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Jesus is the problem

Over the years, I have seen t-shirts, bumper stickers, etc., which express a simple thought about Jesus in order to appeal to the un-churched.  One of them goes like this; ‘Jesus is the answer’.

While I don’t disagree with this statement, it doesn’t do too much to connect everyday people with their Savior.  Most people probably read this and then go about their day.

Let me offer an alternative, ‘Jesus is the problem’.

At first blush, this looks blasphemous.  Yet, let’s consider how Jesus was received by the Pharisees of his time:

 10Then it happened that as Jesus was reclining at the table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were dining with Jesus and His disciples. 11When the Pharisees saw this, they said to His disciples, “Why is your Teacher eating with the tax collectors and sinners?” (Matthew 9, NASB).

They had a problem with Jesus.  He wasn’t holding to the Law in the way that they were.  They were holding Him to a standard that focused on outward righteousness and adherence to the Law.  They expected Him to be ‘squeaky clean’.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Jesus touched the sick.  This was enough to make a person unclean!  An unclean rabbi?!! Perish the thought!  Jesus was their problem.

The Pharisees were caught up in their own righteousness defined by external law-keeping.  Instead of leading them to Christ, they were offended, no, scandalized by Jesus.  They couldn’t conceive of a God-man who was able to infect the sick with health, infect the blind with sight, infect the dead with life.

Their Law-observance led them away from the God who gave them the Law.  Law observance leads to two main directions: 1. Self-righteousness and unwillingness to become unclean, or 2. Despair and rejection of God’s Law (rebellion).  It lead the Pharisees to condemn Jesus and plot how they might destroy Him.  That’s one way to get rid of the problem!

You would think His disciples were better at understanding who Jesus was.  But, they were constantly jockeying for position:

35James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.” 36And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?” 37They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory” (Mark 10, NASB).

They believed Jesus would enter Jerusalem and fulfill the ascension Psalms (1 and 2).  They were about to have a great king, and they were on the inside!

So, Jesus corrected their thinking with the Servant Songs from the last portion of Isaiah (just read Isaiah 53).  Jesus had to become the scapegoat for human sin before He ascended to the throne.  Jesus was their problem.

Both the Pharisees and the disciples were Theologians of Glory.  The Pharisees were invested in their self-righteousness, position and power to be pleasing to God.  The disciples were invested in their sacrifice and in the ‘big pay off’ from following Jesus.

But, Jesus introduced a new Theology into the world.  Jesus was THE Theology of the Cross.  His death meant the end of the Law because He fulfilled the Law and swallowed the consequences for law-breakers.  The Pharisees who had believed that they were ‘pulling it off’ could now find the consequence to their behavior on the Cross that Jesus hung on.

The disciples, hopelessly defeated at Jesus’ death would find out that the truth was much deeper and greater than their own ambitions.  Jesus’ resurrection was the demonstration of the power of God.  It also meant that they lived in the reality of a new life; a new creation.  And, as the Spirit was poured on to them, they experienced the beginning of this new creation.  They became self-less, pouring out their lives in true sacrifice, rather than self-serving ambition.

We don’t want to think about this.  Christians don’t want to believe that they have a problem.  They’d rather go to their Christian chiropractor, their Christian dentist, and their Christian plumber and keep clean.  This is much easier than finding our righteousness was never ours from the start.  So, we return to our own vomit.

That’s why Jesus gets in the way of the things we really want to believe.  He gets in the way of what we really want to do.  All of the religious observance meant to earn God’s favor.  All of the brown-nosing ambition.  It’s all rooted in the same beetle-ridden dead tree; the self.

So, Jesus came.  The only way to end our self-idolatry was to die for it.  And in His death, at His cross, He frees us from bondage to law-keeping and selfish ambition.    He did this by becoming sin, being crucified and crushed for your sin and mine by God the Father.  He buries you with Him in Baptism.  And, the coup de grace was that he was justifying you in His resurrection.  He has made you a new creation through this work.

Therefore, there is no reason to return to the Law for righteousness.  Christ, Himself is your righteousness.  Live in the light of the Son of God who gave Himself for you.  The problem has become the answer.

Amen

 

Bound or free?

Why do I do what I do?

Over the short course of my career as a bi-vocational pastor, my eyes have been opened to the nature of sin.  It is not that I am pre-occupied by it.  The Lord made me in such a way to desire more than the simple answer.  I always want to know the answer to “why?”

It might go something like this; I see someone gossiping.  I understand that gossip is a sin, but if you simply address the surface-level sin, then you are treating the symptom, not the illness.  Other pastors might say, “Well, the root is sinfulness!”  That is true, too, but this statement doesn’t address the issue.

