Thursday, July 31, 2014

Israel and Hamas

It's a poor analogy, but one I sometimes feel.

I feel as if I were watching a spectator sport and people are arguing about why you should support one side over another--which side is better--which side is more in the right than the other.

And then, there are others who claim a stance of neutrality is more appropriate.  "I don't have a dog in the fight.  Why join in?"

We must also add the voices of those who say, "Why the battle at all?  What is the need for the game?"

In this case, the game is a game of life and death; grief and destruction.

Yesterday, I sat on the porch of a house built in the 1860s.  A pastoral visit had turned into an entire afternoon of hospitality, fellowship, and revelation--revelation in the sense of getting to know you better.

The 89 year old man was a World War II veteran who participated in the Battle of the Bulge.  He has witnessed entire towns blown to rubble.  He couldn't help but feel for those who might have been in those towns.  "You have to think that those are men and women and children over there.  They are supposed to be the enemy, but they are humans.  There is no glory in war; there is only pain.  The politicians get us into war, and its the young people who suffer."

This man has had many years to reflect upon what he saw and heard and participated in.  Such wisdom tends to be missing in many of the conversations I hear about ongoing conflicts around the world.

I wonder what it is to be a pawn in someone else's game.  For that is what mostly tends to happen in such situations.  Civilians become pawns in the games of those who seek power--for is that not what war truly is?  Is that not what ultimately politics really is?  A striving for power?  A striving for control?  And if I have enough power, no one will mess with me--through power, safety and peace are achieved.

I remember an empire which expanded with the same sort of ideals (does the Pax Romana mean anything to anyone?).  It was an empire which eventually crumbled.  As do all of them.

All empires eventually crumble.  Historically, all nations eventually fade.  Maps are redrawn all the time.

And it will not change.  It simply won't. 

Because there is a part of us which desperately desires safety and control.  And the best way to ensure safety and control is to draw boundaries.  Within these borders, I am safe.  And to maintain that safety, I must be strong.  I must be powerful.  I must be willing to defend those borders, and if expansion of those borders offers me more opportunity to be safe, then so be it!  And if I show the slightest amount of weakness, then my safety is diminished.

Power and safety.  Hamas.  Israel.  The pawns: the Palestinian people.  The battle rages.  There is no glory.  Only pain.

And there will be only pain for generation after generation after generation. 

Unless something can diffuse that which dominates the human heart.  Unless something can turn us away from the hunger for power and safety.

Oh, we try to put all sorts of treaties into place.  And we always appeal to self-interest, but self interest leads straight back to power and safety.  All the time.

What can break us out of such a thing? 

Christianity offers a path--a path not based upon power and safety but upon powerlessness and risk.  It centers upon Jesus who, though being full of the power of God--God incarnate--did not choose equality with God as something to be exploited, but He gave up that power to empty Himself on the cross.  He died to reconcile the world unto God AT GREAT RISK!

What does that mean?

Jesus died for us while we were still sinners.  He died for us and offered us forgiveness before we even asked for it.  He reconciled us to God while we were and still are unlovable.  Why?  Why would He do such a stupid thing?

Because it is contrary to power and safety.  It's contrary to the nature of our own hearts.  If God can die for us and love us while we were sinners; if God can give up power and control; if God can risk it all on us to love us when we were unmerciful; if God can show that He has already given His all for us; then that can change our hearts. 

I remember reading The Cross and the Switchblade many years ago.  I can remember a powerful moment when an evangelist spoke these words to a gang banger, "You can cut me into a thousand pieces, and every one of them will scream, 'I love you.'"  At that point, one of a couple of things will happen.  You will cut the person to pieces regardless and continue on your merry way, or you will be forced to consider why it is someone would willingly offer themselves up for you.  How can someone face death and destruction so willingly?  How can someone allow another to inflict pain and suffering without seeking power and safety?

