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Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Recent Articles

FYI, I've just sent off an article for the blog of the Anglican Diocese of the South (ACNA) about dealing with grief - should be posted in a week or so.  I'll provide the link here.

I have also just sent off an article for Good News Magazine on particular sins we need to examine during lent (it's the December issue) related to our divisions in our country today.  You'll be able to find it on their website when the December issue comes out: link is here.  I've written several for them in the past.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Anglicanism: Reformed and Catholic

Today is Oct 31, celebrated by Protestants as Reformation Day.  It is the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of Wittenburg Church.  That event is said to be the start of the Protestant Reformation.  Luther, however, was not trying to start a movement in the Church.  He did not intend for his action to lead to the events that followed.  He was actually following a common practice.  If a professor at the university where he taught had a subject he wanted debated, he would go and post a set of theses on the subject for debate.  It's just that by that time, there was a lot debate throughout Germany going on about the subjects he covered, and there was the printing press.  Someone removed his 95 these, printed them, and one thing lead to another.

The Reformation was, of course, a very complicated event that spread over many years.  The result was a split in Western Christendom between the Roman Catholics and those called Protestants, of which there were and have been since, many flavours.  It is still debated today whether or not to say the Protestant Reformation was a good thing or a bad thing.  Those who are especially concerned for the unity of the church do look ill upon it, and there is no question that a split is generally not a good thing.  

One person has said - and I tend to think he is right - that if the circumstances had simply been different, there would have been no split, but we may have been left with a Lutheran Order, to add to the Franciscan, the Dominican and so forth.  Luther, after all, started out thinking he was just trying to help solve an obvious problem; he had no intention of starting a new denomination at all.  But sadly, the Vatican had gotten too worldly, and church affairs were too tied up with political and national issues.  It seems the church was at that time in no position to be able to peacefully debate anything, even though people everywhere knew the Roman Church needed reforms.  And when reforms were made, people were glad.  Multitudes of people found liberation from the errors of Rome and a new assurance of their salvation in the preaching of the grace of the gospel.  For those people, the Reformation was a good thing indeed.  

It is common for Protestants to be characterized as people who wanted to get rid of all the church traditions that had accrued and get back to the Bible and the days of the apostles; and granted some Protestants thought that way.  Sadly, today, many evangelicals think that that was the only opinion, and they discount everything that had been believed and done between the early church and the 16th century, so that today - thinking they are being good Protestants - they don't pay any attention to the intervening period.  It's as if it was all just a Dark Age.  Truth be told, the Reformers would be appalled, especially those who reformed the Church of England.

The Church of England did have her own version of the Reformation, but at the same time, while making changes, she kept in her memory what she had been before.  This is the reason why Anglicans consider themselves not merely Protestants, but a Reformed Catholic church.  She is Reformed, but she has not lost the catholic connection.  This means that she maintains her connection with her past, while appreciating the reforms made in the 16th Century; the Anglican Church is a Protestant Church, but as such, she is still a continuation of what was good about her pre-Protestant days.  

Why this manner of reform?  The history of Christianity in England goes all the way back to the first century.  Eusebius - the Church historian - says that the apostles and disciples preached the gospel throughout the whole Empire; and it is almost certain that there were Christian soldiers in Britannia in the first century.  She has her own claim of apostolic originality.  She was never dependent upon Rome for her existence.  There were even bishops from England at the Council of Nicaea, which gave us the Nicene Creed.  Christians were worshipping our Lord in England long before the first Roman Catholic monk set foot on her shores.  It is certainly not the case that the Church of England began when Henry VIII separated the British Church from Rome.   

But changes did result from this separation and the accompanying reform, and they resulted in the foundation documents of our Church: The Book of Common Prayer, The Thirty-Nine Articles, The Ordinal, and we should include The Homilies.  If you read these documents - as we do portions of them every Sunday - what do we find?  We find they are Reformed: in the true Protestant spirit, they are full of Scripture.  All the Reformers, including those in England, believed that the Bible itself teaches us that it is the supreme authority for all that we as Christians are to believe and practice.  The Bible is the judge of our traditions, the judge of our culture, and the judge of all our hearts, not vice versa.  It is the Word of God that gives us life, faith, and the saving knowledge of God.  As St. Paul says to Timothy:

14 But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  16 All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (in other words, it gives us everything that we need).

