Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Wanted - Dead and Alive!





AS PEOPLE of God made saints in the kingdom through our baptism, today we read that which was taught to the early church. We delve wonderfully into the Sermon on the Mount as told in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. In this commonly quoted reading, we hope to discern what was specific to Matthew’s faith community… so that we may carry from the text a few messages for our own time…





 Seeing the crowds, he (Jesus) went up on the mountain, and when he sat down his disciples came to him.
 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 
 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you. 
                                                                                            (Matthew 5:1-12)

Antioch and Burbs
We study a well-known biblical text from Matthew today. Many a needlepoint club has sewed these words colorfully so that they decorate the walls of homes. The Sermon on the Mount, likely having common source to the Sermon on the Plain as found in Luke's gospel, magnificently delivered reality and prophecy to listeners. Recorded here by the gospel and preserved by their community, the text delivered eternal truth to our Lord’s growing church. For those who seek a comparative study of Luke and comments related to that gospel (Luke 6:12,20-23), please know that the study of that text in Luke may be found in last year’s study. Here today we concentrate on that message specifically spoken to Matthew’s community. For example, in comparing the two readings, we note a difference immediately in the first blessing. We find that the witness of Matthew contains the words, “in spirit”; where Luke did not use these. Since we do not have the source text and do not know which is the original, we can only theorize, We ask ourselves, “Was Matthew addressing Jewish Christians who felt shaky about breaking away from the large, established and moneyed synagogue?” Along the same path, "Was it that Matthew may not have wanted to offend wealthier members of the community adherents, knowing that financial resources were to be needed for future ministries?" In our own day, how many leaders of a modern church community soft-pedal a particular issue based on societal influences?
 I consider that this same softness may be likely here in Matthew, due to the presence of stronger Pharisaic influences that afflicted the Antioch-centered church. This may indeed have been true since the gospel from Antioch in Syria displays more Jewish historical connections, such as exhibited by its first chapter, for it includes the genealogy of Jesus.
 Therefore a rather Pharisaic “Follow the Money” mentality of retaining power may have been a philosophy put at work in the comfortable parent synagogue. It could be that Matthew tempered the issue a bit... and told only of our Lord’s comforting those who are the "poor in spirit".
 Also, consider that a heavy spiritual burden likely did exist. My opinion is based on the fact that Matthew remains tied to matters spiritual as the second blessing is pronounced. We note a differing of subject order in listing those who are “blessed”. Where Luke addressed hunger, Matthew next listed mourning. I ask, "Was this next subject given higher precedence as Matthew's community went through great spiritual torment and spiritual mourning? Did this mourning for the familiar result deliberately or incidentally in the reordering of the original sayings source document, subsequently forming a differing sequence from the Lukan witness? Was Matthew ministering to those persons fevered by their recent separation from the main synagogue?"
 As these blessings progress in the reading, we realize a repeated bent away from the earthly... focusing rather on the spiritual. Matthew seemingly favored an expression of spiritual strengthening. Rather than just physical hunger, a hungering for righteousness is found. Rather than further mention of the poor, Matthew stated those who were pure in heart. Finally, those who were scorched by peacemaking efforts in the synagogue were encouraged.

