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Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Problems of Christian Witness

The Problems of Christian Witness

I have a membership to the local YMCA, though I don't take advantage of it as often as I should.  In the cardio room, there are two of the machine that I tend to prefer, one of them I choose if it happens to be open.  There are times when it is in use by a particular man, whom I do not know in any way other than in this capacity, who clearly shares my preference for that machine over the other (though I don't mind using the other one).  The way the machines are angled in the room, the preferred machine is in "front" which means, when I am on the other machine, whoever is using the first machine is clearly visible to me.
Now, this man who I have referred to has something about him that sets him apart as unique among the people I see during my workouts.  He seems to always have a Bible with him, open, on his machine.  Presumably, he does this so that, while he is working out, he can read from it.  It is a good way to redeem the time when you would otherwise be doing nothing.  Speaking personally, I tend to prefer to listen to books (even the Bible) on my iPod, but more power to him, right?
And yet, there is something odd about the situation.  He tends to do longer workouts than I do, so there may be times when this is not the case, but I have noticed the last several times that he never once turns a page.  That means, as is often the case, he has his Bible open to a page when I come in and then I complete my workout (over a half an hour later) and, at the end of my workout, as I leave, he is still on the same page.  Also, the Bible is absolutely immaculate.  The pages are unruffled and perfect, the cover is pristine, and there is nary a mark on a page from a pen or a highlighter.
I have been absolutely baffled by this.  Why would someone bring a Bible, place it on their machine, clearly in their line of sight, and then not read it?  Perhaps I am being too hard on him.  Maybe he does not read well and it takes him well over a half hour to read two pages (one on the left-hand side and one on the right).  However, I have met people who are particularly bad at reading (by their own admission) and, if they were in a situation like this, would simply never bring a book in the first place, rather than try to multitask.
So what is the story?  I do not know and so I am in no position to judge, but I have spent a fair amount of time reflecting on what my actions may communicate to an outside observer, so here are some thoughts, regardless of whether they are right, wrong or indifferent.
It might be that this man sincerely wants to spend his workout time reading his Bible.  Surely this is not a bad goal.  However, how many times does one need to take their Bible with the intention to read it and not doing so before they change their mind about it being a good plan?
How about this?  Not everyone in the world, when they are reading a book in public, reads the Bible and many who do are not particularly open about it.  I have seen people who have Bibles on their tables in coffee shops or places like Panera who carefully place their Bible under other books.  Perhaps this man is using his time at the Y to be a kind of witness, where he boldly and unashamedly places his Bible in public view, declaring to all, "I am a Christian, I care about God's word!"
I do not know this man at all.  I do not know his name, I do not know his church, I know nothing about him other than he likes the same machine at the Y as I do.  I cannot judge his heart, but this is what I infer from his behavior.  I own it may be unjust, but it is a reminder to me about how little things speak loudly, whether we want them to or not.
Here are my conclusion based nothing but observation.  I could probably get more information by talking to him and, if he were a member of my church I would do so.   However, the point is that most people do not do the courtesy to investigate beyond appearances.  Here is a man who cares more about appearing to be Christian than being Christian.  He wants people to think that he is committed to studying the scripture, so committed that he can't even break away from it for an hour or so in order to do his workout.  However, the context stands against this intended appearance.  His Bible is not worn (and is not brand new, as it has been the same Bible for months), which means that it does not accompany him throughout his life.  Even a Bible that leaves home only weekly Bible studies shows signs of wear fairly quickly, much more a Bible that is handled daily.
He wears headphones while he works out and reads.  This, again, is not conclusive, since I would find it easier to read if I were listening to (instrumental) music than just listening to the sounds of the machines (or the TVs when people do not adhere to the requirement to keep the sound off).  However, the strongest evidence is that, in spite of the fact that the Bible is on his machine where it is right in front of his eyes; in spite of the fact that he has to look under it to see the machine's feedback, his eyes seldom land on the pages.  They are glued to the television.  In spite of any intention or even any real priority in his heart, his behavior communicates to me that football, basketball and Fox News are more important to this man.
The irony is that, if he never brought the Bible out, I would have had absolutely none of these thoughts.  If someone simply comes in and works out and watches TV with headphones on, I would not give it a second thought.  It is because he goes out of his way to place his ostentatious Bible on display (even drawing attention to it by thumping it down on his gym bag when he is finished with his workout), because he is making it clear to all in the room that he is a Christian (the Bible is invariably opened to the New Testament) that I pay attention to him.
It raises the question of our witness as Christians.  I am reminded of a gas station where one could nearly always find a Chick tract in the men's bathroom.  No name, no church information, just a tract that can, in all honesty, come across as quite heavy handed.  Do we conceive our witness as nothing more than making an appearance, as nothing more than showing off?  Does Paul mean nothing more when he says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel" than "I am willing to be seen in public with my Bible?"
Like the well-meaning person who puts a Jesus fish on their car but then forgets about it when they cut people off or are otherwise discourteous; like the student who wears his Christian themed T-shirt to school and then bullies others; like, the public figure who claims to take a stand for God and then finds themselves guilty of what they crusade against, our attempts to witness in these ways often do more harm than good.
What is a real Christian witness?  A life of service, of going out of our way to treat others as human beings rather than as mere objects, a life of listening more than speaking, and a life lived, trusting that our deeds of Christian love to the least of these will not go unnoticed by the One who matters.  If we are careless or we focus more on being seen and recognized for our faith than living it, we are no better off than the one who proclaimed loudly in the streets of Philippi, "These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation."

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Failure (and Ironic Success) of Apologetics

The Failure (and Ironic Success) of Apologetics

        In 1988, a book by Alasdair MacIntyre was published under the title, Whose Justice? Which Rationality?  Without attempting to summarize the argument of its 400 pages, suffice it to say that MacIntyre demonstrates admirably that Justice (and, by extension, morality) is a word or concept that means different things to different cultures and times.  He traces, as a paradigm case, the change from what people meant by "justice" and "rationality" (two ideas MacIntyre claims are always deeply intertwined) from presocratic Greek thought, through Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, through the Middle Ages to Hume and his heirs.  The change, even within Western history, striking.

         Some would argue that this means that there is no such thing as "absolute" justice, morality, rationality and the rest.  The argument being, if so many different cultures disagree on what these terms mean, how can we possibly say that one of them is right and the rest of them are wrong?  This is amplified when we consider that we have a tendency to assume that the rationality, etc. that we are immersed (or grew up) in is "right."  In such a case, how can a claim to be committed to an "absolute" truth of any kind be anything other than a new form of imperialism, where we go into new cultures and, under the guise of spreading "rationality" or "truth," in fact end up spreading nothing more than our own forms of thought and life?

        I am not entirely convinced that arguments like MacIntyre's (and also, in their own way, of Kuhn, Feyerabend, and others within the philosophy and history of science) lead us to conclude that there is and can be no such thing as absolute truth.  Rather, it means that, if there is such a thing as absolute truth, which is not just a characteristic of Christian faith but also is true of philosophical systems like Plato's (as well, incidentally, of Eastern philosophies which do not so much emphasize what is, but what is not which, ultimately, presuppose their own metaphysical convictions), we do not have access to it in any way that somehow manages to bypass a particular language and conceptual framework.

        There has been a longstanding strategy in modern Christian apologetics which gets an awful lot of mileage out of the idea (which, in my opinion, is suspect if not entirely false) that, because all human beings are created in the image of God, we all share a kind of common moral awareness.  By building on that, along with other related claims to commonality, apologists often try to reason that the "whence" of that moral awareness is God, and therefore, since everyone already believes in moral standards, everyone already believes in God.  It should be noted that, while many contemporary apologists for Christian faith would identify as being theologically (if not politically) conservative, this idea has far more in common with the theology of Schleiermacher, the father of Liberal theology, than the example of Paul the apostle and the other Biblical authors.  It should also be noted that, even if this line of reasoning were valid, it would not be a victory for Christian faith but for classical theism.  Any train of thought that simply does not take the actual life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ is not a distinctly "Christian" argument.

