Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Grace and Judgment

September 23, 2020

In traditional seminary/theological education, there are four main fields of study:

  • Historical theology studies the history of God’s people and the Christian faith
  • Exegetical theology deals with the study of Scripture, and includes learning Hebrew and Greek towards this end
  • Systematic theology encompasses and studies Christian doctrine
  • Practical theology explores the Christian life and the application of doctrine and tradition to the lives of people here and now and includes the role of preaching

Although I enjoy the logical aspects of systematic theology, even in seminary I understood that doctrine is all well and good but essentially useless if it can’t be applied. To know there is a truth has little value unless that truth is connected in some way to daily life or certain situations. I trust the quadratic equation is true – but it is of little value to me personally as I’ve had no need to know or use it in my life. I’m glad others can and do, and I know that must benefit me in very tangible ways, but my thoroughgoing ignorance of that means I ascribe little practical, personal value to this undoubtedly crucial truth.

For us Lutherans, the go-to in terms of systematics study is a guy by the name of Franz/Francis Pieper. He wrote the current definitive text used by Lutherans in studying systematic theology. I can number on one hand the number of times I’ve needed to look at his 3-volume (I don’t have the fourth volume which is an index of the previous three) Christian Dogmatics, but it’s a handy resource on those occasions where I need to talk about a complicated topic

One such topic which has arisen in several quarters recently is the relationship of salvation and grace to the issue of final judgment. It makes people nervous to know that we will stand before Christ for judgment, and it also seems a bit odd, since we know we are forgiven in Christ already through faith in his death and resurrection on our behalf. And granted, it’s not a pleasant idea to know our dirty laundry might be aired before all creation. Couldn’t we just sweep that under the rug, since it’s all forgiven in Christ anyways?

I tend to address this topic with the assertions that yes, we are forgiven. Yes, we will participate in Judgment Day along with the rest of creation. And even if all our bad deeds are on display, it will only be for an instant, and only to glorify God whose forgiveness is so immense, his grace so abundant, that the worst of our sins in thought, word or deed are nothing compared to the immeasurable sacrifice of the Son of God on our behalf. But I decided to do a little brush-up with Pieper on the specifics.

The issue of judgment comes, perhaps fittingly, at the end of his last volume (Volume III) starting on page 539 in case you want to follow along at home. He lays out the following basic tenets of the faith:

  • Judgment is linked to the return of Christ (Matthew 25:31)
  • All persons will be subject to judgment – including “men, pious and wicked, dead and living, and besides mankind also the evil angels” (Revelation 20:12; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10; Acts 10:42; 2 Peter 2:4)
  • The norm of judgment will be the works of men (2 Corinthians 5:10). In other words, our eternal fate is determined by our works, but not necessarily in the way we tend to think about these things. It isn’t as though (as with Islam), all our good deeds are piled on one side of a cosmic scale and all our bad deeds on the other side and our good deeds need to outweigh our bad deeds to merit eternal joy. Rather, good deeds is a technical term/concept, defined first and foremost in terms of our relationship to God and in particular to God the Son. Only in right relationship to God can anything we think, say or do be considered good. Apart from proper relationship to God, good does not exist, by definition. Oh, there’s the ‘good’ we define in terms of our relationships to one another, but even those definitions can’t ultimately be separated from their source in God, otherwise they’re arbitrary fads or fashions and can’t really be said to be good in any substantive way. Whatever we know of good, we know because of God. Whether we accept that or not makes a great deal of difference!
  • Consequently, using Matthew 25 as a basis, believers will be judged, but only their good deeds will be considered, since their bad deeds are indeed forgiven and forgotten (Malachi 7:19). In Jesus’ story in Matthew 25, only the good deeds of the people of God are mentioned, not their bad deeds.

Thus sayeth Pieper.

There are those who would argue and say that’s not much of a judgment, and therefore the bad deeds of God’s people must also be mentioned. Pieper doesn’t see this as reasonable, but rather the improper conclusion of trying to hold together two Scriptural teachings – 1) all people (including believers) will be judged, and 2) believers are not judged. How do we hold together these seemingly contradictory statements?

Pieper harmonizes these two statements with the use of another Lutheran theological/systematic idea – Law and Gospel. The Word of God is either Law or Gospel, either condemning us of our sin or freeing us from our sin through the grace and forgiveness of God. Therefore, in condemning us of our sin the Bible reminds us that all will be judged. This should spur in us a serious assessment of ourselves, a daily acknowledgement of our sinfulness, and a daily seeking of refuge in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As this happens, we are no longer under the judgment of God and the Gospel must immediately be spoken, assuring us our sins are indeed forgiven and forgotten in Christ and won’t ever be held against us or even brought up on Judgment Day, again citing Matthew 25 as evidence.

I’m not all together certain Matthew 25 can be relied on exclusively as the clinching argument in this matter, but I’m willing to roll with it until I encounter a compelling alternative argument. For the believer in Jesus the Christ, we are to have peace, trusting in his forgiveness. However that exactly plays out on Judgment Day is a matter of technicalities – we know the end result is our being welcomed into the presence of God eternally. Towards that end we must continue to take sin seriously, never making the mistake of ceasing to recognize it or acknowledge it as such. Not because we won’t be forgiven, but because eventually our sin could cause us to reject God because we love our sin too much.

Reading Ramblings – September 27, 2020

September 20, 2020

Date: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ September 27, 2020

Texts: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32; Psalm 25:1-10; Philippians 2:1-4, 14-18; Matthew 21:23-27 (28-32)

Context: God’s Word convicts us of our sin and offers us eternal life. This Word can be rejected, but we have to consider whether what we reject it for is more reliable or not, whether the directives that contradict it are better for us or worse. What we often find is that our own good authority is often compromised by self-interest or self-preservation, and sometimes we aren’t even aware this is happening. Even authorities of God’s Word have to be acknowledged as sinful and compromised, though hopefully well-intentioned and guided by the Holy Spirit more often than not!

