March 27, 2011

Power of Christ

This week we visit Samaria and Jericho and look at the Power of Christ manifest in changing lives in these not quite Jewish areas of Israel.

What does power mean to you? A look at the news recently gives us a look at the 'power of nature' and the abuse of power by some world leaders. There is also power in the form of energy, accomplishment, doing good and being an effective leader.

In class this week, we looked at some sayings about power:
"Courage is fear that has said its prayers." – Dorothy Bernard
"Failure is success if we learn from it." – Malcolm Forbes
"A goal without a plan is just a wish." – Antoine de Saint-Exupery
"Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this; that power belongs to God." – Ps. 62:11
"Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever…" – Matthew 6:13
"And they were astonished at his teaching for his word was with authority." – Luke 4:32

Read through these and see which one speaks to you, then consider why you identify with that 'power quote'. Jesus is the "power of God unto salvation," according to Paul (Romans 1:16). He demonstrated power in what we might call the Pseudo-Jewish areas of Samaria and in Jericho.

Between Galilee and Judea is an area that is not Gentile, but also not Jewish. Around 922BC Israel split into two parts: Judah and Israel. Only 200 years later, 722BC, the Kingdom of Israel—the northern part of the country—fell to the Assyrians. A portion of the Israelites were deported and peoples from around the Assyrian Empire were resettled in the area. These hybrid settlers established a form of Judaism that incorporated worship of the Greek gods as well as Yahweh. This is Samaria.

Samaria was an area to be avoided as unsafe by observent Jews. The residents built their own temple on Mt. Gerazim around 500BC. The competition with the 'true' Temple in Jerusalem was cause for long-standing emnity between Samaritans and Jews. Although it was destroyed during the Macabbean revolt in 110BC, Samaritans still worshipped in the ruins.

The city of Sychar was originally called Shechem. The great patriarch Jacob settled briefly almost 4000 years before Christ. Jesus’ encounter with the Woman of Samaria (pictured here by Anselmi) at that well would change her life forever. (John 4:1-42) In the story of the 10 lepers who were healed in the area of Samaria, (Luke 17:11-19) the only one who was thankful was a Samaritan.

Jericho was another town that was not really Jewish. There is evidence of a town on the site of Jericho from 9000BC. The location gave the town a strategic advantage on the NW shore of the Jordan. It underwent numerous conquests, shown by layers of razing and rebuilding. It fell to the Assyrians, like Samaria, and was repopulated by Cyrus the Great of Persia when Jewish exiles were allowed to return in 539BC. Below are ruins of one of the early portions of Jericho.
Jesus travelled through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem and healed Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, who showed great persistence (Luke 18:35-43). Zacchaeus, the ‘wee little man’ of Sunday school fame, lived in Jericho as well. (Luke 19:1-10)
Here are the class discussion questions to consider:
Jesus tells the Woman of Samaria “I am he.” Why did he choose a despised, foreign woman to reveal his Messiahship?
Zacchaeus and Bartimeaus were persistent. Do you give up on God too soon?
Do you trust the power of Christ in your ministry?

Next week we will take a brief jog south of Jerusalem.

March 20, 2011

Recognition of Christ

Recognition comes when we begin to understand, identify with, and acknowledge the truth of someone or some teaching. Recognition involves a response of some kind. Sometimes it is a negative response, or even confusion. A response can be joyful or not. During our class on Thursday we discussed our response to things like words. For instance the word "fool" can have many different connotations.

Recognition of Jesus of Nazareth also came in many ways. It can be difficut to recognize truth in something new. The people Jesus knew best didn’t understand and it was people in the “Gentile” areas who first really recognized him as one with power and authority.

On the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee were the predominantly Gentile areas of the Decapolis (meaning 10 cities) and the Tetrarchy of Philip, final son of Herod the Great. It might seem odd for a Jewish rabbi to travel into these foreign areas, but that is what Jesus did.

Northeast of the Sea of Galilee and at least two or three days brisk walk from Cana (50 miles) lies the Gentile town of Caesarea Philippi. Located at the headwaters of the Jordan, this was the capital of the Tetrarchy of Philip. Now it is just ruins (below) Once known as Paneas, Philip renamed the city in honor of himself and the Emperor. Although raised in Rome, Philip was allowed to rule the resident nomadic tribes in the area bordering Syria.

