July 2019: The Power of the Gospel

We sat down to table and the officer began his story: “I have served in the army ever since I was quite young. I knew my duties and was a favorite of my superiors as a conscientious officer. But I was young, as were also my friends, and unhappily I started drinking. It went from bad to worse until drinking became an illness. When I did not drink, I was a good officer, but when I would start drinking, then I would have to go to bed for six weeks. My superiors were patient with me for a long time, but finally, for rudeness to the commanding officer while I was drunk, they reduced my rank to private and transferred me to a garrison for three years. They threatened me with more severe punishment if I would not improve and give up drinking. In this unfortunate condition all my efforts at self-control were of no avail and I could not stay sober for any length of time. Then I heard that I was to be sent to the guardhouse and I was beside myself with anguish.

“One day I was sitting in the barracks deep in thought. A monk came in to beg alms for the church. Those who had money gave what they could. When he approached me he asked, ‘Why are you so downcast?’ We started talking and I told him the cause of my grief. The monk sympathized with my situation and said, ‘My brother was once in a similar position, and I will tell you how he was cured. His spiritual father gave him a copy of the Gospels and strongly urged him to read a chapter whenever he wanted to take a drink. If the desire for a drink did not leave him after he read one chapter he was encouraged to read another and if necessary still another. My brother followed this advice, and after some time he lost all desire for alcoholic beverages. It is now fifteen years since he has touched a drop of alcohol. Why don’t you do the same, and you will discover how beneficial the reading of the Gospels can be. I have a copy at home and will gladly bring it to you.’

“I wasn’t very open to this idea so I objected, ‘How can your Gospels help when neither my efforts at selfcontrol nor medical aid could keep me sober?’ I spoke in this way because I never read the Gospels.

“‘Give it a chance,’ continued the monk reassuringly, ‘and you will find it very helpful.’

“The next day he brought me this copy of the Gospels. I opened it, browsed through it, and said, ‘I will not take it, for I cannot understand it; I am not accustomed to reading Church Slavonic.’

“The monk did not give up but continued to encourage me and explained that God’s special power is present in the Gospel through his words. He went on, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later. One holy man says that “even when you don’t understand the word of God, the demons do, and they tremble”; and the passion for drink is without a doubt their work. And St. John Chrysostom in speaking about the power of the word of God says that the very room where the Gospel is kept has the power to ward off the spirits of darkness and thwart their intrigues.’

“I do not recall what I gave the monk when I took the copy of the Gospels from him, but I placed the book in my trunk with my other belongings and forgot about it. Some time later a strong desire to have a drink took hold of me and I opened the trunk to get some money and run to the tavern. But I saw the copy of the Gospels before I got to the money and I remembered clearly what the monk had told me. I opened the book and read the first chapter of Matthew without understanding anything. Again I remembered the monk’s words, ‘At the beginning be concerned only with reading it diligently; understanding will come later.’ So I read another chapter and found it a bit more comprehensible. Shortly after I began reading the third chapter, the curfew bell rang and it was no longer possible for me to leave the barracks.

“In the morning my first thought was to get a drink, but then I decided to read another chapter to see what would happen. I read it and did not go. Again I wanted a drink, but I started reading and I felt better. This gave me courage, and with every temptation for a drink I began reading a chapter from the Gospels. The more I read, the easier it became, and when I finally finished reading all four Gospels the compulsion for drink had disappeared completely; I was repelled by the very thought of it. It is now twenty years since I stopped drinking alcoholic beverages.

“Everyone was surprised at the change that took place in me, and after three years I was reinstated as an officer and then climbed up the ranks until I was made a commanding officer. Later I married a fine woman; we have saved some money, which we now share with the poor. Now I have a grown son who is a fine lad and he also is an officer in the army.”

—The Way of a Pilgrim

What a wonderful story of the multifaceted ways in which Christ works in our lives! The issue here is alcoholism, but don’t restrict the lesson to that. Christ can heal any affliction if we let him. Notice first how Christ uses human agency (the monk) to introduce the young soldier to his Gospel. Notice how the monk abandoned his agenda (begging alms for the church), at least temporarily, to address a person’s needs that he perceived. We have to be ready to see others in pain if we ever hope to help them address it. Notice too the monk’s gentle persistence and the faith he has in the transformative power of the Gospel in people’s lives, a faith based, in part, on past experience.

