What Jesus Said About The Afterlife

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As a chaplain and a pastor I get a lot of questions about the afterlife. People want to know what happens in the moments after we die.

I have heard a variety of answers from other pastors about this weighty and pertinent topic. Some of them use what I call Chutes & Ladders imagery, claiming that the faithful among us begin climbing a ladder to the heavenly gates, while the others find themselves whooshing down a hellacious slide shortly after death. Others give an answer that sounds something like teleportation — upon breathing our last, our souls get zapped into heaven or into hell. And still others merely shrug their shoulders and state that we simply can’t know.

I struggle with these answers, mostly because we can’t find them in the Bible. And what we do have in the Bible holds a lot more meaning than Chutes and Ladders, teleportation or, worst of all, the absence of existence.

In Luke 23:39-43, Jesus is hanging on the cross with two robbers who are also hung on crosses on either side of him. Then this happens: “One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, ‘Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.’” 

Jesus doesn’t say that we need to climb or slide or teleport to a new location. We’re simply with God after we die. And if we’ve been trusting God throughout our lives to faithfully walk with us, doesn’t it make sense that we wouldn’t be on our own after death? 

When Jesus claims in Matthew 28:20 that “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” we need not think that God’s presence somehow disappears upon our passing from this life. It seems to me that in many ways, our journey with God simply continues.

Without proof-texting, and without eschewing the Bible, we can read the story of Jesus on the cross and know that as he died, he firmly believed that his spirit would live on with God. While he didn’t talk about heaven, hell, clouds, or fire, he did speak about paradise. And not just paradise for himself, but also paradise with us.

So may we hold tight to the hope of paradise today. May we prayerfully reflect on the meanings of Maunday Thursday and Good Friday. And in the midst of the fear, doubt, and ambiguity that all of us face at some point or another, may we rest in the knowledge of our future place in paradise.

Another Women’s Day

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Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I was busy reflecting on a post that had nothing to do with women’s rights. Frankly, I didn’t feel very compelled to write about how awesome women are on International Women’s Day — the world pretty much had that covered. I would prefer to write about the strength, dignity, and fortitude of half our population everyday; so I am deeming today, March 9th, “Another Women’s Day.”

Perspectives on the relationship between the male and female gender have become so polarized, particularly in the current American cultural climate, that I find it difficult to talk across the gender spectrum about objective realities impacting women today. Biological women make up 52% of our country, yet our representation continues to remain sorely lacking on international and national bases. And frankly, just look around you: every person that you see came from the womb of a woman. Not that men don’t play their part, but the life force that keeps this operation running starts and ends with a woman’s womb. So today, on “Another Women’s Day,” I think we should honor the unnamed women.

BibleGateway recently compiled this list of Unnamed Women in the Bible. Take a look at the length of the list — it really is telling of how many women made the biblical narrative move forward, yet never received credit for their work. I wish I had the space to tell the stories of every unnamed woman in the text (and perhaps I will in a future series), but today I at least want to lift up one of them. She shows up in Matthew 26 (if you really want to follow along, you should pull up the entire chapter).

At the start of Matthew 26 the chief priests and elders plot to kill Jesus — we start off with a group of men trying to destroy him (v. 1-5). And then enters the unnamed woman. Jesus is visiting with Simon in his home, when a woman enters with an alabaster jar of really pricey perfume, and she pours it on his head while he’s dining. The disciples gripe about her, saying that they could have gotten a lot of money for that perfume and given it to the poor (v. 6-9). Jesus then defends her, saying, “Why do you make trouble for the woman? She’s done a good thing for me. 11 You always have the poor with you, but you won’t always have me. 12 By pouring this perfume over my body she’s prepared me to be buried. 13 I tell you the truth that wherever in the whole world this good news is announced, what she’s done will also be told in memory of her” (v. 10-13). Jesus essentially creates a legacy for her, honoring the good and sacrificial work that she’s done, and notes that, in the face of the disciples’ inability to understand his impending sacrifice, this one unnamed woman gets it.

