Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Thursday and the Forgiveness of Sins

In recent years I have had a shift in my theology.  It is a shift which has to do with the forgiveness of sins, and it centers on the so-called Last Supper.  Further, the shift is a result of Jesus' revealing who would betray him.  You see, at the Passover meal, Jesus broke bread for all the disciples, and likewise shared the cup with all of the disciples.  As he passed the cup, he said that it was his blood poured out for the New Covenant and for the forgiveness of sins.  Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus, was present at that meal.  As I understand it, then, Judas, who had already been paid to betray Jesus, received forgiveness of his sin!  If Judas could be forgiven, how much more can we receive forgiveness of our sins?

Now, some have told me in response to this idea that Judas was forgiven of his sins prior to actually turning Jesus over to be crucified, and I see that is a valid interpretation of the Scripture.  Those who disagree will point out that Jesus said of Judas that it would have been better for him to have never been born.  I respect this interpretation, as I said, but offer a few thoughts in response.  First, in the Passion of Christ we see the humanity of Jesus for the first time.  For example, in the garden he prays, "If it is possible, Lord, take this cup away from me."  He asks his Father if he can take the earthly way out.  It is significant for us to see this humanity.  It is critical that we see Jesus, though wanting to escape the pain and humiliation of the arrest, trial and execution, turns to the divine, fulfilling the plan of the Great I Am.  We receive the grace of God through Jesus Christ through his ability to let the Divine overcome the human.  But the human aspect still struggles within him.  I argue that when Jesus told Judas it would have been better for him to never have been born, that this was the humanity of Jesus speaking out.

However, the greater reason I believe in the forgiveness of Judas' sin has to do with an argument I once heard.  A very anti-Semitic Christian was arguing with a Jewish-Christian in a Bible Study.  The Anti-Semite referred to the Jewish-Christian woman as a Christ Killer, to which she retorted that it was the Romans who crucified Jesus.  Back and forth they went, trying to decide who really killed Jesus.  As they argued more and more passionately, I found myself intrigued.  Finally, I burst out a response to the 2 of them which I would like to say was my own profound utterance.  However, the response actually came from God!  My response was that they were both right, but that they also both were guilty of crucifying Jesus Christ.  You see, in order to participate in the Forgiveness of Sins, we need to first realize that we all sin.  Anytime we have turned our backs of Jesus Christ, we have, in essence, participated in driving the nails into his hands.  When we turn the backs on those whom Jesus calls the least of his brothers and sisters, we turn our backs on Jesus, himself.  And When we turn our backs on Jesus, it is our own betrayal of our Lord!  Unless we realize our sins, we cannot participate in the forgiveness of those sins!

So today, as we remember the Last Supper and the betrayal of Jesus, let us also remember our own role in that betrayal.  Let us reflect on the times we have turned our back on the Least of Jesus' brothers and sisters.Let us repent of that sin, and recognize that it is our action our failure to act that makes us like Judas.  Let us receive that life-giving cup of forgiveness, that we may truly understand what forgiveness of sins means.

In grace and peace,


Saturday, March 12, 2011

The End of the World as We Know It: Thoughts About the Earthquake in Japan and Unrest in Egypt and the Middle East

For moths we have been watching as revolutions change the balance of power in Tunisia, Greece and Lybia.  The implications of these revolutions are far-reaching, affecting the United States in many ways.  We have seen gas prices rise at a time when gas prices usually go down.  We fear how this instability will affect our safety and security in the United States.

Yesterday we watched the fires burning out of control in Japan as a tsunami ripped over parts of the country after the largest earthquake on record hit the island.  As I am writing, Kyodo News Agency is reporting more then 9,500 people unaccounted for in Minamisanriku, Japan.  I've followed the Facebook status of a friend and former classmate in Japan, bringing the situation even closer to home.

My students often ask me if I think 2012 is going to happen, a reference to the end of the Mayan calendar and the idea that with the end of the calendar will come the end of the world.  I always reply, "Yes, it will happen.  And so will 2013, and 2014, and so on."  At times we find our selves living in utter fear of the end of the world.  False prophets take worldly disasters and turn them into apocalyptic signs.  They feed off of fear, misquoting Scripture, telling people the end is near.  One of these false prophets blamed the attack on the World Trade Center on homosexuality in the United States, saying God was punishing us for these homosexual acts.  I find it interesting that Jesus spoke at great lengths against divorce and adultery in the Bible, yet these false profits engage in both, yet Jesus never says a word about homosexuality, and they find this to be one of their hot topics!  I am anxious to hear the response of the false prophets to the devastation in Japan!  What reasons will they give for why God did this, and how do they think we should respond?