Next, pay attention to how Christ used circumstance instead of understanding to stay the young soldier’s hand from drinking. He read the Gospel without understanding it, but was prevented from going on a drinking binge because he had lingered in his quarters to read it. Was it really coincidence that the soldier found the gospels before he got to his drinking money? This is how God typically works to control the circumstances of our lives in a wise and loving way, but we have to pay attention to realize it!

Finally, mark how understanding occurs—through persistent reading. Ask anyone who reads the Bible regularly and systematically and you will hear this same answer. God grants understanding to humble minds willing to submit to his word (as opposed to trying to make his word submit to their agendas, which sadly many try to do, especially today) through our persistent reading of his word. God doesn’t beat us over the head to make us learn (usually). Instead he uses ordinary people and circumstances along with our own efforts to speak to and transform us. Under normal circumstances it would have been best  if the soldier had read the gospels with others and learned how to interpret them from the tradition we have, but that didn’t happen in this case. No problem, though. God can use even less than ideal circumstances to break through to us, as the young solder discovered. That may not be sexy enough for some of us but it is much more effective over the long haul

If you are struggling with your faith, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest this story and its lessons. Maybe you should even pick up the gospels and start to read them yourself. Here is indeed balm for your soul!

Feast of the Ascension 2019: N.T. Wright on the Ascension of Jesus

The idea of the human Jesus now being in heaven, in his thoroughly embodied risen state, comes as a shock to many people, including many Christians. Sometimes this is because many people think that Jesus, having been divine, stopped being divine and became human, and then, having been human for a while, stopped being human and went back to being divine (at least, that’s what many people think Christians are supposed to believe). More often it’s because our culture is so used to the Platonic idea that heaven is, by definition, a place of “spiritual,” nonmaterial reality so that the idea of a solid body being not only present but also thoroughly at home there seems like a category mistake. The ascension invites us to rethink all this; and, after all, why did we suppose we knew what heaven was? Only because our culture has suggested things to us. Part of Christian belief is to find out what’s true about Jesus and let that challenge our culture.

This applies in particular to the idea of Jesus being in charge not only in heaven but also on earth, not only in some ultimate future but also in the present. Many will snort the obvious objection: it certainly doesn’t look as though he’s in charge, or if he is, he’s making a proper mess of it. But that misses the point. The early Christians knew the world was still a mess. But they announced, like messengers going off on behalf of a global company, that a new CEO had taken charge.

What happens when you downplay or ignore the ascension? The answer is that the church expands to fill the vacuum. If Jesus is more or less identical with the church—if, that is, talk about Jesus can be reduced to talk about his presence within his people rather than his standing over against them and addressing them from elsewhere as their Lord, then we have created a high road to the worst kind of triumphalism.

Only when we grasp firmly that the church is not Jesus and Jesus is not the church—when we grasp, in other words, the truth of the ascension, that the one who is indeed present with us by the Spirit is also the Lord who is strangely absent, strangely other, strangely different from us and over against us, the one who tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him—only then are we rescued from both hollow triumphalism and shallow despair.

Conversely, only when we grasp and celebrate the fact that Jesus has gone on ahead of us into God’s space, God’s new world, and is both already ruling the rebellious present world as its rightful Lord and also interceding for us at the Father’s right hand—when we grasp and celebrate, in other words, what the ascension tells us about Jesus’s continuing human work in the present—are we rescued from a wrong view of world history and equipped for the task of justice in the present. Get the ascension right, and your view of the church, of the sacraments, and of the mother of Jesus can get back into focus.

— N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope.

Feast of the Ascension 2019: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (2)

There is no need to doubt the literal nature of Christ’s ascension, so long as we realize its purpose. It was not necessary as a mode of departure, for ‘going to the Father’ did not involve a journey in space and presumably he could simply have vanished as on previous occasions. The reason he ascended before their eyes was rather to show them that this departure was final.  He had now gone for good, or at least until his coming in glory.  So they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and waited – not for Jesus to make another resurrection appearance, but for the Holy Spirit to come in power, as had been promised.

Understanding the Bible, 103.

Feast of the Ascension 2019: Dr. John Stott on the Ascension (1)

It is a pity that we call it ‘Ascension Day’, for the Bible speaks more of Christ’s exaltation than of his ascension. This is an interesting avenue to explore. The four great events in the saving career of Jesus are described in the Bible both actively and passively, as deeds done both by Jesus and to Jesus. Thus, we are told with reference to his birth both that he came and that he was sent; with reference to his death both that he gave himself and that he was offered; with reference to his resurrection both that he rose and that he was raised; with reference to his ascension both that he ascended and that he was exalted. If we look more closely, we shall find that in the first two cases, the active phrase is commoner: he came and died, as a deliberate, self-determined choice. But in the last two cases, the passive phrase is more common: he was raised from the tomb and he was exalted to the throne. It was the Father’s act.

