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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

 

Hide and go seek

I ran across a term that I hadn’t heard before in the book, “Left Behind and Loving It”.  The term was ‘epistemological crisis”.  It is when you learn something that turns your whole world upside-down.  It’s not just a paradigm shift, but it is a moment when your belief system is challenged by a truth discovery.

How do you respond in such an instance?  Perhaps the better question is, “How many time have you changed political positions, religious conceptions or intellectual positions when something challenging has been presented to you?”

The Scriptures can effect such a crisis.  Actually, that is what Scripture should do.  The individual should be confronted by issues, problems and confusing texts.

How do you respond to Scripture which challenge your belief system (even a ‘Christian’ belief system)?  Do you ignore it, shut it down, rely on cultural Christianity to save the day?  Or, do you just say, “That must be wrong”, and forget about it?

Maybe you decide to look for answers from someone else.  You look for someone who is ‘on your side’, and who you can trust.  You reinforce your beliefs to defend yourself against the troubling questions Scripture brings up.

These are simply the efforts of the Old Adam to avoid the onslaught of the challenging propositions in Scripture.  The Old Adam can hide behind ignorance, other people’s knowledge, avoidance, or changing the subject.  This is all rooted in fear.

We are afraid that God will kill the Old Adam.  We identify so closely with him, that we find fig leaves to protect our vulnerability from a God who is trying to expose it.  Ultimately, this means we fear the cross.

You see, the cross is not just for Jesus.  It is for us, too.  We use our strengths, resources or other means to defend us against a God who inspired the authors of Scripture to put some challenging things before our eyes.

However, once the text troubles us to our core, then God is able to make us new; to re-birth us through the process.  If you allow this to happen, it is scary.  You will have to depend on the Holy Spirit to help you understand the Scripture.  He will have to be your guide as you try to distinguish between Law and Gospel.  He will have to guide you to find Christ in the passage that troubles you.  He will have to be the one to hold your hand as you are transformed from arrogant to humble.

Church plays a vital role in this process of ‘letting go’.  You may experience a crisis of faith (this is not necessarily a bad thing).  Without the guidance of your pastor, you can end up in heresy or agnosticism.  The pastor is concerned with your eternal salvation, and can be a support as you struggle to understand, reflect, and ultimately, grow through the reading of Scripture.  Forsaking the assembling together would be foolish and dangerous.

May God keep you in His will,

John

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Psalm 19:1:

To the choirmaster. A Psalm of David. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Romans 1:20:

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.

These verses would seem to imply that Scripture is not necessary to know God.  Additionally, it calls into question the need for church, not to mention the sacraments. In fact, any intermediary could be perceived as an obstacle to seeing God for who He is.

But, what is perceived about God?  His Glory, His eternal power, and His divine nature.  Can you and I find comfort in these things?  We might be awed by this creation, feeling very small and insignificant, but not comforted.

The God perceived in nature never leads us to Jesus.  It never leads us to a justifying God.  It never leads us to forgiveness.  For that matter, it never leads us to seeing our sins for what they are.

Where does one learn of these things?  Where does one find salvation from a Glorious, eternally powerful, divine God?  Only in the church where Christ is rightly proclaimed, where the law and Gospel are rightly divided, and where the sacraments are given for you.  Now, that’s Glorious!

Scaffolding the self

 

Extensive scaffolding on a building in downtow...

Extensive scaffolding on a building in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Human beings make an art form out of self-preservation.  They invest in scaffolding to hold up the corpse of the Old Adam.

 

More often than not, these scaffolds appear ‘religious’.  Re-packaging makes them appear to be new, but they are ancient.  The big three are Morality, Mysticism, and Speculation.  Although they appear to be significantly different, they all operate on the same premise.  They are based in self-effort to reach the Holy.

And, self-effort to reach the Holy is rooted in the Old Adam:

Romans 5:12: ‘Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned …’  The strange part of this is that Christians deny that their Old Adam still lives.  In fact, the Old Adam works to preserve itself through the three modes listed above.

Morality, Mysticism and Speculation are all efforts to preserve the sinful self.  The cross is an offense to us not because it crucifies these three, but because it crucifies the self.

And, we are unwilling to die.  It goes against our nature.  We want to preserve that ‘religious’ part of ourselves.  So, we erect one, two or all three of the scaffolds in an effort to prop up the corpse of the Old Adam and loudly proclaim, “I am alive!” when nothing could be more silly or further from the truth.

The Morality scaffold appeals to that part of us that says doing good will result in a happier life.  In fact, there is a kernel of truth to this in our earthly lives.  Morality leads to better relationships, and a ‘clean conscience’.  The downsides, however, are guilt and shame (when you realize that you can’t ‘pull it off’ perfectly) or arrogant pride and judgement of others (hypocrisy).  Scripture is not just interpreted literally, it is interpreted literalistic-ally.