But continuing the point made earlier about keeping what was good from the past, the English theologians, did not ignore the writings of the Church Fathers - which the Roman Catholics looked to so much; the men who had written during the centuries following the age of the apostles.  Nor did they forget the worship practices of both Rome and England that had been used for centuries.  It’s just that they would only use works or practices that they could square up with Scripture.  E.g., Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer, wrote: "We consider that the authority of the orthodox fathers is by no means to be despised, for they have many useful and excellent observations.  But that the Holy Scriptures should be interpreted by their decisions we do not allow.”  By thus respecting and remembering and preserving aspects of the Church which had preceded them, the Reformers retained the catholic nature of the Church of England.

You may not realize it, but many of the collects and other prayers we pray in our services come from prayers composed centuries before the Reformation and long loved by the Church.  The collects we have been using this month were not composed by Cranmer but they come from either the Gelasian Sacramentary, which was a liturgy composed by Pope Gelasius I - who was pope from AD 492-496 - and the Gregorian Sacramentary, which was a revision of the Roman Catholic liturgy executed by Pope Gregory the Great (AD 590-604).  This liturgy was first brought by Benedictine monks to England when the pope sent them as missionaries to the people of that island - that's a thousand years before the Reformation!

In such manner, the leaders of the Reformation in England proved themselves to be catholic and Reformed.  

The question is understandably asked, "Will we ever reunite with the Roman Church?"  If there is time, it's possible.  While there are still some important differences between Roman Catholics and Protestants; there has been a good bit of rapprochement among the Roman Catholics toward Reformed Protestants.  On October 31, 1999, officials from both the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in which Pope Benedict said that Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is correct if ‘faith is not opposed to charity.’ which, of course, it is not.  A lot of Roman Catholics don't like it, but there it is anyway.  Vatican II made several overtures to the Protestants.  Bishop Robert Barron - popular on Youtube - said that the Reformation made a great contribution to the Church at that time, by renewing an emphasis on the principle of the primacy of grace; an emphasis that needed renewing.  

At the same time evangelicals, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, are finding common ground in the "mere Christianity" ideal of C. S. Lewis.  The cultural pressures we also share together have led us to be much more cooperative and respectful of each other as well.  After all, no Anglican today is going to say - as some used to! - that the pope is the Antichrist.  Those days are past.  

There have been many in the Anglican Communion who have argued that we should adjust beliefs and practices in the Anglican Church to be closer to them and maybe even someday return to them.  There are some in the ACNA who have this persuasion.  I however agree with the evangelical Roman Catholic philosopher, Peter Kreeft, that the answer to our division is not for the two parties to deny who they are, but to be who they are while continuing to seek the Truth, and in God's good time, He will bring about the reunion that - whatever it may look like - we know would be ideal.  In the meantime, let us give thanks for our own communion, for "...our Church's history demonstrates that there is a strength, a vitality, a light that shines from traditional, evangelical Anglicanism that is lovely, and renews that salty savour of the Church, which our Lord declared as so necessary for her calling in this world."  So let us keep praying for the prosperity of a Reformed Catholic Christianity such as we enjoy in the Anglican Communion.  

Friday, October 29, 2021

Background to the English Reformation

 Lee Gatiss gives us a good lesson on the reforming work of men in England before Luther: 

Monday, October 25, 2021

Blind Bartimaeus and Prayer - Mk 10

You will recall from last week's gospel reading and sermon, that Jesus is walking to Jerusalem with his disciples to face his death.  He is already suffering the emotional stress of what he is to undergo, so much that he is walking ahead of everyone, which was unusual for him, causing them to be anxious about what is going on.  Because of the route he has taken, he is headed for Jericho, so he can approach Jerusalem from the East along the Jericho road.  However many disciples may have been with him, by the time they get to Jericho, a crowd is gathering to go up to the city, for it is time for the Passover.  

As was probably his custom, a poor blind man - according to Mark's rendition - was sitting along their route and as he heard the crowd coming, he overheard the mention of the name of Jesus, and he started to wonder if maybe Jesus was part of the crowd passing.  He would have heard of Jesus and his miraculous healing - even to the point of healing a man who had been born blind.  He may have thought that, if Jesus could heal that blind man, he could probably heal him as well.