If someone takes the time to contemplate, the Gospel begins to take root.  The Gospel begins to show a different avenue to power and safety.  It's the route to love and risk.  You still may be killed.  You still may be subjugated.  But you have no need of power and safety because you know of something better--something infinitely more powerful and something infinitely more secure.

It's still very easy to jump back to the default.  I mean, I know if someone were going after my family and children, I wouldn't hesitate to use power to bring them to safety.  That default position is very, very strong.  But I hope I wouldn't demonize the one antagonizing my family.  I hope my heart has been at least changed that much by the Gospel.

That Gospel, I believe is the hope for the world.  For Israel.  For Hamas.  For the Palestinians. 

Don't ask me to be a cheerleader for any side in this conflict.  Don't ask me to be neutral.  Don't ask me why folks just can't get along.

They can't until sin is confronted.  And the only remedy for sin is the Gospel.  And the Gospel commands me to be on both sides and against both sides at the same time.  And to pray like hell for peace.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How Do You Know You are a Beloved, Chosen, Child of God?

How does one come to know such a thing?

How does one believe one is connected to a Reality above and beyond our universe and is not simply deluded as Richard Dawkins and others say?

I mean, it is one thing to argue for the existence of God--and as I have said, this depends upon assumptions which cannot be proved.

It is another thing to argue for the existence of that God being personal.

It is another thing to argue that this personal God became flesh in Jesus Christ.

It is another thing to argue that Jesus was indeed the Son of God as He claimed to be.

It is another thing to argue that those who communicated to us the life, death, and resurrection of this Jesus were accurate in their portrayal and can be trusted.

But, how does one know in the depths of one's being that this Reality has taken hold in one's life?  How does one know he or she is chosen and beloved--especially without falling into the trap of self-righteousness and self-aggrandizement?

This question is borne out of a discussion on a Lutheran message board which I frequent.  A poster was upset about the situation in Israel and Palestine as Israel and Hamas continue to battle.  The poster has a definite stance on the issue and who is in the right and who is in the wrong--one that I do not completely share; however, the questions raised by this poster definitely are relevant:
Who is to tell if a people is delusional or whether they were somehow "Chosen". (sic)
Remember the Branch Davidians and Charles Manson's followers? Weren't they too Chosen?  How are we to tell? And Does that mean that anything done by the "Chosen People" is the WILL of GOD?
 
While the poster refers to Israel and the designation as the Jews as the "Chosen People," I think the questions highly relevant to those of us who are Christian for many Christians believe they too are chosen.  Many Christians believe they are holy--set apart.  And many Christians seem to act as though their actions coincide completely with the will of God. 

And we also see that those Christians who act in such a manner oftentimes leave us to scratch our heads.  How can you say you believe in God and yet go and talk badly about your neighbor?  How can you say you believe in Jesus and yet condemn people and their actions?  How can you say you go to church when your church doesn't welcome certain types of people and seems cliquish?  How can you say you are a Christian when you willingly support businesses who mistreat their workers all in the name of money?  How can you say you follow Jesus when you criticize other Christians and say they are not "Christian" enough?

Now, if I begin to base my response to the original question based upon actions, then I am guilty of doing the very things I raised above.  If I look at people doing the above things and judge them for not being Christian enough, then I am simply falling into the same trap of self-righteousness as if I have the moral high ground.  Which I don't. 

Which may be a key to beginning to answer the question.

For if we are all honest with ourselves, we know we are abject failures when it comes to living an upright and moral life.  Sure, we can say, "I'm not so bad.  I do some good things."  But, really, when you think about the standards of what it means not only to refrain from evil but also for promoting good, then we all fail.  Perhaps we can refrain from doing all sorts of evil deeds, but that does not necessarily make us good for while we may abstain from adultery, murder, hate, racism, and what have you, that does not necessarily mean we work for our neighbor's good at all times and in all places.  In fact, very few folks truly give without thought to how it will affect their financial situation.  Few folks purchase goods thinking about the impact of the workers who made them.  Few folks stand up to injustice and bullying and other such things preferring to allow the "experts" or those we pay handle them. 

