Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Whole Armor of God

Ephesians 6:10-20
10Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
19Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

I've tended to stay away from preaching the Epistles, as I often feel I am not educated enough to really interpret them as well as I would like. However, at times I challenge myself to grow in my understanding of Scripture by researching, studying, praying over, and preaching on Scriptures I would otherwise avoid. This week is one of those times. My focus is on a fairly familiar passage from Ephesians, where the writer tells us to put on the whole armor of God. While many are familiar with the passage, I am not sure how much thought we give to the power of the passage. The war imagery gives us a stark picture of the dark reality of the times. On first reading the passage, my thought is that the church in Ephesus was preparing itself to wage war with the Romans, who were persecuting Christians at the time. However, the author clearly sates that the battle is not against flesh and blood, but against "spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (vs. 12)." How was the church at Ephesus to fight dark spiritual forces? How are we to fight dark spiritual forces today?

We fight the forces by first recognizing how they are manifest, then by suiting up for battle. The manifestation of these forces is known to us in the form of those who act counter to the will of God. It is not the individual that we are fighting, as they are enslaved to the dark forces in the same manner that we are enslaved to God through Jesus Christ. This is very important to recognize. Our battle is not to conquer evil people, but to offer people hope and salvation. This is where the armor imagery comes to light. Consider the armor we wear:
·      The first piece of equipment we are told to put on is the belt, which stands for truth or righteousness. A Roman soldier in good standing was to wear his belt with the sword attached at all times. This was the sign that he was a soldier. The belt was not only meant to carry the sword, but also to show that the wearer was a soldier. If a soldier was insubordinate, he would be stripped of his status. Loss of the belt mean loss of status. For Christians, the belt represents truth. We live in the truth that Jesus is the Christ and we live according to that truth.
·      The next piece of the uniform is the breastplate. This defensive piece of equipment protects the vital organs of the Roman soldier.  For the Christian, the breastplate is righteousness. Being righteous protects us from the temptations of the dark spiritual forces.
·      Next comes the footware. The military sandals gave the warrior protection on the soles of his feet to keep him upright and able to fight. For the Christian, the sandal is the gospel; we stand firm on the gospel of Jesus Christ, and are strengthened through that gospel.
·      The next piece of equipment was the shield, a large, lightweight piece of metal that could easily protect the body during combat. For the Christian, the shield is faith. When we are uncertain and afraid, our faith gives us courage and hope.
·      Next comes the helmet, protecting our brains and our heads. For the Christian, the helmet is salvation. We cannot be killed spiritually; we have new life (salvation) in Jesus Christ.

Finally, the soldier is equipped with a sword, the only offensive weapon in the soldier's uniform. For Christians, the sword represents the Holy Spirit, or the word of God. Think about this--all the defensive pieces of armor God gives to us, and only one weapon for offence. God equips us with armor to identify and protect ourselves from head to toe. Yet, God only gives us one simple weapon for spreading the gospel. There is no mention of a dagger, of bow and arrow, of spears or javelins. We are not divided into infantry or cavalry. We have one simple role in the war on the spiritual forces of darkness--proclaim the gospel through our words and deeds. Live after the example of Christ, and we will overcome the forces of evil. God will take care of the rest.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Musings of a Methodist Minister: No Greater Love

Musings of a Methodist Minister: No Greater Love: Luke 22:14-23:56 14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.  15 He said to them, “I have eagerly d...

Musings of a Methodist Minister: No Greater Love

Musings of a Methodist Minister: No Greater Love: Luke 22:14-23:56 14 When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him.  15 He said to them, “I have eagerly d...

No Greater Love

Luke 22:14-23:56
14When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. 15He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; 16for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” 17Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; 18for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 20And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.
21But see, the one who betrays me is with me, and his hand is on the table. 22For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed!” 23Then they began to ask one another, which one of them it could be who would do this.

I am concluding a series of series of sermons about God using imperfect people to accomplish God's work.  As I consider all the imperfect people God used, none stands out more than Judas Iscariot.  Judas is a troubling figure in scripture.  He seems to be doomed for doing the will of God, which is quite troubling to me.  As a result, I've been studying the scriptures and legends around his role in Jesus' death and how God used him.

Only Matthew and Acts speak of Judas' death, and they do not agree with each other. Matthew tells that Judas hanged himself, while Acts tells that Judas fell and was disemboweled.  The Gospel of Judas, written in the first century A.D., tells that Judas was actually asked by Jesus to betray him as part of God's plan, while the Gospel of Barnabas, which was written much later, says that Judas was actually the one who was crucified, and Jesus ascended directly to Heaven.  These varying accounts bring to light the fact that people have been troubled from the beginning about God's use of Judas in the crucifixion narrative.

