Monday, April 27, 2015

Why the Cross? Part 2

    Then Jesus said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.

    Last Sunday, I delved into the question: Why?  Why was it necessary for the Messiah to suffer and then rise from the dead on the third day?  Why was the cross necessary?  I took quite a bit of time to focus on the aspect of sacrificial atonement and the cost Jesus bore to forgive our sins.  If you missed that sermon, it can be found on my blog.  I will be happy to give you the web address for that. 

    However, there is another aspect we must consider when it comes to the cross.  For there has been a long running criticism of those of us who preach that Jesus has given us our salvation–free to us, but costly to Him.  In the early Church, there were those who thought that proclaiming grace then gave no incentive to people to change their lives and live according to God’s will and purpose.  Centuries later, when Martin Luther, the namesake of the Lutheran church, called Christians back to the understanding of grace and the cross, there were even more calls that people would no longer seek to follow God’s commands.  I mean, if your salvation does not hinge upon your performance, then why even attempt?  Why change your life?  Why do things differently?

    The answer, we will see, is the cross, but let me start with this analogy.

    I want you to pretend that you have just reached the age where you can legally drive.  For much of your teenage years, you longed to be able to drive a car and experience the freedom of the road, but you wondered if you would ever be able to afford a car.  You wondered if your parents would ever be able to afford a car.

    On the day you came of age and completed your driver’s exam, a guy shows up on your doorstep.  He comes up to you and congratulates you on passing your exam, and then he hands you a set of keys.  They are the keys to a brand new car!  He says, “This car is yours.  We provide free cars to everyone here in this region.  Enjoy driving!”

    You are ecstatic!   You tell your folks you are going driving, and you head out.  You drive around and are exhilarated!  You pick up several of your friends.  Before long, you have the radio turned up as loud as it can go.  You are yelling back and forth at your friends.  You are on cloud nine.  Then your cell phone buzzes.  It’s a text.  You reach down to look at it.  You try texting back, and you run off the road.  You manage to slow down, but you still run into a tree.  The car is totaled.  Luckily, you and your friends are not injured, but your beautiful, new car is toast.  You cry.  You wonder if you will ever get another chance to drive.  A tow truck hauls your car away.

    You wake up the next morning sore and bruised, and you are surprised by a knock on the door.  You open it, and the same man who gave you the keys yesterday is there today.  He says, “I know you had an accident yesterday and your car was totaled.  You may be wondering if you can drive anymore.  I have good news.  You get another car.  I told you.  We provide free cars for the people of this region.”

    You are excited beyond belief.  This time, you are a bit more careful, but after several months, your cell phone buzzes again.  You check it again.  You wreck the car again.  You have a bit of grief again, but you wonder if you will get another car.

    Sure enough, you do.  You can’t believe this!  Even if you wreck your car, you are given another one.  So, you become fearless.  You begin to drive like the proverbial bat out of you-know-where.  You speed.  You run stop lights.  You take chances.  You have several more wrecks.  Doesn’t matter.  There will be a new car waiting in the morning.

    After one such wreck, earlier than usual, there is a knock on your door.  It’s not the car guy.  Instead, it’s someone else.  It’s someone driving an old, beat up car with all sorts of wear and tear.  You wonder to yourself why this guy just doesn’t run the car into a tree and get a new one.  He looks at you and says, “Bet you were expecting the car guy.  I always try to get in before him.  Come with me this morning.”

    You hesitate.  You don’t know this guy.  But he is reassuring and there is a certain air about him.  You trust him and climb in his old beat up vehicle.  He drives you beyond the outskirts of town.  You look out the cracked window and see a large factory up ahead.  The man drives the car right toward that factory.

    As you approach, however, you see something very strange.  There are myriads of cars out front of this factory–cars that look just like the one’s you’ve been given.  But the whole place is surrounded by fences with razor sharp wire at the top.  There appear to be watch towers with armed guards in them.  The man driving you has to go through several checkpoints just to get you in.  A helicopter hovers above, obviously watching for something.

    The man parks and leads you in.  He says, “You know, I was once like you.  I drove with a reckless abandon.  But then someone showed me what I am about to show you.  Have you ever wondered where your cars come from?”

    With that, the man leads you forward.  You walk into the factory, and you are stunned by what you see.  Huge assembly lines first catch your eye, but then your eyes move to the workers.  You are appalled!  The workers are all wearing filthy rags.  They look like they haven’t slept in weeks.  They barely seem able to stand and walk.  Supervisors constantly yell and scream at them to get busy.  When someone stumbles or falls, physical force is used to motivate them.  If someone is unable to get up, they are trampled upon, and someone else is forced to take their place.  You can hardly watch.

    The man then takes you to the lunch room.  You see the ragged clothed workers hurriedly eating a meal.  They are eating something that would make a billy goat puke.  “They only get 10 minutes before they are forced back to their work stations,” the man tells you.

    The man then motions you to follow.  You go to the workers’ homes–if you can call them that.  They look like jail cells.  There are meager foam mattresses on the floor which look only an inch thick or so.  Dilapidated tables and chairs litter the cells.  These workers are literally slaves.  And then it dawns on you!  The reason the region can afford to give you free cars is because of slave labor!   Your “free” care is bought with a great price!

    The car ride back to your home is a quiet one.  When you arrive, there in your drive way is a brand new car.  The man looks at you and says, “Now, what will you do?”

    What will you do indeed?  Will you continue to drive recklessly?  Will you continue to do things which would put the life of your car in jeopardy?   Would you even have a desire to drive that car ever again?  If you know the terrible price paid for you to have that “free” car, would you ever look at driving the same again?

    Of course you wouldn’t.  If you have even a smidgen of compassion in your heart, you couldn’t look at your car without seeing the faces and condition of those who built it.  You might never even drive again!  But why?  Why wouldn’t you drive?

