Amazing Love: Suffering Love

Amazing Love Main GraphicWhen I wrote my dissertation, one question I asked all the pastors and elders I interviewed concerned times when they had to bear a cross on behalf of the people of God. Interestingly, nearly every pastor and elder confirmed some story about a time when they had sacrificed for the good of the congregation. One pastor told of a time when his rapidly growing congregation had to build twice while he had children in college. Being the pastor, he felt he needed to both tithe and give generously to building campaigns. It was a long hard time. 

One of the most meaningful to me was a pastor who led an inner city congregation in a declining area. He reached the conclusion that the only way to save the congregation was to move. Naturally, some of the families in the congregation, who had been in the church for generations, and whose parents and in some cases grandparents had built the existing church, were horrified at the idea. The Session voted to move. The pastor successfully moved the church into a growing area—but those opposed caused difficult problems for him during the rest of his ministry. A former Associate Pastor told me that this fine pastor grew old before his eyes during those years. This week at our Session meeting, I shared with the Session a couple of times that Kathy and I have had to suffer in order that a church might grow and prosper.

One of the most difficult things to get our arms around in the Bible is the cross. Why did Jesus have to die a terrible death? Why did Jesus say that if anyone wants to be my disciple, let him (or her) take up his or her cross and follow me? (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 23). Why does Paul say that he completes in his body the sufferings of Christ on behalf of the church? (Colossians 1:24).

The Way His Life Ended

This morning, we come to the mystery of the cross. I use the term “mystery” because no human words can fully comprehend what God was doing on the cross. No human wisdom can fully penetrate its meaning. As we shall see, the disciples and Paul struggled all the days of their lives to communicate to others the depth of God’s love—a love that, beyond all expectations, died for the human race. the-passion-of-the-christHere is how it happened:

It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. … At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”. … Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last (Mark 15:25; 33-37).

A Long and Difficult Week

This Lenten season, we’ve been walking with Jesus through the last week of his life in this blog. Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, where we began our Journey to the Empty Tomb: with Jesus’ triumphal entrance into the City of Jerusalem, the center of Jewish faith. The crowds welcomed Jesus as if he were the long-awaited Messiah. This worried the leaders of the people. They were afraid of what the Romans would do if Jesus tried to lead a rebellion. They also feared a rebellion against the Temple religion of which they were the priests and legal interpreters. Even natural enemies, like the Pharisees, who believed in the resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees, who did not, were united in their dislike of the rabbi Jesus bar Joseph from the little village of Nazareth. They united in their attempts to trick him, turn the crowds and the Romans against him, and get rid of him. 

From the beginning of the week, things got darker and darker for Jesus.

We don’t know exactly when or why Judas Iscariot decided to betray Jesus. The best guess is that Judas, like the other disciples, initially hoped that Jesus was the Messiah. He hoped that Jesus would get rid of the hated Romans and the corruption of Temple faith. Perhaps Judas was disappointed that Jesus was not doing more to avoid death and begin a rebellion. [1] Sometime during the week, perhaps late Wednesday or early Thursday, Judas must have contacted the Chief Priests or the Temple guards offering to betray Jesus. Similarly, Jesus knew something was up and suspected Judas (John 16:24). In any case, by the time of the last supper, Judas had decided to betray Jesus (Matthew 26:23; Mark 14:20; Luke 22:21; John 13:26). 

 Thursday night, the disciples celebrated a Passover meal together. At the meal, Jesus spoke of his body and blood that would be shed for his disciples (Mark 14:22-25). When he announced that one of the Twelve would betray him, he set off a competition as to who would be the most loyal. When Peter announced that he would never betray Jesus, Jesus foretold that he would indeed deny him three times (14:27-31). In the end, of course they all deserted him, even Peter.


After dinner, amid the gathering gloom, they went off to the Garden of Gethsemane, by which time Jesus clearly understood that he was about to be betrayed, suffer and die (Mark 14:32-42). While he was there praying, about midnight, Judas arrived with the Temple Guards, betrayed him, and he was arrested (14:43-52). Sure enough, just as he foretold, they all deserted him (14:50). 

He was taken to the Sanhedrin, the highest court of the Jewish people, there, the High Priests, the teachers of the law, and the other leaders of the people tried him, and he was condemned to death (14:53-65). The entire affair was illegal—Jewish law forbade trials at night, and it must by now have been very early Friday morning. It was then that Peter denied, betrayed him, and fled (15:66-72). Jesus was left entirely alone, betrayed and abandoned. 

