Friday, November 18, 2016

Is love more important than faith and hope? Yes and no

Most people in western culture have probably heard the famous "love chapter" from the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 13. Although not originally addressed by the apostle Paul to marriage, but rather to the relationships of disciples in Christ's Church to each other, it's often read at weddings. The "love chapter" ends in this way:
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:13)
A friend recently mentioned this passage and opined that love trumps faith.

I responded:
I always have viewed [the verse as representing]...a progression: Without faith in Christ, there is no hope and you can' On the other hand, it's God's love that makes it possible for us to have faith and hope.
The three attributes are related to one another. And love is the greatest because it's from His infinite storehouse of love for the human race that God sent His Son Jesus to die and rise for us (see John 3:16-18).

It's also God, acting in love through Christ, Who gives us hope. (Psalm 62:5)

And it's only through the power of the Holy Spirit, God acting in love, that we can have faith. (1 Corinthians 12:3)

In the "love chapter," Paul is upbraiding a group of Christians committing unrepentant sin, including the sins of some who thought they were better or more worthy of God's and the world's favor than others. They were loveless.

They were loveless because they had more faith in the world and in external things than they had in Christ. They lacked hope because there is no hope apart from Christ. As Paul reminds the Corinthian church a few chapters later: "If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:9).

Love then, is the greatest and highest expression of our faith and hope in Christ.

Without faith and hope in Christ, we may love in the way the world "loves." But Jesus commends a higher form of love.

According to the Bible, faith and hope in Christ are equivalent to what Jesus speaks of in the gospel of John as remaining or abiding in Him. To have faith and to derive our hope from Jesus Christ alone is to draw every bit of our lives, aspirations, self-worth, unique self-identities, and capacity to love in the same self-giving, eternity-changind way in which Christ loved us on the cross.

So Jesus says in John 15:5: "If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing."

And it's why John himself confesses many years later: "This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 4:10).

God's love doesn't trump faith and hope. In His love, God creates love--true love, self-giving love--in those who put their faith and hope in Christ alone.

People will protest, of course, that they love their families and maybe their friends. Their love may be even more expansive, including countrymen or those with whom they agree politically. With all due respect, big deal! 

As Jesus puts it: "If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:46-48).

The word translated as perfect there is, literally, complete, a form of which word uses on the cross as He dies and says, "It is finished." More literally, "It is completion." But I'm not sure that being complete as Jesus was, complete in fulfilling the will of the Father that He love His enemies and pray for those who persecuted Him, even as they killed him.

Whether you take Jesus to be saying perfect or prefer the more literal rendering of complete in this passage from Matthew 5, both leave us with a daunting command. And it's only through our faith and hope in Christ that we are capable of loving, not just our families and friends, but everyone...not just in our sentiments, but in our actions.

Why do I say and believe that?

In Matthew 25, we find Jesus' famous parable of the final judgment. In the parable, the goats are condemned to hell, eternity apart from God. The sheep are told to enter into the eternal joy of God made possible through Christ's death and resurrection.

But the sheep are mystified by Christ the King's reason for allowing them entrance into perfect eternal fellowship with God. He tells them that it's because they lived in love toward others the world ignored, dismissed, or harmed. Do you remember how Jesus' parable goes?
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’"
The moment we think things like, "I'm being loving," "I'm being forgiving," or "I'm acting like Jesus," we know that God still has work to do on us. Real love never refers to itself. (By the way, God has a lot of work to do on me in this regard!)

The "righteous" in Jesus' parable were unaware of the love that they had shown to Christ through the love that they had shown to others. They lived (and loved) unselfconsciously because their faith and hope weren't in themselves or their actions, but only in Christ.

Their acts of love weren't spiritual merit badges that entitled them to entry into eternity with God; they evidenced the presence of Jesus in their lives.

They evidenced that God had constructed faith and hope in them.

Love like this proves the existence of a faith and hope in Christ. And it is the love--authentic, self-giving, godly love--that the world most needs today.

