Creation from Nothing

It may seem like a paradox to think that God created the universe from nothing, as Christians contend. After all, where did all the matter and energy we’re made up of come from? Where was it before? It’s hard to wrap our minds around.

The Bible says that we were made in God’s image and as such, we are also creators. In fact, we create things from nothing all the time. Let me give you two examples.

black_dragon_attack_2

Copyright el-grimlock

In the picture above, there is a dragon. If I asked what the picture is made of, the answer would be different colored pixels on your screen, although originally it might have been graphite and ink. However, while the picture is made of pixels, the dragon and other things in the picture are not. They are made of muscle, bone, metal, etc., maybe even things we could never find in our own world, like mithril. The picture is in our world, but the things in the picture are not (probably for the best). The artist has created a window to a world that had not existed before, using pen and paper, or pixels on the computer to create an actual, flying, fire-breathing dragon out of nothing, which exists in its own world.

Another way to create is through language. Read the next sentence:

“The girl sat at the edge of the well and looked down into the swirling darkness, resisting the tug of its grasping tendrils on her legs.”

With this one sentence, we have a window into a world that did not exist before I wrote it. The sentence is made of words, but the world is not. The girl is flesh and blood, the well is made of stone (most likely). Where was this flesh and stone and other matter that makes up her world before I wrote the sentence? It was created from nothing as I wrote.

This might seem like a cop-out. It’s not real, you might say and while I would contend that it’s all real for that girl sitting by the well, it is true that all of these worlds that we create exist only within our minds. The difference between these and God creating the universe is that he has the power to make it real and also to set us free from himself. When I write a story, characters make their own decisions and have their own thoughts, but they cannot do anything I don’t want them to do. They don’t know I exist, but I am like a puppet master making them think and do the things they do. They cannot do anything unless I have them do it.

However, I believe God has given us  free will to do what he wants us to or to do our own thing. He has also given us the capacity to create things of our own, small craftsmen working away under the loving eye of the Master Craftsman himself.

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Finding God’s Perspective

This is the text of a sermon I gave at our church this past Sunday.

misty mountains2

The mountains near Jeonju, Korea. Copyright David Stewart

I came to Iowa for the first time about five years ago, when I had my job interview at the university here. Since then, my wife and I have lived in Iowa for almost five years and I’ve grown to love it here. There are a lot of great things about Iowa: friendly people, beautiful sunset, the ability to buy cheese curds practically everywhere. There are many wonderful things about Iowa but there is one thing it is missing that I cannot get used to, and that is mountains.

Before coming to Iowa, we lived in South Korea for nine years. As you may know, Korea is about 75% mountains and there is nowhere in the country you can go where you cannot see mountains. Jeonju, the city where we lived was bordered on two sides with mountains and there were two mountains higher than the others. Moaksan, the tallest one stood alone. That was the most famous one, the one that was a provincial park and that everyone knew about. The second tallest was called Goduksan. It was surrounded by lower peaks so that when you were down in the city, you couldn’t tell it was taller than the ones near it. Sometimes you couldn’t see it at all. However, if you went north of the city and climbed up into the mountains, looking across the city, there was no comparison. The two tallest mountains stood out clearly above the others. So what changed? Not the mountains or the city. The only thing that changed was me and my position. My perspective on them.

Unfortunately, as humans our perspective is necessarily limited by time and space, our senses and our powers of comprehension. We are like explorers in a jungle, seeing only what is right around us. Yet, even so, we know that this is not absolute truth. Only God can see things in perfect truth, as they truly are and the closer that we come to God’s perspective, the closer we come to seeing reality.

We’ll get there eventually, although not in this lifetime. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (NIV).

There are two times when I think that having a godly perspective is particularly important and when it can be especially difficult to. These are when things are going great and when they are going terribly.