Let's pick up the narrative, and as we do so, I will make comments along the way and then wind things up noting a few lessons we learn here.

46 And they came to Jericho. And as he [Jesus] was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside.  47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 

Now Bartimaeus' cry is very important, for it reveals something of his faith, about which Jesus will soon speak.  He, first of all, believes enough about Jesus' ability that he has hope that he may be healed.  His persistence, in spite of the discouragements from the crowd, show the strength of his conviction, as well, probably, the depth of his longing to see again.  I think it can be said that the deeper we feel our need, the stronger will be our faith and hope in our Lord's mercy and the stronger will be our cry to him.  But notice also how Bartimaeus addresses him, "Jesus, Son of David."  This is a very important Messianic title, for it represents the fact that Jesus is David's descendant and greater son, the one whom David called both his son and his Lord; he who bears this official title is the Messiah come to restore David's heritage and throne.  How rarely do we see this title in the gospels!  Mark has it only 3 times, and two of them are here.  This man may have been blind, but he saw more than most.  Like Peter, he was given grace by the Father in Heaven to recognize that Jesus was the promised Messiah.  His cry for mercy and hope for healing was based, not only in the depth of his felt need, and in the conviction based on the stories he had heard, but on his own theological understanding of just who this person was - of course he heals the blind!  Is not the Spirit of God upon him to bring healing, since he is the Messiah?  And so he cries out.

And of all the things going on around him, this one thing stops Jesus in his determined tracks.

 49 And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” 50 And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” 

Ah!  Now here we may have a clue as to why Mark includes this story and why he names this beggar, elevating him to a point of recognition in the Church.  Does not Jesus's question ring a bell?  Had not Jesus just asked this question of James and John, as we read last week: "What is it that you want me to do for you?"  James and John wanted positions of prominence in the kingdom.  Bartimaeus could have asked for that, too; or for anything else he pleased.  But his request was much more simple: "Lord, I just want to be able to see again."  That's all.  What a contrast between these two answers to the same question.

52 And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way.

And here we have this beautiful end of this vignette.  Bartimaeus could have ventured off now to go see everything he had ever wanted to see, as he had suffered through the years in his poverty and blindness.  But what does he do?  He just wants to keep his eyes on Jesus.  Oh, friends, he who is forgiven much loves much, as Jesus said.  And he who has been much comforted loves much as well.  Do we, as Jeremiah in his Lamentation, remember the wormwood and the gall of our own past, and how we cried out to Jesus for mercy, and he gave his comfort to our afflicted souls.  O friends, let us never forget how good Jesus has been to us, and let's keep him where he belongs in our lives and in our hearts, foremost, right out in front, the object of our chief attention, faith, obedience, and love.  For he is worthy now and forever.

But now, having gone through this story, I want us to note for a few minutes a few particular lessons we learn from Bartimaeus' example for Christian prayer.  When Bartimaeus, poor and blind, called out to Jesus to have  mercy upon him, he was praying.  Prayer is bringing our cares and needs to Jesus.  And Bartimaeus was good at praying, for he received from the Lord what he asked for.

He thus gives us a good pattern for our own prayers.  I find three lessons for us here:

First:  if there's anything that he teaches us, it is his earnestness.  As soon as he was aware of his opportunity, he cried out.  He persisted when discouraged.  And when he had his audience, he threw aside hindrance and "sprang up" to meet with Jesus.  The apostle James tells us that The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. (James 5:16) and he gives Elijah as an example.  James could have used Bartimaeus as well, for it was that earnest and repeated cry, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" that arrested our Lord's attention and resulted in the answer to his prayer.  

Ah, friends, we don't have to be worked up into an emotional frenzy in all our prayers, but is there a particular request you wish to make of the Lord that you know is important.  Then let us seek grace - perhaps adding fasting to our praying if need be - to have the earnestness in our petitions that is befitting the importance of our request, with the confidence that it will make a difference.  The Lord's teaching is plain about this.

