About 4 times a year I get to write the “Religion” column in our local paper, the Rome Sentinel. Below is the column I wrote for the April 29 edition.

At the end of the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10), Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” What does that mean? How do you hear it? Is it confusing? After all, in modern evangelical culture “getting saved” means confessing your sin and “accepting Jesus as your savior.” We don’t see Zach doing that. All he does is to tell Jesus he’s going to give half his money to the poor, and then he’s going to pay back four times the amount he’s defrauded people in his tax collecting business. It’s in response to that stated intention that Jesus says Zach has experienced salvation.

Jesus is saying Zacchaeus has found a new way of life. He’s been delivered from his narrow, self-centered, greedy ways. He’s become a member of the kingdom of heaven. He has a new life that’s begun right then and there.

The word in the ancient texts that our Bibles often translates, “salvation,” can mean “delivered,” or “healed,” or “rescued,” among other meanings. Many of us are used to hearing it used to indicate some kind of transaction, as if we agree to believe a bunch of ideas and say some words in exchange for “going to heaven” when we die. As if heaven were a place. As if salvation were about some other world. I don’t believe that.

Jesus came to announce a new life under God’s rule that he often called “the kingdom of heaven.” He said it was within us, or among us. It was a way of life where God is king of our lives, where Jesus is our Lord. It’s what we pray for when we say: “…Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” It’s about the healing and restoration of the entire creation to God’s original purpose. It’s a present reality, that God means to continue forever. And one of the amazing things is that we are already part of it if we have the eyes to see and ears to hear and the faith to follow!

One of the problems I have with people who seem to define salvation only as an escape from this world, something that is only in some other place after our death, is that attitude is disrespectful of God’s creation and is an insult to the God who made it and called it good and intends to renew it and make it a place of abundant life for all. To the extent that we dismiss this world as something to be used up and left behind, we blaspheme against God and against all of life.

In salvation, we are delivered from a narrow life with ourselves at the center, and into a new life with God and God’s purpose at the center, where we are transformed, and adopted into the family of God. We find salvation when we bow to Jesus as Lord of our life, and when we welcome our new life as citizens of the kingdom, “on earth, as it is in heaven.” Zacchaeus found it. It changed his life. He began again on that very day. You and I can, too – be born again into the life of the kingdom of heaven. That’s the hope of the world – until “every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.”

An essential part of our salvation is the healing of creation, and the deliverance of all people from bondage to the ways of death that threatens to destroy the earth our home.

Thoughts on Commandment Thursday

The following was my message for the community Noon worship on April 13.

For those of us who worship on “Maundy” Thursday, Easter morning is not enough. We don’t want to gloss over the suffering of Jesus, the darkness and pain he endured, the darkness we all endure. We don’t want to escape. We want to take time for the pain. We want, as St. Paul said, to share in Christ’s suffering, as well as his resurrection. We want our heart to become more like God’s heart. All of us have noticed how loving someone without being loved, or being loved well, is a cause of suffering.

It’s a familiar story. When they gathered to eat the Passover, Jesus took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed the dirty feet of his disciples. He modeled for them and gave them a new commandment. (“Maundy” comes from the Latin word for commandment, so we should speak English and say Commandment Thursday.) And what is the commandment? It’s very simple. Only three words: “Love one another.” He repeats it, and adds some words that qualify the command in a way that should scare us. “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

Just as I have loved you….” Jesus loved these men who had failed to understand him, who were self-centered and competitive. Just after he had told them he was going to Jerusalem to be killed by the authorities, they had argued about which of them was the greatest and who would get to sit on his left and right in his kingdom. They had disappointed him. They would fail to watch with him that night in the garden. They would flee in fear after he was arrested. Yet, he washed their feet. He washed the feet of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. He didn’t ask them to believe correct doctrine or to prove their orthodoxy. He simply said, “Love one another.” And, “So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

He didn’t put any conditions on their love. He said, “Love…. Wash.” He knew how easy it is for us to judge one another, to categorize one another, to love some because I approve of them or agree with them, and to turn my back on others who seem offensive. He could have said to Peter, “You’re right, Peter. You are unworthy. I won’t wash your feet.” He could have said to Judas, “You’re going to betray me. I definitely won’t wash yours.” He washed their feet. All of them.

We have heard much in the news lately about some Christians wanting to be protected by law from having to serve people they don’t approve of. For instance, a Christian who owns a bakery wants to have legal protection from having to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. It is a strange concept that a Christian would want to be protected from having to serve their neighbor. As Christians we don’t seek the state’s permission or blessing to follow the way of our Lord. It is simply our identity to be Christian. It is our identity that we love our neighbors. We are free. And yet, we are not free to do as we please. Martin Luther said it well nearly five hundred years ago. “A Christian is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” We are free because God has set us free. We are bound because we are commanded to love and wash feet.