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32 – God responds to accusations from his people that He is unfair in his relationship with them, punishing the innocent for the sins of the fathers. God responds the accusations are incorrect and unfair. Who stands innocent before God? And who can say to the God who created him, I have no business with you? The irony is Israel stands guilty of abandoning her covenant with God and seeking help and wisdom in other gods and other ways. But to deflect her guilt, she accuses God of being unfair, as though his ways are inscrutable and undesirable. God demonstrates the foolishness and evilness of her accusations, though. With God there is mercy though his people have become notorious for perverting truth and justice among themselves. As such, God can judge them even by their own invented alternatives to his Word, his Truth, his mercy. And they will be found guilty even by the systems they claim as superior to his. Their guilt is only compounded by trying to cast God as the villain, as though they could invent a system that would be superior or independent to his!

Psalm 25:1-10 – When all the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket around us, we are called by the psalmist to keep our hope and trust in God alone. Regardless of what our world tells us in politics or economics, God alone oversees all things, and any and all efforts towards improvement that leave him out of the equation will be shown eventually for the foolishness they are. God’s people are to put their faith and trust in him which means a focus on seeking his ways and paths, looking to God to provide wisdom and answers rather than trusting the schemes of the world. Such hope and trust is well founded as God has proved himself faithful over and over again. And in him alone do we find mercy and forgiveness that wipes clean our sins so we might truly trust in his goodness. Unlike any human effort, God alone is good and upright in all things, never pandering or compromising, never discovered to be unfaithful or untruthful. Rather He extends to even the least of us the fullness of his love and mercy, so that those who trust in him will never be disappointed even if the ways of the world appear to be winning for the moment.

Philippians 2:1-4, 14-18 – Verses 5-13 are optional in today’s reading and I’m omitting them as mostly a supporting discursis explaining that in the behaviors the Holy Spirit exhorts us to through St. Paul, we are only emulating Christ. We are not called to do anything more than our Lord, and frankly are called to do and be immeasurably less as, by definition, we are not divine. Once again the theme of unity is driven home, with the first four verses of this passage all dealing with aspects of unity. Unity doesn’t simply happen. Unity isn’t a feeling but rather the result of concerted efforts, a singleminded insistence that the unity we have in Christ is most important, far more important than our own personal goals, ambitions, preferences, or wisdom. Once again humility is highlighted as essential to unity. When we allow (or insist) that our ways of doing things are best or right (even if they are) we do damage to the unity of the body of Christ. This unity demands we look to the interests of others, not simply in an economic sense but in terms of this same unity. Is our insistence on our way of doing things driving others away? Then our selfishness needs to be reigned in. And this is not a bitter, snippy restraint, as v.14 continues. It is a joyful setting aside of the self for the betterment of the whole. Such behavior is not natural or normal but rather is a demonstration of the presence of the Holy Spirit at God at work, so He receives the glory in our unity. Not even life or death should dissuade us from this insistence on unity to the glory of God! Rather, even as individuals come and go in life and death, the body remains whole, knowing that not even those who die are fully and completely gone, but are part of the vast multitude of the saints we will enjoy perfect unity with for eternity.

Matthew 21:23-32 – This passage is a complicated one. Jesus is challenged as to the basis for his teaching (what He was doing at the moment). They say this because they do not acknowledge Jesus’ acclaimed status as a rabbi or teacher as He has no formal rabbinical training, and is not teaching the sayings of an accepted rabbinical tradition. This issue of authority is prominent in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s gospels. Jesus is marveled at as one who preaches as though He himself holds authority, rather than relying on the authority of other rabbis and teachers. But to the religious leaders who see Jesus as a threat, this lack of rabbinical authority is a means by which they seek to discredit him or silence him. Instead, Jesus makes his answer contingent on their answer to his question – a question regarding the work of John the Baptist. Unwilling to fall into judgment from Jesus (if they say John’s authority was divine but they refused to listen to it) and unwilling to risk censure from the crowds (by saying John had no authority when clearly the majority of people held him to be a prophet), they think they will end the discussion by not answering Jesus. This appears to be the case, as the parable Jesus then tells seems unrelated in some ways to this exchange. But it isn’t. The two are linked together and Jesus intended it this way.

Jesus’ parable of two sons paints the religious leaders into a deeper corner than it first appears. It seems as though they might be able to save some face depending on their answer. It’s a matter of choosing the lesser of two bad choices, which would appear to be the first son. Except that the religious leaders haven’t repented and embraced John the Baptist as a prophet! Both sons are disobedient and obedient. The first son is disobedient in his response to his father, and the second son is disobedient in his actions to his father. The first son is obedient in his actions while the second son is obedient in his words.

But the religious leaders are disobedient in both counts – with their initial response to John the Baptist’s call for repentance – and in their continued refusal to accept Jesus, the one John the Baptist proclaimed to be the Lamb of God (John 1:29). They are worse than both sons!

What is the way of righteousness in which John came? The same righteousness referred to be Jesus himself when John protests baptizing him (3:15). Jesus’ baptism is to fulfill all righteousness, and this means not a personal righteousness, as though Jesus needs baptism or repentance, but rather the righteousness of God the Fathers’ plan of salvation that has been in the works since Genesis. John the Baptist fulfills his part in that plan by baptizing Jesus, and Jesus fulfills part of his role in that plan by receiving baptism. Likewise, John the Baptist is fulfilling his role as forerunner of the Messiah as part of God the Fathers’ plan, just as Jesus is now obediently fulfilling his role as the Lamb of God who will take away the sins of the world. The righteous response to John the Baptist and Jesus is not fundamentally or exclusively a call to ethical or moral living, but rather a call to believe what has and is happening, and to place faith and trust in Jesus. Tragically it may be the religious leaders of Jesus’ day never touch the righteousness of God because they refuse to acknowledge what God is doing right in front of their eyes!

Words Matter

September 19, 2020

As I’ve tried to argue here repeatedly over the last 14 years (!), words matter. Language matters, and we need to pay attention to what is being said and how it’s being said.