While the Jews could convict Jesus of heresy, a crime punishable by death under their own law, it was not possible under Roman law for Jesus to be executed except by Roman command. [2] Therefore, very early in the morning, the Sanhedrin transferred Jesus to Pilate. He was taken across the city to where Pilate was and examined by him (Mark 15:1-5). Pilate suspected that Jesus was guilty of no capital offense under Roman law. This is why Pilate asked him if he was the King of the Jews (15:2). Jesus said nothing that could be used to execute him. Only if some violation of Roman law could be found could he be executed.

At some point, Pilate was reminded that it was his custom to to release a prisoner during the Passover celebration as a sign of goodwill (Mark 14:8). Perhaps, he felt certain that, if he offered the Jews a choice between a true criminal, Barabbas, and Jesus, the crowd would surely choose Jesus to be released. Pilate offered the crowd the choice, and to his utter surprise, the crowd chose Barabbas (15:11). His hands now tied, Pilate washed his hands of the whole terrible affair, and turned Jesus over to be crucified (15:15). First, He had Jesus flogged.

A Terrible End

By this time, Jesus had been flogged, and his back was probably torn to pieces (Mark 15:15). He had been awake more than twenty-four hours and was tired. He was also probably weak from hunger, not having eaten since the night before. He was publically humiliated: the soldiers mocked him (15:16-50). As was the custom, Jesus carried the cross upon which he was to be crucified, or at least the crossbar of the cross, through the center of the city, down what we call the Way of Tears (Via Delarosa). He was so weak that a visitor to the city, Simon of Cyrene, was asked to carry the cross part of the way to Golgotha, the place of the skull, just outside the city gates. There, he was crucified.

The soldiers, now making fun of the Jews generally, put a sign above his head, “The King of the Jews.” This was intended, probably, to send a message to any other Messianic pretender and also to humiliate the Priests, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, and all those who conspired to put him there (Mark 15:25). Somewhere in the afternoon, before dark and the beginning of the Passover, Jesus cried out to God, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:33-34). It was a quote from Psalm 22—an invocation of faith and hope as well as a sign of dereliction. A few moments later he cried out one last time and died (15:37).

As darkness came, Joseph of Arimathea took down his body, got permission from Pilate to bury him, and placed him in a tomb (Mark 15:12-47). Jesus had died in the most unimaginably painful and humiliating way: almost naked, exposed, treated as a criminal, outside the city, deserted by everyone. This was not the way the Messiah was supposed to die.

An Amazing Love

Amazing Love Main GraphicAt the time, no one understood what had happened. His disciples were scattered. Those who remained in Jerusalem were in fear of their lives. A few women were willing to anoint the body after Passover (Mark 15:47-16:1). Years later, the Apostle Paul described the event as beyond human imagination. Here is what he says in First Corinthians

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;

    the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (I Cor. 1:18-25). 

 We human beings simply do not have words or intellectual categories to describe what happened on the Cross. Virtue should be rewarded, not punished. Love should be victorious, not end up dying on a cross. Wisdom should prevail, not be destroyed. How are we to even begin to understand this? 

 Paul takes the position that we can never understand the cross on the basis of human wisdom. No secular person, no “Greek,” can understand a god who would give himself up on a cross for the sins of the world. No “Jew,” a religious person who believes that wisdom should be rewarded with long life and riches, can understand the cross. No religion that proclaims, “Love your friends and punish your enemies” can understand what happened on the cross. No worldly wisdom that proclaims “Do unto others before they do unto you” can understand the cross. Only those who can perceive a love so much greater than human love at work that it cannot hardly be imagined or understood can understand the cross. It is just as hard to understand today as it was 2000 years ago. 

The Meaning of Holy Week 

 Next week is Holy Week. All the events that we talked about in this blog since early February occurred in one week. All the events that we have spoken of today occurred in one day: next Thursday evening through next Friday evening. It is the most important week of human history.

