Chapter 28 "A New Path to Aliveness"

Scripture: Matthew 5: 17-48

Especially coming out of the recent General Conference choice of the Traditional Plan, this chapter seems especially powerful.  Jesus mapped a way that was not like the rebel, throwing off all constraints, nor like the traditionalist, simply holding to the law, the line in the sand. In his view, the traditionalist while holding to the letter of the law missed the real point - Him!  He was coming to fulfill all the law and the prophets.

In this chapter McLaren illustrates how Jesus wants us to fulfill the law, by what McLaren says is to extend tradition to its full potential. Then Jesus illustrates what he means, which he does with a series of statements: “You have heard it said...but I say to you.”  And therein begins to construct a new “way” for the people -- a way that was to take them far beneath the well-known command to the deep, heart-level desire of God for the people to begin to change the world. “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees,” he tells his listeners, “you will not enter the Kingdom of God.”  Jesus would be shocking his hearers with this statement, for in their minds, no one could ever “adhere to the law” like those groups!

As the listeners heard his contrasts of “you have heard, but I say,” what might have been going through their heads as Jesus unpacked violence, sexuality, marriage, oaths, revenge and finally love that is not just for those in our sphere of affection but for those hated outsiders?  McLaren unpacks a degree of this and asks how this might impact how we live with others around us.

For those in Jesus’ audience, they would have known that Jesus was encouraging them to break the law, to challenge the oppressors in their midst (the Romans) by doing good, by going the second mile.  The Roman soldier had strict oversight. The backhanded slap was allowed, but the fronthanded was not allowed. To “turn the other cheek” the offended would be inviting the soldier to break the law. The soldiers were allowed to force someone that first mile, but the second mile was not allowed, it was against the law, and might have the soldier begging the one who had carried the gear one mile to stop before he got in trouble.   Jesus is challenging people to live in such a way that upturns wrong authority not by evil but by going good.

Go to the heart.  Change from the inside.  And all that Jesus is writing falls back under the category also of his first sermon:  “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Here it is a turn away from simply obeying the letter of the law to obeying the deep, underlying intentions.  It was taking the law from drawing a “line in the sand” I’ll go this far and no further, to not drawing a line at all for anything would fall short of the intention of the kind of care for another demanded by loving your enemies, by turning from anger, by turning the other cheek.  

As McLaren wrote:  “For us today, as for the disciples on that Galilean hillside, this is our better option -- better than mere technical compliance to tradition, better than defiance of tradition.  This is our third way. God is out ahead of us, calling us forward -- … to fulfill the highest and best intent of tradition, to make the road by walking forward together” (p. 134-135).

McLaren invites us this week to “share a story of a time when someone knew you had done wrong but loved you anyway.”   

Immediately the small ball from Sprouse Ritz came to mind.  There I am standing by my dresser in my room and my mom is standing next to me and asking me the toughest question ever:  “Where did you get this ball? I was putting away your socks today, and discovered it.” She knew all the toys I had. She knew the limits on my spending money. She knew where I went.  She knew it all. I didn't have a way to weasel out. There was no creating some story. I knew my only option was the truth. The bare, honest, “oh no, I’ve been caught,” truth. I began to cry, for I was overwhelmed with the reality of what might follow, and said:

“When I was walking with Caroline (an older girl from church) in Sprouse Ritz, she dared me to take something from the store.  She took something and I took the ball. Then we snuck out. But then when I got it home I didn’t know what to do with it. You’d know that I didn’t own a ball like it, so couldn’t play with it, so I hid it in my drawer.”

She loved me for the truth.

And said the worst possible punishment I could ever have imagined.  “Bring the ball, Brian, for you and I are going for a little drive down to Sprouse Ritz and you are going to talk to Mr. Richland and tell him what you did and we will see what he would like to do as a consequence.  He may want to call the police to report you.” As she said this fear cascaded over me, I froze, sobbed more, begged for alternatives to this action, but was marched to the car and driven to the store and was walked in with her beside me.  Through my tears I handed the ball to Mr Richland and told him I was so sorry I had taken it without paying, and I would like to return it.

Mr Richland, who was this big, round, usually jolly man, looked gravely and seriously at me and said, “Brian, shoplifting is a crime, you know.  I could call the police and report you.” He paused. I died a 1000 deaths inside. “But since you have seen fit to be honest, to return the ball I am going to ask you to make me a promise that you will never steal anything from a store ever again. Not just this store, but any store in the future.”  

I nodded and said, “I promise.”  I imagine that he and my mom probably had communicated volumes over my head while I was dying from fear.  But through that experience of boundaries and love, I’ve never even desired to steal anything, no matter what the “Carolines” of the world have said.

What about you?  Do you have a story of love shown to you when you had done wrong?  Send in your story to or write it in a comment on our Facebook page, Westside UMC.      

Chapter 27 "A New Identity"

Scripture:  Matthew 5: 1-16

Imagining the scene, McLaren invites the reader to realize just how revolutionary Jesus’ words would have sounded and felt as he declared not a new religious movement, but a whole new way to looking at others and a new identity.  In a few seconds, Jesus turned “our normal status ladders and social pyramids upside down” (128). It is an abruptly different way of seeing life and others.

McLaren says that Jesus intends for us to “stand apart from the status quo, stand up for what matters, and to stand out as part of the solution rather than part of the problem” (129).  

I think this is great language.  In a few sentences Jesus has painted a picture of who we will “become” as we follow Him.  It is the opposite of what the disciples may have been expecting for Jesus, rather than using this moment in the sun to declare who He was, he instead declared who THEY were to become with him; indeed, He declared who they WERE, right then.  It must have been staggering to them and impossible. It was something new and incredible. This is what we are invited into with Jesus.