Mother Theresa didn’t ask the dying on the streets of Calcutta about their religious convictions or their sexual orientation or anything else. She washed them, and cared for them as they died. Our scripture doesn’t place any qualification on who Jesus died for, except to say “for the sin of the world.” We are not in the place of God, to approve or to disapprove of others. I think that’s good news. We are freed from the burden of judgment. We are simply told to wash feet, and to love without distinction. As I have loved you, you also should love one another.

This day and its command to love brings us to a place where we are invited to consider the darkness within us, the distinctions we make and the ways we judge those we disapprove of. It is also an invitation to consider that at the heart of life we are all loved without distinction, and how we are invited to give that same love to all.

Justice, not Charity

In religious circles a lot has been written about how charity treats the symptoms of injustice rather than correcting what is wrong. It’s not a new thought. We’ve known this for a long time. Writing before World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said,

“We are not simply to bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”

This is hard work. It is easier to write it or say it, and much more difficult to know what to do and how to act to correct the inequalities and injustices that wound people. It means standing with those who suffer and confronting those with power. And I will be the first to admit that is frightening. It’s easier to stay safe in my privileged position.

One way to begin is to engage in charity with the aim of discovering the reason charity is necessary, then to work to correct the cause of the suffering that makes charity needed in the first place. God give me the courage to love, to learn, and to work to correct injustice.

The Enemy’s Rules

I feel very sad today. The government of Syria used poison gas on its own people. Now we have bombed an air base in Syria. In terms of “just war” theory, killing children is far worse than bombing a military base. Still, violence is violence, and begets more violence. Bombing will not bring peace.

One of our prayers for Sunday includes these words: “Help us to put our faith not in the princes of this world, but only in the Prince of Peace.”

The use of military power can force a country or group to submit, but it cannot bring lasting peace. Only the hard work of changing hearts, seeking common ground, and recognizing our shared humanity under God can bring true peace.

Adopting the enemy’s rules might help one side to “win” by force, but it will not bring peace that lasts. The Enemy (the powers of evil, the devil, our pride, our fear) tempts us to think that we can win by beating others down. To the best of my ability, I won’t play by those rules.

Maybe those are the only rules earthly governments can live by, since they protect boundaries by force or threat of force. I hope those who follow the Prince of Peace can live by other rules, ones that show the way to the true peace of God’s Kingdom coming and will being done on earth.

Flesh and Spirit

The column below is what I wrote for the church’s April newsletter.

Easter is late this year, so at the end of March we’re a little more than halfway through Lent. As we look ahead to Easter and the celebration of the resurrection, I’m looking back to Christmas. The two are like bookends. The two are like poles around which life orbits. We don’t have one without the other. These two great feast days are at the heart of our identity, our consciousness of what it means to be flesh and spirit.

The Word became flesh. Incarnation. Energy finds expression in matter. E=mc2. However we express it in words or equations, the Christian understanding is that spirit and matter are not enemies or opposites, but two sides of the same coin. That is the message of Jesus. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus shows us God. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” is a mystery to contemplate, a guide to our understanding of the whole of our tradition and scripture, and a clue to the purpose of God’s project in creation. Jesus is the cornerstone of the foundation, the keystone of the arch, the central piece of the picture that shows us where life is headed, what God’s work is all about.

Jesus is the fullest expression of the eternal mystery of God. And – I hope you are always overwhelmed and amazed by this – Jesus is the model and goal for our lives! Jesus shows us “the way, the truth, and the life.” Jesus makes real life possible for us. Jesus teaches us and shows us that when we are most fully alive, we embody the spirit of God. We continue the incarnation. The church is the Body of Christ on earth. And I don’t mean, of course, a building. We are living stones. We are built together into a home for the very spirit of God.

I’m refraining from using exclamation marks on every sentence, but that’s the feeling! Christian faith is not a deal we make so that we get a reward when our life is over. It’s about making God real. It’s about the new creation taking shape within and around us. It’s about a new community following the way of Jesus in its life together.

If the church has not understood that, and if we have failed to give that message, we have been far too modest, far too insecure, far too dull in our living and sharing of the astounding news of what life is and can be. It’s safer, though, to pretend that faith is about “getting to heaven,” because it keeps us from having to make heaven real and to confront the “principalities and powers” that would rather stay in charge and keep heaven a distant promise.

Easter is a new beginning. This Easter, let’s begin again to show the power and love of God’s eternal spirit in our flesh and daily life. The very presence of heaven is at hand.