Ambulans in Itinere

Thursday, June 29, 2006

When the suffering ends, does the hope?

Romans 5:1-11

There's a reason that a lowly German monk was motivated to make changes in the Church that he loved after reading Romans. There is power in the words that Paul wrote to the believers in the Empire's capital.

The words are sweeping and hope-filled: "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God."

This is no half-arrangement by any means. We were at war with God; our hearts were born in rebellion. But now, Paul says, "we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" if "we are justified by faith."

These are blessed words, words filled with the victory that Christ won on Golgotha. But Paul does not call the Christians, those who have faith in Jesus, to be happy-go-lucky types; no, he recognizes that -- especially for the Cristiani in Rome -- being a follower of The Way can be challenging, and not just for our call to live for Christ.

Paul writes, "we also boast in our sufferings."

You can imagine some Christian in Rome, gathered with his brothers and sisters in a house church listening to Paul's letter being read, stand up and say, "Now wait a second. Just yesterday Gaius was sent to the Coliseum to fight the lions and Lucius has disappeared: we're supposed to boast about this? Which one of us is next?"

It's a fair question. How can Paul genuinely boast in his sufferings? The answer is quick in coming: "we can also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

Because Christ has saved us by grace through faith, "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." Each of us, who believes, is the temple -- the literal host -- of the Third Person of the Trinity. God is with us, because the Holy Spirit, our comforter, will never leave us. He speaks to us. He loves us. And he pours God's love into our hearts. Because of that, our suffering leads to endurance; endurance develops into character. Character becomes hope, and "hope does not disappoint us."

For our hope is in Jesus and what he has done for us. And we do not hope in vain. "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. [...] But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us."

This is the hope that sustains us. This is the hope that animates our lives. This is the victory of our God. "For if while we were enemies [with God], we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by [Jesus'] life."

This is the hope that led Christians to sing hymns and give thanks to God as the lions bore down on them in the Coliseum. This is the hope that gave martyrs the strength to proclaim Christ in the face of being burned and tortured and slaughtered. This is the hope that compels Christians to lands where they know they will be persecuted and killed for the Gospel of Christ.

But what of us? My life has never been threatened for my commitment to Jesus. Today alone (and it is a Thursday), I could have attended at least two worship services this morning, and I have the opportunity to attend another at Noon. If my life is not in danger, must I still suffer, endure, develop character, and hope?

Our Enemy is subtle. The greatest faith and hope ever produced in the history of the Church has been that of the martyrs; when Christians are persecuted they cling to God, and Jesus carries them through to victory. The Evil One has seen his plans thwarted, and he has learned. In the United States today, for example, there is hardly any persecution; true, there are people in some places who are ostracized for the sake of Christ, and there are some whose jobs and education have been affected by their hope in Jesus.

There have been, however, no Christians thrown to the lions; there have been no Jesus-freaks sent to the gas chamber. The suffering we must undergo is the temptation to compromise our witness to gain a new friend, pick up a few more dollars, or climb a little higher on the social ladder. Our Enemy is subtle, and his challenge to us today is that we are fat, happy, and unchallenged. We are smug in our strength and not the strength of Christ.

It is not the love of Dillon that has been poured into my heart; it is the love of Christ, through his Holy Spirit. The victory of Christ on the cross is our hope. We must depend on Jesus, and we must be willing to stand up, take courage, and be courageous for the Truth. Jesus' love is the strength that we call upon to bear the sufferings of this world. "But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation."

And because have been reconciled to Christ, it is up to us to open to his Spirit to accomplish the world-wide ministry of reconciliation of people with God. That is our mission, for which Christ has called us to hope.

Almighty God and Father, we confess that, even though our burden is small, we have not boldly proclaimed your love to others; we confess that we try to be good enough to please you, when you have already saved all those who believe.

We glorify you, O Lord, for you have redeemed us despite our sin and transgression. You have saved us from the Pit! You achieved victory over the Enemy and have reconciled to yourself all of those who accept your gift.

Save us, Lord, from arrogance and from hoping in our own strength. Help us, Holy Spirit, to listen for your still, small voice, that we may know and do your will.

We thank you, God, that you have loved us, even while we were still sinners. Thank you, Jesus, for dying for us, and thank you, Lord for raising us up as you raised up Christ; all this through Him, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The holy defense lawyer

Romans 3:21-31

I hope you had a blessed weekend. I certainly did.