        What is interesting is that, in addition to the fact that this line of argument is not good theology, nor is it good apologetics, it is also fundamentally flawed from a philosophical and sociological point of view.  The irony of this is that anyone who is involved in missionary work can see the flaws.  It does not matter into what culture you enter, there are interesting differences as to what is "just" or "moral" that belie any real confidence in the standard apologetic argument from morality.  The best one could say is that, because every culture has moral standards (though they are often very different from one another), the source of the existence of standards in general (not the standards themselves) is God.  If this line of reasoning is sound, it is no more helpful than the other.  There have been several missionaries in the last twenty years or so who have shared how their experiences in other cultures have called into question their conviction that their own culture was the standard by which to judge the values of others, but this has challenged them to reflect all the more deeply about the nature of justice, morality and truth, rather than abandon them.

        All of this is to say that this line of reasoning (that truth and faith are bound up with moral standards) has become so deeply engrained into our culture that both the theological (and political) left and right believe it.  In fact, it has become something of a basic axiom which people have turned into a means to critique Christian faith from a new angle.  The argument goes something like this.  You are correct that I have a deep moral sense.  It is part of my very identity and I believe it, even when other things seem uncertain.  When I take this moral sense and I read parts of the Bible (or, as often as not, when I hear others tell me what is in the Bible), I find things there that violate my sense of right and wrong and so, therefore, I stand in judgment over what I find there.

        It is significant that, in many ways, this is nothing more than a contemporary, non-Christian (not to say atheistic) appropriation of the apologetical argument from morality.  While Christian apologists attempted to say, "Anyone who reflects for a minute on their sense of morality will realize that the gospel is true," these new non-Christian apologists are attempting to say, "Anyone who reflects for a minute on their sense of morality will realize that the gospel is ridiculous, as well as the Bible in which we read about it."  It is deeply ironic that this way or arguing has demonstrated that the apologists have actually won, even if their victory doesn't look like they wanted.  They have finally convinced the American people of their major premise, that our moral sense ought to be judge of everything else.  The only problem is that people took that major premise and concluded, not that they were immoral, but that the gospel is immoral.  If we combine this with a decreased sense of the majesty of the Christian tradition (which may or may not be too bad a thing), we find that people are unwilling to give the gospel the benefit of the doubt and, when their first encounter is bad, simply dismiss the rest.

        The problem with this is that, in the attempt to reveal Christians as naïve and non-Christians as enlightened, the secular world has joined large portions of the church in their naïveté by becoming every bit as imperialistic and paternalistic as the views they condemn.  We don't say that sex-slavery is wrong because it violates our own, culturally conditioned notion of how we ought to treat other people; it is wrong because it violates universal human rights.  In many ways, this is a more arrogant position than a Christian position that says that, because sex-slavery is clearly against what God would will, as revealed in Christ, it is against God and therefore is wrong, which at least recognizes that we need to be informed by God what really is right and wrong and that we cannot trust our feelings to always be right on the topic of morality, because it presupposes that there is something about humanity that should make it clear what is right and wrong and that people who do otherwise are not just in communities that have not yet been shaped by the gospel but are fundamentally evil and must be restrained from maintaining their tradition.

        If we cannot understand that other people have different points of view from ourselves and that we will need to translate and, at a more basic level, learn to listen, we will never rise above name-calling.  Baptizing our own point of view and using it as the standard by which to judge others does not become magically noble when separated from Christian faith.  Secular culture is every bit as biased and full of agenda as religious culture.  What we must do is learn how to work together and acknowledge the fact that, if indeed there is such a thing as absolute truth (which, as a Christian, I believe in wholeheartedly) it very well may stand in every bit as much judgment over me as it does over you.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

"The Relevance of Christmas"

      12/16/12            "The Relevance of Christmas"          Grace UMC

In my experience, I can hardly go more than a few weeks without hearing someone who wants to talk about the relevancy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  People are concerned with whether the church, and the gospel it proclaims, is relevant to the lives of people today.  There seems to be a widespread concern that the gospel, or at least the church is irrelevant.  What is interesting is not that there are people who are concerned with the relevance of the Gospel but rather the people who are so concerned.  The people who are saying these things so I can hear it are not my atheist friends.  After all, they don't need to express concern with what they perceive to be the irrelevance of the gospel; they simply ignore it.  It is actually the pastors I know who are very much worried about the relevance of the gospel.

This quest for "relevance" has been going on for a long time now.  In fact, we could trace the modern crisis over relevance in the church to some trends that started at the very beginning of the 19th century.  With the rise of the Enlightenment and modern science, there were many people who thought that Christianity as traditionally understood could no longer be believed.  Some people rejected the new ideas entirely, separating their faith from the world that was investigated by science, the world in which they lived their daily lives.  Others simply abandoned the faith of their childhood to take up a new faith, whose basic statement of faith could be, "Science is God, and Newton is his prophet."

There were others still who tried to reconcile their old faith with the new science.  First, there was an attempt to show that Christian faith and natural science were simply not in conflict.  While this might be true in fact, there was no question that there was indeed a conflict between science as people understood it at the time, and the way most people practiced their faith.  Then, there was an attempt to show that basic Christian beliefs could be arrived at through philosophy and science and there were many people who proclaimed loudly that this was the case.  After all, they argued, what did the philosophy and science of the Enlightenment teach us?  That there is one God over all, that all human beings are brothers and sisters, and that we ought to be nice to one another.  It is as that classical Enlightenment document says, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

There is, of course, a problem with that.  Historically speaking, none of those have been considered to be the basic building blocks of Christian faith.  It is true that Christian faith proclaims one God, but it is not the abstract god of the Enlightenment, but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who came and lived among us.  It is true that we believe that we are all bound together, but we are not bound together simply because we are human beings, but because we are people for whom Christ has died.  Ought we be nice to one another?  Absolutely, but not simply for the sake of being nice, but because we have been commissioned to continue Christ's earthly ministry through the power of the Holy Spirit.

The fact of the matter is that, in spite of the fact that there are many people who are deeply concerned that the gospel is seen as irrelevant, I would bet that there are many people even in this room who cannot even understand the issue, who have never even doubted the relevancy of the gospel.  What is going on?  How is it that something that can be as clear as day to one group of people can be so in question by another group that there is serious concern about it?

When people say that the gospel or the church has become irrelevant, what do they mean?  They mean that the contemporary world is becoming less and less familiar with Christian concepts that, a generation ago, we could have assumed they knew.  They mean that, just as Americans have a tendency to question every authority in their lives, they also are questioning religious authority.  They mean that there are certain practices of the church that might be more bound up with a particular generation of American Christians than they are with the Bible and need to be revised.

All of that might very well be true, though I would say things are actually significantly more complicated than that.  I would contend that the younger generations are actually more interested in the church being true to its foundations than trying to make everyone happy and that if we are going to revise our practices, we should try very hard to not just change the generation we are pandering to, but pursue faithfulness to the history of our faith, a history that challenges every generation, not just the ones before (or perhaps after) our own.

Though at any moment, it is always a question whether the church is relevant, I simply cannot see how the gospel could ever become irrelevant to human beings, regardless of how much our culture changes or how much we lose our biblical literacy as a society, and the reason I have this conviction is because of what we are celebrating during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

What is it that we celebrate at Christmastime?  There are some people, to be sure, who celebrate giving but perhaps more the receiving of gifts, but surely that is not what Christmas is about.  There are others who love Christmas for no reason other than it gives them an excuse to get together with family and friends.  It is a wonderful thing to gather with loved ones, but the reason for the season is much deeper than that, isn't it?

At its core, Christmas is about the amazing fact that Almighty God, the one who spoke the universe into being, the one who delivered the Israelites from the mightiest of human kingdoms, and who continually interacted with his people through the prophets, came into our midst in and as the man Jesus of Nazareth.  Because of Christmas, we cannot speak of God as being some kind of being "out there," but as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he would not simply sit idly by and let sin destroy us but directly and decisively intervened.

