingdom of Heaven; whatever you bind in earth will be bound in Heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in Heaven.’

What a touching statement of faith, and rewarded with such a sacred charge.

But Matthew chapter sixteen does not even become chapter seventeen before Peter catches it. That ‘blessed are you’ promptly becomes ‘Get behind me, Satan!’ Peter’s sin? Challenging the very words of Jesus Himself, whom he’d just confessed as God. 

‘Blessed are you… Get behind me!’ Peter’s life, both in and apart from the physical presence of Jesus, seemed plagued by both extremes.

I chuckle when I think about Peter in the garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus is being arrested prior to His crucifixion. Someone (note the sarcasm) struck Malchus, the servant of the high priest, in the ear and cut it off. At which point Jesus restrains Mr. Sword-Happy, and heals the ear.

There seems to be a great reluctance on the part of the Disciples/Apostles to rat each other out. For instance, Matthew records the incident as ‘one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.’

Mark, whom I see as being very straightforward and matter-of-fact, would’ve been my first guess for the tattletale. But even Mark hesitates to spill the beans; Mark says the attack came from ‘one of those standing near’ – making his account even more vague than Matthew’s.

Even Luke – the doctor, the man of science – chooses to be most un-exact, as well as quite unscientific when he records the incident. Luke writes that ‘one of them’ struck the servant of the high priest.

No, it is not Matthew, Mark or Luke who drops the dime.

It is John, of all people! John, the ‘Disciple of Love’, who started some of his most famous writings with ‘my dear friend, whom I love in the truth’ and peppered them with such phrases as ‘my dear children’. It is John who boldly points the finger and writes: ‘Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)’

When Jesus sent out the twelve to spread the Gospel, He ordered them to drive out demons, to cure diseases, to preach the Gospel and to heal the sick. I don’t think ear-chopping was part of the job description. When Jesus later sent out the seventy-two, He sent them out ‘like lambs among the wolves’.

Yet I get the distinct impression that Peter was thinking ‘Lamb, my eye! I got yer lamb right here, pal!’ And what kind of swordsman tries to lop off someone’s ear, for crying out loud?!

Let’s not kid ourselves; ol’ Peter was trying cut Malchus’ head clean in two. Fortunately, he was a fisherman, not a soldier, and apparently had lousy aim. Which is why Jesus simply healed an ear instead of resurrecting a corpse. Had Jesus been anyone but the Messiah Himself, I think He would’ve rolled His eyes in annoyance and said something withering. As it was, He simply rebuked His hotheaded and overeager disciple.

Peter seemed to do – and need done – everything in threes, probably since he was so obstinate. For instance, he denies Christ three times when questioned about knowing Him. Three times, and that before the rooster even had time to crow. 

We know that Peter was crushed with guilt over this, too. In his denial we see not so much distaste for his God as we do simple human weakness, weakness that Christ loved him in spite of. Or maybe not ‘in spite of’, but because of, for God loves to use the weak things of the world.

In either case, when Jesus reinstates Peter he asks him not once but three times, ‘Do you love me?’ Peter response is clear-headed and born of absolute faith, not weakness: ‘Yes, Lord. You know that I love you’.

It is Peter who addresses the crowd on the Day of Pentecost, speaking for the Apostles; Peter almost always spoke for them.

Yet it was Peter whom Paul had to rebuke sharply for not eating with the non-Jews, the Gentiles. In fact, it was Peter who argued fiercely with God Himself about associating with Gentiles to begin with.

On the flip side, it was Peter who performed the second recorded baptism on a Gentile, Cornelius the Centurion. (The first was the unnamed Ethiopian, baptized into Christ by Philip.)

Such a contradictory man, Peter!

            The Bible does not record Peter’s death, but most accounts put it around 64-68 A.D., in Rome under the emperor Nero. (If there were anyone I’d rather not die under, it would be Nero. Simply put, the man was cold-out crazy.)

            Some accounts say that Peter died ‘in the arena’. This could mean that he was eaten by lions. Or maybe the gladiators got him. Maybe he was pulled apart by chariots, or something just as horrid; use your imagination… because ‘in the arena’, the uber-decadent Romans would most certainly have used theirs.