Jesus astounded the traditional among his Jewish neighbors by visiting the Gentile towns of Caesarea Philippi and Tyre (on the coast). It was near Caesarea Philippi that Jesus asked his disciples. “Who do you say I am?” (Matthew 16:13-21) Peter’s recognition of Jesus as Messiah, Son of the Living God probably surprised him as much as the other disciples.

The eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee is not part of Judea. It is known as the Decapolis, a group of ten widely scattered towns under Roman control but separate from Judea and south of Philip’s territory. The area long ago came under Gentile rule and residents were of mixed ethnic background due to being in the path of invading forces such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, and even Alexander the Great. The residents even, to the disgust of all orthodox Jews, raised pigs to sell to the Roman troops.

When Jesus passed through the area, he healed a man of many (a legion) of demons. The Legion of demons in the man at Gaderenes (Gadera) recognized Jesus as Lord and asked to be sent into the swine. (Mark 5:1-20) The response of the people was fearful. This was no ordinary rabbi. They asked him to leave. On the plains east of the Jordan he preached and fed 5000 people (at least that is one location postulated for the Sermon on the Plain) mentioned in Luke 6:17-19. People in the Tetrarchy and in the Decapolis recognized Jesus when they saw what he did.

In the class this past week, we talked about Peter’s response to Jesus and noted that almost immediately he is reprimanded by Jesus for not understanding that Jesus must suffer and die in Jerusalem. Even when we recognize someone as important, we don’t necessarily understand their whole mission. The people of the Gaderenes also didn’t understand Jesus, but were fearful of his power.

Here are the questions we discussed this week.
Jesus asks each of us “Who do you say I am?” What answer are you willing to give?
The people were afraid of what happened to the demoniac and asked Jesus to leave. Do you think there are times when you are afraid of the changes or demands God might make if you let him?
What is your understanding of Christ’s work in your life?

Next week we will visit Samaria and Jericho, where Jesus again astonished the authorities.

March 13, 2011

Call of Christ

What do you think of when you receive an invitation? Most of us have questions:

Should I go, what to wear, who will be there, does it fit my schedule? Jesus invites (calls) us each into ministry with him. He called men and women from the Lake District of Galilee as his first disciples.

The Sea of Galilee is actually a large lake (5 miles east to west & 15 miles north to south) in the northern part of Israel. Surrounded by fishing villages and fish processing towns, the area was the center of export for both fresh and cured fish as far away as Rome where the fish were highly prized by Roman society. Fish included sardine, carp, perch, catfish and even eels. Even though Jews are forbidden by Levitical law from eating catfish and eels, they exported them to the Gentiles. Wealthier fishermen used boats up to 26 feet long and 7 feet wide, crewed by four rowers and carrying up to fifteen men. Others used smaller craft or even hooks. Most of the fish were caught in seine nets, thrown out over the water and tightened to enclose the fish, which was then dragged to shore or pulled into the boat.

This is where Jesus called his first disciples, who were fishermen. Something about this young preacher called to their hearts and they didn’t hesitate to accept the call. (Mark 1:16-20) The Lake District was familiar territory to men like Peter and Andrew, James and John who left the family business to follow Jesus. Another of the men called to be a disciple was a despised tax collectors from Capernum.

Capernum is a lake village about 15 miles from Cana. Homes and even the synagogue were constructed of the black volcanic basalt rock found nearby. The prosperity of this town was due to its location on the trade route running between the tetrarchy of Herod Antipas in Galilee, and his capital, Tiberius, and the tetrarchy of his brother Philip on the northeast side of the Sea.

Antipas, like other rulers throughout the empire, minted his own coinage. Merchants used the Roman currency even though it had the image of the emperor (which was against Jewish law). Tax collectors also used coinage or in-kind items as payment of the onerous taxes. Each catch of fish was taxed as was every other item that passed through Capernum. Tax collectors were considered a necessary if unsavory part of the economy. Most tax collectors were known to be thieves, charging more than is due and pocketing the extra. Even though tax collectors were despised, it was a lucrative job and not to be abandoned lightly.

Matthew, also known as Levi, was a tax collector. He left his job when Jesus called him to the life of discipleship. (Mark 2:13-17) Jesus’ association with Matthew appalled the scribes and Pharisees, but Jesus says he came to ‘call sinners, not righteous’.

During the Thursday evening class, we discussed how easy it is to see ourselves as ‘righteous’ and look down on those who don’t go to church or live an alternative life-style. Jesus’ comment gave us a lot to discuss about how we judge one another.

