Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Reading Ramblings – August 1, 2021

July 25, 2021

Date: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ August 1, 2021

Texts: Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 145:10-21; Ephesians 4:1-16; John 6:22-35

Context: In 2012 I noted how switching the Gospel readings to John 6 for the next three weeks provided a more in-depth reflection on the feeding of the 5000 we read a few weeks ago in Mark. While I still find it odd to take this sudden swerve out of Mark and focus for so long on this piece of Jesus’ life and ministry, it does have advantages. What, after all, were the disciples supposed to make of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, which Mark indicates they didn’t understand? For that matter, what are we? Jesus’ teaching then in John 6 is very helpful here, moving us beyond a momentary obsession with the miraculous or the delicious and focusing our sight where it needs to be, on the eternal which is present in Jesus. Of course God has a long history of providing food for his people, so we have the reading from Exodus 2. The psalm takes up this reality and calls us to continue passing the story of God’s provision down to the next generations. Ephesians reminds us God continues to feed us as He raises up servants and pours his gifts upon them to call them to service – apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, teachers.

Exodus 16:2-15 – It might be easy for Christians today, much-divorced from our Jewish roots and often dull and ignorant of the Old Testament of our own Bible to miss what the crowds (and certainly Jesus’ disciples!) should not have – in miraculously providing bread and meat to thousands of people, Jesus was echoing the gifts of God in bread and meat to his Old Testament people. Further, this leads us to consider once again how Jesus is the embodiment of all God’s people, and as such is also a retelling of God’s relationship with his people. God provided for the Israelites as He led them towards the land He prepared for them to settle in and care for, where their needs would be provided for from the land which was God’s means for blessing them. Now Jesus feeds the people, providing for them as He leads them to himself, the living Promised Land who will be the means of God’s grace and forgiveness which will, in turn, allow his people to return to our eternal Promised Land in the City of God. We should give thanks daily for the First Article gifts of God the Father in sustaining us both physically (bread and meat) as well as spiritually (Word and Sacrament).

Psalm 145:10-21 – In our hyper-individualized American culture even the communal experience in faith becomes more oriented towards ourselves. What has God done for me? How do I feel about my relationship with God? The antidote to this spiritual navel-gazing is the firm reminder that God is the Creator in ongoing relationship with his creation. As such, our individual experiences are contextualized against the larger story of God’s work of redemption. We are not each an individual story or beginning, but rather part of the one story of God with one In the beginning and one conclusion as foreshadowed in Revelation. Even when we cannot find the strength or joy to praise God for what is happening in our lives at the moment, we are able to give him thanks and praise for all He has done not only for us but for his creation as a whole and his covenant people. It is this larger context that gives us a realistic hope for the future. Passing through an airport recently I noticed a large brightly lit sign with a picture of someone with arms upraised at the exit of a tunnel, a blinding brightness of sunlight and green enveloping this person who, presumably, had recently been encased in darkness. The caption simply encouraged people to hold on because things will get better. But on what basis can such a claim be made? Simple, naive or even foolish optimism? This is not the case for the people of God! We are called to hope, and that hope is real and true. That hope has a basis – in our own lives as well as in the lives of God’s people through history – and it also has a firm promise to sustain it. For those in Christ, truly things will get better, even if they are wonderful at the moment.

Ephesians 4:1-16 – Having prayed the Ephesians would be strengthened in power and rooted and grounded in love (3:14-19) Paul encourages and exhorts them to live as those who have indeed received these blessings. This is not a generic or vague call to being “good”, but Paul is very specific and detailed about what this should look like. Humility, gentleness and patience are to characterize their loving interactions with one another as believers. Their goal should be to maintain unity in peace through God the Holy Spirit who dwells in their midst. They who have been united in one confession of faith and one baptism are to live out this reality of unity in their daily dealings with one another. We who have been graced in Christ with all good things are to press on in this life towards our eternal life to come. This will anchor us against the shifting tides and sands around us of culture and contemporary concerns. Our groundedness in Christ should be an anchor against being tossed about, and in the larger context this may imply tossed about against each other in conflict or anything unbecoming brothers and sisters in Christ.

John 6:22-35 – The crowds who were fed miraculously by Jesus are quite hard-working when it comes to figuring out where He now was! He didn’t get into the boat with his disciples, so presumably they searched and inquired about the region where He was the night before. But to no avail! So when boats came who could take them farther afield, they jumped on board and headed for the place Jesus used as a home base for his ministry – Capernaum. Their sleuthing pays off and they find Jesus, at which point are they embarrassed when they find him? Is their eagerness and endeavoring suddenly awkward to them, so that they try to engage Jesus in preliminary small talk? Or are they genuinely curious as to how He could come so far so quickly without a boat? Are they probing for more miraculous signs to be entertained by?

