Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Gospel According To Matthew

Because of some unexpected health issues, this post has been pre scheduled and I may not be able to respond to comments.  Posting may be sporadic during this time of troubled health.  It has also been 'written' with speech recognition software. Please pardon any sound-alike words that escape me as I proofread.

How are we saved?  There is a lot of debate over that in Christian circles.  There is tension (at least) between Paul and James.  But what about the actual apostles who knew Jesus in person and were among his followers?

If you read the Gospel of Matthew and trace the message there, the theme that stands out is mercy. When people come to Jesus for healing, what they ask for is mercy.  When people come to him for forgiveness, what they ask for is mercy. When people challenged him whether it was right to heal on the Sabbath, he told them to go and learn what it means that God desires mercy, not sacrifice.

In his preaching, he begins his preaching career with the beatitudes, including this: Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.  Towards the end of the Sermon On The Mount, he makes sure we have not missed his point: With the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. In his famous teaching of the Last Judgment, people are received by God (or not) only based on whether they have shown mercy to other people.

There is a new covenant described in Matthew, one for all the world rather than just one nation: a covenant of forgiveness. At times I wonder if we aren't supposed to understand that every one, everywhere is forgiven for every sin.  And all that remains is that we show each other mercy.

It is natural to wonder (based on our current debates), doesn't that mean we are earning our salvation? I think it means that the whole world finds itself in the middle of Jesus's parable of the unmerciful servant: the forgiveness was already given to us, but our actions can cause us to lose it.

Does a covenant really work that way?  If you consider the old covenant at Sinai under Moses, there was in fact provision for the forgiveness of sins.  The most serious offense was considered to be idolatry, because it puts you outside the covenant under which sins are forgiven.  In the new covenant, the equivalent would be refusing mercy to someone who asked for it.  It's not merely a sin, it's a rejection of the covenant where sins are forgiven.

How are we saved?  God has shown us all mercy.  That is how we are saved.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Paris calls for compassion and honesty

In light of current events, my planned post for today would be inappropriate.  I join with people of France and with decent people the world over in condemning the acts of mass murder that they have suffered.  Let no one blame the victims. Terrorists always blame their victims; that does not mean we should accept that excuse.

Let our compassion go, first and foremost, to the victims and their families, and then also extend generously to the nation and the society that is the intended victim of the attack. Any compassion for the murderers should not come at the expense of their victims. And our sense that this kind of thing is truly wrong should not become another casualty. There is no legitimate excuse, and our compassion is turned to lip service when we legitimize the attacks.

It is important for people of compassion to be honest as well.  Otherwise, when people want honest answers, where will they go?

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Ministry of reconciliation

Quarrels.  Divisions.  Discord and strife.

These are common to human experience.  Yet the New Testament tells Christians to avoid these, to get rid of them.  Easier said than done.

There are so many factions in the church, in the nation, even sometimes in our own families that we grow used to the idea.  We come to accept divisions.  We keep mental lists of who isn't speaking to whom, or who is on which side in various disagreements.  We try to pick our way through the rubble of so many broken relationships and broken trusts.

As Christians, we're called to be peacemakers and to take up the task of working towards reconciliation. It can be so difficult to know where to begin.  I can see two openings for first steps:

First, that we do not contribute to the divisions and make them worse.  Harsh words in public and harsh words in private both make the division harder to heal.  We make things worse when we rehearse and recite grievances. We make things worse when we accuse others of dishonesty, when we assume the worst motives, when we take it for granted that the other side is moved by hatred or dishonesty or bad character or lack of understanding. In my experience, most people have no idea why their opponents think what they do.  In most cases, they have no interest in why their opponents think what they do, which is a real obstacle to understanding.  And when someone makes the first steps towards trying to understand, they are almost always blinded still by what they have been told that the other side must think, which can be vastly different from what they do in fact think. This leads to the next opening:

Second, if we have no earthly idea what would motivate someone to take an action or hold a view, we could ask them.  We could try to understand.  It may be true enough that the other side does not understand us, but do we understand them?  Do we fault them for not understanding us, while we are open to the same charge ourselves of not understanding them?  Do we hold a double standard on that?  Are we waiting for them to make the first move, since after all we are sure we're right? Somehow each side is sure that that the other side is the side that lacks understanding - even though we do not understand their point of view.

There are situations in my own life that could benefit if we tried a little patience and understanding. I write this as someone who has much to learn, struggling to organize my thoughts and turn them into something more productive.  May God help.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The Reformation and The Schism

I expect that anyone who looked back at the Western church in the early 1500s would have seen the problems.  There were some newer and questionable doctrines; there was the question of what an ancient church was doing with new doctrines in the first place; there was the question of some fundraising practices involving the doctrine of purgatory and the sale of indulgences.  And there was a theology professor who had completely lost his patience with the abuses.

Lost his patience.  Patience is a Christian virtue.  It's not something we can afford to lose, necessarily.