For instance, for the first time I can remember, the flu is being called a pandemic. I don’t argue whether or not the flu qualifies as a pandemic. I’m pretty sure it does – it affects a good portion of the world (at least I assume it does – I think press coverage of world health issues is normally pretty light, and since the flu recurs every year, there has been little interest historically in talking about it unless it’s somehow more dangerous or otherwise distinctive) and it affects a good portion of the population (in the neighborhood of 19 million Americans annually (as opposed to the estimated 6.7 million cases of Coronavirus reported in the US after 6 months).

What I do question is the curious fact that this year, the flu is being called a pandemic. Most of the news stories I see using this terminology are fear-mongering, painting dire possible scenarios since COVID-19 is ongoing as flu season begins. The other common denominator in stories referring to the flu as a pandemic is the emphasis on getting the flu shot.

The overall impact is one of creating fear. Fear is a particularly useful emotion as it is very powerful and hard to resist. It’s also hard to live with over a prolonged period of time (like, say six months or more) without some debilitating psychological, social, spiritual and even physical side effects beginning to manifest in some people. In a situation where one is afraid, the urge to remove the source of fear somehow can become nearly overwhelming.

How do you remove fear of illness? With the flu, the insistence is not on proper rest or diet or hygiene or anything else – it’s almost exclusively on getting the flu shot. It’s not that these other things aren’t recommended, it’s just that you never hear about them. The only thing that appears in the news and media is the importance of getting the flu shot, despite the fact the flu vaccine at best has effectiveness rates of 60% and regularly (four times between 2014 and 2019) still clocks in at less than 40% effectiveness. Still, the answer to easing fears about the flu is to get vaccinated.

Likewise, much emphasis has been placed on a vaccine as the answer to our Coronavirus fears. Certainly, government mandated social distancing and mask wearing is also emphasized, but particularly in the last month or two, the emphasis increasingly turns to vaccines and when they might be available. Part of this is due to the fact that like it or not, most people are resigned to the reality of masks and social distancing. There are mandated signs and other repeated emphases locally to reinforce these measures (though they are, at best, questionable as to the degree of their effectiveness).

So media decides to focus on the vaccine. As a political football (of course), and as the source to the end of our COVID-19 fears. Despite the fact there are nagging suspicions that immunity is short-lived (I’ve seen allegations of someone getting reinfected just a month after recovering from COVID-19. Other reports question anti-body likelihood after 12 months).

Vaccinations are the answer to our health fears. Health fears stoked in large part by incessant and uncontextualized media reporting. Big numbers provided in isolation from other numbers that might give them different meaning. Big numbers intended to create fear, and fear intended to be dealt with by recommended (and eventually, I’m sure, mandated) measures such as vaccinations.

Watch the language, folks. And watch what it does to you. I’m not saying there isn’t anything to be worried about. But what I am saying is the change in the way language is being used this year should be an equal source not just of curiosity but of concern and intrigue to you as well. Stay informed, but recognize that simply watching or reading the news is not enough to accomplish this.

Reading Ramblings – September 20, 2020

September 13, 2020

Date: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 20, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 27:1-9; Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Context: The overflowing grace of God the Father through the atoning death of God the Son on our behalf, brought to us through faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit might seem like welcome news. It ought to be – and it usually is for us. But are we as happy to see that free gift extended to others we think are less worthy than we are? That’s a tougher question, and a good barometer of how much we still like to think our good behavior earns us extra brownie points with God. The grace of God is not an invitation to licentiousness. It is not cheap soas to be presumed upon as our due. But it is lavish. Extravagant. Bewilderingly so at times, and that is what we need to hear. If God is willing and able to receive even those who come to him late and at the last moment, then He is willing to receive you and I in our sinfulness at whatever time the Holy Spirit is able to break through and show us our gaping need for his love and forgiveness.

Isaiah 55:6-9 – We had the first five verses of this chapter as the Old Testament reading about 6 weeks ago. In those verses God extends his invitation not just to his own wayward people but to those beyond the Hebrew people. But to receive God’s extravagant grace and gifts means first acknowledging our need for them, that our own ways and efforts are deficient to say the least, and completely wrong-headed at worst. But a clock is ticking. God will not extend this grace forever. A day is marked for judgment. And short of that, each person has a tock clicking in their own lives, and none of us can be sure when the ticking stops. Therefore, we should take seriously God’s invitation as soon as we are made aware of it (v.6). This requires not simply the appropriation of God’s grace but the process of dispossessing ourselves of those traits and qualities and practices that are no longer appropriate with such grace (v.7). We are wrong to presume God does things the way we do, and whenever we presume to have God safely in our pockets we can be sure we are in danger of not having God at all. The life of repentance is just that – a life. Daily and hourly. Not a one-time conversion experience but a constant turning and retuning ourselves to the Word and will of God.

Psalm 27:1-9 – Powerful words for our day and time! When fear is so prevalent, when it is deliberately being fostered and stirred up in people, this psalm should remind us whose we are and that fear does not dominate us. We who are in Christ, how is it we think fear has a permanent place in our life? These words build our confidence. There is nothing that will defeat us permanently. Sickness and disease may take our life prematurely. Injustice and violence might constrain us or take our life prematurely. But there is no thing and no one who can defeat us eternally. The worst that can happen is suffering and death for a time. And then we know we will dwell in the house of the Lord, in his temple, in his shelter, under his tent, upon his rock. All words of protection and strength. God remains our salvation, and the powers of evil in this world and the effects they produce will one day be judged and sentenced and banished and we will be free of them to live in joy and perfection. This is not just a wistful hope but a certainty that can and should strengthen our hearts and minds and hands for the present time and the current challenges.

