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Sunday, November 22, 2015

What Kind of King, Jesus?

In Jesus' day, the last "King of the Jews" had been dead for well over 500 years. In the interim, the years of exile, conquests by numerous foes, and the current oppression of the Roman Empire made a mockery of the idea of a Jewish King. God's promise to David was arguably an empty one. Yet, the Jews had clung to this hope, at times energetically, longing for salvation and deliverance.

In today's Gospel Pilate asks, "Are you the King of the Jews?'' Jesus an itinerant preacher, healer and exorcist is not an obvious candidate for such a title.

Days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, I saw a news report that the French Air Force launched numerous attacks on ISIS strongholds. My emotional reaction was positive. Of course it was; I am a partisan. I like my team and want my team to win. I grew up in a military family. I played war growing up and was drenched in the mythology of good guys and bad guys my entire childhood. Saviors were good guys who beat the bad guys---whether a knight in shining armor, a lone sheriff staring down the bad guys, or soldier in battle. I internalized the message that a real man is a good man who will fight to protect his family and his country. I fantasized about being a good guy. ISIS has made a strong case that they are bad guys! Crushing the bad guys feels good!

But as Tolkien showed us in Lord of the Rings, Power is seductive. Power used in the cause of righteousness is addictive and consuming. We listen to the lament that the White House lacks direction. We hear the call for strong leadership and a strong military. Few of us would disagree. It just makes sense to us, right? Meet a threat with sufficient force to eliminate the threat. Action heroes are saviors. Power must be used to make the world better.

This is not a new idea. It was certainly present in ancient times. Rome worshiped her conquering heroes as gods! The Jewish Scriptures extol military victories of Joshua, Judges and Kings (and Maccabees). This message of power is echoed in the the Apocalypse. Our God reigns, our God is mighty to deliver us, our God comes in wrath to bring vengeance upon a sinful world! Bad guys are going to get hell and aren't we happy to be wearing white hats.

But there is, as Paul Harvey says, the rest of the story.

In the four Gospels, King Jesus, it turns out, is no conquering hero. The injustice of Roman oppression is not punished. Jesus does not summon an army to release the captives or establish a truly just society. Jesus does not take up sword and shield and lead an army to throw out the Roman occupiers. Jesus is not the King we long for at all. If you were a Jew who thought Jesus was the Anointed King come to save you from Roman abuses, would you be tempted to critique His lack of strong leadership? His inability to act decisively to rescue His people? His failure to rid the world of the Roman threat?

Lets be clear, the mind numbing atrocities of ISIS are repugnant evil. Murdering teenagers at a concert or blowing up innocents on a sidewalk cafe are beyond reprehensible. But, you are ignorant of history if you think that the Roman occupation of Judah was any less oppressive, unjust or malignant. Thousands of Jews were crucified and slaughtered. Thousands. Their lives no less significant because they lived long ago and far away. The horrors of Jesus' day are not any less horrible because it happened to them and not us.

So what am I saying?

I am saying that we know the answer to Pilate's question.
"Jesus, are you the King of the Jews?"

But what kind of King is He?

He is a King who handed Himself over to the Evil Empire of His age---and suffered and died.
By His wounds we are healed.

He is a king who loved the unlovable and embraced the unembracable.
He is a king who forgives the unforgivable and loves those who hate Him.
He is a king who wears a crown of thorns and is enthroned on a cross.

Today we can bomb ISIS into non-existence but tomorrow a new evil will take its place. Remember the great war against Nazis and Fascists? the cold war against communism? There are, 1 John tells us, many anti-Christs. ISIS must be defeated as it is another diabolical manifestation of satan's dark realm. But, ISIS is no the ultimate issue...You and I are confronted this day with a question that runs deeper than current events; an eternal question for every age.

What kind of King is Jesus?
He is a healer. An exorcist. A teacher and a reconciler. A man who loved children and outcasts and prophetically confronted the power brokers of church and state. Our King is the high priest and the sacrificial lamb. He is the light and love of God for a dark and sinful world. He is a king who refuses to summon the army which could save Him from a tortuous death on a cross.

Jesus is the True King of the World...
And if such a man is our king, how then shall we live as citizens of His Kingdom?
It boggles the mind...

Sunday School: Which Narrative do You Believe?

Sunday School

There is a connection between our thoughts and feelings, our believing and our living. This is more than the mind-body connection. It goes to what is in the mind (content) and how that impacts our life.
My sabbatical reading took an unexpected turn. Planning to read on St. Paul's Apocalyptic understanding about Justification and Genesis Commentaries, I entered Phase II with a readiness to study and learn. While I studied and learned, I found myself, whether drawn or pushed, immersing myself in books on Healing, Deliverance and Contemplative Spirituality. I read about seven or eight books, each one layering its insights to overlap and reinforce the other. Even the Daily readings (psalms and Bible lections), my devotional, and the devotional pages sent to me by others seemed to fit together to communicate a consistent message.