On Sunday, a charismatic Rabbi entered the city of Jerusalem, and everyone hoped they would see the arrival of their expected Messiah. The next Sunday, a few women announced to a disbelieving world that the charismatic rabbi was the Risen Son of God. In between, he was persecuted, died, and was buried.

images-2His cross has become the symbol of the religion he founded, because his followers see in that cross a disclosure of the very being of God—sheer, unconditional, unimaginable, self-giving love. And, against all worldly wisdom, we have committed ourselves to becoming people transformed by this very love. In truth and in fact, the cross cannot be understood except by those who have walked as disciples with the One who suffered and died upon it. [3]

There is no understanding the the deepest mysteries of human life until the cross and empty tomb become the center of our vision of the world—a world created for freedom, hopeless lost to sin, redeemed by a loving God in a way no one could possibly have foreseen. In the words of John Polkinghorne:

He is not a spectator, but a fellow-sufferer, who has himself absorbed the full force of evil. In the lonely figure hanging in the darkness and dereliction of Calvary, the Christian believes that he sees God opening his arms to embrace the bitterness of the strange world he has made. The God revealed in the vulnerability of the incarnation and in the vulnerability of creation are one. He is the crucified God, whose paradoxical power is perfected in weakness, whose self-chosen symbol is the King reigning from the gallows. [4]

Book Cover.pegAs I put it in Path of Life, on the Cross we see revealed the truth that God not only reigns in glory over his creation, but paradoxically, suffers the travail of its finitude, incompleteness, sin, and suffering. In the end, Christians believe that the One Greater than Wisdom came and in his coming moves our thinking and understanding to a new level. At the cross we come to understand that God does not stand outside our human suffering. Instead, in Christ God is a fellow sufferer with each human being who suffers for whatever reason. This is the kind of Messiah God intended for us. [5]

I began this series of meditations with the observation that Protestants move too quickly from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday—from victorious entrance to Jerusalem to victory over the grave. This can lead to a kind of triumphalism in which we expect as disciples to go from victory to victory with Jesus. This creates an unbalanced and unrealistic Christian faith. It forgets the cost of victory, which is death, a death on a cross. It is a cost believers have had to pay from time to time throughout history that others may live and prosper. This week is a time to celebrate, but ours should be a solemn celebration. This week we remember the cost of our peace with God.

[1] One of the possible explanations is that Judas expected Jesus to declare his Messiahship and begin a rebellion. When it seemed that he was going to bumble along and get himself arrested and killed, he changed sides.

[2] See, James Stalker, The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1983), 18-25. It is from this source that I refer when saying that a night trial was not legal and that the Jews could not execute Jesus. This was possible only under Roman law.

[3] See, Leslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986). Those who know of my years at seminary know that no one book has been more important in my thinking about Jesus and the Church, and no writer more important than Leslie Newbigin. He was the most important person and writer in the development of my thinking about the church, about how to minister to our culture, and about a Christian response to secular ideology.

[4] John Polkinghorne, Science and Providence: God’s Interaction with the World (Philadelphia, PA: Templeton Foundation Press, 1989), 79.

[5] G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ Followers (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 192. I have rephrased the ending of this chapter for this blog.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Love in Uncertain Times

YA002972Kathy likes terriers. When we talk about getting a dog, she is always trying to make me choose between Fox Terriers, Scottish Terriers, Westies, and a few other terrier breeds. There are problems with all terriers, however. They are small. They were bred to hunt rats and other vermin. They are extremely aggressive. If they are not trained properly, they think they are in charge of the entire family. When attacked, even by a child, they can bite. All in all, I prefer Golden Retrievers who are easy to train and happily fit into almost any situation.

Nevertheless, when I practiced law, I had a statute of a Fox Terrier in my office. Most people in those days thought it was appropriate, since I was small, aggressive, and occasionally bit when attacked. In fact, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, it is possible that I was a terrier in some prior life. I am telling this little story to make a point: What I have to say does not come naturally. In fact, quite the opposite: by nature, I am not a pacifist or inclined to let things go wrong without a fight. 

 Several weeks ago, one of our members related to me that a prominent media figure had challenged American pastors to preach on ISIS and on events in the Middle East. At the time, I thought that I did not want to do it. However, as I was reading the text for this week and contemplated the blog for the week, it seemed to me that, as much as I hesitate to give my opinion on certain issues, perhaps today’s post meets a need.

Troubled Times

In this blog, I want to talk about “Amazing Love in Troubled Times.” It is easy to act wisely and love people when times are easy. It is harder to be wise and love people when times are tough and we feel threatened. As Jesus noted, it is easy to love our friends and families. It is harder to pray for and love enemies (Matthew 5:44).

imgresMark 13 is sometimes called a little apocalypse because Jesus here describes the destruction of the temple and also speaks of troubled times for all believers in all times to the very end of time. I cannot reproduce here the entire chapter. I suggest interested readers take a look at the entire chapter as they read the blog and ponder its message. Here is what Mark says about the end of the temple and by implication the end of time:

Jesus said to them: “Watch out that no one deceives you. Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit (Mark 13:5-11). 

