Monday, February 1, 2016

'Amen' digs below the surface

Subject: "Amen"
Target passage: Various
Date: Jan. 24, 2016

With the proliferation of social networking "share and type amen" memes, "amen" has continued as one of the most overused, misunderstood, and misapplied expressions in the English language.

If there ever was an official motto of the Church of Jesus Christ, this might be it. When we say "amen" is it a churchy word for "so be it?" Is it a way of saying "over and out" when you're finished praying? Is it a not-so-secret shibboleth to let other Christians within earshot know that they're not alone? Or is the foundation of "amen" a lesser-known but much more beautiful expression of unshakeable truth?

While the origins of Hebrew words are often obscure (the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, after all), we can determine that "amen" is related to the word for "firm." This is probably what "amen" means: firm, impermeable fact. I can almost imagine a group of nomadic hunters hailing from the tribe of Israel looking for a place to pitch a tent for the season -- neither too shifty and sandy nor too rocky and craggy. "AMEN!" might be the cue for the travelers to start hammering their stakes into the firm ground.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike are fond of the phrase, and it has found its way into many languages touched by these faiths. And it's said in various ways: "ah-men," "ay-men," "ayy-mayen" (yes, I'm a Texan!), "ah-meen" in the Middle East, and some groups have turned it into almost a mantra. If you speak Hebrew, you might even hear a subtle "h" at the front of the word.

Jesus, likely an Aramaic language speaker, used it many times. Here's an example (I'll use the King James Version for cultural familiarity's sake):
"For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled." --Matthew 5:18
"Verily" (or "truly," "truthfully," etc.) is actually "amen" in the New Testament Greek. Maybe that's because "For amen I say unto you" doesn't make much sense in English. (We can talk about "jot" and "tittle" later!)

Here's another example, in which Jesus turns up the frequency (again, in the King James):
"Verily, verily, I say unto you, The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead shall hear the voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live." --John 5:25.
That's "amen" twice. If you've ever read the Bible through, you know that when something is repeated you had better pay attention. Think of it as putting it in bold type. In other words, this is a saying that one can stake his life on (even eternal life, in this case).

We should never mistake "amen" as an expression of immobility, or refusal to change. As any nomad can tell you, ground conditions change from season to season and cycle to cycle. That's why Jesus said (returning to Matthew) ...
"And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me." --Matthew 10:38.
(For a little background on this "take the cross" phrase, see also the following verses: Matt. 16:24; Matt. 27:32; Mark 8:34; Mark 10:21; Luke 9:23,24; Luke 14:27; John 19:17).

The Crosswalkers take this very literally! Nice people, though.
Hearing that phrase "take up the cross" while growing up, I thought it was literally about picking up a Latin-style cross -- you know, the exact kind on top of the Christian flag or hanging on the wall of the church building somewhere. Then, I thought that meant "be proud of Jesus" and proclaim the crucifixion. Whatever shape the actual cross of Jesus was, we see that Simon of Cyrene literally carried Jesus' cross en route to Golgotha. The traditional teaching here is that Jesus foreshadowed his own death, and urged his disciples to attend to him even if it meant death. Simon either fulfilled the prophesy or did what Jesus advised metaphorically, as the usual teaching goes.

But here's another possible meaning, based on this lesson. The Greek word used for cross is "stauros," or stake.

A stake? You mean like with tents? The kinds that are hammered into the "amen" ground to hold the tent in place?  Yes, and Jesus gave his life for us on a very large one used by the Romans as a form of execution. Whether it had a horizontal crossbeam or not is a long debate, but you won't find many takers.

Before you label me as a heretic, perhaps -- and just throwing this out there -- Jesus was asking us to forego our own perceptions of truth (our traditions, our theology, our politics, our cultural values, etc.) and "pull up stakes" (or "take up the stake") to follow him wherever that may lead.

The rich young ruler was one example of someone who stayed put on what he thought was solid ground (his own possessions). There was also the man who wanted to wait until his father died before following Jesus as a disciple:
"And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God." -- Luke 9:62.
When you say "amen," regardless of how you say it, and no matter what your definition of the word may be, try thinking of that as staking your tent (e.g., your life, your beliefs, your identity) to the truth. Try saying it when a fellow Christian says something you agree with strongly. Try saying it after you come to a new understanding of God's truth. Try it while you pray, and not just after.

And when Jesus says to pull up your stake (or "take up the cross") to follow after him, do not worry and do not be sorrowful, but rejoice and RE-joice: Wherever it is, he will lead us to firmer ground.

* * *

And we sung a hymn: "As the Deer"

Note: This was the first Sunday we had the kids (ages 9, 7, 7, 4, and 2) stay for the teaching. We kept it rather short (not nearly as long as this blog post!), and they responded well with lots of questions. They understand "amen" better than we do, I found!

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