In Revelation 3:20, the risen and ascended Jesus speaks to a first century church that is going through the religious motions, but hasn't really let Christ into the centers of their lives. They aren't letting the Holy Spirit, Who leads and speaks on behalf of Jesus today, to take control of their lives, individually or collectively.

But Jesus hasn't given up on them! "Here I am!" Jesus says. "I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me."

More than anything, being a Christian--a disciple of Jesus Christ--is about daily letting Jesus in.

We let Him in to show us our sins and what we need to confess.

We let Him in so that, through the Bible, He can speak His words of love, truth, wisdom, and guidance to us.

We let Him in so that the Holy Spirit can empower us to be more loving and Christlike today than we were yesterday.

We let Him in, too, so that He can help us to work for justice and peace in the world, so that we can love others as Christ has loved us.

And, as we pray, we let Him and His love explode onto the world; we ask for healing of others, for workers to go into the harvest, Christians who will share the good news of new life for all who believe in Jesus, and for wisdom for leaders.

In short, as we let Christ in, Christ springs forth from our words, actions, and prayers. We love.

Love is "the greatest of these." 

But we can only love when we let Christ in, when we have faith and hope in Him. 

Trust in Christ. Let Him love the world through you.

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

3 Books

Here are three books I'm reading right now. I recommend them.

Going from right to left, the first is Martin Luther's Christmas Book, a compilation/distillation of sermons for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany by the Great Reformer.

Luther was a genius and part of his genius was in his ability to impart his life-giving insights in ways accessible to those who aren't full-time theologians.

He was also totally dialed into how God operates, not as the God Who bowls us over with His power or intimidates us with His deity, but woos and wins us with His love that deigns to enter our world as a human being who leads a sinless life and erases the power of sin and death over us by bearing our sin and death on the cross.

Luther shows the connection between Jesus' crib and Jesus' cross.

I've read these sermons many times, have distilled them even more, and used them on many Christmas Eves.

Starting next Sunday, we'll be using Martin Luther's Christmas Book in adult Sunday School class at Living Water.

Standing Firm: A Christian Response to Hostility and Persecution by Jesse Yow seeks to help Christians as they deal with the reality of increasing hostility (in the northern and western hemispheres) toward Christian faith and Christianity.

Some of this hostility, to be sure, has been incited by Christian leaders behaving in unchristian ways, engaging in politics, claiming that Jesus agrees with their political philosophies, and attempting to impose their version of Christian morality on non-Christians, when they should have instead been proclaiming the good news of new and everlasting life for all who repent and surrender to Jesus.

But, as Scripture (and solid Lutheran theology) teaches, human beings are born with a hostility toward God and His authority over us. Yow includes Biblical and contemporary case studies and offers suggestions on how Christians can faithfully witness for Christ even in the face of hostility. He also draws a helpful distinction between hostility and persecution.

Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West by Hampton Sides is a beautifully written and sprawling account of the opening of the West to the United States. This is a no-holds-barred narrative that gives incredible insights into diverse Native American cultures and the many colorful characters on all sides of the story. Sides has done extensive research, but he is also an incredibly descriptive, evocative writer. (I got my copy at Costco for only $10.99.)

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Alligator by Paul McCartney

Everybody needs a sweet communicator they can hand their alligator to, right?

And I love these lines too:
"I want someone who can bail me
"When I get up to my tricks
"I need somebody used to dealing with a sinner
"Whenever I get in I fix"

Siena, Tuscany

I may have re-posted this tweet before. Whatever.

E Pluribus Unum

That happens to be the motto of the United States and it means, "Out of many, one."

Originally referencing the pulling together of thirteen separate and independent states into one nation under the Constitution, it has come equally to apply to the diversity and community that exists in this "nation of immigrants."

In the face of division happening in the country recently, I love the gesture of Kent State basketball players tonight. They went into the stands and brought people of varied backgrounds onto the court with them for the national anthem. Full story here.

Fire by Barns Courtney

I like the line, "Sold my soul to the calling..."

The fire of a passionate pursuit for one's life can come from God and make life in this fallen world worth living.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Stand Firm

Luke 21:5-19
What would you do if your entire world was turned upside down?

That’s the question our encounter with Jesus today forces us to answer.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear Jesus preparing His first century followers, fellow Jews, for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The first disciples needed to be prepared for this event because, for pious Jews, the prospect of the temple being destroyed was a cataclysmic possibility, an unthinkable tragedy. Losing the temple had the potential for totally turning their worlds upside down.

Go to our lesson for today, Luke 21:5-28, please. (We’re only going to focus on verses 5 to 19 this morning.) The passage begins: “Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, ‘As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.’”

The disciples admired the temple in much the same way we Americans admire the White House, the Washington Monument, or the Statue of Liberty. All are symbols of our country and what we’ve been taught it stands for. And while we may sometimes be cynical about whether Americans truly believe in the positive things this country stands for, every American would be horrified at the prospect of any of these national symbols being destroyed.

If you can imagine the sense of horror you would feel in the event that someone bombed the Statue of Liberty, then you will experience a small fraction (and only a small fraction) of what the disciples felt when Jesus said that every stone of the temple would be thrown down.

I say “a small fraction” because the temple was much more than the symbol of the Jewish nation. The temple was the place where God dwelt on the earth, in the Holy of holies. For Jesus’ first disciples, all pious Jews, the absence of the temple, if they didn’t place themselves fully under Christ’s lordship, could have have seemed to mean the absence of God.

Jesus had to shake His disciples from their superstitious attachment to stones, mortar, and jeweled walls in order to prepare them for upcoming events.

One of those events was His crucifixion, which would happen in just a few days. Mark 15:38 tells us that when Jesus died on the cross “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” In other words, at the very moment when Jesus offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, the impediments that once would have prevented us from experiencing oneness and intimacy with God were destroyed. The veil concealing God from sinful human beings was shredded by God’s grace, given in Christ. All who turn from sin and trust in Jesus are one with God.

At that moment, the temple became irrelevant. Now, nobody would have to make sacrifices to get close to God; the Savior Who sacrificed Himself on the cross makes God known and accessible to all who hear and trust in the Gospel! Jesus was warning the disciples of this fact so that when the walls of the temple came down, their world wouldn’t be turned upside down. They could stand firm.

Of course, whenever we’re given what we consider bad news, which is what Jesus’ pronouncement that the temple would one day be destroyed seemed to be to the disciples, we want explanations. That’s why the disciples ask Jesus in verse 7 of our lesson: “Teacher...when will these things happen? And what will be the sign that they are about to take place?”

So, Jesus gives them signs and explains that before the destruction of the temple, which, we know, did happen at the hands of the Roman Army in 70 AD, many events would happen first. Jesus says that there would be turmoil and false messiahs. There would be wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, and even fearful signs from the heavens. In other words, life on Planet Earth would pretty much unfold as it has since Adam and Eve took a bite of fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Then, Jesus warns those first-century disciples: “But before all this [before the temple comes down], they [the enemies of Christian faith, the Romans and the Jews] will seize you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and put you in prison, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. And so you will bear testimony to me. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.”

Now, Jesus isn't here commending ignorance. He's not saying, "Keep stupid about God and the Bible or the faith that you confess on Sunday mornings." He is saying that as we spend time with God's people worshiping, hearing God's Word, and receiving the sacraments, and that as we spend time daily with God reading and soaking up His Word for ourselves, confessing our sins in Jesus' name and receiving the power of the Holy Spirit as He transforms us, we won't have to prepare to face those who attack Christ or our faith in Him. If we try to plan what we're to say, we'll be using our own limited reasoning and wisdom and we'll be refuted for sure. But if we're steeped in God's Word and filled with His Spirit, our words will be irresistible, irrefutable.