Jesus Faced Danger and Opposition 

 The last week of his life, Jesus faced unrelenting opposition. The Gospels are unanimous that the High Priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and other leaders of the people early on looked for ways to get rid of Jesus. There were several possibilities. They could discredit him before the people by forcing him to say things that would turn the people against him. They could trick him into saying things that would cause the Roman government to arrest him. They could arrest him for false teaching and convict him of heresy. They could find a way to have him killed. In fact, they tried all of these ways to get rid of him. Eventually, the succeeded.

Let me give you a few examples: On Jesus’ third day in Jerusalem, the authorities questioned his habit of speaking as if he possessed divine authority (Mark 11:27-35). Jesus responded with a parable about a landowner who sends his son to check on the harvest (Mark 12:1-11). The son is killed by the tenants— a direct reference to the Chief Priests, teachers of the law, and elders. By implication, Jesus was the true son, while they were only dishonest tenants.

The authorities responded by trying to get Jesus to deny Caesar’s authority to tax the Jews—a popular position with the crowd, but sure to get Jesus arrested by the Romans. Jesus responded by pointing out that people should render to Caesar what belong to Caesar and to God what belongs to God (Mark 12:17). The Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, tried to confuse him with resurrection riddles. He avoided them by pointing out that in the resurrection there will be no marriage, and he defended the doctrine of the resurrection (Mark 12:18-27). In all these events and more, the leaders of the people were simply trying to trick Jesus, confuse Jesus, and cause him to lose support from the common people. Jesus responded with wisdom and the power of the Holy Spirit.

What is remarkable is that Jesus never lashed out. He never played the same game as the leaders of the people were playing. He answered questions shrewdly but honestly. He exposed hypocrisy. He avoided trap after trap. He came out of every conflict unshaken. Perhaps there is a message for us: When times are tough, when we face enemies, when we are being tested—it is at these times when our capacity to show the world the wisdom and love of God is the most important. It is when we act and speak in the power of the Spirit that we are most effective. 

We Face Danger and Opposition 

 As I mentioned earlier, some weeks ago a member came to me and asked if I would preach on ISIS. I don’t know all the facts, but I am told that on a national television show there was a discussion about Christian faith and the problems of the Middle East. ISIS is, at least to some degree, motivated by a particular interpretation of Islam to engage in a war to create in the Middle East what is called a “Caliphate”. A caliphate is an Islamic state led by a “Caliph,” a political and religious leader, a direct successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. His power and authority is absolute. [1]

It is important to remember that not all Muslims share the radical ideas of ISIS, nor do all Muslims believe that the violence and cruelty of ISIS reflects a correct understanding of Islam. On the program, however, a representative of the Middle Eastern cultures critiqued Christianity by reminding the audience that, during the Middle Ages, Christians several times attempted to create a Christian state in what is today Israel by what are called today the “Crusades.” He was making the point that Christians have sometimes violated our own deepest convictions in the search for power or to respond to threats. We don’t want be guilty of the same thing in responding to today’s threats.

 In recent weeks, the United States and our allies have had to try to slow down the advance of ISIS in parts of Syria and Iraq by force. In response, ISIS has threatened terror attacks against several Western nations, including the United States of America. The President of Egypt has been fighting a battle against a Libyan offshoot of ISIS. It is really a very complex and dangerous thing that is happening. We all ought to pray about what is going on because it could easily end in a war.

ISIS is not the only pressure Americans, and American Christians, experience. The fact is that our nation and our faith face threats. So the question arises, “What should we do in response?” and “How should we behave?” These are important questions because it is important that as Christians we behave with the wisdom and love of God and encourage our neighbors and nation to do the same. One big contribution Christians can make to our nation, so caught up in simplistic and sometimes irrational and unloving politics, is to bear witness to a better way—a way of wisdom and love. 