    Because you would be acting out of guilt, and here is where the analogy breaks down when comparing to what Jesus accomplished on the cross.  Because Jesus was not being held against His will.  Jesus was not bound to the cross by any force natural or supernatural.  He could have walked away from it.  He could have called a legion of angels down to rescue Him from it.  He didn’t have to drink the cup.  That was what the Garden of Gethsemane was all about.  He prayed, “Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me, but nevertheless, not my will but Thine be done.”  Jesus could have walked away from His sacrificial death, but He didn’t.  He entered into it freely, willingly, but also with great terror and anguish.  He didn’t have to hang on that cross to save you, but He did because He loves you.

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him.”

    And when you arrive at the foot of that cross...
    When you see Jesus hanging there in pain...
    When you see the pierced hands...
    When you see the pierced feet...
    When you see the crown of thorns...
    When you see the blood flowing from the lashes...
    When you see Him cry out in despair, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
    When you see Him die the death that you deserved to give you the gift of salvation that you didn’t deserve...
    When you see Him face abandonment from God so that you never have to...
    When you see Him pay the price for your freedom...

    Can you keep driving your life the same way?  Can you keep doing things recklessly without any thought to God or to others?  Can you willingly break God’s commands knowing what Jesus did for you?  Can you go through life seeking your own will instead of the will of the Father?

    When you arrive at the foot of the cross and you understand the size of the debt you owe; when you understand the nature of your separation from God; you understand that Jesus willingly paid the price to reconcile you unto God; when you see just what it cost Jesus to purchase your redemption; your heart changes.  You feel horribly bad, and then strangely accepted.  You feel like the dirtiest of worms, and then like the apple of God’s eye.  You feel worthless, and then extremely valuable.  And you know you can never look at the world the same again.  You can never look at another person with anger and contempt again.  You can never hate another person who is created in the image of God again.  You can never hate yourself again.  Your heart overflows with an abundance of love for what God has done for you, and with an incredible desire to share that love with others.

    If you never saw the great cost paid by Jesus, your heart would never change.  But because of His willing sacrifice, even the hardest heart is brought to its knees.  It is at the cross where such change occurs, and it is why the Messiah had to suffer and die.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Only the Cross

I find myself in a bit of a pickle as I think long and hard about my relationship with the larger church (ELCA).  I love my church.  There is no doubt about this.  I want her to grow and thrive.  I want the God-awful state of decline she has been in to reverse itself and for people to fill her pews on a given Sunday morning.  I long for the day when all of our congregation's pews: Lutheran, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Pentecostal, and the like are filled to overflowing as people come from far and wide to worship.

I do not wish for any church body to decline and die.

And yet, many are.  Some slowly.  Some spiraling out of control.

Now, this is not some sort of "the Church must change or die" sort of post.  God knows, I've heard so many of those lectures and read so many of those blogs that I have started tuning them out.

That goes for those folks who say that we need to become more moralistic.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to focus more on justice.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to change our doctrines.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to stop being so liberal.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to stop being so conservative.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to implement more programs.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to implement less programs.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to have more "contemporary"/modern worship.
That goes for those folks who say that we need to have more "traditional" worship.

In each and every one of these things, we are focusing on ourselves.  We are trying to figure out what the surrounding culture wants and give it to them.  It's as if we believe the Church is here to satisfy the needs and desires of the culture, and if we want our pews to be full, then we need to be giving the culture what it wants.

I can see the early Church trying to take such action. 

"Well, you see those Jews over there.  They expect a Messiah who will come and establish power and peace by military force.  The Messiah will overthrow the Romans and free the nation of Israel.  Let's shun the cross and what Jesus did and talk about such power and might.  Let's give them what they want."

"Well, you see those Gentiles over there.  They want comfort and security.  They want a god who is omniscient and omnipotent who can favor them.  Let's get rid of the cross where God dies and give them a god who allows them joy and pleasure in their lives."

"For the cross is a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles."  --1 Corinthians 1:23.

Indeed, the cross still is foolishness.  It must be.  That's the only reason I can think of that it didn't make an appearance at the Synod Assembly I attended last week.  Can you imagine a Synod Assembly whose focus was intended to be evangelism that didn't mention the cross?  That didn't mention the acts of God on that cross?  Can you imagine a Lutheran Synod Assembly whose focus was supposedly evangelism--whose founder espoused and coined the phrase the theology of the cross--who didn't spend a single minute asking the question, "How do we convey the message of the cross in this day and age?  How do we talk about God's reconciling the world unto Himself in this postmodern age?"

So, what was the Synod Assembly focused on? 

Essentially, it was one giant pep-rally trying to get us to do good things.  Yep, that was it.  Work hard at being especially nice.  Work hard at listening to your neighbors.  Work hard at loving everyone.  That is evangelism.  Your works are evangelism.  What you do is evangelism.

So, you might ask, what is the problem with that?  I'd like you to read the following quote from a young man who served on a panel of young adults at the Synod Assembly.  He leans atheist/agnostic, and he offered this scathing criticism of the church:

But the part of me that lives on the edges has to stop and ask this...why?  Why is the christian church trying to recruit "youths ages 18-35 who make up the blah blah blah???  What does having more people in church do?

The people I asked to help me with this do amazing things, why doesn't the church stop trying to pull them into their crowd and instead go out and be with them? ...The question I want answered is, when will the church stop trying to make itself the center of everyone's world and go out and do something like so many 18-35 year olds are doing, because I have to tell you, we are just waiting for the day the church joins us.

What response can one give to such a scathing criticism IF the church's job is "doing good things?" 

There is no response.  The criticism stands, and the Church is convicted.  (Although to be fair, in the omitted examples this gentleman listed in his screed where he asked "Where is the Church?", in all reality, the Church was already in all of those places.  One can easily ask the question: why can't you see it there?)