Today's text is a challenge. It is difficult to understand Paul's deep theology outside the context of the book of Romans. But I think that, with the Holy Spirit's guidance, we can come to an understanding that will be fruitful.

Paul has been discussing, by way of introduction to this letter to the believers in Rome, how the people without the law -- the Gentiles -- and the people with the law -- the Jews -- are all equally under condemnation. To be honest, the first couple of chapters in Romans are pretty depressing. The more you read, the worse you feel about your own sin and guilt. "There is none righteous; no, not one."

Then Paul, beginning here in chapter three, makes his rhetorical flourish. One of my favorite theologians called this "Paul's big 'but'." And you have to admit, considered in context with the flavor of Romans to this point, the statement at the beginning of today's passage is one of those go-get-her lines: "But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe."

All. All? ALL?!

You mean I can go to heaven just by accepting Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord and believing that God raised Him from the dead as a sacrifice for my sin? It's astounding. And it's hope-filled. Folks, it's freakin' good news.

After going over a laundry list of problems, sin, and difficulties in human conduct; after reviewing the long list of crimes for which we, the condemned, have to face sentence (death, of course), our defense attorney -- Jesus (and if David can call God the Good Shepherd, I can bless him as the Holy Litigator) -- asks to approach the Father's bench and says, "Dad, I already covered this."

Down comes the gavel, and the Father proclaims: "Case dismissed: 'the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.'"

This has been the point of Paul's monotonous, depressing litany of sin and despair: "For there is no distinction," between Jews, Gentiles, men, women, black, white, neon green, "since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith."

Did you catch all that? It's a long sentence, but it's chocked full of theology and hope. Let's break it down:

(1) "There is no distinction" -- no matter our heritage, our nurture, or our nature, God does not make a distinction between us.

(2) "since all have sinned and fallen short fot he glory of God" -- as Paul established earlier in Romans, nobody is good enough on their own. Everyone has fallen short. The standard is not "being a good person," but achieving the "glory of God" -- his righteousness. Any takers claiming to have done that?

(3) "they are now justified" -- even though we have sinned, God has justified us...

(4) "by his grace as a gift," -- ...for no other reason than his grace: his willingness to love us despite our sin. But how in the world did he do this?

(5) "through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus," -- Oh! Through Jesus. Going back to the courtroom analogy: only Jesus can walk up to the Bench of the Righteous Judge and say, "I have kept your commandments wholly, completely, and righteously." Only in Jesus can redemption be found. That sounds really exclusive though: what about people who are sincere in their faith? Surely that's good enough, right? why would God exclude them?

(6) "whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood," -- Because Jesus' blood satisifed God's just requirement that our sin have consequences. Because God is just, he can't let us off the hook: the consequences for sin laid down in the law (death, remember?) must be upheld. Jesus Christ stepped forward from eternity and laid down his life as a 'sacrifice of atonement'. As the old song said, "What a friend we have in Jesus." So this happens automatically for everyone, right?

(7) "effective through faith." Nope: if God's grace and Christ's atonement is a gift, we have to accept it. After all, when someone gives you a birthday present they don't just buy it and say, "From now on, this birthday present is for everyone! Hooray! Happy birthday, world!" No. Instead, someone chooses a present for you, wraps it, and gives it just to you. It's your gift. Jesus has worked hard on this gift, and He wrapped it in his burial cloth: it's up to us to accept it by faith.

Amazing, isn't it. God is willing to commute our sentence over onto Christ if we accept Jesus' offer to be our lawyer. "He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance [God] had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus."

With God's power and forgiveness on display, and with Christ's self-sacrificing love in full view, it's easy to see how Paul segues into his next comment: "Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded." Christians, as Christ proclaimed in the sermon on the mountaintop (talking to mountain folk, then, right?), are to be blessed when they are humble. I cannot save myself. I cannot rescue myself from this body of death. But thanks be to God, who has lifted me up from the grave. He has become my salvation.

And by all of this, God, who loved the world so much that he was willing to give his own son so that you and I would avoid the gallows, did this for us, and in doing so, he upheld the law.

Now that's one heck of a lawyer.