Next, Bartimaeus shows us the critical element of being definite in our requests.  When Jesus asked him what he wanted, he went straight to the point: "Rabboni, or my Lord, that I may receive my sight."  There is an excellent chapter in Andrew Murray's book, With Christ in the School of Prayer, to which I call your attention about being definite in prayer.  He mentions a habit, with which we are all familiar, of being indefinite in our praying, simply asking God's will be done, whatever that is, and so be it.  There will be times when we do not know what God's will may be in a matter, and so we pray "thy will be done," and trust that the Holy Spirit in us will offer the proper prayer, making up for our weakness (as we read in Romans 8:26).  But how would that prayer have sounded in Bartimaeus' mouth?  Jesus asked him, "what would you have me to do," and he replies "Rabbi, I don't know, whatever you want, your will be done."  Would he not have instead received more of a rebuke for his little faith than healing from Jesus?  The Lord bids us ask, seek, and knock that we may have the petitions we desire of him.  When he comes to the door, we'd better know what we are there for.  

Why does our Lord want us to be definite?  Murray says, "He desires it for our own sakes.  Such definite prayer teaches us to know our own needs better.  It demands time, and thought, and self-scrutiny to find out what really is our greatest need.  It searches us and puts us to the test as to whether our desires are honest and real, such as we are ready to persevere in.  It leads us to judge whether our desires are according to God's Word, and whether we really believe that we shall receive the things we ask.  It helps us to wait for the special answer, and to mark when it comes."  (p. 56).  I would love to quote Murray more from his chapter on Mark 10 and Bartimaeus' request, but we lack the time, so do look that up yourself.

Bartimaeus teaches us to be earnest in our prayer, to be definite, and finally to have faith.  We expect this, do we not?  Jesus was always responding to people according to their faith, "According to your faith be it unto you," he might say.  We read in the book of Hebrews, 11:6: But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.  (By the way; note that final phrase "those who diligently seek him;" there is that earnestness of which we have spoken.).  Yes, we know we must have faith.  Bartimaeus believed that Jesus could and hopefully would heal him, but not at the very moment of asking.  When Jesus says his faith had made him whole, the faith he refers to is the faith that he had already demonstrated in calling him the Son of David.  Bartimaeus had the faith to be healed, he was simply exercising that faith in his prayer, in his request of his Lord.

How may we have faith when we pray to receive the answer we seek?  Friends, there's no better way than to simply bring along with our requests the promises the Lord has already given us in his word - and they are abundant!  They are not only expressly stated throughout the Scriptures - and to our minds especially in the gospels - but implied by everything the Lord tells us to do.  Every promise, in all the Bible, in Jesus Christ, God considers a "yeah and amen" to our requests in prayer.  And rest assured, the very act of going to Jesus in the first place - as Bartimaeus does here- is an expression of faith, whether we feel we have faith or not.  Let's not pray looking at our feelings, but remembering the promises and looking to the merciful and loving hand of our Lord, who gives us all things richly to enjoy according to his will for us, as St. John says in his first epistle, I John 5:13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.

So, dear friends, let us follow the example of our dear brother, Bartimaeus, and be earnest, be definite, and be believing in our prayers, as we keep our eyes upon our Lord, and follow him, carrying our daily cross after him, to glory,  Amen.

[img source wikimediacommons]

Monday, October 18, 2021

St. Mark 10 for caregivers

    When it comes to our Gospel reading this morning and our ongoing observation of how Jesus is training the future apostles, those of us who are familiar with this story and with sermons on this story easily remember lessons about personal ambition, jealousy, and about how we should follow Jesus' example and live a life of service, in contrast to seeking people to serve us instead.  And all that is very valuable, very appropriate for this passage, and I'll touch on some of that.  However, this morning, you'll forgive me if I want to zero in on a particular situation that we all can face at some point in our lives: getting along with people we are trying to help, such as aging relatives in your family, or other people you can run into as a care-giver.  Trying to help people can sometimes be a huge challenge.  I suspect some of you immediately hearken back to your own experience in a situation like this and how difficult it can be.  Let's take a few minutes to look at this passage again in light of this challenge we face in seasons of our lives, because this is no little thing.  It's one of those places where the rubber-meets-the-road, as we say, concerning our walk with our Lord.    

    First of all, I must refer us to the few verses leading up to this story which were left out.  They give us the context for the story.  Here's where you can follow along, beginning in v. 32.

32 And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. And taking the twelve again, he began [again - 3rd time] to tell them what was to happen to him, 33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” (ESV)

So what do we find?  Jesus was walking to Jerusalem, but he walked in a way he had not done before; he was walking like he was in a hurry to get something done.  He did not walk along socializing with the disciples; he was walking like he only thought of what he had to do.  He knew what he was heading there for, too; and speaks again to his disciples of it.  Everyone following him was “amazed”.  His behaviour was so unusual that it scared them.