Regardless, Jesus is not in the mood for small talk. He calls out the crowd for their motivation – full stomachs rather than spiritually enlightened minds. Like his disciples they didn’t understand why Jesus had fed them – perhaps they too missed the connection with God’s feeding of his people in the wilderness in Exodus? Hardly surprising if so! But if they’re going to work that hard just hoping for another free lunch, how much better that they apply themselves to things that matter, to eternal life and the Son of Man who alone can provide it to them!

They miss this last point – eternal life is the gift given by the Son of Man. Who is able and willing to do so because of God the Father’s intentions through him. Instead, they pick up on the idea of work. You think we’re hard working? Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it! We’ll work for that eternal life! We’ll work for God! But that’s not the point either, otherwise Jesus might have commanded them to bake bread instead of miraculously providing it to them! They have nothing to contribute, however. The work of God is entirely the free gift of God’s love. They can either receive it (believe) or ignore or reject it.

Note the crowd clearly understands what Jesus is getting at – they know He’s calling them to faith and belief in him. The only reasonable context and setting for this is in terms of being the Messiah. If that’s what Jesus is getting at, they want to see his credentials. Ironically they bring up the manna God provided the Israelites as an example of what they want to see from Jesus, completely missing that this is exactly what He did the night before!

Jesus knows they’re missing the point, in part because they assume Moses is who provided the manna, and Jesus is equating himself to Moses and therefore needs to prove his case. But Jesus isn’t comparing himself to Moses at all. Moses didn’t provide the manna, God did! And Jesus provided bread for them last night, showing himself to be God who has come down from heaven to give not just bread but life to the world.

This time, however, God is not merely providing bread. The most important food God is giving to his people is not mere manna, but Jesus himself, the Son of God come down from heaven. Simple bread is impressive but it doesn’t last. But what Jesus gives to them in himself will last forever. Jesus is the essential thing they need more than daily bread itself, and when Jesus gives himself up to be broken on their behalf, they will be filled to the fullest forever.

Reading Ramblings – July 25, 2021

July 18, 2021

Date: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 25, 2021

Texts: Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 136:1-9; Ephesians 3:14-21; Mark 6:45-66

Context: God is the Creator of all things.  This means God is master of all things.  There is nothing that happens without God’s either direct will (the Flood) or permission (Job).  This is how we are to see everything that happens in this world and in our lives, acknowledging God’s presence and power and wisdom, trusting that He will work all things for good, even if it must be in spite of and through the sin and brokenness and pain and suffering our sin inflicts on ourselves, one another, and the rest of creation.  To say we trust in God is one thing.  To fall back on that trust when our own plans and preferences have come to nothing is quite another.  Elie Wiesel, who survived the Nazi Holocaust, talks in his book Night about how he lost faith in God during that time, because he could not reconcile the suffering and death all around him with a good and loving God.  Wiesel could not imagine that God could use even this blackest sin as ultimately a demonstration of his power, wisdom, glory, and love.  We must resolve ourselves through daily meditation and prayer on our baptismal grace, so that if and when we are faced with similar catastrophe, we might stand faithful in the gifts of our loving God, even if it means the end of our lives.

Genesis 9:8-17 – Noah and his family have just witnessed the destruction of human and animal life on the planet by the floodwaters unleashed by God.  Now they are called to place their trust in God’s promise to never again do such a thing.  Noah’s life prior to the flood was marked with obedience to God, so that he was deemed by God to be righteous (6:9).  Now Noah and his family had to decide if they would continue to be obedient to God, trusting his promise of mercy and grace just as much as they trusted his message to them of coming destruction and short-term instruction (6:9-22).  Like Noah we are called to trust God in all things, even when things don’t seem to be working out in a way we would consider pleasing to God.  Faith is not just a feeling, it is a decision as well, an insistence on persisting in a certain way of thinking or living even when alternate options are more desirable or even appear to be safer or better by worldly standards.  Noah serves as a powerful example to us when things are difficult to remain anchored in the promises of the God who also brought us every blessing we have ever experienced, and promised us eternally more in his perfect will and timing, through faith in the sacrifice of his Incarnate Son, Jesus the Christ.

