Matthew 16:16

“Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

_

When we’ve had enough of ourselves, in whatever form it takes, we start looking around for a messiah. And when we do, they usually come in one of three pre-conceived forms: revolutionary, moral reformer or revivalist.

The revolutionary gathers up all our grudges and grievances and pummels our enemies with them, for some enemy or another is the problem.  He\she leads the army of the righteously disgruntled in storming the battlements of injustice, in order that our particular form of justice may be violently forced on others. Many wanted, and still want, Jesus the revolutionary.

The moral reformer rails against the vices and corruption of the age. Society and it’s institutions are falling apart because people – other people – are misbehaving. The corrective to society’s ills may be found in the moral realignment of society and it’s values. The moral reformer wants to see moral/ethical revision extend from the board room to the bedroom. Many wanted, and still want, Jesus the moral reformer.

The revivalist sees the dilemmas of both church and state deriving from the lackluster faith of backsliding believers and stodgy religion. The world is a mess because we do not have enough energetic, sincere faith to make it otherwise. The revivalist summons us from religion set on simmer to religion turned up to a full boil. When we are serious enough about God, things will change. Many wanted, and still want, Jesus the revivalist.

There may be a place for all three of these concerns as sinners struggle to tidy up the messy world we have made for ourselves. In fact, turn on your television any day of the week and you’ll find these salvation stories being given back to you in any manner of law and order programming. But to equate one, or all three, of these with the Messiahship of Jesus is to miss the mark by a mile. Tidying up the world may make us feel more secure and better about ourselves but it will save no one.

When Peter made his confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, it was some combination of these three salvation motifs he had in mind. You probably do too. But when Jesus began to explain that the Messiah would be handed over, suffer and be killed, Peter raised a furious objection. It was then that Jesus called Peter ‘Satan’ and told him to knock it off.

Now, perhaps, we can see why Jesus told His disciples to not spread the word that he was the Messiah. For he knew that the word would aggravate the misunderstandings already in place. Then, as now, people would hear the title Messiah, Christ, as revolutionary, moral reformer or revivalist. These, in fact, are the programs of many Christian congregations.

The meaning of the title’  Messiah’, ‘Christ’ does not come from human projections of what we think needs redemption. Jesus was telling His disciples that it was, in fact, at the hands of the revolutionaries, moral reformers and revivalists that he would suffer and die.

The god of the revolutionary, moral reformer or revivalist is simply inadequate to deal with the enormity of the evil we inflict on each other. To call upon these gods in the name of salvation is like putting band aids on terminal cancer. Forget it.

The title Messiah, Christ, may rightly be given to Jesus because through His way of innocence, vulnerability, suffering and death He took upon Himself our justifications, defenses and prejudices – our devilish programs of salvation. God refused to be a party to our programs of revolution, reform or revival. He came, and still comes, in the way of mercy and grace, consigning all our works and all our ways to death on the cross in order that He might have mercy on us all. 

 _

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_

1 Peter 2:9-10

680c60_7f219497a4f40732d382db76e7d88182

_

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.”

_

When I was a young man in the 1960’s the “good news of great joy” of which we sang were institutions and movements that seemed bright and promising. The United Nations held out the prospect of real international cooperation; fresh optimism filled many with hope and energy to work for a better world; technologies were developing at an unprecedented rate; communication was opening the world; universal education was emerging as a real possibility.

Now, many years later, all of these institutions have proven themselves to be flawed, delivering as much down side as up side. The world continues to provide itself with what it has coming. The U.N. has exposed nations to be a quagmire of bickering and grievances; optimism has lost the steam of it’s dream as the hard and gritty realities of life in this world have emerged as the formidable obstacles they truly are; technology has proven to be a poor, soulless substitute for the development of real, human capability and interaction; creeping ignorance continues it’s march in the face of educational opportunity.

It is easy to be disappointed in such a world, to question the will of God. But do we have that right? After all, who is responsible? All our blaming and finger pointing just adds to the dysfunction and chaos we have set loose in this place. The One who should really be disappointed is God. What kind of a world does He have to look at? Or are we going to point the finger at Him, too? Why not. Adam did.

When we are hurt or disappointed, we tend to draw back, to look for a place where we will not be hurt or disappointed or for a place to cast blame. It would have been easy for Jesus to have finished His prayers in Gethsemane, gotten up and walked out of the garden, out of the city and into the hills, away from the police. His thirty or so years in this place were more than enough time to draw the conclusion that there is no deserving here. So why did He do it? Why did He let us kill Him? 

