1 Corinthians 1:12-13

“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known. But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 

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In his Dialogs of Socrates, Plato popularized the famous Greek aphorism, “Know thyself” . The saying had been around for a long time even in his day although it is uncertain with whom it originated. One of the insights into this saying that Plato pens in the Dialogs is this; people appear ridiculous when they know more about things than they do themselves. 

Those of us who were born in the post-war era, and especially our children, have grown up in an atmosphere of unparalleled technological innovation. I am old enough to remember, on visits as a young boy to Southwestern Minnesota, seeing relatives speaking on an old crank handle wooden telephone. Today I carry a cell phone. I completed four years of college and four more at the seminary, never saw a computer and actually had to read books. All our work was hammered out on a typewriter. Today I work on a computer and do some reading on a Kindle. You get the picture. We are rich in gadgets, in things.

The promise in all of this gadgeteering is that life is supposed to be better. I’m not convinced. Just thinking about all the hours I have spent dealing with computer problems is enough to make me long for the simplicity of a typewriter and the reliability of holding a book in my hand. There is that. But I also think the proliferation of things has driven us farther away from one another and from ourselves, in spite of all the fawning over the latest gadget and ‘social media’. Many people I talk to, young and old, seem to feel the same way.

God has created us with those most basic of endowments, body and mind. To make the most of these, to be myself is the first business of living.  All the gadgets in the world are no substitute for a clear knowledge of who I am and what  I can do, where my life’s energies and resources may be applied to best effect. And although we prop up our lives with endless amounts of gadgets and the knowledge of a million obscurities we often find it hard, even impossible. Knowing myself is easier said than done.

When Jesus was asked about the essential business of the human being His answer was unequivocal; “Love God and your neighbor as yourself.”  There is nothing here about things. Apart from love, all our scrambling after knowledge and things does make us look rather foolish. Apart from love, our scrambling after knowledge and things can drive us beyond foolishness into the most unspeakable evils. An integrated, authentic human life is only possible when love is the center. And that is our dilemma.

In Christ Jesus God has closed the distance between my lovelessness and His mercy. For the Christian, to be in Christ is to be brought to rest in the knowledge that I am known by God, knowledge that is given as faith, hope and love. But of these three gifts love is the greatest.  For it is God’s inestimable love that integrates my mind and powers, if only dimly for now, that I may know and be known authentically in the loving of God and my neighbor as myself.

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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John 9

“Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?”Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”

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Any sober reading of the four gospels reveals that two categories of people found themselves on the receiving end of Christ’s most withering criticism; the religious and the wealthy. And what did these folks have in common? Pride.

Martin Luther once said, “The law is for the proud…”. He knew what he was talking about. And the prayer of the proud (if they get around to praying at all) is that of the man in the New Testament; “I thank you, God, that I am not like other men…”. 

The Greek word which we translate to mean ‘pride’ can also mean haughtiness and arrogance. The prideful believe that by denigrating others they elevate themselves. When in fact, it is humility that best suits a human being and reflects the best aspects of character.

So you can see how the word is an apt description of many who invest their lives in material wealth or attempt to live according to religious principles.  The proud are so self-obsessed they simply do not see things as they are. This is the awareness that lies behind the Lord’s words in today’s text from John 9. To be spiritually blinded  by pride is to be out of touch with reality, no matter of knowledgeable or intelligent we may be. And His words are as timely as ever, for we live in an age infected by pride and its toxic consequences.

In the same comment Martin Luther also said, “…the Gospel is for the brokenhearted.” As the religiously proud man stood on that ancient street corner, exalting himself to the heavens, a despised tax collector was also praying nearby. The man was so in touch with himself before God he couldn’t bring himself to even look toward heaven. He prayed to this effect, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” After Jesus told this story he said, 

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Authentic life in a sinful world is rooted in the awareness of our need. The proud, and we ALL find ourselves owning the word in one way or another, refuse humility and in so doing subvert life and distort its purpose. But God is not mocked. The artificial life produced by pride will always collapse into meaninglessness.

It is of the essence of the Incarnation that Jesus humbled Himself. His very life was a judgment upon our pride and willfulness; pride and willfulness he endured even to death on the Cross. When we see ourselves in the light Christ’s humble love, it just might bring us to sobriety and enable us to utter those words which are the key to freedom and authentic life, 

 

“God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

 

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.”