In Christian terms, this means none of us stand before God as holy on our own terms.  None of us can approach the throne and say, "I have done good, You must accept me because my actions speak well of me."  St. Paul put it this way, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God."

If we truly look at ourselves, we see this.  If we don't, we need only find someone who will really speak the truth to us.  They will show us our shortcomings.  Hopefully, they will be compassionate when they do so.  If we take their criticism to heart and know they are not intentionally not trying to harm us, we do not get an inflated opinion of ourselves.

Yet, there would be quite a problem if we stopped here.  For if we simply look at ourselves and see our brokenness; if we only see our shortcomings; if we know we do not measure up; we can become very depressed.  We can think of ourselves no better than a worm; beggars; dressed in filthy rags.

And this is where the Gospel steps in.  This is where Jesus intercedes by His death and resurrection imparting to us His righteousness as He lived the life we should live and died the death we deserved.  Through His action, not our own, we are justified--this means we are looked at differently.  By ourselves?  Kind of.  But not necessarily.  We are looked at differently by God.  Instead of seeing a condemned sinner, God looks through the actions of Jesus and sees His child.  God sees a redeemed soul.  God sees someone clothed in Jesus' righteousness.  We are accepted by Him.

At the same time we are failures and accepted.  We are chosen and rejected.  We are saint and sinner.

If we find ourselves becoming depressed in our failure, we should remember we are children of God clothed in the righteousness of Christ.

If we find ourselves becoming haughty and thinking we are special because we are chosen, we need to remember we are actually failures.

Only by keeping the two poles in balance does one walk the line.  Only by keeping the two poles in dynamic tension does one find oneself deeply loved without crossing into the line of self-righteousness; self-glorification, and seeing one's self and actions as completely and totally in agreement with God's will. 

The Gospel--Christ's actions on our behalf--brings us to this place.  The world is in desperate need of that Gospel.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Your Prayers are too Small

    Martin Luther, the namesake of the Lutheran church wrote the following words in his Large Catechism as he explained one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.  He writes,

   For just as when the richest and most mighty emperor would bid a poor beggar ask whatever he might desire, and were ready to give great imperial presents, and the fool would beg only for a dish of gruel, he would be rightly considered a rogue and a scoundrel who treated the command of his imperial majesty as a jest and sport, and was not worthy of coming into his presence: so also it is a great reproach and dishonor to God if we, to whom He offers and pledges so many unspeakable treasures, despise the same, or have not the confidence to receive them, but scarcely venture to pray for a piece of bread.

    Now, what is Luther saying here?  Basically, he is saying our prayers are too small.  He’s saying that when we come before the creator of the universe–the one who made the heavens and the earth and who continues to sustain it each and every day–we ask for trifling things.  We are not audacious enough in our prayers to God.  Why so?

    Let’s delve into this by looking at our first lesson from the book of 1 Kings.  In this text, the great king of Israel, David has died and left the kingdom to his son Solomon.  Solomon is very young and unsure of himself.  God speaks to Solomon and basically says, “Ask whatever you want of me.”  Imagine God asking that of you.  Imagine God speaking to you and saying, “Ask what I should give you.”  What would you respond?  What would you say?

    Solomon, being young and unsure of himself in his new position of king gives a rather intriguing response.  He doesn’t ask for wealth or health or that he may defeat Israel’s enemies.  Solomon looks at the daunting task of ruling this kingdom, and he says, “9Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”   It’s an interesting request if you ask me.  Really interesting.  Why do I find the request so fascinating?