With the possible exception of John, who might simply have died in exile, most accounts agree that all of the apostles were martyred. I tend to believe this, because I think that God was making a point by their deaths. Apostolic authority – the laying on of hands, the healing of the sick, or the divine authority to write Scripture – was meant to end with the Apostles. With the book of Revelation, John finished recording the Word of God. Thus Scripture – the perfection of God’s communication with man – was completed.

Therefore, Apostolic power – the deliberate, one-time ‘passing on’ of Jesus’ authority – ended with the original Eleven, Matthias, and Paul.

The more common account of Peter’s death is far more striking than ‘death in the arena’. It is said that he, like Christ Himself, was crucified. However, Peter protested that he was not worthy to die as his Lord did. So the Romans, perhaps reflecting the sadistic humor of their ruler, pretty much replied ‘Okay, smart guy. Let’s try something else…’

Such accounts say that Peter was crucified… upside down.

There we have, I think, the first written account of the upside-down cross as a blasphemy. But I think, if that was indeed how Peter died, his death held much more significance.

Peter who denied his Lord, Peter who argued with God, who rebelled against authority time and time again, earning reproach from both God and man… Peter who behaved arrogantly toward the Gentiles, who was violent and rash… It was Peter, called ‘the rock’ as much for his mulishness as his strength, whose utter devotion to Christ gave him the courage to face such a death.

In death he refused to deny the Messiah even once, let alone three times. In death he submitted utterly, doing God’s will instead of running or fighting. In death he showed more courage than he ever had in life, and more obedience, more humility.

The word ‘crucifixion’ shares the same Latin root as the word ‘excruciating’, and that in itself speaks volumes about the twofold agonies of crucifixion. The victim, nailed to a cross precisely as the Catholic crucifix depicts the Christ, is forced to suffer twin tortures: the physical pain itself, and the psychological agony of being forced to constantly choose between hideous pain and asphyxiation. To wit: hanging limply brings about quick suffocation, but pushing up on the nails (so that one might breathe) causes stabbing pain throughout the entire body.

In forcing the dying victim repeatedly to make this choice, crucifixion is in some sense a forced suicide.

Imagine all that…

Now imagine being forced to suffer it upside down, with the blood rushing to one’s head, and the collarbone and shoulders cracking from the strain. One’s ability to draw breath would be hindered further by being able only to pull up on the hands, as opposed to pulling up on the hands and pushing with the feet.

Imagine suffering all this while the temples throb like drums and the eyes bulge painfully. While death certainly came more quickly than during a traditional crucifixion, it must also have been far more traumatic.

So died Simon Bar-Jonah, also called Peter. A man whose love for Jesus was tested mightily, both in life and apparently in death. By saying those fateful words, ‘Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you’, Peter invited the Almighty to test his love. It would seem that in death as in life, his love – if not his strength, or his humility – was absolutely perfect. 

For all his weakness, for all his arrogance, folly, disobedience and sin, Peter loved his God with all of his flawed heart. I also think that he was beloved of God for these very shortcomings, and I think that God rejoiced in Peter’s eventual triumph over his own demons. In Peter God reminds us that even the obstinate and sinful can serve Him; actually, in Peter He reminds us that especially the obstinate and sinful can serve Him – for what need is there for God in the life of a perfect man, if such a man could even exist?

I could never have been, say, John. I am just not that loving or empathetic, although I wish that I were.

I could never have been Paul, the disciplined scholar, the fearless evangelist.

Nor could I have been Luke, the Beloved Physician. I’m just not that smart.

I’m not sure that I could have been Philip, the Spirit-filled waiter, or the nameless Ethiopian who believed the Good News at the drop of a hat. (My own conversion was accompanied by much agonizing, soul-searching, questioning and terror.)

I could have been none of those men; my character lacks too much, and falls too short of their sterling examples in so many ways. I am hardheaded and arrogant, occasionally weak and quite hotheaded. I am often cephas, and never by virtue of my strength of character; only my rebellious streak justifies said title.  

However, I’d like to think that in another life and another age, in another set of circumstances and in another skin…

I’d like to think that I could have been Simon Bar-Jonah, also called Peter. And I would take the utmost pride in having been dubbed petros

The Rock.

The Chief of Sinners…

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength, that he considered me faithful, appointing me to his service. Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life.

               1 Timothy 1:12-16

            ‘Sinners – of whom I am the worst’. (The King James Translation records that passage as ‘sinners, of who I am the chief’.)

