Saturday, November 29, 2014

BREAKOUT! by Linden Malki

The walls were broken by  70AD. There are mentions in several of the Old Testament prophets that the calling of Israel was to bring the knowledge of God to the world, but the original followers of Jesus were still Jews.  Jesus' last message to his followers was to take the message beyond the incubator, to the whole world.  In the book of Acts we see the response to Peter's sermon at Pentecost among local Jews, and Jews and Gentile converts to Judaism from the wider Greek-speaking world.  With persecution from the traditional Jewish authorities in Jerusalem and the travelers and traders in this amazingly mobile society, the Word spread into the wider Greek and Roman world.  We see patterns of rejection and acceptance--followers of the strict historical Jewish law rejecting those who were "outsiders", and those who wanted to follow Jesus but rejected the narrowness and limitations of the traditional law as it had developed in first-century Judea.

Outside of Judea, another acceptance/rejection pattern was developing--the relationship with the Roman government, which demanded a ritual offering to Caesar as a god.  Following Jesus meant rejecting the demands of Roman idolatry; both the official demands and the pervasive pagan culture. The Christian message was itself often rejected in the name of the older Roman or Jewish traditions.

This three-cornered situation came to a head in Jerusalem in 65 AD, when rebellion against the Roman occupation broke out in Judea.  The political Messianic hopes that Jesus faced and refused, as well as other failed attempts, were energized by the hope that God would step in if the Jews took the initiative in faith.  At the same time, the Temple authorities continued to try to suppress the other threat to their dream: they had the head of the Jerusalem Church,  Jesus' brother "James the Just", tried and assassinated. Church tradition tells that the church community saw in this maelstrom a fulfillment of Jesus' warnings in Matthew 24 and fled to Pella, a Greek city on the east side of the Jordan Valley.  Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman army in 70AD, and the surviving Jews scattered or were taken as slaves by the Romans.  It was later rebuilt as a Roman city, called Aelia Capitolina, forbidden to Jews and eventually became a Byzantine Christian city under Constantine in the 300's.  That church has since been through controversies in the Eastern Greek  churches of the 5th & 6th Centuries, and conquest by Moslems,  Crusaders, Turks, British, and Israelis. 

My father-in-law grew up Syrian Orthodox, and I recall going to a wedding in Los Angeles of a couple from his home village.  This church describes their services as following the original St James liturgy from that first-century Jerusalem church.  The home territory of this church is now in the area threatened by the radical political situation in northern Syria; despite persecution, rejections, and conquests but like its ancestors, it  has broken out into the wider world. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Real Leader--by Linden Malki

The Real Leader

We do not do Reality well.  Jesus does;  He is the most real person there is.

After they had had several years of literally following Jesus, He asked his crew who people thought He is.  Basically, people were wrong.  When He asked them what they thought, they got the words right.  The next question is:  What does it really mean? He explained that the answer had been around for a long time: Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 had it nailed.  Peter's response (Mark 8:31-33) showed how little he was dealing with the reality of Jesus.

Jesus kept trying--after the Transfiguration experience, He tried again (Mark 9:30-32), and the guys didn't get it, and Jesus found them arguing about their own "greatness".

The third recorded try was after the discussion with the rich young ruler who said he wanted "eternal life" --but not on Jesus' terms.  As they continued walking to Jerusalem, Jesus was telling them what was really going to happen next, and again, they had their heads full of their own dreams. Mark 10:35 describes James' and John's wish; Matthew 20:20-23 brings in the Jewish mama who wants the best for her boys, and Luke 22:24-27 depicts everyone getting into the act.  But still, they are having a problem with Jesus' reality.

Finally, Jesus shows them what His calling to leadership really is. The last time they are together before Jesus' prophecies become reality, we see Him kneeling on the floor with a basin of water, washing their feet. (John 13:4-15)  It goes back to His picture of the shepherd--the shepherd is in charge of the sheep; but the sheep are not capable of taking care of themselves. The shepherd leads them by serving them; knowing better than they do what they really need.

We still struggle with reality. We want what we want;  but the best leaders know how to serve in the way that truly has our best interests at heart. Jesus spent his efforts leading His followers where He knows they needed to be; and they changed the world.  Can we recognize Jesus' fundamental reality?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Freedom to Do It Right by Linden Malki

If you were to ask most people inside and outside the church, what a "Christian" was like, you might get answers like:judgmental, narrow-minded, hypocritical, naive--you know them all.  On the other hand, you might get: nice, generous, gentle, kind, helpful. We would really hope for:  loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, good, faithful, forgiving  (Galatians 5:22 et al). We can look at a list like this and know we cannot do this very well. First thought: suck it up, bring on the will power, and try, try, try. Now add the practical applications of all these, and it really gets overwhelming.

It's easy to understand the principle if we look at the negative side. We all know how hard it is to maintain the will power to avoid overeating, addictive behaviors, anger, gossip, selfishness, etc--we know what these are as well. Knowing right from wrong is important, but only the first step. The Israelites  had the commandments for 1500 years, and never got it right. Doing right and not wrong on our own is hard.  Doing it joyfully and gracefully on our own is impossible.