1. Loving God is the way to encounter God. Our intellects (theological knowledge) are too limited. Understanding Scripture must be also an effort to encounter (be encompassed by) God.
2. Faith is central. Not just head belief in ideas but heart entrusting, life transforming, risk taking, self giving trust and faith.
3. God has made promises which we must choose to believe/trust or else we live outside the Kingdom of Light and remain in the dark.

I want to spend our first class investigating this. However, I am being led to try to make it more like a cooking class than a lecture hall. Teaching about prayer is best done by instruction and practice.

As I have taught and written hundreds of times, Biblical Faith has three components:
*What do I believe? --this is contentual and has a cognitive element. It is in response to revelation. It is a work of reason. It is expressed in a creed. It is expounded in a catechism. It is the work of theology. It is words, thoughts and ideas. It is believing in the sense of thinking.
*Do I care? -- this is has to do with personal relevance and engagement: feelings, emotions, desires. There is a passive aspect to it (in the sense that moods affect it and we cannot generate feelings sometimes). This is our 'reaction' (gut level). This is the dimension of self investment: motivation and energy. This is the place where head and heart meet and generate choices.
[it may be true, but if I do not care it won't impact me.]
*Do I live it?--the realm of the active Will: action, response, behavior, speech, choice. It may be in my head as a "fact/factoid" and it may "mean the world to me" emotionally, but if it is never incarnate in my life then it is an idea and passing feeling. What I say and do, how I actually live it out matters too. And the "living" shapes and reinforces the "believing/thinking" and the "feeling/caring." We can live a life which makes the Kingdom life less important to us (this is why Jesus says it is so hard for a rich man to enter the Kingdom, or why an unforgiving person cannot receive God's mercy, and you reap what you sow.) Human life is organic. Real lives lived in reality impact what God can do!

The three dimensions form a 3D cube. There are three sliding scales of positive or negative. Believing, Caring, Living can each be "more or less." (Like those surveys: Very weak, weak, strong, very strong)

Lastly, how is (tripartite) "Biblical Faith" lived out? Am I alone or am I with others? Am I Adam in the Garden, isolated and alone (individual), or am I unconscious and simply part of the whole without personal investment (Israel in the desert) or am I personally the church, in the communion of saints and a member of the body of Christ? As I finished writing these notes I got a text, almost immediately. It was a quote from Hebrews 10:23 "Let us hold hast to the confession of our hope without wavering for He who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching."

I call this a sync. Words which seem to come from God to direct me. I heard confirmed what I had chosen to teach this day.
Deep faith in God.
Lived out together.
No wavering and doubt.
Committed to love and care for one another.

A couple weeks ago, as I pondered my "day approaching" I had a picture/vision of this room and as I looked out I saw Ashley sitting here--- where she sits. And I suddenly saw here hold her baby son and I was filled with such joy at the love I see there. And God seemed to say, "Do you remember in Isaiah when I said that even if a mother could forget her child, I could never forget you"? (Is 49:5) And I texted Ashley and told her what I felt in  my heart from God and she said I could share it.

That is a promise of God.
God says lots of things in the Bible. Judgement texts with threats. Mercy texts with hope. Love texts with commitment to be kind and forgiving, patient and faithful. God says He will doom the land, but He also says He will save it. How we read the Bible is determined by the Primary Narrative which is in our heart.

Do you believe, at core, the message of God's revelation is bad news? or is it Good News?
Jesus answers the question. Yes judgement is real, but at core, The Narrative is a promise of salvation.

Do we believe it? Do we care? Will we act on our faith and be faith-filled and faithful? Will we engage others (love) and trust it together?

What I learned from my readings, (many readings by authors of diverse backgrounds, from hundreds of years ago and dozens of years ago) is that if we want to live in the Kingdom, live in fuller communion with God and see the power of God manifest, then we need to believe, care, and act--together. One important way of doing that is to openly declare our understanding of the Good News: what is the narrative which you believe? Do you see God as a Mother who loves His child? if so, what then would you expect from such a God?