    If you remember back in the garden of Eden when God placed Adam and Eve in it, do you remember which tree they were forbidden to eat from?  Do you remember what the name of that tree was called?  I do.  I remember it vividly.  It was named the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  “For on the day you eat of its fruit, you shall surely die.”  But wanting to be like God, the man and woman ate of the fruit after some prodding by a nasty little serpent, and all hell broke loose.  I find it interesting that thousands of years later, Solomon wants the knowledge of good and evil so that he may discern between them as he governs the people.  Anyone else find this fascinating?

    God is actually rather pleased with this request.  We are told

10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 13I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. 14If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”

    All seems well and good, and if we just read this snippet, we might think our prayers should include this petition for wisdom and the discernment of good and evil.  But, as Paul Harvey used to say, now it’s time for the rest of the story.  Solomon started out in fantastic fashion.  He made some very good decisions.  He wrote a couple of the books of the Hebrew Bible–Proverbs and the Song of Solomon.  The Kingdom of Israel grew in power and prestige and wealth.  The discernment thing seemed pretty good.  But then something started to happen.  Solomon began doing some very wise things to help the Kingdom of Israel.  He began marrying quite a few foreign women.  Now, remember, marriages in those days were not for love.  Marriages were arranged for political and power purposes.  I mean, it was very hard to attack another nation when a king’s daughter was married to that other nation’s leader.  Solomon was making very wise decisions for Israel’s future, but it came at a great cost.  Solomon’s wives did not worship the Lord, and Solomon did not require them to.  He build altars to false gods and even worshiped them himself.  What happened to the discernment for good and evil? 

    Just this, Solomon’s request was too small.  It was too limited.  One cannot know and discern good and evil when one’s back is turned from the One who established the difference between good and evil.  Because Solomon turned his back on God, he is seen as a failure as a king despite Israel’s prosperity–and when Solomon died, the kingdom of Israel split apart.  It wasn’t pretty.

    Solomon’s prayer was too small.  He didn’t make a large enough request.  So, what might be a large enough request?  What might be a request befitting the Creator of the universe that doesn’t lead down the same path that Solomon walked?

    Interestingly enough, in the Gospel of John chapter 17, Jesus prays what is called the High Priestly Prayer.  In it, He says the following,

“20 ‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, 23I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

    Now, I want you to think about this for just a moment.  I know for decades pastors like myself have talked about church unity in regards to this prayer.  Church unity is important, but I think there is something much deeper taking place.  “Let them be one as you and I are one.”  What does this mean? 

    Remember, Christians profess God to be the Trinity.  From eternity, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have glorified, loved, and honored each other.  From eternity, these three have been in an inseparable divine dance filling each other with love and adoration.  They pour themselves into each other; never becoming empty; always remaining full of love and adoration.  As such, in their relationship, they are complete.  They are full.  They are completely and utterly satisfied, and Jesus prays that His followers may experience the same thing.

    How could such a thing be possible?  Let’s come back to asking God for something in prayer.  What is the most audacious thing we could ever ask for in prayer?  If, as Luther suggests, our prayers are too small, what could we ask for that would give God great honor and be so audacious as to seem over the top?  As I thought about this, it hit me: what if I prayed, God, give me You.  Yes, God, give me You.  I want You.  Nothing else is large enough.  Nothing else could satisfy.  Nothing else could bring comfort and peace and joy and security.  God, give me You!  What do you think God would say to such a request? 

    I’ll tell you what He’d say.  He’d say, “I already have.”

    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 so that the world may be saved through Him.  While we were still sinners, God took on flesh and lived among us.  God became incarnate in Jesus and poured out His life for each and every one of us.

    St. Paul puts it this way in the second chapter of the book of Philippians:

    5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.  9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

    God emptied Himself for you, and He still empties Himself for you.  Each time we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, we hear the words, “This IS the body of Christ given for you.  This IS the blood of Christ given for you.”  God gives Himself to you!!!  And we are told the Advocate, the Holy Spirit is our constant companion who lives in us and guides us in our daily activities.  God gives Himself to you!!!