As I read the accounts of the betrayal of Jesus, I believe that Judas was forgiven of his sin. Judas went to the Chief Priests to offer to betray Jesus, and was paid thirty pieces of silver to do so. He then was with Jesus and the twelve at the Last Supper. This is key to my understanding of grace, the sacrament of Holy Communion, and the forgiveness of Judas. Jesus served all twelve disciples, including Judas, the bread of his body, and more significantly, the cup of the new covenant, which is forgiveness of sins not through blood sacrifice, but through belief in Jesus Christ. Jesus had to be betrayed. Jesus had to die at the hands of sinful people in order to offer redemption to sinful people. In fact, I believe that each of us, when we sin, share responsibility in the betrayal and death of Jesus Christ. We must, or we can not share in the gift of redemption through Jesus Christ.

I shared this theology with a colleague, who dismissed it based on the response of Jesus. Jesus said, "...woe to the one that one by whom he is betrayed (Luke 22:22), which my colleague interpreted as Jesus condemning Judas to Hell." I disagree, however. I believe the words of Jesus had more to do with his wrestling with his own humanity. We don't see the human side of Jesus often in Scripture.  Yet on the night of his betrayal and day of his crucifixion it is starkly obvious. Jesus condemns the very man he has just given the cup of salvation to. He asks God in the garden to remove the cup, if it is possible. He tells the disciples they will all fall away and deny them. He collapses under the weight of the cross he carries to Golgotha. He is the first of the three condemned men to die. Jesus' words to Judas were his human words spoken in the grief and despair of a man facing a cruel and torturous death. Yet even in this grief, Jesus offers his betrayer the cup of salvation. And if the sin of betraying Jesus Christ can be forgiven by Jesus Christ, how much more can our sins be forgiven?

So let us take heed of the words of Martin Luther:  "Be a sinner and let your sins be strong, but let your faith in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death and the world."1 Acknowledge that we are sinful, but through faith in Christ, our sins are forgiven.  Glory to God!

Sin Strong: A Letter From Luther to Melanchthon Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521, From the Wartburg (Segment) Translated by Erika Bullmann Flores from: Dr. Martin Luther's Saemmtliche Schriften Dr, Johannes Georg Walch, Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol. 15,cols. 2585-2590.   Letter no. 99, 1 August 1521, From the Wartburg

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wrestling With God

Genesis 25:29-34
29Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. 30Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) 31Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” 32Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 33Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. 34Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Comedian Chris Farley had a skit on Saturday Night Live called, "The Chris Farley Show." In the skit, he would interview actors, but instead of asking them about upcoming movies, or allowing them to share projects they were working on, he would ask inappropriate questions. He was nervous, and would ask if the interviewee remembered a particular scene from a previous movie, saying, "That was awesome!"  He then would realize how badly the interview was going, would hit himself on the head, and would call himself an idiot. When I read the story of Jacob swindling Esau out of his birthright, I imagine Esau as Chris Farley on the Chris Farley Show.

Jacob and Esau were constantly at odds.  Jacob was loved by his mother, while Esau was loved by his father.  Each tried to outdo the other.  It got so bad that at one point Jacob had to run away because Esau planned to kill him!  Jacob went to stay with his Uncle Laban, who was about has dubious as Jacob!  Jacob lived with Laban's family for 20 years, marrying his two daughters and making him a very rich man.  However, Laban and Jacob, like Esau and Jacob, were constantly trying to deceive the other for personal gain.  Jacob came to a point where he knew he had to leave, lest Laban get the other hand and Jacob loose everything.  But where was there to go?

Jacob nervously decided to take his wives and children and return home to Esau. As he drew near, he sent servants with troves of gifts to try to soften his brother.  However, the servants said Esau would not receive the gifts and that he and 400 men were coming to greet Jacob.  Jacob divided his children among their mothers and sent them a ways off in an effort to keep them safe. As he waited, a man wrestled with him through the night, and in the morning, Jacob had the upper hand.  Jacob demanded a blessing from the stranger. The man asked Jacob's name.  When Jacob responded, the stranger revealed his true identity by saying, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed (Genesis 32:28)."

In the morning, Esau came to greet Jacob.  Esau welcomed his brother with open arms and without a grudge. Esau refused the appeasement gifts, saying that he already had enough. Being reunited with his brother was all the gift he needed.

Jacob has two encounters with God throughout the story. The first is when he is running away from Esau, and the second is on the eve of the brothers being reunited. At no other point does Jacob pray to God, talk to God, or even make reference to God. Yet God changed his name to Israel, making him the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. You see, God does not choose perfect or pious people to do God's work. If God only used perfect or pious people, there would be no one for God to use. No matter your shortcomings, your sins, your flaws, God can use you. You just have to be open with God. You may even have to wrestle with God. In that wrestling, God makes you stronger and better able to do God's work.

Hear more about Jacob, Esau and Laban this Sunday in church.