—The Exaltation of Jesus (sermon on Phil. 2:9-11)

Feast of the Ascension 2019: Pope Leo the Great on the Ascension of Jesus

With all due solemnity we are commemorating that day on which our poor human nature was carried up, in Christ, above all the hosts of heaven, above all the ranks of angels, beyond the highest heavenly powers to the very throne of God the Father. And so our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments. Our faith is nobler and stronger because sight has been replaced by a doctrine whose authority is accepted by believing hearts, enlightened from on high. This faith was increased by the Lord’s ascension and strengthened by the gift of the Spirit.

Christ’s Resurrection and Sri Lanka

…Christ has been raised from the dead. He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died.

 So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man.  Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life.  But there is an order to this resurrection: Christ was raised as the first of the harvest; then all who belong to Christ will be raised when he comes back.

After that the end will come, when he will turn the Kingdom over to God the Father, having destroyed every ruler and authority and power.  For Christ must reign until he humbles all his enemies beneath his feet. And the last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15.19-26).

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross (Colossians 2.13-15)

New Living testament

Yesterday I preached about the unimaginably Good News of Christ’s resurrection because it comes from God’s power and realm. Humans don’t have the power to raise the dead and transform death into life. As St. Paul proclaims above, Christ’s resurrection signals the consummation of the defeat of the powers of Evil, Sin, and Death that was won on the cross of Christ. I preached therefore that the promise of the resurrection of the body is the only real antidote to the world’s pain and suffering, along with our own, because only when our bodies have been raised and transformed will the power of Death finally be defeated and we will be restored to God and our loved ones who have died in Christ. Because Christ’s Resurrection is the power of God on display for all to see and because it has such profound life-changing implications for us and those we love, I encouraged our folks, along with Christians everywhere, to be bold in our proclamation of the Resurrection.

It didn’t take long for that proclamation of the Good News of Jesus Christ to get challenged.

On the very day that the Church celebrated our Lord’s resurrection and the ultimate defeat of Death, Islamic terrorists attacked three churches and luxury hotels, sending homicide bombers to commit mass murder. They were successful. The current toll is 310 dead and hundreds wounded. Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

Words fail to express our sorrow.

The blood of victims spattered on a statue of Jesus.

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones.” (Psalm 116.15)

…I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” (Revelation 6.9-10)

The evil of this horrific act and those who committed it cannot be condemned too strongly, even as we pray God’s forgiveness on these murderers as our Lord Jesus commanded us to do, hard as it is for us to pray as such. We must let God impose his justice on these murderers.

And here we must address the elephant in the room. Don’t these murderous acts prove that the Resurrection is a farce? Does our Resurrection faith have anything to say to us at times like this? Well, no it doesn’t and yes it does.

As St. Paul reminds us above, the resurrection of the dead has already begun, but it is happening in two stages: first Christ’s resurrection and then our own. St. Paul boldly proclaims that the first fruits are so far reaching that even now they are working to bring restoration of all kinds, life from death, and to conquer evil, especially the ultimate evil of Death. But how can that be in light of these horrific mass murders?

We aren’t told. Instead we are told to remember the power of God demonstrated in Christ’s resurrection. Only the power of God witnessed in Christ’s resurrection has the power to fix and heal this.

Yet we can still peer into the glass dimly (1 Corinthians 13.12). We can talk about the transformed lives that are part of the first fruits about which St. Paul speaks. As Christians we are to bear the fruit of forgiveness and healing and compassion for those who were wounded and for those who lost loved ones in the attacks. We are not to retaliate, but to forgive, even as we pray for God’s justice to be done. We are to embody the healing love and forgiveness of Christ to the victims of this atrocity and to those who perpetrated it, impartial and incomplete as our efforts must be. St. Paul tells us as much at the conclusion of his treatise on the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15. Instead of telling us to have a party and celebrate Christ’s victory over death, he tells us to, “be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless [emphasis added]” (1 Corinthians 15.58). In other words, we can have confidence that God in his power, enigmatic as it is for us to comprehend and see in times like this, is using our puny and imperfect efforts to embody the love and mercy and justice of Christ to bring about the new creation God launched when he raised his Son from the dead. In other words, this is the first fruits of Christ’s resurrection working in and through his people. That takes faith, my beloved, the kind of faith that knows and has experienced the love and power of God, however imperfectly and incompletely. Evil, while still terribly active in God’s world, will not have the last say. Life, not death, is the final outcome.

