Saturday Night Theologian
18 April 2010

Acts 9:1-6, (7-20) (first published 25 April 2004)

In 1988 and 1989, my family lived in South Africa, during the waning days of apartheid. I had worked in an inner-city church for several years beforehand, so I was somewhat conscientized to the plight of the poor and oppressed, but seeing gross injustice day in and day out made a profound change in my life. While there, I began reading books by liberation theologians, as well as The Kairos Document and its sequel, The Road to Damascus. Since I was raised as an evangelical, I was familiar with the idea of conversion as a renunciation of sin and personal commitment to Jesus. I learned that the liberation theologians had a different view of conversion, as a profound change in attitude that occurs as a result of a divine encounter, often through exposure to poverty and injustice. If my first conversion experience was evangelical in nature, my second might be called liberational in nature. Paul had an experience on the Damascus Road that completely changed his life. Where others saw a bright light or heard a loud noise, Paul saw a revelation of Jesus Christ. Although his change in orientation was almost instantaneous, requiring perhaps three days, it took him several years to work out his exact calling: to become the missionary to the Gentiles. Not all Christians will have the same type of conversion experiences, but all can have transforming encounters with Christ. Conversion often happens unexpectedly, but it comes to people whose hearts are prepared for it. We can't force an encounter with Christ, but we can prepare ourselves for one by being sensitive to God's voice speaking through circumstances, people, and scripture. After Paul's conversion on the Damascus Road, he changed the world. Are we in need of conversion in order to accomplish what God has in store for us?

Psalm 30

Sometimes I imagine myself retired and living in Key West, near the beach. Every morning I get up and walk along the shore, picking up shells and sea glass, examining whatever interesting things might have washed ashore during the night. At lunchtime I might wander to one of Hemingway's haunts and sit in the shade sipping a cold drink, nibbling on a sandwich. Just before dark I'd head to Mallory Square to watch the sunset, then after awhile I'd return home to do it all over again the next day. In my imagination there would be no hurricanes, only small crowds, and few rainy days. It will never happen, because life isn't like that, even for people who happen to live in Key West. Just when you feel most confident of your place in the world, something shifts, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and you find yourself in a predicament in which you never imagined yourself. In one brief passage the psalmist says, "As for me, I said in my prosperity, 'I shall never be moved.' By your favor, O LORD, you had established me as a strong mountain; you hid your face; I was dismayed." From "I shall never be moved" to "I was dismayed" is a good description of life. Even in the midst of great joy the seed of future sorrow has already been sown, but just as surely joy springs from the depths of sorrow. People of faith are sometimes caught unawares, surprised when things do not go as planned. We think, "Why has God allowed this to happen to me?" or "Why hasn't God allowed me to realize my dreams?" The answer may be that God has a different dream, not necessarily one that you would recognize as better, but surely one in which God will accompany you. Joy and sorrow, success and failure, rain and shine--this is the life we lead, and when we welcome God along for the journey, it can be a satisfying and fulfilling life, whether or not we spend much of it on the beach.

Revelation 5:11-14 (first published 25 April 2004)