So, we find that, while Jesus is already sensing the stress, the anxiety, that horror to his feelings that he would eventually express in the garden of Gethsemane, yet the disciples were completely out of touch.  They are thinking of something completely different, and it seems even petty and self-serving, compared to what Jesus is going through.  The clash is dramatic!  

Jesus is suffering with the struggle of serving the people around him, but those very people are completely oblivious to what he's going through.  Instead, they want him to do them a self-serving favour.  

Friends, as we follow our Lord and his providence, serving people at times can be just that very thing, can't it.  And when it is, what are you going to do?  How are you going to respond?

We know how we would like to respond!  I recall a story from long ago about a Puritan woman who was serving a large household.  She had a friend visit her on one occasion, and the visitor was surprised at how calm and gracious this woman was being, serving all these people.  When she got her alone in the kitchen, she asked her, "How is it that you can remain so calm?"  And the Puritan woman replied, "Thou knowest not how I do boil inside."  

If we are trying to help or take care of someone who can't seem to have the slightest concern about what it's costing us to be good to them, I suspect we all can feel the boil begin, but we know it's not right.  If we lash out in resentment or self-pity and complain to them for their needs or requests - for one thing - we could be hurting them, couldn't we, when we're supposed to be helping them.  There could be a degree of innocence in their failure to consider us - as there was even with James and John; they were just children of their culture.  When Jesus would tell them he was going to die, it just wouldn't register with them.  He knew they cared about him and appreciated him; they just could not conceive of what he was facing here in this moment.  It would be wrong to complain to them for being so out of touch with the situation.  

But even if we know very well that the person we are taking care of is just a selfish, mean, ungrateful person who can't think of others because they are so bound up in their sins, yet even then, if we lashed out, they still would not understand would they?  It's not going to change things for the better.  And it would even hurt our Christian testimony.  There are times when you just have to deal with the disappointment we feel with others in our own hearts.  But that's just what Jesus himself did, wasn't it.

How did Jesus respond to James' and John's question?  Patiently; he just took it as a serious question and gave them a good answer.  He maintained his attitude of service, though it meant no sympathy from those he served.  He was, after all, the Great Shepherd, and sheep will be sheep, so he keeps up with their weaknesses.

And then the other disciples get wind of what these two guys were doing and they got mad about it and started complaining, and now Jesus has this social situation he has to stop and take care of.  He has to gather them around him again for another lesson time.  When he does, he speaks to them those words, now so famous:

"But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all." 

Note that he doesn't speak as if wanting to have a position, to share his glory, was a bad thing.  He didn't do that with James and John, either.  It was not a bad thing - though the motive needed to be right, of course.  But if a person was to share in the glory of the kingdom, he had to live a kingdom life, and that meant a life of service - a life of thinking about other peoples' needs, not just your own.

And that's why we serve the people we are trying to help, isn't it.  Oh sure, if it's a family member, we will have some affection for them; our feelings and perhaps our nostalgia or appreciation for their own kindness in the past, will carry us along.  But there are times when all that is not enough.  There are times when we engage our wills, pray for grace to keep our cool, and we do what needs to be done for them, because we are children of the kingdom; we live the kingdom life; this is our calling, our privilege, our duty.  It's our calling as disciples, followers of Jesus - for, what did Jesus go on to say?  Why are we to live to serve others; why is this a kingdom life?  Because it's the life of the King himself.  Jesus says,

45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It's the way our master lived.  You recall the old song, "I walked today where Jesus walked;" whether we are in the Holy Land or not, we walk where he walked, for it is the only way to arrive at where he will be and to share in his glory.  

You know, I can't help but notice that the lesson of this whole story is summed up in the words of St. Paul in the 2nd chapter of his letter to the Philippians.  I think I'll close with it:

3 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. 4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others.

5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.  [Jesus said, it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom; but you can only have it if you live the kingdom life of service]

In conclusion, you know what my prayer is about all of this?  