Somewhere there is a time and a place for righteous anger.  Sometimes the best intentions go wrong. And so the desire to reform the church ended up splintering it.  When Martin Luther posted those 95 debating points, he did not imagine the church was so fragile that it would break.

"Speak the truth with love."  Could things have been different today if Luther had been as gifted at diplomacy as he was preaching?

Not all the schisms traced to Luther, of course. Before Luther, the church was broken into the "Catholic" and "Orthodox", along with Copts and Nestorians who were far more of a presence in the East than is typically known in the West. A general lack of focus on the Holy Spirit made it nearly inevitable that a Pentecostal movement would separate from the church rather than light the whole from within.  The excessive formality of some groups caused their mirror image to form in reaction. The over-reliance on scholastic-style argument may have played a role in the groups that are wary of scholastic argument and systematic theology.

And yet Luther's lack of diplomacy may be one of the most lasting pieces of his legacy, and Rome's insistence on its own infallibility has been inherited by many Reformation churches.

In order to reunite, each group needs not to splinter into ever-smaller factions with ever-narrower interests, which is the current direction and has been for so long. Instead, we would each of us need to broaden our own bases until each group is more catholic in the original sense of the word: a big enough tent, a welcome for all of Christ's brothers and sisters, a place for all true and useful teachings, a welcome for all healthy approaches.

May we see it in our day.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

For The Forgiveness Of Sins

"For The Forgiveness Of Sins" - Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed

How much comfort we take in those beautiful words.  We hold tight to the forgiveness of sins.  We breathe a sigh of relief at the thought of forgiveness. It is even a new covenant: the forgiveness of sins.

But it is not the forgiveness of our sins that is promised by itself.  It is the forgiveness of sins -not just ours but sins in general.  We take it personally and so we should; yet we take it  as if it were ours exclusively.  The picture is bigger than that.  When Jesus is accomplishing is bigger than that.

How often does he tell us, in one way or another, that forgiveness is for everybody?  Forgive as you are forgiven; the merciful will be shown mercy; we love because God first loved us. He is reconciling the whole world to himself.  Are we with him on that?

It is almost guaranteed that someone will claim that this amounts to earning our salvation.  It is nothing of the sort.  God forgives us when we have done nothing to earn it.  If that means anything to us, we will do the same for others.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The greatest commandment: why forgiveness follows from it

Have you ever thought about what it means that the greatest commandment is love? Think about the disputes that Jesus got into with the Pharisees. In particular, think about all the disputes over the Sabbath. Jesus used the example of how priests sacrifice on the Sabbath. The law of sacrifice and the Sabbath are in conflict every seventh day. If the priests keep the Sabbath exactly as written then they would have to skip the sacrifices; if they perform the temple service then they break the Sabbath. But the temple service is greater than the Sabbath, so the priests perform the temple service and are blameless with regards to the Sabbath.

Or consider the example of circumcision. Under the Old Covenant, every male child must be circumcised on the eighth day. If the eighth day falls on the Sabbath then those two laws are again in conflict. If the child is circumcised on the eighth day the Sabbath is broken; if the Sabbath is kept then the law of circumcision is broken.  The covenant is greater than the Sabbath, so again circumcision is performed even on the Sabbath, and those who perform this service are innocent of breaking the Sabbath. When two laws conflict, the greater commandment is kept.

Now consider that the greatest commitment is to love God, and the second is like it, to love our neighbors.  It follows then that we forgive each other. What is forgiveness except for love being taken into account as greater than our sins?

More could be said about the place of repentance in the heart of the one who acted without love and sinned against his neighbor and so broke God's greatest law in the first place. There is no need for forgiveness unless the law of love was already broken by the one who needs forgiveness. More could be said about the value of the law in teaching us how to love and how to reconcile justice and mercy. (After all, the greater part of mercy is love and respect for the wrongdoer, and the greater part of justice is love and respect for the wronged.) And how can we show the wrongdoer respect without endorsing the evil itself, unless the wrongdoer repents? If the wrongdoer repents in truth, he will lead the way in seeking to make things right for the anyone who was harmed by his actions.

All that said: the commands to love are greater than the other commandments.  So it follows that the true penitent is always met with love. That is why we approach God with confidence. That is why the people that we know should be able to approach us with the same confidence. Once they have abandoned whatever harm they are causing, their welcome will be sure. Because love is greater than their sins.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Is "selflessness" a good thing?

I've often heard people discuss being "selfless" as if it were a virtue. And yet it is not the same thing as love. Hermits may be selfless (or not), they may deny themselves, but that is not love. No one is blessed by it. No one is helped by it. No one else's life is made warmer or brighter or deeper by it. No one has their distress or loneliness relieved, or adds to their bonds of fellowship. Is there any gain in self-sacrifice for its own sake? The difference between selflessness and love is the difference between Eleanor Rigby and Mother Theresa.

The God-honoring alternative to selfishness is that we should love each other.