Symbols are powerful. The day after the space shuttle Challenger crashed, cartoonist Doug Marlette published a drawing of a bald eagle with a tear rolling down its cheek. Without a single word, that picture captured the sorrow of a nation, and it won him the Pulitzer Prize. The first time I read the book of Revelation was on a Sunday night, during a sermon. I don't think that the pastor was preaching on Revelation, but I had just gotten a copy of the Good News for Modern Man, a new (at the time) translation of the New Testament. What really caught my attention as a young teenager were the stick-figure drawings in the book. I was fascinated by the king riding a horse, the flying eagle, and the knight fighting the dragon, so I started reading. I can't say that I understood much of what I read, although, in retrospect, I don't think my lack of understanding was much greater than that of many "experts" who write multivolume expositions of the book. Revelation is a book that is full of symbolism. If you try to understand the book at all literally, you will miss the true meaning. In chapter 5, Jesus is described as both the Lion of the Tribe of Judah and a Lamb that has been slaughtered. What animals could be more different than the lion and the lamb? The poet William Blake wrote poems in celebration of both the tiger (which is in the same genus as a lion) and the lamb, and at one point he says of the tiger, "Did he who made the lamb make thee?" The author is telling us that Jesus encompasses both strength and weakness, royalty and sacrifice. Those who push the idea of Jesus' death on the cross as a literal substitutionary atonement, demanded by an angry God, have robbed the lamb of its symbolic meaning by confusing analogy with literality. The view of Jesus' death as a substitutionary sacrifice is powerful, but it does not exhaust the meaning of either symbol: the cross or the lamb. The Lamb portrays Jesus not only as a sacrificial victim, but also as one who is gentle, humble, and powerless (albeit voluntarily). We can see Jesus' sacrificial death reflected in the deaths of others who were powerless at the moment of death: Joan of Arc, Jan Hus, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, and many others. Yet the paradox of the Lamb is that by laying aside all power, he becomes immensely powerful, worthy to receive "power, riches, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing." One message of the book of Revelation is that death is not the final word; it is only the beginning.

John 21:1-19 (first published 25 April 2004)

This passage in John is one of several that is frequently misinterpreted because of faulty hermeneutical methodology. I'm talking specifically about the conversation between Jesus and Peter that takes place after breakfast, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus asks Peter three times, "Peter, do you love me?" and Peter responds each time, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you." Each time Jesus replies, "Feed my sheep," or some variant thereof. It is the variation that is the key to both the misunderstanding and the proper understanding of this passage. The misunderstanding involves the use of two different Greek verbs for love, agapao and fileo. Of the six uses of the word translated "love" in English in this passage, Jesus uses agapao the first two times and fileo the third time, whereas Peter uses fileo all three times. I have heard innumerable sermons and Bible lessons that claim that agapao is a higher form of love, perhaps even an exclusively Christian form of love, and that Jesus is asking Peter whether or not he loves him is this exalted manner. Peter responds each time by using the weaker form of love, fileo, and he is hurt when Jesus switches to this verb in his third question. There are at least four problems with this common interpretation. First, it makes no sense for Peter to be hurt because Jesus chose to use the same word that Peter himself was using to describe his love for Jesus. Obviously Peter thought it was a perfectly acceptable word. Second, Jesus and Peter would probably have been conversing in Aramaic, not Greek, so the distinction between the Greek verbs is a literary device. Third, an examination of the immediate context indicates the author's predilection for variation rather than repetition (viz., "feed my lambs," "shepherd my sheep," "feed my sheep"). Fourth, an examination of the use of the two verbs agapao and fileo in John reveals that they are used interchangeably. In particular, notice the following passages, all of which use fileo: "The father loves the Son" (5:20); "See how much he [Jesus] loved him [Lazarus]" (11:36); "The Father himself loves you" (16:27); "the disciple whom Jesus loved" (20:2; in contrast to other occurrences of this phrase, which use agapao). Peter is upset, then, not because Jesus switches verbs, but because he asked him a third time whether he really loved him or not. Peter's threefold affirmation of his love for Jesus corresponds to his threefold denial of Jesus before the crucifixion. Peter's hurt feeling could be because he wonders whether Jesus will ever believe that he loves him, after his earlier failure, or it may be that the threefold repetition of the question simply reminds him of his earlier weakness. In either case, Jesus responds affirmingly. He seems to be saying, "Yes, Peter, I know that you love me, but maybe you yourself don't realize the depth of that love. I'm sending you out to tend my flock, and you will be faithful doing so, even to the point of death. But that's all in the future. Right now all I ask is that you follow me." Sometimes we, like Peter, fail Jesus, and maybe we think that our sins are so great that God will never forgive us, or that we'll never be useful to God again. The beauty of this simple story is that regardless of our sins, God always stands ready to forgive us and welcome us back into the fold. As he had for Peter, Jesus has one simple question for us: "Do you love me?" If we answer yes, then he has a simple command: "Follow me."