And for those who have had loved ones murdered, our resurrection hope can mitigate against the pain of losing their loved ones to death. One day, their loved ones will be raised from the dead and given new, transformed bodies that will be immortal and impervious to any kind of evil our mortal bodies are subject to. They will be able to see them, speak to them, touch them, hold them, and rejoice with them. They will be able to love them as God created humans to love. Evil and those who commit it will be banished forever. God’s justice will be fully implemented because the dead are brought back to life and restored to those they loved in this mortal life.

This hope, the sure and certain expectation of things to come because God really did raise Jesus Christ from the dead and promises to do likewise with those who belong to Christ—this is what St. Paul means when he tells us that God makes us alive in Christ; we share his resurrected destiny in God’s promised new world—will not keep us immune from the power of Evil nor will it prevent us from grieving. How can it as long as it remains hope unrealized? But it is what must sustain us until it is realized at our Lord’s return.

Our resurrection hope is rooted in the power and love of God, and in history. In the face of unspeakable evil it proclaims that the power of darkness and death will not have the final say, that God really is in control, even in moments like this, and that for those who are in Christ, there is a future and a hope that God promises for all his people (cf. Jeremiah 29.11). New bodies. Restored relationships. The power of God, unimaginable as it is for us is the only thing that has the power to heal us in our grief and sustain us in the living of our mortal days.

Pray for those who have been afflicted by this evil. Pray that they (and we) may not lose hope and heart. Pray that God will sustain us in the power of the Spirit and remind us that nothing in all creation can separate us from his love for us made known in Christ. Pray that we may consciously focus on God’s power made known in the Resurrection of Christ so that we may be reminded and strengthened by its hope that new bodily life is our future too.

Finally, pray God’s comfort and consolation for those who grieve, both in and through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those who grieve and through the human touch made available by those who belong to Christ in this world.

Holy Week 2019: Good Friday: Jesus Remember Me

One of the criminals hanging beside him scoffed, “So you’re the Messiah, are you? Prove it by saving yourself—and us, too, while you’re at it!”

But the other criminal protested, “Don’t you fear God even when you have been sentenced to die? We deserve to die for our crimes, but this man hasn’t done anything wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”

And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23.39-43).

NLT

Today is Good Friday, the most sacred day of the year and the turning point in history. Why is it the turning point? Because God himself has moved to redeem us from our slavery to the power of Sin. Our sin got us booted from paradise as our first ancestors arrogantly sought to be equal to God. Today the Son of God makes our reentrance into paradise possible. He does so in complete agreement and perfect obedience to God the Father’s will, and by giving up his equality with God in utter humility so that we might be saved.

On the cross, Jesus, God become human, is giving himself for us in self-sacrificial love to end our alienation from God and deal a decisive blow to the dark powers. This has always been enigmatic and paradoxical to us. It doesn’t look like Jesus is reigning as king from the cross. It doesn’t look like the evil powers have been defeated. It looks just the opposite! And it often looks that way in our lives and the world in which we live. With the powers of Evil so active, how can our Christian faith proclaim the defeat of these dark powers? We aren’t told how it all works, just that the powers of Evil have been defeated. Listen to St. Paul:

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins.  He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross (Colossians 2.13-15).

NLT

St. Paul wrote these words while he was languishing in a prison dungeon because he was an apostle for Christ! He of all people knew the evil and suffering the dark powers could inflict on the saints of God. Yet he still maintained that on the cross our slavery to Sin had been broken. Certainly not completely during this mortal life as we all can attest, but we believe that despite the darkness around us and within us, we are truly free because we believe that the cross of Christ is the power of God, the only power that can free us from our slavery. Reality isn’t always perceived by our senses and the world’s wisdom is foolishness to God. May God be gracious to us and give us the wisdom and humility to have ears to hear and hearts/minds believe this astonishing truth.