Heavenly Father, we confess that without you, we are fallen short of life and hope. We confess that we sin, and that our sin caused you to sacrifice your only Son for our sake. We adore your love for us, in sending us Jesus Christ to live among us, be one of us, and die for us. We glorify your grace and your willingness to cover us with Christ's righteousness. Help us, Lord, to honor Jesus' sacrifice by clinging to your will and your Truth. Grant that we may serve you with all of our lives, whether in faith, in work, in friends, in conversation. Thank you for saving us, for loving us, and for making us a part of your Kingdom; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Bringing back grapes

A couple of notes before I get into today's Scripture:

First, some have not realized that the "bullet points" above each entry, where I mention the Scripture that I am going to be discussing, are actually links to the text under discussion. You can click on the Scripture reference to read the text -- in fact, I would recommend doing just that, in order for you to see the Word for yourself before you listen to my ramblings on it.

Second, note that each entry usually discusses two texts, and that discussion of both texts is necessary to understand the readings for the day, in my view (in other words, read both, or what I say won't make sense).

Now, on to the readings for today.

Numbers 13:1-3, 21-30

In today's Old Testament reading, we return to Moses and the Hebrews with God in the wilderness. The story is a familiar one, and it is easy to gloss over to the reading with our traditional understanding about Joshua alone being faithful enough to pursue God's will in taking the Promised Land.

I want to try, though, to understand this story on a deeper level.

I suppose the first question that one might ask is why the Lord would telll Moses to send spies in the first place. It is not as though God needs spies; indeed, if we believe that God created the world, and if we believe that God is all-knowing, then God already knew the lay of the land and exactly where and what the people possessing it were doing. It seems almost disingenuous for God to order Moses and the Israelites to find a representative of each tribe to sneak into Canaan and "find out" what was going on there.

Notice, though, that God just doesn't ask for one man from each tribe. Instead, the Lord commands that "every one [of the spies should be] a leader among them [their tribe]." So perhaps, then, God is giving the Israelites a chance to honor their leaders and show each tribe faithful to the Lord. After all, surely the leader of a tribe of Israelites fears the God who brought them out of the land of Egypt.

Well, we shall see.

The Bible goes on to describe the route that the Hebrew spies took as they followed God's command to scout the land. The see all of the peoples living there, they see the strong places and crops that the people keep. They collect some samples of the fruit, and they return back to the Wilderness of Paran, to Kadesh, where the Israelites are camping out.

But wait a second-- God's command didn't say anything about looking for crops or the people, did it? God said to "spy out the land." He had already told them that the land was flowing with milk and honey. So why in the world did the spies take the trouble to "cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them"? Why did they bring back "pomegranates and figs"?

Apparently, the people who have seen their God bring them through the middle of the sea, who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and who appeared to them every day in the form of a pillar of cloud don't have enough faith to believe God when he tells them that he is taking them to a land that has enough food and room for the people.

But it wasn't just the spies at fault: Moses himself, who took God's command for the people, is the person who adds the admonition to the spies to bring back the fruit of the land. God's purpose in sending the spies was to give the Hebrews an opportunity to glorify God for his faithfulness: but they turn it into an opportunity for fear, and for a failure of faith.

It is easy, sometimes, to get frustrated with the Hebrews when reading about all that they went through when God was bringing them out of Egypt. But just when you are about to get frustrated, look at your own life. If you know Christ as your friend and Savior, you, too, have seen wonders. I know that in my own life, God has blessed me in so many ways that I should join with the Hebrews in singing, "The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; YHWH is his name!"

The resounding chorus can quickly turn into a stuttering and mumbling, "Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there." Ah, the descendants of Anak. The God who was a "my strength and my might", "my salvation", and "a warrior" surely cannot handle Anak's sons.

It is hard to be Caleb. It is astoundingly difficult to say, with confidence, "Let us go up at once" and claim the promise that the Lord has made. It is so much easier, when faced with a challenge and struggle to run home to Moses, with our tails between our legs, and whine about the problems we face. To exaggerate those problems into something that seems insurmountable.

But the call of Caleb -- and the call of all people who's "strength and might" is the mighty warrior YHWH -- is a call of courage and faith. The spies of the Israelites were right: they, in their own strength, could not take Canaan. If they tried, the alphabet soup of descendants who possessed the land would destroy them. But they -- and we -- must not rest on our own counsel or courage. We must rely upon him who commanded Moses to scout the land for the Hebrew invasion: to prepare our spirit with the armor of God to war against unrighteousness and ungodliness.