But here in our lesson, Jesus was saying, within decades of His crucifixion and resurrection, the Mediterranean region awash with more than 500 believers who staked their reputations and lives on affirming that they had seen the resurrected Jesus, powerful witnesses to the truth of the Good News about Jesus, disciples would be dragged before authorities and condemned for their faith. The disciples might well have wondered what they had signed up for, when Jesus told them: “Everyone will hate you because of me."

But it’s a truth that the first Christians would learn and pass along to other believers. It’s something they needed to know when their worlds were being upended. The apostle Peter, writing in about 64 AD, told the Christians of Asia Minor: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”

Persecution, shunning, hostility.

We Christians who live in America have been largely insulated from such treatment over the past few centuries--partly because we’ve done such a good job of doing exactly what Jesus told us not to do, hide our light, the light of Christ, under a bowl, keeping our faith in Christ on the QT, not rocking the boat by making disciples or praying in public (like when we go to a restaurant). But even here in the United States, we face opposition for our faith in Jesus.

I received an angry message from an atheist friend this past week who basically said that I was living a less than useless life, that all I did to help this country was pray to a god who isn’t there. We’ve all likely been told these things and if we’re not, maybe we need to seek out friendships with atheists and agnostics to give them the chance to say such things to us. It's only when we make ourselves available to hear the world's criticism of our faith in Jesus that we have the opportunity to share the Good News about Jesus with them. And there is a rising and ignorant venom against anyone who bears the name of Christ.

That’s only to be expected. When people think that this world is all there is to this life and that there is no god but us and that we human beings should have our desires gratified, believers who challenge these faulty assumptions will be unwelcome. For much of the world, a Christian in the neighborhood is like a skunk at a garden party. Or worse, Christians who declare that Jesus is Lord are seen as enemies of the state and disturbers of the peace, as they were in Rome, as they are today in places like Syria, Iraq, and even by some among whom we live each day.

If we authentically seek to follow Jesus, we will face opposition. We will be taunted and ridiculed. We may be passed over for promotions because there’s no place for Jesus in our workplaces. Jesus wanted the first Christians to know all of this. He wants us to know this.

Listen: In the face of such realities, we can’t rely on buildings or liturgies, kings or princes, presidents or prime ministers, parties or political philosophies, countries or armies to save us, to give us life.

Only God can save us or give us life.

And God only does that through Jesus Christ. Jesus couldn't be more explicit. He says in John 10:30: "I and the Father are one." And He says in John 14:6: "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me."

We have good news!

Jesus says at the end of our Gospel lesson: “...not a hair of your head will perish. Stand firm, and you will win life.”

Jesus is not here promising that bad things won’t happen to believers, of course. He is promising that when we entrust our whole lives--not just some of our lives and not just when it’s convenient, we are saved from the death that is worse than earthly death, eternal death, the death of eternal separation from God.

He's saying that we're to stand firm in just the way He stood firm when dragged before Pilate and before the high priest. Jesus was subjected to hatred, rejection, violence, false accusations. Jesus never fought back. He never met fire with fire. But He stood firm. That's what you and I are called to do.

Standing firm with Christ means standing for Christ and not for ourselves.

It means doing the will of God when we want to do something else.

It means caring so passionately about the neighbor who rejects Christ that we keep praying for him and her, keep sharing Christ with him and her, even when they attack us.

It means clinging to Christ and not to the things of this world, no matter what.

At the beginning of this message, I said that Jesus’ words force us to answer the question, what would we do if our entire worlds were turned upside down?

The answer is simple, yet always challenging to live out: Even when our worlds are upended, keep holding onto Jesus Christ and His promises. 

It boils down to this. When we hold onto Christ, we have life. When we don’t hold onto Christ, we are dead.

As Jesus puts it elsewhere: “...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). That’s a promise worth believing even in a world turned upside down!

[Blogger Mark Daniels is pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]