When things are going right                

It is an interesting coincidence that from earth, the sun and moon look to be about the same size, so that during an eclipse, the moon can actually perfectly block out the sun. The ancients probably thought that they were the same size, but we know now that the sun is actually much larger than the moon. How much larger? If the sun was the width of Iowa, 300 miles across from Dubuque to Sioux City, the moon would stretch from the Fayette post office down to the car wash, a little more than half a mile. So why do they look the same size? The moon is so much closer to us than the sun. Anything can block out the sun if it’s close enough to us: a tree, our hand, even a coin.

In the same way, anything can come between us and God if we hold it close enough to us. We usually think about sin keeping us from God, and that’s definitely true, but anything can come between us and God. There are many good things in our lives that are blessings: our jobs, families, friends, hobbies, sports, etc. All of these things are inherently good things, things God has given us. The problem is only where we place them in our lives.

I know I have the temptation sometimes to just want comfort. My dream is to have a job I love, in a nice house with kids and go on interesting vacations and eat good food. To have friends. To have a good life. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this desire, and these are all good things, but we must remember that all this is temporary. The Earth is not our home; we’re just passing through.

Matthew 6:19-21 says, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (NIV).

One of the central characters in the New Testament is Paul. He has one of the best resumes for someone in that time. Not only was he was a Jew, meaning he was a member of God’s chosen people, but he was born a Jew and was the child of Jews. He was also a Pharisee, one of the religious elite and on top of all that, he was a Roman citizen. This was huge in the time when Rome ruled all the lands around Israel and it gave Paul a lot of privileges that other Jews did not have.

Nevertheless, this is what Paul says of all this: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him” (Philippians 3:7-9, NIV).

Think about that. In comparison with what he found in Jesus, all the honors and accolades that he had received were like garbage. Those are strong words, like comparing a Nobel Prize to a 3rd grade participation ribbon in your least favorite sport. He didn’t say they were garbage, but in comparison, they might as well be. That is keeping things in God’s perspective.

When things are going wrong

One of the worst days possible was recorded in the Old Testament in Job 1. At the beginning of the chapter, Job has everything a person back then could want. He had huge herds of animals, which equated wealth, he had trading caravans to get more wealth, he had many children who got along and hung out together. But then at the end of the chapter, all that is wiped out. What’s more, a while later, he is stricken with boils, meaning even his health is taken away.

The book of Job is mostly a conversation between Job and his friends where they say he must have something bad to deserve this and Job insisting he doesn’t deserve it and demanding God tell him if he did anything to deserve this

God finally responds at the end of the book in an epic couple of chapters calling out Job. As an example, in Job 38:4-5, God says, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it?”

What God is very bluntly saying is that there is no way that Job can understand everything that’s going on from his very limited perspective compared to the perspective of God, who set the whole universe in motion. He is the only one who sees the whole picture.

Job’s friends were arguing that if something that bad happened to Job, he must have done something very bad to deserve it. That is the idea of karma: you do good and good happens to you, and vice versa. This is sometimes the case, but the world does not always have such a neat cause and effect relationship. Instead, there is a fact that we all know but don’t always like to acknowledge: life is not fair.

Personally, I don’t think every bad thing that happens is part of God’s plan. God can use anything that happens, he is always with us and always loves us, and nothing can throw him for a loop. However, the world is a broken, chaotic, messy place, and I don’t believe he nurtures every cancer cell and guides every tornado on its path. Sometimes bad things just happen because of the world we live in. At least that’s what I believe.

We all know examples of terrible things that have happened to wonderful people who did not at all deserve what they got and it’s easy to be angry at God and question why these things happen. Not I, nor any other person can know why bad things happen to good people, but what I know is that there is more to existence than our mortal lives and in time, justice will be done.

Revelation 21:4 says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (NIV).

Living in this life is like watching half an action movie. We watch up the point where the hero is captured, everyone hates him, and the villain is winning. We might be tempted to pound the table and shout, “It’s not fair! This is a terrible movie!” But God says, “Just wait. It isn’t over. Watch until the end.”