"The Lord is a warrior; YHWH is his name!"

Matthew 18:21-35

We turn from the grapes of Canaan to the grapes of wrath. My favorite disciple -- the loud-mouthed, foot-in-mouth disciple -- is Peter. I identify strongly with Peter. He is, to me, an example of how Jesus takes ordinary, fallen people and turns them into extraordinary, wise leaders. In this passage, Peter has gone and asked another one of those questions. He wasn't satisified arguing, two days ago, about who would be the greatest in Heaven's Kingdom; no, today he asks Jesus how many times he "has to forgive" someone.

We almost cringe as Peter asks the question. We want to condescendingly tell him, "Peter, don't embarass yourself again! Don't ask Jesus another stupid question." Indeed, for some of us, pulling for Peter to be smart is doing the same for ourselves.

But Peter ploughs ahead, without regard for whether or not he is asking a question that could make him look like an oaf. And that's one of the reasons Jesus loves him. For in Peter's seemingly bumbling manner, Christ has hold of a genuine man who asks honest questions from his heart. Christ's reception of Peter, in all his inadequacies, is Christ's reception of us, just as we are. But -- thanks be to God! -- Jesus doesn't leave Peter, or us, where he found us. Jesus is in the business of changing lives, and Peter's life is an example of how he has done that in the past, and how he can do it for us in the future.

Let us return to the substance of Peter's question. It is actually a reasonable question. Jesus has been talking about forgiveness, and Peter has taken notice. You can almost hear the wheels in his head turning as he comes to the next logical conclusion that all of us, as human beings, think about next. "How many times should I forgive?"

I can see Jesus smile. Here is the man who will three times betray Christ asking for a number. "Is it seven, Lord?"

"No, Peter. Seventy times seven."

Now, for those of you who are math whizzes out there, don't get too excited. I have literally known people -- people very close to me -- who have done the multiplication and seem to keep track of how many times they forgive me. I'm guessing that when I get to 490, they're going to never accept my apologies ever again.

That, folks, is not what Jesus is saying, and the parable he gives afterward is a perfect example of why. Jesus' story about the slave -- read me and you -- who owed more than he could ever hope to pay -- again, read me and you, and our debt of sin -- is almost sent off to his just "reward" -- you know what that means for us -- when the Master has compassion and forgives the man his entire debt. He didn't do anything, except ask for mercy. He didn't deserve mercy, but the Master gave it to him anyway (a fine example of God's grace).

The man, rejoicing, goes on his way. And then, he meets one of his own debtors, and proceeds to choke him. Yikes. Not a pretty picture: you and I who are believers, whose debts have been forgiven by the Master, go out into the world and try to choke other debtors, other people whose debts haven't yet been forgiven, into paying up. We don't forgive. After having been forgiven.

The Master's reaction when the slave gets told on is fitting: "wicked slave!" Like the God who forgives the unfaithful Israelites who go hunting for produce, and like the Master who forgave the indebted slave, we, dear Peter, must forgive everyone as we have been forgiven.

Talk about a hard assignment. It is not in human nature to be forgiving without something in return. We worry about being hurt in the same way, and we set up rules and procedures for how we will not let ourselves be hurt that way again. We run and find our debtors and we choke them until they submit.

And all the while, we run to our Master -- every day -- and ask him to keep forgiving the huge debt that we've managed to pile up since the last time we begged for mercy.

Will God forgive us seven times? Four hundred and ninety? Forever?

"The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him."

God our Father, we confess that we do not place our whole trust in you and in doing so, we fail to show your love and forgiveness as it has been shown to us. We praise you for your mercy and grace, that you continue to reconcile us with you despite our failure to follow you. Save us, Lord God, from faithlessness and from arrogance. Help us to love you and serve your children. Help us to show grace as it has been shown to us. We thank you for saving us, for forgiving us, and for loving us; throgh Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Good Shepherd to the rescue

Romans 2:12-24

Paul, as a former Pharisee and keeper of the law, knew about following the commands of the Old Testament. He knew the law well, and he had done his best throughout his life to keep it. Paul found, when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, that no amount of keeping the law is enough to make someone right with God.

He makes that clear in his letter to the Ephesians and throughout this letter to the Romans, "All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law."

