Everything Happens for a reason, or does it?

Judas was the one who betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leaders. He had a key role in the story of the arrest and eventual crucifixion of Christ. Was Judas a pawn in this event? Was it free will or predestination? What if he had made a different choice? We dive into these questions and more in this podcast.

Scripture Readings: John 13:21-30 and 17:6-19 (focus v12)

Discussion Questions:

  • Do you think everything happens for a reason? What situation could arise where this idea may be damaging to a person?
  • How do we answer that same question from the framework of our faith?
  • In the gospels, there is some suggestion that Judas was “used” in order to accomplish a greater purpose. What is your reaction to that?
  • Do you think God uses people to accomplish certain purposes?
  • How do we understand the relationship between free will and God’s will?
  • Can you think of other stories in the Bible in which it seems that people do/don’t have free will?
  • How does this help/change your perspective on your own life?
  • Or in your life decisions?

Podcast:

Sheep & Goats: Heaven, Hell, Judgement

We spend a lot of time as humans wondering and talking about afterlife. There have been movies and books created to offer renditions of what things may be like after our time on earth is done. But what does the Bible say? What do you think? Take some time to listen to the podcast and read some scripture, and see what conclusions you draw.

Scripture Readings: Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 16:19-31

Discussion Questions:

  • The afterlife is a matter that concerns and interests Christians and, frankly, most people in general. Why do we suppose that is? How important is the idea of the afterlife to people’s understanding of Christianity?
  • What does the passage from Matthew seem to suggest about the afterlife? Is that Jesus’ central concern?
  • There are many images of hell, most of them from literature and other non-biblical sources. Regardless of how we envision it, what do we do with the idea of eternal punishment? How does that square with God’s character?
  • Similarly, most visual renderings of heaven come from non-biblical sources, and scripture does not paint a single, uniform picture of heaven. What are some of the ways that people define and understand heaven?
  • Is it possible that, through God’s grace, everyone will ultimately end up in heaven? Why or why not?
  • The parable of Luke paints a picture of the afterlife in which there is clearly a positive place (with Abraham), a negative place (Hades), and interaction between those realms and the mortal world. Is this meant to be taken literally? Does the author of Luke share Matthew’s view on how these outcomes will be determined?
  • Does this parable from Luke suggest anything surprising about who will receive blessing and who will receive condemnation and for what reason?

Podcast:

Luke: A Story for Everyone

The Gospel of Luke was written for ALL people. As we look at the parables and stories shared, we see that no matter who you are, Jew, Gentile, poor, man, woman, child, diseased and ill, Jesus came with a message for EVERYONE. This message is still very relevant to us today.

Scripture Reading: Luke 6:17-26, Luke 10:25-37, Luke 15:11-32

Teaching Points:

  • First of all, I need to fess up that I am NOT an expert on Acts, so we’re going to be heavy on Luke and weaker on Acts. However, we are treating these two books together because they share a common author.
  • Luke is written to a Greek-speaking audience, most likely educated. Though he was most likely well-to-do himself, the text shows consideration for those who are manual laborers (“workers”), which is notable.
  • Luke dates from 80-110 CE, and there is reason to believe it was still being edited well into the 2nd century.
  • While we sometimes think of Luke as more “earthy” in focus (we’ll discuss this later), his command of Greek is still more refined that what we see in Mark. He also omits some lengthy passages that either show the disciples in an overly negative light and/or make Jesus seem too “magical”.
  • Luke-Acts does not claim a particular author. For a long time, it was believed that Luke (gospel author) was the same Luke who was a companion to Paul (mentioned in some of Paul’s letters). However, scholars point out many contradictions between the Luke-Acts account of Paul’s activities and that given by Paul himself in his own writings. They also point out that Luke-Acts does not accurately reflect Paul’s theology. For that reason, authorship (from an academic standpoint) is unknown.
  • In our last two podcasts, we discussed that Mark was a source for both Matthew and Luke. Luke is the longest of the four gospels and introduces the most original material, but he still draws heavily from both Mark and from the Q source. (Incidentally, Luke-Acts makes up over a quarter of the New Testament!)

Discussion Questions:

  • One suggested scripture reading for this podcast is Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain,” this author’s version of what we call the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew’s gospel. Other than the assignation of different venue, it is interesting to compare the two for content. What is notable about Luke’s version when compared to Matthew’s version? What might this tell us about Luke’s perspective and his authorial intent?
  • In a previous podcast, we also talked about Luke’s birth narrative and compared it to Matthew. Do we see any trends in the themes Luke emphasizes compared to those Matthew draws out?
  • The other two recommended readings for today are two parables that are told only in the gospel according to Luke? Is it surprising that these bedrock stories (The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son) appear in only one gospel? What does it say about Luke’s understanding of Jesus that he includes these stories?
  • As time allows, we can draw out some neat themes in both The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son.

