Thoughts after Echo’s Fall Retreat

75 Echo students just returned from our Fall Retreat, a weekend packed full of God encounters and memories. This year, our theme for the retreat was Love Revolution, where we explored the story of a crippled man meeting Peter and John outside the temple gates. We examined this story from three different angles: Peter’s perspective as an unlikely hero, the story of the unlikely partnership of Peter and his former rival John, and finally the perspective of the man begging at the temple gate. Saturday night, we brought the weekend home as we talked out what this man’s story means for us today.

We know of him that he was forty years old, and that he had been crippled from birth. We know that he had arranged a way to get placed every day to beg at the temple gate. This man has a sad story, but everything in his life was about to change. He was about to meet two agents of God’s Kingdom, two people committed to having their lives become an Echo of Christ. That day, three things happened to him that had maybe never happened before. It changed his heart toward God, and it changed his life forever.

First, he was seen – This is remarkable because it is easy to imagine that his life up to that point had been on the receiving end of indifference. The text makes note that “Peter and John looked intently at him.” He was noticed, he was valued. This man had to be so used to being ignored and overlooked. We all know the feeling, because we have all done it. We see a homeless man on the road, or some other undesirable, and something in our fear or misunderstanding makes us reflexively think “don’t make eye contact and I am O.K.” It was 3:00pm, a regular time for temple prayer. This was a crowded scene – many people had already walked past this man. Some had given him pity, throwing him a few coins or a scrap of food. None of them had given him love, none of them had given him anything of true value. People like to be charitable, but they rarely perform acts of charity that are truly sacrificial. This beggar might have learned to expect nothing from most people that passed by. But these two men seemed different. They didn’t look over him, they didn’t even look down on him, they looked right at him, and they saw him. Where others had given him indifference, they gave him their attention.

Second, he was helped – This is remarkable because it is easy to imagine that his life up to that point had been on the receiving end of inaction. When the beggar found the courage to ask for money, he must have been disappointed when Peter gave his answer: “I don’t have any money.” This man though he knew what he needed, but he was wrong. He was asking for the wrong thing. Jesus once said to a woman that as they talked about drawing water from a well: “if you knew who I was, you would ask me for living water.” Well, if this man knew who he was talking to, he might have asked for something more. This did not stop him from receiving what he needed though. Peter continued: “I don’t have any money, but what I do have, I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” At first, his emotion might have gone from disappointment to confusion and anger; this was an impossible thing he was asking for! Yet there was something in the faces of these men, some deep well of love and sincerity, and the man must have realized that it was not a demand, but a gift. As if to ensure he was making good on his promise, one of the men reached down with his hand to pick up the cripple. Peter helped him up. He reached down with his hand to pull him off the ground. This is the most practical, tangible expression of love this man could have received. At that moment, this man who had been crippled for 40 years, never able to stand let alone walk, became aware of a strange new strength in his legs and feet: instead of collapsing beneath him, they actually supported him. He could stand! Miraculously so! He decided then to be brave and bold and reckless – and venture to do what he had never done: walk. He put one foot in front of the other, each step a miracle, each step astonishing, each step bringing more strength and health and life and faith. Soon, walking seemed such a plain and ordinary thing to do. He began to leap, jump, and run – daring to trust in the reality he was experiencing and casting away the haunting suspicion it was all a dream or that it would not last. After 40 years of broken immobility, being held in a motionless prison, and dependent on the charity of others – he could now move. By the Grace of God and the power of His Holy Spirit, this man could do what he had never even dreamed of doing. He leapt and ran, with each step discovering all his new limbs were capable of. People all around began to worship and exalt God – as if his joy was contagious. Where others had shown him inaction, Peter and John showed up with action.

Third, he was invited in – This is remarkable because it is easy to imagine that his life up to that point had been on the receiving end of judgment. This man had somehow arranged to be set outside the temple gate that people called “Beautiful.” It was an ornate gate made of decorative bronze, and it was a famous sight that tourists would visit. This was an ideal place for a beggar to find crowds of people. What I want you to think about though is what this crippled man thought about God. As a cripple, he was not allowed in the temple court. Outside the gate, there were notices posted in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew warning those unqualified to stay out on penalty of death. Think about how this man had to think about God, the one that had overlooked him, rejected him, labeled him unacceptable, unworthy. The Beautiful Gate had become to him an ugly barrier. He must have felt invisible. In his culture, it was assumed when you were crippled that you or your parents had done some horrible wicked thing, and the infirmity was God’s way of punishing you. Everywhere he went (with his limited ability to travel) he was judged and looked down on. How was he to think of God as anything but the unloving, hateful judge? This is so important, and I don’t want you to miss it: Peter and John showing this man mercy, acceptance, and love actually helped this man rethink his assumptions about God. It enabled him to soften his heart and receive from God. It was through faith in Jesus that this man was able to be restored, and that faith is only possible with a receptive heart. Peter and John showed him the truth about Jesus through their LOVE. The first thing they do with him once he is on his feet is walk him right through the Beautiful Gate, into the Temple Court. He can enter now because he is whole. This gate had become a symbol of his separation from God, but that separation has been erased in Jesus.

