Monday, August 17, 2009

How should we live? (Final reflections on Luke 15)

After five months of living in Romania, the honeymoon was over. Though I loved the adventure of living overseas, the newness, wonder and excitement were gone. I missed home. I missed driving my car. I missed American efficiency, American food, and watching Star Trek in English,not in badly dubbed German with Romanian subtitles. I missed going to football games, and most of all, I missed my friends and family. At times I felt like an alien on another planet. I missed fitting into my culture and being “in the know.”

But if I am honest with myself, I have to admit that I still experience, to some degree, that same sense of alienation even now that I live back in the USA. I have longings that go unfulfilled and expectations that remain unmet. I experience disappointment and heartache no matter where I live.

Living overseas gives one a certain “distance” from which to observe people. When I lived and worked amidst the Romanian people, I saw and heard them express the same sense of alienation.

But when I inhaled the rush of color that descended upon our city each Autumn, or stood in awe of the view from atop the snow-covered Transylvanian Alps, or when I laughed with friends or experienced the presence of God during worship or prayer, I got a taste of something that I could only describe as "home."

The Germans have a word for this universal experience. They call it sehnsucht. We don't have a word for it in English. More than nostalgia, sehnsucht denotes a deep homesickness or longing, but with transcendent overtones.

The writer best known for speaking on this "spiritual homesickness" was C.S. Lewis. In one of his essays (I think this is from The Weight of Glory), he describes these experiences as "the scent of a flower we have not seen, notes to a tune we have not heard, and news from a country we have not visited."

At some level, all of us are like the rebellious younger son in the third parable of Luke 15. We've all wandered away. We're all exiles looking for a home that seems to evade us.The parable in ends with a feast. A celebration over the fact that the lost, wandering, younger brother is finally home. Sadly, the feast is darkened by the fact that the older, obedient son will not join the party. The imagery evoked here is found throughout the Bible: heaven is pictured, not as a place of empty moralism or wild rebellion, but as a feast, a banquet of rich foods.

The film that captures all of this so powerfully is "Babette's Feast." The film is based on the short story by Danish writer Isak Dinesen, who was influenced by the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and his idea of the "aesthetic" and "ethical" approches to living. The characters in the film represent those who try to live out one or the other of these approaches to life. It ends with a lavish banquet where members of a strict, lifeless, and bland religious sect dine with a great general who chose the path of worldly success. He wonders if he missed out on what really mattered in life.

Under the influence of the warmth of the banquet and the sight, scent, and taste of rich foods, rivalries vanish and tensions melt away. Dour faces soften as forgiveness is offered and love and laughter flow. Finally, the general stands and offers a toast. Quoting Psalm 85, he says, "For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss have kissed one another."

Dinesen is hinting at a third approach to life. A place beyond the "aesthetic" and the "ethical." She hints at it in the imagery of a banquet where the diners have a momentary mystical experience when "righteousness and bliss" meet and kiss. What Dinesen's story illustrates is what Jesus' parable of the lost sons is meant to explain. Jesus is "the bread of Heaven."

In his book, The Prodigal God, author and pastor Tim Keller explains that, "both the sensual way of the younger brother and the ethical way of the older brother are spiritual dead ends. Jesus shows us that there is another way: through him. And to enter that way and to live a life based on his salvation will bring us finally to the ultimate party and feast at the end of history. We can have a fortaste of that future salvation now...a foretaste of what is to come."

ISAIAH 25:6-8

"On this mountain the LORD Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine-the best of meats and the finest of wines.

On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations, he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the digrace of his people from all the earth. The LORD has spoken."

Friday, August 14, 2009

How should we live? (part 2 of 3 reflections on Luke 15)

In my last post, I explained how two common approaches to life, what the philosopher Kierkegaard called the "aesthetic" and "ethical", were dismissed by Jesus as inadequate. In fact, his approach to life was so different that Roman citizens referred to the first Christians as "atheists." This is difficult for us to grasp in the 21st century but consider the following: If you were living in the Roman empire in the first century and met a Christian and you asked, "Where is your temple?", the response would be, "We don't have a temple?" If you asked, "Well, what about your priests, where do they labor and where do they perform your sacrifices?", the answer would be, "We don't have priests and there are no sacrifices." The Christians' understanding of spiritual reality was so radical, so different from the norm that there was no "box" for it. Religion, as it was practiced then and as it is still practiced today, focused on doing something to merit God's favor and obeying to get in right standing with God. Obedience led to blessing and favor. Disobedience led to condemnation. The right sacrifice and the right behavior led to divine favor. Jesus, however, introduced something different. Something that could not be labeled as religion.

We see this in the New Testament accounts of Jesus, where it is the religiously observant people who are offended by Jesus and the irreligious people who are attracted to him. Whenever Jesus encounters a religious person and a racial outcast (John 3-4), a political outcast(Luke 19), or a sexual outcast (Luke 7), the outcast connects with Jesus while the religiously upright person does not.

The scene in Luke 15 is typical of Jesus' encounters with religious people. They are grumbling to themselves "this man welcomes sinners, and eats with them" (Luke 15:1-2). In response to their grumbling, he tells three parables to introduce a very different understanding of spiritual reality. In the final parable, the dutiful older brother, representing the religious establishment is left outside of his Father's embrace. Ironically, it is not his sin, but his goodness that keeps him from joining the party.

Shockingly, Jesus considers religious moralism to be a particularly deadly spiritual condition. He goes so far as to say to the religious people of his day that, "the tax collectors and the prostitutes enter the kingdom before you" (Matthew 21:31).

What Jesus offers is life in the kingdom of God, not through religion, but through a relationship with Him. He offers himself as the temple to end all temples, the priest to end all priests, and the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. He sacrifices for us, offers his life for ours, paying the death penalty we owe for our sin and satisfying both the justice and mercy of God. His obedience and willingness to die in our place leads to our blessing and favor. His offer to us of a flourishing life in his kingdom as his lifelong apprentices leads to transformation that is not a result of our trying to earn anything but is the result of His Spirit at work in us, changing us from the inside out.