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John 8:36

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From time to time I flip through the television channels to watch various T.V. preachers, just to see what they’re up to. Not long ago I came across a woman who was speaking to a packed auditorium of several thousand people. I listened in for a few minutes and the message was clear; if you expect anything from God, if you want success, you had better get your life in order.

It didn’t seem to occur to the preacher that these folks had spent the last week doing just that in any number of ways, mostly with limited or no success, and that some relief might be in order. It’s hard to understand why she would simply remind them of their wounds and then put the verbal whip on them to try harder. It’s also hard to understand why people would return week after week and subject themselves to reminders, couched in omnipotent terms, of their inadequacy. Well, actually, it’s not hard to understand at all.

Preying on people’s fears, inadequacies and brokenness works. And it works precisely because we are so terribly vulnerable in this life. Once we get our wits about us in this world it becomes quite obvious that to get along we have to be good for something. We must demonstrate our value in tangible ways. Some are more or less up to the challenge, some fail miserably, and most people wobble along in fits and starts anxious for security, looking for shelter from the storm. They are suckers for bootstraps religion. Nothing else in life is free, why should God be free?

Well, based on the generally lackluster performance most of us produce in this life I can fully appreciate the question. I’ve asked it myself. And the answer, surprisingly enough, has been given by God Himself.

 “When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.”

We call that the Good News. It is what I was hoping the T.V. preacher would get around to but she never did. So, here, in an unvarnished quote from that late purveyor of God’s glorious grace, Gerhard Forde, is the word of irrepressible freedom delivered to you this day; it is a word of pure gift. 

“We are justified freely, for Christ’s sake, by faith, without the exertion of our own strength, gaining of merit, or doing of works.  To the age-old question, ‘What shall I do to be saved?’ the confessional answer is shocking: ‘Nothing!  Just be still; shut up and listen for once in your life to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer, is saying to his world and to you in the death and resurrection of his Son!  Listen and believe!’”

(Gerhard O. Forde, Justification by Faith (Philadelphia, 1983), page 22.)

Isn’t it great? There is nothing left to do. Christ Jesus has done it all! Let go of your bootstraps, sit back, relax and take a deep breath of the free air. The Son has set you free!

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Philippians 3:20

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“For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ;”

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According to some currently standard accounts of the Christian faith, called by many ‘Progressive Christianity’, the Christian message is a call to social and economic justice, radical inclusiveness and unconditional affirmation.  If this is the best the Church can do, then I would propose it is tantamount to throwing a drowning man a cannon ball.

Lets be clear. Working for social and economic justice are fine, even necessary. But, there is nothing uniquely Christian about being concerned with these things. Jesus did not have to die on the cross in order for us to see the self-interest inherent in these matters of justice. These are issues that occupy the concern of the entire human race.  No religious sensibility, Christian or otherwise, is necessary to have these concerns. They are housekeeping matters within the human community.  Christians also have a stake in working for a just world insofar as they are possible.  But that is just the point. In a sinful world, estranged from God, they are finally not possible.  Read the first three chapters of the Book of Romans and then see if you have any illusions left about OUR capacity to bring about a peaceful and just world. 
 
The Christian cause cannot finally be equated with propping up the human project no matter how noble the effort. Saint Paul, no stranger to encouraging Christians to care for others, understood this very well. He sets the Church straight when he admonishes that the first and primary business of the church is to proclaim the crucified and risen Christ (to know nothing except Christ crucified.) For it is in the foolishness of what we preach (Paul’s words) that God rescues sinners from sin, death and the power of evil, by the peace and justice offered through Christ’s death on the Cross and His Resurrection.
 
The Church is distinguished by it’s message, not it’s works. It’s final goal is to reach persons bound in sin and headed toward death, not prop up causes.
 
What does this mean for us? As citizens of the human community we join with all people everywhere in our common human concern for peace and justice. As citizens of Gods kingdom, however, we know that these human efforts will never find ultimate fulfillment in this world.  We do not await an earthly utopia but a heavenly kingdom, as the Word of God promises.
 
The work of peace and justice, therefore, that should occupy the center of the church’s life is the life line of the Gospel’s proclamation which announces the peace of God that comes through a living relationship with Jesus Christ; and the justice of God through which sinners are declared righteous, forgiven and free, by grace through faith, for Jesus sake! 
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May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
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“The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting…”

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Today I conclude my comments on the articles of the Apostle’s Creed. If you’d like to comment I’d love to hear from you. I trust these few words may have  contributed something to your understanding of what it is to have faith in the God of Jesus. 