    And yet, most of the time, we don’t even realize it.  We don’t realize that God has given Himself to us and delights in giving Himself to us–filling us so that we can pour ourselves out to Him and to each other.  We are constantly asking for health, wealth, healing, protection, peace, happiness, joy, and such things–which are not bad things, but they are too small.  They are bread crumbs compared to the one thing which can bring all of those things and much, much more.  The next time you ask God for something, be audacious.  Ask Him to give Himself to you, and don’t be surprised when you find: He already has, and He always will.  Amen.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like...

Matthew 13: 44-52

44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.  45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.  47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 

I am not preaching on this text for Sunday, but I did a little homily on it just a few hours ago for our Senior Service.  Something struck me as I prepared for the homily.

All my years, I have assumed the Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure or a pearl of great price.  I've assumed Jesus was making a direct comparison and a direct metaphor.

The consequences are plain for you and I: sell everything; give up everything for that one thing that satisfies.  We must sacrifice on our part to gain the treasure.  We have to do something to inherit the treasure of the field or the pearl of great price.

But what if the metaphor is the entire saying?

Think about it in those terms for just a moment.  Don't relegate the Kingdom of Heaven to a treasure or a pearl.  Think about it in terms of the ENTIRE parable.  It particularly works strongly for the second of these two sayings.  The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls.  He finds one.  He sells everything to obtain it.

What kind of state is the merchant in?  Where does he find himself after he has obtained the treasure?  What happens to the guy who purchases the field and has obtained the treasure?  What would their sense of being be?  (Awkward question and sentence structure, I know.)

If upon obtaining the treasure, they would be in a state of complete enjoyment and satisfaction?  Would they find a sense of bliss, peace, and joy?  Would they worry about anything?  Would they consume themselves with what their neighbor had?  Would their sense of joy and completeness trickle into their other relationships?  What state of being would they be in if they had obtained such a treasure?

Think about that.  Think about it hard.

And what if, as Christians, we already knew we had obtained the great treasure?  What if we already knew the pearl of great price was ours?  What if we already knew we had obtained the most valuable thing in the world?  How would that affect us as we lived our our daily lives?  How would we "live and move and have our being?"  What would our lives look like?

The Kingdom of Heaven?!!

And the Gospel--the Good News--is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we have obtained the treasure!!!  We have obtained the pearl of great price!!!  We have been reconciled unto God, clothed in the righteousness of Christ, and given eternal life!!!  God has given Himself for us--broken people that we are. 

And yet, many times, we don't realize it.  We get so consumed with our counterfeit gods and our self-righteousness to the point we become bitter, angry, and frustrated at the world and with our neighbor (who should just do what we say, and then everything would be okay!!!).  We fail to act in a spirit of love and compassion toward each other and toward the world and even toward God because we fail to grasp that He has already given us the treasure. 

Ponder for a moment that fact.  Through Christ, you have been justified.  God views you as His precious child--through no action of your own.  You have been given something worth everything.  How does that affect your heart? 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

We are Meant to be Here!

Last night, I was caught flat-footed.  It was not a bad thing in the least.

During our congregation council meeting, I was working through a "Finding Your Story" process which I had found immensely helpful in my own understanding of my calling as a pastor and person.  This process was actually meant to be done by groups as large as an entire congregation, so I asked my council to participate.

We spent 30 minutes dealing with six questions, the last one being, "The quotation reads, 'Your church can't be anything it wants to be, but  it can be everything God wants it to be.'  What do you think God's vision is for our church?"

During the duration of the question/answer time, I tried to remain as silent as possible.  This exercise was the council's exercise of which I tried to facilitate not dominate.  I wanted to hear what they thought of themselves.  The conversation was extremely fruitful for me to just listen, and I did so for this question as well. 

One of the answers caught me flat-footed. 

"God wants us TO BE HERE."