Psalm 136:1-9 – These verses are what the insistence of faith I just referred to looks like.  We give thanks to God in all situations, insisting that God truly is good and loving and holds all power over all things and situations.  This requires we admit that we are not gods ourselves, and that it was not our understanding that made the heavens or spread the earth above the waters.  God alone has that perspective on time and creation, and God alone is able to know what is best and how to work in and with and through and despite our flawed and sinful natures to bring about his greatest glory.  There is nothing subjective in these verses – the power and glory of God and therefore the just and proper recipient of praise is based in creation, not in our subjective experience of that creation in an incredibly finite time and place.  We are called here, in a sense, to acknowledge our finite experience of creation, and perhaps to ponder briefly the absurdity that we should find God at fault for a particular event or sequence of events considering how limited our field of vision is!  We are called to trust that the eternal Creator of the finite and limited truly does love us and intend the best for us even if our particular moment of time is not what we would want for ourselves or others. 

Ephesians 3:14-21 – To best appreciate the beauty of Paul’s words here, we should also include v.13 in the reading.  The Ephesians are concerned for Paul because of his struggles and suffering.  This suffering might include the riot at Ephesus that might easily have cost Paul and his companions their lives (Acts 19).  It might include Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 about how they would never see him again.  But perhaps most likely this suffering is Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem in Chapters 21 and following.  Yet despite this suffering, Paul bows his knees in prayer not regarding himself but on behalf of the Ephesians (and all the other Christians he has nurtured).  Paul no doubt is unhappy about his suffering, but also can recognize there is a larger picture at play, in which his suffering is in fact for the glory of the Ephesians and Christians down to you and I today.  That is not a perspective possible not only with a god, but without the God of Scripture who is the loving Father seeking constantly after all of his wayward and rebellious sheep. 

Mark 6:45-66 – The final words are instructive here.  The disciples are astounded by Jesus walking across the water to them and calming the raging winds.  This is because they didn’t understand what Jesus had done in the feeding of the 5000 because their hearts were hardened.  I don’t interpret that to mean God the Holy Spirit was hardening their hearts, but rather their hearts were hardened by their own ideas and assumptions and interpretations.  They could not yet acknowledge that Jesus might be the promised Messiah.  They were still working to explain his incredible actions by some other means.  Jesus in his loving patience continues to demonstrate his power and authority to them, leading their hearts to eventually soften so that Peter can proclaim him the Messiah (Mark 8:27-29).  But they aren’t there yet.  It isn’t that they aren’t seeing miraculous things, but that they can’t accept those events for what they are and interpret them properly.

So still today people misunderstand (or just miss) God’s workings in the world around us.  They presume that just because a surgery or a medicine healed a serious illness or injury it wasn’t God at work – as though God was not the provider of the skill and wisdom and ingredients!  Many (Christians, even!) are more apt to talk about coincidence than they are to daily remind themselves God is not absent, sleeping, or silent.  When we remind ourselves daily that God is the source of all things in creation, we are better able to see his hand in all things, even when mediated by human involvement.  All of this should be towards the glory of God, and our thankful and faithful hearts that not only appreciate his love here and now, but actively look towards the return of his Son and our Lord to usher in an eternity of joy together.

Friday & Worship

July 16, 2021

Parts of the Roman Catholic world are abuzz today over a declaration issued by Pope Francis. The Pope issued a mortu propio, essentially a directive directly from himself as the Pope, without necessary consultation with other Church leadership or authority. These are apparently issued relatively infrequently (the first in the 15th century) and can have profound impact on Church practice.

This one – entitled TRADITIONIS CUSTODES, essentially curtails the use of the Traditional Latin Mass (TLM), also referred to as the Tridentine Mass. This was the form of worship the Roman Catholic Church made use of almost exclusively for nearly 400 years – up until the reforms of Vatican II. In issuing this pronouncement, Pope Francis appears to be making it more difficult, though not completely impossible, for parishes to offer TLM, encouraging them instead to move towards worship in the vernacular.

From my denomination’s perspective, this would be the equivalent of the Synodical President effectively banning a particular form of worship. Pope Francis’ directive requires local bishops to make determination of whether or not TLM is necessary or appropriate within their jurisdiction, the equivalent of making every individual congregation in our denomination get special permission from their District President to celebrate a particular form of worship. One can imagine the challenges in this rather easily, from the logistical perspective to say the least. And if your bishop doesn’t wish to see TLM observed? I guess you’re out of luck.

Our denomination has struggled for years over the issue of worship, so this isn’t exactly a foreign subject. Thus far at least there have been no definitive pronouncements on the topic of traditional vs. contemporary worship, though more than a few would have done so if given the opportunity or they thought they could get away with it without splintering our denomination.