Just as it is hard to imagine the actual size of the sun compared to the moon, there is no way to comprehend God’s perspective of events compared to our own. All of human history is merely the first letter of the first word on the first page of the story God that sees (or more likely, one buried deep inside the book.) This life is important; it matters, but it’s not everything by a long shot.

In Conclusion

So how do we keep a right perspective, God’s perspective, on things? We should enjoy the good things in life and through God’s grace endure the bad things that happen. We can’t ignore them and shouldn’t, but they can’t be our focus.

There is a great hymn whose chorus goes:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Look full in His wonderful face
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace

If we keep our eyes on Jesus, he will lead us deeper into his Truth, through both good and bad.

Culture and Christianity

Earth in hands

Source: TCA

Culture is like water to a fish: it is all around us but because it is so pervasive, it is often difficult to analyze. Culture is involved in every aspect of life, including religion. There are some religions that might be identified with one culture, but Christianity is a global religion, so it takes on a different flavor with every culture.

I have lived in three countries in my life: Canada, the United States, and South Korea. Canada is my home country and the one where I grew up, so I see the United States and Korea as my adopted countries. There are aspects of the cultures of each that I have seen in Christianity in those countries, aspects that the people there probably don’t even consider since it’s part of their culture. Some things I like, some things I don’t like. For each, it stems from some part of their culture that they consider important.

The United States: Patriotism

Not only are Americans quite patriotic, but American Christians closely link their patriotism with their faith. They’re not the only country to do this, but it is a very strong trend here. Do a Google search for “God and country” and you will find thousands of images of the Bible or a cross with an American flag. For American Christians, being a Christian is part of what it means to be a good American. They see America as a Christian country. There is an American flag in every church.

I think everyone should be patriotic towards their country, and I am very patriotic towards Canada. However, I have never felt a connection between my love of country and my love of God and in my experience, this is not a thing for Christians in other countries. I have always been uncomfortable with having a national flag in church. I understand where Americans are coming from, but here is my thinking:

As Christians, we belong to a group of people with ties that supersede national ties. Nations often go to war, making the people of those countries enemies, but Christians should never enemies of each other, even when they must act like it (for instance, the Christians on both sides in multiple European wars.) In my mind, the church is a place beyond nation and free of nationality, just as it is free of political systems and economic systems. There are Christians in other countries that do not like the United States, just as Americans might not like their country. But in the end, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ.

South Korea: Confucianism

Confucianism is a system of values and ethics, and not necessarily a religion. It is a way of promoting social harmony through strict hierarchy, so that everyone knows where they belong in a group. For example, in a family the father is at the top, then the mother and then the children. Titles are very important and honoring people who deserve respect.

In Korea, this system permeates every aspect of the culture from the grammar of the language on up. Christianity is very big widespread in Korea and the Confucianist aspects of the culture are present in the church as much as anywhere else in society.

On the positive side, the Korean church gets everyone involved. Even as a non-Korean, I was assigned to a small group in the church after only coming a short time. Each group was assigned tasks on a rotating basis, such as preparing lunch after church. Korean society is very communal and includes everyone.

On the negative side, from my perspective, the Korean church is very stratified with many different levels of deacons and pastors. The head pastor is like the father of the church and has much more power than a pastor in a Western church. Korean Christians generally can’t say no to the pastor and if he wants you, for example, to go to 5:00 am prayer meeting, then you have to. One stark example of this difference in culture was when I was in Korea and on a trip with a busload of people from the church. The bus had a karaoke system and the Korean deacon wanted people to sing. No one really wanted to, so he started choosing people. The Koreans he chose did it, reluctantly. The non-Koreans he asked simply refused. Korean Christians emphasize submitting to authority while Western Christians emphasize freedom in Christ.