Philippians 1:12-14, 19-30 – We leave behind Romans and move on to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The church in Phillipi was the first European Paul founded, on his second missionary journey as detailed in Acts 16. He visited them again on his third missionary journey (Acts 20), and writes to them now to thank them for a gift of financial support they have given him, to convey Epaphroditus back to them after his recovery from a serious illness, and to inform the Philippians of Paul’s current status as a prisoner of the Roman Empire, making this one of Paul’s four letters during imprisonment. Time and location of writing are uncertain, with arguments being made for Ephesus, Caesarea and Rome. The strongest (and most traditional) arguments favor Paul writing this letter from Rome during his first imprisonment there circa 60 AD or later, and most probably about 62-63 AD. The sections in today’s reading refer not just to his imprisonment, but how the Holy Spirit has used his imprisonment to further the Gospel and encourage and strengthen fellow believers by his witness. A reminder that even in dire circumstances we are never beyond the ability of God the Holy Spirit to use for his good purposes of furthering the Kingdom of Heaven, even if we ourselves are not rescued from our temporal predicament.

Matthew 20:1-16 – If you want concrete examples of what the psalmist says about God’s ways not being our ways, look no further than this parable. Continuing on from Jesus’ teaching in Chapter 19 about the first being last and the last being first we have this story where that is literally true – the last to be hired are the first to be paid, and the last to be paid were the first to be hired. In fact this parable is bracketed by similar sayings of Jesus about the first and the last, and the grammar of the parable’s beginning, For the kingdom of heaven is like makes it clear the parable is linked to Jesus’ prior teaching and is an explanation and example of it. The parable is about how things work in heaven, and by extension, in the life and work and ministry of Jesus himself as the advent of the kingdom of heaven. It is how the kingdom of heaven looks in this present world, rather than a commentary on how things will look on the Last Day. How does God treat his creatures. Equally. Therefore it is not up to us to compare ourselves to others – believers or otherwise – and conclude we are more beloved of God, more deserving of his love, more entitled to greater reward.

What a challenge this was and is. Jesus’ day was not so different from our own in the oftentimes cutthroat effort for self-distinction and the merit possible with it. We compare ourselves in almost every respect to those around us, whether on the basis of weight, looks, height, education, professional accomplishments, salary, spouse, children, zip codes, vehicle makes, designer clothing – the list is nearly inexhaustible. Against this culture of competition and self-advancement Jesus makes the assertion that heaven does not function this way. The disciples may have a unique role on the day of judgment (19:23-30), but even this ultimately does not distinguish them in the way we typically think, a qualitative or value distinction. All are equally valuable to God the Father who has created, redeemed, and sanctified all of his people equally.

Reading Ramblings – September 13, 2020

September 6, 2020

Date: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 13, 2020

Texts: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-12; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

Context: It’s not fair. Two of the most powerful passages in Scripture scheduled for reading on the same day! Paul’s call to humility and brotherly love in the midst of disagreement in Romans 14 is a critical lesson too easily dismissed when we run into actual disagreement. Jesus’ picture of forgiveness but also the entire Christian life of holiness and sanctification as an outgrowth of what has already been received from our heavenly Father is both a beautiful description of the greatness of God’s grace as well as a powerful encouragement to take the Christian life seriously. I don’t know how to choose which direction to preach in this Sunday, but I’m grateful for two very compelling and challenging texts that strike at the practical, daily nature of our life in Christ.

Genesis 50:15-21I could never be so forgiving! I often hear people express sentiments like this when confronted with the hard reality of God’s Word played out in people’s lives. Would a better translation be something to the effect of I’d never want to be so forgiving! ? The Joseph story is wonderful to teach to little children but as we grow older and realize the depth of hurts we can experience, the beauty of Joseph’s forgiveness seems less enviable. His faith in God’s presence and purpose despite the malice of his brothers isn’t enviable – who among us would like to go through what Joseph has by the time his brothers ask his forgiveness? Who among us would receive their repentance as anything other than unabashed self-serving? Sure, they’re sorry now that Joseph could kill them! After all, they literally make up a story about Jacob requiring Joseph to forgive them! But ultimately forgiveness is not dependant on repentance or contrition. Forgiveness is the insistence to see the grace and love of God for every other person, no matter what they have done, and first and foremost because we know we have received God’s grace and love and forgiveness despite not deserving it and not being adequately contrite. We are quick to see ourselves as the injured Joseph, when we should more likely identify ourselves with the hateful and self-seeking brothers, and Joseph as representing God.

Psalm 103:1-12Forget not all his benefits (v.2). How easy it is to forget all his benefits when we’re in the midst of struggle or loss. How easy to forget his benefits the minute things get difficult or unpleasant! To forget not requires a conscious effort, an intentional focusing not just on the troubles at hand but the blessings before and during. Joseph sees not just his brothers who have hurt him but God’s preservation in all the years since, even when that preservation took place during years in jail. Seeing God’s benefits in that Joseph wasn’t murdered outright by his brothers initially, or by the traderrs who bought him from them, or by the Egyptians or Potiphar after the false accusations of Potiphar’s wife. Seeing God’s benefits in his interpretation of the Pharaoh’s dreams and subsequent rise from prisoner to second in command, saving the Egyptians and so many others from starvation during a seven-year drought, and now, with the opportunity to be and do what his own brothers weren’t and didn’t – a preserver, a protector, and a proper demonstration of brotherly love as well as obedience to a heavenly Father. A powerful passage indeed that provides another contextualization of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel reading.

Romans 14:1-12 – Paul’s words here can and should be linked to his last thought in the previous chapter, about not gratifying the desires of the flesh. And while we might more commonly think of fleshly desires as regarding issues like drunkenness and sexual immorality Paul mentions in 13:13, he also mentions quarreling in that same verse. We might easily be able to say we are not drunks or promiscuous, but the issue of quarrelsomeness and how we deal with it is likely to hit closer to home, particular in Christian congregations such as the one in Rome. It is this topic Paul sees fit to follow up on at more length – another telling sign this is more important than we might like to think. So Paul’s admonition in 14:1 not to quarrel over opinions. This has nothing to do with doctrine, per se, with the essentials of the faith, but rather the more personal way each follower of Jesus pursues sanctification and the holy life. Not simply on a personal level, but perhaps with an eye towards leading others in the community to emulate their preferences. We don’t know if Paul is aware of a specific situation dealing with vegetarianism or only uses it as an example. The key however is first discernment as to what is true and right, and then grace and love that does not seek to compel a brother or sister in a way not required (or prohibited) by Scripture. Proper doctrine or Biblical interpretation does not entitle me to compel someone else to change how they seek to serve God if it is not a matter of salvation. It isn’t that some ways aren’t more faithful or better than others – Paul acknowledges a weaker understanding or faith vs a stronger one in this passage, but neither the weaker or the stronger is entitled to manipulate the other. If it is not a matter of sin or salvation, we are to try and live at peace with one another even if we disagree. Unity is found not in identical ideas or behaviors but an insistence on not allowing our differences to divide us.