We usually think of freedom as being able to do what we want. The question then becomes what we want.  It has been said that true freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the will to do what we ought. We usually don't have the power to want what we know is right--that is what philosophers call "Moral Freedom" and it requires not our own will power but sacrificing our own selfish will.

I used to wonder about Jesus' statement in Matthew 11:28-30 that His burden is light--it looks hard. The reason that our burden is light that He stays in the harness with us, and carries the load. All we have to do is stay in harness and go in the same direction. In other words, follow His leading, stay on His path.

But just going with Him is not enough  Judas was a fellow traveler, not a Jesus follower. He apparently liked being part of Jesus' entourage, but kept missing the point of who Jesus was and what he was doing. When the going got tough, he got out.  Are we willing to give up our own will and take His will and follow it?

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Danger of Success--by Linden Malki

An Egyptian Coptic Christian friend once told me that Christians in Egypt have spiritual strength because they do not have political or social standing. This is what the early Church found.  They faced discrimination and often severe consequences for their determination to follow Jesus.  Of the eleven disciples that Jesus left with the responsibility to spread the Word, we only know of one that wasn't martyred--killed for who they were.
Almost every follower we find mentioned in the New Testament found truth in Jesus' statement that "In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome with world." (John 16:33)  There were three Emperors in particular who used them as political scapegoats and tried to wipe them out, but by the grace of God the church survived. In fact, it not only survived, but grew and gained influence.
When Constantine first put out the Edict of Milan in 312 which made it legally acceptable to be Christian, and then in 323 AD when he gave the church imperial sponsorship and standing, it must have seemed like a dream come true. Legal recognition, however, was far from an unmixed blessing. What came with that was the tempation of power. The dream of unity and mutual care was shattered by disputes that involved struggles between the major church power centers, and even the Emperor himself got into the act. Where the church has power, it tends to attract people who want to use that power to further their own agendas. The Eastern, Greek-speaking church split into three major factions, and at least six separate organizations. Three hundred years of quarreling left them unable to withstand the challenge of Muhammed, who had known Christians--but his preaching shows that what he had heard was not the whole story; in fact, far from it. The Western Rome-based, Latin-speaking church also became very heavily politicized, to where it blew apart over a thousand years. We are still living with the fallout of those times; with a legacy of rivalry and exclusiveness.

And it still survives. Not only survives, but has spread to where a large part of the world (but still not all!) has heard at least a little bit of the Good News. There are Christians and churches today in a suprising number of places. In fact, there may now be more Christians worshipping God outside of traditional "Western Christiandom" that inside. This recent statement is from a Chinese Christian: "The paradox, as they [Chinese church leaders] all know, is that religious freedom, if it ever takes hold, might harm the Christian church in two ways. The church may become institutionalized, wealthy and hence corrupt, as happened in Rome in the high Middle Ages, and is already happening a little in the businessmen's churches in Wenzhou [a large, prosperous city in southeast China with many churches and one of the highest proportion of Christians]. Alternatively the church, long strengthened by repression, may be come a feebler part of society in a climate of toleration. As one Beijing house-church elder declared, with a nod to the erosion of Christian faith in western Europe,'If we get full religious freedom, then the church is finished.'" *
After centuries where the Church in our part of the world has had power and acceptability, the real numbers in many of these countries are falling, and our influence is falling as well. Faith which costs nothing may not be worth much, if anything.

This weekend is the Internation Days of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. We need to remember those who are suffering for their faith; that they will have strength and wisdom in witnessing to the Word of God, that they may continue following their call, and that their persecutors will be changed by their witness.


Saturday, November 1, 2014

SILENT WITNESS--by Linden Malki

Imagine living in a society where you cannot talk about your relationship with God and Jesus. Millions of people are in this position today--in countries that officially  do not allow free practice of faith, officially recognize only a different religious tradition, and discriminate against other believers.  We are fortunate here in America. Many of our immigrant ancestors over several centuries came here because of religiously intolerant home countries; even  state or majority Christian traditions that did not tolerate differing practices or interpretations. Some are strict Muslim societies in which other "people of the book" are allowed to exist, but only on conditions that include that they not build new churches, repair old churches, or talk about their faith outside of their own community. Most of the old Communist countries closed churches, tried to suppress worship; even today, in China,  although an amazing number of Christians were found there when the pressure eased after the most radical Maoists were out of power,  worship is either underground or under the critical eyes of bureaucrats.

First, of course, we need to pray for all of God's followers, wherever they are, but especially for the ones that live in places hostile to them.  Their challenge is to live their lives in such a way that God is recognized and honored without causing unnecessarily violent reactions.  Of course there are times when confrontation is unavoidable; pray that those in such situations will have the guidance and strength to do the right thing.  Through the history of the Church there are have been many times that Christ-followers faced hard choices; Jesus warned that saving your life at the cost of your soul was a bad bargain.

We are blessed to live in a society that does not often face us with that difficult choice, but it has happened.  In general, we are free to say what we believe, and sometimes we are called to do so.  We, however, find it too easy to overdo the talk.  Could we live in such a way that without saying anything, our choices, our behavior, our attitudes,  our values will speak for us, both when it is easy and when it would be easier to "stay under the radar?"

Note: The International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church is Sunday, November 10.