Podcast:

The Gospel of Mark…the first written and the one with a interesting ending.

It is interesting to know that the four gospels were not written in the order they appear in the Bible. Mark is also an interesting book to look at, especially the last 10 verses that were added in the past century. Nonetheless, it is important that we approach this book like we have been reading the rest of the Bible in this series of blogs, as the truth. Searching for God to find His messages and how we fit into it even today.

Scripture Reading: Reading the entire gospel of Mark is great project! Or just Mark 3:1-12

Teaching Points:

  • The gospel of Mark was written in Greek for a Gentile (non-Jewish) audience.
  • Mark probably dates from around 66-70CE. This is right around when the second temple was destroyed, which may well explain why Jewish followers of Jesus (remember, they aren’t “Christian” yet) started actually writing down their stories and memories about Jesus. The temple was destroyed for ongoing Jewish revolt, and the people began to be more widely oppressed, so they wanted to make sure their stories were preserved.
  • We will discover as we go along that the authorship of the gospels is largely unknown and their names were assigned largely for traditional purposes. The author of Mark may have been someone named Mark (we don’t know), but it was certainly not one of the disciples or anyone famous to history. There has been some speculation (based on textual clues) that the young person who flees the garden on the night of Jesus’ arrest (see Mark 14:51-52) might have been the author himself, but this will never be known for sure.
  • There is almost universal agreement amongst scholars that Mark was a source for both Matthew and Luke when they wrote their gospel accounts somewhat later. Thus, we might see Mark as our most “raw” and early account of Jesus’ life. This makes reading the gospel of Mark a very interesting endeavor.
  • You might recall that we do not have a single manuscript of any of the gospels. Our earliest versions of Mark have the gospel ending at verse 16:8 with the women fleeing in fear from the empty tomb. Some manuscripts add a “short ending” (largely unknown), but the majority of later versions are the “long ending” (verses 9-20), which includes resurrection appearances.
  • The gospel of Mark has many unique attributes: for example, Jesus frequently asks those he has healed not to tell anyone who he is (see our reading for today). Also, the disciples are portrayed as rather idiotic in Mark’s gospel and almost always fail to understand who Jesus is and what he is doing. Mark also uses the terms “Son of God” and “Son of Man” to describe Jesus, both of which would have been laden with meaning for early readers.

Discussion Questions:

  • Last week, we noted that Mark does not contain a birth narrative. It also does not contain a genealogy. It is likely that Mark had no problem with the idea that Jesus came from normal, human parentage and felt no need to connect him to the Davidic line to “prove” his significance. How do we feel about these things?
  • Mark portrays Jesus very much as a healer and miracle worker with supernatural powers. How do we make sense of this in our own time, when so many people are skeptical of miraculous events?
  • What do we make of the very short “original” ending to Mark?
  • Why do you suppose Mark has Jesus so often telling people to remain silent about him? There remains scholarly disagreement on this point, though there are several theories. What do you think?

Listen to Podcast:

Power, Money and Violence

Jesus talked much about power dynamics, money and violence, but yet those topics are not things we tend to discuss in church today. It’s interesting to look at 1st Century Palestine to see the similarities and difference of the time when Jesus walked the earth.

Scripture Reading: Mark 1:1-14 & John 1:1-14

Teaching Points:

  • As readers of the gospels, there is much we often overlook about the time in which these books were written. First century Palestine looked very little like the modern world, although we might stumble upon a few similarities. Bear in mind that both women and children were still considered property. Male children became “human” at a certain age when they passed into adulthood and were counted as citizens.
  • The entire New Testament must be understood as a Jewish writing. Jesus was born into a Jewish family and was, himself, Jewish. Even as the books of the New Testament were being written, after the life of Jesus, the authors were writing to the Jewish community to impress upon them the importance of Jesus. While there is plenty of talk about Jews and Gentiles, it would be quite some time (a couple hundred years) because Christianity would come to be understood as a religion separate from Judaism.
  • The temple in Jerusalem was the central (and “authentic”) place to worship. Jewish people were expected to travel to Jerusalem annually (or as often as possible) for Passover, and the Sadducees were the resident religious leaders at the temple in Jerusalem. However, since the Jewish people were scattered, there were also synagogues (sort of like local churches), led by Pharisees. Jesus appears in a number of synagogues but (at least in the synoptics) visits the temple in Jerusalem only at the end of his early ministry.
  • King Herod worked rather hard at ingratiating himself to the Jewish community. He married into a Jewish family. He restored and improved the second temple (can explain) in Jerusalem. However, he was a brutal leader who held none of the values that the Jewish people theoretically observed.
  • The Roman empire was in charge, and they had a comfortable collaboration with Jewish religious leaders. As long as Jewish people behaved themselves, so to speak, they were permitted to worship and carry on relatively unscathed. However, this was not the vision that Jewish people had for themselves. They desired to be, once again, a proud and independent nation, not a people subjugated and dominated by the Romans. At this time, there were many people who came along claiming to be “the Messiah.” They typically attempted a violent uprising against the Romans and this often resulted in considerable loss of life and a tightening of restrictions on the Jewish people. (See, for example, the Maccabean revolt.)