Matthew 18:21-35 – I find this parable of forgiveness to be one of the clearest and most powerful. The implications are clear – our treatment of others is not a matter of their worth or deservedness but purely and completely compelled by the love and grace and forgiveness we undeservedly receive in the death and resurrection of the Son of God on our behalf. God the Son takes on the penalty and cost of our sin to himself, personally. He pays it just as surely as the king in this parable absorbs the massive financial loss incurred by this evil servant. The servant’s refusal to act charitably with his fellow servant reveals the depths of his sinfulness, as sinfulness that keeps him from focusing on God’s grace to him. The point is not that he must forgive the debt of his fellow servant (though this is certainly not beyond the realm of interpretation), but rather his insistence on demanding his rights under the law rather than allowing his fellow servant to pay him back.

Many if not all Christians could do well to meditate daily on this passage in Matthew, reading it over and over again and thinking about the implications in their lives with the people they know. Combining it with the reading from Genesis further drives the point home. It is not that we are not hurt by others in this life, but the decision to be gracious and forgiving is a decision made for us when we acccept the grace and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ. It is apt for Jesus to teach in the Lord’s prayer that we ask God for daily forgiveness at the same time understanding and affirming that we are forgiving to others. The two go together. We should not marvel at this, nor should we object to it. Rather, we ought to celebrate the opportunity to give in small part what has been given to us on an immense scale!

Reading Ramblings – September 6, 2020

August 30, 2020

Date: Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 6, 2020

Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 32:1-7; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:1-20

Context: Sin. One of the central realities of Biblical Christianity, the reality and severity of sin have been greatly obliterated by modern psychological theory. It is not uncommon to meet people with absolutely no concept of any moral guilt on their part towards other people, let alone towards a Creator God. Yet sin is fundamental to the Biblical Christian worldview and anthropology – our understanding of ourselves. If sin is not a fundamental, existential issue, there is no need for a savior, no eternal consequence to our thoughts, words and deeds. Certainly this is a convenient corollary to evolutionary theory, but it is completely foreign to a Biblical Christian understanding. Yet many churches are unwilling to address the real and pressing matter of personal moral guilt, afraid that in a culture which prizes self-esteem at all costs, it will drive people away. Whether it drives them away or not is, unfortunately, not the responsibility of the Church. The Church is responsible for declaring the reality of sin and the severity of it, both in temporal effects and eternal conclusions, as well as the divine remedy centered alone in the Incarnate person and work of the Son of God, Jesus the Christ.

Ezekiel 33:7-9 – The opening half of this chapter is God’s renewed call on Ezekiel to warn the people of God of the danger they stand in because of their lack of repentance. This call was first issued in Chapter 2 and further explained in Chapter 3. Ezekiel is in exile with the aristocratic remnant of Jerusalem in Babylon. Much of his 20-year span of prophecies has to do with warnings against the people who remain in Judah after capitulating to the Babylonian siege about 10 years before the final Judean revolt against Babylon and the subsequent destruction of Jerusalem. Ezekiel continues to warn both the people in Judah as well as those already in exile of the continued dangers of unrepentant disobedience to the calls of God. God’s warnings are real and true. It is Ezekiel’s job to faithfully convey them. He is not responsible for the response (or lack thereof) of God’s people, but will be held responsible if he fails his calling to warn them. This is part of the continued work of the Church today – calling people to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness in Jesus Christ.

Psalm 32:1-7 – Where do we go with the guilt of sin? When we are convicted of guilt because of our thoughts, words or deeds, regardless of whether anyone else knows about it or not? How burdensome that weight can be, as we try to convince ourselves it’s no big deal, or that no sin was actually perpetrated! The conscience is a powerful thing, if an imprecise one at times. The reality of moral guilt also requires a means of relief from that guilt or we quickly become overwhelmed by it and unable to function. I’m sure modern psychologists would have a field day with the side effects described by David here, even if they refused to acknowledge the reality of a God before whom David is ultimately held morally accountable. Only from our Creator can true forgiveness and healing come. To pretend otherwise is foolish and dangerous. It is our joy to know our God does indeed provide healing and forgiveness. Hiding from him is only detrimental to ourselves and those around us. Honesty with God, repentance and faithful trust in his forgiveness through his Incarnate Son are the true and lasting source of healing and relief and joy that all other methods of meditation or positive-thinking can only aspire to.

Romans 13:1-10 – Had we remained in Eden, I doubt we would have need for government in the sense we know it. Adam and Eve enjoyed perfect union with and obedience to God the Father, so that there would be no need for any hierarchy or system of human administration. At least I like to think this. Even if there were, eventually, such a need, it would be perfect. However, we are not in Eden. Our connection both to God and one another is now broken and flawed even in our best intentions. Reason itself is marred. Government becomes a necessity, but also a flawed necessity. God in his goodness ordains that broken humanity organize itself and protect the vulnerable through systems of government. The Bible does not advocate one system over another, yet historically nearly every human governmental institution has at one level or another claimed for itself divine legitimacy. Some governments are better than others. Some officials are better than others. Christians are strongly warned against presuming to take government into their own hands, but rather to trust in God’s work. Good leaders exist for the good of their people. And while bad leaders certainly exist they will answer to God for their abuses, and Christians are not to assume it to be their job to rebel against power structures. We are, however, called to love. Everyone. At all times. Not just theoretically but tangibly as we have opportunity. And we are called to give thanks to God for providing means of protection through human governance. Serving God does not automatically exempt us from our responsibilities as citizens of a given political entity, even as we cling to God’s Law even should temporal law set itself up in opposition to God’s will.