The Mysticism scaffold appeals to that part of us that wants to ‘see God’.  Beneficially, people become more committed to spending one-on-one time with God.  In a busy world, the experience of retreating can be calming and re-invigorating.  The other end of this, though, is that Scripture is a kind of launching point into a ‘cloud of knowing’ (analogous use of Scripture).  Ultimately, it denies the incarnate nature of Christ and Christianity.

The Speculation scaffold presents a very attractive possibility.  It lies within the reason and logic of man.  It is ‘familiar’.  It leads to a greater growth and understanding of the human mind.  It is logical, clear, organized and clean.  Unfortunately, it struggles with reality.  Speculators look at Christ on the Cross and see it as the stained glass through which one can see ‘God as He really is’.  They want to deny that Christ on the Cross is God as He really is … the dying-for-me-God.  Scripture is evaluated through the lens of a certain logic, and massive efforts are made to make it ‘fit’ the human mind.

All of these have long traditions, histories and adherents.  And, it may seem that I am attacking the big three.  The real issue is not the big three, though.  The real issue is the Adam that produced the big three.

This Old Adam wants nothing more than to be left alone by the Jesus who infiltrates our world.  He doesn’t want to see a passive righteousness given to us by a God whose greatest work was His passive death on the cross.  He doesn’t want to hear that God became sin for us.  He doesn’t want to hear that the big three are the beautiful flowers of a plant that is dead.  He doesn’t want to accept forgiveness, because he didn’t ‘earn it’.  In short, the Old Adam wants to maintain control of his own spirituality.  And that, my friends leads to death.

Romans 5:

     15 But the free gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one the many died, much more did the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abound to the many. 16 The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification. 17 For if by the transgression of the one, death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.

 

rung out

Jacob's Ladder, sculpture by Eddy Gabriel for ...

Jacob’s Ladder, sculpture by Eddy Gabriel for Tempus Arti, LAnden, Belgium, 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Everyone who believes in God has a ladder theology.  Christianity utilitzes various ladders that have been developed over the centuries.  These emerged (either consciously or unconsciously) from a narrative in Genesis 28:

10 Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. 11 He [e]came to [f]a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it [g]under his head, and lay down in that place. 12 He had a dream, and behold, a ladder was set on the earth with its top reaching to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. 13 And behold, the Lord stood [h]above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give it to you and to your [i]descendants. 14 Your [j]descendants will also be like the dust of the earth, and you will [k]spread out to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and in you and in your [l]descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have [m]promised you.”   (emphasis mine)

The idea that we can climb up to heaven to see God in all His glory is very attractive.  It has so enveloped some people that they actually gave up their “normal lives” to live in communes of one sort or another.  This was so they could pursue direct, unencumbered communion with the Almighty.  Adherents to this purpose developed what was called the “monk’s ladder” (From Guigo II, Scala Claustralium in Latin).  It included four rungs: 1. reading Scripture, 2. Meditating on the Scripture to find the hidden meaning (seeing all scripture as analogy; an error), 3. Prayer as response, and 4. Quiet contemplative living.

Others have developed ladders based not in a personal encounter with the Almighty, but on the personal effort of satisfying God’s moral demands.  Their ladder is a morality that was derived from Scripture and other sources, including socio-cultural norms.  Scripture is useful for becoming more like God.

Finally, the last group has developed a ladder that satisfies the mind and fills in the gaps of understanding that Scripture presents.  These people have developed a ladder based on speculation.  Disatisfied with the tensions of Scripture, they attempt to resolve these tensions through logical reasoning.  For the most part, they, like the other mentioned earlier are recipients of Platonic thought.  Their error is that they don’t take God at His word, but need to justify God’s words.  They climb the ladder of an intellectual form of Christianity that doesn’t need to wrestle with the self.  Instead of facing the crucifixion, they narrowly avoid it by rationalism.

All of these have inherited the disease of the tower builders in Genesis 11.  We all believe that we can reach God(hood) if we have the right method.  Only one problem: it’s idolatry of the self.

Into Babel, God brought the judgment of dividing people based on language.  Into our idolatry, he brings the curse of death.  And , in fact, these ladders are a proof that we are dead.  We need someone to descend into our burial hole to rescue us from the death we are in.

That person has already come.  His name is Jesus, and He has come to crucify our idolatry and utterly demolish our ladders.  In fact, He has come to replace these ladders with the original one promise from Genesis 28.  A very small reference in John chapter 1 will make this clear.  It is so brief that you have probably read over it:

51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, youwill see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on’ the Son of Man.”  Jesus, alone, is the Ladder who has come out of heaven and brought heaven down to earth.

Amen

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