In my experience, it is helpful to consider the factors which lead someone to behave in this way.  I want to understand human behavior.  Buried under the human psyche, the surface sin might be emanating from something much deeper.  Maybe some kind of pain or trauma that the person has had.  Maybe a feeling of vulnerability that lies just beneath the surface.

So, whatever the case, I have come to realize that a person who spends their time gossiping is in bondage.  Just as a person who rebels against God’s Law is not free, but in bondage.  Just as another who judges their fellow man is in bondage.

A person can recognize that they are bound; they can clearly see their own issue(s).  They can even feel guilty or convicted by their behavior.  Yet, they are unable to change their behavior.  They are slaves of sin.  This understanding helps me to be compassionate towards the person.

Hiding from ourselves

It would be easy to separate and divide others outside the church from those inside the church.  We could say, “Yeah, but look at what they do!  They’re much worse than I am!”  Religiosity blinds us from the fact that “YOU are the man!”  We don’t want to admit that we Christians are the ones who need to be set free from the “law (read rule) of sin and death”.

In order to do this, we set up complex structures of excuses, justifications or claims of ignorance.  Sometimes, we just don’t want to see our sin.  To be honest with you, it’s because the old Adam (or Eve) in us doesn’t want to be seen for who he/she is.

We are so bound by desire to preserve the old Adam , that we will pretend to be faithful on the outside just so the old Adam never gets exposed from the inside.  Let’s face it, the old Adam is good at hiding.

As sons and daughters of Adam, we hide behind piety which keep us in control.  Instead of letting God have His way with us, we have strengthened ourselves against the God who would save us from sin.  In reading the Gospels, you will find that it was the religious leaders, so invested in their own piety, who resisted the free Gospel of Jesus Christ.

No Surprise

It comes as no surprise, then, that the most Christian among us display these ‘cracks in their armor’.  Why?  Because they are not cracks at all.  Gossipers, rebels, the judgmental all see themselves as righteous, not really needing God at all.  All of these manifestations of sin are the evidence of bondage to sin.

This principle can be applied to nearly anyone who displays gross sin.  Please understand, I am not saying that we are excused from sin because we are enslaved by it.  All of these behaviors emanate from our own hearts, not someone else’s.  The devil didn’t make me do it.  It’s in my blood and in yours.

Our hope isn’t in our piety or religious observance, in fact, these are contributing to the problem.  You and I are tempted to overcome sin by behaving in a “Christian” way.  It won’t work.  Our good behavior cannot end our bad behavior.  It simply keeps the old Adam in control.  Instead, we need to find outside help.

“Who will rescue me from this body of sin and death?”

Paul the apostle writes the above in Romans 7:24.  In fact, He uses the present tense verb, am in the phrase, “wretched man that I am!”  Paul is describing his present condition in relation to the law.  What is this Holy Apostle to do?

He writes this, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord”.  Paul has abandoned himself (and his impeccable reputation) in light of his awareness of depth of sin.  He looks to the outside savior.  He looks not to the old Adam for overcoming sin that he sees in himself.  Instead, He looks to the New Adam, who overcame sin for him.

The experience Paul writes about is meant to help his readers identify with his plight and his salvation.  We are inside the struggling heart and mind of Paul, the Apostle.  And, he is not too proud to share his struggle with us.

His salvation came from the outside.  His Savior came from the outside.  Your Savior is completely outside of you, too.  He is on the cross dying for all of your sin and mine.  He is the only sacrifice for sin.

The church is where the outside work of Jesus makes a difference on our insides.  Not because we are religious or faithful, but because He is faithful to come to us in the proclamation of His Gospel.  He is faithful to be present in, with, and under the bread and wine (or, grape juice).  He is both the author and perfecter of our faith.  His forgiveness is a living forgiveness that is distributed by both word and sacrament.

Start new again.  In fact, start new every week.  Come wicked sinners.  Because, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst” (1 Tim. 1:15).  And, in the end, He will have His way with you anyhow (Forde).

Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

Return

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During the summer, many adult children are traveling back to their hometowns to visit parents and relatives.  They revisit the places and people who gave them their start in life.  Often, this experience re-kindles memories and dreams of the future which were lost under the layers of the years.

As we come up to the 500th year of the German Reformation, it is fitting to remember what we will be celebrating.  For the past few weeks, we have been reading snippets from the Book of Concord in anticipation of this event.  Some have never heard these words before, while the readings have re-kindled memories of Sunday school for others.  The words serve as a reminder of what we believe, teach and confess at Calvary.