The Pope’s orders are effective immediately, and allow for no period of consideration, questioning and the like. For those attached to TLM (and apparently there are many) this is a particularly brutal, insensitive and rash decision. I can empathize with them. I hurt for those whose desired form of worship has now been made more elusive or even unavailable. And I pray this will not be a wedge between the faithful and the Church. While I’m not Roman Catholic, anything that drives people away from the communion of the saints is a bad thing, even if it originates from within the Church. I pray those who are hurt and angry will – by the grace of God – be granted peace and the ability to forgive these decisions they vehemently disagree with, and that their faith might in the process grow rather than diminish.

What About Judas?

July 15, 2021

If you want to probe someone’s concepts of grace, ask them about Judas Iscariot. Is it possible the grace of God the Father in Jesus Christ is extended even to the betrayer of Christ? It’s a fascinating question that has occupied theologians for roughly 2000 years. I don’t expect people to have the final answer on the question, but I like to see if they’re willing to conceded of the possibility. Some don’t, as they feel Scripture (Matthew 26:24; Mark 14:21)speaks pretty clearly to Judas’ eternal as well as temporal punishment. The Apostle John in particular has nothing good to say of Judas. However such passages don’t have to be interpreted in terms of Judas’ eternal condition.

Here’s a good little read, with a beautiful introduction regarding Greek Orthodox depictions of Judas and what might have been. You might also be interested in Googling images of Orthodox iconography and Judas. He routinely is depicted at the Last Supper without a halo, in contrast to the other eleven apostles.

I know I won’t have the answer to this question prior to Jesus’ return or my own death but I continue to hold out the possibility that even Judas repented before taking his own life.

What say you?

Slow Dating and Demisexuality

July 13, 2021

Of course we can’t have any “puritanical sensibility” in the realm of dating and sexuality, but the idea that sex isn’t best as something freely distributed to anyone and everyone at any time is making a comeback, though of course without any religious baggage.

Multiple surveys and studies for years have indicated young people are having less sex than previous generations (assuming we trust the answers of those sorts of surveys). Slow dating is one practice being promoted or defended as a better way to deeper, longer-lasting relationships. If this isn’t hip sounding enough there’s a newer slang term for people who want to build a deep relationship with someone before becoming sexually active with them – demisexuals. It can’t be common sense and it certainly can’t be that Biblical precepts (and the Bible isn’t the only religious text to stress the importance/value/benefit of monogamy and a non-libertine approach to sexuality) have been right all along. We just have to come up with a cooler way to describe people who don’t bed-hop.

Of course both slow dating and the demisexual tag both assume you’ll have multiple sexual relationships, you’ll just have them slower and one at a time, similar to the old joke about serial monogamy. At least people don’t have to feel ashamed any longer because they aren’t following our culture’s obsessive drive about sexual activity. Instead of risking being classified (and dismissed) as just religious, they can now claim to be hip and cool like everyone else.

What a relief.

In the meantime, the Biblical Word on this topic remains unchanged. God who created us knows best about how sexuality can be expressed, even when we’d like to think we know better.

Book Review: The Apostles’ Creed for Today

July 12, 2021

The Apostles’ Creed for Today by Justo L. Gonzalez

The tone of this book begins markedly different than the previous two I’ve read and reviewed, and while that tone diminishes somewhat through the book, it still is an underlying assumption throughout.

First off, this book is fantastic for the depth of history it provides. Given that Gonzalez was the youngest recipient of Yale’s Ph.D in historical theology, this should come as no surprise. He does a good job of tracing the history of the Creed back as far as textual sources will allow – the middle 2nd century and a baptismal creedal formula in use in Rome very similar to what we know as the Apostles’ Creed, though not exactly the same. Thus Gonzalez also effectively denies apostolic authorship of the Creed, at least in the way referenced by Augustine in the 4th century and later writers. But Gonzalez’ work clearly demonstrates a strong assertion that the Creed is old, very old, and may well be rooted in the words of the Apostles’ themselves and the first century Church.

Gonzalez also provides helpful distinctions in the difference in use of the Apostles’ Creed in the West and the Nicene Creed in the East, while also casting some aspersions on the former as perhaps a later political and theological tool, a claim to an older Creedal formulae than the Nicene Creed. However the scholarship Gonzalez refers to in this short book clearly refutes such an interpretation. The Apostles’ Creed is likely older, but was not developed to bulwark claims of greater legitimacy by the Western Church.