Meditation and Contemplation upon these things (going deeper and deeper) is fundamental to our personal growth in Biblical (three dimensional) faith and it is a faith which prospers best in a faith community. As such we are going to practice such a "Triune-Faith" experientially.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Matthew 17 & 18

Gospels are a unique literary type. We easily see them as biographies (why wouldn't we?) and assume their purpose is to bring us information about historical events (which prove Jesus is God). This, of course, has some element of truth. The stories are events from the life of Jesus and the church. Jesus is the Son of God/God the Son and the Gospels are a testimony which invites us to believe. But they aren't a biography in the modern sense. The point is not to provide us with a birth to death story of Jesus' life. They are Gospel--Good News--about the Kingdom of God and Jesus' role as Messiah King.

Matthew, with his own purposes, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, provides us with an account of the Gospel. Scholars assume he used Mark as a basis and added another source, a collection of  sayings (in common with Luke) as well as his own sources either oral or written. In addition, the times in which he lived (20 to 50 years after Jesus) influenced how the message is transmitted. The changes he makes to Mark reflects this. One difference is that Mark says "Jesus taught" and Matthew has provided us with numerous chapters of the actual content of the teaching. The relationship of the church to Judaism also changed over the decades. It was more a Gentile church by the close of the first century than a Jewish sect.

Mt 17:1-8 The Jewish Scriptures contain extensive narratives about Moses, and one hears echos of that here. In fact, Moses and Elijah (Torah and Prophets) are identified. This remind us that Jesus is a Jewish Messiah and the New Testament is an extension of the First Covenant(s). The light shining out of Jesus is not an uncommon thing--God manifests as light frequently with holy people. The metamorphoo (changed into another form, transfigured) is a revelation of Jesus' inner being. Daniel's prophecies about the (one like a) Son of Man are found here as well. The Voice explains that Jesus is the beloved Son (remember the baptism, remember God to Abraham about Isaac), however, unique to Matthew, is the declaration "with whom I am well pleased." Rather than "rabbi" (per Mark) Peter calls Jesus "Lord" here. In addition, only Matthew says that the apostles fell on their faces, and Jesus touched them and said "Rise and have no fear." Such additional elements remind us that --if we meditate on the event--we will understand the awe-some (and frightening) nature of this event.

17:9-13 As they come down the mountain (an image and metaphor much used to contrast a "spiritual high"--like retreats--and "real life"--the grind of every day) we learn that Jesus calls this a "vision" (horama. only time used in a Gospel; quite frequent in Acts about Peter and Paul). What exactly happened is hard to know (was it something that everyone could have seen or was it limited to just the three? Apparitions of Mary have frequently been limited to the children who see her, while others in attendance may "experience something" but do not see her themselves). The theological discussion about Elijah is further clarified in Matthew. He states that it is John the Baptist. Christian depictions of John (his clothing) are an overt illustration of this. Matthew also adds a prediction of the Lord's passion here. The glory is not without the cross. (However much happy-clappy spirituality would imply that it is joy and abundance all the time) I prefer the bright lights to the bloody suffering, how about you?

17:14-21 "Reality" hits us at the bottom of the hill. A man comes to Jesus (Matthew has him kneel--notice Matthew wants his reader to understand who Jesus is, His exalted status, by making shifts to Mark's account). It is an epic fail by the apostles who are unable to cure/exorcise the man's demon afflicted, epileptic son. Jesus' reaction is harsh. Matthew (and Luke) both add the word "perverse" to Mark's original "faithless" (which may be an intentional allusion to Moses in Deuteronomy 32:5) This is not characteristic of Matthew, who generally replaces Mark's "faithless" with "ones of little faith." What makes this so hard to meditate on is the sorry state of the church in its healing ministry in the industrial West. Our healing team has certainly struggled with this, and most churches either don't even try, they preach against it (saying "healing ended with Jesus and the apostles"---ignoring church history and the thousands of cases which prove that wrong!) Matthew, as is his tendency, omits much detail from Mark's account. Jesus heals the boy and he is "cured instantly" (in Mark the boys convulses terribly and becomes like a corpse, the people say he is dead and Jesus takes his hand, lifts him up and he arises). The baffled apostles ask, "Why couldn't we do it?" In Mark Jesus' answer is that there needs to be prayer. In Matthew it serves as an illustration of the problem. You have "little faith" (Matthew) but he also uses the statement about faith the size of a mustard seed. Ironically, the mustard seed is called the smallest of all seeds in a parable. The statement is found also in Mt 21 when Jesus curses the fig tree. Small faith may be a problem for healing, but it is enough to raise a mountain and throw it in the sea! The healing ministry, I think, is the great divider between big and little faith. We need to believe more and act as true apostles of Jesus! Note in Mark the emphasis is on the (supplicant) father's faith in Jesus to heal (and a prayer for more faith) while here it is on the disciples' lack of faith as ministers.