As you re-read this passage today, ponder. Share a story about someone who has impressed you with being the kind of salt and light Jesus spoke of.  Or share, how you respond to the reversal of status ladders and social pyramids described by Jesus’ words?

When I think of light, and a person being the light of the world I think of Jeanne Cochrane, a woman who was a member at the Banks Community UMC.  She has always seemed the same age to me although I have known her for 25 years. She was dear, sweet and precious then and still is now. She was a Sunday School teacher there when we arrived and all the girls longed to be in her class.  No one was like Jeanne, and she loved Jesus immensely. She was and still is a person of such glorious light. She shines, and yet has always named me and my family the “Shining Shimers.”  That’s just the kind of person she is.

Second Quarter Queries

Opportunities to answer with others or in your journal:

Here is the meaning I find in the stories of John the Baptist, the virgin birth, Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, the ancestor lists, the coming of the Magi, and Jesus in the temple at age 12…  

Here is why Jesus’ parables, miracles, and teaching about hell are important to me…  

Here is how I respond to Jesus’ care for the multitudes and Jesus’ attitudes toward Caesar…  

Here is my understanding of the Kingdom of God…  

I believe in Jesus. I have confidence in Jesus. Here is what that means to me…  

What does baptism mean to you?  If you have not been baptized, would you like to be?  

One thing I appreciate the most about the teaching about hell that Jesus gives, is the clarity with which he has dealt with a topic that had been kicked around through all kinds of belief systems.  He gives it clarity. There is judgment. And as we discussed 2/10 -- God is intent to get the hell out of people and the hell out of earth, as well. There is judgment because God is good, but God does not want anyone to choose the path of rejecting Him.  

On 2/10 we shared the CS Lewis quote from The Great Divorce:  “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, "Thy will be done," and those to whom God says, in the end, "Thy will be done." All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock, it is opened.”  I love that quote.  I love the character of God I meet within it.  

As I have dealt with many, many people who have been subjected to evil of all kinds, it helps immensely to know God will judge people who have lost touch with what it can mean to be human and have used their power for evil.  God will repay. We can count on that. Therefore, we need not carry their wrongs, but can forgive. God will take care of judgment.

Chapter 26 "Making It Real"

Scripture: Mark 2: 1-19; Hebrews 11: 1-10; 1 John 1:1-2:6

In this chapter McLaren walks us into Mark’s story of the paralytic being lowered on his mat through the roof by his friends to be brought to Jesus for healing. He does this as if we are one of the ones at the house that day.  

This is the only story where Jesus is said to have seen the “friends’ faith” and therefore healed the paralytic, after forgiving his sins.  This is one of those remarkable stories too -- for here Jesus underlines his authority, God-like authority, to forgive sins. Indeed in this passage the religious leaders are flummoxed by Jesus’ words saying that very thing, “Who but God has authority to forgive sins?”  The answer: Jesus. And the greater answer: the church -- you and me.

And all that authority begins with faith -- trust placed in Jesus.  The story McLaren tells here has this line, “With Jesus, faith is where it all begins.  When you believe, you make it real.” She continued, “‘You change this,’ -- she points to her head--’and this’-- she points to her heart-- ‘and you change all this.’ She gestures to indicate the whole world.”  

Faith is where we “make it real,” for certain.  How do you respond to that idea? How have you believed in Jesus in such a way or through some situation that it made “it real,” made “Jesus real” for you?  Would you like to share? Email and tell us your story.

Read the whole of Hebrews 11 this week, such a great chapter, the faith “hall of fame,” but actually, those are not the only names told therein, but every believer who has believed and run the race is there as well, yet untold.   

Chapter 25 "Jesus, Violence and Power"

Scripture:  Isaiah 42: 1-9; 53: 1-12; and Matthew 16: 13-17:9

Once Jesus took his disciples on two field trips, one right after the other.

The first was to a place called Caesarea Philippi, whom the son of Herod the Great, Herod Philip, had named after himself and the emperor, but previously, it was a place that had been a site of worship for the Canaanites, as a place to worship Baal, for the Greeks as the place to worship the god Pan, and then for the Romans as a place to worship Caesar, the “son of the gods,” the “lord.”  In this way, it marked a site of worship, with many statues to many deities. There Jesus took his disciples and asked what the people said of Him.

After a few responses, he narrowed his question to what the disciples said of Him and there, in this place of many gods, Peter declared that Jesus was “the Christ, the Messiah.”  This was not a religious statement, solely, but a political one. Peter thus was saying that Jesus was the true and anointed liberating king over and against Caesar. Not only that, but Peter said Jesus was “The Son of the Living God,” raising Jesus far above Caesar who claimed to be the son of the gods.  Saying Jesus is Lord was a political and revolutionary thing to say.

Immediately this revelation was called into question for the manner in which Jesus would fulfill it was at cross purposes with how Peter thought it ought to be fulfilled.  Only violence could overthrow the violence of Rome, would have been Peter’s logic. That’s what he thought the Messiah would do. But Jesus would demonstrate that violence cannot defeat violence, nor hate defeat hate, nor domination defeat domination.  God’s ways were different.

“God must achieve victory through defeat, glory through shame, strength through weakness, leadership through servanthood, and life through death” (p 119).  

The second field trip, less than a week later was to the top of a mountain with three of his disciples where they would experience, as Peter later wrote, “the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; listen to Him.’  We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain” (2 Peter 1: 17-18).