After Jesus makes the proclamation about the unnamed woman, the rest of Matthew 26 goes on to contrast the weaknesses of the men who surrounded Jesus with the faithfulness of that unnamed woman. We have Judas betraying Jesus in v. 14-16, then Jesus calling Judas out on his betrayal in v. 17-25, predictions of Peter denying Jesus in v. 26-35, the disciples falling asleep while Jesus prays in Gethsemane in v. 36-46, Jesus’ arrest led by Judas in v. 46-56, doubt and false judgment by the chief priests and council in v. 57-67, and finally, Peter’s denial in v. 69-75.

The only person who acted honorably and faithfully (apart from Jesus himself), and who seemed to “get” what Jesus was doing in this chapter, was the unnamed woman. The rest of them either remained passive characters in the text or actively betrayed, denied, slandered, and/or harmed Jesus.

I’m not in the business of denigrating men to better the image of women; I am in the business of honest accountability. If that ends with women looking great and men looking less so, that’s on them.  More importantly, though, we ought to give credit where credit is due. And in this situation, the unnamed woman deserves so much admiration for her intellect, her tenacity, and her faithfulness. May we all strive to live with the boldness and clarity of this powerful and faithful woman.

Being the Beloved

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I preached on Palm Sunday last year, and wanted to post the video of the sermon as a supplement to today’s post, “Cheering or Jeering on Palm Sunday.” If you’re interested in watching the sermon, “Being the Beloved,” click here.

Cheering or Jeering on Palm Sunday

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Alright, I know I’m about two weeks early in writing about Palm Sunday. I’m really excited to start edging toward the Passion Narrative, though, and I don’t want to cram all of the amazing stuff that happens in those texts into one short week. So I’m moving forward, and we’re going to dwell in the Palm Sunday, Last Supper, expectant texts this week, and then move to the full-on passion narrative in each of the gospels in the following weeks.

I preached on Palm Sunday last year, and during my preparation time I loved dwelling on the various stories of the Triumphal Entry. The Triumphal Entry occurs in all four gospels (interestingly, the palms only show up in John), and each of them contains its own nuance. You can read the full text of Matthew 21:1-10 here, but if you don’t have time for that, here’s a summary: Jesus and his disciples are at the Mount of Olives, and he instructs two of them to go into a village, to find a donkey and a colt, and to bring them to Jesus. If anyone challenges them, they’re to respond with the phrase, “The Lord needs them” (v. 1-3). The writer then says that Jesus did these things to fulfill Zechariah 9:9. The disciples do what Jesus asked them to, and they place their cloaks on the donkey and the colt and Jesus sat on them (logistically, I’m not sure how this works — it’s kind of funny to picture Jesus trying to balance on both a donkey and a colt at the same time. I assume that he simply sat on each of them, though). A crowd shows up and they spread their cloaks and tree branches on the road, and shout, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!” (v. 4-10).

When I was growing up I sort of pictured this scene as a something like a Superbowl parade or a beauty pageant. We have one charismatic figure or team in the center, and all of their adoring fans surrounding them, shouting, and cheering them on. After re-reading this text, though, I see some distinctive differences. One difference is how passive Jesus is in this text. He doesn’t actually do anything, except pop himself up onto a donkey and a colt. Other than that, his disciples do all of the work.

The other difference is that this wasn’t a scheduled event. We schedule events so that people show up. If a Superbowl parade or a beauty pageant had no attendees, no one flocking to the road or the stadium to cheer and scream, the event would be inconsequential. They need those fans. Jesus, however, didn’t actually need the crowd in this instance. He was there to fulfill the prophecy in Zechariah that he would ride into Jerusalem, “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9b). The crowd chose to show up and to cheer, because they knew that “he is righteous and victorious” (9:9), and they wanted to celebrate him.

We have no indication of how Jesus behaved while he was riding on the donkey and the colt. If it were like a beauty pageant he would be waving and blowing kisses; if it were like a Superbowl parade he would be cheering, fist-pumping, and chest-beating. Shockingly, I don’t think Jesus did any of these things. In Matthew 20, the chapter before the Triumphal Entry, he predicts his death. He knew, long before he rode the donkey and the colt, that one of his disciples would betray him, that he would be handed over to death, and that the cheers of those surrounding him on Palm Sunday would turn to jeers of “Crucify him” in the days ahead.

