Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Church Humility!

FOR THE Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost we continue reading from the Gospel According to Saint Luke. Within the text singularly offered by our author, we have a very relevant teaching about humility.

He (Jesus) also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others…
 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’
 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’
  I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Identity Crisis!
In the telling of this scene, Luke does not concretely identify the persons to whom our Lord Jesus is speaking. However, from the context found within the introductory sentence… we may guess that Luke notably related this to the whole audience of Christian congregations. The warning given to us clearly states that there is great danger for those who declare a higher status in righteousness than others. The story Jesus told used the comparative examples of a strict Pharisee… and a lowly, detested tax collector. Jesus stated that the attitude each held governs the person’s justification before God. Therefore we know that Jesus, through his servant Luke, is noted as favoring those who come before God with confession and humility.
 In historical context of the time, it seems that Luke offered this teaching during an era of church growth in the late first century. Indeed, this was a time when two main factions of the church maneuvered for priority. In considering this evidence then, a revelation may be found for us in that the two very human examples that Jesus gave… a Pharisee and a tax collector represent more than themselves. We might ask whether these two characters used in the story, which were held high during this stage of Jesus’ ministry, prophetically described the personalities of two differing church factions. These came into prominence decades after the Ascension of Our Lord.
 When the event originally occurred, the separate groups were germinating within the ranks of the disciples… even during the time of Jesus’ ministry. The maneuvering of James and John for seats alongside Jesus when he would come into power is a prime example of this fledgling tilt. The inclinations remained and were the disciples were competitive even after his death and Resurrection.
 Though empowered under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the organization of the church quickly divided along theological, traditional and territorial lines. The first group we can notice was brought to the forefront under the influence of Peter and the apostles. However, by the time of Luke’s writing, all of the original twelve apostles were gone. They had dispersed as requested across the known world in apostolic fervor… and were either martyred or had died in elderly years.
 The second group was centered around James and our Lord’s brothers. These wanted to keep Jerusalem and Judaic traditions as the focus of the Christian movement. Most of these leaders, were killed off or scattered afar by the Romans purge of the late ‘60s. Subsequently, their influence was felt in the dispersion of Christians to places in Asia Minor, Egypt and Syria.
 By the late first century the church was left with two main Christian factions. The Hellenists, were collectively derived from followers of Philip, Paul and his Gentile group. These were those who at first embraced the use of Greek Septuagint for worship and scripture reading. They included Jewish proselytes central to Asia Minor. These flexed in virtual religious practice over against the purist Jewish stubbornness Hebrew custom and synagogue, those who wanted to use strict adherence to the prayers and traditions that had meant much to such people as the Pharisees. These “Judaizers” were prayerfully demonstrative of their adherence to the Law, dietary restrictions and circumcision as a sign of their commitment and holiness. They claimed a historical priority, while the other factions of Gentiles accepted their lowliness, comparative ignorance and dependence upon God’s merciful action made through Jesus Christ.
 Using this historical context then, we can form an opinion that this text written by Luke related that Jesus would not approve in the Spirit of the rank competition occurring between those in Luke’s provinces and the Christian gatherings centered in Antioch of Syria. I believe that Luke was chiding both his own diaspora synagogues and the Syrian churches by emphasizing the piety of the tax collector.
 You see, we know that in Israel and other provinces of Rome, the tax collector was thought of as a social outcast. As well, the fact was well known by the church that Levi was a tax collector. Having been a disciple…. he was renamed Matthew by Jesus. He had become an apostle… and had been subsequently tied to the activities of one of the two remaining factions within the early church. The Gospel According to Matthew is said to have its roots in Antioch of Syria, and is yet attributed to him. Additionally, we need consider that Matthew’s gospel is claimed to have been written in final form during that same time frame as the Gospel According to Saint Luke.
 Given this history, I ask, “Was Luke chastising the competitive, divisive and destructive characters in the Christian witness of the day?” If so, what does this say to our modern churches? Given this assumption, I believe we can award prophetic foresight to our Lord. Jesus knew his followers to the depths of their souls. He knew them, and we ourselves as sinners. Indeed we are sinners to be made saints through him.
 Shortly after the time of our Lord’s crucifixion… the infant church divided into the two factions, each having its own agenda. As proof, we note that the earliest letter of Saint Paul to the church in Galatia attests to the tension that grew between Peter and Paul over the Christian Greeks. Peter drew back from collectively dining when the representative of James arrived. He suddenly refrained from eating non-kosher foods. Consequently, we see here in our Lord’s final statement a concern that we opt for a better way. Luke presented that Jesus himself said that the one who is truly justified is the downcast one who knows and confesses any haughty sin, and begs that God would show mercy.