We are all a bit like Peter, McLaren observes, brilliant one minute and making fools of ourselves the next.  We understand Jesus with the right terminology, perhaps, but don’t always get his heart. But like Peter, we are still learning, and like him, “we also are on one big field trip with him that we are taking together.”

This new way inaugurated by Jesus -- a way to make a difference without violence, shunning power -- this is a way that is counter cultural. It is a new way.

McLaren invites us to share into this thought through these responses:

Share a story about a time when you were completely certain about something, and then you realized you were completely (or at least partly) wrong.  For me - that has been in relationship to an opinion I had about something in my wife, Karen’s, life.  I was so certain and dogmatic that I was write, yet I was sincerely wrong and it was painful for her and for me.  I have not always been the easiest person to live life with.

Look for situations this week when your initial reaction should be questioned, especially in relation to power dynamics.

Where in your life is your thinking out of alignment with God’s ways? What might Jesus tell you to shift or change?  

Chapter 24 "Jesus and Hell"

Scripture: Jonah 4: 1-11; Luke 16: 19-31; Matthew 25:31-40

This is a great chapter dealing with some possible developments in Jewish thought against which Jesus was teaching.  In many ways, as McLaren said, Jesus may not have been teaching about hell as much as he sought to “un-teach” the bad theology that was prevalent.  

McLaren illustrates the degree to which the Persian and Greek version of the afterlife had impacted Jewish thinking, after having been exposed to it for hundreds of years, so that by the time of Jesus the heaven-bound were easily identified.  “They were religiously knowledgeable and observant, socially respected, economically prosperous, and healthy in body...all signs of an upright life today that would be rewarded after death. The hell-bound were just as easily identified: uninformed about religious lore, careless about religious rules, socially suspect, economically poor, and physically sick or disabled...signs of a sinful and undisciplined life now that would be further punished later”  (112).

In the Gospels we see on display time and again the attitude of the religious leaders toward anyone sick, economically depressed or suffering, that that meant they were sinners, separated from God, etc.  

Jesus in his teaching and preaching reversed this.  The heaven-bound were the marginalized, the very people the religious elite despised, deprived, avoided, excluded and condemned.  The sinners, the sick, the outcasts, the nobodies were the ones invited to the heavenly banquet.  And those who were condemned by Jesus were the religious elite, the rich, the well off. These religious leaders were hell bound, who made their converts twice as fit for hell as they themselves were.  

For me, this thinking struck as accurate.  This does not mean heaven and hell don’t exist, not at all, but he exposes how teaching had been misused.  McLaren quoted how even the Pharisees in the era of the Zealots fighting against Rome in AD 67 used heaven as a promise for the warrior who fought and died in that holy war, similar to how this is used of the Muslim Jihad now, and how it was used for the Crusades of the 11th century.  McLaren ends saying how Jesus sought to wake people up from their complacent paths to warn them to return to the grace of God, in a similar way as the people of Nineveh turned back at the preaching of Jonah, so that, “Neither a big fish or a great big fire gets the last word, but rather God’s great big love and grace” (114).  Indeed Jesus was a “courageous, subversive and fascinating leader… pointing us to a radically different way of seeing god, life and being alive” (114).


Share a story about a time someone confronted you with a mistake or fault and you didn’t respond well?

How do you respond to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus?

Look for people like Lazarus in the parable and refuse to imitate the rich man in your response to them.

In my life I have experienced immense evil of the demonic type.  This type of evil, also experienced through people, has convinced me that evil is a real thing, personal, powerful and not something to trifle with.  Jesus’ language about hell, while turning popular belief on its head also is language that says, there is something to this that is yet true. I believe that there is punishment, a Day of Judgment as the Old and New Testaments teach.  I don’t know how long or what it is, exactly, nor how it works, but there is a means by which God will show recompense for gross evil -- the murder of innocents, the destruction of lives, the obliteration of hope, the annihilation of identity.  God will judge. “‘Vengeance is Mine,’ declares the Lord.” I think that we are too quick to judge others and throw them into hell in our thinking, just as the people of Jesus’ day. Truly if Jesus is the judge and King of such matters, only He can do so rightly. Then that leaves us with the action of God in the book of Jonah -- sending his prophet to pronounce judgement in order to assist the people with entering repentance and grace and the love of God.  Jonah hated this, as we sometimes do as well, but this is the character of God -- not wanting that any should perish but all come to repentance. So, for people, this is what God desires. And this is where we find our own calling to continue to preach and teach and call people to repentance and to meeting the Savior.

Chapter 23 "Jesus and the Multitudes"

Scripture: Ez 34: 1-31; Luke 5: 17-32; Luke 18: 15-19:9

Powerful chapter on how Jesus continued to focus his attention on those who were known to be at the bottom of human society, the masses, the multitudes, the underprivileged, the economically disadvantaged.  Whereas most people were focused (and still are focused) on getting to the top of this social ladder, of being part of the elite, the privileged, the renowned folk, Jesus put the spotlight on these whom most people forgot.  His heroes and heroines were the ones rejected, outcast, ignored, marginalized.

Once when Jesus’ disciples had gone into town to buy food outside a Samaritan city, Jesus remained behind and when the disciples returned they found him deep in spiritual and theological with a Samaritan woman and one with a “sketchy reputation at that.  The sight of Jesus and this woman talking respectfully was a triple shock to the disciples: men didn’t normally speak with women as peers. Jews didn’t normally associate with Samaritans, and “clean” people didn’t normally interact with those they considered morally stained” (p 107).  

To Jesus these people whom others maligned and ignored, mattered enough to stop, to heal, to hear, to care, to defend.  Jesus “proposed that basic human kindness and compassion are more absolute than religious rules and laws,” McLaren observes.  And he’s correct.