In conclusion

Every culture has good and bad aspects of it although value judgments are subjective. After all, each of us can only evaluate culture through the lens of our own cultural upbringing. The points I bring up here might be handled very differently by someone from another culture and what I think is positive, they might think is negative and vice versa. What is important to remember when approaching cultural differences in Christianity is that while cultural differences cannot be avoided, they are not what is most important. It is very easy to concentrate on what is different since that is often what is most obvious, but the similarities are what are most important and what binds us all together in the end.

 

Waiting on the Lord

I don’t suppose anyone really likes waiting. It’s bad enough waiting for Christmas to come, or the end of the school year. It’s even worse when we don’t how long we will be waiting. I lost my job a few months ago and although I have kept busy with writing, looking for jobs, and other things, there is a feeling that life is on hold since unemployment in our society for someone my age is an unnatural state.

One problem is with our perspective. When we wait, it looks like nothing is happening, but that is not the case. Things are happening, being prepared behind the scenes, although they are invisible to us.

It’s a bit like when the computer lags and the small wheel starts spinning. It’s an aggravating situation, especially if it’s frequent, but the fact is that it’s not like nothing is happening. The computer is running and preparing to carry out the command that we put in. Sometimes we don’t need to wait long, or at all. Sometimes we do.

The one good thing about waiting is that we are forced to trust that God is working and every time that we wait and God comes through for us, it is an opportunity for our faith to increase, even if it’s not easy.

The other good thing about waiting is it can be a time out from other things. I once had surgery on my knee and was in the hospital for a week. I had nothing to do but wait to be released, but in that time, I had time to rest and read and do other things I wouldn’t have had time to do had I not been stuck there, waiting.

Paul says in Philippians 4:12b, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (NIV). In the same way, it is a great thing when we can be content whether waiting or charging full steam ahead.

Could God Create a Rock Too Heavy to Lift?

This is a paradox that I’ve heard my whole life. It’s supposed to show the flaw in the idea of an omnipotent being. After all, how could an all-powerful God create a situation where he wasn’t all-powerful, but on the other hand, how could he not?

I don’t believe there are any true paradoxes in the world, although there are many apparent ones. There is always some piece of information that is the key to solving the paradox. It might be a problem of language setting up a paradoxical situation, or it might be some information or perspective that we are not taking into account.

So, can God create a rock too heavy for him to lift?

Simply put, no, he can’t.

“Ah ha!” yells the skeptic. “God can’t be omnipotent after all.”

The problem with this paradox is the starting assumption: specifically, is God part of the universe? Christians believe that God is not part of the physical universe but is outside of it, which means that, at least figuratively, he can hold the whole universe in his hands. A rock, or anything physical, is necessarily inside the universe and so cannot be greater than the entirety of the universe, something that God can contain anyway.

Let me put it another way that’s less abstract. I like to play Minecraft on my laptop. In the game, I build lots of things, including huge structures and buildings. However, it would be absurd to ask if I could build anything in Minecraft that I, the player, couldn’t lift. After all, Minecraft or any computer game is in a virtual world contained within a computer. I can lift my computer, so I can always lift anything in the game, even though the size of a Minecraft world is seven times larger than the surface of Earth.

Of course, someone could ask if God could create something outside our universe that he couldn’t lift, but there is no way to even comment on what things could be like outside our universe. Christians believe that outside (or adjacent to) the physical realm is the spiritual realm, but discussions of the (meta)physics of a spiritual boulder are a little too speculative, even for this blog.

 

Should We Do What the Bible Says?

I’ll admit, that’s a pretty clickbaity title, but bear with me. First of all, what is the point of the Bible? If you asked a Christian, they would probably say something like, “to learn about God and how to live a Christian life.” Probably other things too, it’s a big book.