Discussion Questions:

  • How was Jesus different from other so-called “Messiahs” who had come before? What were the people expecting? Does this help us understand anything about how they responded to him?
  • Talk about the notion of the Roman Empire and its values. What do we make of the fact that Jewish religious leaders had quite a good arrangement going with the Romans while everyday people found it to be oppressive and something from which they wished to be “freed.” Does this remind us of anything in our own time?
  • The US has often been called the new Roman Empire. What does we make of that?
  • We do not typically think about the issue of violence when we talk about Jesus and the gospels. But much of the difference between his ministry and the prevailing will of the Romans had to do with the exercise (or non-use) of violence. Where are we with the issue of violence today?
  • Our scripture readings today are from the beginning of the two gospels that do NOT have birth narratives. How do the authors of Mark and John introduce Jesus? What do they want us to understand about him?

Resources:

Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography https://www.johndominiccrossan.com/Jesus%20A%20Revolutionary%20Biography.htm

God and Empire

https://www.johndominiccrossan.com/God%20&%20Empire.htm

Postcards from Babylon by Brian Zahnd

Jesus for President

https://thesimpleway.myshopify.com/search?x=0&y=0&q=shane+claiborne

Beating guns video: http://www.shaneclaiborne.com/videos

Youth Annual Conference

https://www.eocumc.com/yac/

When There Aren’t Any Words

Talking to young people about life and legends and leaving a legacy.

Yesterday the world lost a legend. Kobe Bryant was a legend on the basketball court as well as in his daily life. We are shocked. I was on the phone with my son when he said I think Kobe died in a helicopter accident. I said, “Are you sure? It’s probably a hoax.” But unfortunately, a quick Google search confirmed the tragedy. Shocked.

I’m sure we are all asking the questions. Why? Why would God take him when he was so young? Take his daughter? Take the other parents and children in the helicopter as well? Good people gone so quickly. It doesn’t seem fair. So what do you say?

The honest answer…I…don’t…know. There is just no answer. It’s a question we ask every time we lose someone. And, we are not God. However, we know that God is good, and that there is more to our lives than this world. We must find the positive in everything that happens. When we are focused on finding good, we begin to heal. Somehow we need to cling to the idea that our lives have a purpose. We must celebrate the lives of those around us, taking advantage of every moment and being present with the people we care about the most.

When talking about losing a legend, like Kobe, it’s helpful to talk about legacy with young people. What is the legacy that Kobe will leave behind? What are his accomplishments that the world will always remember? What kind of things can we do on a regular basis in our own lives that help us to leave our own legacy? When we experience loss, it is often a time for us to readjust our own priorities.

No matter if you live or work with young people, make sure you are having the conversation. It is through discourse that we are able to process our emotions. Give teens and young adults the opportunity to express what they are feeling. Allow them safe places to ask the hard questions. And be OK with not having all the answers. Sometimes we just don’t understand, and don’t have the words to make it better.

Praying for Bryant family and for the families of those who were with him.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Do not depend on your own understanding,” ~Proverbs 3:5

Diving into the Gospels

We will spend the next couple of weeks looking at the gospels and the beginning of the New Testament or Christian Testament.