Finally Gonzalez goes to great pains to distinguish how the Apostles’ Creed would likely be interpreted by early Christians as opposed to today’s Church. Sometimes this is very helpful, sometimes it is speculative to the point of being unhelpful. While we definitely have an overly-emotionalized spiritual climate in much of the Church today, this does not mean there were no emotional elements in the early Church. And the glaringly political overtones of some of the Creed should not be lost on the Church today, particularly in America where political affiliations now increasingly divide and shatter congregations.

However Gonzalez does not presume what Dr. Mohler asserts in his book, that the Creed represents the bare minimum of belief for someone to call themselves a Christian in any meaningful or definable way. Gonzalez states on p.7 …it would be helpful to think of the Creed not so much as a personal statement of faith but rather as a statement of what it is that makes the church be the church, and of our allegiance to the essence of the gospel and therefore to the church that proclaims it. Gonzalez seems wary of challenging or catechizing readers who may not accept certain statements in the Creed, and more interested in helping them to understand what it says. While understanding is important, this single statement on p.7 perpetuates an underlying theme of permissiveness throughout the book. You may or may not believe any one (or more) of the particular statements in the Creed. That’s the beauty of the Church – it can encompass many different theological stances, Gonzalez asserts later on. Given Gonzalez’ emphasis on ecumenism this isn’t surprising, but denying any of the statements in the Creed is a direct assault on the Bible itself. While Gonzalez never goes this far overtly, it seems clear he would rather agree to disagree while undermining the authority of Scripture. What is left is a vacuum devoid of any authority, and therefore devoid of any meaningful way of either agreeing or disagreeing. This is the crux of conflict in modern Christianity in Europe and America. If the Bible is not authoritative, there is no authority left other than personal opinion.

Gonzalez displays typical modern sensitivity to matters of gender and race, and it is clear that his theology is strongly influenced by concepts of social justice as foundational Biblical mandates. He is openly supportive of alternative, non-gender specific references to both God the Father and God the Son that once again undermine Biblical authority by ignoring what the Bible actually says in favor of something more personally appealing.

Finally, as evidence of Gonzalez’ suspicion of Biblical authority, he quotes it very rarely, referring far more often to the writings of Church Fathers. Again this isn’t surprising given his doctoral emphasis, but it does display less of a concern for the Bible as the source of the Creed. It isn’t that Gonzalez never refers to Scripture in this book, it’s just that often he rationalizes from other sources and causes. For example, on his discussion of the final statement of the Creed regarding the resurrection of the body and life everlasting, Gonzalez cites two reasons why these statements are important. The first is his assertion the early Church wanted to emphasize the ongoing work of God’s creative powers in Christian hope, and the second was as an affirmation of the innate goodness of the material, contra prevailing philosophical theories of the day which denigrated anything physical and glorified spirit as our true nature imprisoned in our decaying flesh.

Both of these may well be true, but there’s the other glaring reason these assertions are in the Creed – it’s what God has told us in his Word! The opening verses of John 14 should be reason enough to include statements regarding resurrection and eternal life, let alone Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 4:13ff!

This is a good book overall, particularly if you desire a bit more historical background on the Creed. But it should also be read cautiously. The Creed depends upon and is drawn from the Word of God. As such, what the Creed asserts should not be juggled so lightly. Those who sincerely question and are seeking greater faith should be encouraged towards such, not told that they are free to accept or reject aspects of the Creed – and therefore the Bible – based on their own personal opinions. This is not a means of unifying the Church but undermining it.

Reading Ramblings – July 18, 2021

July 11, 2021

Date: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost – July 18, 2021

Texts: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-44

Context: Just starting the reading at Jeremiah 23:1, we might be inclined to interpret the words as directed towards the priests as shepherds of God’s people.  However if you start at Chapter 21 you see this is more of a political issue than a religious one (though the religious leaders will be addressed later!).  How does this contextualize our hearing of the 23rd psalm, where Jesus becomes not just the tender-but-powerless shepherd but an actual authority figure we must actually obey?  We see the Good Shepherd seeking to tend to the needs of his disciples in the Gospel, but that is put on hold when He is moved with compassion for the larger crowds around them.  Jesus is then able to instruct and demonstrate to his disciples the heart of a truly good shepherd, one who doesn’t simply send people away when it is inconvenient or tiring but gives of himself constantly and fully that they might have life. 