Our text for this morning is one of the most amazing passages that points out the relevance of Christmas, even though people don't usually think about it when they think about Christmas.  "We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete."  John is telling us that the gospel isn't just a story, it isn't just an idea about God, but a dynamic and concrete reality that we can hear and see and touch.

Christmas celebrates that the vast distance between God and humanity has been bridged by God himself.  In Christ, God has walked the same ground we walk, has breathed the same air we breathe, ate the same kinds of food that we eat, spoke with the same kinds of words that we speak, and in every way joined us where we are.  It is an absolutely staggering reality, and it is something that sets Christian faith apart as unique in the world.  Every other religion and philosophy thinks it to be absolutely insane to say that God somehow comes to us as a man.  And yet, that is precisely what God has done in Jesus Christ, come to us, in all his fullness, as a human being.  As Paul says, "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of the Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba!  Father!'"

The depth of this reality is only deepened when we look at the letter to the Hebrews.  "Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.  For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.  Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.  Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested."

Again the book of Hebrews says, "Since then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

What's the point?  We have a sign in the office that says "Christmas means we never have to ask God how much he loves us."  It is a wonderful reminder that when we say to the world, "God loves you," we aren't talking about some vague idea of love.  We are saying that God loves you so much that rather than sit off aloof in his almightiness, he chose to come, to be born as a helpless baby, to be ridiculed his whole life, be hated by the authorities, betrayed by his closest friends, and ultimately executed unjustly, all for no other reason than because he loves you and wants to be reconciled.  Our God is not a god who lives up in the clouds somewhere that may or may not answer prayer or even know we exist.  Our God is not a god who micromanages every little detail so that every tiny thing is either a reward or a punishment.  Our God is a God who comes close, who meets us where we are, and who transforms us from the inside out.  God knows the struggles of human life, not because he is all knowing but because he has lived it.

I have my own theory about the problem of the relevance of the church.  The way I see it, the church, as the earthly-historical continuation of the ministry of Christ, is intrinsically relevant.  How could it be otherwise?  The church is the means appointed by God to live out the gospel, to proclaim the love of God to the world, to make a difference, to fulfill the promise of Jesus that we would do even greater things than he did!  In what possible way can that be irrelevant?  We live in a world where people are hostile to God and hostile to one another, As we have seen so painfully, just a few days ago.  We live in uncertain times where we are not sure whether we will have our job next year.  There is brokenness and despair everywhere we turn.  And in the midst of it all, we have a message of reconciliation, of transformation, of healing for all.  We have good news of God come to earth, of a God who is not an idol, but that we can hear and see and touch in Christ.  If that is so, how can it even cross our minds that the church is irrelevant?

And yet, maybe that is the problem.  It seems to me that if we ever think that the church can be irrelevant it means that the church has become detached from her mission, from her identity in Christ and the gospel.  If the gospel is intrinsically relevant, if the gospel has a message for every generation and every individual, and the church is considered to be irrelevant, what can have happened but a loss of what it means to be the church in the first place?

How do we lose sight of our calling as a church?  It can happen when we get more interested in how to bring people in than how to go out and serve others.  It can happen when we view the church as more of the hub of a social circle than as a fellowship with other sinners and a group of people who help us to grow in our faith in order to take it out into the world.  It can happen when we look outside of our walls and start talking about "them," as if "they" were not already bound to "us" in Christ.

The relevance of Christmas, and the relevance of Christian faith as a whole, is that, though this world is not how it should be, God has done something about it in Christ, by coming among us and invading our world of space and time in order to set up a new kingdom.  But the good news is not just that God did something once upon a time and then stopped.  The good news is that God is still doing a mighty work through Christ, but now it is a work that is taking place in and through each of us by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That is good news; but it might also be bad news for some people.  It might be bad news for some because a reclaiming of the relevancy of the gospel means that being relevant is not something that we achieve by our own strength.  We cannot make the gospel relevant any more than we can make it irrelevant.  What that means is that the relevancy of the gospel is not up for grabs.  It is not something that can be collapsed into a certain kind of music or a well-run program.  We must cling to the relevancy that is already present in the gospel or else we either become irrelevant as just one more social club or we impose a relevance of our own devising and just pretend it is the gospel.

What is exciting is that the gospel cannot be defeated.  It is still the good news and it is still the driving force of the church whether or not any particular church realizes it.  In fact, I would imagine that God is at work in any particular church more than most people think.  God is working, even when his people don't listen to him.  There is some concern about a war on Christmas, but I am not worried.  What we celebrate at Christmas, the coming of God into our world, cannot be made false by legislation or changing culture.  The truth of God would stand firm, even if everyone told lies about it, and they do, and it does.

When people set out to make the gospel or the church more relevant, they have set themselves an impossible goal, to do what cannot be done because it has already been done.  If we set out to allow the gospel to do what it does, what it was meant to do, and transform lives, starting with our own, we are not only setting out to do something that is very much possible, but one that in a very real sense has already been accomplished.  In Christ, the work has been done.  Our calling is to rejoice and to let it work itself out in our hearts and lives so we can bear witness to it more fully, so others might join in the transformation and the reconciliation.  Let us pray.


Monday, November 26, 2012

"What Is Our Best Sacrifice" (Abraham and Isaac)

            11/25/12                     Genesis 22:1-19                    Grace UMC

We have just celebrated Thanksgiving as a nation.  It is a time of year when, as we think of things we are thankful for, we often think of sacrifice.  We remember that there have been countless people who have sacrificed their lives so that we might be free in this country.  We also remember that our parents sacrificed and did without so that we might not have to.  As Christians, we often think about sacrifice in terms of what Christ did for us.  In Christ, we see that we do not only have other human beings who have sacrificed for us, but that even the God of the universe has allowed himself to be sacrificed for our sakes.  It is a sacrifice that does not only free us on the outside but brings us freedom in the depths of our humanity.

One of the most fascinating stories in the whole Bible to me is the story of Abraham and Isaac, where Abraham is called to sacrifice his son on a mountain in the land of Moriah.  This story has been the focus of significant attention by those outside of the church in recent years.  Christopher Hitchens, the recently deceased journalist and committed atheist had the following to say, referring to the story of Abraham and Isaac.  "And not scorning the three delightful children who result— who are everything to me and who are my only chance of a human glimpse of a second life, let alone an immortal one, I’ll tell you something: if I was told to sacrifice them to prove my devotion to God, if I was told to do what all monotheists are told to do and admire the man who said, “Yes, I’ll [kill] my kid to show my love of God,” I’d say, “No, f[orget] you.”"  Actually, his language is somewhat stronger than that.

This is not a recent concern.  Going all the way back to the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant, the profoundly significant philosopher who casts a shadow even over our lives today, said this. "Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice: ‘That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God—of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from visible heaven."  What is certain for Kant is the moral code.  It is higher than God and is able to stand in judgment over what God may or may not say or do.

Another interesting point of view surrounding this passage comes from Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and committed Christian.  He was deeply aware of the fact that, even though we consider Abraham a hero of the faith, if anyone else were to do what Abraham was prepared to do, we would not consider them a hero of the faith but a murderer.  What Kierkegaard wanted to know is why we don't think of Abraham as a murderer.  This is, of course what Hitchens and Kant were getting at in their own way, but whereas they came to the conclusion that, in fact, we ought to think of Abraham, as well as the God who set all this into motion, as murderers, Kierkegaard was gripped by faith in a way that would not allow him to rest content with that conclusion but wanted to press deeper.

So the first thing I want to do is to make it clear that if you have ever read the story of Abraham and Isaac with fear and trembling (the name of Kierkegaard's book on the passage) or with disgust or dismay, you are not alone.  There have been many who have found it to be profoundly disturbing.  If you have never read the passage and wondered whether that says some things about God that we might not want to hear, at the very least you should be aware of the fact that others have thought so and it is passages like this that those outside of the church often turn to in order to make Christians look foolish because, at least if looked at from the right angle, it can certainly seem that God is somewhat barbaric.