Mt 17:22-27  The second prediction of the His death and resurrection make clear the centrality of that. Matthew emphasizes the apostles' distress (against Mark's "confusion" and "fear"). The "expectedness" of the cross and resurrection is an important part of the story. It illustrates God's plan.
In tandem with this is one of the more "amazing" stories of Jesus. He knows from afar that Peter (note Jesus calls him Simon) was approached about the failure to pay the half shekel Temple tax. It becomes a Christological illustration (as Son He should not pay His Father/King). However, Jesus does not want to "scandalize/cause to stumble" so He has Simon Peter fish up a miracle! This seems to indicate Jesus has no money. The tension of fidelity to the Jewish faith and the freedom of Jesus are in play here.

Mt 18:1-14 We see the issue of scandal coming up again in this section. It is thought that some of the sayings of Jesus were grouped thematically and perhaps that is why this section has a bumpy feel... The apostles ask Jesus who is the greatest in the Kingdom? In Mark the disciples are arguing with one another about who is the greatest? Matthew's streamlined version emphasizes the child more. Children were loved in Jewish homes, but it was hardly a child-centered society like ours can tend to be (in family values areas). A child has no more status than the poor, the sick, the outcast and the folks whom Jesus seems intent on saving! It is hard for successful middle class types to understand the radical nature of Jesus' message. We prefer to be assertive and powerful. Jesus illustration with the child, I think, helps us understand what "saved by faith alone" really means. It is when we feel smallest and most helpless that we must rely on God. For most of us, God is Plan B (or C). We trust God , but trusting is easiest when we feel power and control over our lives. Jesus says greatness is in abject weakness. But what else would a crucified Messiah think?

The child-scandal connection is made in what follows. Jesus is very protective of the poor and weak and makes clear that those who cause them to fall are better off dead. How often do we, in our righteousness and education, trample on the faith of "little ones" which don't measure up to our standards?

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Back! Thursday Bible Study

Sabbatical is over. I will resume writing and posting my Bible Study reflections, Sermons and Sunday School Notes.

This week our readings are taken from Maccabees. This book is not in the Protestant canon of Scripture, but it is a fascinating story of the Jews during the time between Alexander the Great and Jesus. It recounts the efforts of the Jewish people to throw off the oppression of the Syrian  overlord who was trying to Hellenize them (make them like the Greek culture). Issues of Jewish laws (dietary and circumcision) became life or death. Earlier we read of the slaughter of families, including the murder of babies. It is not far removed from the atrocities of ISIS in today's news reporting. One fascinating aspect of the story is the tension between two approaches to God's salvation (in the sense of the Jewish Bible). The (so-called) Old Testament (think of it as Jesus' Scripture) is very much focused on God's salvation. The word salvation has many dimensions: healed, rescued, forgiven, restored, blessed with health and abundance. When a person cried out to (YHWH) God, the salvation longed for was generally in this plain of existence.

Divine causality (what we receive as a gift) and human causality (what we must do for ourselves) are overlapping but separate realms. What should one do in the face of insurmountable odds, limited resources, and grave suffering? What should one do when the (Jewish) faith is at risk of annihilation and extinction? Maccabees (like Exodus and Ezra/Nehemiah) is the story of the Jewish people surviving another threat to their existence. It is the context for our New Testament as the religious practices of Jesus' day were deeply influenced and affected by the events unfolding in Maccabees.

Does God help those who help themselves (in 1 Maccabees they take up arms and fight many battles, just like under Joshua, Judges and Kings)? Is God's gift of salvation in and through our human choices and behaviors? Or is it something for which we wait more passively? Is it beyond our control and too large for our efforts? Must the deliverance be an intervention "from heaven" and a  miraculous work of God? (This is more the emphasis in some of the other Maccabean writings--there are four in all) The dilemma is expressed in the story of the Sabbath massacre. A large group of Jews, unwilling to fight on the Sabbath, were put to the sword in their desert hiding place. This created a crisis; and the Maccabees decided that they would fight on the Sabbath to stay alive. The paradox, is they were fighting for their Law, including the Sabbath. "Sometimes you have to break the law to save the law..." is certainly a problem.

Revelation 20-22
Coming from the end of this work, these readings are full of the same mysterious images and references which constitute "apocalyptic" (An English transliteration of the Greek word meaning "unveiling" or "revelation"). In contrast to the "historical" Maccabees (with its details of human wars and God helping) the Revelation is mystical, heaven focused and God driven. It shows the impact of the unseen spiritual realm on the earthly realm. While there are dozens of approaches to this work (history, timeline for end of world, symbolic expression of the past, present, future or any age) clearly the message is that some day "this" world will end and with it the dark power of earthly rulers opposed to God and the spiritual entities (devil) behind it all. In The Revelation the struggles of this life (think wars and oppression) are actually spiritual warfare between competing "kings": God the True King (and His Messiah) versus human and demonic "counterfeits."