Yes, I pray, Lord, help me not to be out of touch with you and what you are doing; I really want to be sensitive to you, and not just be expecting you to be sensitive to me.  But especially I pray: God, keep me from becoming one of these people who are difficult to take care of when the time comes - someone who is out of touch with what others are going through.  I hope that's your prayer too.  There are limitations here, of course!, and it's true that you can never really understand everything someone else is going through anyway.  But we should at least try, and certainly not be demanding toward other people or exasperating to them because we've given into self-pity or we can only think of ourselves.

To avoid becoming that kind of person, we need to develop good habits now.  We need to hate every particle of self-pity in our hearts.  We need now to keep Jesus' example of the kingdom life before us and Paul's words to the Philippians in our minds, and develop the habit of joyfully acting this way now.  Hopefully, when we are not as mentally aware as we have usually been at times, enough grace in this area will have been engrained in us, that we will keep on thinking, not only of ourselves, but also of those around us, especially those trying to help us, and while they serve us, we'll try to serve them too the best we can with what we have left, even if it's just a smile and a prayer.

It's complicated!  Lord have mercy, and help us to finish well and get us all safely to his glory.  Amen!

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

Mk 10:32-35 - Out of Touch with Jesus

 Working on my sermon this Sunday:

So, while Jesus is already sensing the stress, the anxiety, that he would express in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples were completely out of touch.  The clash is dramatic!  The clash itself is scary: Lord, is there any way I’m as out of touch with you as that?  How can I walk with you, if I can be so out of touch?  

Yet he deigned to walk with them.  He is so longsuffering.  To take the position of willingness to recognize that I can be so out of touch is key; it’s the place of humility.  He’s willing to walk with us, even if we don’t know what we should know, as long as we are humble - like he is.

Monday, October 11, 2021

"Follow Me" - Qualifications

 The Bible is full of instruction about wealth and riches and it often warns about the special power they seem to have to turn us into idolators.  Jesus speaks of it in his important Sermon on the Mount:

19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, ... 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  ... 24 ... You cannot serve God and money.

The story of the rich young ruler is a real-life parable of this truth.  Here is a young man who is conscious of the fact that he lacks something in his heart; that somehow, even though he's been trying to be righteous, yet he knows he still has a spiritual need and that he is not assured of having eternal life.  And he feels this need so sharply, that he throws aside all social restraints of his class and religious standing, and falls down before Jesus, this man that all his peers disdain. And he does so, somehow knowing that Jesus - who obviously is not a servant of the devil but a good man - somehow he will have the answer.  

And he was right, wasn't he.  The ruler came to just the right place, the feet of Jesus, who is himself the source of eternal life.  And he is given all hope of having what he lacks, for Jesus invites him to follow him; Jesus is willing to receive him.  But what happens?  Jesus knows that the man's wealth has an idolatrous grip on his heart.  The young man is going to have to get rid of this idol if he is to follow him.  So Jesus confronts the young man about this idol.  How?  He picks up on the cue that the young man thinks he needs to do something else beside what he has already done.  How true that was!  The young man thought he had been keeping the ten commandments, but Jesus puts his finger on how the young man was actually breaking the commands about idolatry and covetousness.  He did it by telling him to sell all he has and give the proceeds to the poor.  The young man couldn't do that.  He loved his wealth too much.  This was the one thing he needed to do, but he couldn't.  He thus walked away from the answer to his quest, subject to the idol in his heart.

This visit by the rich young ruler set up an interesting scenario for the instruction of the twelve about the nature of the discipleship that they had begun.  First of all, they are reminded that a disciple cannot serve God and money.  Jesus has again confronted someone about forsaking their wealth to be a disciple.  He has done so because we cannot follow Jesus and the idols in our hearts - whatever they may be.  

But this incident has left the disciples confused, and Jesus knows it.  He knows what they are thinking.  After the young man walks away, Jesus stands there and just looks at the twelve for a minute, probably giving them a moment to digest what has just happened.  He knows that they think that material wealth is always an evidence of God's favour on a person - just like Job's comforters did.  You'll recall, that Job's comforters could not understand how Job could be righteous and have his wealth taken away from him at the same time.  To them, prosperity was a sign of righteousness.  But Jesus knows that the two don't always go together, and so he flat out tells them, "How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”   And he has to tell them twice, because they are so amazed at this. They can't help but thinking that, if anybody was going to have eternal life it would be this young fellow, and so they can't help but ask, "Well, then who can be saved?"  