Passing the Test?
 As a Christian church that should work to declare the good news of salvation in the modern world, we therefore might pause to consider just how we might be described by our Lord. Who are we in comparison with the various expressions of the Christian faith? Do we too liberally claim more civil “righteousness” than “those others” in order to gather greater pew attendance? Do we haughtily claim to be the most pure in our theology or most faithful in our following of religious traditions? Or rather, do we above all wish to be counted as those who simply confess our sinfulness… both individually and collectively… and thus rest our future in ministry solely upon the forgiveness supplied through the love and sacrifice of Christ Jesus?
 I say to all that we need be the latter of these. I say to you that in hearing such prophetic words, we need to beat upon our chests as we realize our need of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. We need to stand as guided by the Spirit with our eyes cast down… and be driven to confess by saying with Christians one and all.., “Lord… be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

An Enduring Faith?

FOR THE Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost, we find that our text in Luke challenges the apostolic church to endure and grow. Always.., but especially during times of duress, we are called to have faith in our deliverance that is given by God….

And he (Jesus) told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, 'Vindicate me against my adversary.' 
 For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, 'Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'" 
 And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says.
 And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:1-8)

Teaching Endurance…
In continued answer to the disciples’ request to increase their faith, the author of our text from Luke related that Jesus taught the church about endurance. In our Lord’s teaching, the parable contrasts legalistic wrangling between the worldly powerless… and the revealed church as empowered by God.
 We first note that the text we read here is found only in Luke. This fact establishes that several possibilities exist for its singular inclusion in this gospel. Since Luke’s witness is thought to be written circa 85AD, we consider that the parabolic text may have come through the power of the Holy Spirit from a late first-century source. We also cite that there is no such parable or text in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew, gleaned from the so-called “Q” document, even though it is thought by most scholars that Matthew was written during the same decade. This fact looms large for our discussion.
 While it may be argued that that the writers of both Luke and Matthew may have had this same source available in “Q”, the Matthean writers may not have had room on the parchment for its inclusion. Also, and more importantly, we may also guess that the parable was not as relevant to the Matthean community’s societal or political position.
 Given this, I offer that if the latter case is true, the parable’s appearance may bring the claim that the story was specifically relevant to the Lukan community… and addressed its burdens within its particular geographic ministry. You see, that community was historically spread across the Greek provinces; whereas, Matthew’s churches were located as centered in Syria.

