A world that wants Easter but needs to see Maundy Thursday

crossWhy have so many people given up on Christ, the Church, and Christianity?

Whatever their reason, I don’t believe it’s because they reject what Easter promises.

Easter celebrates that Christ’s followers went to a tomb that first Easter morning expecting only a corpse and instead found the living Christ.

Easter’s promise is that we continue to find life where we expected only death.

Our world craves that promise. I believe God has created us with that craving. This is why we cry and mourn at funerals. We love life and hate death. This is why broken relationships rock our lives the way they do. We crave reconciliation. This is why so many are plagued with guilt. We crave forgiveness. Everywhere that it feels like something has died, we long for new life.

In a world that craves the promise of Easter, why have so many given up on the Christ, and the Church, that offer that promise?

Could it be because they need to see Maundy Thursday and too rarely see it?

What Maundy Thursday is about

In a typical Maundy Thursday service, you might hear these words from the Gospel of John: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” He had all things under his power. That makes the next line startling: “so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” And then he proceeded to wash his disciples’ feet. 1

Imagine that scene––the One who took dust from the ground and formed a man in the beginning was at his Last Supper, where he got up from the meal, knelt on the ground, and cleaned the dust off the feet of the ones he created!

And then, shortly after Jesus got up from washing his disciples’ feet, he said this: “A new command I give you: Love one another.”

But that wasn’t much of a new command. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” had been around quite a while. What he said next makes it new: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” That’s the mandate that Maundy Thursday is named for.

Living the mandate of Maundy Thursday

To believe that Easter’s promise is true, I think our world needs to see the Church live the mandate of Maundy Thursday.

Is the problem that the world needs more “evidence that demands a verdict,” proving Christ’s death and resurrection? Or is it that they need to understand Christ? To understand Jesus in all his divinity and all his humanity? To understand a God who humbles himself so low that he becomes obedient to death, even death on a cross?

Are his disciples today making that humility evident by loving, even as Christ loved us? Are his disciples found kneeling, a towel wrapped around their waists, or found jockeying for power and fighting for what they’re “due”?

This is why it seemed so right to us that Pope Francis left the comfortable confines of a Roman Catholic cathedral last year to wash the feet of a young incarcerated Muslim woman. Why it seems so right to us that Pope Francis refuses to live in the palatial residences offered him and prefers public transit to a limo.

To our world: if your impression of us, Christ’s followers, is that we spend more time arguing over who will be greatest than seeking to serve the least of these––I’m sorry. We’ve misrepresented our Savior often. Where you’ve seen us seeking greatness and riches, you’ve seen a Church that has not understood––or has not chosen to follow––its Savior.

But let me be clear about this, too… Christ’s disciples have been falling short since the beginning. At the Last Supper––almost immediately after Jesus washed his disciples’ feet and predicted his betrayal and death––what did they do? They began to fight over who was the greatest!

We come from a long line of disciples who have misunderstood or ignored Christ’s call to be found among those who serve. But that ignorance and misbehavior has never negated the promise of Easter. If you are refusing the promise of Easter because you aren’t seeing the Church take Jesus’ new command seriously, can I plead with you to reconsider? Christ’s promises are true, whether or not you see them lived out in those who claim him. Don’t miss the perfect goodness of Christ because of his Church’s flaws and failings.

And I should be clear about this, too… We, the Church, are flawed and often fail. But we are also, many of us, seeking Christ. We’re seeking to live according to his humility, his self-giving love, his grace and truth. I hope you’ve seen at least a bit of that. Where we fall short, bear with us in our attempts to get it right, as we trust Christ bears with us.

If you have been hurt by the Church, I apologize. I’ve been hurt before, too. Admittedly, some of the times I have been hurt were because of my own pride. At its best, the Church is full of grace and truth, just as her Savior is. And there are times that truth, even presented with grace, has a bite. At her best, the Church must continue to be full of truth, and we can’t apologize for that, but where you have heard truth with no grace––or supposed truth that was no truth at all––I apologize. Where you have heard a presentation of “truth” that was seeking power or status, rather than hoping for reconciliation, I apologize.

And so I plead with you again––if the promises of Easter are true, if they even may be true, don’t miss them because you haven’t seen the Church living out Christ’s new command.

To the Church: may we follow the command of our Savior. How can we be found on our knees rather than exalted? Serving our world rather than expecting to be served by it? Found among the least of these in our world rather than the greatest? How can Pope Francis’s example encourage all of us toward greater simplicity and generosity?

May our leaders be known for commonly rejecting privilege and power, wealth and prosperity, not for climbing ladders toward more power and more money. May we, as congregations, ask more questions about how we can serve the world than questions about whether we are being served properly.