And that’s the problem: the Bible is a very big, very complex book (66 of them, actually). There is history, Jewish law, poetry, prophesies, letters to people, and more. The Bible also has a lot of R-rated sections, more than even most Christians realize sometimes. One thing I have seen when people attack Christians and the Bible specifically is that they point to a particularly gruesome section and say, “Wow, this is your moral compass?” They also make the charge of hypocrisy since we have a holy book with all these terrible things in it that we don’t actually believe we should do. An example of this might be Judges 11, where the judge Jephthah makes an idiotic vow that if God helps him defeat the Ammonites, Jephthah will sacrifice the first thing that comes out of his house to meet him when he gets home. What did he think was going to happen? Anyway, it turns out it’s his daughter. He’s trapped by his vow and so he sacrifices her, something neither he, nor God, nor anyone wanted him to do.

That’s a horrific story, but here is where it is important to divide the Bible into two areas: descriptive and prescriptive. Simply put, descriptive means “this happened” and prescriptive means “you should do this.” The majority of the Bible is description, and we know this intuitively. Otherwise, all Christians would build an ark, build a wall around Jerusalem, go on a missionary journey around Turkey and Greece, and so on.

The problem is deciding which parts are which. Here are some principles I think we can use:

  1. The characters in the Bible are flawed people

The Bible is pretty clear about what is good to do and what isn’t and yet it is also brutally honest about the people in it, even the people we might call heroes of the faith. There are only a few people in it that are covered universally positively and none of these (except Jesus, of course) takes up more than a few verses. Critics of the Bible might point to, say, Abraham (who pretended his wife was his sister because he was afraid for his life), and wonder how we could see him as any sort of an example of how to live. First of all, no one said anyone in the Bible except Jesus is perfect and no one said we should emulate everything they do. Also, that is precisely the point of Christianity, that God uses us despite our flaws and sins. We don’t have to be perfect to be used by God, just willing to trust him and be used by him.

  1. Christians are not bound by the Old Testament law

The Jewish law (usually considered the first five books of the Bible), which is the majority of the you-should-do-this portion of the Old Testament, is just that: it’s the Jewish law, and so it is not something that Christians have to follow.

“Wait, what about the Ten Commandments?” you’re probably saying, if you’re still reading after that last paragraph. Clearly, we need to follow those. Yes and no, in my opinion. We can’t just forget them, but in the Gospels Jesus  reveals the principles behind the commandments that we need to follow.

A lot of Christians probably routinely break the 4th commandment by doing some sort of work on Saturday (or Sunday), but the point behind the commandment is to rest and make time for God and for things besides work. On the other hand, some of the principles are much harder than the commandments: not only is adultery a sin, but also lustful thoughts; not only is murder bad, but also murderous hate for someone (Matthew 5:21-22, 27).

There is obviously value in the Old Testament, which is why it’s there, but it’s not a rule book for Christians to follow. If you disagree, let me know in the comments.

  1. You have to take verses in the context of the whole Bible

It is very easy to cherry pick verses of the Bible to make a case for one thing or another—so easy, in fact, that people have been doing it since the Bible was a thing, I’m sure. We must remember that the Bible was written to specific groups of people in specific cultures for specific purposes. There are universals in the Bible, but also a lot of things that are cultural for that time.

For example, in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (NIV). It seems pretty clear that Paul doesn’t approve of women teachers and pastors, but I think if you look at the New Testament as a whole, you can see that this is not a universal of the Christian faith, but a cultural point specific to that time and even then, possibly just Paul’s opinion.

At this point, critics could make the charge that we are just revising parts of the Bible that aren’t socially acceptable anymore, to which I would respond: yes, exactly. The central tenets of Christianity do not—and cannot—change: specifically “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Luke 10: 27, NIV). That is what we should do and that should never change. How we carry out a lot of the aspects of the religion we call Christianity do change with time and culture.

In conclusion, the Bible has a lot of purposes and Christians are not claiming that every verse is something that we should do. Clearly, we should each study the Bible to see what it really says. There is, of course, a lot of debate on what parts of the Bible Christians today should follow, but this is my take on things. What do you think?