Now, I have never met a Christian who believed that this is the best way to read the passage.  In spite of all the barbarism that seems to be there, we are too strongly persuaded by Christ to believe that God is truly bloodthirsty and wanting child sacrifice.  But if that is the case, how should we read the passage?

By far, the most common way the story of Abraham and Isaac is talked about in the church is to say that the real point is not that God wants child sacrifice, since looking at the whole of the biblical tradition makes it clear that he doesn't, but that Abraham was prepared to give up the best that he had for God so we also should be prepared to give our best to God.  It is a common interpretation, but is that really what the story is about?

Kierkegaard uses the story of the rich young ruler that Jesus told to give up all he had in order to follow him to shed light on this kind of interpretation.  He argues that the rich young ruler would not have become like Abraham, even if he gave up the best that he had.  He says, "What is left the anguish: for while I am under no obligation to money, to a son the father has the highest and most sacred of obligations.  Yet anguish is a dangerous affair for the squeamish, so people forget it, notwithstanding they [still] want to talk about Abraham.  So they talk and in the course of conversation they interchange the words 'Isaac' and 'best.'  Everything goes excellently.  Should someone in the audience be suffering from insomnia [that is, actually awake and listening attentively to the sermon], however, there is likely to be the most appalling, most profound, tragic-comic misunderstanding.  He goes home, he wants to do just like Abraham; for the son is certainly the best thing he has.  Should that [preacher] hear word of this, he might go to the man, summon all his clerical authority, and shout:  ‘Loathsome man, dregs of society, what devil has so possessed you that you wanted to murder your own son?’  And this [preacher], who had felt no signs of heat or perspiration while preaching about Abraham, would be surprised at the righteous wrath with which he fulminates against that poor man; he would be pleased with himself, for never had he spoken with such pungency and fervor before…If the same [preacher] had some slight excess of wit to spare he would surely lose it were the sinner to reply coolly and with dignity:  ‘It was in fact what you yourself preached on Sunday.’  How could a [preacher] get such an idea into his head?  And yet he did so, and the mistake was only that he hadn’t known what he was saying.”

If we read the story of Abraham and Isaac and say, "Abraham was willing to give up the best he had, Isaac, and so we should be willing to give up the best that we have," how can we possibly avoid the implication that we ought to be willing to give up our children, since that is the example?  If that conclusion disturbs us we must either reject God, reject the passage, or push deeper to see if it is possible that we have misunderstood the text.  Given those three options, I think it is best to choose to push deeper.

This is all the more clearly the right choice when we remember that God is consistently telling his people that he absolutely does not want child sacrifice.  The issue is deeper than we might think, but I believe that it will become clear that the God portrayed in this story is not bloodthirsty but is better and more gracious than we ever dreamed.

The question we have to ask is why Abraham was willing to do this at all?  Perhaps it is nothing more than what the writer of Hebrews says, "By faith, Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac.  He who had received the promises was ready to offer up his only son, of whom he had been told, ‘It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.’  He considered the fact that God is able even to raise someone from the dead – and figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”  It may have been that, but I think that it there is more to it.  Though this story is the closest Israel ever got to affirming child sacrifice, it was a common practice elsewhere in the Ancient Near East.  The followers of the Ammonite god, Molech, for example, practiced child sacrifice regularly, precisely because it was an offering of the best that they had.  Ancient tribes in South America played games not altogether unlike our modern game of basketball and sacrificed, not the losing but the winning team, again precisely because it was an offering of their best.

There is a certain logic to these practices that horrify us today.  If God demands from us total commitment, does that not trump even our commitments to our family?  In spite of the fact that this way of reasoning has been so common throughout history, it has been conspicuously absent in the Judeo-Christian tradition.  Why is that?  The reason is that the obligation for total obedience to God does not just mean that we need to surrender our devotion to everything else when compared to our devotion to God.  It also means that we need to surrender the right to decide for ourselves what the best that we have to offer is.  We don't get to decide for ourselves what God wants, but we need to listen to him to hear what he has to say about the matter.

As frightening as the whole story can be and as often as God and Abraham get criticized for doing what they do, we must never forget one absolutely crucial point:  Isaac is not actually killed.  He survives the whole situation.  If the interpretation that says that Abraham's willingness to offer Isaac was nothing more than a willingness to offer his best is correct, can we not assume that the conclusion of the story tells us that that willingness is enough, that God will never actually require our best from us?  If that is so, then we can make a show about our willingness to give everything up while comforted by the fact that God will never actually demand it of us.  However, I don't think this is the case, I think there is something much more profound at work here.

Even though he was tied down to the wood and the knife was raised, Isaac did not die, but something did.  Blood was shed and something was offered to God, but it was not Isaac, the beloved child of Abraham.  It was a ram whose horns were caught in the thicket.  What do we read actually happened?  "Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called that place 'The Lord will provide.'"  The sacrifice of the ram is incredibly significant, above and beyond what a sacrifice of a ram would have meant in any other context.  The ram was not just offered, but was offered instead of Isaac, it was offered in his place.

This is where the interpretation of Isaac as Abraham's best has something to contribute.  At the end of the day, what was the sacrifice that God wanted?  Abraham was willing to offer what he would call his best.  His son was bound and he had lifted the knife to kill him, but God would not allow it.  Instead of allowing Abraham to follow through, he gave him a substitute.  That means that God in a very real sense did not want Abraham's best; in point of fact, God wanted a sacrifice that was better than Abraham's best.

Now, you might be wondering, "How is a ram a better sacrifice than Isaac?  After all, Abraham probably owned many rams, but only had one beloved son."  And yet, God didn't tell Abraham to stop, go back home, get one of his rams, and then bring it back.  Instead, God provided his own lamb.  Even if we might think that a ram is insignificant compared to a human child, the reason why it was a better sacrifice is not because of the value in the eyes of Abraham or any other human being.  It was a better sacrifice because it came from God.

I wonder if, sometimes, we think about sacrifice the way we often do because we like it.  If we either choose or are forced to make a significant sacrifice, there is that bit inside of us that feels pretty good about it in the sense that we feel that nobody can ever say to us, "You never had to sacrifice."  When we sacrifice, we can prove to ourselves that our devotion isn't just made up of words, but that it makes some kind of difference in our lives.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is extremely offensive, but not because of how we would ordinarily think.  It is not offensive because a bloodthirsty God commanded a man to sacrifice his beloved child.  It is offensive because, at the end of the day, God does not accept it, but provides a sacrifice in his place.  God knows that Abraham will go through with the sacrifice; after all, in any other culture at the time, it would have been a perfectly reasonable thing to do.  But right when he is about to follow through, God stops him.  This is an act of mercy, but it is more than that.  It is a declaration that God doesn't want child sacrifice, doesn't want Abraham to give what he thinks is his best.  It is a sacrifice unwanted by God and so, in point of fact, it is not the best Abraham has to offer, regardless of what he might think.  The best sacrifice is the one that God gives in place of what we think is our best.

It is an offensive story because it makes it seem that God's ways are cheap, that it is too easy to be one of God's people.  This should come as no surprise to us, since that is precisely what people have said, both in the early days of the church and today, but is it really true?  Is it too easy?  It means a wholesale renunciation of doing things our own way, of admitting that sin impacts everything we do, everything we are, and everything we think, including our notion of what are the best things to offer as a sacrifice to God.  To follow God means to allow our own sense of justice and righteousness to be challenged and realize that the ways of God are not just different than ours, but deeper, richer, and fundamentally better than our ways.  It means that we need to give up our right to judge, not only the actions of others but even our own actions, and allow God to have his way.