Jesus Reacted in Love 

 Not to be simplistic, but the first thing might be to ask, “What would Jesus do?” “How did Jesus face opposition and impending persecution and death during his last week of life?” Clearly, the answer is that Jesus continued to be Jesus. He continued to preach and teach concerning the Kingdom of God. He continued to point out where the Priests, Scribes, Teachers of the Law, Pharisees, and leaders of his people had gone astray. He was willing to take action, as he did as he was cleansing the Temple. On the other hand, he never overreacted however badly provoked.

A second thing we can  do is to love our enemies. 

In Matthew, Jesus says the following in the Sermon on the Mount:

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:43-48).00000000000000065836

Jesus’ behavior when he was arrested and tried indicates that he was cooperating with God’s will and responding as peaceably and lovingly as possible. When a follower drew his sword, he stopped the attack, healed the guard, and said: Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 25:52-53). Jesus’ peaceful response to violence was not because he could not respond; he chose not to respond with violence. When Jesus had to speak to the Sanhedrin, the Priests, Pilate, and Herod, he was filled with the Spirit and spoke wisely. 

 On the cross, when he was about to die, Jesus looked down upon those who had crucified him and said, “Father, forgive them, for the do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). All during his last week, amid all the opposition, violence, and troubles he faced, Jesus continued to be a peacemaker. Even at the end, when he might have cursed his enemies, be forgave them. What Amazing Love.

When the disciples and apostles looked back upon this behavior, they were astounded. Paul, in Romans, puts it this way: “ For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10). What amazed Paul was that God loved him and the human race even though they were acting as enemies of God. Later in the First Century, John writes, This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters” (I John 3:16). God, it seems, is in the business of loving his enemies and those who oppose him even as he may have to act to correct them. He wants his people to act in the very same way, as hard as it may be for us.

The implications for us are clear: Somehow, we have to love our enemies, even those who threaten our existence. Whatever governments and armies may have to do, as Christians we must be motivated by love and continue to show love, even for our enemies. 

Making it Work in the Real World 

 This is not the place for a long dissertation on Just War Theory; however, the as we think about a Christian response to ISIS, here are four principles to keep in mind. For Christians to use force (i) There must be a grave threat by an aggressor; (ii) The damage the aggressor can inflict upon a nation or community must be significant, lasting, and certain; (iii) There must be no practical or effective way of deterring the aggressor except through the use of force; and (iv) The force used must not result in greater evils than the aggressor threatens. [2] The goal, from beginning to end, must be to create a just peace.images

Once a conflict begins, Just War Theory demands that the conflict be conducted humanely, avoiding indiscriminate violence against civilians, and especially violence against women and children who are not engaged in the conflict. [3]Generally, Christian Just War Theory restricts Christian nations to use no greater force than necessary to achieve a just end. In broad terms, Christians must not love violence. We must promote peace whenever possible and be slow to resort to the use of arms. However, we may use force when it is necessary. Evil must not be allowed to remain unchecked. [4] 

 I’ve been a pastor for a long time now, and I’ve noticed that laypeople often think of pastors, including me, as being both different from ordinary people and slightly disconnected from reality, especially as regards conflict. This is sometimes true, but not always. Our pastor in Houston was a very peaceful, conflict-avoidant person. This did not mean he was a pansy. He spent the Second World War in a submarine in the South Pacific. The casualty rates in the Submarine Service in World War II ensured that pansy’s did not seek such duty. [5] I have mentioned my father who, throughout World War II and thirty-five years in the FBI, remained a man of peace in a world of war and conflict. Jesus resisted evil, controlled his impulses and worked for peace and blessedness in a world of conflict. So should we. [6] In all of the challenges we face as a nation and as individuals, we should keep in mind the Beatitude that reads, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”(Matthew 5:9).

The Little Apocalypse of Mark 

 Throughout his last week of life, Jesus constantly warned his followers about the destruction of the Temple to come and the persecutions they would face as a result. Jesus could see that the current situation would not continue forever and that the destruction of the Temple and a new Jewish time of suffering were on the horizon. In Biblical terms, the long awaited “Day of the Lord” was at hand (Mark 13:24). [7] As he spoke of that terrible day, he was concerned to remind his disciples that they were in God’s hands. They needed to be prudent, but they did not need to worry. They would be persecuted, but they would be given the right words to say when drug before authorities just as Jesus was being given the words to say in the face of the opposition of the leaders of the people (Mark 13:9-11).

Jesus also did not want them or us to overreact. This is why he warns them that there will be false Messiah’s and wars and rumors of wars (Mark 13:5). Jesus wanted them to know that history was going to unfold just has history had unfolded in the past (Mark 13:5-8). Just as God is patient, he wants his people to be patient in the face of threats and dangerous times. 