            When I feel badly about myself – when guilt overwhelms me for my nigh-on three decades of blasphemy, drunkenness, lust and a host of other evils, I think of Paul, who penned those words in his letter to the evangelist Timothy. Paul (originally known as Saul of Tarsus) was an apostle. As such, his words are indisputable. If he calls himself ‘the chief of sinners’, then this is absolutely true, with no possibility of error.

            Basically, no matter what I’ve done, Paul did it first.

            Paul was an add-on as far as the apostles went; we as Christians accept his authority only because he was accepted by the original eleven. The apostles were the Jesus’ closest twelve disciples, less Judas Iscariot – who committed suicide after betraying Christ. They chose Matthias by lot after Judas’ death, at Peter’s suggestion. (Peter suggested Matthias’ appointment based on a prophecy in the Old Testament book of Psalms, which says ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, ‘May another take his place of leadership’.)

And then Paul was called by Jesus, which made him the thirteenth apostle. Bad-luck Paul, so to speak. 

            Now, an elder in my church thinks that Matthias may have been a mistake, that Judas’ replacement was meant to be Paul all along, and that Matthias was a presumptuous misstep. I am certain that God accepted the apostle’s appointment of Matthias, because Christ had already given them a perfect understanding of scripture, and how to apply it. But my friend the elder could still be right in thinking that Matthias was a goof-up on the apostles’ part. Especially since Peter suggested the idea, and Peter was certainly the most atrociously be-foibled of all the apostles.

            I politely disagree, though. I think Matthias was the intended replacement for Judas. I think Paul was an afterthought, chosen solely because he tested God so with his behavior. I think God simply looked at Paul and said, ‘I can even use you – watch!’

            Paul was a young man when his story begins in the book of Acts. Luke, the author of Acts, first mentions him watching Stephen – the first recorded Christian martyr – being stoned to death. Luke writes that the witnesses to Stephen’s death ‘laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul’. He also writes that Saul was ‘giving approval to his death’.

            Following the murder of Stephen, Saul turned viciously upon the Christian church, attacking it so ferociously in Israel that the Church scattered across the known world in very short order. That’s how Philip stumbled upon his Ethiopian friend; he was running from Saul.

            While it is quite certain that God used Saul of Tarsus for the purpose of spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles, the depth of his depravity was breathtaking. Saul was a Pharisee, a religious man. (Remember that it was the Pharisaic order that was directly responsible for the death of Christ.) Yet his high jinks were certainly illegal; the Jews, under Roman control, had no legal power to mete out capital punishment; this was why the Jews tried to convince the Romans that Jesus had been trying to undermine Caesar, because they could not execute him for supplanting Israel.

            Somehow, I don’t think Saul worried about the legality of his actions.

            Before the post-Jesus New Testament is really even under way, we see a portrait of the Church being crushed under the heel of a rabid Pharisee. But it was God – as it always is – who had the last laugh.

            After He used Saul to scatter the believers all across the known world, so that they were no longer just huddled in Israel, God reached out and grasped Saul in a tangible, inescapable manner.

            As Paul was traveling to Damascus, he was quite literally blinded by a bright light, and Christ spoke to him with those now-legendary words – ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’

            At which point Saul fell prostrate, asking for the name behind the Voice. The reply is just as well known: ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’ Note that the divine Voice did not say ‘God, whom you are persecuting’. The Voice may as well have said ‘God’, for God and Jesus are in a sense one and the same. However, the Pharisees believed in God the Father, but not Jesus. Therefore, God made it a point to say ‘I am Jesus’ – Jesus, whom Paul hated, reviled and regarded as a false prophet.

            When Paul rose, he was blinded. His companions took him to Damascus, to the house of Judas on Straight Street. It was to Judas’ home that the Lord sent His disciple Ananias, who by all appearance was simply Joe-Schmoe Christian. (This example clearly refutes the Catholic-originated heresy that a baptism must be performed by a priest or bishop, for Ananias – who probably baptized Paul – was clearly a nobody, and himself seemed quite surprised that God called him.)

            Paul’s conversion also refutes with absolute certainty the modern Evangelical claim that baptism is not necessary for salvation. For when Paul fell to the ground, belief, repentance, and confession were immediate and absolute. He believed the Voice, and confessed his belief (‘Lord’, he asked.). He immediately changed his ways, by obeying immediately God’s command to ‘go into the city, where he would be told what he must do’.