The story of Abraham and Isaac is also tremendously humbling.  It tells us that we cannot make an appropriate sacrifice on our own terms.  We must open our hands in faith, emptied of all our supposed righteousness and goodness, and receive the sacrifice that God has to give in place of the best that we could ever give.  It is scandalous, it is an attack on humanity because it says that God is justified in insisting on what he gives instead of what we give, but it is oh so very liberating, because God has already made the sacrifice.  He has given us his Son.  It is a sacrifice that is absolutely free because it offered without price but it is desperately costly because it calls us into question to the roots of our being.  We cannot accept the sacrifice without it challenging us to our core, but it is a challenge to be freed from sin, to be empowered by the Spirit and live in a better way than our world has to offer.  It is a sacrifice that changes everything and it is better than any sacrifice we could ever have dreamed up.  Rejoice, for God is not waiting until you make the perfect sacrifice, only for you to trust in the one he has made on your behalf and in your place.  Let us pray.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Elijah Syndrome

          10/28/12                "The Elijah Syndrome"           Grace UMC

One of the narratives in the Bible that has always fascinated me is the account of Elijah up on the mountain with the still, small voice.  The attitude we see in Elijah seems to me to be so incredibly common, not least in myself, that I have started to call a particular habit of speaking and thinking, "The Elijah Syndrome."  But before we can spell out what that looks like, we have to understand the narrative as it stands and within its context.

Elijah was a mighty man of God.  He had performed many miracles before this and would perform many more after it.  Recently, there had been a three-year drought that had devastated the entire Northern Kingdom of Israel because King Ahab so stalwartly refused to listen to the God of his ancestors.  Elijah was the one who said the drought would come and had become almost synonymous with the right hand of God, bringing divine judgment down on the nation.  He was a man who was greatly respected and feared.

Eventually, when the time came for the drought to end, Elijah came to Jezreel, the capital city, and challenged the King and Queen along with their pagan prophets that they paid to keep in court.  He said to the people, "How long will you go limping with two different opinions?  If The Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him."  He took, depending on how you count it, either 450 or 850 pagan prophets up onto Mount Carmel and set up a test.  Whichever god responded by sending fire was the true God.  After the pagan prophets cried out for hours, wailing and ritually cutting themselves, Elijah simply prayed and God sent a fire that was amazing in its intensity.  After that, the drought ended and the people put the pagan prophets to death.

But as you might imagine, royalty do not take kindly to the overturning of their authority.  When Queen Jezebel found out about this, she dedicated herself to hunting down and killing Elijah, if it was the last thing she did.  This is where we pick up our text for this morning.  In spite of the fact that Elijah has just been part of a mighty victory, he is running for his life.  He ran so long and so far that he went from Jezreel, which is firmly in the Northern portion of Israel, all the way down to Mount Horeb, the mountain where Moses saw the burning bush which is just across the Red Sea from Egypt.  That night, Elijah stays in a cave in the mountain.

While he was there, God spoke to Elijah, saying, "What are you doing here Elijah?"  Clearly, the God of the universe is not suffering from misunderstanding, he is not simply seeking facts.  We might paraphrase that into a more modern idiom by saying, "Why in the world are you here, Elijah?" or "Just what do you think you're doing here, Elijah?"  Elijah's response is heartfelt.  "I have been very zealous for The Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."  Basically, Elijah is saying that he feels all alone.  Nobody seems to want to listen to God; so much so that they are killing the prophets and Elijah is the only one left who cares about God.

It is after that answer that God sends the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, none of which brought with them the presence of God, and finally calls Elijah out by a still small voice, or the sound of sheer silence.  Elijah, presumably in awe, makes his way to the entrance of his cave and listens to what he is sure will be a profound message from God.  Amazingly, it turns out to be the exact same question he had been asked, not long ago.  "What are you doing here Elijah?"  For whatever reason, Elijah thinks that the best answer he can give to this repetition of the question is a repetition of his answer.  "I have been very zealous for The Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away."

I don't know why Elijah gives the same answer a second time.  Maybe he was confused, maybe he thought God hadn't heard him the first time, maybe he thought it was a test to see if he would be consistent.  Regardless of the reasons he may or may not have had, it seems to me that God was looking for something else altogether.  After God gets the pity speech for the second time, he takes a very different approach.  Paraphrasing somewhat, it is as if the conversation goes something like this.  "Just what do you think you're doing here, Elijah?"  "Well God, nobody likes me.  I know you have called me to be faithful but I feel so alone.  Everyone is out to get me."  Dramatic displays of power and gentleness.  "Let's try this again.  Just what do you think you're doing here, Elijah?"  "Well God, nobody likes me.  I know you have called me to be faithful but I feel so alone.  Everyone is out to get me."  (With a big sigh) "Alright Elijah, this is what you are going to do.  You are going to get up and head back North.  Anoint this person as king over Aram, anoint that person as king over Israel, and anoint that other person as your successor.  Oh, and by the way, there are over seven thousand people who have never bowed down to the false gods that you seem to have no idea about."

In the chapter just before our text for this morning, we read about Elijah coming to meet with Ahab.  On his way, he meets with a man named Obadiah that he uses to send his message.  Now Obadiah was not a prophet like Elijah.  He did not stand in front of mighty men and women and declare the word of the Lord to them.  Compared to Elijah's deeds of power, Obadiah would seem incredibly unimpressive.  However, he occupied a high position in Ahab's court and, when persecution was about to break out against the prophets of God, Obadiah managed to hide them in caves and gave them food to eat and water to drink.  His faithfulness wasn't showy.  It couldn't be or else people would have died.  And yet, I can't help but think that he is precisely one of those seven thousand people who have never bowed their knee to a false god.  It is not just that Elijah has never met the faithful people in Israel, but he might very well know them and yet not recognize them as faithful people.  And yet, they might actually be doing, in a sense, more than Elijah himself.

This is what I have called "The Elijah Syndrome," a conviction that I am all alone, that I am the only one who feels the way I do, that I am the only one who really takes God seriously.  The Elijah Syndrome can sometimes manifest itself in terms of pity, like Elijah seems to be doing primarily.  "My life is really hard because nobody else around me seems to understand God.  God tells me that his good news is for everyone, but people just don't seem to want to listen."  It can also be manifested in judgment.  "None of you poor souls really understand God like I understand God.  My relationship to God is special.  We are connected in a way that you do not share and you cannot share in it or have any kind of real spiritual depth unless you live out your faith like I do."

A bit of the problem with the Elijah Syndrome is that it is so defensive and isolating and yet, at the very same time, so offensive.  How can anyone respond to a statement like that?  If I am suffering from the Elijah Syndrome, I have a tendency, everywhere I go to be saying to anyone I meet, "Nobody really understands like I do.  People just can't seem to see the God who is right in front of them."  Of course, if I say that to you, I am implying that you are also one of those people who don't understand and who can't see God.  Not only am I saying that you don't understand, I am basically saying that you can't understand, since I have special insight that is not shared by the common person.

What can you say to me if I have that attitude?  I can always dismiss any input you have to offer by saying, "You haven't thought about this like I have.  You can only see it as an outsider."  You are just one of the poor fools that is, at best, ignorant of the truth, or at worst, out to get me as the one faithful person left.  The Elijah Syndrome cuts off all help from our brothers and sisters in Christ and isolates the person in a cave of self-pity and self-righteousness.

The Elijah Syndrome is not something I read about in a book, though I have read many books.  It is not something that is merely an academic issue for me.  I came to understand the Elijah Syndrome through experience, and not, primarily, experiencing other people who had it.  I learned about it so clearly and completely because it is something that I myself have experienced.  Every criticism I can launch against the Elijah Syndrome is one that has cut me first and foremost.

There was a time in college where I had what can best be described as a brush with Fundamentalism.  I had just started reading the Bible with some seriousness for the first time and I became aware that the scriptures had a lot to say about a wide variety of topics.  I was increasingly interested, not just in what the Bible said, but the ways it said it.  I looked around and I noticed that many people that I knew, friends included, simply weren't interested in the Bible like I had become.  In particular, I became fascinated with the Old Testament.  There was so much there that I had never heard before.  However, there were not only stories that shaped my understanding of the history of Israel, there was book after book of judgment on the people of God for not taking him seriously.  I should point out that the problems that I had were not with the judgment itself, but because I did not adequately understand the context of the judgment.