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It is significant to note that the language of the creed here says “…resurrection of the body…”, not from the body. The Scriptures are concerned with the salvation of the whole person. Resurrection does not mean immortality of the soul or the repudiation of the body. To make this confession is to believe that, like our Lord Jesus Christ, we will be raised as He was. In the letter of 1 John we read, 

 “We know that when He appears, we will be like Him, because we will see Him just as He is.”  

What will be raised from death is not a formless spirit, vague and undifferentiated. I believe I will be raised from death and everything that has gone into making my life what it is will be part of the resurrection. Someone once asked me, “Do think we will know one another in heaven?” “Yes”, I replied, “but without the baggage!”

We cannot penetrate further into this mystery. But it is a mystery, a hope that is meant to inform our living in the present. It should not turn us into mystical dreamers but realists, grappling with the darkness of our lives and the world even as we take up our existence in the sure and certain knowledge that we are loved with an everlasting love.

As in all things, our confession of eternal life is informed by the Cross.To believe in “the life everlasting”, therefore, is not to whistle in the dark in an effort disarm the ticking bomb of mortality. That would be just one more of our human efforts to deny death and grasp at life. To know Christ crucified is to believe with the Apostle Paul, 

“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.”

Eternal life is the life we already share in our lord Jesus. This life gives a renewed seriousness to the gift of our lives even as it compels us to look forward with joy to the consummation of all things.

For centuries these closing words of the Creed have resonated among the faithful like a great crescendo at the climax of a stirring symphony. They have lifted the eyes of countless hearts toward the dawning horizon of hope. Today they assure us, that in spite of everything, Christ Jesus will one day take our hand as He once took the hand of a little girl locked in death. Then we too, though held in death’s strong bonds, will hear Him say as he said to her, “Arise, little one.” Our confessing will be over. We will see Him face to face and enter the endless joys of His eternal love.

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The forgiveness of sins…”

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I am currently commenting on the articles of the Apostle’s Creed. This is for my benefit as much as anything. These remarks are organized only because they are following the outline of the creed. So while they are not systematic, I hope they are not rambling either! I’m giving myself a refresher course and you’re invited to come along. And as you do I trust these few words may contribute something to your understanding of what it is to have faith in the God of Jesus.

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“Forgiveness of sins? Who needs it? Certainly not me. After all, I have been wronged, insulted, the victim of endless forms of injustice. If anything I am the one who needs to do the forgiving.”

This sentiment voiced to me by a young man years ago is common. I have felt this way at times and you probably have too. When we in the churches throw the word of forgiveness around, as if the need for forgiveness is self-evident, it would be good for us to keep this in mind.

When Martin Luther writes of forgiveness in the Catechism he asks the question. ‘What are the benefits?” or, as we might say, ‘What good is it?, ‘What’s in it for me?”  These are the right questions to ask because when the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed it is always to bring about something good, very good.

Luther uses two words to spell out the implications of forgiveness. Those words are “life and salvation”. This is not to say that both words do not have to do with each other. In a sense they complement and inform each other. But for the purposes of this brief examination let’s look at them separately.

Forgiveness is concerned with both the ultimate and the penultimate. When Luther speaks of forgiveness giving ‘life’, he is speaking of forgiveness in its’ penultimate form. Or, we could say ‘life’ for this world. We have all been in relationships that have been broken in some way. When this happens estrangement and a lack of reconciliation can become the living reality of that relationship. When the person or persons involved come up in conversation it is often in the context of accusation and bitterness. The broken relationship may be in the past but the hurts, disappointments, anger or bitterness have a way of following us into the present. The corrosive power of the broken relationship continues to work on the present.

Luther wants to speak to this limping sort of life that is chained, stuck to an unreconciled past. It is to our benefit to live in the context of forgiveness. God knows that the freedom to live in the present is largely dependent on freedom from the past with its’ disappointments and accusations. So, contained within the promise of forgiveness is the power that is able to free us for the present and opens the future.

It is your future that God is ultimately concerned with, your ultimate future. That is why the entire logic of the Gospel is predicated upon forgiveness. You or I may not feel the need for it, but our forgiveness is what Jesus specifically prayed for when He was dying on the cross. His death and forgiveness are forever linked. This takes us into the ultimate purpose of forgiveness.