****Thoughts for you and your teenager:
*This story is about faith in Jesus removing the barriers between a man and God. What barriers stand in between people and God today?
*Peter and John were the avenue of love, mercy, and acceptance to this man. Their love helped him rethink his concept of God. What do you think our culture’s perspective of God is? Why do you think that is? What should followers of Jesus do to reshape this perspective?
*Who do you identify with most in the story, Peter, John, the crowds, or the crippled man? Why?

Love This! Love Your Enemies

As we continue to talk about love as a choice and not as a feeling, Sunday’s echo experience brought us to one of the most challenging teachings of Jesus: the call to love our enemies.

Luke 6:27-38 records one of the times that Jesus issued this challenge. This is a revolutionary teaching about love. Jesus turns the conventional ideas about love and fairness updside down. When it comes to love, conventional wisdom says “love those that love you.” This is rational and logical; it happens naturally. It is an easy thing to love the people that are good to us. Jesus explains that for children of God, it is not enough. They are called to love their enemies.

Is this even possible? The word Jesus chooses to use here is agape, which is a different sort of love than the kind you would have naturally for your close friends and relatives. It would be impossible and unnatural to have that kind of love for people that are your enemies. The kind of love Jesus describes is much more than a feeling, it is not an act of the heart but an act of the will. It means that no matter what people do to us, no matter how they treat us, no matter if they heap on insults and injuries or even break our hearts, we will never allow hate for them to invade our hearts. Instead, we will regard them with an unconquerable benevolence and goodwill, seeking only their benefit and advancement. This is only possible with the help of Christ.

Is this hopeless ideology? Many people dismiss this kind of statement from Jesus as being a figure of speech, or something Jesus said strictly for shock value, or a hopelessly high ideal that is not achievable. These are all easy ways to rationalize such a challenge away and let ourselves off the hook when it comes to obeying it. Maybe the most striking reality of this statement is that it was actually meant to be taken seriously. That is how the earliest followers of Jesus understood it. If this was meant to be taken figuratively or as impossible idealism, the early church missed the memo. Look at Romans 12:9-21 and see that the tradition of “lov[ing] your enemies” and “bless[ing] those that persecute you” was alive and well in the teaching of the early church. This was actually being taught and it was actually being lived out.

Loving your enemies is a powerful weapon of influence and change. This attitude completely changes the game. Instead of becoming victims, hurt and mistreated by people around us, we are empowered to actually overcome evil with good. When he was caught mourning the loss of northern and southern troops after a civil war battle, Abraham Lincoln was once reminded that it was the president’s obligation to destroy the enemies of the nation. His response was something like the command of Jesus: “Am I not destroying my enemies when I make them my friends?” Love alone has the power to make friends of enemies.

The ability of the earliest followers of Jesus to show love to the people that abused them (and even hunted them down to kill them) was a major factor in the growth of the early church. It was utterly compelling to watch selfless love being demonstrated in such a supernatural and irrational way. It would both endear people to the cause of Christ and undermine the image of the Roman persecutors at the same time. The harder the hammer of persecution fell, the more glorious the love would seem, and the faster the gospel would spread. This happened with Stephen in Acts 7, and it continued to happen for two centuries. This kind of love does not go unnoticed.

Where does the inspiration for this kind of love come from? From Jesus. In the presence of the mocking crowd and the taunts of his executioners, Jesus had the strength to utter few words from the cross. In the face of the rage in their eyes and the hate in their hearts, Jesus asks God for mercy. He does not ask for mercy for himself, but for the crowd and the soldiers that are insulting him, abusing him and destroying him. “Father, forgive them, because they don’t know what they are doing.” This is the model for loving our enemies: Jesus hanging on the cross, asking his killers to be forgiven. They meant him nothing but harm, but he meant nothing but good for them. This is the greatest picture of love ever. No poet has expressed it more beautifully; no song has ever captured its essence more precisely. This is the foundation of influence the early church was built on. Not flashy programs or services – but love. They changed their world through unbelievable, irrational, unconquerable LOVE.

