Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ

This is the start of a series of meditations on grace. The series starts by considering some of the ideas about grace in theology and in the Bible.

Grace comes through Christ. This seems like something on which all Christian should agree. Grace is God’s goodwill, his benevolence. God so loved the world that he sent his son, and sending his son was the most significant, irrevocable act of grace since creation itself, the very foundation of God’s grace towards a people who had lost the true knowledge of God.

So why do we talk about conditional election or unconditional election instead of Christ? Why do we talk about limited atonement and unlimited atonement instead of Christ? Why do we talk about irresistible grace or prevenient grace, instead of the grace that comes through Christ? When we talk about “irresistible grace”, we’re not talking about “God sending Christ into the world.” When we talk about “prevenient grace”, we’re not talking about “God sending Christ into the world.” That “grace” is some other means of grace, some other way in which God relates to us, besides Christ.  

Are we so sure that there really is another “grace” apart from the grace that comes through Christ? Sure, “grace” is a word with plenty of history and several meanings, but when we’re talking about receiving God’s love and favor, is there another grace apart from Christ? Irresistible grace is said to be some kind of electing grace that comes to us before Christ and apart from Christ, to lead us to Christ. Prevenient grace is much the same, just resistible. Both think of grace as some hidden thing that does not come through Christ, and in that sense is disconnected from Christ.  

But what if the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is the only such grace there is? What if it comes to us not in some mysterious inexplicable way, but by hearing the message of Christ? When we teach about God’s love and grace, what if we resolved to know nothing except Christ and him crucified? What if baptism is a sign to us that we’re united with Christ in his death and will be united with him in his resurrection? What if baptism proclaims the message that we’re forgiven and God calls us his children? What if the Lord’s Supper tells us that Christ’s body was broken for us and his blood was shed for us for the forgiveness of sins, and that we are welcome at his table? What if the good news of Christ is itself the power of God for our salvation?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Personal note: Once a week

For the first nearly 7 years of this blog, my schedule held reasonably constant and I had a posting schedule of twice a week. My schedule has changed -- and it seems likely to stay that way for at least a couple of years. I think I can probably only update once a week for the foreseeable future.

Thanks for reading. :)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Teenage Sunday School on Jesus as the Good Shepherd

It has been awhile since I posted any individual Sunday school lessons. This one in particular worked well with a class that is currently a mix of young teens and late pre-teens.This lesson is designed for Good Shepherd Sunday, but could be used at any time.

Opener: Game

Explain that the class will start with a game. Everyone will close their eyes. The teacher will move around the room quietly, and touch someone on the shoulder. That person will say "Good morning" (or choose any phrase that seems good), and the other students will raise their hands if they know whose voice it was. The teacher will call on someone who raised a hand to see if they can correctly identify whose voice they heard. The first time the teacher taps your shoulder you must use your own natural voice. After that, you may try to fool your classmates with other voices. (Do one example with everyone's eyes open to start the game.)

First Bible reading

Read John 10:1-5.

Ask the class to explain how that is like our game of recognizing voices. 

Recognizing Jesus' Voice

Explain that you are going to read a series of sayings, and most of them are things that Jesus said, but one is not. After each saying, the class should raise their hands if they think the words are from Jesus, and not raise their hands if they think someone else said the words.

Sample sayings:

"Love one another as I have loved you." (Jesus, though you don't tell the class that until they have raised their hands or not)

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." (Jesus)

"If the scholar is not grave, he will not call forth any veneration, and his learning will not be solid." (Confucius)

"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God." (Jesus)

Second Bible reading: Good Shepherd

Jesus calls himself the shepherd, and calls us his sheep. Have the class read Psalm 23 and tell them in advance they should look at what Jesus was saying when he called himself our shepherd. Work with the class on their understanding of Jesus as the one who restores our souls, provides for us even when we have enemies around us, guides us in the right way, and takes us safely through death.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A mother's prayer

Lord, thank you for (names)

Let them see the good in you, and love you for it, and follow you all their days. May they know your word, and understand the good to which you have called them. May they see the acts of beauty that they are meant to incarnate with their lives, and live lives of beauty that draw those around them to you.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Exactly How Focusing on Good Works Creates Hypocrisy

Picture a bowl of fruit in your kitchen, filled with apples or oranges or whatever you like. Picture the plant that grew the fruit, and yourself next to the plant. Now imagine the growing season, and you are trying to make the fruit grow big and sweet. You have a clear idea of what size the fruit should be, and how it should taste. Imagine trying to make the fruit grow bigger by measuring its shortcomings in comparison to better fruit, and treating the fruit directly in the hopes of growing bigger, tastier, more plentiful fruit.

Except it doesn't work that way. You can't cheerlead the fruit and expect that to make them grow. You can't guilt-trip the tree and expect that to work either. You have to have healthy roots, and healthy pruning, and all the things that go into a healthy plant. When that is done, the fruit takes care of itself with time.

So how exactly does focusing on good works create hypocrisy? If someone focuses on results but ignores the factors that matter -- the basic underlying health -- then good results won't happen, except by luck or accident. But when it comes to morality, good works are disturbingly easy to counterfeit. Sometimes there is a temptation to lower the bar, and rather than asking for love as Jesus asks us, instead we may be asked for some set of works that is attainable without love -- like not drinking, or praying a certain number of times a day, or not playing cards. We may be glad for the approval we obtain by fulfilling those requirements, glad to have the satisfaction that we achieve, and we may not ask whether it was a good thing to set our sights on a set of works that is attainable without love. I would compare those works to a bowl full of plastic fruit. We may even get a bumper crop of plastic fruit. Anyone who is measuring by appearance will be completely satisfied with a bowl of plastic fruit. It sure looks good, but the appearance without the substance is the heart of hypocrisy.

How does religion keep falling into the trap to become "rules taught by men"? How often has that pattern repeated itself? We fall into that temptation to demand a set of works we can attain without love. Jesus told the hypocrites of his day that they strained at gnats and swallowed camels. They even tithed from their little herb gardens, every tenth sprig of mint. That's devotion to the letter of the law. That desire for a set of rules we can follow without love, without any thought to justice and mercy: that's the camel.