“He suffered under Pontius Pilate…”

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You can’t do physics without mathematics. You can’t do Christianity without history. The creedal confessions of the church all make mention of a historical figure. Namely, Pontius Pilate. During these days of Holy Week Pilate makes his appearance once again. The story is told of the Roman governor who washed his hands and took the road of political expediency, as any good career-minded Roman would. But he is not remembered in our weekly confession of faith because he walked away from Jesus. He is remembered because he anchors the personal, corporate and cosmic story of Jesus in history, in time.

Looking back at the events of Holy Week is more than a pious exercise. It is a history lesson. The events of that week happened in what we call real time. And there is a dynamism to these events. The activity of God is in motion on every plane. There are the personal stories of Judas, Peter, Caiphas and Pilate. There is the corporate story of disciples, Pharisees, Saducees, Romans and Jews. There is the cosmic story of  God in Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, suffering, crucified and buried. 

The Holy Week story reflects the polyphonic character of the Faith. Taken together, our faith is not only personal, not only corporate, not only cosmic, not only historical. It is all of them together, at once. Holy Week gathers them together and remembers those events when the salvation of God moved in and through time and space until it was lifted up on a Cross, outside Jerusalem, on a Friday afternoon, under the governorship of Pontius Pilate.

Pilate lived in the real world. An inscription with his name was found along the seacoast of Israel. That worn, broken artifact bears witness to the irreducible truth of our faith; God is not separated from our world. Our historical faith is a statement about the God who is not “up there” but Who is enmeshed in the fullness of reality; the personal, corporate, cosmic and, therefore, the historical.  Our historical faith is statement about the forward, promising momentum of life, which is not the same as progress. For the Cross is a statement of the goal of our lives, also. Only the resurrection can draw us forward. And if the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ could be present  there, He is present in all the struggle and confusion of your life, our communities, indeed, the whole cosmic business of life, death, and life beyond death.

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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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1 Peter 1:1-2

“Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To the exiles of the Dispersion in Pontus, Galatia, Cappado’cia, Asia, and Bithyn’ia, 2 chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood:…”

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The vocabulary of obedience and submission has drifted out of our society over the last number of decades. It was not that long ago when a student who cheated on an exam at one of our military academies, for example, was summarily dismissed. Now, they hire lawyers who argue that it is the institution’s fault that the student was ‘forced’ to cheat. The whole machinery of authority and obedience has been radically realigned in our society. We talk about relationships, responsibility, self-determination, rights. Can you imagine starting an obedience movement? How about the Women’s Obedience Movement? How far do you think that would go?! Or, how about the Student Obedience Movement? How would you like be in charge of advancing that idea?

So, what do we do with Peter who says “…chosen and destined by God the father for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkled with his blood:…”. Peter could have said a lot of other things here. He could have said, for example, ‘chosen and destined for salvation in Jesus Christ’, or, ‘chosen and destined for celebration of Jesus Christ’. The possibilities are endless. But what Peter did say was “for obedience to Jesus Christ”. And that’s not all. He goes on to say that the Christians should live as obedient children. He talks about “obedience to the truth”. Not knowing the truth or speaking the truth or doing the truth but “obedience to the truth”.

The key is the connection Peter makes between obedience and Jesus Christ. For the phrase that gives definition to the obedience of the Christian is “…sprinkling with His blood.” In another place he speaks of “…the precious blood of Christ.” In another place he dips back into the Old testament and speaks of “…the blood of the sacrificial lamb.” I wonder if any of you can even remember the old gospel song, ‘There is Power in the Blood’? Many of you probably don’t even know that there even was such a song. I don’t think Peter would have had a problem with it. For all that singing about the blood is a stark and unapologetic way seeing to it that we do not forget, or interpret away, or beautify, or turn into an idea, or an interesting story, or a theological device, the Cross of Jesus Christ.