Jeremiah 23:1-6 – The shepherds referred to here are political, not religious in nature.  They are the descendants of King David who have sat on the throne over the years and rather than binding God’s people together in faithful trust and obedience to God, have led the people astray and into God’s judgment and impending exile.  What human leaders can’t and won’t do God will do fully himself.  There is an equal focus in this section between criticism and promised judgment for those who do not carry out their vocational roles as political leaders faithfully, and reassurance to those who suffer under the ill-conceived or ill-intentioned whims of their leaders.  We do NOT look to the political authorities of the world as our ultimate hope.  We pray they do their jobs faithfully and well, in accordance with the Word of God and in love for their constituents.  But even the best of them will be flawed and fail to some extent.  But there will come a time when we are once again ruled directly by our God rather than flawed intermediaries. 

Psalm 23 – Perhaps the Old Testament reading helps us to see the pastoral language here as being more far-reaching than we typically think.  While we revel in the provision of our Good Shepherd, how willing are we at times to follow where He leads?  How often are we inclined to evaluate the pastures He asks us to lie down in, preferring to seek out other pastures more to our liking?  How prone are we to accepting the still waters He provides but still grousing about this that or the other that isn’t to our liking?  How willingly do we accept his leading down paths that glorify him and his Word when the culture around us deems such paths as too narrow and restrictive?  And how often do we allow the promises of our Good Shepherd to be eclipsed by our fear of death, so that our fear is what overwhelms us and drives our decisions and actions?  The Good Shepherd is good.  We are called to trust this not blindly, but by the evidence of this in our own lives, in the community of faith we are placed in, and in the Word of God.

Ephesians 2:11-22 – The lectionary skipped over the last part of Chapter 1, Paul’s hymn of glory and praise and thanksgiving to God the Father for his gifts to us through Jesus Christ.  It’s kind of a shame, because reading the end of Chapter 1 might better prepare us for the shocking disjunct of the start of Chapter 2.  God the Father has poured out his grace and gifts not onto deserving and obedient children but to the stillborn, to you and I born dead in sin and in our willful continuance of sinfulness.  How great are God’s gifts when seen in this fullness!  How much better can and should we appreciate who we are in Christ, since we could do nothing to merit such blessing!  And how much better might we appreciate one another then, as fellow-inheritors of such riches.  We are not strangers and aliens (2:19), to remain aloof and distant from one another.  We are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God (v.19).  This is how we should consider one another and treat one another, admonishing as necessary but always within the bonds of love given to us in Christ rather than generated from our own resources.  We are capable of loving others and are called to do so by the blood of Christ, and it is not a decision we get to make but a reality we are to live out in obedience.

Mark 6:30-44 – We see the loving heart of the Good Shepherd expressed in action.  His awareness of his disciples’ needs and his insistence those needs be tended to.  His compassion for the crowds who came out to him.  Handling the necessity of ordering priorities in order to tend to the massive needs of the people.  His firmness in modeling care and love for people when his disciples would have rather not seen them as their own responsibility.  And not least, his lesson that things impossible by our own means are hardly impossible through the power of God. 

But we might easily imagine how his disciples felt!  Here was Jesus, changing plans on them.  Here was Jesus, putting their needs second to the needs of an anonymous crowd.  Here was Jesus, going the extra mile and leaving them all extra exhausted.  Here was Jesus, seemingly unaware and unprepared for the dilemma of feeding a crowd at the end of a long day.

How often does our limited viewpoint keep us from focusing on what God is doing, preferring instead to focus on our own needs or preferences?  Only in hindsight do we see these times for what they are – demonstrations of the grace and glory, the love and power of our Creator God!  In hindsight we are awed!  In the moment we are more than likely petulant and ungrateful and irritable. 

Yet our Good Shepherd continues to love such obstinate, short-sighted and untrusting sheep as we!  God truly deserves all glory and honor and praise that He would continually forgive, continually insist on including us in his plan of salvation for all creation! 

Book Review – The Apostles’ Creed

July 10, 2021

The Apostles’ Creed: Discovering Authentic Christianity in an Age of Counterfeits by R. Albert Mohler

This book reads very similar to the last one I reviewed, though about twice the length. The author comes out of the Reformed tradition and you can tell he’s writing to readers who are Christian but may never have encountered the Creed before and may be uncertain whether they should value it or not. He has a high view of Scripture and makes the connection that if you don’t trust the Bible to be authoritative and truthful then the Creed isn’t going to be very useful to you as it’s based in Scripture and the earliest writings and teachings of the Christian Church dating back to the first century. One of his best lines is All Christians believe more than is contained in the Apostles’ Creed, but none can believe less. (Introduction, p. xvi)

The author assumes it isn’t the work of the Apostles but doesn’t spend much time tracing the history of the Creed. He’s more interested in applied doctrinal theology than Christian history and that’s not a bad emphasis. It’s a solid introduction to what the Creed says and what it means by what it says. He assumes a continuum between what the authors meant by the assertions in the Creed and how a modern reader might interpret the statements. If you aren’t familiar with the Apostles’ Creed or what to think a bit more deeply about what it means, this isn’t a bad resource at all.