In fact, as I was debriefing with one of my members, I was brutally honest.  I said, "I don't want this guy in my church.  He reminds me of myself not too long ago.  Arrogant.  Self-righteous.  He'd be a troublemaker.  But it doesn't matter if I want him in church or not.  There is One who does want Him.  There is One who wants His heart and soul."

Indeed, there is one part of the young man's criticism that is Truth: the Church should never try and make itself the center of everyone's world.  Never.  Ever!  At the center of everyone's world should be a cross with a suffering God who is stretching His arms out to suffer and die to make sure the world is reconciled to their Heavenly Father.  At the center of everyone's world should be Jesus.

If anyone in the Christian Church disputes this, then I simply think you cannot call yourself a Christian.  (Read my extended quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a few days ago.)  If at the center of your world is anything less than Jesus, then you are committing idolatry.  You have a false god.

And so, the answer to the young man's question is Jesus.  The Church doesn't want you, sir.  Jesus does.  The Church will go on without you too, but there is One who doesn't want to go on without you.  There is one who was willing to die for you.  I know you probably don't see that or get that.  You are completely and totally focused on your actions and the actions of the world and the Church.  You want to make a difference.  I understand that.  I really do.  I wanted to change the world myself.

But I found out something.  It was a hard lesson.  A very hard one.  I couldn't make that difference.  I couldn't change people.  I couldn't change the world.  I might be able to feed a person for a day.  I might be able to lobby government officials.  I might even be able to lead a movement to change laws, but I can never, ever change someone's heart.  I can't make people love each other.  I can't make people get along and see each other a fully human.  I can't convince people to stop looking out for their own interests and look out for the interests of another. 

I know you are a studious sort of person.  It came across very strongly in your presentation.  Read Nietzsche?  You understand, don't you, that if there is no transcendence, no God, then everything we do are simply power plays, right?  You do understand that essentially we are all working out our own wills to power even if we say we are looking out for another?  You could argue that you aren't looking out for yourself, but Nietzsche would scoff at you and say, "Yeah right.  The only reason you are trying to help others is because you get some benefit.

You see, there is One who indeed came and lived for no benefit to Himself.  Jesus didn't need anything from us.  He was totally satisfied, loved, and glorified in His relationship with His Father and the Spirit.  He needed and needs nothing from us.  Yet, He came to us for a reason--to change our hearts that we might experience the same kind of love He knows living with the Father and the Spirit.  He came that we might be able to love one another without any sort of contempt or anger towards those who are different than we are.  And He showed that not with power and might but with a cross.

It's all about Jesus and the cross.  If you can't get someone to the foot of the cross, then...well, you might be doing some good things, but you are not doing evangelism.  And if the Church exists solely for doing good things, then we have no need of worship.  We have no need for buildings and Bible Study.  All we essentially need is to have someone urge us, remind us, sometimes whip us into submission to "Love our neighbors as we love ourselves."

But Christianity isn't about that.  Evangelism isn't about that.  It's all about Jesus.  It's focal point is the cross. 

Somehow, this has been pushed to the periphery.  No longer is it at the center.  

To our detriment.

What will it take to reclaim our cross-centeredness? 

I frankly don't know, but I know what I will do from henceforth:

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. 2For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  -- 1 Corinthians 2:1-2.

If that message changed hearts then, it will still change hearts now.  Here I stand...

Monday, April 20, 2015

Why the Cross? Part 1

(Sunday morning as I was preparing for worship and preaching the following sermon, I was struck with another set of thoughts which needed to augment this piece.  Those thoughts will appear in my next sermon to be posted next week.)

    Jesus said to the disciples, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.

    The question that I want to deal with this morning in my sermon is this: why did the Messiah have to suffer and die?  Why did Jesus have to go to the cross?  Why is it that everything in Scriptures led up to that pivotal moment where Jesus had to die and then be raised from the dead?

    This is more than just an academic question.  It’s important because it cuts to the very heart of Christianity and our reason for existing as a Church.  It’s important in our current day and age because there are a lot, and I mean a lot of people who still wonder why Jesus had to die.  There are a lot of people who wonder why the cross was necessary. 

    The bewilderment is nothing new.  The early Church had to deal with folks’ questions about the cross.  St. Paul even says this in 1 Corinthians chapter 1 verse 23, “23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”  The cross was a stumbling block to Jews because in the Law it was written that anyone who was hung on a tree was cursed by God.  If Jesus were the Messiah, then He was supposed to be blessed by God, certainly not cursed by God.  The fact that Jesus was hung on a tree caused them to stumble.  As for the Gentiles, it was utter foolishness that God would die.  God was omnipotent, and omniscient, all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal and immortal.  God certainly could not die.  The idea that He would was utter foolishness.  Even then people had a hard time coming to grips with the cross.

    Today, there is much discussion about the cross as well.  Some cannot fathom the idea that God would use such a brutal and bloody method to save the world.  God could have chosen something different.  Some believe the cross is some sort of divine child abuse and cannot grasp that the Father would send the Son to experience such a thing.  Some only give the cross worldly implications and separate the cross from any sort of significance for salvation.  Indeed the cross still spurs conversation in this manner. 

    Yet, in order to truly understand the Gospel, we have to come to grips with the cross.  We have to come to grips with its significance and the reasons, as Jesus said, “it was necessary,” for these things to happen.  Why was it necessary?

