Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Questions of authority

One of the fundamental questions raised by Aristotle, as he attempted to identify and define various political systems, were the questions Who rules? and For what purpose? For Aristotle, the answer allowed one to determine the identity of a government and its commitment to virtues such as justice.

It is a question which continues to haunt us even to this day. As Americans, particularly as American Iowans, we are seemingly caught in an eternal campaign hell of which Dante could not have conceived. We are always having to choose which ideology will “rule” us for the next two, four, or six year cycle, depending upon the election that is on our horizon.  And, because we are "middle America," people tend to listen to what we have to say about who we think, what ideology, should rule our country.

But the question also arises in our daily life, work and relationships. We often struggle mightily with questions of authority and submission. Many of the ladies whom we help at Winnie’s have fallen victim to a misplaced belief that men should “rule” them. Some of our own marriages suffer from this contest of wills. One of the criticisms we took up about The Shack this past week was the question of who rules in the Trinity. It came up during the debate on Friday night and some of the subsequent threads. And, it is a very hot subject in places of employment right now as people are seeking job security and to misdirect blame so that employment can be maintained. If only God had something to say about the subject . . . Wait, the readings from this week speak to that question of authority and submission in our lives.

Who has authority in the Trinity? And who submits? For those not at the book study Wednesday, the Bible Study on Thursday, or church on Sunday, the questions can be very difficult. Who rules? Who submits?

One of the teachings from our lessons this week is about this question of authority and submission. We have spent several weeks looking at the miracles of Jesus. How many times does He emulate a televangelist and raise His hand and say to the audience “look how wonderful I am”? How many times does He tell the beneficiary of His miracle to go and tell everyone what He has just done for them? Yet, Christ is glorified. He is the King of all creation; all authority has been given to Him. But He took none of that honor and glory for Himself. As Paul reminded us this week, Christ did not glorify Himself. Christ was, as St. Paul puts it, reverently submissive. And because He was submissive to the Father’s will, He was heard and given honor and glory and power. We will read about the cost of that submission and the glory given Him over the course of the next couple of weeks.

So, who rules and who submits when we are considering the Trinity? If you find yourself in a bit of a Gordian knot trying to figure out the answer, you may be on the right path. At various times each person in the Trinity glorifies the other persons of the Trinity. Jesus’ entire ministry is about reconciling us to God and about bringing glory to the Father. The Father is all about glorifying His Son, who will in the end, return all power and honor and glory to the Father after He has subjected the world. The Spirit is at work in the world, at the behest of the Son and the Father, to bring glory to them. And Jesus tells us the only unpardonable sin is a sin against the Spirit. Figuring out who is ultimately in charge in the Trinity, as you and I understand such things, is simply impossible. But we should not lose hope. Indeed, the Bible reminds us that questions of authority and submission, as we understand them, are consequences of sin.

Adam & Eve enjoyed full communion with God and a perfect relationship with one another. They walked with Him and talked with Him as they lived in the Garden, and they were a perfect fit for one another. But, as the story continues, they chose their own way rather than God's way.  And the consequences were disastrous for our relationships.  Questions of authority and submission were just one of the curses of that sin.  And you and I are forced to live in a world full of such consequences.  Of course, the Gospel promises that we are promised a restoration of such communion with God and relationships with one another, if we accept Christ offer of salvation. God, in our passage from Jeremiah this week, reminds us that there will come a day when we will no longer teach one another about God because we will know Him. He will write His torah on our hearts, and we will be His people.

Yes, we live in a world which places great stock in questions of power and authority. But you and I are called to a life which transcends those questions. To put it another way, we are in the world but not of the world.  You and I are called to a life where we die to selves and know, absolutely know, that our Father in heaven will glorify us and vindicate us for our complete trust and faith in Him and His Son.

Think of this for just a moment before we head into the Good Friday and Easter story once again. You and I are called into that perfect relationship where there will be no question of authority and submission. By walking this path to Calvary, Jesus makes it possible that you and I can be restored to full communion with God. By walking that painful road, Jesus makes it possible that we might be glorified by the Father in heaven. The circumcised hearts which He will give us will make it possible for us to be His people, to be His priests, to be His kings. Our purpose will be to do His will, not begrudgingly, not because He says so, but because we know His love for each one of us. And in giving up our lives to Him, He will see us through to the end because He has so bound Himself to us. He will not fail us because He has bound Himself to us. Our honor is His honor; our dishonor would be His dishonor.