Yet, at its core, the German reformation centered around one man.  Even more to the point, it centered on one man’s discovery.  What we will celebrate on October 31st, 2017 is the re-discovery of the Gospel by a monk named Martin Luther.

But, what is the Gospel?  Here is a quiz:

The Gospel is …

  1. The greatest commandment that Jesus gave — “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’38 This is the first and greatest commandment.39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37-40)
  2. Hearing the facts about Jesus and making a decision or praying a sinner’s prayer
  3. Surrendering your life to Christ fully
  4. Doing good works – Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.
  5. God’s only Son became man, lived among us, bore all our sins as a perfect sacrifice, was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day, He rose again.  By His work on the Cross, you have been forgiven all your sin, and been made right with God through His blood alone.

In the first four examples, ‘the gospel’ is contingent on my efforts.  You have to do something to earn God’s forgiveness, mercy and grace.  They are pre-requisites to salvation.  Faith is a result of what you do (even in your heart).

In the last example, faith is a result of what Jesus has done.  It is not a proposition to be decided on (as if I am God).  It is not a work of Christian piety (living a ‘spiritual’ life).  It is not determining to clean up one’s life.  It is not obeying God’s commandments.

The Gospel is Jesus Christ.  He is the Good News that God has come to rescue us.  God the Father has provided Jesus as the scapegoat for all of our sins.  And, He has rescued us from sin, death and the devil by becoming a curse for us.  At the cross, He paid the full penalty for your sin and mine.  In Him alone, we have the righteousness of God.

In preparing this article, I read the effect Luther’s re-discovery (through his commentary on Galatians) had on one reader.  The individual (Mike) wrote:

@brilliant – … I first encountered Luther’s works at a secular university where all of his works were free in the library. I was so happy to randomly start reading Galatians one day. I got so excited I photocopied the whole thing and marked up each line with a worn out highlighter. – Mike Jul 31 ’12 at 7:49  [emphasis mine]

(http://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/8742/when-and-how-did-martin-luther-arrive-at-the-justification-by-faith)

Although Luther has been with Jesus for almost five centuries, his rediscovery of the gospel is still making an impact (even in a secular university!).  We are inheritors of this discovery.  A discovery which comforts troubled consciences.  A discovery which breathes life and faith into the hearer.  A discovery based on one man’s decision.

Christ made the decision: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15).

His Gospel cuts through the layers of man’s efforts.  In fact, it completely undercuts man’s efforts at rescuing himself.

Whether you are a rebel openly disobeying God’s Law or you are a pietistic saint who follows every jot and tittle, the gospel is wholly outside of you, hidden in Christ.  All of the benefits of His death and resurrection have been applied to you in the waters of your baptism, and He continues to sustain you through word and sacrament.

Jesus essentially cries out “Return to me.  Forget the other nonsense.  Abandon open rebellion.  Abandon pietistic law-keeping.”  Jesus says the following in John 14:6, “I am the way the truth and the life.  There is no other way to the Father but by me.”

Later, John records Jesus saying, “I am the resurrection and the life” Christ is our life, our hope and our savior.  This is the Gospel we return to, reflect on, and make known to the world.  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  What an amazing discovery!

Amen

Pastor John

 

Carry on’s

We have some J.W.’s who occupy a hallway at the college I teach at.  They set up their article racks, sit on chairs and engage students who are interested in finding out more.

Sometimes, I want to put up a sign next to them that reads, “Arian Heresy” with an arrow pointed to their set-up.  I would sit next to them and explain to wayward souls why their beliefs are considered heresy.

One significant issue I have is their translation of the book of John.  They mistranslated the definite articles in John Chapter 1 to be indefinite articles (i.e., ‘the word was a god’)  This is theological malpractice.

However, they are not the only ones who participate in this unfortunate behavior.  Many English translations are subject to the “carry-on baggage” of modern evangelicals and Reformed Christians.  Don’t get me wrong; I am not accusing them of heresy.  What I am saying is that some of the choices they made do not accurately reflect the Greek.

One example that can be found in Greek in Galatians 2:16a:

16yet we know that a person is not justifiedb by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ… ‘

Here is the Greek for the words faith and Christ Jesus:

πίστεως Χριστοῦ Ἰησοῦ  (“Pisteos Christou Iesou”)  Do you see how the endings of both Christou and Iesou are ‘ou’.  This means that you have to add the word ‘of’ to it.  Pisteos is the noun form of ‘faith’.  Altogether, this means, “(the) faith(fullness) of Jesus Christ”.