Jesus still showed up. He still showed love and favor to those who cheered him, despite the foreknowledge of his fate. He still heals, listens, and teaches as the story progresses after the Triumphal Entry. And what this tells us is that it’s not about us, it’s not about our merit, but it’s actually all about the love that Jesus persistently and tenaciously showed the world while he was among us. Jesus didn’t need the attention, the cheers, and the praises, but the crowd showed up anyway. And while surrounded by all of them, Jesus continued on his mission. So may we show up to cheer and to praise today, all the while remembering Jesus’ larger mission and vision to offer love and redemption to the world.

Mustard, Leaven, and Our Need to Let Things Grow

I have a very Type-A personality. I like being involved, giving my perspective, trying new things, and staying busy. And I love that God has given me this energy and drive.

While having a Type-A personality definitely has its benefits, I’ve experienced some significant drawbacks as well. I often struggle to just let things be and to “go with the flow.” This makes me especially attrocious at things like team-building activities and group travel.

I have read a number of interpretations of the Parable of the Mustard Seed, but this week I came across one that challenged me to consider deeper how I manage my Type-A-ness. Here is the text in Matthew 13:31-33:

“He put another parable before them, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’ He told them another parable. ‘The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.'”

One of the interpretations of these parables that comes to mind was written by Shane Claiborne in his book, Jesus For President. I have great respect for Shane’s work and for his writing, but I think he fails to provide enough specificity and nuance in this particular instance. He makes the claim that Mustard Seed was a controversial plant — it grew aggressively, and had the capacity to ruin gardens, buildings, establishments and empires. He argues that Jesus’ listeners wouldn’t have liked the comparison of the Kingdom of God to mustard seed or to yeast, because Jews weren’t “big fans” of those powerful substances (Claiborne and Haw, Jesus for President, 102-105). He goes on to assert that “Jewish law even forbade planting mustard in the garden,”  and he makes it seem authoritative by citing the Mishnah (Jewish law code circa 200 AD). Unfortunately, the mishnaic text says no such thing: the passage he cites states, “It is forbidden to sow different species of seeds in one bed. It is permitted to sow different species of vegetable seeds in one bed. Mustard and small polished peas are a species of seed” (m. Kel 3:2). It’s actually assuming that Jews will plant mustard in their gardens, and merely cautions them from planting them along with certain other seeds.

When I first read that interpretation it sounded very radical and revolutionary. I now realize that it’s nonsense. You can look up Leviticus 7:13 or Amos 4:5 to realize that Israel was cool with yeast, or you could just walk into a Jewish delicatessen today and order a pastrami sandwich on rye bread with mustard, and then try to make the argument that Jews don’t know what they’re doing with yeast and mustard seed.

The newer interpretation that I find far more compelling came from A.J. Levine’s book, Short Stories by Jesus. She argues that one of the main takeaways from the Parable of the Mustard Seed is that “some things need to be left alone. Keep fiddling with the dough and it will not rise; keep exposing the seed to air and it will not germinate… We are part of a larger process, and although we start an action, once started, it can often do quite well on its own” (Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 2014: 182). If that weren’t a big enough struggle for my Type-A personality, she then adds that the parable teaches us to “get out of the way... We are not always the focus; sometimes we are the facilitator for something bigger than ourselves… The man plants, or even tosses, the seed. Who sowed it is much less important than the tree into which the seed grows” (Ibid.). Again, how difficult is it to get out of the way when we feel as though what we’re doing is of utmost importance.

The parable actually calls us to let down out superhero complexes. To step back, and to know that the Kingdom of God is here and will continue to exist regardless of our involvement in it. Yes, we can sow seeds and promote the continued growth of the Kingdom of God, but by no means is it entirely contingent on what we do or fail to do.

By embracing this realization we can then give God credit for the growth of the Kingdom of God, and also let down the self-righteous feeling that we are the only ones bringing the love and presence of God to those around us. So let’s sow some seeds today. And then step back, and let them grow.