The only answer is the greatest mystery of all; God’s mercy. Martin Luther observed that in Jesus God has refused to pull rank on us. That’s the mystery. There is nothing more unfathomable in all the Christian faith than this one, simple fact; faced with the enormity of His disappointment, His grief over the mess we have made of this good earth and our lives, God has chosen to have mercy on us. Paul called this salvation by grace, apart from anything we can think, say or do.

In our broken lives and world we receive what we have coming, for this is the harvest of weeds we have sown in the landlord’s vineyard. But in Jesus we receive what we do not have coming, what God would give us; pure, unmerited, undeserved grace and mercy. This is the “good news of great joy” of which the angels sang – and so may we, we who were once ‘nobody’s’ but are now ‘somebody’s’ because of God’s mercy.

 _

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_

Romans 11

 _

” For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon allO the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.”

_

The photo above is of the baptismal font in our sanctuary. It stands centrally in the aisle and greets worshipers as they enter. Seeing it reminds of me of an event from years ago.

I was visiting a friend who had just started his ministry in a new congregation. While I was there he asked it I would help him with a project. With toolbox in hand he took me to a closet located near the altar at the side of the sanctuary. He opened the door to reveal a wooden baptismal font on wheels. An hour later we had removed the wheels and permanently attached the font to the floor just inside the entrance to the sanctuary. 

The explosive language of Paul in the text above is not language that wonders at a God we can’t figure out. It is the language that marvels, wonders at the unfathomable grace of God that has not given up on this tiny world. To go a step further, it is the language of one for whom the story of Jesus, His cross and resurrection, have become defining. For not only has God not given up on this world, in Jesus He has committed Himself to this world, in justice and mercy, when there is no obligation for Him to do so.

The Gospel of Jesus, mediated through the word and sacraments, bring us into the story of God. Sacraments are the living events through which God continually comes to us and keeps us in His grace, shapes us and conforms us to the death and new life of the cross and resurrection. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not ambiguous events, shifting sands. The sacraments are events in real time, part of the actual story, history of God’s people, where we are encountered by God’s faithfulness, through which God creates trust by extending His mercy and grace.

My friend was absolutely right in reaffirming baptism as a symbol of permanence, and to locate that symbol in a place where the worshiping community could not push baptism into a closet. Now, they would come face to face with baptism every time they gathered. They would come face to face with an unbuffered view of the self and God in the light of the cross.

As you come and go from worship, the font stands as a reminder of the certainty of God’s judgment on sin and the certainty of God’s grace and mercy. The sacrament of baptism is not a symbol, an ambiguous spiritualizing of God. Baptism is a tangible, on going God-event in which He commits Himself to the death of your old self and the bringing to life of the new you in Christ.

A movable font is symbolic of how we can make destructive even the story of Jesus. For such a practice presents us with baptism as a perfunctory ritual, removes it from it’s central place in worship, in effect rendering ambiguous and uncertain the utterly reliable certainty of God’s grace. It becomes a symbol of our ambivalence about baptism, about God, about ourselves.

On the other hand, the immovable font, the place of grace, plants God’s decision for us firmly in our midst as a worshiping community. It states clearly that grace comes before faith. It makes clear that the Church is not first and foremost a community of faith but a community of grace. For, the great story of Jesus is the story of God’s faithfulness to a disobedient, faithless, violent and corrupt world. No wonder Paul marvels at the “depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God”. For He owes us nothing. Yet, in Christ Jesus, He has given us everything. This is the utterly gracious, reliable and unshakable promise of your baptism.

 _

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_

_

Matthew 2:10-11

680c60_ae07a1a5869d2e4816cef2ab0ee146f0

_

“When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”

 _

The Christmas Festival presented us with familiar characters. Among the supporting cast were the three kings, the wise men. As I reflected on them again this year what struck me was how their their sumptuous gifts and silken robes seemed oddly out of place among the general rudeness of the manger scene. What are these royal intellectuals doing kneeling before a tiny child among animals and crusty shepherds out in the middle of nowhere?

The coming of Jesus was the in-breaking of the rule, the reign of God. Christmas signifies the divine invasion of a realm that had been usurped by the powers of evil and the forces of human willfulness. It’s important to state it this way because when the Church gathers for worship at Christmas, or any other time, what we are proclaiming to ourselves and to the world is our intent to desert  the human army of self-promoters and join the resistance for the sake of the rule, the reign of God in Jesus Christ.