I for one do not believe that God causes disasters, natural or otherwise.  I believe that God's desire is for us to live faithful and healthy lives.  We are not to live in fear of tomorrow, but in joy for today.  When people suffer, I believe God pains, too.  I also believe that God has expectations of us in the face of tragedy; we are to find these times as a time to renew our faith and our commitment to God.  These are not signs of the end of the world or of the second coming.  When someone tells us that they know when the world is going to end, they are claiming to have wisdom beyond that of the Son of God.  Jesus said “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only." (Matthew 24:36)  However, when we see these signs, God calls us to remember to live each day as if it is our last!  What does that mean?  It means to make amends with our enemies and with God.  It means to love God and our neighbor with all our heart and mind and soul.  It means to live for today, without worrying about what tomorrow will bring!

So in the aftermath of the tsunami and earthquake and the unrest in Northern Africa and the Middle East, I challenge you to live not in fear, but in love.  Consider how you can serve those in Japan as they mourn thousands of their citizens' deaths.  Consider how you can bring hope and good news to those around you.  Do not focus on the fear of the unknown tomorrow brings, but on the hope and joy that is in the present.  Live each day as if it were your last, loving as much as you can, giving as much as you can, and worshiping God as much as you can!  Tomorrow will have its own problems.  Live in peace!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lenten Sacrifices

Yesterday began the season of Lent, the 40 days before Easter, not counting Sundays.  We don't count Sundays because Sundays are to be mini-Easters, a time to celebrate, not sacrifice.  The idea of the sacrifice is reminiscent of Jesus's time in the wilderness, where he fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and was famished, leading up to his temptations by Satan.  Forty days was also the length of time of the flood which destroyed and purified the world, and the Hebrews wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, again, a time of sacrifice prior to entering the Promised Land.

Lent is preceded by Mardis Gras, or Fat Tuesday, which bothers me.  Why would we overindulge in food or partying as a way of kicking off Lent, a time of Sacrifice.  It reminds me of the story of the preacher who was found drunk in a bar, flirting with a married woman.  When asked how he could do such a thing, he responded, "Hey, I can't preach against sin if I don't know what it is!"

When I was younger, my Lenten sacrifice was always popcorn.  Why, you ask?  Because I don't like popcorn.  I listened to people say they were giving up chocolate or candy or soda for Lent, and when I would ask why, they would say, "I need to lose weight.  The idea of a sacrifice during Lent did not really make sense to me.  After all, why would God want me to punish myself?  However, as I studied Scripture and Church Tradition, I began to understand the Lenten Sacrifice in a new way.  The purpose of the Sacrifice is not to make us suffer.  Rather, the purpose of the sacrifice is to draw us closer to God.  That which we give up, if we give up anything at all, is intended to bring us closer to God, and to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ.  So, in giving something up, we find a way to replace the void that it creates with God.  Sometimes the Sacrifice is something that gets in the way of our relationship, altogether, in which case we try to make it a permanent change in our lives.  Other times, we give up something we enjoy, in order to fill the void with God.  Either way, we grow in our relationship with God in the process.

There have been 3 life-changing Lenten Sacrifices I have made in the past.  The first was anger.  I would bottle up my anger, then when I could not control it any more, I would go by a car and let the anger be released with hostility toward the car dealer.  One year I decided to change that.  When I found myself getting angry, I would stop, step away, spend some time in prayer, then reengage in the situation.  I have to admit, it took longer then 40 days to make the change, but now people who know me are amazed when I say that I have had problems with anger.  Anger got in the way of my relationships with other people, and consequently got in the way of my relationship with God.

The second life-changer was when I fasted on Wednesdays.  The intention was not to lose weight, though that should have been a prime motivator.  During the breakfast hour, when I would normally eat, I read one of John Wesley's sermons.  At lunch, I would journal my reflections on the sermon.  At dinner, I would work on my own sermon for the coming Sunday, using Wesley as a guide.  I replaced the times that I was hungry with times that I was studying God's word, as interpreted by the founder of the Methodist Church.  I found Wesley to be fascinating in theology, though dry in delivery.  And I found myself reflecting more on my sermons then I ever had in the past.

The last life-changer was when I gave up shoe leather.  Shoe leather, you may ask?  Yes, that is what I said.  You see, I realized that I had become quick to comment on what people said or did.  I was like Peter in the Gospels:  always first to speak, not always saying the right things.  So for Lent, I gave up putting my foot in my mouth.  I tried to approach situations in a more reflective way, hearing what people said, then considering how I responded.  I found that through reflection I was better able to understand what people were saying, as I was not quick to judge them.  I found that prior to giving up shoe leather, I was already forming a response to what I thought someone was going to say before they finished what they were really saying, which was often not what I thought it was.  This reflective listening helped me to improve my relationships with people, which consequently helped me improve my relationship with God.