That was it.  An explanation followed:

One of the previous pastors came in and said he was basically told to shut the place down.  The synod had done demographic studies and all sorts of other studies which told them the congregation would not survive and it needed to move to a nearby town if it had any chance to continue.  The pastor had been sent to bury the last member and then shut the doors.  But no one here wanted that.  No one here wanted to see the doors of the church shut.  We didn't want to move and then be absorbed by another congregation or what have you.  Something then happened.  There were about 60 of us in worship at the time, and that little group managed to build a fellowship hall and a church building.  We managed to pay it off, and here we are now, thriving.  God wants us TO BE HERE!

Other thoughts were added: 

Yet, we don't want to get a big head about this, because then we get arrogant and think it was all about us.  We need to be humble.

I added:

That's why we preach the Gospel.  The Gospel tells us that it was and is God working through us to accomplish things.  We know everything comes from Him, so when the Gospel is preached and takes hold of us, we cannot get arrogant.  God wants us TO BE HERE and to PROCLAIM THE GOSPEL--WHAT HE HAS DONE.

Wrestling with God's vision for a congregation is a difficult thing.  Oftentimes, congregations focus on what they believe they are supposed to be doing.  Because of this, many times, it's not so much God's vision that comes through but the peoples' vision of themselves, but this seemed different.

GOD WANTS US TO BE HERE!  Being.  Not doing, being.  A presence formed by the Gospel and proclaiming that Gospel.  A presence formed by God's action in Jesus Christ and letting the community know about that action.  Everything flows from this.  Everything. 

This caught me flat-footed because the answer came so quickly from one of my council members.  It was not something agonized over and wrestled over with difficulty.  It flowed.  It caught me flat-footed because of its simplicity.  It caught me flat-footed because it seemed right--deep down in the core of my being, I sensed it was the Truth.  It caught me flat-footed because I expected something quite different, but what was said and brought forth was better than whatever expectation I had.

God wants us to be here.

Amen.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Weed or Wheat? Sermon on Matthew 13:24-30; 36-43

    So, are you a weed or are you wheat?  That is the question that is before us this morning.  And I’ll be up front with you–it’s a trick question.  Seriously.  It’s a trick question.   Why?

    Let’s look at Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the Weeds and the Wheat to begin with.  Jesus says, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    When you read this particular explanation, one thought usually goes through your head, “Man, I hope I am wheat.  I hope I’m not a weed because I don’t want to get thrown into the fire!”  And it’s interesting where our brains can go at this point.  It usually goes in one of two directions.

    First, the brain can take us to a place of great fear.  For those of us with guilty consciences, we begin examining our lives and say, “Uh oh!”  We say, “You know, I’m not such a good person down deep.  I get angry a lot.  I have impure thoughts and lust after people I am attracted to.  I love making money and having wealth and possessions.  I am not as charitable as I should.  I drink too much.  I am not as kind to others as I should be.  I don’t do a very good job of taking care of God’s creation.  I am broken.  I must be a weed.”  And we feel really, really bad about ourselves.  We carry a burden of guilt and shame, and a little black cloud seems to follow us around.  This is one response to this parable, and I think it’s the wrong one for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.

    The other response to this parable is quite different.  Some of us hear this parable and think, “Well, I’m not too bad of a person, I must be wheat!  I will end up in eternal glory!  I go to church regularly.  I put money in the offering plate.  I treat others decently.  I’ve provided for my family.  I love my spouse and my kids.  I do a few nice things from time to time.  Sure, I may have a few flaws, but my good deeds far outweigh those other moments I have.  God won’t hold that against me because I am pretty decent.”  When we are in this camp, we start feeling pretty good about ourselves, and before long, it actually has some interesting consequences.  Before long, we begin to look at others who don’t measure up to our standards as weeds.  “They just don’t have it all together like I do.  Those folks aren’t quite doing what God asks them to do, and they’d better get with the program or they will be in for a hot time.  That church over there doesn’t teach the Bible right, and God isn’t happy with them.”  Before long, the folks who believe they are wheat end up with a self-righteous attitude that looks down on others who they believe are weeds.  This is another common response to this parable, and again, I think it’s the wrong one.