May we be an Easter people––celebrating life where before there was only death––and celebrating that life best by joining our Savior on his knees and at the cross.

I lay out more specifically what I mean by Easter’s promise in the post Why I Love Wesleyan Theology.

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  1. John 13:3-5

Sloth isn’t what you think it is –– or, The workaholic sloth

slothWe tend to equate “sloth” with laziness. The slothful person can be found asleep on the couch, or playing hours’ worth of video games, or sleeping until noon.

Those images aren’t necessarily wrong, but they’re not the full picture.

Sloth isn’t a denial of work, it’s a denial of love. Sloth doesn’t choose the couch instead of the to-do list. It chooses anything (perhaps the couch, perhaps the to-do list) to avoid the hard work that loving relationships require.

Sloth as a denial of “Love your neighbor” and maybe of “love yourself,” too

Some examples:

You know you need to have a hard conversation with someone––to apologize, to confront, or to bring up a topic that might create conflict. You don’t want to do it. Who likes these? So you put it off. Maybe you hide behind your work. Maybe you hide behind laziness.

You have some pain in your past that you know you’re still dragging around with you. You keep pushing it down and avoiding it. Easier than the hard work of resolution.

You avoid reading a certain book or watching a certain movie because you know you’ll be convicted about something. “I know that movie will make me feel like I should ______, and I’m just not ready for that right now.” If the movie is a wrong-headed or unnecessary guilt trip, that’s one thing. If you know it’s right, and you just don’t want to be confronted with the facts, that’s another…

You ignore any injustice in society or say the issue is too big for you to do anything about.

You avoid any stand on an issue that might cause you to change what you buy or where you buy it.

You don’t do serious romantic relationships––perhaps intentionally, perhaps not. The initial rush of a new relationship is fun, but once things get serious, you prefer to move on rather than fight through the tough parts.

In all of these, you see the denial of love toward others (and ourselves). Love is hard. This is why those supposed “love at first sight” relationships are so fun… and so fleeting. Because growth requires energy and effort, and usually some hardship along the way.

Sloth as a denial of “Love the Lord your God”

If you’re a Protestant, you may be most at risk of a certain slothful mentality. In fact, I’ll single out my Reformed friends for a moment. I’ve seen this line of thinking come out of the Reformed wing of the Church most often. Calvin’s brilliant theology didn’t require this. It’s a distortion of his theology, not a continuation of it. [i.e. This isn't an attack on Reformed theology. It's an attack on bad Reformed theology.]

Protestants celebrate that we’re saved by grace alone. We don’t earn salvation, we receive it. But many Protestants have jumped so hard on that side of the ship that they’ve tipped it nearly over. They’ve confused earning with effort.1 In their zeal to emphasize that we don’t earn salvation, they scorn any talk about human effort in our faith. At the beginning of Lent, I watched Twitter and Facebook light up with comments about not giving up anything for Lent from people who “don’t have to earn God’s favor.”

God’s favor isn’t earned. But along with receiving and celebrating God’s unmerited favor, we’re told to love God.

We can’t love God without following Jesus––without becoming his disciples. And discipleship inherently suggests discipline. Sloth happily accepts God’s saving grace without making the costly effort of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called this “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ [...]

[God's grace] is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live. [Discipleship, Fortress Press, pp. 44-45]

Two questions that sloth hates

For the past several years, I’ve had to regularly answer two questions that force me to recognize my own slothfulness.

1 – “Have you done all the good you could this week?”

That question doesn’t expect a laundry-list response of all the things I did, or should have done. It doesn’t suggest that I should forsake all leisure since there’s always some other good act I could do.

The question expects me to share whether there’s any good thing I knew I should do, and whether I did it. Sometimes it makes me realize I’ve been avoiding something––apologizing to someone and requesting forgiveness, or forgiving someone and not continuing to think and act toward them with anger.

Sometimes it makes me realize I’ve been too apathetic. I can’t think of anything good I did during the week. Not because I avoided it, but because I just didn’t notice anything. In a world with so much pain and injustice, if I can go a whole week without recognizing something good I can do––some act of compassion or advocacy––I don’t care enough.

If we’re avoiding good things we know we need to do, or we’re too apathetic to notice them in the first place, sloth may be at root. Our first step should be to ask God to change our hearts. To help us to see people with his love. To have enough love for people that we overcome slothful avoidance and apathy and commit ourselves to the effort of loving others.

2 – “What Christian practices have you kept this week?” or “How have you availed yourself of the means of grace this week?”