Salvation is Luther’s second word and that brings us to the cross. On a hill outside an ancient city Jesus of Nazareth was executed as a common criminal. His crime was that He lived as if the world could actually be run on grace, on the love of God. That is why we are all implicated in His death. No, I was not there, and neither were you. But think about it. Do we dare to live as if grace and love are defining of life? Do we really want to? Do we love God and our neighbors as ourselves? So even though we were not in the immediate fellowship of those who actually condemned and killed Jesus, we do share with them and all humanity the fellowship of sin – the fellowship of those who reject love, who refuse to love as we would be loved.

This matters ultimately because you and I were created for love; love of God, neighbor and the self. That is our purpose. To live in any other way is to be in some sense subhuman. Even if we don’t normally think of love in these ultimate terms, we do care about it deeply. We all want love and those things that accompany it; friendship, understanding, acceptance, intimacy without pain. Even really evil people want these things in some form. Any kind of meaningful life is impossible without them. Yet, even though we want these things, and know others need them as well, we have a tendency to give hurt and rejection. This predisposition to distort, even reject the good in life is what the Bible calls sin. And this giving of hurt, this rejection of the good, of love, is ultimately a rejection of God, for God is love. The failure to love is finally a sin against God. That is why it is so serious. This broken relationship cannot be fixed by therapy, self-help or any of the other ways we try to address our estrangements.  These are only temporary at best. Finally, sin takes us down the path of rejection to death. Only God can provide the forgiveness that frees us finally and completely from our failure to love and for our ultimate future, for salvation.

So, I confess my belief in the forgiveness of sins. In so doing I confess both my complicity in the lovelessness of the world and my trust in the forgiving love of God – and all its’ benefits – given for me in Jesus Christ for “life and salvation.”

 

 

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 

 

Tomorrow: “The resurrection of the body…”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“The holy catholic (christian) church, The communion of saints…”

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I am currently commenting on the articles of the Apostle’s Creed. This is for my benefit as much as anything. These remarks are organized only because they are following the outline of the creed. So while they are not systematic, I hope they are not rambling either! I’m giving myself a refresher course and you’re invited to come along. And as you do I trust these few words may contribute something to your understanding of what it is to have faith in the God of Jesus.

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From the long view of history, the assault on Christian civilization has been largely successful. Serious people know that the arenas that really matter in life are science, business, politics, family, shopping and entertainment.The process of secularization has seen faith become a private matter, estranged from the mainstream of modern life. The struggle to reaffirm “The Church” in the midst of this onslaught goes on but in a ramshackle fashion. Traditionalists long for filled churches within the old structures of ministry. Others have abandoned the historic traditions and ventured out into new territory creating new structures. In one sense it is a chaotic time for the Church. And that is just the point. How is it that local congregations that number in the tens of thousands world-wide, and represent often vastly different self-understandings, can all call themselves the Church? What is the Church anyway?

In my Lutheran tradition the definition of Church can be found in our confessional documents; “The Church is where the Word is rightly preached and the Sacraments properly administered.” But where exactly is this happening? What is the Gospel, anyway? And how many churchgoing people would be able to tell if their own pastors are preaching it rightly, let alone those in other churches? Furthermore there are Lutheran Church bodies that have little do with one another and even now Lutherans are splitting into groups, once again, over differences. And that is just one tradition among many that are embroiled in nasty church fights.

In one sense to say “The Lutherans believe…” or “The Catholics believe…” or “The Baptists believe…”is practically meaningless. Some have taken to using the term “non-denominational” in an effort to sidestep all this denominational division. But they, too, have varying points of view, so their term is dishonest, misleading and contributes nothing. In every case I cannot help but hear the admonition of St. Paul to the Corinthians, writing of the Church, the body of Christ;

“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”

Really, Paul? It appears to me that “I don’t need you”, is among the most well-rehearsed phrases in all corners of “The Church”.

This is not the place to address the many questions such observations raise. And even if it were I’m not smart enough to do the job. But a clear-headed view of they way things actually are should, at the very least, open our eyes to the fact that millions of people look at “The Church” and find our witness trivial and unconvincing. This should call forth some measure of humility among those of us who so glibly toss the word Church around like we hold exclusive title to it.

As we Christians stumble along in our pride and confusion, the Creed reminds us that this side of heaven “The Church” will always be an article of faith, resisting our sight. Therefore, as I survey the mess that is the Church, and of which I am a part, it is readily apparent, at least to me, that the best I can do is dare to trust that it is this feeble, struggling communion of saints that God in His grace has chosen and through which He offers Himself for the sake of the world.

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Tomorrow: “The Forgiveness of Sins”

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