This specific example happens in other parts of the New Testament, as well.  It makes a HUGE difference in the proper interpretation of Scripture.  I think it is enough to say that it can create a paradigm-shift in the thinking of the reader.

So, why did they do it?  Why is it consistently translated this way in almost every English translation?  Because the translators brought their carry-on baggage on board.  They brought their theology and imposed it on the text of Scripture.

If discovering a contradiction between your theology and the actual text of scripture overturns a previously-held belief, have the intellectual honesty and integrity to be crucified by it.  Be faithful in the translation of the text!  Salvation can hang on a single word!

Pray and let God worry

“Pray, and let God worry.” ― Martin Luther

Many years ago, Professor Rod Rosenbladt was teaching at an evangelical college. He taught a class on reformation history. During this class, some of his students became curious about the Lutheran expression of the Christian faith. One question really stuck with him. They asked, “Do Lutherans pray?”

The above question shows us that we need more people like the Rev. Dr. Rosenbladt to communicate the nature and content of the Lutheran expression to a Christian community which sees you and me as something of a mystery.

But, the question also reflects a sad belief that Lutherans are passive in their prayer life. That’s unfortunate. Luther, himself, said, “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.” He was not a fatalist. He did not believe in Que Sera, Sera. He believed in a God who actively answered the prayers of His people.

“Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. It is laying hold of His willingness” (Martin Luther). Many times, our mindset is that we have to “set aside” time for prayer. We need to have a prayer corner or a prayer closet to do this heavy lifting. Yet Paul writes this to the Thessalonians, “16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

What is your idea of prayer?  Is prayer a formal practice?  Is it an action that demands all of your mind?  Do you have to have all of your heart in it for it to work?  What obstacles prevent you from praying?  Paul didn’t command people to pray so they would be righteous in God’s sight.  That already happened at the cross outside of Jerusalem where Jesus died for you.

That cross wasn’t neat and tidy.  The instrument of Christ’s crucifixion was gruesome.  His death was messy.  And, it is the same way with prayer.  If we believe that prayer has to be at the right time, in the right place, with Holy piety, then we will never pray.  No, prayer is mostly a messy, half-spoken, half-believing mess.

We pray when we’re tired.  We pray when we’re in pain.  We pray when anxiety has overtaken us.  We pray when despair has already robbed us of faith.  We throw up figurative ‘Hail Mary’s and gamble on the chance that God hears us.

But, does He?  Does He hear me?  Sometimes, it seems He has locked Himself into a room and ignored my pleas.  It’s enough to make most people give up.  And some have.  It’s easy to become lazy or tired of repeating the same things.

“God wants us to pray, and he wants to hear our prayers—not because we are worthy, but because he is merciful” (Luther). Adding to this thought; God does hear us. Why? Because we are such good prayers? No, but because we pray them through Jesus Christ (Rev. Ron Hodel).

So, pray! Pray for yourself, your family, your church, your community. Pray for wisdom. Pray for guidance. Pray for help. Pray for healing. Pray for peace. Pray for hope. Pray for the proclamation of the Gospel every Sunday.

Pray, and let God worry.

Map Quest

Many years ago, I read the Hobbit. It was a real page-turner, and the version I had included a map of middle earth.  Every once in a while, I would have to refer to that map to understand what was happening in the story.  It was a helpful reference.

In preparation for the Easter Season, I began reading through the Gospel according to John. Jesus is going from one place to another in the Gospel.  He is constantly on the move.  You can visualize where He went by stopping to look at a Bible atlas every once in a while.

Very often, when He stopped, it was to interact with individuals who are in need. He goes to where they are at.  He doesn’t hand out tickets to the nearest convention center.  He doesn’t ask people to make an appointment through an executive’s assistant.  He meets them where they are at.

Recall the Samaritan woman. He doesn’t tell her to come to His synagogue on the Sabbath so she can hear the good news.  Instead, He sits down by Jacob’s well and meets this woman who has come to draw water from the well.

Or, recall the crowd by the Sea of Galilee who came to hear Jesus speak and receive healing. In their hunger, he doesn’t send them to the nearest McDonald’s.  Instead, He takes some loaves and fish and miraculously multiplies them so the crowd can eat.

Or, recall the man who had been ill for 38 years, and sat by the pool called Bethesda. He wanted to be healed.  He sat by the pool because an angel of the Lord would occasionally stir the waters and the first one in was the first one served with healing by God.  Jesus doesn’t tell Him to buy tickets for a healing, but speaks the spirit-filled word of God to him and he is healed.