God has commanded us to keep certain practices––things like fasting, reading Scripture, praying, and receiving the sacraments. These aren’t just things we do to say we’ve done them. These are spiritual disciplines that transform us into better lovers of God.

I prefer to talk about these as “means of grace.” It’s not simply that we grow through these disciplines. We grow because these disciplines are means of receiving God’s grace. When we do these things, we avail ourselves of the ways that God transforms us by his grace.

Are you availing yourself of these means of grace?

Some people say they only want to do these if their “heart is in it.” I understand the desire for authenticity that may produce that thought, but I disagree with it. If you’re an athlete, do you show up for practice only when your heart is in it? No! I’d expect that you progress faster when your heart is in it, but the discipline of continuing to show up is important. A baseball player may not have his “heart into” a particular batting practice, but he shows up because he wants to get better.

Sometimes we need to keep showing up in these spiritual disciplines––keep availing ourselves of God’s means of grace––even when it’s difficult. We do this because we want to grow in our love of God, even if we don’t want to fast this Friday.

Others avoid these disciplines. The problem isn’t an apathy toward God but a fear of what might happen. A friend told me recently that he doesn’t want to fast because he thinks his “true self” gets exposed too much when he’s hungry. Sloth doesn’t like to have these areas exposed. It prefers a shallower, as-you-were relationship with God over something deeper that would demand transformation.

 

We’re saved by the grace of God––praise be to God! His grace, gift, and favor are free and unmerited. May God’s free grace not become cheap grace to you, leading you to sloth and complacency. Instead, may God’s grace empower you for full obedience to his command:  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind [... and] Love your neighbor as yourself.”2

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  1. I take this from Rebecca DeYoung’s great line in Glittering Vices: “Sanctification is about effort—but not earning.” And again, more ideas in this post have come from DeYoung than I can probably even recognize. You’ve ordered the book by now, haven’t you?
  2. Matt 22:37-40

You probably don’t worry much about tuberculosis. Why you should care…

tuberculosisWhat do tuberculosis, malaria, and AIDS have in common?

Poverty is the leading risk factor for dying from any of these diseases. All three are preventable and treatable, yet over 3 million people died from them last year, the vast majority of those deaths in developing countries. As recently as 2002, these three diseases accounted for 10% of global mortality.

You know about AIDS, and you probably know something about malaria, but if you’re like I was until recently, you may not know anything about tuberculosis except for that pesky skin test you get at the doctor.

TB just hasn’t received the same attention as AIDS or even malaria, yet it’s the second most common cause of death due to infectious disease––just behind AIDS. Over 95% of those deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries.

What’s causing the problem? A few simple numbers:

  • Nearly 9 million people get sick from tuberculosis each year.
  • Without proper treatment, over half of those affected will die from the disease.
  • Our health systems are currently missing about 3 million people who get sick from tuberculosis (1/3 of the total).
  • That will lead to something around 1.5 million TB deaths (the number was 1.3 million in 2012).

Today is World TB day. You may see something about “Reach the 3 Million” today. That’s based on these numbers––the 3 million who are being missed each year by the health systems. If we were able to properly diagnose and treat these 3 million, we would save a lot of lives and slow the disease’s spread.

Fortunately, some organizations have already made great strides in prevention and treatment. From 1990 to 2012, the TB death rate dropped 45%.

Compassion on the harassed and helpless

Take a look at Matthew 9:35-10:1––

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” 

Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.

The Bible consistently connects the coming of God’s kingdom to real, physical healing for people. Jesus talks about an anointing to proclaim good news alongside an anointing to proclaim recovery of sight for the blind and setting the oppressed free. Sometimes we “spiritualize” healings in the Bible and think that Jesus’ healings have to do with a healing of the soul; however, we don’t see only that sort of “spiritualized” healing throughout the Scriptures. Instead, Jesus has compassion on the harassed and helpless by healing every disease and sickness.

We believe that God continues to have compassion on the harassed and helpless. Furthermore, we believe that God continues to call out to his disciples today, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” We usually take this passage to mean that we should go out and proclaim the good news with our words. In its context, though, Jesus’ call is equally that we might go out and have compassion through healing of real sickness and disease in the world. We proclaim the good news of God’s restoration powerfully when we join God in the work of healing and eradication of disease.

If you’re a United Methodist, you have cause to be proud about our role in this. The UMC has named as one of its four areas of focus “Combating the diseases of poverty by improving health globally.” We’ve backed that up with our money, pledging $28 million to the Global Fund––one of the leading organizations in the fight against these diseases of poverty.

We United Methodists aren’t usually too excited about the large chunk of our budgets that go toward “apportionments.” Today, take heart that some good things are happening with that money.