But here, in this passage, we see something unusual. He writes, "For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified." Doesn't this contradict Paul's writing in Ephesians -- and Christ's teaching throughout the Gospels -- that salvation is the "free gift of God"?

In order to understand this passage, one has to consider it in its entire context: Paul is setting the hearers of this letter up for the shocking pronouncement that he makes in verses 17-24. He tells the readers, many of whom were formerly Jews, what they knew from their training in the Torah and Tanahk: that righteousness is based upon one's obedience to God's law. To the casual listener, this would sound "right."

But then, Paul flies into the heart of his argument. He asks, rhetorically, "You that boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?" The point that Paul makes, as he makes consistently throughout his writings, is that perfect obedience to God's law yields salvation under the first covenant. Paul makes the further point that humans cannot accomplish this task on their own: whether "Gentiles, who do not possess the law, [and who] do instinctively what the law requires," or "Jew[s] [who] rely on the law and boast of [their] relation to God and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law."

In our own day, we may apply the dichotomy that Paul is creating to ourselves: whether we know Christ -- like the Gentiles who did not possess the law -- or whether we are believers -- like the Jews who relied on the law, we are, none of us, able to fulfill the perfect law of God. It is only Christ, and his Holy Spirit within us, that enables us to know and to do the will of God.

Matthew 18:10-20

I learned something from my initial reading of this Scripture that I hadn't realized before: the story of the lost sheep in Matthew's Gospel is set within the context of Christ's answer, from yesterday's passage, to the disciples' question about who will be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.

As we examine the two famous stories in today's Scripture, I think it's important to recall the lessons that we examined yesterday: that Christ is calling us to humility that can be so hard for us as human beings.

The Gospel lesson for today also takes the despair that one could gather from Paul's teaching to the Romans and gives us hope: hope that even when we cannot fulfill the law and the requirements that God, in his righteousness, has established, Christ -- the Good Shepherd -- will come, find us, and carry us home to be with him.

The first parable the Jesus tells us today is that of the Good Shepherd. It is a famous story, and one that we might overlook because of just how well-known it is. But let us closely look at what Jesus is saying.

Again, as I noted above, I was surprised to find Matthew's version of the parable set within the story of "letting the little children come." Jesus is adamant about how the humility and faithfulness of children makes them amenable to God's will and purpose: "Take care," Jesus says, "that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Heavenly Father."

What a word of hope for those who have lost children: that their humility and faithfulness allows God to bring them to be with him in Heaven. But even more than this, the individual and unique value of every human life -- and soul -- is proclaimed by Christ in this parable.

Jesus tells the story: "What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost."

Again, what a powerful word of hope and grace in the face of Paul's teaching from Romans -- and in the face of many, today, who would argue that God's faithfulness (and Christ's sacrifice) is limited to only some of God's children. Our Father in heaven wills that "not ... one of these little ones should be lost."

Each of us was once one of these little ones. Each of us, in our relation to God the Father, have the opportunity, in accepting Christ's gift of salvation by grace through faith, to call God Almighty, the King of the Universe, "Daddy." Each of us, Christ says, may call upon the name of the Lord and be saved.

But Christ is not finished. This glorious good news would be a sermon in and of itself, but Jesus does not stop there. He goes on to show us that once the Good Shepherd has rescued us from darkness and brought us to Light, he has also saved us from loneliness.

God, in the beginning of creation, found only one thing "not good" after he was finished: that Adam was alone. He loved Adam and wanted him to be happy, and so he created a partner and friend: Eve. From the beginning, then, humans have been creatures of community; friends destined for fellowship.

Jesus acknowledged this need for community throughout his ministry -- especially in the institution of his Supper on the night he was handed over. Here, too, he tells a parable that helps us, as fallen yet grace-filled human beings, to get along with one another.

In the news, of late, there has been controversy about pastors in some parts of the United States undertaking to implement this sort of Christian accountability within their churches. People have debated whether or not it works. But for us, in our faithfulness to the words of Christ, we have, in this passage, a true model for living and for interacting with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Whether or not we agree that this model should be implemented today, we can all affirm that Jesus calls us into community with one another -- that called-out assembly, the Church.

Jesus tells us of the power of our assembly in his name: "Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."