    Well, first we have to understand the nature of God.  Now, I know there are many who will say simply and truly, “God is love.”  You are absolutely right.  For the writer John says this very thing in 1 John 4.  “God is love,” John proclaims.  And some folks jump on this and emphasize love.  They then see God in our understanding of love: compassion, kindness, pouring out Himself for us, making us feel good about ourselves–kind of like a Hallmark deity.  Interestingly enough, I’ve been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, and in this book, Bonhoeffer says something profound.   He says, we read this all wrong.  We tend to emphasize the word love when we should be emphasizing the word God.  God is love–meaning, if you want to know what love is, you look to God and not vice versa.  It makes perfect sense as the writer John continues in 1 John when he says, “for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. “

    ”Love is that God loves us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  This is the reason the cross is necessary.  You may still be wondering why?

    Here’s why.  If we need to understand love through God, then we need to understand the nature of God–and God we must understand that God is the One in whom ultimate justice and ultimate mercy come together.  God must be a God of justice, and God must be a God of mercy.  The two cannot be separated.  Here’s why.

    First, we must understand that God is a God of justice.  He has to be. If God were not a God of justice, He would not be worth worshiping.  I mean, let’s think about this for a moment.  Many of you have heard about the atrocities that ISIS is committing in Iraq and Syria.  You have heard the stories about how they have beheaded prisoners, burned prisoners alive, and raped and tortured women.  Imagine if God in heaven looked down upon this and said, “Oh, this is wrong.  You shouldn’t do such things, but hey, I’ll forgive you anyway.  I will take you to be with me and perfect you so that you will never do this again.  You will join me in paradise.”  If you were a perpetrator of such crimes, you might be very comforted by this kind of God; however, if you have even a little sympathy for those who have been victimized by ISIS, you would recoil at such thoughts.  You would recoil at such a God.  A God who forgives without justice is a God who has no compassion on victims–who is not interested in fully righting the wrongs.  Such a God might be forgiving, but such a God does not have love.  There must be justice.

    And in Scripture, it is revealed that God indeed is a God of justice.  There is a promise of recompense and punishment for those who do wrong.  God promises to look with kindness upon the widow and orphan; those who have been pushed to the edges of society.  God promises to right the wrongs that have been committed against the poor and oppressed.  God promises to let His wrath burn hot against such evil and destroy it–no matter how big or how small.

    Now, that last statement should give us pause.  God’s wrath and judgement will burn against injustice and evil no matter how big or how small.  That might cause you to scratch your head for a moment for you might think, “God will also punish small sins?  God will punish say, stealing a piece of candy or disobeying my parents when they tell me no and I do the opposite?  God will punish me if I don’t give offerings to the church?  God will punish me if I tell a little white lie to prevent pain on the behalf of another?”  Why would God do such a thing.  I mean, I’m not like ISIS and killing people or anything.  Why would God’s wrath burn hot against a little sin?

    Just this: on Easter I used the example of the Butterfly Effect or that one tiny change across the globe–a butterfly flapping its wings in Japan–could cause massive changes in Alabama by brining tornadoes.  That illustration still stands, but perhaps it’s a bit abstract.  Let me use another one which may hit closer to home, especially with all you hunters out there.

    When you are sighting in a gun at 25 yards, and you are ½ an inch off, do you say, “Well, I’m close enough.  No need to get things dead center.”?  Of course you don’t.  You can’t accept being off that much.  Why?  Well, because at 50 yards, you are going to be off even more.  At 100 yards you will be off an even greater distance.  At 200 yards you will be far away from the bull’s eye.  At 300 yards, you may miss the target altogether.  The further away you get, the further off you will be.  You’ve got to hit perfection so that as time passes and distance passes, you will still hit the target.  If you aren’t perfect, there will be consequences. 

    God knows this, and He demands perfection.  This is why He treats anger towards another person like murder.  This is why He treats lust like He treats adultery.  You could say that this seems overly harsh, but in reality it’s not.  Why?  Because anger is a condition of the heart–it’s the same condition that leads to murder.  Lust is a condition of the heart–which leads to adultery.  It all starts in the heart as far as God is concerned.  And if your heart isn’t tuned into God and His will, He will judge and let His wrath burn hot.

    You might think two things at this point. #1. You might say, “Well, my heart is tuned to God, and He should give me a break on messing up.”  I respond: If your heart is tuned to God, then why do you tell that white lie?  Why do you not give an offering to the church?  Why do you get angry at another person when you feel slighted?  Here’s why: for those moments; for that time; something else was more important to you than the love of God.  You were afraid of the consequences of telling the truth so your well being took precedence.  You didn’t give because you wanted to hold onto your money, and it replaced God.  You were more concerned with your own feelings of being wronged than offering forgiveness.  In all of these things, God took a back seat, and He did not rule in your heart.  The other thing you might say is this: #2. There is no way anyone can avoid the wrath of God.  It is hopeless.  Might as well give in and enjoy what we can before God burns us to a crisp.  That would be an appropriate response if God were not a God of mercy.

    For if God had no mercy, then we would all be in a pickle.  We would all stand condemned and under His wrath for our failure to live the lives we should live.  And we have no excuse.  I mean, every culture in the world knows and has in its code of conduct that you should treat others as you would like to be treated.  Every culture knows we should care for one another and be fair.  However, just as true of every culture in the world is the fact that it is not done.  We know what we should do, but we do not do it.

    So, God, it seems might be in a bit of a pickle Himself.  His wrath must burn hot against sin.  It must burn hot against us missing the mark.  In order for justice to be served, there must be recompense.  There must be punishment to right the wrongs.  However, if every wrong were righted; if every sin were punished, then all would be condemned and mercy could not be shown.  How can this conundrum be resolved?

    I would like you to now think about how you act when you are wronged by someone else.  I am quite sure that everyone here this morning has experienced such a thing.  You have had someone tell you that they would do something only to renege on their word.  You have had someone say an unkind thing about you.  You have had someone say something that cut you to the heart.  You have entered into an agreement with someone for services or goods and had that person take advantage of you.  How do you respond?