At the foot of the cross, we also find God’s forgiveness for the evil and folly we have committed in our lives. Like the repentant criminal dying next to Jesus, we believe that in Christ’s death we see the love of God being poured out for us so that we are spared God’s perfect justice and judgment on our sins, and we dare cry out to our Lord, asking him to remember us. Remember me, Jesus. Because if you don’t, my mortal life will be over before I know it and I will return to dust, desolate and bereft in my grave, and unremembered after only a few short years, perhaps a fate as awful as your judgment on my sins.

We cry to our merciful Lord to save us and remember us even though we don’t deserve such love and grace because we believe in the love of God shown us today. Like the repentant criminal, we dare believe that we will hear Christ’s promise to us that on the day of our death we will be with him in paradise to await our new bodies to live in God’s new world. St. Paul boldly proclaims this above. St. Luke tells us this in the exchange between Jesus and the repentant criminal and in the larger story of Christ’s passion. Earlier he tells us that Pilate had released Barabbas, a known terrorist, instead of Jesus. The innocent is condemned and the guilty go free. That sounds about right, but in telling us this, St. Luke reminds us that even in the darkness, God’s saving power is at work. Christ has stepped into the breach to die for us so that we can live. We may not be terrorists like Barabbas was, but none of us on our own merits is able to live in the perfect holiness of God’s presence—until today, until Christ’s death, thanks be to God!

This is worthy of our best contemplation, our deepest mourning, and our most joyful and profound thanks to God the Father, whose great love for us in Christ surpasses our own poor expectations, hopes, and fears. This is why we call this particular Friday “Good.”

Holy Week 2019: Maundy Thursday

When the time came, Jesus and the apostles sat down together at the table. Jesus said, “I have been very eager to eat this Passover meal with you before my suffering begins. For I tell you now that I won’t eat this meal again until its meaning is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.”

Then he took a cup of wine and gave thanks to God for it. Then he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves. For I will not drink wine again until the Kingdom of God has come.”

He took some bread and gave thanks to God for it. Then he broke it in pieces and gave it to the disciples, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

After supper he took another cup of wine and said, “This cup is the new covenant between God and his people—an agreement confirmed with my blood, which is poured out as a sacrifice for you (Luke 22.14-20).

NLT

We have spent Holy Week looking at the reasons the cross of Christ is our only hope for enjoying life with God forever. The crucified Son of God is the living embodiment that God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have life forever (John 3.16).

Tonight we will observe Maundy Thursday. Maundy is derived from the Latin word, mandatum, meaning to mandate. What is our Lord mandating us to do? First, he gave us a supper, the bread and the wine, to teach us the meaning of his impending death. There is a reason Jesus chose Passover to die. Enigmatically his death buys our freedom from our slavery to the power of Sin, even as our freedom remains only partial in this mortal life.

Christ is also going to the cross to bear the sins of the entire world, your sin and mine, to spare us from God’s awful judgment on our evil. When we come to the table to receive Christ’s body and blood by faith, we have a living reminder that Christ is with us, both in the bread and wine we consume, and in his promise to us that we are participants in his eternal kingdom, not after we die, but right now. So we have a mandate to feed on Christ’s body and blood.

And as participants in his kingdom, how are we to be good citizens? By following his example of sacrificial love for all. We have the mandate to deny our selfish desires, take up our cross in suffering love, and follow our Lord wherever and however he calls us. We are to embody his crucified love for others, difficult as that can be at times. Christ showed us this when he washed his disciples’ feet that night in the Upper Room. Doing so was another tangible sign that we are made clean by the blood of the Lamb shed for us and we are therefore to serve others to bring Christ’s love to them.

It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done. Bring your hurts, your fears, your sorrows, your disappointments, and your deep longing to be loved and have life to the table tonight. Feed on our Lord’s body and blood by faith with thanksgiving that you are loved and claimed by God the Father whose love is simply not fathomable, but whose love for you is real nevertheless. You have Christ’s holy meal that points you to the cross as the Father’s living testimony about his great and undeserved love for you. Give thanks for that love.

Your sins cost God dearly. But God in Christ shows you that you are worth reclaiming, despite your rebellion and stubbornness and pride. Come to the Table with a thankful heart for the gift of life God gives you in Christ and find your reconciliation with the Author of all life as well as his peace. Then prepare yourself to kneel at the foot of the cross on Good Friday with sorrow and gratitude. See your Lord give his life so that you can live and find the healing we all need. Doing so anticipates the great Easter feast.

Holy Week 2019: Wednesday: The Love and Mercy of God

You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. For Christ himself has brought peace to us.