I have not decided if I will give something up for Lent this year.  If I do, it will be done to help me to become closer to God.  I would also ask that if you decide that you want to give something up for Lent, you will consider how it will make you closer to God, for that is what the Lenten Sacrifice is all about!  If you do give something up meaningfully and thoughtfully, you will find Easter morning to me much more rewarding, for you will not be thinking about a distant God, but about the Lord and Saviour you are in a great relationship with.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Form of Worship, Isaiah 58:1-9

Isaiah 58 tells about God's people having the form of faith without the function, something that happens all too often, I believe.  The people cry out to God, asking why God does not see or recognize their fasting or acts of righteousness.  God replies with a great voice that their fasting is for their benefit, not God's.  Their fasting leads to quarreling and fighting, as well as to the oppression of others.  The righteous acts of the people are for show, a measure to make themselves feel better about who they think they are.

The story is the same today as it was back then.  Too many people who call themselves Christian have the form of faith and worship without the function.  I've heard it said that this is "Sitting on the premises, not standing on the promises."  There are many who consider themselves Christians because they go to church, but outside of that, we would have no idea that they were Christian.  I remember, for example, coming home from church one Sunday and stopping by the grocery store on the way.  I parked in the back of the lot and walked across to the store.  As I got close to the store, I came across two women in different cars fighting for the same parking spot.  Both women were dressed to the nines, looking like they were coming from church.  One had a huge Bible on her dashboard, the other with a plastic Jesus on the dash board and a "Honk if You Love Jesus" bumper sticker.  They were honking and shaking fists at each other.  I went into the crowded store, waited in a long line to pay for my loaf of bread, and came back out maybe 15 minutes later, only to find the two women still fighting over the same spot!  The weather was perfect, the parking lot was not completely full, and they could have already both been parked and in the store shopping if they were not fighting over the spot.  They had the form of faith (the Bible, plastic Jesus, bumper sticker, and having come from church), but they sure did not have the function!  There was no love of neighbor in the interaction.  There was no turning the other cheek or giving of one's coat or cloak.  There were 2 self-centered women who felt entitled to a decent parking space.

There are many threats to Christianity today.  I've heard people speak of Islam being the biggest threat to the Christian faith, while others have said it is homosexuality, and still others abortion.  However, the biggest threat to Christianity today is none of these external forces.  If any external force were to be a threat to Christianity, it would only be because the greatest threat had already played out.  This greatest threat to Christianity is those who call themselves Christian while not living that calling!  Those who are quick to condemn others, those who turn their backs on the needy, those who do not love God and neighbor, those who are sitting on the premises!  For Christianity to flourish, we must return to standing on the promises!  Worship is the starting point, not the focal point.  Worship is where we hear what God wants so when we leave we can do God's will.

So where are you?  What will you do to live your faith?  God is not looking for a good show.  God is looking for action.  Do not be like the people of Israel which Isaiah spoke to.  They thought God would look favorably upon them for their worship.  While God does want us to worship, God also wants us to live that worship.  Thanks be to God!

Monday, January 24, 2011

1 Corinthians 1:18-31; The Calling of the Fools

In this passage of Scripture, Paul talks about what we believe:  Christ Crucified.  He explains that this was difficult for the people of his time, both Jewish and Greek.  He says that the Jews want signs and the Greeks want wisdom, and that with Christ Crucified we have neither.We have no sign, only faith, to tell us that Christ Jesus was crucified, and with his Crucifixion there is no secret wisdom.  There is just the knowledge that our sins are forgiven!

Paul then goes on to talk about who God calls.  He tells his audience that most of them are not wise, nor are they born of noble birth or power, yet God called them because they believed in the simple story that Jesus came into the world, lived among us, died at the hands of angry and sinful men, and was raised from the dead.  In addition, they believed that through this they had forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.  This was good news for these who had little by worldly standards.  And the reason God did this, according to Paul, is to shame the wise and the powerful by offering something greater then they have to offer to much simpler people.

"1:27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 1:28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 1:29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God."

The worst that God has to offer is much greater then the best that those in the world have to offer.  We would do well to remember this!  Nothing we do is good enough to earn us a spot with the Crucified Christ, yet we are there with him, by the grace of God.  What we have from God is more then we can give to ourselves; it is more then church leaders or national politicians can give.   And it is our for the taking.  All we need to do is have faith in Jesus Christ, and him crucified!  Thanks be to God!