Reading Ramblings – July 11, 2021

July 4, 2021

Date: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 11, 2021

Texts: Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-20

Context: The Word of God often stands in stark contradiction to the rules of polite society or the transitory whims of human nature, not to mention the insistent rebellion of outright evil.  Speaking the Word of God faithfully has more often than not been fraught with danger throughout human history.  The Message cannot be killed – woven as it is into the very fabric of creation and our own hearts (Romans 2:12-16).  But messengers can – and often are – killed.  Sometimes outright and violently.  Sometimes in the gossip and innuendo and disrespect that undermine the messenger’s efforts.  Greater familiarity with the Word of God prepares even our sinful hearts for the painful truth spoken by a faithful messenger, and should lead us to recognize that what God says is always best and best for us, even if it isn’t what we want to hear.

Amos 7:7-15 – Amos is a Judean, from the southern and smaller kingdom that resulted from the split of the single Israel after Solomon’s death.  And Amos does not come from a priestly or prophetic line, as he himself admits.  Yet he is Called by God not only to be his messenger, but more unusual still to be his messenger to the northern, larger kingdom of Israel.  Amos is given God’s Word of warning and judgment to the northern kingdom, but the word and the messenger are rejected by the priestly class serving at Bethel (a site sacred to God’s people since Jacob’s dream back in Genesis 28).  It’s interesting that Amaziah’s complaint against Amos is that “the land is not able to bear all his words” (v.10).  But the measure of God’s Word is not how easy it is to bear, but how true it is.  Unfortunately, sometimes the truth of his Word is only recognized in hindsight.  But if we rely on the faithfulness of God’s Word, showing us the power and truth of his Word at play through the roughly 2000 years of Biblical history, we should be prepared to accept that his Word is truth in our lives even when we’d rather not see it that way, and we needn’t await hindsight for God’s Word to be proven best and true. 

Psalm 85 – Its interesting the first seven verses of the psalm are optional.  Perhaps we shy away from what seems an overly simplistic understanding of God’s workings in the world, that his good favor could be tied to our faithfulness and obedience.  And surely, it isn’t that simple (just look at Job!).  But it is also true that a life lived in obedience to God’s Word is a blessed life as the psalmist regularly attests.  While God’s relationship to his covenant people Israel in the Old Testament is singular and unique in all of human history, we as his people the Church today inherit similar promises.  We need to be careful in applying geographical interpretations applicable  to a theocratic nation (Old Testament Israel) to our current geo-political situation, but we as the faithful people of God should experience his blessing as we live in obedience to his Word.  This blessing is real and true even if it does not match cultural definitions of blessedness, and despite the fact we are not immune to the effects of our own personal as well as communal sinfulness (just as God’s Old Testament people were not).  We do not live under God’s anger as his forgiven people.  Our baptism wipes our sin away from God’s sight, yet we remember that our continued sinfulness can cause problems in our relationship with him, with ourselves, and with the world around us.  New Testament warnings to this end (Ephesians 4:30) should be paid attention to!

Ephesians 1:3-14 – Speaking of Ephesians, we move from 2 Corinthians on into Ephesians, bypassing the greeting verses of Chapter 1.  But Paul’s words remind us of the blessedness we actually have here and now in Jesus Christ.  Our blessings are not simply someday in the future, or when our Lord returns.  We have them now in a very real and present way, even if they are not completely manifest.  Here we should be careful not to add words to what Paul says.  Are we chosen in Jesus Christ?  Did not God the Father from before the beginning of time and creation intend that all should hear the Good News of Christ crucified and resurrected and come to saving faith in him?  Of course!  Did he predestine us towards this end, paving the way of salvation through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments?  Of course!  We in faith realize this is God’s desire for all of creation, that none have been willfully excluded by him.  So when we hear language of being chosen and predestined we can ascribe to God all the praise and glory and honor for this truth.  And we do not presume to say what Paul does not – that if we have been chosen and predestined there must be others not chosen and not predestined.  Paul does not say this!  He simply emphasizes the blessedness of those who have received faith in Jesus Christ.  And we would better focus our attention on rendering him the praise and honor He deserves for this!