The story line is familiar, (and while I think Jesus Himself has made it clear that "no one knows the day or the hour" and implies the end will take us by surprise) enemies are punished, all people are judged, and the reign of God comes down from heaven to earth. Tuesday's reading is especially poignant for me as it my preferred text for funerals. No more tears, no more death, no more sorrow, no more suffering--such things will pass away. This is the Christian Hope (and the hope and desire of every human longing to escape life's burdens). The Apocalypse of John is written to give hope, it is an exhortation to faith and and entreaty to remain faithful. The justification of that struggle is the promise of God. "Better days are coming" is the Christian attitude to every disaster.. Better days are coming when God and His son reign among us and are our Sun and Light, our Temple.

There is not time nor space for a detailed analysis of these chapters. I did that in my bible study years ago. However, most of the imagery comes from the Jewish Scriptures. The references are piled, one upon another, as the Torah, Prophets and other writings are incorporated into this text before us. Another point, during this time period numerous apocalypses were written by both Jews and Christians. We do well to understand these writings in the context of that ancient literature. Biblical books are written in Hebrew and Greek. We translate them into English so we can read and understand them. The work of "translation" requires additional effort, however. The "rules' of literature must be understood. For example, the heavenly Jerusalem is a cube. It is 144 cubits (12x12). There are 12 gates (each one a pearl) and 12 Foundations. The names of the sons of Jacob and Apostles are attached to them. This is a reminder that Christianity is Jewish to its core. Trying to figure out how a pearl is a gate is beside the point. The author frequently says " it is like"... Apocalyptic is dream language, it has multiple meanings and allows for many meanings. It is overfull and too much for our minds to comprehend!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Who do you say that I am?

Who am I? Jesus asks...

Last week Fr. David and I were the spiritual directors for Happening retreat for high school youth. One of the first talks has to do with self identity. "Who am I?" was also a huge question for the youth I worked with thirty years ago. It was a huge issue for me and my peers. Some things have not changed...

The "who am I?" question is particularly relevant to the teen aged transition from childhood to adulthood. It is also a lifelong question for particular types of personality. While some ask "what should I do?" or "how does this work?" or "can we have fun?" -- there is a subset of individuals who are forever haunted by the question, "Who am I?"

"Who am I?"
Personal identity matters. Who I am produces what I do. It shapes my relationships and human interactions. My identity impacts my way of being in the world.

Identity questions are at the heart of several stages of human development. "Who am I?" asks the anxious teen--and for them it is informative for deciding what to do with the future: "What do I want to be when I grow up?" For those of us who have passed through the summer of life and are entering the winter years, (people sixty or above) the same question,"Who am I?" now has a different slant---it is the work of being reconciled with the choices and decisions we have made: that pile of memories which form the story of our lifetime. Many of us are at the point in life when we have to come to grips with the realities which we have made out of all those possibilities which lay before as young people.

God's Wisdom cries out to us, whether we are freshly on the path or tottering towards its end. Wisdom invites us to ask the questions, "Who am I? What will I be? Who am I? What have I done and become?" But Wisdom warns us that our hearts are foolish and our minds unfocused. The silliness of the world and flesh are obstacles to clear, wise thinking. The silliness of Satan's rebellious temptation can seduce and mislead us. Wisdom calls out to us in the streets of our life. Who will leave silliness and folly?

"Who am I?" is a social, political, psychological, economic question. A battery of tests and interviews are helpful in uncovering the answer. However, it is also a deeper question, a theological question.

Who am I in the eyes of God? That is what Jesus was really asking.
Peter correctly answered. You are the Messiah. 
He had knowledge of the truth, but He lacked the fullness of wisdom. He knew Jesus was the Messiah; he did not understand what that title meant.
That's the problem of being smart but not wise! We get the answer right but are still blind to what the answer means...

The Messiah, Jesus said, must suffer greatly then die, then rise again. 
The Messiah, Peter answered, will do nothing of the sort.
And that is the subtle work of Satan, which Jesus unmasks with brutal honesty. Peter, the one who confesses Jesus, is now the one who betrays Jesus. (A role which he will occupy again later in the Gospel.) As we read about him, we do well to ask how the spirit of Peter, the spirit of the satan, is at work in our own relationship with Jesus!

Knowing Who Jesus is and knowing what that means is the first step. As Jesus quickly makes clear: the identity of Jesus is the source of our own identity. 