            Yet he was not counted as converted until he was baptized, presumably by Ananias.

            Saul – now called ‘Paul’ – proved to be an immediate, dynamic force in the ministry of Christ. Right away, he began preaching in Damascus and Jerusalem, until… well, until the Jews ran him out. Ironic, isn’t it?

            Paul was indisputably the most persecuted of the apostles. God, in fact, told Ananias that He would ‘show (Saul) how much he must suffer for my name.’ Paul was scourged, beaten, punched, and chained more times than any thief in the Roman Empire. He also spent more time in the pokey than any rogue of his day. Paul could’ve told you which prisons served the best hardtack, which ones had the friendliest rats, and which ones had the nicest guards. Paul even wrote a great deal of our Bible from his various prison cells.

            Paul’s writings are often stern, and very scholarly in nature. Peter wrote, regarding his writings, that ‘our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.’ Paul seemed to be a walking amalgam of all the characteristics that defined the other apostles. He had a bit of John’s empathy, some of Peter’s temper, a bit of Matthew’s precise attention to detail – but all these traits seemed to be fairly well balanced in Paul, while each of the aforementioned apostles seemed governed by their defining traits.

            Paul was almost certainly married once, as this was a requirement for the Pharisees. He may have been widowed but I doubt it, as he was fairly young, and childless. (Childbirth was the leading cause of death for women in those days.) I suspect that his wife was a devout Jewess, as befitted a Pharisee’s wife, and I bet she left him when he became a disciple.

            Yet Paul later writes, (regarding himself and Barnabas) ‘Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?’ Which means he clearly understood his own right to marry if he wished, in Christ at least, although he never did. I think he was, for himself, pointing out that he had the right to invoke what the Catholics refer to as ‘the Pauline Privilege’ – to wit:But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.’

            Paul lived his whole life for the Gospel, and in the end – surprise, surprise – he died for it. Yet he faced his end without a trace of fear, for he wrote to Timothy: ‘For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.’

            Paul, by the most reliable accounts, was beheaded (or killed ‘by the sword’) between 62 and 67 A.D. This seems to be one of the darker times for the Church, as Peter also died around that era (between 64-68 A.D.) This period ended the era of the apostles; shortly thereafter began a frightening wave of various heretical teachings, teachings that led to the rise of the mass Catholic blasphemy.

            While Paul’s death was certainly less painful and humiliating than his contemporary Peter’s, I suspect that he suffered far more in life. Yet I think that he was ever grateful for his sufferings. I suspect that Paul often felt great guilt for his crimes against God – and God, who both loved and valued Paul, took great pains to reassure him that He still counted him worthy of suffering for the Gospel. In a perverse way, I think Paul’s almost ceaseless beating and incarceration was God’s way of telling him, ‘I really don’t care what you’ve done, Paul; I still love you. See, look at what a crown of righteousness I am helping you to earn.’ And we see that Paul constantly rejoiced in his sufferings, too, praising God that he was counted worthy to bear such shame – just as Christ Himself suffered shame for the Truth.

            Sometimes I am tempted to look back across my old life, even though scripture makes it abundantly clear that I should not. I am tempted to dwell upon the fact that although I always paid lip service to the idea of God, by my choice of lifestyle I repeatedly shamed Him, crucifying His Son again and again with my actions. I am tempted to bewail the blasphemies that I once typed out with my own hand. I am tempted to examine every filthy thing I’ve ever said, done, or thought – and through such weak-minded self-examination, I inevitably end up fearing the damnation which God has certainly promised not to impose upon me, as I now belong to His Son.

            But when the guilt comes and I start to doubt God’s love for me, I think of Paul. Paul who was used so mightily by God, Paul who wrote much of the Bible before dying for his faith. But when I think of Paul in such a context, I think not so much of his virtue as his sin – and, much as Paul took perverse comfort in his suffering, I take perverse comfort in his horrendous past.

            Because no matter what sin I could possibly ever have committed, no matter what blasphemy… Paul did it first. He was the ‘chief of sinners’, not I, although I worked hard at claiming the title.

            But the Lord, the sovereign judge of all souls, has forgiven us both.

There is no greater honor on this earth, nor any greater love.