    Why would I say that these two responses are wrong?  Here’s why: I don’t think God wants us to end up in either of these places.  I don’t think God wants us to end up worried and frightened and depressed thinking we are a rotten worm who can’t do a lick of good.  Neither do I think that God wants us to end up thinking ourselves better than anyone else with self-righteous behavior.  Both of these responses are dead wrong.

    But the question is how do we avoid falling into either one of these responses?  How do we avoid thinking of ourselves as weeds?  How do we avoid thinking of ourselves as wheat?  –Especially when the pastor starts off his sermon by asking, “Are you weeds or wheat?”  Remember, I told you that was a trick question.

    The answer is, of course, the Gospel.  “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 so that the world may be saved through Him.”  Remember, God did this, God took on flesh and entered into the world not because we were good–not because we were following His commands and His Law, but precisely the opposite.  God did this because we could not follow His Law.  We could not follow His commandments.  We could not be good people.  We were and are broken, and could not live up to God’s standards.  We could not redeem the world and reconcile ourselves unto God, so He acted for us.  He redeemed us while we were still sinners.  Let’s put this in the terms of the parable, God sent His son into the world to be wheat while we were still weeds, and by grace, Jesus took our weediness upon Himself and faced the fire so that we could become wheat.

    How does this happen?  I think we have to remember that Jesus came into this world to do two things: to live the life we should live and to die the death we deserve.  First, Jesus lived the life we should live.  Jesus followed the commandments of God perfectly.  He lived totally dependent upon God.  He did not seek wealth and privilege.  When Satan tempted Jesus, Jesus walked away.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus did the exact opposite of Adam and Eve–instead of seeking to save His own skin and be dependent upon Himself, Jesus sought obedience to the Father.  Jesus did all the stuff we should have done.  He lived the perfect life when we could not.

    And then He died the death we deserved.  Because of our selfishness, because of our desire to be gods ourselves, we issued into the world violence, death, disease, racism, sexism, warfare, and all sorts of evil.  We were created to be the caretakers of creation, and as such we were the lynch pin for creation as well.  When we rejected dependence on God for our own desires, we allowed all this stuff to happen, and we participate in it to this day!  What should the penalty for all of this be?  Nothing less than enduring the entire wrath of God.  The only problem with that is, we could never endure that.  Never.  We would be blasted out of existence.  And God knew this.  He wanted more for His creation, and so He sent the Son to endure that wrath for us.  Only God could endure God’s wrath, and Jesus suffered that on the cross.  He died the death we deserved to justify us.   And what does that justification mean?

    Just this–and this is important–it doesn’t mean that we completely stop sinning.  It doesn’t mean we have become perfect.  It doesn’t mean we are perfect people who are perfect in our actions.  Far from it.  It means God looks at us differently.  God looks at us through the actions of Jesus.  Our sin has been taken up on Jesus, and Jesus’ righteousness has been imparted to us.  In other words, we are still weeds, but because of what Jesus has done, God sees us as wheat.  Think about that for a moment. 

    I like how Timothy Keller put this: “In the sight of God, we are justified.  In ourselves, we are sinners.  A Christian is an honored failure–a righteous sinner–a justified sinner.”  Listen to that statement one more time: a Christian is an honored failure.  We are both saint and sinner.  We are both weed and wheat at the same time.  This is what the Gospel helps us understand.  And what does this mean?  How does it help us get away from the consequences that I spoke of earlier?

    Just this: if you think you are a weed and are a horrible, terrible person who can’t do anything right–the Gospel says, think about this for a moment–God sent His Son to die for you.  God does not want you to perish.  You are of too much value to Him.  Do not consider yourself rubbish.  Do not get down and depressed about yourself.  You are loved.  You are cherished.  All you need to do is look at the cross to see what price God paid for you.  You are that dear to Him.  Pick your chin up.  Know that you are a child of God.