Magdala is found at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee. This was more of a farming center with fertile soil west of the lake providing farm land where date palms, olive, walnut and sycamore trees as well as rich grain fields and vineyards were cultivated.

Women, including Mary of Magdala were drawn to follow Jesus like the men. There is no record of Jesus actually calling a woman as his disciple, but there are several references to the women who followed him. One of the more famous women was Mary of Magdala who history has named prostitute, although the Bible only says she was demon possessed. (Luke 8:1-3) This painting called Repentant Mary Magdalene by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio) 1565 shows the traditional interpretation of Mary. It is possible, even probable, that she was an independent woman of wealth rather than a prostitute. This would have made her suspect to her neighbors because women were not supposed to have any interaction with men not in their family. As a trader, she would have needed to meet with men, even Gentile men.

On Ash Wednesday many people attended services and heard the stark reminder that we are all sinners, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” The Bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande noted that repentence is necessary and different from guilt. Guilt holds us captive, while repentence (literally turning again) means leaving behind sin and starting over. Therefore, Lent is a hopeful season not a time for bemoaning how awful we are. God’s love gives us a chance to start afresh again and again. Fishermen, tax collectors, women with a reputation, and others left homes and employment when Jesus said “Follow me.” God’s love calls us to follow, too.  Think about these questions from the class.

Levi left his position with the Roman government to follow Jesus. Would you be able to give up a prestigious position if Jesus called you?
Many who followed Jesus had been healed. What healing have you felt in your life as you follow Jesus?
What is your response to God’s call on your life?

March 6, 2011

Awareness of Christ

This week starts a new series to take us through Lent. It is based on a study I'm doing at the Cathedral. Over the next 7 weeks or so we'll look at various towns, people, and aspects of Christ's life and ministry on his way to Jerusalem.

What is awareness, or being aware? It is becoming conscious of, responsive to, and recognize something or someone as important. We also become aware of God’s love and our own calling. So did Jesus. Before we go further, I suggest you take time to sit quietly and consider how aware you are of things around you right now. The light in the room, the sounds you hear, what you smell or taste, are you touching something or feeling deep emotion. At the class this week, we took time to sit and study this photo of one of the Cathedral windows. Each person was aware of different things in the window picture.

How aware are you on a daily basis of what is going on around you and within you? How aware are you of Christ in your life and ministry?

Christ grew up in Galilee, the northernmost part of what once was the Kingdom of Israel. The country was now under Roman control and Galilee itself was considered somewhat of a 'dirt water' town (to use a favorite expression of my mother). It was out in the boonies and the residents were not all Jews. Many Gentiles had settled there as traders and merchants. The area was nominally under the rule of Herod Antipas, but the real power was Rome. Trade routes to Syria, Jerusalem, and the Jordan River valley passed through Galilee. The local crops of grain and fruit were sold locally, and traded even as far away as Jerusalem.

It was this provincial area that first became aware of the new rabbi, Jesus, son of Joseph of Nazareth. The residents of Nazareth, however, were not very receptive to the idea that the carpenter's son was claiming to be the one who would fulfill the prophecies of Isaiah. Read Luke 4:16-30 for their reaction.
It was Jesus' mother who actually encouraged his first act of ministry. The family was invited to a wedding in Cana, about 10 miles north of Nazareth. (Some scholars think the wedding was for a relative of Jesus, but the Bible doesn't say that.) Known for its grapes and wine, this small town was also in Galilee. Sometimes it takes the urging of someone else to push us into our ministry or calling. Mary did that for her son by telling him the bride and groom had run out of wine. (John 2:1-11) This was a social faux pas of the highest degree, but at first Jesus refuses to act. His mother's faith in him, however, made him give in. He felt compassion for the embarrassment of the couple and turned over 120 gallons of water into wine.

In the class discussion this week, someone noted that some Bible commentators equate this miracle with the Last Supper and with Holy Communion. In each of these acts of ministry and worship, wine is shared in community and we are transformed into new 'wine'. I think that is an interesting thought to contemplate.  The picture of the Cana window at Canterbury Cathedral does almost look like a rendition of the Last Supper until you notice the servant filling the water bottles at the bottom.
Each week I'll leave you with a few questions to ponder.

Jesus quotes Isaiah 61 in the synagogue at Nazareth. How can we ‘preach good news to the poor...liberty to captives...proclaim the year of the Lord”?

Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding. How can we bring Jesus into the everyday events of our lives?

I ask again, How aware are you of Christ in your life and ministry?