All of these things combined together to set the stage for a perfect storm.  I began to be judgmental of those who smugly dismissed Christian faith.  I may have said, and I certainly thought, that those people were in significant danger of hell.  But my real judgment was reserved for the Christians I knew.  These were people who, it seemed to me, ought to know better.  I could see no reason why the things that seemed to me to be so incredibly important should not seem equally important to everyone else who called themselves a Christian.  I looked around at my group of friends and thought that nobody really cared about God but me.  I looked around at the campus ministries at UNI and even around the United Methodist Church and felt that, if people could just do more of the things that I was doing, the church would be renewed.

A clear example of this kind of thinking came to me through my good friend.  He was having some conflict with someone who was significantly pro-life and who was expressing his displeasure that his home church didn't seem to get as excited as he did about the issue of abortion.  While everyone has their own strong feelings about the issue of abortion, my friend responded like this.  "You can't expect everyone to have the same passions that you do.  Everyone can't focus on the same thing.  Not only would that define what Christians should be about in an incredibly narrow way, it would also leave a lot of important things undone.  For example, the campus ministry I am in leadership with is very much concerned with interracial and global justice.  That is no less Christian and no less of a need."

As has been so often the case in my life, I needed to be able to see my own problems in someone else before I could realize how deep they were in myself.  The next time I read the story of Elijah, I was amazed that I so often do the same thing that he was doing.  I took myself as the standard of what a Christian should be doing, a dangerous thing to be sure, and then, since other people didn't share the same gifts, graces and passions as I did, I assumed they were not Christians or at least that they were sub-Christian.  I never once asked God what he thought.  I simply assumed.

It is so easy to do this.  It is so easy to get caught up in the things that we are passionate about; after all, we are passionate about them. We think they are important, perhaps the most important things in the world and we can't imagine why other people wouldn't see them the same way; and if our passions are even remotely close to things we could make an argument are related to the Christian life, such as reading the Scriptures in my case, then it doesn't take much to be like Elijah and cry out to God that we are all alone, that nobody else understands God like we do, that we are even being persecuted for our devotion.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes what I have come to understand as one of the single most ignored passages in the whole Bible.  This is what he says.  "Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions.  Some believe in eating anything while the weak eat only vegetables.  Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.  Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?  It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.  And they will be upheld, for The Lord is able to make them stand."

This was Elijah's problem.  He was a particularly prominent man of God.  He had done amazing things.  If you judge every Israelite by whether they have performed as many miracles as Elijah you aren't going to have many "real" people of God before long.  What Elijah had to learn was that God is not interested in the yardsticks that we use to judge ourselves and others.  He simply doesn't ask us whether someone is faithful or not, which is a good thing since we all fall short and might find ourselves on the wrong side of the dividing line if he did.  God is more graceful than humans are, than we are, and that is good news.

There are times when we feel tremendously lonely, that we are the only ones who do what we do.  Whether we never even dream of saying it out loud, even just to God, or whether we have alienated those we love by our declarations that nobody else understands or that nobody else is faithful, it is easy to get caught up in the Elijah Syndrome.  If you have the Elijah Syndrome today, know that the God who has worked mightily in you is working mightily in others, even if it doesn't look like you think it should.  If you have loved ones who seem to have it, remember that when God shook Elijah out of his attitude, it was not in the wind, earthquake or fire, but in the still, small voice, in the place of intimacy and trust.  It was the gentleness of God that opened Elijah's eyes.

You are not alone, even when you feel alone.  The Lord is with you and so are your brothers and sisters in Christ.  If you can't see God's work in them, go looking for it.  It is there, and it is every bit as glorious as the work of God in you.  Let us pray.


Saturday, October 20, 2012

What is Baptism? (9/30/12)

         09/30/12                       Matthew 3:13-17                Grace UMC

Baptism is a practice that is at the core of every tradition within the church.  It marks us off as members of the body of Christ, it symbolizes our union with Christ, and it is our way of showing that we as a community are all bound together.  We do not baptize ourselves but are baptized out of ourselves and into Christ and we are baptized only once because when we are baptized, we are not declaring to the world anything that we have done but what God has done.

I love baptisms because they are a wonderful opportunity to join together and remember what is at the core of our faith, what binds us together.  We have an opportunity to reaffirm our own commitment to Christ and to be bound together all the more closely with every human being who is joined to our body.  I hope that you will indulge me a bit this morning, a morning where I have had the great privilege to baptize my own son, to share some convictions about baptism that are bigger than me, bigger than all of us.

Nearly everyone who is here has been baptized, either as an infant, or in response to a profession of faith as an adult.  If someone claims Christian faith and yet has not been baptized, there is a significant urging from the church as an organization as well as from other Christians to move forward to baptize them.  But why?  Why should we be interested in baptism like we are?  What exactly is it?  What does it do?  Why does it have such a central role in the life of the church?

Many people have different opinions about the nature of baptism.  There are people in the world who see baptism, whether of infants or adults, as a kind of "get out of hell free" card, where simply the fact that one has been baptized is what matters, that something has happened that trumps everything else.  We see this view whenever parents get their children baptized, even if they have never had any real participation in the church of any kind, it is just something that is important to do.  To give credit where credit is due, when one considers how awkward it can feel to ask something of a church to which you have no real connection, just the act of getting one's child baptized can be a tremendous act of courage.

There are other people who see baptism as nothing more than an effectively empty ritual.  This shows up most often in people who have their children baptized simply because it matters to someone else, usually a close relative and not because of any response of faithfulness.  It also shows up, interestingly enough, among those who would deny baptism to infants, where baptism is nothing more than a confirmation of a faith already received.  The baptism itself is not truly important, only the faith that is confessed in connection with it.

But what is baptism?  In a sense, it is a sprinkling of water or a dunking in water, but that is not all it is.  It is a practice that goes to the very core of our Christian faith and is vitally important.  In order to understand that, we need to turn to the fascinating event of the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan by John the Baptist.

I particularly love Matthew's account of this event because he so wonderfully brings out the issues that are implied in the event and makes it absolutely clear that there is something here that is more than meets the eye.  What has John been up to?  He has been proclaiming the word of the Lord, reclaiming the prophetic tradition of ancient Israel, and preparing hearts for the coming of the Savior.  Integral to his whole ministry is baptism, but it is a very specific kind of baptism; as Luke tells us, it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  What does it mean to receive baptism at the hands of John?  It means that you are a sinner, that you are aware of your sin, that you are genuinely sorry for your sin and you are repenting, that is, changing your behavior, because of it.

Now, all that is well and good, but something strange happens one day.  One day, while John is baptizing people, Jesus comes up.  This is what we read.  "Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him."  Nobody made him get baptized, nobody even specifically called him to suggest that it would be a good way to start his ministry.  He takes the long journey from Galilee, way up in the North of Israel, all the way down to a river south of Jerusalem, to be baptized.  Normally, I would imagine, John would be thrilled that people would come to be baptized.  After all, it is deeply symbolic of confession and repentance and a new life devoted to God.  But John isn't entirely happy that Jesus is there; not that he is upset, but profoundly confused.  "John would have prevented him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'"

On the one hand, we could say to John, "Look.  You know that he is the Messiah that you have been proclaiming, you knew it even before you were born.  You, of all people, know just how important he really is.  Why are you questioning him?"  And yet, it shows that John is actually a very good theologian, someone who knows exactly what seems to be at stake here.  To him it is clear that he has no business baptizing Jesus.  Jesus is the very one sent by God to transform the world, why on earth is he coming to be baptized?  If there is anyone in the whole world and throughout all of history who doesn't need to be baptized, it is Jesus.  What is going on?

