Thursday, June 14, 2018

Hello, Italy!

This report from Blogger shows me where in the world readers of the blog are reading it.

Over the years, there's been a relatively solid readership from Russia. But as you can see from this report, captured a few moments, readers from there haven't even dented the top ten today.

Italy has been well-represented here lately. Why? I have no idea.

Czechia (the Czech Republic) has also been well-represented in the past day or so.

Besides the United States, where I live, I've only been to three of the other countries in the top ten: Germany, Canada, and France. (My visits to the latter two were brief. I stopped for a short time on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and I've had a couple of layovers at Orly in Paris, neither visit affording a very good sample of the countries in question.) They're places I hope to revisit one day. There are lots of places I hope to visit.

Anyway, thanks to all visit and read the blog.

Would Saint Paul Agree with Jeff Sessions? No

People who know me know that I believe that the Church should generally stay out of politics. The Church is charged with making disciples for Jesus Christ. That involves proclaiming the Word of God so that people come to repentance and saving faith in Christ. When pastors or church bodies get behind political candidates, platforms, or parties, they splinter their attention and that of those they're charged to reach with God's message.

Having said that, there are times when it's absolutely appropriate for the Church to speak on political issues. Examples:
  • When the Church sees government acting unjustly. 
  • When the government dares to use Christianity or the Bible to justify its actions or to quell disagreement or dissent.
I have, for example, felt no hesitation in speaking out against the profligate use of abortion. A compassionate society will make allowances for circumstances such as rape, incest, or the threat that pregnancy or childbirth may present to the life of a mother. But the Church has a responsibility to compassionately speak up for the voiceless and powerless, like unborn children. This is why I describe myself as pro-life.

I have also repeatedly spoken out against racism or discrimination of any kind. When government, at any level, gives succor or acquiescence to racism, the Church is called by the Lord of love to speak and to act against it. All people are made in the image of God. Period.

Today, the Attorney General of the United States justified the federal government's policy of separating children from parents seeking asylum in this country by citing a passage from the New Testament. One news outlet described it like this:
Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the Bible on Thursday in defending the Trump administration's immigration policies -- especially those that result in the separation of families -- directing his remarks in particular to "church friends." 
"I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained the government for his purposes," Sessions said. "Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves. Consistent, fair application of law is in itself a good and moral thing and that protects the weak, it protects the lawful. Our policies that can result in short-term separation of families are not unusual or unjustified."
The passage alluded to by Sessions is Romans 13:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.  Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1-7)
These verses are part of Paul's letter to the first-century churches in the city of Rome. Scholars call the section in which it appears and ones like it that are in other New Testament letters, household codes. These codes, essentially, are places in which Paul and other New Testament writers tells believers grateful to God for the free gift of new life through faith in Jesus Christ how to conduct themselves socially, in their marriages and families, at the workplace, in the world at large. Paul says here to obey governments as a way of expressing gratitude and love to God for Christ.

But what should Christians do when governments act unjustly? Or how should we respond to those who run from places where government authority is non-existent or where government power is unjust?

Earthly governments are part of what Martin Luther described as God's emergency measures for a fallen world, measures required by the reality of human sin and only in force until Jesus returns to the world and makes all things right.

People who have been saved by grace through faith in Christ want to conduct themselves with love and respect for God and their neighbors. (Although we often fail to do so.) But because this is a fallen world in which not everyone is motivated to love God or neighbor, God establishes governments to ensure that citizens behave in ways that honor God and neighbor, whether the citizens (or the governments) believe in God or not. (For example, not driving 85 miles an hour in residential areas honors human life and the One Who gives life.) When governments function in this way, they fulfill the will of God for establishing governments.

But when governments fail to fulfill God's will for their proper functioning--when they engage in injustice, when they foster, not peace and community, but chaos and fragmentation, Christians are called by God to speak out, to seek justice for our neighbors, and to stand up to the presumption of those in government who believe that God's ordination of governments gives them a blank check to do whatever they want.