Jesus was the toughest on the Pharisees, a religious reform movement from His day, who were then seen as the moral backbone of society, but to Jesus they were among the elite, at the top of society, and missing the boat on what mattered.  His famous arguments with them are found throughout his teaching, and when choosing his disciples, he bypassed all of them, choosing an unlikely crew even including a hated member of society, a tax collector.

In the second century and beyond, the negative portrait of the Pharisees was applied to all Jews and became the root of antisemitism.  The judgmental and mean-spirited characteristics of the Pharisees are ugly anytime they are enacted by anyone else, in any other time. During WWII the heroes of that era were those Christians who stood up against the evil profiling of Jews as inhuman and as the enemy.  These believers sought to hide and save others, putting themselves at risk. In this they aligned with Jesus.

McLaren ends this chapter stating:  “To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to stand with the multitudes, even if doing so means being marginalized, criticized, and misunderstood right along with them” (p. 109).  Amen.

He asks to share a story about a time when you felt like one of the multitude, or when you behaved like one of the Pharisees.  

My response:  I feel like part of the elite always.  When I speak with someone without house or housing, when I give to someone begging along the street, I know, I am part of the privileged in society.  It is a top down relationship. The challenge is I was “born into this,” as others were born into poverty. Sometimes people escape the cycle of poverty, but oftentimes they do not.  My problem with being at the upper echelon of society is it feels “normal” and so I can live without being aware that that is where I am. I still have problems that feel large to me, but those are not about like issues related to housing or paying bills or the dissolution of relationships. Following Jesus for me as a member of the elite means I need to make concerted effort to connect with those who are marginalized. For me the church has helped me in this, for the church is an embrace of all people no matter where they might land in society.         

McLaren also asks, “How do you respond to the stories of Jesus engaging with ‘the multitudes’ and the Pharisees in this chapter?”  

You are invited to respond to either question either in comments or by emailing the office at  

Chapter 22 "Jesus the Teacher"

Scripture: Proverbs 3: 1-26; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Mark 4: 1-34

While many people would give varying answers to the question, “Who was Jesus?” -- the fact is that no one would dispute the truth that he was an incredible, challenging, truth-telling teacher.  McLaren in this chapter begins with a list of how diversely Jesus taught.

First, he taught through signs and wonders.  Healing blindness, curing mutes and lepers, calming storms Jesus demonstrated his authority, to the degree the disciples once turned to one another asking, “Who is this man? Even the winds and waves obey Him!”  

Second, he taught in public lectures both outdoors and in synagogue and home settings, utilizing all the natural environment had to offer for his illustrations.

Third, he taught at “surprising, unplanned, impromptu moments” (102).  You had to pay attention for any moment could become a teaching moment.

Fourth, he taught his disciples privately in what McLaren calls “retreats and field trips.”

Fifth, he taught in public demonstrations-- flipping the tables in the temple, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the boy’s lunch used to feed a multitude --and in each lessons lasted because of “how” Jesus taught.

Sixth, he taught in what were finely crafted works of short fiction called parables.

Throughout all of this teaching, McLaren notes rightly that one subject returns again and again as the main theme of Jesus’ teaching:  the Kingdom of God. Not as a top-down type, power-over system like the Roman Warmachine, no, this Kingdom was something far more intrinsic and universal. It was not and is not something for the future, but something that was and is near, at hand, even among and within the lives of his listeners, then, as within and among ours as well.

McLaren speaks about the contrast of this kingdom to the Power of Rome and the climaxing way in which Jesus demonstrated on the cross  “the revolutionary truth that God’s kingdom wins, not through shedding the blood of its enemies, but through gracious self-giving on behalf of its enemies.  He taught that God’s kingdom grows through apparent weakness rather than conquest. It expands through reconciliation rather than humiliation and intimidation.  It triumphs through a willingness to suffer rather than a readiness to inflict suffering” (p 103-4).

McLaren wrestles with what phrase might best capture the phrase Kingdom of God for our times, since we don’t live in kingdoms much now.  I still like that phrase best. He does point out that in John’s gospel, John replaces this phrase with his oft-used word “life.” For John a life lived to the full resonated with this kingdom of God.  Is it any wonder by God challenged us all to seek first this Kingdom and His righteousness in this life. Seek this first, seek His life, this Kingdom Life, for it surpasses anything else we could seek.  

McLaren invites us to share a story about one of the most important teachers in your life and what made him or her so significant.

For me, one of the most important was Mrs Atherton.  She was my US History teacher as a Junior in High School, and was the first person who made history come alive for me.  She told the stories of history with such a freedom and joy, and intentionality, that my own heart was caught in the narrative of history.  She was tough, insistent that we were in class, on time, and fully tuned in, but with the clarity of her demands she taught in such a way that we all wanted to be there.  In her class I learned to appreciate the US constitution, our government, our unique history, the wisdom behind the amendments and the checks and balances meant to be in our system of government.  But more than those data points, it was the stories she told us of the real men and women who had lived and died years before us that remained with me. Alongside of those stories were interwoven the stories of her own life, some of which I can still recount for they stuck.  

History best told is story and stories capture the mind and imagination of a people.  This has recently been demonstrated by the production of Hamilton the story of Alexander Hamilton done as a Broadway Musical, for which people are willing to pay a house mortgage to go experience.  It is a story told well, and has captured a following.

Who was a significant teacher for you?