    Most of us cut the other person off physically or emotionally.  Most of us refuse to associate with that other person or institution any longer.  Most of us say, “That’s it.  You have hurt me, and I refuse to have anything to do with you.”  And we don’t, unless an apology is issued–unless restitution is made.  Unless someone acknowledges the pain they caused and feels bad themselves, we will not engage the relationship again.  Unless there is repayment for abuse, we will stay away from the one who harmed us.  Payment, either emotionally or physically is demanded.  It’s the way we operate.  It’s the only way we get justice.  Someone has to pay. 

    Now, if you forgive a person who has harmed you; if you continue in a relationship with another who has treated you badly; who bears the cost.  If forgiveness is extended, then you bear the cost yourself.  You bear the emotional and physical burden.  The other is forgiven, but cost is still borne.  You just take it upon yourself and do not make the other person pay.

    If you have this in your head, I would like you to think now about all the times you have missed the mark.  Think about all the times you were off, even just a little bit.  Think about all the times when you were a ½ inch off at 25 yards but then as time and distance happened you missed the target all together.  Think about such things over the entire span of your life.  Think about the vast population of the world and how they have all missed the mark.  Think about how you have grieved your heavenly Father with such actions.  Think about how much damage has been done because of how we have missed the mark in such a manner.  Think about all that pain and frustration and anger.  Add all of that up.  If you multiply such things by the billions of people who have lived, can you possibly imagine how much wrath is built up?  Can you imagine the amount of anger God must have for our failure to love one another?  What could possibly pay for it?  What could God possibly demand in order to make things right?  What kind of restitution could satisfy the damage we have done?  The price must be extremely high.

    And if God forgives?  If God bears the cost Himself?  If God takes that wrath and absorbs it what kind of payment will make satisfaction?  If God bears His own wrath on our behalf, what could it cost Him?  If God took on human flesh and bore our sin and the cost for that sin Himself, what would that look like?

    The answer can be found at Calvary on a cross.

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

    God incarnate, Jesus bore the wrath of God destined for us.  He offered Himself as payment so that we didn’t have to face what we deserved.  This is why Jesus had to die.  This is why He had to hang on that cross.  This is why the cross saves us. 

    Jesus said to the disciples, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.

    Thank you, Jesus for what you have done.  Amen.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Christ's Exclusive Totality

"He that is not against us is for us."  --Jesus, Mark 9:40

"He that is not with me is against me."  --Jesus, Matthew 12:30

It is the same Jesus who speaks these words.  For abstract analysis these two sayings of Jesus are in irreconcilable contradiction; but in reality they necessarily belong together.  Here again we have living experience to prove our case; under the pressure of anti-Christian forces there came together groups of men who confessed the faith unequivocally and who were impelled to seek a clear decision for or against Christ in strict discipline of doctrine and of life.  In their struggle these confessing congregations could not but perceive that the greatest of all the dangers which threatened the Church with inner disintegration and disruption lay in the neutrality of large numbers of Christians; they saw in this the true hostility to Christ.  The exclusive demand for a clear profession of allegiance to Christ caused the band of confessing Christians to become ever smaller; they saying "he that is not with me is against me" became an actual concrete experience of the Christian Church; and then, precisely through this concentration on the essential, the Church acquired an inward freedom and breadth which preserved her against any timid impulse to draw narrow limits, and there gathered around her men who came from very far away, and men to whom she could not refuse her fellowship and her protection; injured justice, oppressed truth, vilified humanity and violated freedom all sought for her, or rather for her Master, Jesus Christ.  So now she had the living experience of that other saying of Jesus: "He that is not against us is for us."

These two sayings necessarily belong together as the two claims of Jesus Christ, the claim to exclusiveness and the claim to totality.  The greater the exclusiveness, the greater the freedom.  But in isolation the claim to exclusiveness leads to fanaticism and to slavery; and in isolation the claim to totality leads to the secularization and self abandonment of the Church.  The more exclusively we acknowledge and confess Christ as our Lord, the more fully the wide range of His dominion will be disclosed to us.  --Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics  (emphasis mine)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Conundrum of Our Day

For the past few weeks, I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching a class on Martin Luther and his vast influence upon Western history.  There have been more than a few moments of fantastic discussion which have triggered some deep contemplations on my part including the following:

This past Sunday, one of the folks attending class asked, "How was it that the popes of that time were able to get away with all the extravagance and abuse?"

The answers were quite simple:

1. Folks were biblically illiterate.  They had no access to the Scriptures in their own languages and had no way of seeing that such abuses were contrary to the commands of Jesus.

2. The Church at the time controlled most of the means of communication and could shut things down pretty quickly.  If someone started raising complaints of abuse, the Church could and would put folks to death to silence them.  There was no such thing as paparazzi to record everything that was going on and let the masses know.

3. There was a particular theology at play which said that such wealth and extravagance was a blessing of God.  If I have arisen to such a position, then I am entitled to such luxury.  Couple this theology with the fact that most Church positions were not given to those who exhibited great faithfulness or were steadfast in study and discipline but were rather awarded to the highest bidder, and you had a recipe for abuse.

Of course, this prompted comparisons to today where some "pastors" revel in such gross interpretations of theology.  I mean, what pastor in his right mind says that they need a $60 million dollar jet

However, this also points to a much larger problem in our society--one that I pointed out in class.

In Luther's day, people were highly, biblically illiterate because they did not have access to the Bible in their own language.  They couldn't call out such behavior because they were ignorant.  Today, people are highly, biblically illiterate even though they have unfettered access to the Bible, and even though there are those willing to call out such behavior, such calls fall upon deaf ears and make little difference.

Why?

This brings us to the conundrum:

In our technological age, everyone has a voice.  Everyone has the opportunity to expound upon and interpret whatever text they choose.  From Tolkein to Plato to the Bible, anyone can expound and give input to what is written and said. 