Questions for you and your teenager:
*Do you think it is realistic to love your enemies? Is it possible?
*Why do you think showing love to someone that shows you hate is so powerful? What does it mean to “overcome evil with good?” Can love actually transform hate or change the heart of someone else?
*What examples of affecting change through love can you recognize through history?

Love This Priority #2 – Love your neighbor as yourself.

This series in Echo, we have been talking about love, which is not a feeling, but a choice. When Jesus was asked what was the heart and soul of this whole religion thing – what is a relationship with God all about, the conversation turned to the “great commandment.” Love God with everything, and love your neighbor as yourself. This week it was all about loving our neighbor.

Luke 10:25-37 recalls how a teacher of the law wanted some clarification. His question was: “who is my neighbor?” If I am being commanded to love someone, I want to know who that someone is. This sounds at first like a great question, but Jesus seemed to to think it was the wrong question to ask.

Jesus answers in a very unexpected way. This is a great example of Jesus doing what he does best: masterfully helping people who are focused on the wrong things find the right things. This teacher of the law intended to have an abstract theological conversation. Jesus manages to turn it into a stinging real life situation. A lot of what made Jesus’ answer scandalous has been lost because of historical distance, so let me talk some of this out.

First, you need to understand the question being asked. By asking this question, the teacher of the law is implying that some people are “neighbors,” and as such are to be loved, while other people are “non-neighbors,” and we might not need to love them. He is trying to draw lines and categories of who should be loved and who should not. The commandment about “loving your neighbor” was from Leviticus, and Jews had been debating what was meant by “neighbor” for a long time. This rabbi would teach one thing, while another rabbi would teach something different. Some rabbis taught this only applied to other Jews. It would certainly not apply to a Samaritan. There was a quarrel between the Jews and the Samaritans that was centuries old. The road from Galilee to Jerusalem led through Samaria, and the Samaritans were known for hindering or even injuring Jews that tried to pass through. The Jews looked down on Samaritans as “half breeds” and “heretics.” They were not friends. When Jesus’ story unfolds and the Samaritan is the 3rd person to find the beset traveler, the original audience likely assumed that the villain had just arrived. Jesus does not pick a Samaritan as his hero on accident. He picked a Samaritan because Samaritans are in the “non-neighbor” category of the person that asked the question. This introduces a new question for you and I: who is in our “non-neighbor” category?

The priest and Levite serve as examples of empty religion that does not work because it is not concerned with the needs of others. They are the story’s true villains. They are expected to be the good guys, but they end up acting in a horrible way. I just heard a story about a woman that was in a rollover accident where she lost consciousness. She was taken to the hospital by ambulance, only to arrive and find her wedding ring was missing. Eyewitnesses told police that a man actually reached into her overturned car and pulled the ring off her finger while she lay there helpless. Stealing is one thing; seeing another human being in desperate need and failing to respond is another. Stealing from a human being that needs your help? that is a special kind of evil. The priest and the Levite saw the same need and heard the same cries for help as the Samaritan, but what did they do with what they say and heard? What will you do with what you see and hear? Neighborliness is only limited by our failure to see, feel, and respond to the needs of others.

This brings me to why I think Jesus was a master at this type of “mind game.” We enter the story along with the teacher of the law, thinking about who qualifies to be our neighbor and who does not. Who should receive our love and who can we withhold it from? Who is our neighbor? Well, it might be everyone – including the people we would not expect. It would include those that are not like us and that we do not like. But this is the wrong question, at least to Jesus. Through the story, Jesus flips the question and the answer. Instead of worrying about and assessing others to see who fits the bill for “neighbor,” or who is good enough for us to love – Jesus’ call is to become people that behave in a neighborly way to everyone. We (and the lawyer) started off seeking to limit who we (and he) have to call our neighbor, and we end up evaluating ourselves and how we are doing as a neighbor in the broken world we share. We are not to worry about who is our neighbor, we are to worry about how to be better neighbors ourselves – serving them, showing them love, and healing their wounds. Jesus says let the neighbor be you. Be the neighbor. This reminds me of Gandhi who once challenged us “to be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Questions for you and your teenager:
*Do you know the names of your actual neighbors (meaning the people living next door to your home)? What can you do to get to know them better?
*What would be different if everyone treated everyone else the way they wish they were treated?
*Can you think of anyone on your “non-neighbor” list? Are some people harder to love than others? Do you think Jesus ever intends for us to have a certain number of people that we do not love, for whatever reason?
*Should you help someone in need if it means putting yourself in danger? Why or why not? Are there limits to this?
*What are the needs around you right now, and how are you doing at being neighborly?