This is an issue that we have to take quite seriously in the church today.  After all, we believe the book of Hebrews when it says this to us.  "Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respects has been tested as we are, yet without sin  Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."  We believe that Jesus, for all his solidarity with us, never committed sin, which means he does not need to repent, which means he does not need a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, which means it seems very hard to understand why he has gone to John to seek such a baptism.

What are we to make of this?  There are a few skeptical opinions that I want to throw out there, not because I find them convincing, but because they show us how serious this is.  Some have said that Jesus is not really any different than we are, that he needed repentance just as much as we do.  This view says that, in spite of the fact that Jesus is "better" than us, he still needed all the same things we do, which means he received baptism because, just like us, he needed it.  Another view is that Jesus only understood that he was the Messiah when he was baptized, which means he might have gotten baptized without realizing that he didn't need it.

But does that help us?  Not at all.  According to Hebrews, it is crucially important that Jesus didn't sin.  If that were not true, we would have no real high priest who can speak for us before God.  The gospel would come collapsing to the ground.  There are, of course, people in the world who would love to see the gospel crash to the ground, but I think we need to consider one more explanation, more fully true to the text itself, before we go there.

John does not want to baptize Jesus but what does Jesus do?  He insists!  "But Jesus answered him, 'Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.'  Then he consented."  Jesus knows exactly what he is doing.  He even forces John's hand, in a sense, to do something that John is not certain he should do with a calm reassurance of, "Trust me.  Whatever it may look like, it actually is the right thing to do and it needs to happen."

Let me put it this way.  Jesus willingly and very deliberately submits himself to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, but he doesn't have any sins to confess.  For me, this raises a very important question.  If Jesus doesn't have any sins and yet insists on having John baptizing him, whose sins is he confessing?  Yours and mine.

This is what baptism is all about.  We are baptized, not because we already have things together, not even because we realize just how big our problems are.  We are baptized because Christ was baptized on our behalf and in our place, who took our sins on his own shoulders and confessed them correctly when we so often can't even confess our sins all that well.  And you know what?  It is a good thing that he did that because, if you are anything like me, you aren't very good at repenting.  I know that, all too often, I confess my sins only to turn around and commit the same darn sins again, sometimes in the same hour of my repentance.  If my salvation is fundamentally based on how well I repent and transform my own life, I am in a lot of trouble.  The reason why Jesus can proclaim forgiveness so freely is because he has not just died for us, but has taken our place even in repentance and confession, doing perfectly what we always seem to do imperfectly.

Jesus did to baptism what he does for us; he utterly transformed it by his grace.  If baptism is a sign that we have repented, that we are already on the right path, then not a single one of us ever deserves to be baptized, because we always fall short.  What Jesus did is step into the Jordan on our behalf and in our place, confessed our own sin, and then, rather than turning back to it, like we all too often do, he took it all the way to the cross to nail it there and put it to death even in his own flesh.  If the first and foremost thing that baptism means today is that we have repented, then it makes no sense to baptize infants, for how can infants repent.  But that is not what baptism is all about.  Baptism is first and foremost a matter of participating in the baptism of Christ, of declaring to the world, "I am a sinner who needs grace.  I trust in what Christ did for me in the Jordan and so I join in solidarity with him, denying myself and my own ability to save myself, taking up my cross, the cross of Christ, and follow in his footsteps.

That is why we baptize infants, who are unable to feel remorse for their sin.  Even though they have never actually committed a sin, they share just as much as you or I in the brokenness of the human condition.  We don't speak of infants and say, "if they sin," but "when they sin."  They are in need of grace just like anyone else and why should we wait to claim their need for grace until they are older?  That would be like not taking your children to the doctor when they are sick because they are not yet able to explain that they do not feel good.

Baptism is not just a declaration of our need for grace, but it is a very public declaration.  The setting for baptism is in the congregation gathered for worship.  This is important for many reasons.  It means that when we declare, of ourselves or of our children, that we are in need of grace, that we are not how we ought to be, other people know about it.  It means that we put ourselves out there for all to see, to admit to all who care to listen that we are broken and we are seeking help beyond ourselves to deal with it.  It is also a profound request for help from those who are gathered.  As the body of Christ gathered together for worship, there are many people who have made similar declarations, who understand how needful it is to have Christian support in every area of life, who know that to try to be devoted to God on our own is impossible.  Whenever someone is baptized, it is a cry for help, but it is a cry that is made in sure and certain hope that help will indeed come.

The public nature of baptism is also crucial because there is an extremely important role that you all play as witnesses and as co-Christians.  You were asked if you will include those who have been baptized into your care and you made a promise, saying, "With God's help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.  We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness, that they may grow in their service to others.  We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life."  Those are serious words.  In order to live them out, in order for them to not be so many lies, we must all commit ourselves to being a community of love and forgiveness to surround them with.  This is not a promise that you have made for the first time today.  It is a promise that you have made over and over again.  Every time a person is baptized, you declare your communal commitment to love and forgiveness.  When a child is baptized, the promise becomes even more clear.  You are not making your promise based on what you think he will or will not do, for you don't know what an infant will do in the years to come, and yet you promise nonetheless.  You are promising unconditional love, unconditional forgiveness, unconditional prayer.

In short, whenever someone is baptized, you are asked to promise to uphold your own baptism, to allow Christ to work in you and through you so that you can be his presence here and now and in all circumstances.  Whenever someone is baptized, we promise that this will not just be a community, but a Christian community.  It is a commitment that is bigger than you and me, it is a reality that transcends the concrete particular baptism we celebrate this morning.  With every person who is marked by grace in baptism, we are called to draw all the more closely together, to let love rule just a bit more, to follow through on our promises, even when it is tough, and to be the community that we are called to be, the community that Jesus died for us to be.

So let us join together in the midst of this sacrament that dwarfs all of us together, for it is primarily an act of God, and be reminded of the commitments we have made to each other, not just now, but when each person was baptized.  If you look around the room, you realize that this promise has been made many times.  Whatever may have been the case in the past, let us covenant together to hold one another accountable to it today since our commitment to God must be renewed every day.  Remember, baptism is not about us declaring what we can do, but what God can do, and God can do amazing things.  Let us pray.


The Greatest of These (9/23/12)

          09/23/12                  The Greatest of These               Grace UMC

When I was in seminary, I had to try to find my way through the difficult tangle of mass that has come to be known as "modern theology."  Since the late eighteenth century, trying to understand every new movement that came along and the changes that took place in thinking is a cause for headache in even the most brilliant people I have ever met.  Don't get me wrong, not all modern academic theologians are bad.  In fact, some of the best theologians in the history of the church have lived within the last hundred years, but the mainstream of thought took a frightening turn by the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Every once in a while, my classmates and I, who are a fairly traditional bunch who believe that Jesus is the Son of God, God in flesh, that he was born of the Virgin Mary, that he died, was raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven, would find a thinker that didn't seem to be too bad.  Whenever this happened, a student would invariably raise their hand and say, "Dr. Colyer [our theology professor], I think this person makes a lot of sense.  I think they are saying the same thing that I believe."

I will never forget the advice that our professor would give in response to these kinds of comments.  "When reading modern theology, you need to always remember to not just look at the vocabulary, but to look at the dictionary."  What he was trying to point out is that words don't have fixed, unchanging meanings but mean what they mean because of how someone uses them.  Sometimes, you will find that you will hear someone use a familiar term in an entirely unfamiliar way.  Without going any further, our American political season seems to be full of this, where both parties use the same words but mean very different things.

What we find is that this observation is extremely relevant to the church and to Christian faith.  It is true that Christians use different terms than everyone else does, because we speak of incarnation, atonement, salvation, regeneration, and resurrection, but we also use a lot of the same terms that the rest of the world uses.  We speak of churches being successful or unsuccessful, but we do not mean the same thing as the business world does when it uses those terms.  Churches are successful or unsuccessful, not based on how many people come to worship on Sunday morning, not because of money in the bank, and not because they have cool programs that attract people.  The success of a church is determined by whether people are being transformed by the Spirit.  It is something that you simply can't represent on paper.  Church success is not, at the end of the day, something that you can see, but something that you can feel.