Now, this isn't necessarily a bad thing in and of itself.  It is good to have free interchange of ideas.  We certainly do not want to return to the days when you could be killed for offering up an interpretation outside the mainstream.  Orthodoxy needs heresy to keep it on the right path, but heresy does not need to be met with destruction.

But neither does it need to be met with acceptance.  And we are far too accepting of heresy today.

How so?

In this manner: 

Someone decides they would like to learn more about Christianity and the person of Jesus.  They pick up a Bible and begin reading.  Before long, they stumble upon Jesus' teachings:

If you are angry with a brother, you are committing murder.

If you look at a woman with lust, you are committing adultery.

If you divorce and get remarried, you are committing adultery.

If you want to be a disciple, you have to hate family and life itself.

If you want to be a disciple, you must give up all possessions.

Many might quit right here.  They might see the impossibility of such actions and throw in the towel, but others might just want some clarification.  Others might want to understand why such teachings are given.  They seek out advice from a pastor or a learned individual.  They ask, "Did Jesus really mean what He said here?"

Of course, most pastors will try to soften Jesus' teachings.  "No, you don't have to give up your possessions or hate your family or life itself.  Jesus means, you must love Him more than you love your possessions and family and life.  You can have possessions and be a disciple.  No, you are not committing adultery if you look at a woman--that's a natural human instinct.  God created you that way, so it isn't sinful.  Getting angry is just a part of life.  As long as you don't act on it, you are fine."

Do you see how in each of these cases there is an actual departure from the teachings' of Jesus?  Do you see how in each of these cases, Jesus' actual words are disregarded and replaced with a different teaching?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book The Cost of Discipleship, would have said, and it's a great quote, we are trying to justify the sin instead of proclaim the justification of the sinner.

And yet, Bonhoeffer, (and I) are simply regarded as one more voice out there; one more interpretation to consider; one more option to think about that may or may not work out for whoever is striving to understand.

With so many voices speaking and interpreting, it is nearly impossible to make any headway in discovering the Truth.  With the ability to go and find someone who gives me comfort and lets me continue on in my merry way with no change or transformation; with so many interpretations at the click of a mouse; I can weed out anything that challenges me or calls me to reevaluate my own worldview. 

How can the Gospel be proclaimed without sounding like simply "one more voice in a cacophony of voices?"  How can someone stand and say, "This is the Truth," when the prevailing view is "what is true for you is true for you, but it's not true for me."?  How can any true form of debate take place if that trump card is played?  There cannot be any striving for truth if truth is that relative.

Hence the conundrum.  Hence the struggle of the Christian Church. 

Is it possible for the Church to proclaim to others, "Listen for God's voice" when we are drowning in a cacophony of voices?

Monday, April 13, 2015

An Invitation to Trust

    One of the things which has helped me grow in my Christian faith and understanding has been listening to debates between Christians and atheists on Youtube.  Now, it’s not as bad as you might think.  I mean, some of you might think sitting on a prickly pear cactus and eat raw tofu might be more enjoyable, and I understand that.  But for yours truly, I truly learn a lot about my faith and the views of those who do not share my faith.

    One interesting thing keeps popping up over and over and over in such debates, and it is a criticism of Christianity and belief in God in general.  Many people have a problem with what is called “blind faith.”  This is the idea that our beliefs and practices have no evidence to back them up.  We simply believe without anything measurable to point to as a basis for that belief.  The argument goes something like this: well, you don’t have any evidence to back up your belief, so why not believe in the tooth fairy or the giant spaghetti monster?

    In reality, this criticism is a valid criticism–if, and it is a big if, faith were simply an intellectual assertion–kind of like a switch in the brain that you turn on and off.  “Click” I believe in God.  “Click” I don’t believe in God.  Whether I turn the switch on or off has very little bearing on my life.  And there are many believers who fit right into this category.  There are many believers for whom faith in Jesus is simply a belief that indeed He is God; He died; He rose from the dead, and if I give intellectual assent to this, then I am saved.  Furthermore, as many, many pastors have said, it is quite all right to have doubts about such things.  It is quite all right to wrestle with the intellectual problem of God taking on flesh and living among us; performing miracles; dying; and then rising from the dead.  Simply believing this as passed down throughout history is a difficult thing especially in light of the scientific evidence about how the world generally works.  Having doubt is not a bad thing–or so we are told.

    Again, what is being said here is true–if, and it’s a big if, faith is simply an intellectual matter that is all in our heads.  If faith is simply a condition of our heads grasping something and believing it, then we have to deal with the criticism of blind faith and the idea that doubt is a good thing.  However, this does make Jesus’ words today in the 20th Chapter of the book of John a bit problematic.  For if I get up here and say, “It’s okay to doubt,” and then you hear Jesus tell Thomas, “Do not doubt but believe,” then you are left in a bit of a conundrum.  Who do you trust?  Do you trust what I say?  Do you trust what Jesus commanded?  Do you trust that the writer of the Gospel actually gives us the words of Jesus?  Did the writer make this story up?  All of these questions come to life and then snowball if faith is something that is purely intellectual; purely a head thing that has no evidence to back it up.

    But I do not think faith is simply a head thing.  I do not think faith is simply a matter of clicking a switch up in our brains which turns on and off.  I think faith runs much deeper, and honestly, the translation of verse 27 leaves a lot to be desired.  I think it should be translated in the following way:  27Then Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not distrust but trust.’  How does this change things, and how does it affect our lives?  Hold onto your seats.