Jesus’ arrival in this world brought forth the kingdom in a way prophesied by the Prophet Daniel.  This kingdom was that rock “cut out but not by human hands” (Daniel 2:44-45) against which no earthly kingdom could stand.  Jesus brought God’s kingdom crashing into this world, a kingdom ruled by love, and expressed through forgiveness. And there is nothing more powerful.  Lord, let your kingdom truly come. Amen, Come Lord Jesus.

Chapter 21 "Significant and Wonderful"

Scripture: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:15; John 2: 1-12; Mark 1:21-28

McLaren looks at the two “first” miracles as described in the Gospel of John and Mark.  As he looks at these occurrences he asks really good questions. Observing that many today seem to dismiss the idea that these miracles could have occurred, or that perhaps since we do not see some of these happening now, that they give us false hope, McLaren offers a unique thought.  Why not, instead of debating whether or not the stories themselves happened, we might rather allow the story to shake up our normal assumptions and inspire our imaginations? McLaren asks these great questions:

“Dare we believe that we could be set free?  Dare we trust that we could be restored to health?  Dare we have faith that such a miracle could happen to us-- today?”  (99).

Certainly there are all kinds of ways we can discuss the stories of scripture, but what a rich invitation to accept them as they are and seek to find ways that they might challenge us to live, think, act, or breathe into life differently.  As McLaren ends, “Faith still works wonders.” Indeed.

For you to consider:  How do you respond to the literary approach that looks for meaning in the miracle stories (without needing to prove they did or did not happen)? Can you apply it to some other miracle stories?  This would mean to look at a miracle and simply ask questions about what we might learn about the characters in the story by what they said and did and chose, and how those observations might then change or impact us in our lives.  

This is exactly how I approach all the stories of scripture when I lead people in discussion of bible stories both in church and in public.  It is so powerful to watch the Holy Spirit take a story and apply it to the heart and mind of a listener. A friend was doing this in a grocery store one day and walked up to a checker who wasn’t busy and asked if she could tell her a story.  The woman was open, so this friend, Andrea, told her a Bible story and began to engage her in a short time of discussion asking just a couple questions. This checker began to cry as the story found a place in her life, and told Andrea, “I had come to work today but was determined to make it my last day.  I was going to go home and kill myself tonight. But after this story, after this encounter, I have a hope that can only be the gift of this Holy Spirit you spoke of.” The woman met Jesus at her job that day. People are so hungry to hear some good news.

As you engage in the significant and wonderful gospel and experience and tell His story, what plans God has.

Chapter 20 "Join the Adventure"

Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4; Luke 4:1-30 and 5:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:1-9

McLaren walks through these passages highlighting how Jesus stood against temptations that often cause us to trip, and entered into his ministry empowered by the Holy Spirit demonstrated in healing miracles and deliverances.  

My favorite aspect of McLaren’s discussion centered around Jesus’ visit to Nazareth.  McLaren observes that Jesus had said, “‘Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’  And then wonders what else Jesus might have said. He could have said, ‘Someday this Scripture will be fulfilled,’ and “everyone would have felt it was a good, comforting sermon.  He could have said, ‘This Scripture is already fulfilled in some ways and not yet in others.’ And again, that would have been interesting and acceptable.” But either of those, observed McLaren “would postpone until the future any need for real change in his hearer’s lives.”  For what Jesus said required radical rethinking and radical adjustment. (McLaren, p 93).

What I love about his inquiry is that it takes us into the possible thinking of those people in Nazareth and helps us understand that when Jesus went on to illustrate that such a present-day fulfillment would mean a gospel that reaches everyone not just those like us, He was really stepping on toes.  

This speaks to us today, still, for in many ways, with all our talk we still are not very open to those unlike us, who dress, look, act, think, walk differently.  It is easier to say we are open to people being with us and walking with us, than it is to actually live that out. In Jesus’ hometown the crowd of people who knew him and loved him from when he was a kid, and had seen him grow up, went quickly from a congregation of well-wishers to a mob who sought to kill him.  

As people who are called to follow Jesus, we can be assured that people will treat us similarly at times.  They will not hear us, they will refuse the gospel we represent, they will want to throw us off the proverbial cliff because we bring a message that does not fit with their lives.  

Along this line, McLaren asked this in the question section:  “How do you respond to the idea that you can be captivated by the expectations of your loyal fans and intimidated by the threats of your hostile critics?”

Great question. How might you respond?

Both statements can be true, obviously. And what it is about the voices of retractors, those who are critical, that make them stick more than the positive affirmations?  Negatives can hit a deeper place and we can then begin to believe them. Like a friend told me this morning at the pool -- “When I get into a pit, those negative thoughts become all the truer, although they are still lies. And the pit is harder to get out of.”  

But Jesus didn’t seem to take the negative words in at all. It was as if he was impervious to the voices of the critics.  He didn’t let their opinions take anything from him, nor exert control over him. He had recently come from the wilderness and the testing and was full of the Holy Spirit, all of which sustained him and made it so he could simply “pass through the crowd” this mob intent on killing him.

This week, write the word “disciple” or “apprentice” in a prominent place to remind yourself of Jesus’ invitation to you to follow moment by moment throughout your week, even in the face of adversity.  

Chapter 19 "Jesus Coming of Age"

Scripture: 1 Kings 3: 1-28; Luke 2:39-3:14 and 3:21-22; 1 Timothy 4: 6-16

If you are not reading the book here is a brief summary of this chapter’s focus:

McLaren speaks of Jesus coming of age:  He entered the temple at 12, the only glimpse that we have of him as an adolescent.  Then again, as Jesus entered the waters of baptism under John’s ministry some 90 miles NE of Jerusalem.  John’s baptism was like a protest against the temple’s cleansing pools, and called people not to just a ceremonial washing, but a change of life.  