Moving from Unjust to Just…
In telling the example of the widow, Jesus originally held up a call for right vindication, retribution and punishment. In the telling, earnest steadiness in prayer is taught as a character to be valued by the disciples. In the story, the listeners heard that the widow's earnestness prevailed even with the unjust judge, even though her persistence could have set him more against her. The story thus expressed by our Lord was that she literally wore the unjust man out in her petitioning. However, conversely our Lord impressed upon the disciples that her earnest prayer was pleasing to God. Jesus thus taught that such response from an unjust man who does not even fear God, stands in paltry relation to the judgment that shall be poured out from God who is indeed Righteous. This message related then, highlights the disparity between that which influences human social powers over against the work of God.
 As told by Jesus then, the parable ended with the repeated questioning echoed, as to whether when all things are said and done will faith be found upon the earth. Consequently, Jesus planted the importance of continued persistence as a desired quality in the active faith of the disciples, establishing that they must continue prayers unceasingly… for surely those requests do not fall unheard or unanswered.
For Luke, the "widow" doubtlessly represented not only the dispersed Jews of his own audience, but also many Gentile proselytes in the Christian church of the late first century. Was it being stressed that these last shall be found amongst the heard and answered when accounts are settled and the kingdom of God is fulfilled? As we read of the faith of the widow, we see that she likely represents the early churches to which Luke wrote. This confirms for us that the word "faith" meant not just a personal faith, but the faith to be found as a quality needed within the whole body of Christ, which included both Jews and Gentiles. In other words, this Lukan text contains a collective prophecy that coming shortly was a time of such faith apostasy that the truth of God will have seemed to have nearly departed entirely from the earth. Thus it was that the gospel writer related through this parable’s telling, that despite prolonged oppression God indeed is yet Lord and Judge of all.
 By his answer, therefore, Jesus spoke about the enduring character that should embolden all saints of God during trying times. The traits held up by this parable, included only in Luke, stand staunchly as prophetic in our own day.
 As a pastor I emphasize that this knowledge is based predominately on a right comprehension of sin according to scripture, and a soulful request for expressed faith in the validity of Jesus’ sacrificial atonement. Let it be known now that the receiving of such understanding comes to us only by the Holy Spirit. History reveals that it was only through the Spirit’s empowerment that the church of Luke endured through future persecutions. Indeed, travesties in both societal and governmental justice assailed the early church from before the decades of Luke’s writing, through a time until and beyond the reign of Constantine. Today we yet find that these same persecutions persist.

Prayers and Proclamation!
In these modern times, therefore, I say to you that we of the Christian church are called to take sight of the animosities which violently oppress evangelical outreach in such places as Africa, Syria, and other more modern cultures. We need to recognize that demons undermine the right interpretation of scripture even in more culturally-developed nations, where the church must stand against incorrect progressive and socialist misinterpretations of our Lord’s ministry.
 As a church therefore, let us be like the poor widow and place before God persistent prayers made in petition against those that attempt to further close church doors. Newspaper headlines reveal that these exist. Many modern minds are closed and barred not only against Christians who are imprisoned and murdered in such as Syria, Iraq and Iran, but are also tightly bolted against right Christian proclamation within “first world” superpowers. Take note that these demonic forces rail incessantly against our exclusive gospel proclamation of salvation through Christ alone in such places as our modern societies and governments. In the United States, for example, we see that political personalities and powers repeated express false rights. They shield themselves with a flimsy protectionism erroneously granted through their Constitution misinterpretation that favors complete political separation of church and state. Consequently we of the church need find within this lesson that witness is found in the true... but hard-oppressed apostolic church.
 Historic faith persistance needs to be uplifted. We need to keep pounding on the doors of injustice, and know that the judgments of Almighty God shall prevail beyond this world’s striving. We need to cry out “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord” as we continue to proclaim the Truth that is told in the gospels. We need gather faithfully and plead before our Savior again this Sunday… “Let the Son of Man come to find faith upon earth.”


Monday, October 3, 2016

Healing Immigration!

FOR THE Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost, our gospel comes to us once again from the pages of blessed Saint Luke. Here we read both of healing and proper thankfulness expressed…

On the way to Jerusalem he (Jesus) was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. And as he entered a village, he was met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices and said, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." 
 When he saw them he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went they were cleansed. 
 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan. 
 Then said Jesus, "Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" 
 And he said to him, "Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well."
                                                                                                  (Luke 17:11-19)

Universally Available!
For the second time in Luke’s discourse, the beloved physician held up the example of the horrid and disfiguring illness of leprosy before his churches. Our writer related that on his way to Jerusalem and his own crucifixion, Jesus walked on the border between Samaria and Galilee… ideologically balanced on the regions of the acceptable and unacceptable… on territory between the clean and unclean.
 As Jesus traveled toward taking stripes of the Roman whip for our healing in Jerusalem, he encountered ten lepers. These afflicted, according to mandate… were not allowed entry into the city. Lepers could only remain outside the city, in the villages. They had to maintain their personal distances from the general populace.
 Being so afflicted with a dreaded bacterial disease, the lepers had long received traditional, behavioral admonitions. The rules had been made in order to protect those who were deemed healthy, pure and unaffected. The priests in Israel, however, used them in a discriminatory fashion.

"The leper who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry, 'Unclean, unclean.'  He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean; he shall dwell alone in a habitation outside the camp.” (Leviticus 13:45-46)

 Often the populations of these ancient times considered those who were afflicted with leprosy as persons who had received rightful punishment for their sins and the sins of others. We read, however, that the group Jesus encountered on the road that day did not declare the traditional and accepted warnings. Instead they expressed faith in our Lord by asking Jesus for mercy. In saying “Have mercy upon us…” they all showed faith that they believed Jesus could help them.
 But Jesus, not just as the Son of God… but more so as a rabbinical teacher of the Law, did not provide immediate healing. Here he treated them as indeed untouchable. Jesus administered guidance to them in accordance with the norms of the day. Our Lord simply told them to go show themselves to the priest.
 While they were yet trapped in rotting flesh, in faith and obedience they all went. According to this Lukan account, the healing occurred for them on their way… while still in their walk of faith. This is very telling and significant for us. The healing here unfolded differently than some during other occasions reported… such as that told in Matthew 8:2. Here there was an action of faith required of these persons. They were asked to assume that they were healed and walk in that assumption. Indeed they were sent to the priest for confirmation of their healing. As final edict, you see, was the responsibility of the priestly caste. They needed to determine the presence or absence of the illness, as directed in scripture.

"When a man has on the skin of his body a swelling or an eruption or a spot, and it turns into a leprous disease on the skin of his body, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons the priests,” (Leviticus 13:2)

 Consequently we read that the respondents traveled as Jesus bid them. Each walked with faith in response to the sending. In this we note that Jesus did neither a physical anointing… nor medicinal touching. Yet healing indeed took place in each. Jesus had accomplished such strictly on the power of his Word
 We know that according to Jewish tradition, as the priest examined any man having leprosy… when healed the leper were asked to offer a living bird and the blood of dead bird in thanksgiving. Symbolically then, the blood of the offering was poured over the living flesh… consecrating the healing. Then the healed persons were bid to bathe, shave all hair, and wash their clothes. Each motion was likely part of a Jewish purification ritual that had further disinfecting effects.
 Once the person was ready to continue the cleansing ritual, two male lambs and one ewe without blemish were to be offered up… accompanied by a cereal offering and log of oil. All of these were to be set at the door of the meeting tent or temple entrance. The blood of the lambs and log of oil was used as a wave, guilt offering before God.
 However, if the healed person was of poor means, lest any be left out… a more meager thank offering was made. One male lamb was given, and some flour mixed with oil was provided for cereal offering. Two turtle doves or pigeons purchased in the courtyard of the temple would also be in order. Here we note the pattern which was to come in Jesus’ own crucifixion as the Lamb of God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit we enjoy at baptism.
 With these offerings made according to one’s station in life, and the priestly caste receiving the offering as such…, the healed leper would be accepted back into the Jewish community and temple culture. This was all contingent, of course, upon the leper being of Hebrew stock and Jewish faith. Here is where we find contention and disparity. This following of ritual was for the Israelites only! The Samaritan could not participate in the affirmation and thanksgiving. This fact, for the Christian church and Luke’s churches, is possibly the reason that this text looms so large for us today.
 In this final qualification, we see that his offering participation quickly became problematic for the Samaritan. While he could receive good news of his healing, because of religious differences… being a Samaritan… he could not fully participate. Thus we can see that the man would most easily be moved in spirit do a complete about face… to return to the place where he needed not the priestly mandates. He simply returned to the Rabbi who had healed him and instructed him.
 We see in scripture that this happened precisely as described, that though all were healed only the Samaritan gracefully was caused to return at all. Therefore, his returning to Jesus was not cause for us to give the Samaritan great credit, but simply evidence of God’s grace given universally, and showed an appropriate response to that grace.
 We must ask, “Was this an admonition against the traditional, yet isolationistic Hebraic faith expressions, and an endorsement of faithful Gentile simplicity?” I consider it as such. By his being an outsider over against the others that would hold to their priestly traditions, God’s inclusive grace caused this solitary Samaritan to return through spiritual guidance… to be in the right place at the right time. The man went back to find Jesus, and finding him… gave Jesus appropriate thanks. This pattern effectively removed the priesthood functions from the Hebrews, and gave all honor to our Lord.
 All persons healed that day did have faith, but a difference was shown as prominent. The difference was in what they were having faith, and what each did about it. Was it belief in priestly tradition, or was faith in Christ the differing factor? Apparently nine persons clung properly to their Levitical traditions, and one healed outsider returned. Was this a subtle message of acceptance to Gentile worshippers in the early church? I believe so.
 There is great and ample scriptural proof of Jesus’ healing response to human faith expressed. We find this in Mark 5:23, Matthew 9:22, and Luke 8:48. However, according to the scriptures here the Samaritan was doubly rejected and repulsive in Hebrew society, both because he was not Israel and previously leprous as well. He could not perform the customary and traditional Hebrew religiosities. Therefore excluded in several ways, he gracefully and faithfully turned to the Son of God as the source of his healing. The symbolic salvation and healing of the man was not then a statement of the man’s character, but a profound new sign of God’s grace through Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Dispersed Acclamation!
This message of faith given for Luke’s churches provides us with clear meaning today. It was the Lukan communities that walked gracefully on the new sociological line, like the Samaritan, caught between traditional Hebraic religious expressions and following that which was not acceptable in Judaism. While any sinful Gentile and Jew in the Lukan community surely could receive healing, it is by grace that all followers of Christ were caused to receive healing and return to God regardless of heritage. All properly turned… repented… gave thanks to his Son.
 You see, in our poverty of spirit, the Lamb of God is shown both the sacrifice and a new, perfect, priestly mediator. If we today fail in returning to give proper thanks for this healing and grace because of human traditions or medical procedures, we may also find that we suffer from a proper lack of gratitude. We are inflicted with a sort of spiritual leprosy. Secondly, by ignoring God’s gift to all, we may find that we treat those beyond our faith communities as outsiders. We resist their incorporation into traditional church observances. We may even claim that they do not conform to the ethnic heritages of our particular denomination. We may smugly note that they do not even know a proper gelatin dessert recipe. Indeed, we may ostracize these strangers as illegal immigrants in the faith… in our denomination, and in our particular church. We may deem them as beyond healing affirmation.
 To the church today, therefore, I say read scripture very carefully and take warning.

“And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:7-8)

 The graceful record of scripture surely reveals here that we as outsiders received healing faith through baptism… and this graceful gift was given only by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is good and proper for us, therefore, to pass knowledge of the gift along to others who are the outcast of the world. We the baptized are thus to “return to the Lord our God, who is merciful, slow to anger and abounding is steadfast love.”
 As instructed we should though unclean in sin… go to church to be healed ourselves, and to bow the knee in thanksgiving. We need to return to worship the Holy One! It is Christ Jesus indeed who has already received many stripes of the whip for our healing… and suffered death on the cross to redeem us all. Therefore in the Spirit, bowing before the High Priest appointed, we shall all be caused to give thanks to God. So it is… and so it shall be.