The Declaration of Independence and American Revolution were predicated on the idea that when a government, like a flooding river overflowing its banks, transcends its God-ordained bounds, it becomes the obligation of citizens to work to make things right. Christians believe this as a matter of faith. In my own Lutheran tradition, for example, when we affirm our baptismal covenant with God, we are reminded to "to work for justice in all the earth."

Sessions' statement today was chilling. Adolf Hitler and the Nazis invoked the same words from Romans 13 to justify the Holocaust and other terrors they visited on the world. "You must obey," the Nazis told the Church. And the Church largely acquiesced, putting swastikas on altars and submitting to the madness of Hitler and his henchman.

But a few people in what came to be called Germany's Confessing Church, like the Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, rejected the lie that the Church is always obligated to obey, even when rulers or rules are tyrannical or unjust. These brave Christians pointed to other passages of Scripture that should be considered when deciding whether to oppose government actions or governments.

For example...

In that same letter to the Roman Christians, the apostle Paul writes: "Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind..." (Romans 12:2) When the governments of this world command obedience to what is wrong, the Christian must disobey or disavow such commands.

In the Old Testament, we're told, "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8) When governments act unjustly, Christians need to make their voices heard, whether in private correspondence or public protest or both. (Illegal entry into a country is a crime, as Sessions rightly points out. But whether those seeking asylum are committing a crime is open to adjudication. And, in any case, the children of adult asylum-seekers aren't the perpetrators of any alleged crime; from the Biblical perspective, they're the victims of injustice.)

And in the New Testament, after being ordered by authorities to never again speak in the name of Jesus, the apostle Peter said, “We must obey God rather than men." (Acts 5:29)

God doesn't give governments blank checks.

Some may read this and conclude, "It's as I suspected. You can make the Bible say anything you want it to say."

Not true!

Christians believe that all of Scripture must be read through the interpretive lens of Jesus Christ. Jesus is God's definitive self-disclosure. "No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known" (John 1:18).

When we look at Jesus, innocent and just, wrestling with our evil on the cross, then being raised by God the Father, we see the heart of God, the love of God, the will of God. All of Scripture then is to be read in what might be called "the key of Jesus."

What does reading God's Word in this way show us on the question of whether we are always obligated to obey a government?

(1) Jesus never railed against the existence of governments in this world. He didn't tell the Roman commander who believed in Him that He needed to give up his job as a government worker and soldier (Luke 7:1-10). He commended the man's faith and left him to do his daily work.

(2) Jesus did rail against injustice. When the leaders of the temple in Jerusalem turned this place to which people went to honor God into a "den of robbers," a palace of extortion, He not only roared in protest, he overturned their tables and set loose their inventory. (Luke 19:45-46)

(3) And Jesus did criticize rulers who acted unjustly. When told that King Herod wanted to prevent Him from going to Jerusalem to fulfill the will of God, Jesus told Herod's emissaries to go tell "that fox" that he would not be stopped. (Luke 13:32) And Jesus was true to His Word, going to Jerusalem for the purpose of dying and rising to save all who trust in Him from sin, death, and darkness.

The Church and its pastors then, must speak and act when injustices happen. This is why I have been an avid writer of letters and emails to public officials all my life. It's why I have often taken time to discuss matters of justice with the members of the congregations I've served as pastor.

Those Christians who are presently speaking out against the horrors of separating asylum-seeking parents from children, whatever laws govern immigration, are on solid Biblical ground. In Old Testament times, God told His people Israel, who spent much of their history as refugees and immigrants, "The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God." (Leviticus 19:34)

And the preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews tells Christian believers, referencing an Old Testament incident in which God, in the guise of angels, appeared to the Jewish ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it." (Hebrews 13:2)

Jesus Himself told us that when we care for those in need, treating them with respect and love, we are really honoring Him. (Matthew 25:31-46)

Look: As a Christian living in a pluralistic society, I don't expect those who serve in government to be Christians. And I reject efforts by both liberal and conservative Christians to use politics and government to legislate or adjudicate their particular version of Christian ethics on the larger society. It's wrong and it's not Christian. Our call is to share Christ and His gospel so that others will come to faith in Jesus. Not by coercion, but by the power of God's love and God's Holy Spirit. 