This powerful blessing is, of course, at God's discretion. The Lord does not abdicate his power to us sinful, self-centered creatures. But he does allow us to move him, as Abraham moved him to spare Sodom if ten righteous people could be found, and to be his church.

Christ is calling us, as the Church Universal, to be examples to one another of how to live in our faithfulness to his commands, while not relying on our own strength; to be the Good Shepherd in the lives of fellow believers, and seek after the welfare of our brothers and sisters; and to hold one another accountable in the Truth of the Gospel.

Heavenly Father, we confess that we think we can keep your commandments without holding fast to you. We glorify your mighty power in saving us from sin, darkness, and loneliness. Save us, Lord, from giving up the willingness to gather as your church, hold one another accountable, and rest in your Truth. Thank you for hearing our prayers and being to us a loving, nurturing Parent; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

When the judge becomes the judged

Romans 1:28-2:11

Today's reading in Romans continues Paul's look at how we humans take God's truth and pervert it for our own use.

And I have to say that once again, God's word is powerful and convicting. In reading this passage, I have to look back at my understanding of yesterday's Scripture: and I have to confess that I was doing yesterday -- and I have done in the past -- what the Spirit, through Paul, condemns today. In heaping ridicule upon those who reject God's Truth and word, I was judging them, and placing myself -- like the Pharisee that I am -- above them.

God forgive me for doing so: for as Paul writes today, "in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things." I, too, am guilty. In my haste to extol God's glory and condemn others' wickedness, I forgot that Christ did not condemn sinners: instead, he pulled up a chair at their table and had dinner. He touched the untouchable. He loved the prostitutes and adulterers. He wanted to get to know the worse people in town. Even you and me.

Paul is not, today, contradicting what he wrote and what we studied yesterday. Instead, he is reminding us that while there are people who take God's truth and change into into a lie, we as believers do the same thing when we take the liberty that Christ has given us and sin over and over again.

It is not that Christ's grace is insufficient for our forgiveness when we sin in the same way for the five-thousandth time. Instead, Paul is reminding us that we are no better than those who have exchanged the glory of God for the foolishness of men: the difference is that the almighty grace and love of Jesus Christ covers us, and God forgives us of our sin.

As the Spirit says through Paul, we must "realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead [us] to repentance." And indeed, when we continue to sin, it is incumbant upon us to confess our sins, return to the Lord, and serve him with our whole heart. God is truly a judge of equity: "There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality."

Matthew 18:1-9

The Gospel lesson today continues the theme of humility in our relationship with God. Once again the disciples are arguing over who is going to be the top dog, the big man on campus, the guy that everyone looks up to in the kingdom of heaven.

You can almost imagine Jesus sighing, clasping the disciples on their shoulder, and shaking his head sadly. He loves them so much, but truly it must have taken the patience of almighty God to deal with them -- and us. For even after sitting at Christ's feet for years, these men are still questioning Jesus about earthly kingdoms and rewards. They're not worried about who will seek righteousness the most, or who will show the most mercy: they're worried about who will get to be the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense -- who will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven; i.e., Jesus' post-Roman Jewish state.

Jesus, as he always seems to do with us when we ask questions that we should know the answer to, doesn't yell or scream or get frustrated. Instead, he calmly calls a child to himself, and tells the disciples that whoever is as humble as a small child will be the greatest in Heaven's Kingdom.

Jesus said, "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."

What a powerful statement! Jesus once again turns the world on its head and tells us that following God is not about being the best, the strongest, the smartest, the richest, or the best-looking. Following Christ is about being the most Christ-like! Jesus compares himself to the child and says that welcoming a humble person is the same as welcoming Christ.

The obvious corollary is that the treatment and love (or lack thereof) that we show to children, widows, orphans, homeless people -- the outcasts of society (the illegal immigrants, homosexuals, and others in our world today?) -- is the treatment and love that we show to Christ.

Again, I am strongly convicted by this Scripture, for in my treatment of others, I do not treat them as I would treat Christ. Part of me argues, "But if I knew I were talking to Jesus, I would bow down; I would run to put on my best suit, and I would throw a lavish banquet for him, while inviting all my friends and family to meet him."

But isn't that the story of what God does for us? In the parable of the prodigal son, Christ tells us that we are the homeless person, the widow, the orphan, the illegal immigrant, the gay person: we are the person who is cast out and unwelcome, but that God doesn't care. He runs to meet us, puts the most expensive clothes on us, puts a ring on our finger, throws a party, and invites all his friends.