In each case, Jesus met people who had need where they were at. Instead of hiding behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies, the Holy of Holies was meeting, touching and healing people where they were at.  John 1:14 states:

And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us

The word dwelt here is eskēnōsen. It means tabernacled, or lived in a tent.  Just like Abraham or ancient Israel during the Exodus, God the Son was a nomad.  Jesus was a wanderer; “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58).

This idea is reflected in Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman so many years ago:

19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”

21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem.

The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. Can you imagine how distressing that was?  Some churches in our time have fallen to the wrecking ball, too. But, the destruction of the temple did not bring an end to the worship of God.  In fact, the disciples had already spread the Gospel to the corners of the then-known world.  They met people where they were at.  They didn’t ask them to come to the temple.  They brought the true temple to the people.  That temple is Jesus as John records in Revelation 21:22:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.

Wherever you are on the map today, the temple of God is with you and He tabernacles with you to tabernacle with those in need.

By His mercy alone,

Pastor

From Discipleship to Apostleship

This past Sunday, we read from John 21 about the commissioning of Peter to feed and tend the lambs and the sheep of Jesus.  Many focus on the restoration of “Simon son of John” in the words, “Do you love me” said three times (which reflected Peter’s three denials).  Others reflect on the bodily resurrection of Jesus who had prepared breakfast for His disciples and spent time with them on the beach.

God has shifted my focus a bit, though.  At the end of the interaction, Jesus says to Peter (and the disciples with him), “Follow me”.  Jesus spoke this very phrase to the Philip in John 1:43.  The location of this event was in Galilee, as the event in John 21 was by the Sea of Galilee (our God is the same yesterday, today and forever).

But the type of “Follow me” spoken in John 1 is very different from what was spoken in John 21.  The calling of Philip and the other disciples in Jesus’ earthly life was  a call to listen, witness and practice a little.  It was discipleship.

Discipleship, then, is largely about receiving.  Small tasks are given to disciples, but mostly, they are to be ‘pew-warmers’, soaking up the Gospel message and witnessing the Kingdom of God’s  establishment in this world through Jesus Christ.

After Jesus died, was buried and was raised to life again, He was transformed.  He had to hand the mission on to His own disciples.  John 21 records some of this.  But, what did He mean now by “Follow me”.  Were they supposed to do the same thing?  Were they supposed to leave their nets and walk through Judea, Galilee and Samaria for another three-year stint, passively receiving the message and witnessing God’s work in this world?

No, they couldn’t.  If for no other reason, Jesus was about to ascend to His Father and sit at His right hand.  He would no longer be available as He had been before His resurrection.  So how are they to understand the commission to “Follow me”, now?  They certainly weren’t being called to sacrifice themselves in mass suicide.  How could they follow Jesus?

Just before Pentecost, the disciples gathered together in the upper room.  Luke records in Acts that there was ‘a group numbering about a hundred and twenty’ (Acts 1:15, NIV).  These included Jesus’ mother and brothers, women and men (1:14).  That is to say, the early Church was ‘in the house’.

As we know from reading Acts 2, 4 ‘All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.’  The mission became obvious to Peter and all around him.  They were to go out and proclaim the Gospel message.  They were ‘sent’ (apostéllō).  

Some remained locally, in Jerusalem, but others went to the ends of the known world.  Discipleship had been transformed from receiving to delivering.  Discipleship had been transformed through Jesus’ resurrection and sending of the Holy Spirit into Apostleship.

This happened through the work of God’s Holy Spirit.

Lutheran congregations get the discipleship side of things.  Luther was brilliant at explaining how we are Justified by Faith Alone in Christ Alone.  He explained how our righteousness is passively received, not gained by meritorious works.

And Lutheran pastors have been right to defend the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone.  However, most church members have only heard the discipleship side of the issue.  They don’t realize (or aren’t told) that they are given the means of grace (baptism, the Lord’s supper and the proclamation of the word) delivered with the Holy Spirit for Holy Apostleship.  What is received is meant to be delivered.

Perhaps we are waiting for a Pentecost experience.

Certainly, christian education and the proclamation of the Gospel are necessary before one ‘goes out’.  But, make no mistake, the goal for our congregations is not ‘pew-warming’, it’s pew-filling.  It is not merely the call of the one ordained in the front of the congregation!  Apostles begin as disciples but are not called to linger in this receptive phase for their entire lives.  They are to be called out.

This has already happened, though. Jesus has called out His people.  John has recorded the words.  Jesus says to all His disciples, Follow me!  And, by God’s grace delivered in the means given to and for the church, we will.

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