“According to John, the identity that mattered most wasn’t one you could inherit through tribe, nationality, or religion -- as descendants of Abraham, for example.  The identity that mattered most was one you created through your sharing your wealth, possessions, and food with those in need, by refusing to participate in the corruption so common in government and business, by treating others fairly and respectfully, and by not being driven by greed.  One word summarized John’s message: repent, which meant ‘rethink everything,’or ‘questions your assumptions,’ or ‘have a deep turnaround in your thinking and values’” (p. 88).

When Jesus arrived in John’s waters, John declared something different over him, saying he was indeed the “Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.”  Jesus was the “One promised” to come after John for whom John prepared the way. This announcement was followed by a visual of a dove coming down upon Jesus and the declaration of God from Heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  With this Jesus was launched into ministry.

McLaren notes the unique beauty of this declaration and visual of the dove, here was a man with a “dovelike spirit, a man with the gentleness of a lamb, a man of peace whose identity was rooted in this profound reality: God’s beloved son” (89).

This chapter is about identity, about baptism, about entering into life with our identity rooted in who God is not in who we claim to be, and more so, rooted in how we live not what we claim.  “What they (the people) needed most was ...a change in orientation, a change in heart,” wrote McLaren. That’s what we need the most as well. In order to live in this life we must have a change that is inside of us, that changes how we approach and see and experience this life.  

One of the experiences that most impacted me was experiencing baptism by immersion when I was a college student.  I participated in an on campus group associated with Campus Crusade for Christ and in that the leader taught us with great emphasis that infant baptism didn’t cut it. That teaching unsettled me.  Did my baptism as an infant not prepare me for my walk with Jesus? Was it really not enough? Was it not valid? The questions upset me enough, I went to speak to my pastor, then, Ehrhardt Lang. Ehrhardt was a wonderful man, son of German Missionaries to Japan, and had grown up in Japan.  He had a deep, loving heart, an ability to lead that unified the church, and a passion for Christ that didn’t ebb. I sat in his office and told him of the teaching, my dilemma, and desired his direction. It was the best direction possible. He spoke with me about baptism, how it is something that God makes valid, so my infant baptism was valid.  My faith made that baptism more effective for me, so believing and having gratitude for God’s work, was important. He then counseled me this, “Don’t be fretful about this. You can do it, or not. But I want you to be assured of this, if you go into the waters, it will be a renewal of what God has already done, it is less “rebaptism” as it is the reaffirmation of that baptism.  So you do as you feel God leading, and to discern this, ask, ‘Do I have great joy in this direction?’”

I had such joy, it was a Holy Spirit direction, and affirmed my baptism under the waters in front of that Baptist church at an evening service.  It was like that experience caused me to re-experience my infant baptism. I was being renewed and the Spirit moved in anew through that experience.  

How might you respond to this message?  What thought or idea intrigues, provokes, disturbs, or challenges, or encourages, or helps you?

Keep following Jesus…

Chapter 18 "Sharing Gifts"

Scripture: Psalm 117; Matthew 2: 1-12; Luke 2: 25-32

Pointing to the Magi, the Egyptians  and Simeon in these passages, McLaren points out the gifts they brought, the protection they offered, the praise he gave Jesus even while not leaving their own belief systems.  Not certain of this entirely, for I think the Magi and Simeon certainly showed a faithful turn toward Jesus, but I appreciate McLaren’s desire that instead of viewing all other people and their religious beliefs as competitors with us, or as unworthy of kindness or love, that we note that there is truth every place.  We can always look for truth. God’s truth is everywhere. Followers of Jesus only have the corner on truth to the degree they are actually relating to Jesus who is the Truth, personified.

We can always treat others with grace.  Since Jesus clearly is reaching out to Muslims around the world, Himself, through dreams, and there are many, many Muslim Background Believers, we cannot say that every religious system is equal. What Jesus offered was something very different.  God coming to people, instead of people striving for God. Unfortunately, many expressions of Christianity have created a very “person oriented” faith, as if we have to work hard to get God’s love, attention and mercy.  That is the reverse of what Jesus came to achieve.

One of the questions McLaren asks is this:  how do you respond to the idea that members of different religions can see one another as neighbors with whom to exchange gifts rather than as enemies or competitors?  

Amen.  Let’s not view others as enemies.  Ever. Instead let’s reach out, offer love, give of our lives and our substance to reach into the lives of others around us in order that Jesus can show up through us in those relationships.  McLaren says, “May we who follow Jesus discover the gifts of our tradition and share them generously, and may we joyfully receive the gifts that others bring us as well.” Yes.

I think that we tend to view others who have differing beliefs from us suspiciously.  Often because we know little about the other beliefs, we can be fearful. There’s a great story of a pastor in Peoria, IL who befriended a local Iman and Jewish Rabbi in his community and the three became great friends.  Their friendship made national news.  They shared honestly, loved willingly, while honoring the differences of belief they shared, while loving one another well.  It’s a story to embrace.

So often those who claim Christ do not model the love of Jesus in their relationships, so let’s do that, and do it well before we take up some argument.  People need Jesus and they can only meet Him if you put Him on display. And it is worth taking up the challenge McLaren offers: “This week, look for someone of another faith to spend time with. Get to know them. Learn about their tradition. Ask them what they value in their heritage and answer any questions they have for you” (85).  

Were we to do this-- what a difference it would make.  For I can promise, those around us of other faiths view you and me as if we believe whatever is the worst case story of “Christian” behavior around us. They believe that all Christians hate others, picket military funerals, or burn Korans, etc.  So, get curious about others and model something different for them to see.