     To get at this question, we need to take a quick trip through the Gospel of John to look at Thomas.  Thomas gets a lot of attention in this text, and he is important; although the main focus of this text is not Thomas, but Jesus.  We’ll get there shortly.  But let’s take a look at Thomas for a few minutes as we see his history throughout the Gospel of John.  We begin in Chapter 11 as Jesus tells His disciples He is going to Bethany after Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died.  The last time Jesus was in Bethany, the crowds threatened to kill Him.  The disciples know this, and they are afraid for Jesus.  They are afraid Jesus will be killed.  As His followers, they stand to suffer the same fate.  Thomas bravely steps to the fore and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”   Thomas definitely shows bravado here.  He is willing to die with Jesus, but I am convinced that Thomas doesn’t quite understand who Jesus really is.  Thomas doesn’t fully understand the extent of what Jesus is about and how this will really impact him.

            Why do I say that?  Because of the next time we run into Thomas is in John chapter 14.  In this chapter, Jesus has just told His disciples that He will be going away and that He will bring them to Himself.  Jesus also says that the disciples know the way to the place He is going.  Thomas then says, “We do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?”  So, Thomas goes from a willingness to die with Jesus to being confused.  He doesn’t quite get Jesus at all.  Jesus responds famously, “I am the way, and the Truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  Jesus, of course, is revealing that He is the Lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world by His life, death, and resurrection.  Thomas doesn’t get that.  He still has a certain expectation of Jesus.  Thomas still believes that Jesus is going to do something vastly different.  I think Thomas believes Jesus is going to be the Jewish Messiah who will come with power and might, but not the suffering servant who gives His life as a ransom for many. 

    This is why when we meet Thomas today, Thomas initially refuses to believe or trust the witness of his fellow disciples.  Jesus had appeared to them in that locked room; breathed new life into them; and commissioned them to spread the news–to forgive sins.  Thomas was not there at this initial gathering, so when he returned, the rest of the crew greeted him with the news, “We have seen the Lord.”

    Thomas doesn’t believe them.  He doesn’t trust their witness.  We automatically ask, “Why?”  Scripture is not explicit here.  We don’t know the workings of Thomas’ brain at this point, but based upon our experience of Thomas in the book of John and what he said to the disciples and to Jesus in John 11 and John 14, I think Thomas refused to believe and refused to trust his colleagues because he knew it meant he would have to die.  Hear me again on that one: if Jesus was risen from the dead, then it meant Thomas would have to die.

    Please know, I am not talking about physical death.  No.  That would have been the easy way out.  Physical death was something Thomas was willing to face earlier, but I don’t think he was ready to face the death that Jesus had talked about with His disciples before, “If anyone wants to save his life, he must lose it; and if anyone loses his life for my sake and the sake of the Gospel, he will save it.”  This kind of death is much, much harder.  This kind of death is traumatic.  This kind of death means a radical shift in one’s worldview and understanding.  If Jesus is raised from the dead, then I must give up everything I once thought would bring me happiness and joy.  I must give up everything that I once thought that made me who I am.  I must give up everything I once placed my trust in to bring me peace.  I must give up everything I once wanted and desired; and I must put my trust in Jesus.

    I don’t think Thomas wanted to die that kind of death.  I don’t think Thomas wanted to give up his dream of a Messiah who would overthrow Israel’s enemies.  I don’t think Thomas wanted to give up his dreams of power and authority.  I don’t think Thomas wanted to give up his ideas of a Messiah who was powerful and mighty; a warrior of paramount who would bring about world peace–and, of course, the dominion of the kingdom of Israel of which he would be one of the twelve rulers.  Thomas wanted all of this.  This was his deepest heart’s desire.  It was something he was willing to die for, and when he thought Jesus would give it to him, he was glad to follow Jesus to death.  It’s why Thomas couldn’t understand Jesus’ comments about preparing the way to the Father.  Thomas wasn’t thinking of such things.  His heart and mind and trust were somewhere else.

    But if Jesus was raised from the dead, those dreams must come to an end.  Those desires must cease.  His heart could no longer be captured by what Thomas wanted.  If Jesus were raised from the dead, a radical new way of life was mandated; a way of life with Jesus at the center.  And so, Thomas came up with a list of demands which could surely not be satisfied.  “Unless I place my hands in His wounds, I will not trust.”

    You know, there is a reason we quote Isaiah 53.5: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”   For Jesus came to Thomas.  Jesus had Thomas touch his wounds, and by Jesus’ wounds, Thomas was healed.  Thomas was put to death.  When Jesus came to Thomas, all of those things Thomas thought were his dreams and desires left.  “My Lord and my God!” Thomas cries out. 

    “Do not distrust, Thomas.  Trust.”  Thomas entire being was affected by his encounter with Jesus.  Thomas entire soul was changed.  It was not an intellectual switch in his brain that was thrown, but it was a change to his very core as he put his trust in the one who died and rose again.

    “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet trust,” Jesus then says.  There is no doubt as to whom this statement is directed.  It is not directed to the disciples who are standing in that room.  It is not directed at Thomas who has touched Jesus.  It is directed at you and me.  It is directed at all who will hear the message about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.  It is an invitation to us to come and die–to walk away from all of those things that we once believed would bring us happiness; peace; satisfaction; and joy.  It is an invitation to stop placing our trust in money; power; politics; science; sports; status; possessions; friends; family; co-workers; humanity; and ourselves.  It is an invitation to put our trust solely and squarely in Jesus Christ and look to Him for our identity, for our hope, for our well-being, for meaning, for purpose, for peace, and for joy.  It is an invitation to rethink our entire lives and our entire being–not just some intellectual assertion that Jesus is risen from the dead.  It’s an invitation to make Jesus our deepest heart’s desire and proclaim Him our Lord and our God.

    Why?  You may ask.  Why should I put my trust in Him instead of all of these other things?   Why Jesus above material possessions or money or power or politics?  Why Jesus over any other religion or philosophy?   Why trust Jesus instead of trusting myself?