For Peter, with the crowing of the rooster still ringing in his ears, the Cross of Jesus was an unforgettable event and he was determined that those congregations to which he wrote should not forget it, either. I take Peter to be saying that the Christian so identifies with the Cross – the actual death of Jesus, once for all – who so interlaces and internalizes the cross with his or her own life, that that life, like that of its Lord, takes the shape of obedient love, not seeking its own ‘rights’.  The sign of that bloody Cross upon the brow of the baptized must say something about the style, the tone, the shape of the life of the Christian.

Is it really so strange that Peter should link obedience of the Christian with Christ Himself? He who suffered but did not return suffering? He who was reviled but did not seek revenge? He who sought the welfare of others while emptying Himself? Is submission and obedience an entirely inappropriate posture? For the persons bent on relentless self-willing, perhaps.  But for the Christian?

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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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1 Peter

 

“…chosen and destined by God the father…”

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“Let freedom ring”, we Americans say. And in saying it we are often referring to what we believe is our inalienable right to choose. If we Americans believe anything in common it is that. We are free to choose. Choice is in our hands.

Where religion is concerned we are free to choose, or not choose. On any given street a Christian, Jew, Muslim and atheist may be neighbors. We affirm this sort of pluralism as a sign of our freedom to choose whatever sort of life we want. In religion especially a person makes his or her own choices.

So, it is jarring, troubling, unsettling , awkward, even offensive to our American sensibilities when Peter writes to people scattered here and there and he writes to us, “To the exiles in dispersion…chosen and destined by God the Father…”. You may choose here and there but in your relationship to God you have been chosen. Peter begins on that note and he never tires of sounding it. He reminds them, and us, that Christians are a “…chosen race…”. How do you like that phrase? You did not choose God. God chose you. Chosen and Christian are synonymous, interchangeable. 

Peter also says that the Christian has been …”destined…”. Not by fate or DNA but by God the Father. Chosen, destined, sent, called, we really don’t like that kind of talk but it is all over the place in 1 Peter. In fact, It is all over the Bible. Peter also speaks of baptism in the context of these words. It is like Noah’s ark, he says. You know, all that water and everything. “Baptism, which corresponds to this”, he says, “now saves you.” But how can that be? I didn’t do anything? That’s the point! God has done some choosing of His own. You don’t save yourself. You are chosen sent, destined, called, saved by Him.

The Christian is not free because we have chosen God. We are free because God has chosen us. The Christian is free to serve the neighbor because he or she is free from having to serve or save himself or herself. And not only to serve but to worry and to sweat and to struggle and to plan about how best to serve, how to help, how to decide, how to choose. 

The Christian also wants to “Let freedom ring”. But it is not the false freedom of self-willing. The freedom we celebrate is the freedom by which God in Jesus Christ has chosen to forgive sins and through which he destines the elect to inherit the glories of life eternal.

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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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John 20:30-31

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.”

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Three words from John’s Gospel are today’s focus. Those words are ‘sign’ and ‘believe’ and ‘life’.

You can find any number of books, sermons, etc, that point to the healing\miracle stories in the Gospels as illustrations of the compassion of Jesus and how we should be compassionate also. No doubt that element is there but it is not primary. The miracles of Jesus were not ends in themselves. Neither were they magic or proof or simply examples of being nice. They were signs, arrows pointing to Jesus. Some got it and some didn’t.

The Gospel of John, for example, tells us of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. One can definitely not conclude that because Jesus raised the dead, we should hang around in graveyards praying for the ground to open up. Don’t try this at home! Jesus raised Lazarus as a sign to bring the focus on Himself. “I am the resurrection and life”, he said, ” The words and works of Jesus, taken together, are a tapestry that spells out His name. The signs are given that you “may believe” in Jesus.

John’s Gospel likes the phrase “believe in” where Jesus is concerned. By all accounts this phrase appears nowhere else in classical Greek. It is, apparently, unique to John. That’s different than believing Jesus. I may believe what you say but that sort of belief implies no necessary relationship or commitment of trust or faith. It may mean nothing more than intellectual assent. If I believe in the one who speaks, that’s different. 