And speaking of “sharing gifts” -- sign up for the Gifts and Talents Workshop and learn how God has gifted you to make a difference in this world and step into those gifts.  It will be great. Check out our website under “News,” or register at:

Chapter 17 "Surprising People"

Psalm 34: 1-18; Matthew 1: 1-17; Luke 2: 8-20

“How do you respond to this approach to the meaning of “Son of God”?

McLaren highlights several aspects of the surprising people mentioned in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospel and of how they tell of Jesus.  “Surprising People” since Matthew’s genealogy included women, gentiles even, unheard of in any Jewish genealogy, and Luke included shepherds in his story of Jesus’ birth! Matthew emphasized how gentiles are included in the story, with gentile Magi even coming to worship, showing a fulfillment of the call to Abraham, whom God had said would be a blessing to all people.

Luke also included a genealogy but for a different purpose. His followed Mary’s line, (find it in Luke 4) also in the line of David, and traced all the way back to Adam, the “Son of God.”  This title for Jesus as the son of Adam, the “Son of God,” “is in some way a new beginning for the human race -- a new genesis… Just as Adam bore the image of God as the original human, Jesus will now reflect the image of God.  We might say he is Adam 2.0” (p.76).

Both Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus, of his birth, of the start of his life. And both highlight within it people we might not expect to find there.  The inclusion of these surprising people, the women in Matthew’s genealogy, the unlettered shepherds, poor Simeon and Anna, the poor, the disenfranchised invites us to recognize how God actively is reaching out to such surprising people and often through them to us as well. The people in whom we would not expect perhaps to meet the Savior are the very ones in whom we meet Him.  

McLaren calls Jesus “Adam 2.0.”  As such, He is the start to a new life. We do not live based upon our own efforts, by keeping rules, by being careful to try super hard to be like Jesus in our lives. We do not live asking “What would Jesus do?” and trying to do it. I think of Boxer, the horse, in Orwell’s Animal Farm who again and again responds to the impossible demands around him with his worn out phrase:  “I will try harder.” This is what many make the walk with Christ -- a continual “I’ll pick myself up by my bootstraps” kind of litany, an effort to do better by working harder.

But we do not try to pound our round life into a square hole.  No, instead, this Adam 2.0 thought, this idea of Jesus beginning a NEW humanity, means that Jesus has come to fit us for this life.  He sets us free from that which we could not free ourselves. Jesus comes to bring that life into us. We do not try and try harder, but instead, are filled with the life of God, and that life moves through us. Jesus lives his life through us moment by moment -- as a pregnant mom’s life gives life to the child within her.  I do not align myself with Him, but rather, I receive Jesus and He aligns me with Himself. “You shall be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5:48),” is what Jesus does in me and in you. And that word translated “perfect” means complete, mature, reaching the point God intended. I don’t have to work to bear fruit, for when attached to Him, like a branch to an apple tree,  I find my life in Him and He bears fruit through me.

This reminder I found most compelling and encouraging in McLaren’s emphasis on the surprising people.  It is equally surprising that Jesus would life his life through me, as it is surprising when I encounter His life lived through someone in whom I least expect it.  I guess both Matthew and Luke readily would tell us to expect the unexpected with Jesus. It is He who brings life, so it ought not surprise us when we encounter that life through unlikely characters.  Also, perhaps in a good reminder, that life is not ever limited to the deserving, the privileged, but is for everyone, literally. Jesus came through a poor young Jewish woman, and was heralded by poor shepherds, and He was in the line of people that included gentile women and lowly characters to shout that he came for the likes of me, of you.  Such a good message.

McLaren invites us:  “This week, look for surprising people to whom you can show uncommon respect and unexpected kindness.”

Chapter 16 "Keep Herod in Christmas"

Jeremiah 32:31-35; Micah 5:2-5a; Matthew 1:18-2:15

McLaren presents the argument that we must “keep Herod in Christmas” for in Herod’s demonstration of violence, in his attempt to kill the threat to his rule, Jesus, Herod  behaved as many of us would have. There is no “us” vs “them” when we come down to it, for “ Herod, members of ‘us’ will behave no differently from ‘them,’ given the power and provocation” (p 72).  Wars will still occur and like this slaughter that occurred in Bethlehem, those wars will be fought by those much younger than those who planned them.

McLaren reminds us that what Herod commanded had also been commanded centuries earlier by another despotic ruler, Pharaoh, in Egypt, who commanded that all the baby boys be drowned in the river in order to prevent the Israelites from overthrowing their slave masters.  His attempt to protect himself from Israel failed as Moses was one of the boys spared. Moses later became a mighty leader, a type of Savior, of Israel, who led them out of slavery.

McLaren asks:  “Does God promote or demand violence?  Does God favor the sacrifice of children for the well-being of adults?  Is God best reflected in the image of powerful old men who send the young and vulnerable to die on their behalf?  Or is God best seen in the image of a helpless baby, identifying with the victims, sharing their vulnerability, full of fragile but limitless promise?” (p 73).   

We know how God answered those questions already by coming to earth as that child.  Until the violence against children ends in this world, McLaren said, this slaughter of the innocents must be kept in Christmas to remind us of the precious value of every life.  

Question to engage in:

“Share a time when you were a child and an adult other than a parent showed you great respect or kindness?”