Surely, then, we should show that love to others: in our words, actions, and commitments.

Heavenly Father, we confess that we do not love our neighbor as ourselves, and that we do not love you with our whole heart. We admit that we look down on other people, and that we think we can judge others, as the Pharisees did. We glorify you for your humility, in coming to earth to take on flesh and live among dirty, smelly, sinful people. We praise you for your power to raise up the lowly and give hope to those who despair. We thank you, Lord, for continuing to bless your people despite our demonstrated willingness to disobey. We thank you that you continue to bless your Church, even when we are disobedient and unfaithful. Save us, O God, from our pride, and crucify our wants and desires with Jesus so that we may be raised to love you with our lips, our hearts, and our lives; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Exchanging God's glory for foolishness

Romans 1:16-25

Sometimes God's word is so relevant that you have to step back, take a deep breath, and praise the awful (full of awe) power of God. My nose has been buried in news regarding what some have been calling the "summer of sex" in the United States: many of our Christian denominations have been, are, and will be spending this summer debating what Scripture says about human sexuality.

And while I will not get into the political issues on this site (see my blog if you have to know where I stand), it seems that the daily lectionary's reading for today is unbelievably applicable.

One of the challenges that faces us every time we open the Bible is that we can choose to accept it or reject it; we can choose to be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, or we can choose to live it out in a real and relevant way. The issue facing Christians in the West -- indeed, in the old bastions of Christendom -- is whether or not the Bible is authoritative. Whether or not when we read something in the Bible we are bound to conform our conduct and belief to its strictures.

In this powerful passage, Paul boldly proclaims that he is "not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’" These words of truth have challenged Christians since their writing; and indeed, their power was confirmed when Martin Luther cited them as one of the most revelatory Scriptures he had ever read during the time of the Reformation.

For us today, Paul's affirmation of God's word is just as challenging. We live in a world where people promote and celebrate things that the Bible plainly and consistently calls sin. And God's word resounds with the truth that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth." In turning the world -- and faith -- on its head, humans change what is sinful into virtue. But God's wrath is against those who would suppress the truth. It is in the very act of changing the truth into a lie that humans condemn themselves: "For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them."

No one has the excuse that we cannot know what is right. God's word clearly gives us standards by which to judge our conduct, and we can choose to conform our behavior to them. At the same time, even without the Scriptures, the natural law, as Aquinas called it, is impressed upon our souls such that we instinctively know what is good and what is evil. "Ever since the creation of the world [God's] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made."

So when God's word commands, it is our duty to obey. For to do otherwise would leave us "without excuse; for though [we would] kn[o]w God, [we would] not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but [we would] became futile in [our] thinking, and [our] senseless minds were darkened." We must firmly resist the temptation to take God's commands and massage them into suggestions, or even toss them out as out-moded or unneeded.

Such mental acrobatics are condemned. We would be like those of whom Paul wrote, "Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles."

In this dark age of moral relativism and shifting truth, people daily take the truth of God and transmute it into truth that seems comfortable and easy and "wise." Because of their willful disobedience, it may be true that what Paul wrote about the pagans of the first century could be applied to many people today: "God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator ...."

Matthew 17:22-27

There are two stories in today's Gospel lesson, and both are short and to the point. In the first story, Jesus once again explains to his disciples that he will be taken, killed, and resurrected. The disciples don't understand, and their misunderstanding is a segue into the story of Christ paying the temple tax.

In both instances, Jesus refuses to allow himself to be placed into the disciples' box of what the Messiah's role was. He was not a military leader to oust the Romans and re-establish the temporal Jewish kingdom. He was not going to start the revolution by ignoring the temple taxation, regardless of whether or not it was fair.

No, Jesus cast himself as an equal-opportunity disappointment. And there is the lesson for us: each of us has expectations of Christ, things that we believe he must certainly do. And each of us fails, many times, to understand that Jesus truly is God, and that it is the work of his Father that he must do.

If I had been a disciple following Jesus around Galilee, I believe that I would have been just as dumb-founded and disappointed as Peter. I would have hoped that my teacher would stand up to the oppressors. But Christ, so that he "might not give offence," calls for a miraculous coin to pay the tax.