The identity of Jesus was never obvious. That has not changed. The Church at times may speak as if His identity as “true God and true man” should be obvious but this is nothing more than triumphalism. 

The outcome of trust, of faith, is life; “…that you may have life in His name”, is the way John states it. But we make a mistake if we think this means only eternal life, if we assume we already have life and the life Jesus gives is just icing on the cake. We may want to talk that way but John does not. He is saying if you don’t have Jesus, you are dead. You may be walking and talking, putting a day together and so forth, but that is not life.

Read John’s Gospel as we begin Holy Week. For among the four great witnesses to Jesus – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, none speak with more clarity, simplicity and urgency than John. And the urgency with which he writes points us to Jesus and to the fact that trusting, believing in him is a matter, in every sense, of life and death.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Colossians 3

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“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities —all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.”

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Our world appears to be a hopeless, fragmented mess. The world appears to be in the grip of competing, destructive interests and powers that stubbornly resist all efforts at reconciliation. While recognizing these realities, the New Testament has something else to say about not just our tiny planet but the entire cosmos.

 All things were created for and through Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ comes first among all things in all creation. 

All things find their cohesion in Jesus Christ.

By His death on the cross Jesus Christ has reconciled all things to God.

We tend to think of reconciliation as a people word. But the greek expression here in Paul’s letter to the Colossians is a neutral form. All things means just that; rocks, trees, earth, wind, sky, far-flung galaxies and people.  The expression is all-inclusive and unapologetically so. There is great comfort here, and here’s why.

First, there is nothing in all creation, and that includes your life, that is alien to God. God is closer to you than you are to yourself and that nearness is characterized by God’s desire to be for you.

Second, you have been reconciled. There is no need to become something you are not, some special kind of person where God is concerned. He may do great things with you but you are His because of His grace, not because you have done anything. There are no ladders to climb, simply a Cross to behold.

Third, belonging to Jesus Christ, being a member of His body means that you never need be lonely. You were meant to be here and, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “all things are yours”.  Walk with your head high!

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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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Philippians 2:9

Note: A reader was kind enough to send me the precise quote of President Dwight Eisenhower (which Tuesday’s blog entry hacked up a bit)  together with a brief comment which I think is worth considering. Here it is:

“In other words, our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

Address at the Freedoms Foundation, Waldorf-Astoria, New York City, New York, 12/22/52

“The point he might have been making…is that theological detail is not relevant to shared national belief.  (Incidentally, in an increasingly irreligious society, that core belief may no longer be true).”

 

Now, on to today’s entry.

 

 “Therefore, God has given him the name that is above every name…” 

 

Nothing is peripheral when it comes to the Christian life. That is to say, when the import of the Christian faith grasps us we come to see that life is to short to monkey around on the circumference of things. No matter where we are in our personal lives, our reading of the Bible, our worship life, our personal decisions or in our struggle to get along in the world, the Christian is driven back again and again to the question of who is Jesus Christ.

 

Today, the Christian is enmeshed in a great, confounding set of questions. Jesus and a host of ‘isms’ blend in and out of one another. In the current environment of unrestrained pluralism the whole business of Christian identity and commitment can get very fuzzy, to say the least. In this environment, if we are going to bear the name of Christian, the name of Jesus, we must do so, I believe, more energetically. And to do so, the Christian and the Church as a community, must turn to the Bible.

 

The classic formula for Lutherans, in this regard, is that the Bible is “the final authority in all matters of faith and life.” Not theonly authority but the final authority. What this means, at least for me, is that if we are to know who Jesus Christ is and, therefore who we are, we must – finally – turn to the witness of the Bible. For, although there is great diversity of expression in the Bible, there is only one message and that message has to do, unerringly, with Jesus Christ.

 

The diverse witness of the New Testament to Jesus mirrors our time. They, like we, were struggling to confess “the name that is above every name” in an environment of religious pluralism, conflict and hostility. The New testament witness can help us today as we, too, seek to tune our faithful witness, sounding that one, clear graceful note of Jesus Christ in the midst of the din and confusion of our time.