One of the telling stories of this perfect relationship, you and I will celebrate on Maundy Thursday.  Imagine for a moment your boss giving you the day off and doing your job.  Imagine for a moment, your spouse doing some tasks you hate to do without any prompting.  Imagine for a moment, your club being more concerned with its goals rather than the next president or chairperson.  That's what you and I will do next week.  But what is utterly amazing, what is "out of this world" is the idea that our God will act as a slave to us.  He will wash our feet -- a task reserved only for a slave.  And He will command us to act that way to one another; He will tell us to be slaves to one another.

Brothers and sisters, questions of power and authority ought not plague us as Christians in our lives. You and I are taught again and again that in dying to self and trusting in Christ, we will live for forever. Instead of knifing others to get ahead or grinding others down to make ourselves look better, what would the world look like if we built others up? What if we saw the image of God in the co-worker, or the spouse, or club member and worked to serve them, to build them up? What kind of transformation could we effect in our workplaces, our homes, our clubs? Imagine if our homes became places of nurture, if our places of employment tried to create items which benefited purchasers while providing living wages to all who were employed, and our clubs were more concerned about their mission rather than the politics of the next Grand Poobah.

And what if we fail or if we get stepped on or stepped over? What if that happens? You and I are called to serve a God who has suffered the greatest humiliation possible, death on a cross though He committed no sin. And yet, His promise is that all who serve and follow Him will be glorified by the same Father who raised Him on Easter morning. Is there a safer bet anywhere in all eternity?  If He can conquer death, can He not remove the knife from your back?  If He conquered death, can He not provide for your material needs?  And the Conqueror loves you and cares for you so much that He was willing to walk the road to Calvary for your sake.  He, the Creator of all this is, seen and unseen, was willing to become your slave.  How do you respond to such an offer of love?



Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Whose faith saves . . .

As I commented at both services this week, this is one of those rare weeks when I am thrilled that we have the Bulletin. I am absolutely convinced that some of us needed to be reminded of the counterintuitive nature of God’s sovereign hand in the world, as evidenced by our reading from Numbers and even from John. I am equally sure, however, that there are among us those who needed to hear one of the harder, but most liberating, example of that counter-intuition.

When we hear the phrase “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing,” what do you hear? Whose faith is saving you? So often, we fall into that trap of believing that it is our faith in Christ Jesus that saves us. Prosperity gospel preachers prey on this misunderstanding. They tell the widow that she was not given the riches of heaven because she withheld money from God. They tell the man seeking healing that his doubt was stronger than his faith, and so God did not heal. Over and over we hear examples where people think that their salvation, their condition in life, their success or failure is somehow determined by their own efforts. It is particularly tragic and millstone worthy, however, when pastors tell members of their flock that their faith was lacking. Of course it is lacking! We are human beings dead through the sins that we live. Our bodies have not been replaced; our hearts have not yet been circumcised; we do not yet in all things and in all places love to do His will. We are still sinners! No matter how much we will endeavor not to sin, each of us will find ourselves in need of repentance and absolution the next time we gather at the Eucharist.

So, to ask the question again, whose faith is saving you? Paul, in this short passage from his letter to the church in Ephesus is reminding each one of us that it is Jesus’ faith in the Father that saves us. What? How can this be? Think about it for just a moment. If it was our faith that saved us, if it was our faith that healed us, if it was our faith that provided for us, then we really could boast. “I was healed because I am so faithful.” “God gave me riches because I am so faithful.” In a way, we would fall into the same trap as the Pharisee who praised God that he was not like the tax collector. We could be haughty and proud because we are not like the others.

Yet God reminds us at all times and in all places in Scriptures that we all stand in the same place before His majestic throne. The cross reminds us that we are all sinners before Him. And that recognition that we are all the same, that we are all alike ought to motivate us to love all our neighbors as ourselves.

But Paul’s teaching today is more concerned with a reminder of the prevalence of God’s grace in all our lives. Who’s faith saves us? Christ’s faith in the Father saves us. We believe that Jesus was His Son and that the Bible is true, but it is Jesus’ ultimate faith in the Father which raises both Him and later us to new life! You and I, Paul is saying here, are not betting our salvation on our own faith, as if our belief or unbelief will save or condemn us. No, the real grace, the real Good News is that Jesus’ faith is what saves us. And because He was raised that Easter morning so long ago, we know His faith was perfect, and the only faith worth a boast. We live because He lives! We can hope, because His faith is perfect.


Friday, March 20, 2009


     Destroy this temple and in three days time, I will raise it up. -- Jesus' promised sign for those Jews who want to know by what authority He was overturning the market and banker tables. Most of us who have grown up in the church recognize that Jesus is speaking not of the Temple complex, as his listeners seem to think, but of His own body. How should the Jews have known that Jesus had the authority to drive the businessmen and animals out of the temple? By the fact that He was raised from the dead on the third day! Unfortunately for them, they have eyes and do not see, ears and do not hear.