General Background:

  • Over the next several weeks, we’ll be looking at the gospels and the life/ministry of Jesus. It is important to understand that these are not the earliest or most raw accounts we have of Jesus’ life. In fact, Paul was our earliest New Testament writer and the most likely person to have actually met Jesus.
    • The gospels appear first because of their narrative structure, and they were given priority as the most thorough accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
    • They are not in chronological order themselves. Mark was the earliest gospel, probably written sometime around 66-70 CE. Matthew and Luke were written somewhat later and almost certainly had the gospel of Mark available to them as they were writing their accounts (thus the many similarities and overlapping stories). The gospel of John was the last to be written, roughly around the turn of the first century and has relatively little in common with the other three in terms of content.
    • Matthew, Mark and Luke are the Synoptic gospels, each giving narrative account (“synopsis”) of Jesus’ life. John is quite different and does not take the same narrative approach.
  • It’s important to understand that no one was taking notes or making recordings as Jesus taught, healed, and traveled among the people. In that day, it was common for stories to be passed down by oral tradition and the stories of Jesus were no exception. Bear in mind that the literacy rate at this time in history was roughly zero, and everyday folks did not have access to paper, writing utensils or books. The bibles (Old Testament) in existence at that time would have been incomplete, meticulously copied on scrolls, and guarded carefully at the temple or synagogue to be read by an educated religious teacher.
  • All of the gospel accounts have come to scholars in fragments. We do not have a single, complete version of any of the gospels. Rather, fragments have been found over many years that have enabled scholars to piece together their best possible effort at a complete rendering of each book. There are many textual variants and differences between the various fragments, so biblical scholars do their very best to sort out copy errors (we can explain this) and determine which variations date to the earliest possible manuscript of each text.

General Talking Point(s):

  • Each gospel has a particular author, context, target audience and intent. Each gospel tells the story of Jesus a little differently, with a unique voice and with special things the author wishes us to understand about Jesus.
  • Often, it’s a waste of our energy to get very hung up on particular words or phrases because many have been subject to translation decisions and may even be one of several textual variants. Instead, we are wise to look at the “big picture” that each gospel paints about Jesus and to read each story for its “more-than-literal” meaning.

Podcast 16 – Birth Narratives & the Epiphany

Scripture Readings: Luke 2:1-20 & Matthew 1:18-2:12

Teaching Points:

  • Only two of the gospels (Matthew and Luke) contain a birth narrative.
  • We tend to roll these two stories into one rather implausible narrative for our Christmas pageants and nativities, but we lose much of the significance of each story by doing so. Matthew is all about honor and establishing Jesus as the new Moses/king of the Jews. Luke wants us to understand that Jesus is humble and is here for the humble, telling us a story in which shepherds are the first recipients of the good news.
  • These two gospels each contain a genealogy of Jesus, and they do not agree with each other. These genealogies are also part of the story, meant to establish Jesus’ lineage and tell readers something about his importance and place in history. They do not need to be understood literally or subjected to vain attempts to make them agree.
  • On Epiphany (often observed on the first Sunday in January), we essentially tell Matthew’s version of the story, in which wise persons from the East see a star in the sky and follow it to Jesus, bringing expensive gifts to honor him. These wise men travel right past King Herod (the real king at that time) to seek out Jesus, a story meant to establish Jesus as the king the people actually needed.
  • There are a number of elements of the birth narratives that are miraculous in nature, and some of these things have become stumbling blocks for contemporary readers. A good example is the notion of the virgin birth. In the interest of allowing folks to be fully informed, we must acknowledge that many powerful leaders at this time had virgin births attributed to them. It was written into the stories of kings and powerful people to establish their “special-ness” and give them an almost supernatural importance. We have to wrestle with whether the idea of the immaculate conception of Jesus was literally true or was a story told after his lifetime to establish his “special-ness” and tremendous importance to the people.
  • There are other elements of the birth narrative of Jesus that are questionable in their historicity. Though good records were kept at the time, there is no evidence that a census took place like the one described in Luke. It may have simply been a way to explain how Jesus could have been born in Bethlehem instead of his hometown of Nazareth. There is no evidence that King Herod actually killed all the young boys under a certain age, an event that would undoubtedly have been recorded. In all likelihood, King Herod was unaware of Jesus’ birth. The story serves as a way for Matthew to tell us that Jesus had come to establish God’s kingdom in direct opposition to the kings and kingdoms of this world.

Discussion Questions:

  • Why have people combined all of the gospel material and attempted to make a single narrative about Jesus’ birth and early life? What do we lose by reading the stories this way?
  • If we take a look at Luke’s birth narrative, what does the author really want us to understand about Jesus? What about the author of Matthew? Are there truths that really hit home if we read each story on its own?
  • We just celebrated Epiphany, which means to “reveal,” and is the day we tell the story of the wise men. What are some of the truths Matthew wishes to convey with this story? What are some of the perceptions about the wise men that we have come to believe that are not in the gospels?
  • How does it feel to hear that some of the elements of our Christmas stories may not be literally (or factually) true? Does that really matter in terms of what we can learn about Jesus?
  • Why do you suppose Mark and John did not include birth narratives? Instead of supposing that they just forgot or didn’t care, what does the omission tell us about their understanding of Jesus?

Podcast: