Friday, October 02, 2009

Responding to the Recent ELCA Decisions (Part 1)

It's been several weeks now since the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Churchwide Assembly approved allowing congregations to ordain gays and lesbians in committed relationships and to bless such relationships among the laity. I composed and shared my reactions to this decision in the September newsletter of the congregation I serve as pastor, Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio.*

I knew that my response--born, in part, of deep grief and despair for my Church, would likely evoke many responses. I cannot support the actions my denomination. I believe that they are contrary to the Word and the will of God.

Some people want to hear more on the subject. Others have their points of view. Most, perhaps, would rather not think or talk about it at all.

The reactions of congregational members that bring me the most discomfort are those that seem visceral, whether they view my response favorably or negatively. The issues raised by the ELCA decisions are too important for us to simply react to them from the gut. Knee-jerk responses based on old fears of homosexuality won't due. Neither will sentimentally about the nice people we've all known who are gay. We are to love all our neighbors no matter what we may feel about their life styles and, as Christians, we don't believe that niceness and righteousness are the same things.

So, as I launch into this series explaining my reactions to the ELCA decisions, there are several points I want to make.

First: I have had a somewhat schizophrenic past when it comes to my reactions to homosexuality.

In 1975, I was a congressional district coordinator for the fledgling presidential campaign of an obscure former Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter. One day, I was speaking with one of our state coordinators, a revered academic, and, mindful of the things I'd seen of the activities of the Gay Activists Alliance on campus, I confessed, "I don't think that I've been as sensitive to the concerns of gays and lesbians as I should have been." He dismissed my confession, saying that no one needed to be sensitive to gays and lesbians. I pressed the point because I had seen how unfairly and dismissively gays had been treated.

Through the years, I've realized that homosexuals face not only derision and insults, hard as those are to take, but worse. Sometimes much worse: discrimination, violence, intimidation.

These things are wrong and every person who confesses the Name of Jesus Christ as their Savior and Lord should oppose such hatefulness.

I always have.

But, in my teens, early twenties, and probably later into my life, I was also guilty of ridiculing and stereotyping of gays and lesbians that is dehumanizing and unfair.

Here and now, if my heart hasn't been clear from what I've said in the past, I want to publicly and emphatically repent for my past dehumanizing thoughts and words about gays and lesbians. I repudiate them and have asked God's forgiveness for them.

Second: I'm conscious of the fact that the Christian Church has often contributed to the dehumanization of gays and lesbians.

This has often been done in subtle ways, like indifference or shunning.

At other times, in holding up the orthodox, Biblical model for human sexuality, the Church has used harsh language that has destroyed any openness to dialog or repentance and renewal in Jesus' Name.

And some segments of the whole Church have been guilty of outright hatred toward homosexuals, surely inconsistent with the will and character of Jesus.

I also repent for and renounce all of the ways in which my Christian family--the whole Church, has helped dehumanize or marginalize gays and lesbians.

Third: The Church, for the sake of sharing Jesus Christ and making disciples, which is what Jesus has called us to do, must find a way to reach out to gays and lesbians.

We must find ways to welcome all people to join with us in the Church in wrestling with the reality of our sins and of God's actions on behalf of all humanity in Jesus. I've often said that the Church is God's support group for recovering sinners. We need to find ways to invite gays and lesbians into recovery from their sins along with the rest of us.

This will require not only love and faith, but courage. Several years ago, my brother moved into a new house and shortly thereafter, struck up a conversation with his neighbor. They'd been talking for about a half-hour when the man revealed that he was gay and had been "out of the closet" for about twenty years. But, without knowing that my brother was a Christian, the man went on to explain that he was living a celibate life style. From his study of Scripture, which he held to be God's Word, that man had concluded that sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin. Later, he revealed that he volunteered many hours a week for gay activist group's AIDs hotline. He was trying to share with many in the gay community as he could that Christ could forgive them and Christ could help them.

That man has been one of my heroes ever since my brother told me about him. He found ways to reach out with the Good News of new life through Jesus Christ to his fellow gays and lesbians.

Fourth: Of course, welcome of sinners doesn't denote approval of sins.

That's why in our Lutheran tradition, the confession of sins is a part of almost every worship service.

The words of Scripture we share each week and the sermons that pastors give based on the Scripture lessons won't always be welcomed by those who engage in homosexual behavior, any more than it will always be welcomed by the rest of the human family.

God wants to set us free to be His people and He offers that life to us for free. All we need to do is put our dukes down, drop our defensiveness, self-justification, and self-aggrandizement, confess that we are guilty in our lives of those things that God calls sins, and trust what Christ has done for us on the cross and from the empty tomb. Those who repent and believe in Jesus Christ can savor the truth to which the New Testament repeatedly points:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your doing; it is the gift of God...**

For we hold that a person is justified by faith [in Jesus Christ]...***
I believe that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to the will of God, that it is a sin. I'll be delving into that more in coming posts. But as we begin this series, four points:
  • I confess to past sinful and unloving attitudes toward homosexuals
  • I confess that the Church has, at times, been unfaithful to God in its attitudes toward homosexuals
  • In faitfhulness to Jesus, the Church must find a way to welcome homosexuals to wrestle with sin and grace alongside our fellowship of recovering sinners
  • In faithfulness to Jesus, the Church must tell homosexuals--and all people--unpleasant truths about ourselves; that's the way to healing, wholeness and eternity with God.
More soon, I hope.

*Here's part of what I wrote:
During the call process here at Saint Matthew, the call committee gave me some written questions following my first interview. Among them was at least one question regarding my views on homosexuality, the ordination of practicing homosexuals, and church blessings of homosexual unions. I made clear my beliefs that:

(1) God loves ALL people and calls ALL people to repent and believe in Jesus Christ in order to receive new, everlasting life with God (Mark 1:15, John 3:16-18);

(2) No sin is worse than any other sin. All violations of the Ten Commandments are rebellion against God. Those who vilify homosexuality as a worse violation of God’s will for humanity than others do not have the Word of God behind them;

(3) I favor—and regularly pray for—civil rights for ALL people, no exceptions;

(4) All sins are forgivable and will be forgiven if sinners repent in the Name of Jesus Christ;

(5) The Church has been entrusted by Jesus Christ with the Office of the Keys (Matthew 16:19), meaning that we must proclaim the truth about the Law and the Gospel and declare forgiveness to the repentant and declare condemnation to the willfully impenitent. Failure to do so constitutes a failure to be the Church AND a failure to love our neighbor. When the Church fails to keep faith with Christ by not familiarizing people with God’s will, it imperils the Church even more than it does the lives of those from whom it has concealed the truth;

(6) Sex outside of heterosexual marriage is contrary to the will of God. Please read Exodus 20:14; Romans 1:26-28; 1 Timothy 1:8-11; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.

(7) More than simply prohibiting sexual intimacy outside of marriage though, God has given sexual intimacy as a special gift to men and women committed to one another for their lifetimes. Please read Genesis 2:21-25. You might also read Song of Solomon, a book of the Old Testament which celebrates the love of husband and wife, including sexual intimacy.

(8) Of course, because Jesus says that when we look at others who aren’t our spouses lustfully we sin, rare is the adult who hasn’t violated God’s will in this area. But that reality doesn’t “un-sin” any sin. It, like other sins, is one for which our Lord calls us to repentance. The call committee seemed to find my answers satisfactory and consistent with the beliefs of the people of Saint Matthew. That pleased me.
**Ephesians 2:8

*** Romans 3:21-28

Thursday, October 01, 2009

"All My Trials"

I love Paul McCartney's 1990 rendition of the old folk song. He wrote some new lyrics for it. For obvious reasons, he probably wanted to take the bit about the mother dying out. There are also fewer Biblical allusions than in other versions and there is no bridge.

Here's Anita Carter's version.

Joan Baez sang the song a lot during the 1960s. Her rendition is very political.

This version is from 1969 and recorded by Mary Hopkin, who McCartney signed to the Beatles' Apple label on the recommendation of model Twiggy. Twiggy had seen Hopkin perform as a finalist in the annual Eurovision contest.

On "Roman the Rapist"

Susan Estrich, law professor, feminist commentator, and probably most famously, chief operative in Michael Dukakis' failed bid for the presidency in 1988, has a devastatingly accurate brief on why director Roman Polanski, convicted rapist and long-time fugitive from justice, should be extradited from Switzerland to the United States.

Estrich does a good job of covering all the reasons why Polanski, who, as a 43-year old, enticed a 13-year old girl to the home of Jack Nicholson, with promises of a photo shoot, then gave her Qualuudes and alcohol to rape her, should have to come back to the States and do time.

Just one point from my perspective as a Christian pastor, though. Much has been made of the fact that Polanski's victim, now in her forties, settled her civil law suit with Polanski and has said she doesn't believe the director should be extradited.

Depending on her motives, it's healthy, probably, that Polanski's victim has forgiven him. The most common word for forgive in the original Greek of the New Testament is aphiemi, which literally means, I release.

Forgiveness involves release not only for the perpetrator of a wrong, but also for the one who is violated. We all know the energy required to hold grudges even for small misdeeds or perceived ones.

Jesus teaches Christians to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." He also tells those who would follow Him that if we refuse to forgive others, God will not forgive us; our insistence on putting ourselves in the place of God builds a wall between God and us.

If Polanski's victim is sincere in her forgiveness, more power to her. I hope that she really does feel released, freed, from the debasing act to which a famous, powerful man subjected her. I hope that she has been freed from the bitterness and self-loathing which so many rape victims experience after being so inhumanely violated.

But, again, from a Christian perspective, forgiveness is one thing, accountability is another. At an interpersonal level and under civil law, Polanski is no longer liable for his action. As a Christian, I also believe that were he to repent and believe, as Jesus calls all of us to do, he would also be forgiven in the eyes of God.

Yet, he would still be accountable. We are each of us accountable to one another and to the laws that exist in the countries in which we live or visit.*

An example of how a person can be forgiven, yet remain accountable, which I've talked about here many times before, involves Pope John Paul II and the man who tried to assassinate him, Mehmet Ali Agca. Months after the Pope had recuperated and Agca had been convicted, John Paul visited his assailant in prison. Agca asked the Pope for forgiveness. The Pope gave his forgiveness. Then, the Pope drove back to the Vatican, while Agca remained imprisoned to serve out the balance of his sentence.

We see similar comingling of forgiveness and accountability in many other places in life. The parents of most teens have probably already forgiven their children for breaking curfew even before the kids let down their indignation. But moms and dads know that they still have to impose the promised grounding.

By giving this last example, I don't mean to trivialize Roman Polanski's crimes. With malice aforethought, he raped a young girl, was convicted for his crime, and when negotiations for a reduced sentence didn't go the way he wanted them to go, he fled the country.

No matter how talented some people may think Polanski is, he is a criminal. He must be accountable for his crimes, even if his victim and God Himself forgive him.

[UPDATE: Rick Sanchez's comments regarding Whoopi Goldberg's indefensible defense of Roman Polanski.]

*Of course, there is such a thing is civil disobedience, challenging unjust laws. But Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., the two most obvious proponents of this approach, we always willing to be arrested for their views. Further, I don't think that Polanski was trying to make a point for human freedom when he raped an underage girl.

"When we as God’s children are living in faith,...

"...we can have an exciting expectancy and a quiet confidence that God will give us exactly what we need, when we need it..."

From Matthew 7:8-11:
[Jesus says:] For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Varied opinions in Europe...

on President Obama's decision against a land-based missile defense shield there. Western Europe finds the decision "reasoned." Eastern Europe deems it "naive."

Another Instance of Incivility

It reminded me of this:

So, at least on incivility, there does seem to be bipartisan agreement in Washington. They like it...except when the other party does it.

"Nothing speaks more clearly of God's love than the cross of Christ."

Earlier today, I visited one of our congregation's shut-ins. She received Holy Communion. We visited and we prayed. I've been visiting this 90-something woman almost monthly for nearly two years now. Near the end of each visit, after she's received the Sacrament and we've prayed together, she looks at me and says with great earnestness, "Thank you."

But today, something different happened.

I usually hug members of our congregation on Sunday mornings, whether during the Sharing of the Peace or while greeting them at the door after the service. (It turns out, by the way, that that greeting is less likely to pass along germs than is a handshake. So, it has two advantages: cleanliness AND Christian warmth.)

But, I don't usually hug the shut-ins, mainly because as members of an older generation, they tend to be more reserved. Besides, they're not standing in a sanctuary of Lutherans hugging each other: They were never accustomed to that and there's nothing of what the sociologists call, "acculturation" to support such a departure from their past practices.

So today, I reached out to shake Wilma's hand. She moved closer, wrapped her arms around me, and gave me a peck on the cheek.

Now, I assure you that didn't happen because I'm such a wonderful guy. It had everything to do with Jesus, Whose sacrifice of Himself we had just celebrated again, Whose body and blood Wilma had just received. In the cross of Christ and in His sacrifice of Self for sinners like me (and you), we do see the depths of God's love. In the bread and wine--the body and blood of Jesus--we receive that love again.

Wilma was and is thankful for Jesus and His cross. You can be too. "Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved..." (Acts 16:31).

Read today's devotion at Our Daily Bread.

Be sure also to read the words of Jesus on which it's based.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Jenny Slate's Unscripted "F Bomb" Didn't Bother Me Nearly As Much...

as what she said next, while following the script: "I swear to God."

The Saturday Night Live skit in which Slate accidentally used the four-letter F-word involved two "biker chicks" who repeatedly use the word, "frickin'." Slate slips and, when she does, you can see the chagrin and concern on her face as she puffs her cheeks, as if to say, "I can't believe I just said that."

But then she goes on to her next line, apparently hitting it perfectly. To me, it's even more offensive. God's name gets thrown around a lot in movies, TV, and everyday life. And not just to swear. It's a conversation filler, thrown in when people can't think of anything else to say. Or, when they want to sound cool or emphatic.

Yeah, I know, Slate was only playing a character. But it bugs me. In his Small Catechism explanation of the Second Commandment (some count it as the Third), "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain," Martin Luther writes:
We are to fear and love God so that we do not use his name superstitiously, or use it to curse, swear, lie, or deceive, but call on him in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.
I live in a neighborhood with lots of noisy people who yell at each other a lot. But the F-Bomb I hear them constantly drop isn't nearly as jarring as the G-Bomb. That's the sound of God's name being used for anything other than "prayer, praise, and thanksgiving."

So, when Jenny Slate's SNL debut appearance is re-run, I'd love it if the NBC people, after bleeping out the F-word would follow up by bleeping out the G-word. I know...not gonna happen.

[UPDATE: An interesting discussion of this post is happening over on The Moderate Voice, where I cross-posted it.]

Impressions of LutheranCORE Convocation

On Friday of this past week, I was one of 1200 people to gather in the sanctuary of Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Church in Fishers, Indiana for a convocation of what is now known as The Lutheran Coalition for Renewal (or LutheranCORE). The organization, formerly known as The Lutheran Coalition for Reform, has been an umbrella organization for eleven groups within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), working to call that body back to the historic Lutheran position of the Bible as the "source and norm" of the Church's "life, faith, and practice."

A belief in the Bible--the Old and New Testaments--as the gauge (or canon) of normative truth for Christians, has been central to Lutherans from the beginning of the Reformation triggered by Martin Luther in 1517.

Many in the church hierarchy and interest groups have called that belief into question during the life of the ELCA, established twenty years ago when three Lutheran bodies formed the new church. ELCA theologians like Marcus Borg are widely read and revered among some ELCA clergy for their rejection of the deity of Christ, the resurrection, and the virgin birth.

But none of these heretical departures from the teaching of Scripture were ever made official until the ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted in August to allow congregations to ordain gay persons in committed relationships and to perform ceremonies blessing the unions of gay persons.

This is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture and meant that the ELCA has entered a state of heresy. I continue to serve as a pastor in the ELCA in what is called "confessional resistance" and I serve a congregation of the ELCA, which I will be asking in the next several months to decide where it stands.

Below I'm linking to a page with PDF files of presentations that were made at the LutheranCORE convocation, along with press releases about it. Let me just say a few things about the convocation, from the perspective of one in attendance.

(1) The atmosphere was both sad and joyful. On the one hand, there was profound sadness that a Church in whose early life so many of us had poured devotion, prayer, and hard work, had chosen to so depart from the will of God. (I put myself on the line as a young pastor in a staunchly Lutheran community that was deeply wary of being part of the ELCA when I worked hard for its acceptance, for example.)

But there was great joy, too. That positive, believing tone, in spite of the unknown future we face, was evidenced in the opening words of former Southern Ohio Synod bishop, Ken Sauer, a disappointed architect of the ELCA: "Here is the most important thing I want to share with you: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!"

The focus was not only on where we were and how, by the political machinations of those who see the Church primarily as an organ of social action, we had gotten there. A major focus was on where, by the power of the risen Christ, we can go from here.

(2) There was great hopefulness. In that room, there was an almost electric sense of certainty that the Lord Jesus would help us, in some form or another, erect a strong confessional Lutheran identity that will be neither liberal or conservative, but deeply and confessionally Lutheran.

(3) There was a commitment to moving slowly quickly. People wanted to be prayerful and deliberate about what they did. But there was also the sense that the ELCA, barring a miracle, was unwilling to repent or recant. That was why on Saturday, the convocation voted to spend a year trying to define the future of our branch of confessional Lutheranism.

(4) I was pleased to see not only eight former ELCA bishops present and committed to LutheranCORE's renewal aims, including my former bishop, but also so many of my Southern Ohio Synod colleagues. They were part of a broad cross-section of ELCA Lutherans; they came from 41 states and 3 Canadian provinces. (In addition, there was a Lutheran pastor from Brazil, here to see how Lutherans were dealing with this heresy, as it's apparently beginning to show itself in his country.)

It hasn't always been clear who was for or against the proposals passed at the Churchwide Assembly because those of us opposed to them have felt bullied into silence for twenty years, something for which I now publicly and achingly repent.

The mood of the convocation seemed well-summarized by one pastor who told me, "I feel like I've come home." That's how I felt, too: at home in a fellowship that confesses the Bible as the Word of God, that believes in sharing Christ with others and making disciples, that believes that everyone needs Christ. No exceptions. And no exemptions for preferred sins, either.*

Go here to read convocation documents in PDF format.
A Vision for LutheranCORE: Bishop Paull Spring
Reflections from Communion of African Congregations of North America
Greeting to LutheranCORE Convocation of Pastor Eddy Perez, representing Hispanic congregations of the Florida-Bahamas Synod

Also: Article by Dr. James Nestingen, theologian of the ELCA, regarding Churchwide Assembly decisions

[UPDATE: The best and most accessible book for laypersons as well as clergy in looking at what the Scriptures have to say about the question of what the Bible has to say about homosexual practice is Pastor David N. Glesne's Understanding Homosexuality: Perspectives for the Local Church. I highly recommend it!]

[ANOTHER UPDATE: "If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be confessing Him." (Martin Luther)]

*In case anybody is interested, I advocate full civil rights for gays and lesbians. The question of ordination of gays or lesbians in committed relationships or the blessing of such relationships in general are entirely separate from the question of civil rights. I talk more about that here.

Later, I'll be presenting a more detailed discussion of what the Bible has to say about homosexuality. God loves all people. Christ died for all people. But God calls us to repent and believe in Christ. Repentance means to turn back to God, away from our sins and the sinfulness of our world, confessing to God the ways in which we have diverged from God's will, and seeking God's help to walk within that will.

"Don't join the Olympic Conclusion-Jumping Team"

That's advice I often give people when they find themselves steamed. Often, our anger is incited by incomplete knowledge. Today's Our Daily Bread devotion deals with that subject.

It's based on an incident in the history of ancient Israel, when some of its tribes beyond the Jordan built an altar. The rest of Israel concluded that this was a sign of rebellion against God, Whose worship was then centered at Shiloh. I like Eugene Peterson's The Message rendering of the passage, Jeremiah 22:10-34:
10 They arrived at Geliloth on the Jordan (touching on Canaanite land). There the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an altar on the banks of the Jordan—a huge altar!

11 The People of Israel heard of it: "What's this? The Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh have built an altar facing the land of Canaan at Geliloth on the Jordan, across from the People of Israel!"

12-14 When the People of Israel heard this, the entire congregation mustered at Shiloh to go to war against them. They sent Phinehas son of Eleazar the priest to the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh (that is, to the land of Gilead). Accompanying him were ten chiefs, one chief for each of the ten tribes, each the head of his ancestral family. They represented the military divisions of Israel.

15-18 They went to the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh and spoke to them: "The entire congregation of God wants to know: What is this violation against the God of Israel that you have committed, turning your back on God and building your own altar—a blatant act of rebellion against God? Wasn't the crime of Peor enough for us? Why, to this day we aren't rid of it, still living with the fallout of the plague on the congregation of God! Look at you—turning your back on God! If you rebel against God today, tomorrow he'll vent his anger on all of us, the entire congregation of Israel.

19-20 "If you think the land of your possession isn't holy enough but somehow contaminated, come back over to God's possession, where God's Dwelling is set up, and take your land there, but don't rebel against God. And don't rebel against us by building your own altar apart from the Altar of our God. When Achan son of Zerah violated the holy curse, didn't anger fall on the whole congregation of Israel? He wasn't the only one to die for his sin."

21-22 The Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh replied to the heads of the tribes of Israel:
The God of Gods is God,
The God of Gods is God!

22-23 "He knows and he'll let Israel know if this is a rebellious betrayal of God. And if it is, don't bother saving us. If we built ourselves an altar in rebellion against God, if we did it to present on it Whole-Burnt-Offerings or Grain-Offerings or to enact there sacrificial Peace-Offerings, let God decide.

24-25 "But that's not it. We did it because we cared. We were anxious lest someday your children should say to our children, 'You're not connected with God, the God of Israel! God made the Jordan a boundary between us and you. You Reubenites and Gadites have no part in God.' And then your children might cause our children to quit worshiping God.

26 "So we said to ourselves, 'Let's do something. Let's build an altar—but not for Whole-Burnt-Offerings, not for sacrifices.'

27 "We built this altar as a witness between us and you and our children coming after us, a witness to the Altar where we worship God in his Sacred Dwelling with our Whole-Burnt-Offerings and our sacrifices and our Peace-Offerings.

"This way, your children won't be able to say to our children in the future, 'You have no part in God.'

28 "We said to ourselves, 'If anyone speaks disparagingly to us or to our children in the future, we'll say: Look at this model of God's Altar which our ancestors made. It's not for Whole-Burnt-Offerings, not for sacrifices. It's a witness connecting us with you.'

29 "Rebelling against or turning our backs on God is the last thing on our minds right now. We never dreamed of building an altar for Whole-Burnt-Offerings or Grain-Offerings to rival the Altar of our God in front of his Sacred Dwelling."

30 Phinehas the priest, all the heads of the congregation, and the heads of the military divisions of Israel who were also with him heard what the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh had to say. They were satisfied.

31 Priest Phinehas son of Eleazar said to Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh, "Now we're convinced that God is present with us since you haven't been disloyal to God in this matter. You saved the People of Israel from God's discipline."

32-33 Then Priest Phinehas son of Eleazar left the Reubenites, Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh (from Gilead) and, with the chiefs, returned to the land of Canaan to the People of Israel and gave a full report. They were pleased with the report. The People of Israel blessed God—there was no more talk of attacking and destroying the land in which the Reubenites and Gadites were living.

34 Reuben and Gad named the altar:
A Witness Between Us.
God Alone Is God.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

'The Cost of Discipleship'

[In a post appearing here last Saturday, I warned that it might turn into this Sunday's sermon. It did and was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, today.]

Mark 9:38-50
The Marine Corps unveiled a new ad campaign last week. It represents a departure from the pitch for new recruits the Corps has used in the past. It emphasizes how difficult, first of all, it is just to become a Marine. A bracing exposure to the realities of what's involved for those who make a commitment to join up will undoubtedly cause some to opt out of the service and will probably incite others to sign on.

This development particularly caught my eye when I saw it last Saturday because, in considering today’s Gospel lesson, I've also been considering what's involved in being a disciple of Jesus Christ. The fact is that we in the Church sometimes sugar coat things, trying to be palatable to our world, trying to make following Jesus like a trip to Walt Disney World. “Do anything you want,” we seem to tell an unimpressed world. “God will forgive it all in the end anyway.” The people of the world hear our mushy platitudes and wonder, “If you’re not offering anything new or different from the world, why would I want to be part of the Church?”

Jesus never tries to make following Him sound easy. Yes, Christ has done all that is necessary for us to be forgiven our sins and to have life with God forever. The grace of God, given through Christ, is amazing. That grace is the best news any of us will ever receive!

But though God’s grace is free, it isn't, as the martyred German Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, "cheap." Jesus says, for example, "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Matthew 10:37-38).

Following Jesus isn’t easy and Jesus underscores that In today’s Gospel lesson. He says: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched" (Mark 9:43-48).

The free grace of God can only be grasped by faith or trust in Christ, the giver of grace. Do we trust in Jesus and His grace or not?

In His words about hands, feet, and eyes, Jesus doesn't mean that we are literally to cut off body parts, of course. But He does mean to show us that trust in Him--faith in Him--calls us away from our dependencies on the dead, dying, finite things of this world. Anything that prevents us from following Christ needs to be jettisoned. And given how stubborn we are, we’re likely going to have to jettison them again and again in our lifetimes. I know I repeatedly give up and take back bad habits and sinful ways of thinking on an almost daily basis. I get so frustrated with myself. I wonder why God is so patient with me. It makes me all the more grateful for God’s grace!

And Christ calls us not just to let go of those things readily identifiable as sins, things prohibited by the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic Law--things like the misuse of God's Name, failure to heed His Word, murder, thievery, sexual intimacy outside of heterosexual marriage, and so on. Christ also calls us to let go of otherwise good things--things created by God, things which, when used, in the right places at the right times in the right ways are good. Christ calls us to also give up those things if they keep us from trustingly grabbing grace.

That's what faith is: Grabbing God's grace. And that isn’t easy either. In a famous incident recounted by Mark at another place in his Gospel, the father who approached Jesus for exorcism for his son showed that he knew how difficult faith is. Jesus told the man to believe in Jesus. "I believe," the man confessed, "help my unbelief" (Mark 9:24). The man knew that grace is free, but that the faith needed to apprehend grace, to grasp hold of grace, is hard.

Thankfully, God knows how hard faith is for us, too. Psalm 103:14 tells us that God, the inventor and giver of grace, "knows how we are made; he remembers that we are dust." God is charitable with us. He understands our humanity from the inside out. The New Testament book of Hebrews says of Jesus, “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” The preacher in Hebrews then says, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

As with that man who approached Jesus on behalf of his son, all who approach Jesus in honesty and openness, who want to believe, find a remarkable thing happens to them: God builds up their faith in Christ.

On the first Christian Pentecost, after Peter said that the sins of the world had necessitated Jesus' death on a cross, his fellow Jews asked the disciples, "…What should we do?" (Acts 2:37). They knew that they were holding onto sins and holding onto the world more than they were holding onto God, that they were holding onto the blessings of God as though they were more important than God. They wanted to know: How could they be free to grasp the hand of grace extended by God through Jesus Christ? How could they avoid separation from the God Who designed them and came into the world to rescue them from sin and death and hell?

Peter told them, "Repent [that is, turn away from sin], and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

And this gift—the gift of the Holy Spirit--is no little thing. It's the Holy Spirit Who makes it possible for us to believe what we can't believe on our own:
  • that God is for us;
  • that in Christ, God forgives our sins;
  • that in Christ, God gives us fresh starts;
  • that in Christ, God gives us eternity;
  • that in Christ, we are made one with God.
These are incredible blessings! But the fact is that they're not always the blessings we want. We’re sort of like those who wash out of boot camp, we want
  • the uniform (or the identity) of faithful servant without being a faithful servant;
  • the grace of God without submission to God;
  • the privileges of sainthood without the sacrifices;
  • the peace that passes all understanding without the turbulence of a surrendered will;
  • forgiveness without repentance;
  • church membership without discipleship; and
  • answers, if they're the ones we want to hear.
People like Marines—or Peace Corps volunteers--willingly submit their bodies and minds in service to their country, government, and commander-in-chief. Anyone who would follow Jesus--and take up the gifts of grace--is called to submit--body, mind, spirit, and all--to Him.

Faith is total surrender to Christ, and that's why Jesus says it's so rare. Of course, no one has perfect trust in Christ in this life. Christian faith is a journey and God promises that if you and I are willing to make that journey, He'll not only mark the pathway, He will give us all that we need to travel it. God knows that we are incapable of even confessing faith without His help. First Corinthians 12:3 says, "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit.”

Following Jesus costs all Christians their lives. Only those who give their old lives—each day—to Christ will be given a new life. In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes, “anyone united with [Jesus] gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons!” The Christian life isn't about personal fulfillment, though that may very well be a side benefit. The Christian life is really about being in sync with the God Who made us, loved us, and wants us to be with Him forever. That will most certainly put us at odds with the world--including our families and friends--repeatedly.

It will even put us at odds with ourselves. I've been a Christian for thirty-three years now and I still daily struggle with my sins, with my desires to call the shots in my life, with my personal ambitions. I wonder why God insists on doing things in ways other than what I prefer! But whatever the frustration, I’d rather have Jesus than all the popularity, power, or ease this dying world has to offer. In Jesus, there is real peace!

I'm a recruiter for Christ. I hope that all people--all my fellow sinners--will follow Christ. Keep in mind though: Grace is free, but it isn't cheap. Are we willing to pay the price—the price of surrender--for God’s free gift?