Matthew 18:1-20 – How serious is sin? Far more serious than we are inclined to take it, most likely. Pervasive. Devastating. Dangerous to ourselves and to others. Jesus’ language here should leave no doubt as to the insidious nature of sin and our proclivity to turn a blind eye to it. Entering the kingdom of heaven consists of the simple awareness we cannot accomplish this on our own but, like little children, must be dependent on a loving God to give us what we could never procure on our own. It is God’s good intention to give generously, but sin interferes. Not just the innate sinfulness in each one of us, but the cruel reality that we are able to lead others into sin, endangering their eternal gift from God the Father by potentially directing them away from his love and grace and forgiveness.

All of this stems from the question posed by the disciples initially of who is greatest? We are prone to measure greatness by standards we create and control and therefore are to some degree achievable. But this is not greatness in the kingdom of heaven. There are standards there for us to manipulate, and the one who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven is none other than God himself, who continues to extend grace and mercy and forgiveness to even the least of these that we are likely to consider of little value and not worthy of such extravagant love and care.

Jesus reiterates the directive Matthew recorded in the previous chapter about the work of the Church in proclaiming the forgiveness of sins or announcing the danger of unforgiveness to the unrepentant. Here the words are linked to how matters of sin are to be handled among the people of God, where there should be at least nominal agreement on both the nature of sin and the need for repentance prior to forgiveness. So serious is the issue of sin that when it is discovered, it needs to be confronted and repentance called for. This should be done lovingly and privately, but if such means are not sufficient, things must be escalated. Always this is with the goal of bringing about true repentance – not simply acknowledgement of the sin but an earnestness to turn away from that sin. If someone who claims to be a follower of Christ will not respond to the clear teaching of God’s Word, then they are to be treated as one who has not yet learned of God and Christ. They are no longer participants of the members of the body of Christ but become those to be reached out to with the good news of grace and forgiveness made possible through repentance. Only in this way can the integrity of the Church be maintained and the seriousness of the situation communicated to the offending person, so they would repent and receive God’s forgiveness. The goal is the celebration appropriate when someone receives Jesus Christ and the promise of eternal life!

Reading Ramblings – August 30, 2020

August 23, 2020

Date: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost – August 30, 2020

Texts: Jeremiah 15:15-21; Psalm 26; Romans 12:9-21; Matthew 16:21-28

Context: We are conditioned at an early age with the idea if we do things a certain way, we can reasonably expect certain outcomes. Study hard and you’ll get good grades. Work hard and you’ll be appreciated with greater opportunities and compensation. Follow a basic path towards a life that is stable and happy at home and at work. We’re in control. To some extent there is some truth and wisdom in this conditioning. But when we attempt to use similar reasoning in our relationship with God, we can quickly find ourselves on rocky ground. Does our good behavior or obedience mean God will protect us from disgrace or hardship or suffering? Does it ensure we are happy and healthy in body, mind and spirit and that our loved ones are similiarly protected? The great figures of the Bible lived their lives of faith through very trying and difficult times – should we assume we are different? If so, we run the risk of fulfilling Satan’s accusations about Job, that our faith is really only present because we’re comfortable and blessed.

Jeremiah 15:15-21 – Jeremiah’s task is not easy – proclaiming God’s judgment and displeasure and the results of that to the people of God in the city of God, Jerusalem. People who presume God’s protection could never be removed, that He would never allow his people to suffer catastrophe. But their assumptions certainly aren’t based on the history of their people. As the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years should demonstrate, God has never hesitated to chastise and discipline his people. Jeremiah’s message is not appreciated and he suffers because of it, and now cries out to God at the unfairness of it all. Why should Jeremiah be made to suffer when he is only being faithful and obedient to God’s calling (vs.15-18)? God’s response is not necessarily what we (or Jeremiah!) might like to hear! Jeremiah is chastised for complaining and called to repentance and obedience rather than self-pity (v.19). God has been, is, and will continue to be with Jeremiah. This does not mean Jeremiah will quit suffering, but it should mean Jeremiah can trust in God to defend him and sustain him in the midst of continued suffering and attempts to silence him. We too should trust in God’s presence even as we suffer from Coronavirus fears or political unpleasantries. We show ourselves to be people of God in our faithfulness and love during these challenges, rather than by presuming we are exempted from our obligations as God’s people just because things are hard.

Psalm 26 – We should admit this psalm is hard to read, initially. It makes us uncomfortable. It sounds as though the speaker is bragging, standing on his merits to demand certain things from God. We’ve read enough of St. Paul to know this would be inappropriate, Pharasaical, diminishing the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. But if we read the psalm more closely, we see the main issue as being one of relationship. The speaker gives examples that demonstrate the trust in his heart (v.1). This is the center – his absolute trust in God, and that this trust works itself out tangibly in his life by what he chooses to do (vs. 3, 6-7) and what he chooses to avoid (vs. 4-5). In this relationship not just of external piety but internal trust and devotion, the speaker rightfully looks to God as the source of their strength and hope. He is not trying to justify his pleas for help to God, but rather knows that because of his faithfulness and trust, God will not disappoint him. We too should have this trust. Our God will vindicate us no matter what happens to us. God has and will deliver us in Jesus Christ and we can be confident about this!

Romans 12:9-21 – Paul has transitioned from his exposition about the Jewish people to encouragements to the Romans to live lives fitting their faith in Jesus Christ. Verses 3-8 focused on what this looks like within the life of faith with fellow Christians, and now starting in v.9 Paul extends this to general behavior appropriate at all times and situations. Paul summarizes his section at the start – love is not just an idea or a concept, love is expressed tangibly or it is insincere. Love actively seeks good and avoids evil. Love insists on devotion to one another in all situations not just when things go the way we prefer them to. Love honors others rather than trying to tear them down to build ourselves up. Love serves the Lord zealously. And love focuses on the big picture even when things at the moment are difficult. Love is generous and inviting to others. Love extends beyond those we like and who like us to enemies and persecutors. Love is not conceited but loves people regardless of how society defines them or treats them. It is a high calling Paul outlines, one we are not capable of on our own or based on our emotional commitment, but rather we trust God the Holy Spirit to strengthen us towards this calling even when we are tired or don’t feel up to it. That way God receives the glory rather than ourselves!