    And if you believe you are wheat and that you can look down your nose at others because of your righteousness, the Gospel says–not so fast buddy.  You don’t even come close.  You aren’t as good as you think you are.  You are still a sinner.  You still don’t follow the commandments of Jesus.  You still don’t love in the manner God calls you to love.  The only reason you have any standing with God is because of what Jesus has done–not because of anything you do.  Get your nose out of the clouds for it doesn’t belong there.  Be humble.  You are only a child of God because of what Jesus has done, not because of what you do.

    The Gospel raises the lowly and it brings down the haughty.  The Gospel lets us escape the two fold trap which leads either to depression or self-righteousness.  The Gospel helps us see that we are not exclusively weeds nor exclusively wheat.  We are both at the same time.  We are honored failures.  We are justified sinners.  This is what it means to be a Christian.  Amen.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What is Your Definition of a Christian?

A Facebook friend asked this question in her status. 

It made me think.

Hard.

I mean, at one level, the definition of a Christian would seem to be very simple: one who follows Christ.  But is that the sum and substance of what it means to be a Christian?  I mean, I know of quite a few folks who follow Jesus, but they are not professing Christians.  There are may who profess to be Christians--they say they follow Jesus, but they do not worship or receive the sacraments.

And it goes further. 

In the intramural debates within Christianity, there are many who point fingers accusingly in our culture.  Those on the "right" hand side of the squabble point to those on the "left" hand side and say, "You aren't following Jesus because your morals are out of whack!  You support gay marriage; the ordination of practicing homosexuals; legalized abortion; the legalization of marijuana; banning prayer from schools; the promotion of safe sex; and so on and so forth.  You are not true Christians!!!"

Those on the "left" are just as vociferous toward those on the "right."  "You aren't following Jesus because you don't care about justice.  You care more about your pocket book and supporting the rich and do not want to fight for health care; to ensure those in poverty are not kept there; to end racism, sexism, ageism, and whatever other ism is out there!   You don't care about the environment!  You don't care about the structures that cause poverty!  You are not true Christians!!!"

The truth of the matter is--no one follows Jesus correctly.  No one.  None live up to His standard, and the self-righteous finger pointing that we do only serves as an illustration of this fact.  When we, as Christians, act in such a fashion, are we no different than the disciples who argued about who should sit at Jesus' right and left hand as they walked along the road?  Jesus had a few words of chastisement for such behavior. Yet, we cannot seem to escape it.  We cannot seem to get passed arguing about who follows Jesus "better." 

And so when we try to say a Christian is one who follows Jesus, we inevitably find ourselves in a conundrum.  For who really follows Jesus by Jesus' standards?

But that is just the tip of the proverbial ice berg.  There is even more to this because there are quite a few doctrinal concerns to deal with as well when it comes to defining what it means to be a Christian which are not tied to simply following the commands Jesus offers.

  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe in the Trinity?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe in Jesus' divinity?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe the Bible is inerrant or infallible?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who does not believe in the resurrection?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who is not baptized?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who rejects the miraculous?
  • Can a person be defined as a follower of Jesus--strictly speaking--who rejects substitutionary atonement?
Oh, and there could be quite a bit more things added to this short list.

As I reflected upon such things, I realized how much emphasis was placed on how WE acted and what WE believed.   The definition of a Christian centered on us, but Christianity isn't about us, is it?  Christianity isn't about our actions and our beliefs.  It's about God's action through Jesus Christ.  It's about God's grace bestowed upon the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

Shouldn't the definition of a Christian center upon God and His work and not our own?

Using this as the starting point, I propose the following:

A Christian is one whom God views as redeemed by what Jesus has done.

I invite your thoughts.