Now all of us can come to the Father through the same Holy Spirit because of what Christ has done for us (Ephesians 2.12b-14a, 18).

New living testament (NLT)

The last two days we have looked at the hard topic of Sin and Evil (those outside, hostile powers that enslave and dehumanize us) and what a loving and just God is doing about it all. We all know in our bones that justice denied is a bad thing. When we read stories of a man throwing a 5 year old child off a balcony for no apparent reason, when we read of cars plowing into crowds of people to injure and kill them, when we see abuse and exploitation and cruelty of all kinds—symptoms of the reality of Sin and Evil and our slavery to them—we say to ourselves and others that something must be done about it all. Something or someone has to step in and make things right. We all demand justice.

The problem comes when we consider what God is doing to bring about justice for us and our sins. It’s a problem because we are all sin-sick to some degree and if a good and righteous God executes his justice on the world so that it can be healed and restored to its original goodness—the overarching story of Scripture and the promise of new creation—we too will be swept away because all of us are a mixture of good and evil.

But as we saw yesterday, it is the Father’s intent that we should live, not die. As the Supreme Lover of his creation and creatures, God the Father desires good for us, not evil. Destroying us in his just judgment doesn’t exactly accomplish that, does it?

God did not create us to destroy us.

So God moved to condemn our sin and break our slavery to Sin’s power by bearing his own judgment. That’s why the cross is our only hope for a future of abundant living. This is what St. Paul is getting at in our passage above. As we have seen, we are incapable of freeing ourselves from our slavery to the power of Sin and therefore have no hope of living in the presence of a good and holy God. The history of Israel is living testimony to this truth. It is a dangerous thing for humans to be near the presence of the living God! So God moved to reconcile us to himself by taking care of the essential problem of Sin.

What can get lost in this discussion, however, is the love of God.

God became human to die for us so that he could draw us to himself and have mercy on us. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans, while we were still God’s enemies, utterly helpless to extricate ourselves from our slavery to Sin’s power, at just the right time God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us to spare us from God’s condemnation that results in our death (Romans 5.6-11). This is essential for us to comprehend if we are to approach Christ’s cross this Good Friday with hope and thanksgiving. The cross is our only hope for rescue and it ultimately is the greatest of all signs that God loves us more than we love ourselves.

Many of us mourn our sins. We lament those things that we have done and wish we could take back. We mourn over those we have hurt or wronged, some of which can never be addressed for various reasons. We mourn those missed opportunities and our failure to act and our failure of will, and we fear God can never forgive us because we have a hard time forgiving ourselves. Of course our sins are all deeply grievous to us and to our loving God. But God has given us a way forward in the cross of Christ. The cross proclaims that while our sins matter to God, God’s love for us is greater than our hostility toward God. It is greater than our pride and arrogance and selfishness and all the rest. Because Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scripture, we are reconciled to God and find peace with God if we have faith to believe God has done this for us on the cross of Christ. Being reconciled to God and having peace with him, something we all crave whether we are aware of it or not, cost us very little. It cost God everything. There is no angry and merciless judge to be found here.

It we don’t understand this, if we fail to see God’s great love for us poured out in Christ’s blood or we convince ourselves that all wasn’t necessary because we really aren’t that bad, we will never find the peace and forgiveness and healing we all seek. Humans matter to God. He created us to be his wise stewards over his creation. God has demonstrated his great love for us by giving himself to us and sparing us being condemned to death.

No one is outside the love and mercy of God (unless they choose to be). No one.

As we prepare to enter the holy Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, let us come with a thankful heart for the Father’s love for us, unworthy as we are. Our praise and thanksgiving cannot be far behind if we really believe this astonishing truth.

Holy Week 2019: Tuesday: The Wisdom and Power of God

The message of the cross is foolish to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. (1 Corinthians 1.18, NLT)

Those who are trying to force you to be circumcised want to look good to others. They don’t want to be persecuted for teaching that the cross of Christ alone can save. And even those who advocate circumcision don’t keep the whole law themselves. They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast about it and claim you as their disciples. As for me, may I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Galatians 6.12-14a, NLT)

Yesterday we looked at the false cultural narrative the minimizes and even denies the destructive power of Sin, and our inability to free ourselves from its slavery. Today, St. Paul takes up this theme again. He reminds us that those who are self-righteously proud will always ridicule this foundational Christian belief that Christ died for sins just as Scripture said he would (1 Corinthians 15.3). To deny our inability to fix ourselves or even to revel in our brokenness are classic signs of human pride and arrogance (not to mention delusional thinking) that have caused our enmity with God and our life-draining alienation from him. The cross runs against the very grain of America’s religion of self-help.