Who He is makes us who we are. "Follow me" He says. "do what I do....carry a cross. Lose your life in Me so you can save it. Do not listen to the world. They offer you a counterfeit salvation..."

Who am I?
I am Jesus' disciple. 
That is my identity, my relationship to Jesus is more central to answering the question-- "Who am I?" --than any other could be.

"Will I be a good person or a bad person? Will I be faithful?" ask the young people.
"Am I a good man or a bad man? Have I been faithful?" Others of us now wonder.

"Have I lived a life worthy of the Lord?" It is a question to fret about.

Such questions need asking and they need answering. But they are not the central question. The central question of identity, the truest meaning of "who am I?" is found in the relationship I have with Messiah. 

Am I His?
Do I love Jesus?
Do I live my life and see myself in terms of Him?
Have I decreased so He can increase? For that is who I am and that is what I must do---suffer and die my self---to be His.

I pray we each have the courage to embrace our crosses and the endurance to carry that cross across the dry, hot days of our lives.
I pray we will carry them with joy. The joy which flows from peace, a peace we experience because we follow Jesus. I pray for the joy that flows from hope--the hope that crucifixion is not the last word. Resurrection is the last word.
Not hate, but love.
Not darkness, but light
Not death, but life.
Not despair, but hope.

Who Am I?
Who are you?  

You, me----we are His! Who else would we want to be?

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Weekly Readings: Philippians

I will always remember that phone conversation. My dad told me he had terminal pancreatic cancer. I knew he had been tired and low on energy; we now understood this was a bigger issue. As we faced his death together I simply told him, "you know I love you and I believe when you die you will be with God." Harsh Reality makes us see what we believe. I think this is what makes Paul's letter to the Philippians so interesting and significant. Paul is imprisoned, probably knowing his future is bleak by human standards. Facing that threat on his life, he is now sharing his beliefs-- not the empty posturing of a safe and secure person nattering about his nominal faith, but the actual confession of a man who is going into the depths of his being to share what is there.

Paul holds back none his raw human emotion. His passion for God and the people of God in that church in Phillipi  pour out. It is tempting to think that Christian love is an emotionless business--like simply doing good, but Paul shares with us that there are strong human connections here. However, the aim is not mutual love alone, it is a love which turns the beloved to Christ. Paul desires that they become more and more knowledgeable and loving of Christ. Paul's other concern is that Jesus be glorified. He writes about that desire--admitting that he would prefer to die to be with Jesus, but duty bound to remain alive to serve the church. Some people say that God does not need us---Paul seems to think that we have an important part to play in salvation. In this real creation, God needs human servants to do the work. Selfless love seeks to serve.

Chapter 2 contains an early hymn about Jesus. It is easy to forget that those middle eastern people living in the first century were just as real as we are. They sang songs. Their hymns were an expression of their faith, and Paul says the hymn is also a measure by which to  live one's life. "Be like Jesus..." he says. Selflessness (expressed in a variety of descriptors) is Christological! The ancient Jews had concepts (from Scripture) which anticipate the belief in the Incarnation. The "word" comes to prophets, "Wisdom" is personalized, "Torah" is too. The "shekinah/glory" of God the "Name" of God also seem to have a personalized existence. In each case, these participate in God--they are manifestations of God (His word. His glory, etc)  which share in His identity. The belief that Jesus (the Man) participated in God's inner life (the Divine) prior to becoming a human is expressed in the hymn as emptying (Greek word is kenosis). The concept of the self emptying God is vital for understanding all of His relationships with us (including creation, providence, redemption). God cannot come to us (recall the recent posts on a sacramental worldview) in His Fullness. It must always be limited by our capacity for reception. "God become Man" means God emptying Himself of His full divinity (whatever that means) through some inner "function" of Himself (Word, Glory, Son; whatever that means) and entering time and space with all its limitations (whatever that means). Love is self-gift. Love is an "I am here for you whatever the cost to me." Love is of God. He shows us first what that means. The limits of human language and human concepts cannot contain or convey this mystery---they can only point in its direction. In seeing the "Divine" empty and embrace the lowliness of human nature, and then empty more into sacrificial death on the cross; Paul implies that we see the template of true human (i.e. Christian life) existence. It is basically what Jesus says ("the one who loses His life for Me and the Gospel will find it" or "pick up your cross and follow me" or "forsake everything and follow me"--all of these are symbolic/literal death). However, the cross is not the last word; resurrection, ascension and enthronement in heaven (God highly exalted Him) are the Ultimate Goal of all God's redemptive work. Jesus is Lord and that gives glory to God the Father. Our connection to Jesus is our pathway to God. There is "no place" where God is without Jesus. They are one...