I Walked with Jesus

I debated where to put this post, either on my fiction blog or my Christianity/religion blog since it kind of goes on either. When I read the Bible, I’m struck by the interesting details it decides to put in, or leave out. For instance, Exodus tells us the names of three Israelite midwives, but not the name of the Pharaoh. There are a lot of stories hinted at behind the text. This is a piece of speculative fiction that guesses at what might have taken place behind the scenes of one of the most famous events of the Bible.

I Walked with Jesus

I was shaken awake to the worst day of my life. The room was still dark and for a moment, I wasn’t sure where I was. Then I remembered I was in Matthias’s house, and it was he that was shaking me.

“Cleopas, get up. They’ve arrested the Master.”

A stab of fear went through me. This is what I had been dreading for some time. Everyone knew the chief priests and Levites had it out for him.

“When was it?” I asked.

“Sometime last night,” Matthias said. “He was with the Twelve in a garden in the mountains when they took him.”

“How?” I was on my feet now, groping for my cloak in the semi-dark.

Matthias pushed the door open farther and the dawn light filtered in. When he spoke, his voice was low and troubled. “They say that the Iscariot betrayed him to the Romans and the priests.”

No, that wasn’t possible. I knew Judas Iscariot. He never would have done that. In our travels with the Master, I was one of the ones that went ahead to make arrangement for food and lodgings. Judas carried the money and he would give me some to pay for things. We talked often, and he hated the Romans. He was devoted to the Master.

There were six of us staying at Matthias’s house for Passover, and we pushed our way through the crowded streets to the temple where we thought we would might find out news. That was the wrong move, and we ended up in a crowd of tens of thousands. Finally, we saw another of the Master’s followers who said he was at the governor’s palace. That was a bad sign. We made our way there, arriving an hour later to hear the terrible news: our Master, Jesus of Nazareth, had been sentenced to death by crucifixion.

My despair was only rivaled by my fury at the Twelve. How could they let this happen? I had loaned my sword—the sword my father had given me—to Peter specifically for this purpose, to keep the Master safe. Peter was one who kept saying he would die for the Master, but from what I heard, Peter was alive somewhere and the Master was about to die.

Crucifixions were are held in the same place, a hill overlooking the city called the Skull. My grandfather said that before the Romans came, the Skull had been a vineyard. Now the trees there held an entirely different sort of fruit. I avoided that area, but others said that sometimes the bodies on the crosses stayed up there until the birds had had their feast and the bones fell to be gnawed by wild dogs. All I could think as we pushed through the Passover crowds was that this would not have happened if I had been there, been one of the Twelve. I would have died protecting him.

As soon as we made it through the Gennath Gate, I could see the three crosses starkly against the morning sky. There was no way to tell which one was him. Even close up it was hard to tell. All three men were naked and had been beaten, but the one in the middle was the worst off. He seemed to be bathed in blood. Then I noticed the placard on the cross above him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. It seemed like mockery.

Matthias had collapsed beside me, weeping and tearing his clothes. I spotted a few of the Twelve as well as other followers. Peter was nowhere to be seen, I noticed bitterly. I wished I could show how I felt, like Matthias, but no tears came. Instead, with my soul wailing, I turned and stumbled back into the city.

I spent the rest of the day wandering like a ghost through the holiday crowds. About mid afternoon, the sky darkened and a wind picked up. I felt the earth shake and people around me cried out. It was as if the earth itself was mourning.

I stayed alone and isolated with my thoughts. What was I supposed to do now? I had been destined to take over my father’s pottery business but when Jesus came through our town and everyone went out to listen to him, I realized that this was the first time I had felt hope for Israel. Sure, lots of other wandering preachers came through, but most of them spoke only about military victories over the Romans and vengeance on the Jewish collaborators and tax collectors. Jesus was the first one whose words rang true for me.