Matthew 16:21-28 – Jesus knows what God the Father is calling him to do. He is committed to doing it despite the fact it is highly unpleasant. But Peter, like us, would like there to be an easier way. A simpler way, and perhaps even a way more personally fulfilling or materially rewarding. Peter encourages Jesus to realign his understanding of God’s will with the world’s way of looking at things. Being of the world this is only natural. We presume the world’s way of honoring and giving glory is the way God works as well. What glory or honor could there be to God if Jesus suffers and dies as a common criminal? Surely Jesus can’t mean to pursue a path so contrary to how the world does things!

But Jesus does intend to because that is God the Father’s will. This understanding led Jesus to resist Satan’s temptations in the wilderness earlier (Matthew 4:1-11), but certainly Peter’s words remain tempting. Jesus truly is human and the idea of a humiliating and excruciating death are terrifying! So Jesus’ strong words here are roughly equivalent to his rejection of Satan’s more direct temptations in Chapter 4.

Jesus knows what God the Father wants and trusts God the Father to see him through it. This is the same faithfulness and trust God calls Jeremiah to in the Old Testament reading, and the same faith and trust the psalmist leans on. It is the same faith and trust you and are called to, and we don’t have a problem with this when things are going well – when we’re healthy and before Coronavirus appeared and when politics and economics are going our way. But when things are not going our way, we’re prone to wanting to take control and force things the way we think they should be. We’re prone to complain to God rather than giving him thanks and praise. We’re prone to lamenting our obedience rather than trusting in God even when things are not working out the way we desired.

We are called to take God’s Word that his love for us truly is real, even if it doesn’t look and feel the way the world decides love should look and feel. Jesus’ trust and obedience in this situation led to his victory over sin and Satan and death, to our freedom and eternal life. We can and should trust God can work even in the difficult places and times in our life to his glory and the benefit not just of ourselves but those around us as well.

Reading Ramblings – August 23, 2020

August 16, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: 12th Sunday after Pentecost – August 23, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 51:1-6; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-12:8; Matthew 16:13-20

Context: Finding a common theme in the readings today may seem challenging at first. Yet there is a common thread (except in the Epistle, which we don’t expect this time of year since it’s not being intentionally matched to the other readings) of the agency of God. God as the primary actor in creation and the Word as opposed to us. We constantly have to resist the natural urge to see Scripture primarily about us in terms of what we do and instead see it as what God does on our behalf, from our very creation to our salvation and even the life of sanctification.

Isaiah 51:1-6 – Those who pursue righteousness (v.1) are likely to be understood in contrast to those who have opted for idolatry, discussed at the end of Chapter 50. Chapter 51 begins a section of five chapters emphasizing how God will deliver Israel through a new exodus and a Suffering Servant. But there are hints that this is not simply a return from exile in Babylon but something far greater, evidenced by the reference to Eden (v.3). But notice also the exclusive focus on God’s action. God will act on behalf of his people, even though some are being unfaithful. But to those who rely on God, they should trust and look to God for deliverance. After all, God took Abraham and Sarah, childless and aged, and created a mighty nation and people from them. Their lack of children likely helps contextualize the references to barrenness and wastelands in v.3, and just as Abraham and Sarah were joyous to finally have a child of their own, so God’s people will also be joyous when God returns them to his land. Verse 4 continues the contrast between the false light of idolatry at the end of Chapter 50 and the true light of God’s justice, a law that is firm and resolute. In fact, it is already in motion, and so the outcome is inevitable and trustworthy (note the present-tense language in vs.5-6).

Psalm 138 – The cause for thanksgiving in this psalm is not some personal benefit or blessing, but the activity of God whereby his name and Word are exalted and continue to go out in creation. The speaker is part of this, testifying to God’s reliability in answering when called upon (v.2). God’s faithfulness will result in his receiving glory and honor from even kings. They too will acknowledge God’s faithfulness, a faithfulness reserved not just for the mighty but for the lowly, even the speaker. This is a psalm of faith, proclaiming trust that God will continue to do what He has promised, and the speaker as well as all creation will be the beneficiaries of this faithfulness. The speaker acknowledges their identity as God’s creation, and calls on God to remain faithful and mindful of his creation and creature. This psalm is beautiful in lifting our eyes up from our own private struggles and victories by the grace of God, to the larger plan of salvation for all of creation.

Romans 11:33-12:8 – Paul breaks into a blessing of God and his inscrutable ways, far from our ability to discern or understand them. Verse 34 quotes Isaiah 40:13 and verse 35 quotes Job 41:3. God has not forgotten his chosen people, the Jews, just as God did not forget Job. But his plans for them are not ours to unravel, we are called only to give him thanks and praise. God receives the glory in all things. The end of chapter 11 seems like a natural break, allowing Paul to move on into a discussion and description of the Christian life. Verses 1-2 of Chapter 12 contribute to this impression, but perhaps given the content of vs. 3-8 we shouldn’t draw so stark a line. After all, in 11:17-27 Paul warned the Roman Gentile Christians about disdaining the Jews, which is similar to the theme of not thinking of oneself more highly than he ought to in 12:3. While Paul’s line of thought here is broader than it was in the previous chapter, there is a connection. This humility is a tangible part of the transformation Paul speaks of in v.2. We aren’t free to imagine we are being transformed when we really aren’t. Part of our transformation should be in humility towards one another, not just towards God. This humility is grounded in recognizing how God works through different people and different giftings. Coming to value the giftings of others that are different from our own is one means towards a greater humility. Figuring out how to serve based on our gifts, and allowing others to serve based on their gifts is a tangible way of keeping perspective on ourselves as well as others, leading to greater harmony in the body of Christ and less divisive internal emotions and competitive or jealous motivations.