When I was in 7th grade I needed a new start.  On my birthday, March 22nd, when I turned 13, my family moved from our house in the community of Turlock, to an almond ranch my dad had bought out in the country near a much smaller place called Denair.  This was not a long move, but it meant I had a choice to make. Did I want my mom to drive me back to Brown School for my continuation of Middle School, or would I like to change schools, leave friends behind and attend a small, country, one-room school just about a ¼ mile from our new house called “Gratton School.”  

My 7th grade year had been immensely difficult already.  I was flunking German and some other classes. I had spent the majority of that year either in a wheelchair or on crutches because of what I said was horrible pain in my heels.  I couldn’t walk, for that season, at all. It was a strain on my family. My brothers thought I was just seeking attention. I didn’t really think that was it, after all they couldn’t feel what I felt.  I received shots in my heels, my legs were put in casts, I was put into the wheelchair, I was put on crutches. All that year I had received special attention as a person handicapped. But the psychologist my parents sent me to was certain in his diagnosis:  “Brian cannot stand up to life.”

Truly, I think that was it.  So, one day, in February, my friend Ken had pushed me into our backyard, and my mom stood at the back door and said, with some exasperation,  “Brian, get up and walk in here.” And crying, complaining, I stood and staggered to the door. There was more to it, but I walked again and thereafter, quickly, recovered.

So, when it came time to decide whether or not I would change schools, I jumped at the chance. The 6th-8th class at Gratton School had about 20 students, and the 7th grade class only eight students when I joined.

Our teacher was Jack Harlan, and somehow he understood me.  I received special attention of a new variety. I competed against the super smart students in the class, like Bonnie Hubbard with her perfect handwriting.  Even when I lost in the Spelling Bee, failing to spell anxious correctly, that loss didn’t feel like defeat. My grades and attitude improved, in Mr Harlan’s class.  In a real sense, he was a man who reached into a river in which I was drowning, and pulled me out. He taught me to believe in myself, and, gave me hope where I had had none.  

He was an adult in a powerful position who rather than using it against me, used his power to rescue me.  I do not know what this was like to him. I do know what it did for me. He is a continual example of how one person can change the trajectory of another’s life.

Who might you name as such a person whose life made a difference in your own?  

Chapter 15 "Women on the Edge"

Scripture: Luke 1:5-55; Isaiah 7:14 and 9:2-7; Romans 12:1-2

In his chapter he encourages his readers to move beyond the questions in modern minds as to the possibility of an elderly pregnancy, like Elizabeth’s, or an immaculate conception, like Mary’s and ask what these events might mean to our own walks of faith.  

The facts of these events, truly, cannot be denied as the historical biographical evidence is solid.  There is more evidence for the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus, than for the fact that President Lincoln was shot in Ford Theater in 1865.  It’s solid historical fact. We can still struggle with it, be that as it may. And so as to meaning, even the people of John’s time and Jesus’ wondered what the events of those births might mean.  

McLaren says the virgin birth was not as much about bypassing sex “as about subverting violence.”  Truly, this child, Jesus, through Mary did come to subvert, to overthrow, to bring a shift into humanity that would change it forever.  

He was the new beginning of humanity. The 2nd Adam.  A new starting place. Even when Matthew pulls forward Isaiah’s prophecy, which was first fulfilled in Isaiah’s time, for it was delivered to King Ahaz, the unfaithful king, that was not to prove the virginity of Mary. That virginity was already proven for Matthew declared it more than once.  No, it was to show the kind of shift in power that would take place.

In Isaiah’s time, that shift meant that by the time the promised child was 3-4 years old, the current powerful kings would be overthrown, and by the time he turned 10, the threat would be removed completely.  This occurred exactly as predicted (see Isaiah 7, especially vs. 13-17; and 2 Kings 17). When an actual “virgin” was pregnant, not just a “young woman” as the original Hebrew could be translated, the evangelists recognized this prophecy of Isaiah applied again.  And then this child, Jesus, again would be overthrowing the power of Rome, and a greater power, the power of the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph 2:1-3) that of Satan, as he came to “destroy the devil’s works” (1 John 3) not in a violent overthrow, but as with a kingdom that grew because of God.  

The prophet Daniel  described this overthrow:  “In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people.  It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever. This is the meaning of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands -- a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces” (Daniel 2: 44-46).  

McLaren is correct that Mary saw this.  Mary, of whom it is said pondered God’s words in her heart, was on the lookout for the fulfillment of what God was doing in the world.  She was not just a pawn, but was a leader, a mighty woman, even as a young teen, who saw God moving to change the world. She was one who dared to believe in the God who could do the impossible, and who could use her, an unlikely vessel for this purpose.  

Indeed, as God used this young woman to birth life and hope and the impossible through her, so God yet desires to use you and me to do the same, to bring Jesus to others.  This is the great gift of this chapter -- a God who enters people to live through them, a God who frees us from what binds us to free us into what God has for us to do -- this is the God we serve.  

McLaren reminds us of all this in his brief chapter inviting us to grab ahold of hope and the God of the impossible for our lives as well, not to just meet some need in us, but to accomplish that impossible plan through us.  

I’m currently reading the book Thirst by Scott Harrison, the unlikely founder of the best known and easily most successful nonprofit ever seen.  Founded when Scott was 30, in 2006, this vision to change lives by providing water has so far impacted 8.4 million people.  Talk about impossible things made possible by God, and you see it in this man and his life and mission. He’s a remarkably ordinary guy who after wasting 10 years of his life doing everything he ought not to be doing, by his own account, running from God and life, Scott turned around and dedicated a tithe of those years, one full year, back to see what God might do.  In that year, that turned into two, God changed Scott’s heart and the result was the work for which Scott was created-- Charity:water. 8.4 million people are saying thank you. What plans does God have to work through you?