     For us, as 21st century Christians, such an image of Jesus seems strange. We like to think of him as some sort of glorified hippie with blond hair and blue eyes. We always think of Jesus as the Prince of Peace. We do not like images of Him wielding a whip of cords, tossing over tables and their contents, and yelling at people for defiling His Father's house. Yet that is precisely the image that John paints of our beloved Lord.

     John also paints another image, but one that is often lost in translation. In this short passage of John, the writer switches words on us a bit. Everywhere before and everywhere after, John speaks of the temple as the heiron. But in our sentence featured this week, He refers to the Temple as the naos. What is the significance?

     In one sense, we can understand the significance easily. You and I might think of a large church, with a set of offices, parish halls, classrooms and the like as a church complex. That might be better suited to understanding heiron. The actual place in worship would have been the naos, the sanctuary. In the Temple that Jesus visited, the naos would have been more closely associate with the Holy of Holies.

     This is all well and good, and we can understand a bit of the distinctions, but do they matter?Are not word studies generally a waste of time?    I would suggest that it matters in at least two senses. On the one hand, Jesus is providing us with sanctuary. We all thing of sanctuaries as a place of rest, a place of freedom. Even in 21st Century America, if someone claims sanctuary at a church, our authorities respect the claim. By His work on the cross and His resurrection, you and I and all other believers are guaranteed that we will never have to face the wrath of God. The peace, the love, the warmth that we all want in relation to our heavenly Father is made possible only through the atoning work of Christ. Because of Christ, we can experience true safety, true freedom, true peace.  And in our scene from this week, Jesus is jealous of the sanctuary that should be present in His Father's house.  His anger at the invasion of the world -- the bankers, the vendors -- is perhaps better understood and less likely to surprise us when we think in these terms.

     But there is a second sense to John's use of naos. You and I, by virtue of our faith and baptism, become members of His body. As such, you and I are called to be a place of sanctuary in a crazy, suffering, dark world. You and I, as members of His body, are to carry forth into the world that peace that passes all understanding. We are called not just to profess, but to live our lives as if we believe He was who He said He was and as if He has been raised from the dead. We don't fear economic crises because we know our Father will provide, we do not fear diseases because we know our Father will cure us all one day, we do not live in fear-filled relationships because we know our Father calls us to love and be loved, and we do not fear death because we know He has conquered death. And we confront the daily assaults of life secure in that knowledge, secure in that faith, secure in that peace.  Last week we were reminded to deny ourselves, to pick up our crosses, and to follow Him if we wish to be one of His disciples.  Those actions, that utter surrender to His authority in all our lives, allows us to become a place of calm in storms, to be confident in places of chaos, to be faithful in the the midst of events which, as our Collect says today, beset our bodies.

     I have reminded us many times over the last three years that it is a weighty thing to be a disciple of Christ. When we assent to His Lordship, we are called to die to self and cede control of entire lives to Him. How we laugh, how we play, how we interact, how we mourn, how we fight--it all reflects on Him!  We are always honoring or dishonoring Him.  You and I are meant to reflect the sanctuary which He offers the world. You and I are meant to embody the very peace that He promises to all who believe in Him. In a world ravaged by crisis after crisis, can there be any better witness, can there be any better sermon in anyone's life, at this time?  Yes, we will fail from time to time.  We might panic when others panic, we might worry while others are worrying, we might behave selfishly in moments of weakness when we forget who we serve.  While our sins are not to be celebrated, they also serve to remind you, me, and all those who witness us that Christ is the only true sanctuary of the world.  And, if in the midst of these sins or perceived failures we were to repent, who knows how God would use our humility to draw others to Him and to His peace?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What must I do . . .

     What must I do to become His disciple? So often, when we are asked this question by others, we begin to stammer. How do you explain what it means to be a follower of Christ? There is so much to tell! Where do you begin? Where do you stop? Fortunately, Jesus tells us in our reading from Mark this weekend what He expects of His disciples.

     The first requirement is that we must deny ourselves. By this Jesus does not say that His disciples must give up something, as many of us are doing during Lent. Giving up chocolate, candy, computer games, or other things like that will never make us His disciple. Rather, He commands us to deny ourselves. We give up our selfish desires. We give up our ambitions. We give up everything we think is important and turn the entirety of our lives over to Him. Practically, that means He becomes the most important person to us. He is not relegated to Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings during Lent. Instead, we recognize that He is Lord of our lives when we work, when we pray, when we play, when we eat, when we live, when we laugh, when we cry and even when we sleep. We recognize that we are always, totally and entirely His. And we ask Him to use us to His glory.