So I left, carrying my father’s wrath and curses on my back. I was never one of the Twelve, that special inner circle that surrounded him at all times, but I was one of the outer circle, the seventy-two. Jesus sent us out once to spread the good news. I was paired up with a man from Caesarea named Antonio. He was Roman and didn’t know Aramaic very well, so I had to do most of the talking. I was scared stiff, but I did it, for Jesus. We prayed for people and they got better. Demons left people. It was amazing.

As I came back from that spiritual high, I found that my father had died. The family had disowned me, and my cousin had taken over the pottery business. Jesus was all I had after that.

I returned to Matthias’s house that evening to hear that the Master was dead and they had found Judas. He had hanged himself, which meant he must have betrayed Jesus. I was sick with grief.

We stayed around for another day. Some of the others in the house got in contact with the Twelve, or Eleven now. For myself, I didn’t want anything more to do with them. In my mind, they had all betrayed the Master just as much as Judas. Why did he pick the unworthy ones for his inner circle? The thought spun in my head like a whirlpool. Matthias and Justus and I and all the others here would have stuck by him. We would have protected him.

“I guess that’s it,” I said, as we sat around a cold dinner, munching on stale flatbread. “I should go home. Maybe my cousin needs an assistant to prepare the clay.”

My hometown was a village on the coast, not far from Joppa. Justus was going home too and since he lived about seven miles from Jerusalem along the road I would take, in a small town called Emmaus, we decided to go together.

We said we would get an early start, but neither of us was eager to get home, so it was late afternoon before we started off. I decided to spend the night at Justus’s house and then make the rest of the journey the next day.

All roads leading out of Jerusalem were filled with pilgrims returning to their own towns, but the atmosphere seemed more somber than normal for holiday travelers. Justus and I were talking about the last week, pondering yet again if there was anything we could have done, when I noticed a man walking near us, listening. He was all alone and was not carrying any supplies or bags like a normal pilgrim.

“What are you talking about?” he asked.

Surely, he had heard our conversation. “You must be the only pilgrim who hasn’t heard what just happened in the city,” I said.

“What happened?” he asked. This man must have gone to his relatives’ house and just stayed inside for the whole Passover.

“Jesus of Nazareth was executed,” Justus said. “He’s been traveling all over the country for the last few years. You must have heard of him.” We started telling more and as we did, everything just poured out, the hope we had had that was now crushed into oblivion like an ill-formed vessel on the potter’s wheel. It felt good to tell someone else what had bounced back and forth between us for days.

The man listened patiently, but I sensed he didn’t understand the tragedy of what had happened. “Don’t you see?” I said at last. “We thought he was the Messiah. He said he was. And then he died.”

The man smiled. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. “Of course the Messiah had to suffer and die before he could ascend into glory. Don’t you believe what the prophets said about him?”

“Of course we do,” Justus said, although it was obvious he didn’t know where the man was going with this. I didn’t either.

“Let me explain it,” the man said. “Do you remember reading about when our ancestors were in the desert? God sent a plague on them, and Moses made a bronze serpent to save them.”

He went on and on, from Moses to David to Isaiah and the other prophets, pointing out all the places where the Scriptures had talked about the Messiah. There was something so familiar in the way he spoke and he was a clearly a scholar of the law. I tried to think if I had seen him in the temple or one of the local synagogues. He would have gotten along well with the Master.

Before we knew it, the sun was low on the horizon and the outer fields of Emmaus were visible. We reached the street that led to Justus’s house.

“Come have dinner with us,” Justus said.

“I have a long way to go,” the man said. “Many places to go and many people to see, I’m afraid.”

“It’s almost dark,” I said. “You have to come eat with us and stay the night.” I was also secretly hoping that I could walk with him the next day. For whatever reason, this man made me feel for the first time since I saw the Master nailed to the cross that there might be some hope left in the world.

“Okay,” the man said and nodded. “I’ll come eat with you.”