This is hard for Americans and for American Christians because we are an active and sometimes impulsive people. Nevertheless, we need to remember to be patient and wise.

We cannot be sure when Jesus will come and rescue his people nor do we know exactly how (Mark 13:42-35). What we do know is that God loves his people and intends to rescue us when the time is right. That applies to the end of time and it applies to every bad time in between the times. What we must do is remain faithful to God, to Christ, and to the wisdom and love God has promised to give us. We Americans have been lucky. We have not been persecuted until recently. Our nation has been spared attacks on civilian centers. We have not experiences the horrors of war that other nations have experienced since the American Civil War. Unfortunately, it may be that our good fortune may not continue forever. We should pray it does.

 I am afraid that today’s blog is long and not entirely satisfactory. The scope of the subject is too vast for me to possibly do it justice in a short article. All I can do is scratch the surface and urge readers to do their own investigation. As I mentioned earlier, we do live in challenging times. To face these times as Jesus faced his challenging times we need all the wisdom and all the steadfast love God can give us. It is quite possible that the greatest service we can do for our nation is to model a kind of peaceful reasonableness in the midst of negative politics, media hype, denigration of Christian faith, and all the other negative aspects of our culture. As we do so we can rest assured that “God’s Amazing Love” wins in the end. 

 Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved. 

 [1] (Downloaded March 19, 2015).

[2] There are various ways of expressing the principles of Just War Theory. This is but one, simple and short way. From the time of Augustine, through Thomas Aquinas, and to the present day Christians have continued to struggle with the best expression

 [3] There is a Muslim expression of these very principles, and one way in which the Fundamentalist, ISIS war of terror violates Muslim principles is in the way violence is being used against women, children, and other non-combatants. 

[4] (Downloaded March 19, 2015). I have basically quoted this website. Sometimes I call the basic Christian approach to war “Just War Pacifism.” War is a last resort. Christians should always regard it as such. However, when peaceful means are exhausted, Christians may engage in war.


[5] During World War II, the U.S. Navy’s submarine service suffered the highest casualty percentage of all the American armed forces, losing twenty percent of all submariners. See, (Downloaded, March 18, 2015).


[6] In Centered Living/Centered Leading: The Way of Light and Love  Rev. Ed (Memphis, TN: Booksurge Publishing, 2014), there are many sections in Centered Living/Centered Leading that deal with conflict and war. This week, I read the following:

“Those who wisely lead or assist those who lead avoid using force to attain an objective.

Wise shepherds resort to force or compulsion only when there is no other alternative.

Force normally brings a violent response; it is contrary to the Way.

A wise leader remembers this: the strong weaken over time.

Wherever there is conflict or coercion, true accomplishment seldom results.

Therefore, wise shepherds are patient.”

This secion ends with the reflection, “Fighting and violence violate God’s Deep Love. Conflict is not the deepest Way of the One Who Is.” (Chapter 30). There are many such references in the Tao and in my Christian adaptation.


[7] The Old Testament is filled with prophesies of the Day of the LORD, a day in which God will act in vengeance on his enemies and establish his kingdom of righteousness. See, William Barclay, “Mark” in The Daily Bible Study Series rev. ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1975), 303-324.

A Fruitful Faith

If you drive by our house, you know that we have a large landscaped area surrounding a tree filled with azaleas and nandena. The ground is not perfect for azaleas, and none of them do well. The largest of the azaleas used to be sheltered from sun by a pine tree that fell during an ice storm several years ago. Since then, it has never been healthy. About five or six years ago, Kathy and I left on vacation for two weeks in mid-July. The person who was supposed to water them did not while the temperature was near or over 100 degrees. When we returned the largest azalea was a deep orange color. Jim Williams came over, looked at the problem, and offered to take it out. He did not think that it would ever bloom again, if it even survived.

images-3I decided to try to rescue the azalea and went on a program of watering and careful care of the plant. Amazingly, it survived. However, sure enough, it has never bloomed again. Some years, if the winter is very wet and mild, and if I fertilize it at exactly the right time, and if I water the plant all summer long, I get one or two blooms the next spring. Jim and Karen have moved, but everyone I consult gives me the same advice: “Pull the azalea out and plant a new one.” You see, azaleas are meant to flower, and an azalea that never blooms is not an azalea worth having. Someday, I will give up hope and and plant a new azalea.

