WHEN YOU FAST

Fasting has many merits, some physical, some psychological. None is religious. When Jesus references fasting, it’s to make a point about ostentation, not about hunger.

Fasting was a practice of religious ritual in the particular time and place within which Jesus conducted his ministry, as the temple in Jerusalem was the seat of ecclesial authority, and Saturday a religiously sanctioned day of inactivity. Had God incarnate entered humanity at a different time in a different place, the messages would have been the same: do not advertise your piety; true worship is vagabond; acts of charity are most highly esteemed by God. All that would have changed are the illustrations.

PRAYER

Christ always emphasizes that the rewards of heaven are very, very different from the rewards of the world.

Because we haven’t listened to what Christ is teaching us, we are accustomed to thinking of Christianity as if it were like all other religions, as if it were at bottom a system of delayed gratification; of enduring present troubles for future bliss; of discipline and deprivation earning eventual compensation.  That is, after all, what all other religions promise.

But that’s not what Christ promises.  Christ doesn’t promise us an abundance of what we currently enjoy; He doesn’t promise an endless satisfaction of what you currently desire, whatever that is.

Christ promises a new you.  Or rather, Christ promises that you will become someone who most deeply welcomes and find peace in what heaven has to offer.

And what will heaven have to offer?  People often engage in this sort of speculation, but the truth is it has to remain largely that: speculation.  There are really only a few things we can say with certainty about what heaven will offer.  One is that, whatever else life in heaven is like, it will be characterized by elements of mercy and humility and forgiving and poverty of spirit, because Christ teaches us that heaven itself is made up of people who find their self-fulfillment in such things.

And another thing we can say with absolute certainty is that if we don’t find happiness now in spending time with God, we will never find happiness in what heaven has to offer.

The things of heaven are already among us, if we open our eyes to them.  Every act of forgiveness is a heavenly thing.  It is not a price we pay to get into heaven; it is heaven, here and now.  In the same way, spending time with God is a heavenly activity, which we can engage in here and now.  If we find it dull, or difficult, or unrewarding or pointless, then I’m afraid that’s how heaven will seem to us as well.

THE SIREN CALL

In the worldly way of thinking, it is very high praise to say of someone, “She is always true to herself.” We don’t say that of someone who is by nature deeply kindhearted and in accordance with that nature always acts in a kindly fashion. We say it of someone who has arrived at certain conscious principles of behavior, and whose voluntary activity is regimented by those principles. Typically those principles are something we also applaud, but there is nothing in the nature of the compliment that requires that agreement: we might readily say it of someone committed to hedonism or vainglory, and we are saying it admiringly, even while we disapprove of their principles.

But this is another example of how the ways of heaven differ from the ways of the world. In the Christian way of thinking, being ‘true to oneself’ is precisely what we are asked to abandon, in favor of being true to Christ. That’s why the lives of saints so often seem whimsical, even self-contradictory.

But like them, we must never fear inconsistency in our lives.

Inconsistency is a failure of principled self-governance, not of following Christ. Jesus Himself – always obedient to God – was as wayward as the wind in His behavior, thus demonstrating that the ways of God are inscrutable to those seeking fixed standards and cogent argument. If rules and reasoning – the standards of consistency – were sufficient guides to life, we should not need Christ’s Spirit.

Perhaps the most tempting Siren call from the Christian Way is to make idols of principles.

REPENTANCE

When we find ourselves facing an unfamiliar deep forest separating us from our destination, we don’t seek the advice of a student of forest paths. We’re not interested in learning how paths are made, or what constitutes a direct rather than a circuitous path.

We seek a guide, someone who is familiar with the destination, and knows the way or ways through the forest to arrive there.

It’s a mistake to think of the gospel of grace as a moral theory, a theory about the paths of life. It does not invite intellectual assent; it invites obedience, with or without assent. It doesn’t offer to edify, it offers to convince; it’s a promise, not an argument. The promise is that you will see, not that you will be confirmed in your beliefs.

A person being led through the far border of the forest and who suddenly sees the city in front of him is reaping the harvest of his obedience to the guide, not of his own perspicuity. The gospel of grace isn’t a theory, it’s a guide to life through the uncanny forest of the world.

But like any guide, it’s only of service to those who acknowledge the problem the forest presents.

THE BODY OF CHRIST

What makes a group of individuals the body of Christ is not that they share a certain set of beliefs about Christ.  What makes a group of individuals the body of Christ is that they are about the same work that occupied their master.

Every act of generosity and forgiveness is a localized instance of God’s grace; every kind word is a human echo of the symphony of concern that echoes down in the falling rain and floods the starry night with music; each and every helping hand is God’s boundless love for humanity made flesh.

AUTHORITY

God chose to enter into the world in order that the world might enter into God.  For reasons largely unknown to us, God chose for the entrance a small backwater in a conflicted little country, at a particularly discordant time in its history.    And because God made that choice, they became of course the most important place and time in human history.  But we must not therefore feel bound to the political and social categories of that place and time to interpret the life of God among us.

One of those categories is the category of royalty, of Kings and Kingdoms and thrones and castles and armies and royal attendants. That of course was the form of governance in the surrounding nations during the time most of the Old Testament was written, and continued right down to the time of Jesus and in various forms in most other places since then.

But that category for thinking about the relationship of God to His own creation is one of the things that Jesus corrected. The kingdom of heaven, as Christ informs us , is not at all like an earthly kingdom, and God’s reign is utterly different from our worldly notions.

Christ came to show us who God is. Does he show us God sitting on a throne? No, he shows us God sitting on a donkey, on the most humble of pack animals.

Does he show us God sending out his armies to conquer all potential enemies? No, he shows us God on His knees, washing the feet of His followers.

Does he show us God ruling with an iron fist over a vanquished world? No, he shows us God dying from love on a cross.

When Jesus teaches that the first will be last and the last first, he’s not saying that there will be a reversal of position, so that the lowliest in the earthly kingdoms will be the most elevated in heaven, and kings of earthly kingdoms will be reduced to servitude in heaven.

He’s teaching that what counts as royalty – as authority – in heaven is entirely different from what it is here, and that if we are to begin here and now to prepare ourselves and our thoughts for heaven’s reality, then we must direct our lives into channels of service and humility and anonymity, not so that we will receive some recompense or reward once we’re in heaven, but because, in heaven, those things are the reward.

SACRIFICE

Sacrifice, in the Christian sense, is not an exchange or a transaction. Thinking of it that way is a terrible mistake, but one often made. We model Christian sacrifice after Temple sacrifice, slaughtering animals in exchange for a good harvest, or shedding innocent blood in exchange for forgiveness.

But Christian sacrifice is not the giving up of some possession in anticipation of a replacement of greater value. Christian sacrifice is a sacrifice of the self, with no expectation of personal reward.

That’s why Jesus speaks of God as a loving father. When a parent brings new life into the world and loves that new creation, the parent immediately begins the process of self-sacrifice. In a thousand ways, the parent gives up his own life for the life of the child, not with the expectation of future reward, but simply because that is what love is, that is what love does.  Just so, Christian love at its heart is self-sacrificial.

But it is not therefore unconcerned. A parent sacrifices self, not with the expectation of personal recompense, but in the hope that the child will turn out well. A parent’s love is self-interested only in the sense that its interest now lies in the well-being of another, the child. A loving parent’s sacrifice of self is linked to a faith that the child’s well-being and health will be nourished by that sacrifice, that the child will flourish.

We say that the Son of God died for us, but the deeper reality is that God sacrificed Himself in faith.

Faith in each one of us.