 

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

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Church: Convenience or Truth?

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Linus and Charlie Brown were building a sand castle. As they worked Linus was telling Charlie Brown about the girl in sunday school that had caught his eye. His comments were tinged with sadness, however, as he observed that the little girl’s family had switched churches. Upon hearing this, Charlie Brown replied, “That’ll change your theology in a hurry.”

Charles Schultz, the author of the famous cartoon series, was on to something. In America, church choice has little to do with the truth and a lot to do with what we like, with convenience and so forth. Over the years I have seen folks change their denominational association for no other reason than the pastor is nice, the programs are good, the church building is close to home or there is lots for the kids to do. Shultz was simply observing that choosing a church may have nothing to do with the intrinsic truth of what is being preached, taught and believed.

This fits well into the America mindset. We find argument over beliefs to be distasteful. The line from Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘Mikado’ says it well; “I am right and you are right and we’re both as right as right can be.” Or, there is the famous line from President Dwight Eisenhower;  “America is built on firmly held religious principles, and I don’t care what they are.”

Does making affectations, comforts and perceived needs the basis for church life have any basis in the reality of what the Church actually is? I think not. The Christian faith is, at its heart, a truth claim. And that claim is quite straightforward. Jesus Christ is the last word concerning God, humanity and the destiny of the world. Whatever church community we may be in, making this message known is the essential business, or ought to be. 

More on this tomorrow.

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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 Church in Society, Part 2

Yesterday I suggested that the Christian Church  cannot offer an unqualified ‘yes’ to some of the essential characteristics of American society. Which raises the question, What is the role of the Christian Church in society? 

The American climate has been incredibly hospitable to the Church. In nearly all other western cultures the Church has declined, even if it has not been disestablished. The question in Europe is, ‘Which church DON”T you attend?’ In America, on the other hand, between 1945 and 1975 church affiliation in went from roughly forty two percent to sixty nine percent.  And although, forty years on we are seeing a decline in these numbers, there is no lack of interest in spirituality. So what is should our role be?

First, we can exclude several roles the Church does not play in our society.  We do not have an established Church, assigned by the government to attend to religious matters only. Secondly, we do not have a revolutionary Church in all-out opposition to the society and its values. Thirdly, we do hot have an excluded Church which plays no role in society.

Someone once suggested that we should think of ourselves as a ‘conspiritorial’ Church’. The word actually comes from the latin, ‘conspiro’, which means to breath together or act in harmony. Seen in this way, the Church is a community that can make alliances with others which both affirm aspects of society but also stand over against society. For we do not share all the values upon which this country was established. Here’s how it works.

What does the Church do with critical reason and human autonomy when it also has revelation? We believe both. How does the Church move between fundamentalism on the one hand, which has ONLY revelation, and liberal secularism which has NO revelation?

We are thankful for the scientific study of nature. Who among us would prefer a return to the medical practices of the sixteenth century, for example? At the same time, the Church is confronted with the fact that ‘scientism’ cannot have the last word. We are confronted with a host of value\meaning questions which science would just as soon ignore. How is God involved in nature without being absent from it?

Our culture promotes optimism and progress. But on what grounds? Christianity is not about optimism or progress, it is about hope. How does the Christian witness make the critical distinction between hope and optimism?

Finally, tolerance. Of course the Christian is for it. But does it mean that we are to abandon all absolute claims? Can we be the Church and at the same time simply join the parade of world religions?

Our culture asks religion to serve as a kind of benign chaplaincy which simply blesses everything. The Christian Church cannot do so. And this is something our culture does not understand about us. For our presence in society is meant to bear witness to the reality of God as uniquely revealed in Jesus Christ with all its implications for church and society.

In whatever society we find ourselves as Christians, our role is to point to Jesus Christ who stands over against all other absolute claims which exclude Him, and by whose Cross all things in heaven and earth are reconciled and find their true meaning.