Jesus' answer to their confusion is to point them to the grace of God.  They have asked a universal question, "How can anybody at all be saved if someone like this young man cannot be?"  Jesus gives a universal answer, "When it comes to anybody being saved, it's an act of Almighty God.  Since nothing is impossible with God, he can save anybody - poor or wealthy or in any possible condition." 

Thus Jesus here brings home an important lesson for the disciples: if they are his followers, it is because Almighty God has had mercy on them and done for them what it was impossible for them to do for themselves; God gave them the gift of repentance from their idols.  They had left behind their worldly occupations and goods to follow Jesus, not because they had some innate moral strength in themselves, but because God had graciously worked in their hearts to love Jesus more than the things of this world.  God had done for them what Paul says God does for every disciple of Christ: "For by grace are you saved, through faith, and even that faith is not from you, but it is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast that they had saved themselves" (Eph. 2).

That, by the way, was another problem with the young ruler: he thought he was saving himself by keeping God's law - he just needed to keep something else, to do one more thing, and he would be fine.  Jesus gave him a situation to make him realize that he needed more than a greater effort at being good; he needed God's mercy to deliver him from his idolatry.

But having responded to the disciples' confusion with an affirmation of God's grace toward them, Peter - being Peter - blurted out the next thing that came to his mind:  “See, we have left everything and followed you.”  In other words, "Well, we have not failed like that young ruler failed; we have left all and followed you."  What was going on in Peter's heart, we do not know.  It's more than likely that a lot of things were going on in his heart.  But it doesn't seem that Peter's statement was without merit, as if he was being purely mercenary.  It's likely Peter is speaking before he's taken enough time to digest what has just happened and what Jesus had said.  And Jesus' answer does not seem to be a rebuke, but seems to be more of an effort to further ground Peter's faith and to encourage him.  Instead of a rebuke, he gives Peter a remarkable promise - a universal promise for all his disciples.  He tells them that God's reward for whatever they may give up to follow him will exceedingly surpass anything they have left behind.  

This is a very comforting promise to all followers of Jesus.  There is reward for turning away from all our idols to serve him, not only in the world to come, but in this life as well.  Even the mention of persecution was a promise of blessing, because Jesus had said in the Beatitudes that persecution was a blessing.  

This promise has certainly come true for me.  When I began to follow the Lord as a senior in highschool, I lost the respect of some people and I lost some of my closest friends.  Even greater costs came as time went by.  But I soon had many, many more friends - even people who were like family to me.  And today, I look back, and I have a multitude of loving brothers and sisters, not only here in the States, but in other countries as well - and some are already in heaven, too.  You can probably say the same.

This past week, I was told by a member at First Pres, that he knows a dear, Christian lady, in one of the lesser tribes of Brazil, who is in a coma.  But she is surrounded by friends and family who care for her.  But there are also other Christian friends in the greater country of Brazil that pray for her.  And, beside that, there are people in the United States praying for her.  And her friends beside her will take calls from people on their phones and let them talk to her while she lies on her bed.  Isn't that beautiful?  This poor elderly lady, is loved and befriended by  people she has not only known, but by believers she has never met and never could meet in this life.

Friends, may I quote from a Baptist commentator?  He writes: "A Christian is a man who follows Christ and obeys Christ and gives Himself to Christ for love's sake.  But Christ never calls a man to an unreasonable service.  The life Christ calls a man to, is the best life and the highest life, the rich life.  And that is what the Christian doctrine of rewards amounts to; it is the assertion of the supreme reasonableness of the Christian life." (J. D. Jones, x. 28-31, p. 310.)

Think of it: using your earthly wealth to lay up eternal treasure in heaven is a reasonable thing to do, isn't it.  To forsake all possessions and relationships that keep you from heaven so you can gain many more possessions and relationships - with persecution in this life but glory to come - makes sense as well, doesn't it?  Peter did not need to worry about what was going to happen to them for following Jesus.

So can we sum up the three lessons for the disciples here? 
1) Beware of riches - they can become idols;
2) Remember that you are saved by an almighty God of grace; and
3) Jesus is no man's debtor; he wants to bless us more than we can imagine.  

I close with famous words by C. S. Lewis from his book, Mere Christianity:

"Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it.  Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in.”