Matthew 16:13-20 – Jesus has been performing miracles since Chapter 8 of Matthew’s gospel. It is reasonable to expect that some of the religious leaders from Jerusalem saw these miracles themselves, yet still expect Jesus to do additional or more impressive things in Chapter 16. They reject the miracles they have seen as evidence of Jesus’ identity and demand more. Now Jesus asks his disciples for their assessment of who He is. The crowds have many ideas about Jesus but his disciples have seen and experienced and heard more of Jesus than anyone else. Based on their experiences thus far, who do these relatively unlearned and common men declare Jesus to be? Peter’s confession is bold. To assert Jesus truly is the Messiah, and no less than the Son of God incarnate was a bold step of faith, and Peter is to be commended for seeing in Jesus the promises he has heard about in the synagogue and Scripture readings all his life.

Beginning with that simple statement of faith, and centered on the content of that statement of faith the Church is formed. Not by Peter or the disciples, but rather through and with and on them Jesus will establish his Church. This will eventually become something the disciples were unable to even conceive of in the moment, an institution spanning the earth and history, and leaving behind while carrying with it elements of the synagogue system and Temple worship they presumed to be the correct and eternal form of worship. Jesus will build, and Jesus will give the keys to the kingdom.

What are these keys? Traditionally these are understood as Jesus defines them here – the means of forgiveness. The Church is the only institution on earth charged with the forgiveness of sins or the withholding of forgiveness when someone is not repentant. And it is only through repentance and the forgiveness of sins that we are made right with God the Father once again. It is only through Jesus’ death and resurrection that these keys can even exist for him to convey to his Church.

The Church does not have exclusive control over these keys, but the Church is to wield these keys in proclaiming the Gospel, calling people to repentance and then assuring them of the forgiveness of their sins in Jesus Christ, who alone owns and controls the keys. The Church adds nothing to these keys (as the medieval Roman Catholic Church mistakenly asserted) and the Church dare not withhold the full power of these keys (as many watered-down Christian ‘churches’ are inclined to do so today to remain relevant or viable to an increasingly fickle population). It is only in acknowledging our sin and need for forgiveness and salvation that these very things we most need and can never produce on our own are freely extended to us by God the Holy Spirit through faith in God the Son, Jesus the Christ.

Obviously Satan wants this authority thwarted, and has worked tirelessly for 2000 years to discredit and undermine or silence through force the Church and the keys she wields. But Satan will never succeed in fully silencing or discrediting that Good News that Jesus truly is the Son of the living God come into our world to bear the penalty of our sin on his own sinless shoulders.

Book Review: Martin Luther

August 11, 2020

Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World

by Eric Metaxas

Metaxas is a skilled writer, able to communicate clearly and maintain reader interest while plowing through the details of a person’s life. He demonstrated his skill in this to me first with his book on Bonhoeffer, and this biography of Luther doesn’t disappoint either even if it is more limited in depth due to the greater distance in time between Metaxas and Luther.

Although diehard Luther scholars will likely see this book as too cursory an overview, Metaxas does an admirable job of sketching Luther’s life not simply in terms of timeline and biographical details but also in contextualizing the events for the reader to better appreciate their impact at the time as well as on history ever since. Metaxas allows the Luther neophyte to glimpse the startling impact this monk had on Western Civilization in general as well as the Church. In doing so Metaxas adds to the Luther corpus that moves Luther from being sidelined as of importance only to the Church and Church history and alongside secular historical figures who also impacted Western civilization in profound ways.

Metaxas weaves excerpts from Luther’s writings and contemporaries of Luther seamlessly into the narrative, and his extensive citing or referencing of other Luther scholars demonstrates the seriousness of his own research into those who have undertaken similar works before him. His references are never obstacles to the flow of his narrative, and you can easily ignore the extensive footnotes in the back of the book if you’re so inclined.

My only criticism is that at the end of the book, as Metaxas moves from biography to interpretation of Luther’s larger legacy, the author briefly confuses his own ideas about Christians and Christianity in the West today with Luther’s actual thoughts on the subject, particularly on the issue of obedience even to injustice or unfair rulers. Metaxas’ closing arguments sound as though Luther endorsed rising up against unfair rulers when, as Metaxas clearly demonstrated earlier in his book, this was exactly the opposite of what Luther argued.

Clearly the idea of enduring suffering and injustice is so difficult to Western (and particularly American) minds that even a great biographer like Metaxas can momentarily forget how counter-cultural the call to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-45) is.

Luther’s great witness was his willingness to suffer death if necessary in defense of the truth of God’s Word. He never considered himself above the temporal law but always subject to it. This further underscores the miraculous confluence of political and economic and religious currents orchestrated by God the Holy Spirit that Luther and the Gospel he set free once again might endure.

Book Review: The KGB’s Most Wanted

August 10, 2020

The KGB’s Most Wanted: The Story of Joseph Bondarenko, Russian Evangelist by Joseph Bondarenko

This was gifted to me by a parishioner who heard the author speak recently. The book is a powerful auto-biography of Bondarenko’s treatment in the former Soviet Union because of his faith. He describes things in a simple, relatable way that is easy to understand. His main purpose seems to be detailing events as he remembers them, rather than trying to impose any larger meaning on the events beyond the meaning given to us in Scripture of God’s mysterious ways of working. Bondarenko chooses to focus not on the barbarism of his jailers or the atheistic Communist systems, but rather on how God the Holy Spirit was always present and at work in even the worst of circumstances and situations, not just preserving Bondarenko’s life but leading others to or back to faith.

Bondarenko’s humility as well as his great faith in God is far more inspiring than the mistreatment he suffered by a system determined to break him and make an example of him. It isn’t that Bondarenko claims any great power for himself – he regularly gives all of the credit to God for protecting and sustaining him. Much as God defeated the efforts of Pharaoh in the Exodus story, God thwarts the intentions of various levels of Communist officials, regularly demonstrating his power through and despite Bondarenko’s weakness. Rather than breaking Bondarenko’s faith, others around him are brought to faith.