     The second requirement presented by Jesus is that we must pick up our crosses. We sometimes forget this requirement as we no longer watch public executions as they did in Roman times. Carrying a cross meant that one was headed to one's death; it was a shameful and hopeless procession. In instructing us to pick up our crosses, Jesus is reminding us that we, too, will appear to be hopeless and heading to our ruin and possibly even our deaths. We will ignore conventional wisdom for the sake of the One who died for us. And we will do so voluntarily. We will pick up our crosses not because we are forced to, but because of the fact that He commands us to pick them up.

     Finally, the last requirement is that we must go where He commands, not where our hearts desire. You and I may wish to play it safe, to deal only with those with whom we feel comfortable, to ignore some of our past pains, but Jesus reminds us that He tells us where to go. We may go to those people we most fear, because He commands us. We may go to those places that we most fear, because He commands us. We recognize that He does not ask for a cheerleader, He does not ask for and audience. He does ask for a follower, a disciple, for one who will be His hands, His voice, His heart in the world.

     What does such a life mean in practical terms? It means that we die to the very things we most treasure, if they are anything but God. The prideful become willing servants, the lazy become hard workers, the whiners become joyful, the fearful become faithful. As His disciples, we go wherever He sends us, cognizant of the promise, gratefully aware of His mercy and power to redeem each one of us and every situation in which He allows us to find ourselves. No matter the ridicule, no matter the threat, no matter the cost, His disciples realize that He is in charge and that He will see His disciples safely through, even through death.


Monday, March 2, 2009

Short, sweet and to the point!

     The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.--What in the world is Jesus talking about? After all, what time has been fulfilled? That part of His sentence would make more sense after He rose from the dead. How has the kingdom come near? Does He not know that He will soon be tortured and nailed to the cross?

     The time is fulfilled.--God works on God's schedule. He does as He sees fit. You and I, looking back on history or even our own lives, can see where He has worked. When He gives us those eyes to see, we can see fulfillment. Jesus is announcing to us and to the world that God is acting marvelously, now. Of course, you and I know the story and know what was significant about this particular time in history. He came for this purpose, to save each one of us from certain death.

     The kingdom of God has come near.--God is not distant in our story. Amazingly, wondrously, He has become fully human and walked among us. Better still, He has redeemed us that we might become His people through His dearly beloved Son. The kingdom of God has come near because He has come near! He has come so near that Mark's audience can touch Him.

     Repent. We so often fall into the trap of believing that we are permanent, that we are responsible, that we are captains of our own ships. Our battle cry mimics the aphorism "If I am to succeed, it is up to me!" Jesus' simple one word demands reminds His audience and us that He is in charge. Always and everywhere, God is in charge. The is nothing in our lives to which He accedes control. The sooner we give up our selfish desires and remind ourselves that He is in charge, the happier we will be.

     Believe in the good news. Faith. It is such an easy thing to misunderstand. Too often, we think of faith as religious in nature, but you and I believe in things not religious. When I turn the key in my ignition switch in my car in the mornings, I believe it will start. When I go to work each week, I believe I will be paid for my efforts. When I love and cherish someone, I believe they will return the love and respect in turn. Yet, how often do our cars fail to start? How often do companies skip town and try not to pay their workers? How often do people use our love and affection for them for their own purposes? The failure, of course, is because the objects or people in which we place our faith are themselves broken. Jesus is reminding us to have faith in God, to have faith in Him. He cannot and will not fail. Even death, which should be that which causes Him to fail, cannot stop Him!

     Mark, in this simple and short verse, reminds us of the heart of the message which we should be carrying to the world each day. God wins! Jesus' ministry is all about the fact that God wins. When He commands the spirit to leave the man, the spirit leaves. When He commands the leper to be clean, the leper is cleansed. When He is sought at the tomb on that Easter morning, the messengers tell the ladies "He is risen!" These are not the words and actions subject to doubt. They happened! And in their happening, we are given reason to believe that He is who He says He is! And that ultimate testimony is His conquering over death. Because He has conquered death, He can redeem anything, including our own deaths, in our lives. Ours is not a message of possibility. Ours is a message of promise. A promise of everlasting life with a God who loved us so dearly that He saved us when we could not save ourselves. That, brothers and sisters, is the message you and I have been given to carry into our daily life and work. That, brothers and sisters, is the Good News of the Gospel!