God has planted his Holy Spirit in us by the power of Christ through faith. He intends us to bear fruit for his garden, the world. When we don’t do that, we are like my azalea—we are not doing the thing God intended us to do when he planted us. On the other hand, when we do bear fruit for his kingdom, we are bearing the fruit for which we were created.

The Story of A Fig Tree.

In this blog, I am looking at a text that comes from passages just before and just after the cleansing of the Temple. In the first reading, Jesus is on his way to the Temple when he stops near a fig tree. Hear the Word of God as it comes to us from the Gospel According to Mark:

imgres-3The next day as they were leaving Bethany, Jesus was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to find out if it had any fruit. When he reached it, he found nothing but leaves, because it was not the season for figs. Then he said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” And his disciples heard him say it (Mark 11:12-14).

Going on to Verse 20 we read:

images-4In the morning, as they went along, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots. Peter remembered and said to Jesus, “Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” (Mark 11:20-21).

This story is one of the most perplexing stories in the New Testament. It is one of the so-called, “Difficult Passages” because it seems odd for a number of reasons. Jesus is walking from Bethany to Jerusalem, a short Sabbath Day journey. It was morning, and Jesus was hungry. As Jesus walked from Bethany to Jerusalem, he saw a fig tree. When he got to the fig tree, Jesus saw nothing but leaves—no figs at all. However, this was not unexpected because it was early spring. Normally in Israel one would not expect there to be figs on a fig tree until much later in June. [1]

Luke tells a similar story, but in his story a landlord has a fig tree that has not born any fruit for three years. He asks his vinedresser to cut down the tree, somewhat like Jim Williams offered to take out my azalea. The landlord’s vinedresser begs for some time to rehabilitate the tree, just as I tried to rehabilitate my azalea. In fact, the reason I did so was that I remembered the story from Luke! (Luke 13:6-9).

Jesus Enacts a Story.

What is going on? How are we to understand what Jesus is doing? To gain a better understanding, let’s begin with a look at the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, prophets and others often use the metaphor of Israel as God’s vineyard to describe God’s people. [2] imgres-4In Isaiah, for example, Israel is described as a vineyard that only bears bad fruit (Isaiah 5:2). God poses the question concerning what he is to do with this vineyard. God answers that he will take away its hedge and burn it to the ground, destroying everything (v. 3-6). By this, Isaiah is prophesying the destruction of Israel.

In the episode of the cleansing of the temple, Jesus speaks of the corruption of temple religion, which had strayed from God’s intention for his temple to be a place of prayer (Mark 11:15-19). Surrounding the episode of the cleansing of the temple is this story of the fig tree. There are many ways of looking at this story, but to me the best interpretation is to look at the fig tree as the Jewish religion of Jesus’ day. Not only has temple religion not born the fruit for which it was intended, but God’s people also have not born the fruit God intended.

Many scholars think that this story is what they call an “enacted parable.” In the Old Testament, prophets would sometimes enact a story. For example, when Jeremiah wanted to prophesy the enslavement of Israel by the Babylonians, one of the things he did was to wear an ox’s yoke (Jeremiah 27:2).imgres-5 When he wanted to prophesy the breaking up of the nation of Israel, he breaks a pot (Jeremiah 19:1-15). God asked the prophet Ezekiel to take a clay tablet, draw a picture of the temple on it, and then lay siege to his picture of the city (Ezekiel 4:1-8). There are other very good examples in the prophets.

In an enacted parable, the teacher not only tells the story, he or she acts it out. In this case, Jesus sees a fig tree. Perhaps he knows that this particular fig tree never bears fruit. We don’t know. In any case, he curses the fig tree, then goes and cleanses the temple, and on the next day the fig tree is dead. In fact, the Temple was destroyed for the final time a few years later in 70 A.D. In my view, this story is not primarily about a fig tree; it is about God’s judgment on Israel for not bearing the fruit it was intended to bear.

God’s People as God’s Fruit Trees.