Mark 6:14-20 – In the Gospel today the situation of Jesus and his disciples (recently sent out on their first mission work in the opening section of Mark 6) is contextualized.  One who dares to speak the Word of God openly and boldly does so at considerable risk.  Despite Jesus’ ineffectual visit to Nazareth earlier in the Chapter, it is clear from his words and work that He is at least on the level of the Old Testament prophets.  And just in case we’ve forgotten how those prophets were often treated, we are provided with backstory on John the Baptist, the last of the Old Testament style prophets, and a foreshadowing of what awaits Jesus in a few short chapters.  The Word of God is power, but it is not the kind of power that wields the sword and determines life and death in this world.  Not yet.  There will come a time for that, and it will be a terrible time indeed for those who scoffed at God’s Word when it appeared to be weak and uncompelling by the world’s standards, and when its messengers like Amos and John the Baptist could be ridiculed or arrested or killed with apparent impunity.  Jesus, who embodies in himself the distinct Old Testament roles of prophet, priest and king is therefore going to be resisted by the powers of the world, and will suffer the same fate as God’s faithful messengers of old.  The difference being that Jesus is not merely a prophet or a priest or a king or a combination of all three, but the incarnate Son of God who will lay his life down of his own volition rather than having it taken from him by force.  And this Good Shepherd who lays his life down for his sheep (John 10) has the power and authority to take it up again from God the Father as demonstration and vindication of his Word, his works, and his identity. 

John the Baptist – as well as Amos – is faithful to God’s calling.  It earns him an early death, but his place in the kingdom of God is secure. 

Book Review – I Believe

June 29, 2021

I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed by Alister McGrath

The first book I finished in preparation to teach on the Apostles’ Creed is this one. Alister McGrath is a well-known theologian who comes from a different Christian tradition than mine – one of the reasons I wanted to read his take on the Apostles’ Creed. I know he and I differ on some rather fundamental issues but I was curious how he would deal with the Creed. Overall, he deals with it very, very well.

He notes early on that one’s view of the Creed is tied to one’s view of Scripture. Since the Creed simply summarizes core aspects of Biblical revelation, if one dismisses the Bible as just the work of human authors or unreliable in the process of copying and translation, one is not going to be terribly excited about the Creed, and will likely dismiss all or parts of it out of hand. However if one takes Scripture seriously, as Christians have for the past two thousand years, then the Creed will be a handy way of boiling down the core matters that define whether one is a Christian or not.

This is important.

Anyone can call themselves a Christian. But for 2000 years the basic litmus test for such an assertion is whether or not they believe everything the Creed states. Not because the Creed is inspired in any way, but because the Creed is anchored firmly in Scripture and Scripture is the defining source for Christian faith. You can call yourself a Christian all you want, but if you deny any elements of the Creed, you are dismantling a very integrated theology and world-view, one that Christians for thousands of years have insisted cannot be dismantled. It is either accepted in entirety, or it cannot stand up to sustained critical examination.

With this in mind, it’s interesting that McGrath is able to assert wholeheartedly the opening description of God the Father – Maker of Heaven and Earth. If he is an ardent supporter or defender of theistic evolution, he doesn’t go into it here. He rightly maintains that God is the creator of all things but skirts the issue of whether the Biblical description of a seven-day creation is literal or possibly metaphorical. Some might argue that such an issue is tangential and unrelated to the generic statement of God as maker of heaven and earth. However as McGrath notes elsewhere in this book, to discount the miraculous in one part of Scripture throws a wrench into maintaining support for the miraculous elsewhere. And while I don’t doubt McGrath would argue theistic evolution is not denying God’s miraculous creative role, there are many Christians (myself included) who disagree with him.

This is a good introductory exploration of the Creed. Each chapter takes up one of the twelve faith statements. McGrath first explains all of the relevant parts of the statement at hand. He then returns to address how the ideas play out today. To affirm that God is the Father is one thing, but if it is to be more than an intellectual assent, it should have some interplay with how we live our lives if we believe it to be true, and McGrath does respectable work at connecting those dots.

At just over 100 pages in length (plus a bibliography and some helpful notes for those who want to use the book for small group study) it’s not exhaustive by any means. But it’s a good reminder (perhaps to those in McGrath’s Reformed stream of Christianity) that the Creeds are very helpful and good, and should be greatly esteemed.