Justus led the way to the house. His parents and sister’s family were there, and they all greeted him warmly with hugs and kisses all around. I thought with some trepidation what my own homecoming would look like the next day. The stranger and I stood to the side until Justus’s father came over and welcomed us in and seated us at the table. He put the stranger at the head of the table.

“Thank you for inviting me here,” the man said when we had all gathered to eat. He picked up a piece of bread and looked up briefly. “And thank you, Father.” He pulled it apart and began passing out pieces. It was what the Master did before every meal, every gesture and word the same and then I knew. Somehow, impossibly, this was the Master, alive. My eyes met Justus’s and I saw he knew too.

“It’s you!” I cried. The Master smiled and nodded. The next moment, he was gone.

There was an uproar around the table, the children yelling in surprise and shock.

“He’s alive!” I said to Justus, and I saw he had the same thought. “We have to tell the others.”

Ten minutes later, we were hurrying out of Emmaus, clutching a handful of bread and olives that Justus’s mother had insisted on us taking if we were going to skip dinner. The trip we made back took much less time than on the way to Emmaus, but we were exhausted when we returned. We followed the walls around to the Sheep Gate and were admitted through the night gate.

Luckily, Justus knew where the Eleven were staying. We banged on the door for a few minutes until James came out to open it.

“It’s Justus and Cleopas!” we shouted. “Let us in. We have good news.”

We waited until we were in the room with all Eleven. “We saw him, the Master,” I said. “He’s alive.”

A few laughed, a sound of pure joy. “We know!” they said. “Peter saw him too.”

Peter. I glanced over at him. Why did he deserve to see the Master again? I was about to confront him and demand my sword back when Jesus appeared in the middle of us. Everyone stopped talking. Even after walking with him for hours, I was shocked into silence. Some of the others looked terrified.

“Don’t worry, it’s me,” Jesus said. He held out his hand to Nathaniel, who was closest. “See, I’m real. I’m not a ghost.” Nathaniel took his hand and for the first time, I noticed the hole where the nail had been driven in.

The others crowded around him after that. I turned and saw that Peter was hanging back. He looked stricken and ashamed. Jesus was talking to the others and did not even look over. I suddenly felt bad for Peter, the one who had always been right at the Master’s side, always first in everything.

“I’m sorry,” I said to Peter. He turned to me. “For what?”

I hugged him. “For everything in the last few days.” He didn’t look like he understood, but he nodded.

I stayed in Jerusalem for a few weeks after that. Jesus would appear to us now and then, but he didn’t go out and preach openly anymore. A week after Passover, Peter and the other Galilean fishermen left to go back home. I thought that was it, but they showed up a few days later, talking about how Jesus had appeared to them and about a huge catch of fish they had gotten. Peter seemed more himself again, and I gathered he had made things right with the Master.

Then the day came when Jesus appeared to us and told us to be ready the next morning. He met us while it was still dark and we walked together out of the city. He took the road towards Bethany, and I wondered if he was going to start traveling and preaching again, as if nothing had happened.

I found myself walking next to him. It was the first time since that walk to Emmaus that I had had time to talk to him alone.

“Why didn’t you tell us it was you, when we were walking to Emmaus?” I asked him. “Why keep it from us?”

“I told you it was me with every word I spoke to you,” he said. “Your eyes were just too clouded with grief to see. You saw, in time.” He was right, of course.

We left the road just before we got to Bethany and climbed up a hill. There, with the morning sun breaking through the clouds in the east and dew sparkling on every grass blade and leaf, he said good-bye to us. I didn’t want to see him go, just as he had come back to us. He hugged each of us.

“Keep up the good work,” he said to me and I nodded, tears finally springing to my eyes. Then he was rising into the air and disappeared into the clouds.

We all walked back to Jerusalem together. We stayed together for a few months, but eventually we started to leave the city, each going his own way. I traveled around with Justus and wherever we went, we told people about the time we had walked with Jesus.