Paul then turns back to the life of faith--"work out your own salvation with fear and trembling"--in language which reminds us that dying to self is a challenging and painful process. Our environment (the "world" in the fallen sense) is dark and corrupt, but we are to "shine like stars." Once again we hear the words of Jesus ("you are the light of the world" "Let your deeds shine before men so that they give glory to God"). If He lives in us then He is manifest in us and we are christopheros phospheros-- Christ bearer and Light bearer. The chapter ends with a touching tribute to Timothy and Epaphroditu; these two men are dear companions of Paul, Timothy is like a son to him. Another reminder that passionate human relationships are part and parcel of the divine economy and the community of faith!

In chapter 3 Paul strongly condemns the practice (a good case can be made it is against Gentile Christians who seek to make Jews of the Gentile converts to Christ). Perhaps these people said circumcision is needed to be a real Christian. Paul lays out his credentials as "a real Jew" but also makes clear that Jesus fulfills the righteousness found in Torah. As I recently read, Torah points to Jesus, the job of Torah is to prepare for Jesus--now that Jesus is here, He is the one who matters. Jesus is the center, not the Torah (and not the Bible, church and sacraments in our time!). All is well if things are in proper places and correct relationship!

So lets go, Paul seems to be saying. Stay the course! Press on to Jesus! Daily life is mundane and repetitive. It is hard to see and feel the sublime overarching purposes of God as we dally with our daily toils. The earthly life can seduce us and we can limit the scope of our imagination to only what is here and now; lacking depth of insight into the deeper and higher meaning of things. God is hidden by the veil of creation, and sometimes we fall in love with the veil. Creation is a window of God but sometimes we do not look past the glass to what is beyond.

Chapter 4 has a rapid fire character. "I love you so stand firm!" ( a chilling reminder that firmness and standing take effort; the world, flesh and devil are aligned against us!). A prayer for two women who have had a rift? Each is faithful and treasured by Paul, but they have problems with each other... Church people have conflicts, even in Bible days! Jesus does not reign yet so we still struggle.

Then a "favorite verse" candidate for many of us: "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!" Remember, he is in prison. Remember, this is not happy clappy emotions, this is the fruit of trust and hope and love! Joy is a theological gift. Loving God more than loving myself (self emptying)  means the freedom from circumstances and the openness to that Joy! Circumstances cannot dictate joy (though they affect happiness and moods). Paul says--focus on the most important things. Paul says--the secret is to accept where you are, whether it is in abundance or lack--because where ever you are it is in Jesus' Heart! He concludes with some prayers, one is vital: God provides all our needs. (not our wants but needs). Providence. God cares. Providence. We can trust. Providence. A declaration of faith by a man in prison facing death. A man whose outward circumstances are most unpleasant.  A man whose inner life, in Jesus, experiences life a joy-giving grace.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Talk on Sacraments to Happening Youth Retreat

this is a talk I was privileged to share with a group of high school retreatants on Saturday afternoon. Much of it is similar to what I have spoken about at Sunday Schools recently, perhaps it was unconsciously making itself present even then....

What is a sacrament
The general definition is a visible, outward sign of an invisible, spiritual grace.
So what does that mean?
One day I was headed to lunch. I came to a four way stop and sat there as the cross traffic passed. It was my turn so I started forward when to my surprise a second car followed the first. Then I took my foot off the break and a third car did the same. As the driver looked at me I pointed to the car in front of him and indicated that he was supposed to let me go. His facial expression and the international sign (middle finger) of disdain left me shaken. That was a sacrament. It was a physical sign and it conveyed a spiritual inner reality (though not terribly gracious).
Our world is material and spiritual. There are realities you can see and there are realities which one cannot see. My confusion and his anger were conveyed through physical gestures. Have you ever been angry? Or confused? Can you show me some anger or confusion, or joy or peace, or love or mercy? In this world, no. We can never put a slice of love on a table. We can, however, express love. Love, a spiritual reality, is an invisible reality, which a hug, a kiss, a kind word, a helpful hand, etc. convey. We don’t see love, we see the thing or the action. But in and through those material people, things and events we experience love. Right? Isn’t that how the world works?