What does all this have to do with people like us in the 21st century? Just like the Jews, we are God’s people. He has planted us, his fig tree, in his vineyard, our world, in my case in that part of the vineyard called Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee. We were not planted where we are planted as a decoration like my azalea. We were planted to bear fruit. It does not matter if we move away, because God still wants us to bear fruit. We have just been planted in another part of God’s vineyard, and it is there that we must bear fruit.

imgres-6The fruit God wants us to bear is the fruit of the Kingdom of God. God wants us to be a part of his mission to the world to preach the good news, to bring people to faith, to disciple them diligently, and in our own personal lives to bear the fruit that God intends his people to bear. He wants us to be wise, loving, kind, peaceable, generous, etc. He does not intend us to just do this on Sundays, but every day, in every way, in everything we do.

In John, on the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus says these famous words:

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples (John 15:5-8).

Earlier in this talk, he mentions that while he is the true vine, the Father is the gardener, and the gardener cuts off branches that do not bear fruit. Why? Because he planted the vine to bear fruit, which it is not doing. He also alerts us that even if we are bearing fruit, from time to time he prunes us so that we will bear even more fruit.

This has direct importance to us. First, God in his mercy has saved us and given us his Spirit so that we can bear fruit. If we do not bear fruit, we are not being the disciples God has called us to be. In fact, we are not being disciples at all! Second, although we have been saved by grace and not by works (Ephesians 2:9), God expects us to bear fruit both in our personal lives and in our ministry to those with whom we come into contact (Ephesians 2:10). From time to time when we are not bearing fruit, we are going to get pruned, whether we like it or not.

Bearing the Fruit of Faith.

God saved us to be fruitful both internally and externally. In other words, God expects us to change personally and to be a part of his mission to save others. First, God intends that our faith in Christ enable us to bear an internal fruit in the depths of our personality. In Galatians, he says:

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.imgres-7
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other
(Galatians 5:19-26).

Our Christian faith should result in letting go of the things in our personalities that are negative and replacing them with the Fruit of the Spirit. This does not happen magically, but spiritually as by grace we cooperate with God to put to death the negative and experience the positive of growing in Christ.

images-7Secondly, God intends us to bear fruit by reaching out to others in the name of Christ and sharing God’s love and God’s wisdom with them by the power of the Spirit. The Gospel of Mark, like all the Gospels, begins with Jesus coming to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God—the Good News that God loves us, died on a cross for us, rose from the dead for us, and desires to bring us and the entire world into his kingdom of wisdom and love (Mark 1:15). The Gospel of Mark, like all the gospels, ends with Jesus sending his disciples into the world to share this good news (Mark 16:15). The fruit Jesus wants us to bear is the fruit of a people who themselves are working to improve God’s lovely and potentially fruitful vineyard as a thing of wisdom, truth, love, and beauty.

Making the World A Better Place.

Every house we have owned, I have tried to improve and leave better than we found it. In particular, I have tried to leave the yard a bit better than I found it. In recent years, I have not worked in the yard as much as I wish, and I have not finished a few projects, especially in our back yard. Azalea-Flowers-Art-Print-White-Azaleas-Raindrops_artOne thing I hope to do soon is to fix some of the gardening issues in our back yard and do a bit more landscaping where it is needed. I don’t think God cares too much about this little project, but I am sure he appreciates it a little. How much more then, do you suppose God wishes we would leave our families, our neighborhoods, our city, and our church just a bit more fully representative of his Kingdom than we found it? In particular, I think, God wants us to grow in our own holiness and help others to experience the blessings of faith in Christ.

mother-holding-babyWhen Kathy and I went on our honeymoon, we had a great time. Kathy loves to go out, dance, and have fun. Surprisingly, about a week into our honeymoon all she wanted to do was sleep. When we got back, she still was very tired. When she went to the doctor, she discovered that we were having a baby. Why? Because love bears fruit. God wants us to bear spiritual fruit for his kingdom. That is why be planted us here.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] [1] James A. Brooks, “Mark” in The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1991), 181-183. Conservative commentators often try to explain that there were often pods on the fig trees this early in the spring, so perhaps Jesus noted that there were no such pods on this tree. Frankly, we cannot know if the tree deserved cursing. I suspect it must have. I think, however, that the reason the apostles remembered the incident is precisely because they did not undestand what Jesus was doing and it was a bit out of character.

[2] A vineyard is the most common symbol used for Israel in Scripture. God condemned Israel’s leaders because they “have destroyed my vineyard” (Jer. 12:10). In Psalm 80:8-16, Israel is “a vine out of Egypt” whom God brought out and planted in Palestine. In Jeremiah 2:21, God rebukes Israel in the same language he uses in Isaiah 5, “I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” See, (Downloaded March 4, 2015).