Truly, this Jesus that we worship is more than our conception of him. He is the way, the truth, and the life. He doesn't let us take the easy way out: he tells us and our earthly desires to take a hike, and instead focuses us on keeping others receptive to the Gospel. He shows us that it is not for the sake of being right that we have been given the Truth, for which each human is responsible. Instead, it is our duty as his ambassadors to speak the truth in love, and -- even in the midst of the worship of the creature -- point one another toward the Creator who came and walked among us.

O Almighty Father, we confess that we do not cherish your word of truth or hide its words in our hearts. We magnify your Son, Jesus Christ, who taught us that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the King of the Universe and not the prince of this world. We thank you that you continue to love us and speak to us through your Word, despite our failings, and despite our wish to build empires for ourselves in your name. Save us, O God, from taking the easy way out and changing your immortal Truth into a lie that sounds soothing, comfortable, and easy. Bring us to your everlasting Kingdom, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Forecast: partly cloudy

Numbers 9:15-23, 10:29-36

Before I really get into the text, a little background on what's going on seems appropriate. The Israelites have left Egypt, they've received the Ten Commandments, and they're stuck in the wilderness after that nasty bit of business regarding "giants in the land" and their fear to take the Promised Land.

God could have gotten really mad with the Israelites and sent them back to Egypt; he could have let them been destroyed by the armies of the people they were afraid of in the first place. But instead, God let's them go back into hiding, wandering around the Sinai peninsula.

So here they are, thousands and thousands of people, having one heck of a camp out in the middle of the desert. They've got a great leader, Moses, and they've got a visible sign that God is with them: the pillar of cloud.

When I first started reading the passage for today, I couldn't help but think back to the days of my youth (as though I were not still young) when I first saw the movie, The Ten Commandments. Cecil B. DeMille's portrayal of the pillar of cloud was limited by the technology of 1955 Hollywood, and so they image of the pillar burned into my mind is probably not close to accurate.

Of course, here, I suppose, the emphasis is not on the miraculous pillars of cloud that hovered over the Tabernacle when God's presence was there. Instead, the biggest miracle, to me, was that God convinced the Hebrew people to move when he decided to move his cloud in the first place.

After all, these are the same people who: (1) walked through a sea on dry land; (2) literally heard the very voice of God; and (3) got to eat Heaven-Bread everyday that they picked up off of the ground.

Despite these and other equally-miraculous events (e.g., the plagues of Egypt), these stiff-necked people still complained about the taste of the Heaven-Bread (one is reminded that "manna" is Hebrew for "what is that?" -- perhaps with the empahsis on "is") and worshipped a Golden Calf that they whipped up after getting bored of waiting on Moses to bring them God's handwritten commandments.

Don't think I'm being too hard on God's people. I think the amazing part of this passage is that despite the Hebrews' continued resistance and intransigence, God was faithful to them: he had said they would be his people and he would be their God, and he was making good on his promise. I also admire the Hebrews' willingness to trust a cloud. After all, I don't know if I would be willing -- after having gotten settled in a nice little oasis, with my tent all in order -- to pick up and leave because the fog cleared around the Tabernacle.

But then, I suppose that's what God desires of us: faithfulness. And, of course, even when we are faithless, God continues to be faithful. I think that's the message of the second part of the passage, where the foreigner is invited to join the Israelites. God asks for obedience and faithfulness, and he promises to take care of us like the Father he is.

Pax vobiscum.

Ambulans in itinere

"Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you get up."

God's startling revelation to Moses in Deuteronomy 6:4-7 -- "the Lord is one" -- still forms the heart of the Jewish faith; it is the heritage of the Christian.

From the beginning, God commanded his people to love Him and keep his commandments. He gave us his word so that we could learn about him and grow in our spiritual lives. But God also gives us both good and bad examples of how living our lives for him or for ourselves can affect both ourselves and others.

The name of this blog is the Latin for "walk along the way," from the passage quoted above. It is in the spirit of this command that I will endeavor to cite a passage of God's word and explore it in each entry.

I will follow the daily lectionary from the Book of Common Prayer, either choosing one of the lessons to focus on or exploring all three.

In keeping this blog I hope to (1) encourage my own spiritual development and (2) encourage other people's spiritual development through engagement with God's word.

Please feel free to let me know how I could improve on this blog, and feel free to post your own comments under each entry.

Pax vobiscum.