God is not material. Material gods are idols. They are false. The real God is bigger than we can ever imagine. He is also not made out of stuff. We can never see Him as He is. Many atheists and agnostics haven’t figured it out though. They believe that they have ideas even when no one has ever seen an actual idea (because ideas are invisible). But they doubt the invisible God exists when they can’t see Him! It is easy to doubt God exists. I have done it many times. But that doubt is, in the end, because I cannot see or touch Someone who is not made of concrete matter. I have never doubted that I have feelings or thoughts, or any number of other invisible things. Apparently, I am inconsistent.
God is invisible, however, He is able to connect with us in and through the material world. The most important sacrament of God is His Word. Jesus Christ is that Word, and He became flesh and blood. We can see God in and through Jesus. It is a sacramental presence. It is the best we can hope to attain in this world. If God is present in Jesus, then He is also present in the church--in and through human beings. This is what “humans are made in the image and likeness of God means.” We are concrete, but He lives in us. So the second most important sacrament is The Church. God is present in us. If you want to see God look at the church. See people and understand, He is coming to you through them.
Here is the problem. People, you and I, are reluctant to let God in us. We are partial sacraments, free to mess up. So God is trying to love and bless, heal and save the world---in and through us--- and we are doing our best to make sure people can’t experience God in us! The church is an imperfect sacrament because people sin. So the limitations of the material world mean God is sometimes hidden away, locked up. WE are potentially His presence in the world, but we can prevent it.
The church also has events which are called the sacraments. Baptism is a bath. It is (re)birth waters, it is cleaning of sin, it is a sign of passing through the exodus waters from death to life. Baptism means you are dead and belong to Jesus. It means you live a new life in Him. Confirmation seals that deal. You are anointed as prophet, priest and royalty. Now those things are true, but the spiritual source of that--the Trinity living in you--comes without any special magic. So most of us, shoot, all of us, who have been baptized and confirmed don’t allow the reality to change us. We act, much of the time, like we are still dead in sin. We are authorized by God in these sacraments to have power in Jesus Name. It’s like we got the driver’s license and the car but we let it sit in the driveway while we walk everywhere….
Jesus spent most of His ministry reconciling sinners to God and setting them free from spiritual demons and physical illness. Healing and exorcising are gifts given to the church. We have power and authority to do amazing things in Jesus Name. Do we do it? The sacraments of Reconciliation and Healing are gifts to us. Most people never, ever, ever confess their sins to the priest. We toss that gift away. We carry the guilt of sin deep inside and say “God forgives” without availing ourselves to the way He is physically available to us. Countless times people who have done terrible things have come to me and confessed. Some confess a sin from ten, twenty, thirty years ago. They weep. They experience eyes contact and a human voice and human hands. There is power in forgiveness.
And we only get anointed if the doctor can’t get us better. I have been very involved with this ministry. I have seen amazing things. Someone had cancer and it disappeared. Someone needed surgery for gall stones and it was cancelled when they disappeared. A lady came and prayed for her son’s alcohol problem. We anointed her and she went home to call him. “Son,” she began, “you need to stop drinking…” but he cut her off. “I know momma,” he said, “I heard Jesus say that half an hour ago. I will never drink again!” These are all true stories. I know the people personally. Healing is not always so dramatic, but it is real.
And we imagine demons are nothing to worry about. Demons are like termites, by the time you figure out that they are around the damage is done. A man in a coma sat up in bed as two Christians prayed prayers of healing and bound up satan. A man whose brain was in a coma, sat up and with a different voice said to the couple, “Oh so you want to play hardball!” They were scared to death but continued praying and soon after they heard the sound of a basketball hitting a window. The next day the man with no hope for life was awake and talking. He had used pornography regularly and his physical illness was connected to a spiritual force. All these stories are just like Jesus’ ministry in the Bible. Jesus is real. Healing, forgiveness and even exorcism is real.
Every time you forgive someone, pray for their health and spiritual freedom in Jesus, you are also living out the sacramental life of the church.
Eucharist, the meal with Jesus, the food is Jesus. This is my body. This is my blood. He is present as a gift. We don’t believe it enough. WE skip church or go through the motions. We say it’s boring. What if we took it seriously? What if eucharist was a deep act of self gift to God and openness to receive Him back? Wake up and understand. The eucharist bonds us to the body of Christ, it is also a pledge that we are involved in His ministry. You eat and drink, you commit!
Orders (deacon, priest and bishop) are leaders set aside for the church. God works in and through these human persons to perform the various ministries. Like lay people, they are called to be the Body of Christ in the world.  Marriage is the first sacrament in history--Adam and Eve. The love is a sign of Christ’s love for the church. The children produced in marriage are a fulfillment of the first commandment God ever gave us: BE fruitful and multiply.
There is so much more to say, but I have already gone over my time.
God is invisible. However, He acts and communicates in and through the visible world. Faith gives us the ability to encounter God in sacraments. The Holy Spirit empowers us to be sacraments and do sacramental ministry. DO NOT WASTE THE GIFT!