In the passage above from Galatians, St. Paul gives an example of this kind of worldly foolishness. Forget the context-specific issue of circumcision. What St. Paul is getting at is the foolish belief that we can be seen as right in God’s eyes by the amount of good we do. The more good we do, the more right we are in God’s eyes, right? We don’t need God in the person of God’s Son to restore our broken relationship with God. We can do it ourselves. St. Paul calls that “foolishness.”

No, says St. Paul. There is only one way to end your alienation from God if you are really interested in doing that. Something has to be done to break the power of Sin over us and we don’t have it in our power to do that. Only God can do that. That is why God took on our flesh (or to use the parlance of the NT, God sent his Son) to die for us so that God could rightly condemn our sin in the flesh— those sins we commit that mar God’s image in us and prevent us from being God’s wise stewards of his creation in the manner God always intended for us when he created us in his image—so God would not have to condemn us (Romans 8.3-4). That is why we who believe in the cross of Christ no longer need to fear God’s right condemnation because we are no longer under it (Romans 8.1). For you see, because God loves us more than we can comprehend (in part because our conception of love is at least partially disordered so we don’t recognize real love when we see it) God desires good for us, not evil. God wants us to enjoy life, not die, and this good life can only come about by having a restored relationship with the Father of all life. As long as Sin’s power holds us in its grip so that we continue to act in ways that dehumanize us and keep us hostile to God, the good life is only a pipe-dream. That is why St. Paul resolved to boast about nothing but the cross because only in the cross is our enmity with God ended because Sin’s power over us is broken and we are healed and reconciled. It takes great humility to accept this, a humility that can only come by God’s grace. We are totally dependent on God.

Think of it this way. We are told King David was a man after God’s own heart because David never worshiped false gods. But David, faithful as he was, committed adultery and then murder to cover his tracks, certainly not behaviors consistent with God’s own heart (2 Samuel 12.1-13.25)! God forgave him when David confessed his sins (Psalm 51) as God always does, but that is not enough. The problem of Sin’s power corrupting and infecting even the best of us still remains to prevent us from fulfilling God’s original creative purpose for us as his image-bearers whom God chooses to run his world on our behalf. If we are unable to free ourselves from our slavery to Sin (an outside and hostile power), then we must rely on Someone even more powerful than Sin to free us from our slavery so that we can be the fully human beings God created and wants us to be. God freed us from Sin’s power by the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus, who takes away the sin of the world (John 1.29). That’s why St. Paul didn’t fool around with self-help and other forms of human delusion. He saw them as the lies they are.

If you begin to understand this strange truth about God’s power to defeat Sin displayed through human weakness, you are ready to observe the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday with a sorrowful but thankful heart, and you will begin to understand why we call that Friday “Good” and not Bad. That, in turn, will prepare you to celebrate a most joyous Easter on Sunday.

Holy Week 2019: Monday: St. Paul Prepares Us for Good Friday

Christ is also the head of the church,
    which is his body.
He is the beginning,
    supreme over all who rise from the dead.
    So he is first in everything.
For God in all his fullness
    was pleased to live in Christ,
and through him God reconciled
    everything to himself.
He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth
    by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.

This includes you who were once far away from God. You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault.

But you must continue to believe this truth and stand firmly in it. Don’t drift away from the assurance you received when you heard the Good News (Colossians 1.18-23a, NLT).

Yesterday in my sermon, I spoke of the false narrative our culture tries to foist on us. The culture in which we live rejects the power of Sin—that outside and hostile power that enslaves us—in our lives and tries to gloss it over, telling us it either doesn’t matter or that it will turn out all right in the end. We hear it all the time. Live and let live. I’m OK, you’re OK. Follow your own heart. Keep an open mind. Be tolerant. This is exactly what the dark powers want because this mindset removes constraint on our behavior. And because many of us have bought into this cultural narrative, we simply refuse to take sin seriously, believing there aren’t any real consequences to what we do, say, or think.

We couldn’t be more wrong.

When we buy into this false narrative, it blinds us to the truth about which St. Paul speaks above. Because we don’t take sin seriously, we read these words and consider them to be nothing more than nonsense or an idle tale. If sin is not a problem, there is no need for God to do anything about it. So what’s all this bloody cross talk?