With their gifts and obeisance, the wise men were acknowledging the One to whom their life’s obligations, energies and resources now belonged. The picture of kings kneeling is a picture of the transfer of allegiance, loyalty, duty, power. It was to Whom they knelt that matters. Trust, faith, is always defined by it’s object.

When you and I were baptized, we were given a name; God’s name. Our baptism, among other things, testified to the fact that we now belong to the God who we know as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our baptism was a statement about who we belong to, who has the last word in our lives. For whoever has the last word is our God.

Baptism rearranges our loyalties, transfers our citizenship in such a way that we become the protagonists, representatives, advocates of the kingdom of God.  We proclaim “good news of great joy”, the reign of life in the midst of the reign of death. This means the shadow of Good Friday always falls over the Christmas manger. For we are not only the beneficiaries of God’s reign, we participate in God’s reign, which means we are carriers and proclaimers of the cross. 

You are not your own. In baptism he claimed you and gave you the Holy Spirit. The last Word belongs to God. At Christmas, the Christ mass, the Christ worship, you knelt before this God, this same God that was born to an unwed mother, surrounded by animal dung, smelly shepherds and kings who radically altered their allegiance. Watch out! If this is the God who has taken hold of you in baptism, who has the last word in your life, you just know that whatever life he has in store for you is not going to be business as usual!

 _

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_

Galatians 6:1

“Brethren, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted.”

_

The expression ‘radical inclusion’ is often used these days in some Christian circles to describe the character of God’s grace.

If radical inclusion describes grace, perhaps it would be useful to clarify just what grace actually is, and what it means to be a community of grace. For that is what the Church is, a community of grace. Grace certainly describes God’s undeserved, unconditional  love for sinners. St. Paul tell us that we are saved by this grace, apart from any contribution on our part. This is radical stuff.

We may also ask, what kind of life does this radical grace make possible? To put a fine point on it, grace makes it possible for us to take responsibility for our past, without condemnation, even as we assume new responsibilities as servants of God in the love and freedom grace makes possible. We are able to confess our sins and walk in a new life because of grace.

This means that the Church, the community of grace, is not a judgmental community. But we are an admonishing community. This distinction is critical.

The problem with some uses of radical inclusion to describe grace is that grace is actually being defined as ‘indulgence’, anything goes. If I indulge you, whether I really care about you is questionable. Good parents don’t indulge their children’s every whim unless they want to produce selfish, willful brats. Indulgence is not saying ‘I love you’. It is saying, ‘Go ahead, do what you want. I don’t care.’

The Church is a community of grace, a community of forgiveness and love. And because love is our aim, our way with one another is to care. And when you care, you admonish. And to admonish is to express warning or disapproval in a gentle, friendly and concerned manner. Admonition is not unloving criticism. Without admonition a very important aspect of love within the Christian community is not expressed, and at great cost. Love is not lazy, nor does it overlook the harm we may cause one another. Christians are neither unloving critics nor uncritical lovers.

There are any number of issues in church life that are defended in the name of radical inclusion. But it is fair to ask, in fact in the name of Christian love it must be asked, if radical inclusion really means nothing more than indulgent acquiescence to willfulness insisting on it’s own way. If this what is actually meant, it surely cannot be grace. Nor can it rightly be called love. In fact, it can hardly be called Christian. 

_

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_

Reflections on Worship and Some Implications for Christmas

_

Today’s blog is a continuation from Wednesday and begins with the question that ended yesterday’s entry; What kinds of experiences, common to us all, come to expression in the language and action of worship? Here are a few things to consider.

_

First, the language and action of worship confront us with the common experience that we are not self-caused or self-perpetuating. Every person is thrust into the world with no say in the matter. Our place of origin, parents, physical characteristics, and so forth, are out of our control. The basic questions of our ultimate origin – and therefore our ultimate goal – remain unanswered. To worship is to respond to these questions.

To be born into pre-existing structures of choice means we must choose, and those choices result in the shaping of our lives, relationships and the world. We have no choice when it comes to choice.This means that worship is going on all the time for every person, every day, in every moment as we entrust ourselves to the little gods, the little stories, the redemptive projects of our own making in the effort to justify our choices and, therefore, our presence in the world. 