    Let me start by going backward.  Trust yourself?  If you start believing your own press and thinking you have the ability to handle every situation in the world, then you have become your own god and will eventually end up like Narcissus.  You will fall in love with yourself and end up consumed with yourself dying alone.  If you put your trust in any other god, they will demand your total allegiance and punish you dearly when you mess up.  If you trust in wealth, possessions, power and politics, they will demand everything of you and never give you enough to satisfy. 

    Only one God has dared die for you when you were undeserving.  Only one God dared die for you when you rejected Him.  Only one God dared to love you deeply when you refused to love Him.  Only Jesus was willing to do this for you and demand nothing in return. 

    For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world may be saved through Him! 

    And if Jesus was raised from the dead, then this is most certainly true.  And when you put your trust in Him; when you put your trust in His saving actions, your life will be transformed.  Not in the sense of material possessions or health or financial well being, but with a peace that passes understanding and with a joy that can never be taken from you.  Today, Jesus invites you to trust Him.  Not with some simple belief, but with your entire being.  Let His wounds heal you that you may fall on your knees and say, “My Lord and my God.”  Amen.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

You Can't Be a Christian. Period.

Scrolling through my Facebook feed today, I encountered a post commented on by one of my friends:

"You Cannot be a Republican and a Christian."  You can Google the post if you like.  I'm not desirous to send any traffic that way.

Mirrors what I've seen from those who also say, "You Cannot be a Democrat and a Christian."  Seen that one before too.

The argument from both sides essentially boils down to this: (Insert party name here) does not follow the teachings of Jesus by what they try to accomplish, therefore, you cannot consider yourself a Christian if you vote for or call yourself a (insert party name here.)

Each side has its laundry list of dos and don'ts which prove the respective position.  One side usually harps on individual morality and sexual sins.  The other side focuses on corporate sins and the sin of greed. 

I have to wonder if folks actually read their Bibles.  I have to wonder if people actually take the teachings of Jesus seriously.  For I am quite certain that if they did understand what Jesus teaches and how He outlines the expectations of what it means to be His disciples, then they would understand: if being a Christian means that we must completely follow Jesus' teachings and accomplish how He tells us to live, then no one can be a Christian.  No one.  If following the teachings of Jesus is the measuring stick for Christian identity, then you can't be a Christian.  Period.

Some may think I am blasphemous.  Some may think they do a reasonable job of following Jesus.  I don't think so.  Unless you are comfortable doing exegetical gymnastics to explain away what Jesus literally said, then there is no possible way you can follow His teachings.  None.

Evidence?

Try this one on for size.  Should weed out the pool really, really quick.  In Luke chapter 14, Jesus teaches three criteria for discipleship.  He blatantly says, "If you don't do these things, then you can't become my disciple."  What are those things? 

1. Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Luke 14:26

2. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.  Luke 14:27

3. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.  Luke 14:33.

Is anyone left with a leg to stand on?

Is there anyone who hates family?  Spouse?  Children?  Life itself? 
Is there anyone who takes up the cross these days?
Is there anyone who gives up all possessions and lives with nothing?

Spare me your woeful attempts to soften this teaching by saying, "Jesus meant that we are to love Him more than our family or our possessions.  We can still love our family and have our possessions."

Nice try.  Seriously.  Nice try.

But you are interpreting Jesus' words to mean that, and that meaning is not found in the context of what Jesus is saying.  Neither is it implied in the Greek--or the English for that matter.

If you love your family.  If you love your children.  If you are not taking up the cross.  If you have possessions, then you cannot be a Christian!  Period.

So what gives you the right to say, "You can't be a Christian and be Republican" or "You can't be a Christian and be a Democrat"?  You have absolutely no leg to stand on if you are not following the criteria Jesus Himself set forth for discipleship.  You have absolutely no justification for speaking unless you yourself have accomplished what Jesus says "in the red letters." 

Do you see why finger pointing is meaningless?  Do you see why Christianity is not about following Jesus' teachings?

If it were, none of us could even begin to consider ourselves disciples.  None of us could ever begin to consider ourselves right in the eyes of God.  Anyone who took Jesus' teachings seriously as presented in the Biblical witness would say, "I give up.  I can't do this.  It's impossible."

And it is.  For us.

But the good news is that the Bible isn't primarily about us.  It's not primarily about our actions.  The trajectory of the Biblical account leads us squarely to Jesus.

Who hated family and would not be subject to them and their wishes.  (Luke 8)
Who carried the cross.
Who had no possessions.
Who lived the life we should live.
Who died the death we deserved (since we couldn't live the life we should).
Who placed His righteousness upon us so that we could be His disciples; not because we could follow His teachings, but because He loved us.

When we as Christians begin to draw lines and say, "You can't be a Christian if...," then we have lost the key concept of what makes Christianity different from all the other world's religions.  All the other world religions say, "Do this, and you will be accepted."  Christianity says, "You are accepted, now do this."

All the other world religions proclaim that you are saved, justified, and accepted based upon your actions.  Christianity says you are saved, justified, and accepted because of the actions of Jesus who is God come to earth.  The theological catch phrase is, we are justified by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.

Faith in that statement means trust.  It is not simply an intellectual assent.  It is something down deep within one's very soul which says, "I trust in the saving actions of Jesus and not in my own self.  I trust in His work and not my own.  For on my own, I could never fulfill what He commands."

Not the labors of my hands
Can fulfill thy law's demands
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and thou alone.

Were it not for Jesus' actions, no one could be a Christian.  But because of Him you can indeed be a Democrat and a Christian; a Republican and a Christian; a sinner and a Christian; a homosexual and a Christian; a heterosexual and a Christian; a man and a Christian; a woman and a Christian.

For as many of you as are baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. For there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  (Galatians 3:27-28.)

Your actions do not save you.  Jesus' actions do.  Your actions do not make you a Christian.  Jesus' does. 

Leave it up to Jesus.