Fighting Rest

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Rest has been a tumultuous topic for me over the past two weeks. I went through three nights in which I couldn’t sleep, and after those I had to force myself to stay awake throughout the day. I then slept like a hibernating bear for the following two nights, couldn’t sleep the night after that, and proceeded to sleep almost the entire following afternoon. As I write/complain about my resting issues, I simultaneously recognize that I am a healthy, childless female in my mid-twenties. If you have kids or have gone through menopause you’re probably shaking your head while you read this, thinking, “Oh, you just wait!” I know, I get it. We all go through phases in which rest becomes a bit more elusive.
While I was reading Matthew 12 today I got a different sense of how Jesus understood rest. In the text, Jesus and his friends walk through a wheat field on the Sabbath, and they pick heads of wheat to eat because they’re hungry. The Pharisees see the Disciples picking the wheat and accuse Jesus, saying, “Look, your disciples are breaking the Sabbath law” (v. 1-2). They said this because, during the first Century, Jewish scholars debated the meaning of the Commandment to not work on the Sabbath. Jesus then uses the Tanakh (the Old Testament) to call the Pharisees into question. He references 1 Samuel 21:1-6, Numbers 28:9-10, and Hosea 6:6 to reveal the reasons he has authority to allow his Disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath, and why his interpretation of the Torah Commandment has authority over theirs.
This scenario occurs numerous times throughout the gospels: Jesus and his Disciples do something that constitutes “work” on the Sabbath, and the Pharisees and Scribes then question him. What distinguishes this particular story is actually what happens just before the first verses of chapter 12. In Matthew 11:28-30 Jesus states, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

Before we ever get to the story of the the Disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath, we have Jesus offering us rest. It’s so simple. Come to me when you’re heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Then in the following scene, they are meant to be resting for the Sabbath, and they pick grain because they’re hungry. And this is when it gets complicated. In the moments in which we are meant to rest, don’t we find so many distractions, objections, and excuses? I know I even sometimes feel guilty resting, as though I need to justify it or defend my reasons for it.

Lent is a perfect time to claim your space for resting. To clear out the excuses, the clutter, and to let down the feeling that the world sits on your shoulders. So I encourage you to do so without excuses and without justification. Just rest. Create time to clear your mind, to be still, and to come to Him with your burdens. And finally, receive rest. Because His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

Silence and Sabbath

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When was the last time that you experience silence? Not just quiet, but actual, peaceful silence. The kind that allows you to feel yourself breathe, listen to your heartbeat, and embrace your alive-ness a little bit more.

Sabbath was created as a time for rest. We’ve heard this from the pulpit over and over again — on the seventh day God rested, so we ought to rest as well. For many of us, though, the purpose of such a “day of rest” has changed from actually resting to going to church. It’s as though once we’ve attended our church service, we have “Sabbath-ed,” and we can proceed on with our Sundays as we would any other day. But how is that restful?

A true Sabbath in many ways demands rest. If we were to Sabbath as Orthodox Jews do, we would shut down our phones, email, TVs, and go off the grid for 24 hours. We wouldn’t drive our cars or spend hours cooking or finally catch up on laundry. With these options eliminated, how would you spend your time? The Internet and TV are a huge crutch for me — they ensure that my brain is constantly active and stimulated. To shut those off would be a huge change of pace. But it might also encourage my body, mind, and spirit to rest.

In Matthew 12, Jesus goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and encounters a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees then ask Jesus if the Torah allows him to heal the man’s hand on the Sabbath (v. 9-10). Jesus responds by asking them if they would rescue one of their sheep that had fallen into a pit on the Sabbath, and then states, “How much more valuable is a person than a sheep! So the Law allows a person to do what is good on the Sabbath” (v. 11-12). And Jesus heals the man’s hand (v. 13).

We are allowed to do what is good on the Sabbath. I don’t know about you, but my Sabbaths are often filled with whatever is typical of the rest of my week. Sure, they start at church, but afterward they contain going out to lunch, cooking dinner, calling friends, checking email, tidying the house, watching movies, and ultimately, lots of work.

As my husband and I were discussing Sabbath this morning, he pointed out to me that some evidence exists that early Christians would practice Sabbath on Saturday, and then also worship together on Sunday morning to celebrate the Resurrection. It’s like a mini-Easter every weekend. While most of us, including myself, will find plenty of excuses to not practice such radical resting, I encourage us today to reflect on how we can integrate more restful practices. Whether it is turning off our TVs, computers, and phones for a period of time, sitting at the kitchen table for meals, reading the Bible together with our loved ones and on our own, or going for a walk, may we find ways of honoring the Sabbath and increasing our sense of peacefulness and rest every week.