But what if God does care about sin? What then?

Well, if God does care about sin and hates it because it corrupts and dehumanizes us, and if God really does love us, God has to do something about our sin and the evil it produces and/or allows. The Christian faith, and only the Christian faith, has always proclaimed that God’s answer to the problem of Sin is to bear the consequences of our sin himself so that we are spared and remain his forever. Only then will we find real peace and reconciliation with God.

On Monday of this Holy Week, read carefully St. Paul’s words above and ponder them. Ask God to give you the grace to see how utterly serious God takes sin and how desperately incapable you are to heal yourself from your own sins. If you really come to believe this, you will read St. Paul’s words in a completely new light. You will read them with a mixture of sorrow, gratitude, joy, and thanksgiving that in union with the Father, the Son of God did what none of us can do for ourselves to redeem us from Sin’s power and the terrible wrath of God on our evil. That’s the kind of freedom we instinctively crave. Asking God for this kind of grace, painful as it can be, will help you get ready for Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday as you contemplate God’s unfathomable love for you. It will make you realize how utterly helpless you are to fix yourself so that your enmity with God is ended and his just judgment on your sins is removed. This realization can only open your eyes to the depth of God’s love for you and how precious you really are to God, despite your hostility toward him. This will inevitably lead to a grateful and changed heart that is wonderfully liberating and joyous.

Don’t let yourself be or remain a prisoner of a narrative that can only lead to death. Open your eyes to the predicament of the human race, yourself included, so that you can begin to understand why we call the story of Jesus “Good News.” After all, how do you feel when confronted with the realization you have a terrible problem in your life that you are powerless to fix, but then realize Someone greater than you has fixed it on your behalf? Is that not good news, the best news of all? Your despair has turned into relief and joy. That’s the essence of the Good News of Jesus Christ and it is worthy of your contemplation this Holy Week.

An Ancient Christian Theologian Muses on Prayer

Prayer is the offering in spirit that has done away with the sacrifices of old. “What good do I receive from the multiplicity of your sacrifices?” asks God. “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams, and I do not want the fat of lambs and the blood of bulls and goats. Who has asked for these from your hands?” 

What God has asked for we learn from the Gospel. “The hour will come,” he says: “when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. God is a spirit,” and so he looks for worshipers who are like himself. 

We are true worshipers and true priests. We pray in spirit, and so offer in spirit the sacrifice of prayer. Prayer is an offering that belongs to God and is acceptable to him: it is the offering he has asked for, the offering he planned as his own. 

We must dedicate this offering with our whole heart, we must fatten it on faith, tend it by truth, keep it unblemished through innocence and clean through chastity, and crown it with love. We must escort it to the altar of God in a procession of good works to the sound of psalms and hymns. Then it will gain for us all that we ask of God. 

Since God asks for prayer offered in spirit and in truth, how can he deny anything to this kind of prayer? How great is the evidence of its power, as we read and hear and believe. 

Of old, prayer was able to rescue from fire and beasts and hunger, even before it received its perfection from Christ. How much greater then is the power of Christian prayer. No longer does prayer bring an angel of comfort to the heart of a fiery furnace, or close up the mouths of lions, or transport to the hungry food from the fields. No longer does it remove all sense of pain by the grace it wins for others. But it gives the armor of patience to those who suffer, who feel pain, who are distressed. It strengthens the power of grace, so that faith may know what it is gaining from the Lord, and understand what it is suffering for the name of God.

In the past prayer was able to bring down punishment, rout armies, withhold the blessing of rain. Now, however, the prayer of the just turns aside the whole anger of God, keeps vigil for its enemies, pleads for persecutors. Is it any wonder that it can call down water from heaven when it could obtain fire from heaven as well? Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God. But Christ has willed that it should work no evil, and has given it all power over good.

Its only art is to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death, to give strength to the weak, to heal the sick, to exorcise the possessed, to open prison cells to free the innocent from their chains. Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecutions, comforts the faint-hearted, gives new strength to the courageous, brings travelers safely home, calms the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, overrules the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports those who are falling, sustains those who stand firm.

All the angels pray. Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come from their barns and caves they look up to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirit in their own fashion. The birds too rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross, and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.

What more needs be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed. To him be honor and power for ever and ever. 

—Tertullian (d. ca. 225 AD), On Prayer, 28-29