But when injustice is perpetrated--and I don't know how separating little kids from their parents seeking asylum from violence and gang warfare, among other things, can be characterized as anything but injustice--the Church has every right and every responsibility to speak out.

And when a government leader invokes God and the Scriptures behind a policy, any policy, it's the responsibility of the Church to give witness to what the whole of Scripture seen through the prism of the crucified and risen Jesus has to say.

Jeff Sessions may have been making a wholly political statement today. But when he invoked God's Word, he made what he said a spiritual matter. And he was wrong.

Here's a video of Sessions' invocation of Romans 13:

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Right House

[This was the message shared this past Sunday during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Mark 3:20-35
The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson are as likely to offend us as they did the first people to hear them in first-century Judea. In a few short verses, Jesus turns His back on His family from Nazareth and on the scribes, who stand as representatives of His homeland. He says that His ultimate loyalty in life does not go to His family, nor His country. 

The clincher comes in Mark 3:34-35, where we’re told: “Then [Jesus] looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.’”

We’re going to dig more deeply into this passage. But first, we need to understand the context in which Jesus says these words. 

What was going on before the set of personal encounters in which Jesus said these things? 

In Mark 3:13-19, Jesus, we’re told, went up on a mountain and called twelve people to be His apostles. Jesus was going to train these men for the time after His death, resurrection, and ascension when He would send them to lead the Church in spreading the good news of new life for all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus as God and Savior. 

The apostles, like the twelve sons of Jacob in Old Testament times, are to be the founding fathers of a new community of faith, the Church, a new creation, that lasts for all eternity.

After Jesus calls the apostles, Mark 3:20 tells us that Jesus and His new founding family of faith, go into a house. 

Some translations say "His house,” which would make sense because we know that by this point in His life, Jesus had left Nazareth and was living in a house at Capernaum, on shores of the Sea of Galilee. 

But this seemingly insignificant word, house, is really important for what comes in our gospel lesson. In it, the confrontation between the house of Jesus and the house of Satan comes into full view, as does a shocking revelation of who lives in those two places

And it forces us to ask, where do we live each day, in the house of Jesus or in the house of Satan, which is the house where things other than the one true God is worshiped, where things like family, tradition, security, and country hold a higher place than the God we know in Jesus?

Verse 20, the first verse of our Gospel lesson, says that a huge group of people crowded around Jesus’ house. This, of course, had been going on since Jesus began His public ministry. By this point though, Jesus' family is starting to freak out. Look at verse 20: “...when his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” 

You’re reading that right. Jesus’ own family turned against Him, including, as we’ll see, His mother, Mary.

They want to try to get Jesus out of the house, away from the apostles and the crowd, and presumably back to Nazareth. 

The passage says that they wanted to “lay hold of Him,” a phrase that translates the word, kratese, from the Greek in which Mark originally wrote his gospel; it also means arrest and it’s the same word that Mark used of the arrest of both John the Baptist and Jesus Himself.  

Jesus’ family want to stop Jesus from continuing His ministry. They want to arrest Jesus' ministry. 

They say that Jesus is “out of His mind,” literally “beside Himself.” In those days, mental illness, being out of one’s mind, was equated with being possessed by a demon! This is what Jesus' mother and brothers think of Jesus!

Why would they think that? 

Probably because, as one pastor wrote several years ago, Jesus is violating “the family script.” In first century Judea, loyalty to family was equated with loyalty to God and country. There were certain things family members were expected to do. For example, the oldest son was expected to inherit the lion’s share of his father’s estate, take his widowed mother into his home, and continue the family business and way of life. 

But Jesus had violated all those expectations. Jesus broke theworld's script to fulfill God's Scripture. He’d left Nazareth, forsaking the family business and while we know that He would later provide for the care of His mother, Mary, by entrusting her to His friend, John, He didn’t have Mary living with Him in Capernaum. 

In any case, one can easily imagine the conversations of Mary and the rest of Jesus’ family: “Jesus has gone out of His mind, mother." "We have to get him away from all those people. He's making a fool of Himself and endangering Himself and everyone else.”