Second, the language and action of worship confront us with these tendencies to self-validation, to idolatry, to bad worship and the harm it does. If it does not, worship ceases to be Christian in any meaningful sense and the false gods of self-affirmation we bring with us in the door every Sunday actually are the object of our worship. Every gathering of Christian worship, therefore, confronts each person and the community with the consequences of bad choices, bad worship, so that a story large enough to encompass all our stories may inform and redeem us, turning us from bad worshipers to worshipers of the Living God. This is what the confession and absolution, the proclamation of law and gospel intend to accomplish. In worship we are graciously brought to confess our need for a savior and we are given the Savior we need.  

Since we are approaching Christmas, a few words regarding how this may apply to Christmas worship may be illustrative. Whatever else the Christmas observance may be about, the Scriptures make it clear that what we are seeing here is God’s invasion of hostile territory. The angels anticipate this in their invitation to drop fear as God comes near. They know who they are dealing with. Fear, anxiety over the threats inherent in life, is the atmosphere in which we live. The appearance of the new, the strange, the unknown is the occasion for fear and suspicion, not automatic joy, because we are by nature frightened and suspicious, uncertain about ourselves and our place in the world.

Christmas worship, therefore, must avoid the trap of falling into the false comfort of feel-good sentimentality. Pretty lights and pretty songs do not Christmas make. For “good news of great joy” has come to us, it does not originate with us. And that good news is that a Savior has been given to us, we who actually live as if we have no need of one. 

So the language of choice that is central in Christian worship is the language of God’s choosing to be with sinners, the lost, frightened, anxious ones. This is the great joy of Christmas. “For born to you this day…is a Savior…”. Jesus integrates the frightened human story with the grace, love and mercy of the Father. He gives meaning, in every sense, to our lives, and inhabits our lives in such a way that we no longer need fear the consequences of our choices. Because God is for us, we are free to live joyfully, expectantly in the fearlessness of faith.

Christmas is a good time to sugar coat plumbs and cookies but not Christian worship.The job of Christian worship at all times and seasons is to hit the high notes of our great joy in Jesus Christ without muting the low notes that sound the mournful sobriety of our great need.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

_

_

Acts 17:28

‘In him we live and move and have our being’;…

 _

Years ago a parish pastor wrote a book outlining fifty ways to liven up worship. Each Sunday had a theme such as, ‘Bring Your camera Sunday’, or ‘Hawaiian Shirt Sunday’, and so forth. The problem with his approach is that it worked. And, it  missed the point. Worship now became fixated on trying to find new things to replace the old things and the trap was set. And it was set because out with the old and in with the new is a mantra with no end. Once style and novelty become the point, the message is clear; what matters is getting people in the door. Who can argue with that. Right?

But drawing a crowd in any way you can does not address the problem we see in church attendance. After all, we are not the PTA trying to get more parents to show up at meetings, so let’s have a raffle. As I see it, the problem at its’ root is the disconnect between religious language and ordinary experience. And this is the problem brought on by secularism.

Listen to the average group of church folk as they gather for coffee following worship. How many of the conversations have to do with the worship? I don’t mean comments about how the music was nice or the sermon wasn’t too long or there were typos in the bulletin. I mean conversation about how the language and actions of Word and sacrament worship speak to and connect with daily life and experience. I am not saying this as a criticism at all. Because our people live and breathe within a secular mindset six and one half days a week, why should we expect them to suddenly see all kinds of connections between the language of worship and daily life? In such a secular context, people have come to expect religion to be a private, personal matter. Once you’ve left the sanctuary, worship is over.

Within the walls of a church building, for example, it may be OK to ask God to change something or someone. But once we leave the parking lot, we expect change to result from health care, motivational techniques, the enticements of advertising, a better job, the right schools, more education, the right politics, therapy and so forth.

Four hundred years ago, if you became sick, the doctor was your last resort. You went to the priest first because you assumed that God had everything to do with your sickness and health. If you were undertaking a journey you went to the church to have prayers said for the safety of the journey. Today, we fasten our seat belts. ‘Be safe’ has come to replace ‘goodbye’ which itself replaced ‘God be with Ye’. In the church building if you talk to God it’s prayer. On the street if God talks to you, you’re nuts.

Christian worship does not ask, ‘What gimmick will work this week?’ Christian worship asks, What kinds of experiences, common to us all, come to expression in the language and action of worship?’ To ask this kind of question is to ask a question that takes God, people and the world seriously. Worship ceases to be privatized religious entertainment. It is now filled with possibility – and risk – because it implies God’s direct, intimate involvement in all of life. 

 

More on this tomorrow.

_

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

_

_