If we wanted to, we could make a list as long as you like of terms that Christians and the church use that look and sound like terms that other people use but are significantly different, but that would get boring before too long.  I want to focus more intentionally on the idea of love, because we can hardly find a place where the church and the rest of the world are more different than in our understanding of love.

Over a year ago, having been newly appointed to Grace United Methodist Church, I preached a sermon that used the same text from the first letter of John to explore the concept of "grace."  We have just heard the text again but for a very different reason.  I want to point out that, not only do words mean different things based on how they are used, they also take on different meanings, or at least might mean more, when they are spoken by particular people.

For example, Tertullian was a significant leader in the church in North Africa in the second and third century.  He has gained the reputation of being an extremely strict moralist, that is, he felt that people needed to live morally and that was the most important thing.  Eventually, toward the end of his life, he left the mainstream of Christian faith and joined a heretical group called the Montanists because they were, in his eyes, far more morally rigorous than the rest of the church.  It wasn't too long before he became convinced that the Montanists weren't being moral enough, so he made his own group that was supposed to be even more strict.  The point is that there are lots of times where Tertullian criticizes groups of people for being morally lazy.  That is, of course, a serious charge, but when someone like Tertullian makes it, you have to take it with a grain of salt, because nobody is good enough for him.  However, when he says, "People take this issue far too seriously," and he does say that from time to time, it means a lot.

Here is John, the son of Zebedee, who is writing to the church and talking about love.  What makes his words so interesting is not just that the Bible says it, but that it is John who says it.  Before he was transformed by the power of God through Christ and in the Spirit, John was a harsh person.  In Mark chapter nine, we read, "John said to him, 'Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us."  In Luke nine, we read, "When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.  And he sent messengers ahead of him.  On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.  When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, 'Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?'"

Perhaps most interesting is a story toward the end of Mark's gospel.  "James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, 'Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.'  And he said to them, 'What is it you want me to do for you?'  And they said to him, 'Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.'"  My point is that this is a man who was ready to stop anyone who wasn't part of his own group from ministering to others, who was ready to call down fire from heaven to punish those who did not yet understand, and wanted to sit on a great seat of power and was willing to boldly ask for it.

The story in the early church was that, toward the end of his life, and John was one of the very few apostles who died a natural death, he no longer had the strength to preach like he once did.  He would be assisted in front of the congregation and simply say four words:  children, love one another.  A sermon of four words, but they are not just four words.  They are four words that are bolstered by the entire life that was transformed.  When John speaks of love, they are the words of a man who has known what it is like to be decidedly un-loving, who has wanted power, who has wanted to strike down his fellow human beings.  They are, by their very nature, words of repentance.  They are not naïve words, words that he says just because it sounds like the right thing to say, but words that come out of a long history of having old habits burned out of him and replaced with love.

I want to turn now to the words of Christ that we heard a few minutes ago.  "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."  It is fascinating to me that when Jesus tells us what to do, it is to love one another, but, as I said earlier, we cannot assume, when Jesus says to love one another, that he means exactly the same thing as the rest of the world does when they say it.

How does our society talk about love?  On one level, we speak of love as an emotion that comes and goes; that we do not just fall in love, but that we fall out of love as well.  We talk about love as if it means that to love someone is to make them happy at all times and never seriously challenge them or stand against them or something they do.  We have a thriving sub-genre of literature today that seems to be dead-set on promoting an image of what a romantic, loving relationship can and should be that is nothing less than shocking and abusive.  Sometimes, when we say the word "love," we speak of enduring commitment, even when times get tough.  Other times, when we use it, we talk about how much we love pizza.

The question is, what does Jesus mean when he tells us to love one another, and he tells us right here.  He says, "Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another."  Now how has Jesus loved us?  He has existed for all eternity, in perfect fellowship with the Father and the Spirit and then willingly came and joined us in our world of space and time with all the hardship that entails.  Paul expresses this well in his letter to the Philippians.  "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross."
That is the kind of love that Jesus calls us to have.  It is not a love that counts the cost of what is needed before it acts.  It is a love, as the famous passage reads, that is patient, kind, not envious or rude.  "It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."  Perhaps most importantly, it is not a love that waits for the the one it loves to get everything right, or indeed anything right but takes the initiative.  Again, as Paul points out so powerfully, "For while we were still weak, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly.  Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person someone might dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us."

Here is a fact for you that, while it might not agree with what we might be naturally inclined to think and it might not agree with insights from the business world or other organizations, nevertheless is true to the gospel.  The single most important thing that will convince people of the truth of the gospel and transform the world is not preaching, it is not church music, it is not Christian programming, and it is not voting Christian values into law.  It is the witness of the people of God who have been transformed by the love and grace of God and then who have lives that share this love and grace with others.  There is no substitute for love.  To again cite that famous passage on love, "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may be burned, but do not have love, I gain nothing."

If you wonder why the gospel doesn't seem to have the impact that it should in the world today, the first thing you should do is look at yourself and ask yourself a question and, for your own sake, do not assume you already know the answer.  Are you living as a witness to the transforming love and grace of God?  If not, that is your first step.  Pray that God would so transform your life that you cannot help but bear witness to God's grace and love.  Pray for the Spirit to move both in your life and in the lives of others so that real transformation might happen.  Do not give up and do not rest until God gives what he has promised.  I don't mean that if you aren't perfect or if you still have problems that God can't use you, but there is no limit to the deliverance and joy that God can give you if you will allow him to.

If so; if your life is marked, every day, by love, if you can look over your life and give thanks to God that, even if you aren't where you want to be, you are no longer where you have been, ask yourself how you can go out and share that with others so that they too can become such witnesses.  Every once in a while, you will hear someone say, in an election season like this one, that if you do not vote, you cannot complain.  You were given a chance for your voice to be heard, even if it is a small one and you didn't take it.  If we aren't being faithful in what God has called us to be about, we have lost all right to complain.  If we are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.

What is the first thing that people would notice when they enter this place?  Is it that the people love each other more than themselves?  Is it that it is clear that God is present in this place, that this is a gathering of people whose lives are marked by grace and in the process of being transformed?  Is it that, even if we can't quite put our finger on it, something significant is happening and we want to be a part of it?  If it isn't, we need to ask ourselves what we can do.

If you look in the New Testament, you will never find a single passage where the church is commanded to put on a well-crafted, professional quality worship service.  There is simply no place that describes the secret to the spread of the gospel as the development of clever church programs.  Nowhere will you uncover a hint that the best thing to do is to look at what seems successful to the outside observer and use that to develop ministries that may or may not resonate with the people who actually do them.  There are only two commands.  The first is to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength and the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself.

This command to love is absolutely central.  We are not told that people will know that we are God's people because of our big buildings, or that we have great social services, or that we have captivating preachers, or world-class musicians.  We are not told that the best way to find out if someone belongs to God is by what they affirm as a statement of faith.  We are given one and only one distinctive mark: love. We might wish that we were given something else to do since the idea that we should love one another sounds so much like what we hear in our world today.  In fact, love is actually the hardest thing we could be asked to do since the love with which we are called to love one another, real love, love like Christ's, is not only difficult but impossible.  It is a love that is so completely other than what the world is capable of that a person, a community that loves like Christ loves sticks out like a sore thumb.  They cannot be hidden, like a lamp on a lampstand or a city on a hill.  This is our calling and this is our promise, that we be people who love like Jesus loved because we are the ones in whom the Spirit who raised Christ from the dead dwells.  Divine love and a transformed world are the inheritance promised to us.  Let us go and not just do nice things, Christian things, but go and be the people of God who love one another like Christ loved us so that all will know that we are disciples of Christ and that the world might yearn to join us.

Let us pray   AMEN