Sometimes, our families are the people who will work the hardest to keep us from Jesus Christ

A pastor in Brooklyn reports that among the biggest obstacles his congregation faces in reaching out to young people involved in selling drugs is the pressure the kids get from their parents. 

Selling drugs can bring a lot of money into a household. When a young person involved in that trade wants to know more about Jesus Christ, their parents become concerned about the possible loss of income. The parents will tell their kids things like, “Stay away from those Christians. Why do you want to become a religious fanatic? Why do you want to turn your back on your family?” 

Less dramatic, but more subtle was my own personal experience with family pressure working against the living out of faith. I remember the reaction of my mother after I had come to faith in Christ and told her that, on Christmas Eve, we would be arriving for the family gift exchange after we’d gone to the Christmas Eve service. You’d have thought I’d just told them I’d joined the Mafia! Why would I want to disrupt the family’s Christmas celebrations by going to worship on Christmas Eve? 

This was the kind of opposition, taken to the nth degree, that Jesus faced from His own earthly family as He pursued the will of God.

But they weren’t the only ones against Jesus’ pursuit of the will of His Father. In verse 22, the scribes, guardians of Jewish religious faith, the Jewish nation, and Jewish patriotism, come after Jesus, too. Look, they say of Him, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons he is driving out demons.” Satan, the scribes claim, possesses Jesus and it’s through the power of Satan that Jesus is able to cast out demons.

In verses 23-25, Jesus responds to their accusations: “How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”  

In other words, Jesus is saying, if Satan is setting out to destroy his own kingdom--the household of Satan--by giving Jesus the power to cast out demons, Satan’s house wouldn’t stand for long. Jesus cuts the Scribes' argument to pieces--clearly demonstrating that He isn’t out of His mind or filled with a demon. I love the way Eugene Peterson renders verse 26 in The Message: “If Satan were fighting Satan, there soon wouldn't be any Satan left.” So, Jesus is saying, whether I am sent by God or by Satan, the jig is up for Satan. Satan’s kingdom--His household--is being destroyed.

But in reality, Jesus says in verse 27, something else is happening: Someone stronger than Satan, God Himself, is entering the house of Satan and stealing away those who have been kidnapped by Him through sin and death and giving new and everlasting life to Jesus, the stronger one. 

What Jesus says next is critically important. Neither His family nor the scribes believed in Jesus for one simple reason: They refused to heed the witness of the Holy Spirit and the simple evidence before them.

You see, Jesus was doing all that the Old Testament prophets had revealed hundreds of years before that the Messiah, God’s anointed King, would do. But instead of believing the witness of God’s Holy Spirit about Who Jesus was, Jesus’ family and the scribes accused Jesus of having a demon. This is why Jesus says, beginning in verse 28: “...people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”

The New Testament teaches that the Holy Spirit has two major functions: (1) to convict us of our sin that brings only death and (2) to convince us of the grace He bears for we sinners and how through repentant faith in Christ, He forgives us our sin and gives us new and everlasting life with Him. 

The Spirit teaches that through Jesus and our faith in Him, we leave the household of Satan, where people live in bondage to sin and cannot free themselves, and enter the household of God. When people willfully refuse to heed what the Holy Spirit teaches about Jesus, they erect a wall between God and them. The free gift of new life offered by Jesus can to any person who believes in Jesus Christ. But that new life will not come to those who refuse to believe the witness of the Holy Spirit about Jesus, the Son of God.

Many things in this world can work to drive a wedge between Jesus and us. We see some of them in today’s lesson: families, friends, careers, and country. But, as important as those things are, none of them can bring us life with God, peace with God, or the hope of eternity. Only life with Jesus can bring us these things and much more

When the world--even the people closest to us who we love the most--tries to put anything ahead of Jesus and the will of God that we believe in Him, we must learn from Jesus and resist that pressure. 

When we do that, Jesus says, He will keep a promise to us, a promise sealed by His death and resurrection: “...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13)

So stand firm!