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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 Church in Society

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‘The Druids buried each other in long wheelbarrows and called it agriculture; they burned each other alive and called it religion.’

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1 Minute Daily Word is back and we are happy to report that Pastor Mark’s wife, Linda, is doing well. They thank you for your many prayers and other expressions of concern.

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I came across the quote above recently (I don’t know where it’s from) and it got me thinking about  the relationship between religion, reason and society.

Throughout all of its history, the Church has had to face the questions which arise from its place in society, no matter what expression that society has taken.

Today, in America, the Christian Church finds itself functioning within a system variously described as a democracy and constitutional republic. Our society permits a wide-ranging expression of religious points of view. In historical terms this societal tolerance of religion is an exception. At the same time, this tolerance reflects a set of societal assumptions that the Church can only live with uneasily. Our society was the product of the Enlightenment and many of its assumptions were instrumental in the formation of our society. Here are a few:

Critical, human reason and autonomy is the source of all truth and knowledge. Critical, experimental, dialogical reason is the way you find things out. No divine revelation is necessary. Religion is not a source of truth or knowledge to any degree that matters. The fact of religious pluralism means that no ultimate claim is possible. Disgust with the devastating religious wars of Europe led to the demise of the established Church. Toleration of many denominations, sects and religions means that none of them can run the show.

If there is a God who created an orderly world we can discover its laws. God is irrelevant to the day to day conduct of life. He is an absentee deity at best.

Optimism is possible because history is essentially progressive. This progress is not automatic but it is inevitable. There is no sin and no need for salvation. Humanity will achieve its own goals as it pursues the change, the new, the novel. The old is bad, the new is good.

One does not go to church for knowledge. The church exists for emotional comfort and socially correct moral instruction.

It is obvious, at least to me, that the Church cannot give an unqualified ‘yes’ to these societal assumptions. It is also apparent that they are very much a part of the current landscape of American society and other parts of the world as well. What is the role of the Church within this kind of social context? Tomorrow we will look at that question.

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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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1 Corinthians 12

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“You are the body of Christ and individually members of one another.”

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One of my college courses was a class on church history. The professor was a well-known theologian who participated in the Lutheran\Orthodox dialogs. As a result much of the course focused on Eastern Orthodox Christianity. A fellow classmate and I became curious. So, early one Sunday, I mean REALLY early, about 3AM on a frigid morning in February, we headed north from Moorhead, Minnesota to make the 10AM service at the Serbian Orthodox Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba. We arrived in plenty of time. I will never forget walking into the sanctuary and for the next two hours being caught up in the great liturgy of the Orthodox Church. It was the first and most powerful vision I had ever experienced of the Church universal. 

“You are the body of Christ and individually members of one another.” These words are so simple, direct and unequivocal it almost takes your breath away. There is no talk of here of a private Jesus in your heart, though that language may have it’s place. There is no language here of the church as a patch of real estate and a few buildings on a street corner, for these are utterly unecessary where the body of Christ is concerned. There is only “You” in the plural. The Church consists of “living stones’, the people, the community gathered around word and sacrament. The Church is the Living Christ in and among His people. 

The nasty atmosphere in which we find ourselves these days is characterized by a prickly defensiveness that uses the slightest differences between Christians as an excuse to repudiate Paul’s words. The last thing many in the churches want is to be “members of one another”. Furthermore, there are plenty of Christians who are more than willing to let you know, in no uncertain terms, that because you disagree with them you are going to hell.

For my part, the question that the presence of other Christian communities raises is not ‘Who is a Christian?’ Rather, as I sat among those Serbian brothers and sisters years ago, the question that came to me and that has been with me ever since was this; ‘What is a Christian?’ Following this question into Scripture, the Confessions, tradition, the Church and the world has been a fruitful, challenging and humbling journey. It has taught me to be content with letting Jesus be the Lord of His people, the Church, even as I struggle to understand what it means to belong to Him – and to all those who confess His name.

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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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