Finally and Eternally…
Lastly we see a shift in the emphasis from what was present at the time of the Matthean writing, to that which was to come. Matthew echoed our Lord’s prophetic words, and thus highlighted the present and prospective growing persecutions that lay ahead for his faith community. Consequently Matthew was  prophetic, and he invited the Christian community into the prophetic task. Herein we have great agreement with Luke, as found with his timeless pronouncement of the final blessed outcome. The result was that from the latter decades of the first century came the words… “great is your reward in heaven.”
 We need pay special attention to this final similarity in the gospel accounts, for the prophecy that was present then... still applies to us. We live in a very active and interactive world. Even while the Internet carries this lesson which you now read, we see a modern fact. That which is spiritual quickly affects and reforms that which is temporal. Our spiritual faith that provides salvation through Jesus Christ, given to us by God through grace and expressed in the world… reforms us, takes root in us, and fast becomes challenged by the Satanic.
 But the gospel message strengthens us as we speak and learn. As we modern Christians continue to encounter the mayhem of this world’s values, we shall surely see tensions rise and fall. However, during the earthquakes of demonic power struggles, by the power of the Holy Spirit those who deem themselves rich or poor, earthy or spiritual, urban or diasporadic, or though we may be seen as a large or small in faith community… we find certainty and agreement through Holy Scripture. In finality we are kept certain.
 Yes indeed! Baptized Christians who take up the cross and the task of evangelical pursuit shall certainly be oppressed by their doing so… as told by both Matthew and Luke. But, just as we were promised.., that which we do today shall not go to poverty tomorrow.
 Blessed are the poor who are wrongly impoverished by this world’s greed, and blessed are the poor in spirit who wait for the advent of God’s kingdom. We shall find that GREAT is the reward! So it is written, and so it shall be.






 




Monday, October 20, 2014

Slave or Servant?



FOR REFORMATION SUNDAY we find that our reading comes from the Gospel According to Saint John. In the lesson for this day, we see that the scripture reveals us as persons who are often enslaved by our own religiosities. These are ritual things that we must put in their proper places.
 From John we read…

Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free." 
 They answered him, "We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to any one. How is it that you say, 'You will be made free'?" 
 Jesus answered them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not continue in the house for ever; the son continues for ever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. 
                                                                                                          (John 8:31-36)

Challenging Human Authority!
Our gospel writer tells of a terse conversation held in the temple of Jerusalem. During the time of the confrontation, people had gathered for the feast of Tabernacles and Jesus taught the crowds with authority. However, it was this teaching with authority that brought him in conflict with some persons who claimed religious leadership. These leaders had grown vested interests within the political realms of temple, and harbored hopes of not attracting too much attention from the Roman government. They listened to Jesus closely. For them, great trouble was seen on the horizon. The leaders had previously dealt with the unrest caused by his teachings. At that time, they claimed that he was not in his right mind. Together, they claimed that Jesus was insanely beside himself. They asked, trying to trap him, by what authority he taught the people. He answered…

I have much to say about you and much to judge; but he who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him." 
 They did not understand that he spoke to them of the Father. So Jesus said, "When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him." 
                                                                                                    (John 8:26-29)

Therefore, with this answer spoken, those with vested interests in the temple's culture and offerings feared they were losing authoritative control. Tensions grew amid the temple leadership. These bubbled in a pot of political intrigue.
 You see, the leaders who had thought themselves in control, reacted adversely. Normally considered as adversaries for themselves on any theological bent, many Jewish leaders turned to plot together for dealing with our Lord. Some began by claiming that Jesus words challenged their traditional heritage. Having much meat invested in the temple’s financial stew, the opponents knew that revenues made from various sin offerings were being threatened. Jesus’ bold words shook their financial foundations. Jesus challenged dubious sacrificial motives and methods before witnesses. Subsequently, years before the Gospel According to Saint John was written, St Paul, who was a Jew himself, wrote…

 What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for I have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive.”
                                                                                                        (Romans 3:9-13)

 Indeed, Paul stressed that all men are under the penalty of the Law. Each of us fails again and again to live up to the standards of God’s commands. What is worse for us, Luther echoed rightly that we as sinners cannot see clearly enough to find our way into God’s presence. We find ourselves trying to justify ourselves to God through sacrificial offerings made, and thus we fall prey to harmful cultic practices.
 To clarify our path, we need think of this! As sinners needing redemption in order to be reconciled with our Creator, we must ask ourselves , “What can we give to God, that God needs?” Nothing! What can we give that does not already belong to God? Again, nothing! Because of this, Luther wrote that we are not really free, but are enslaved in a sinful, downward cycle, unable to hold anything up great enough to offer for our salvation. In this condition we often fall prey to false religions.
 You see, as sinful humans we are blind and lost, wrongly placing our faith in our own ability to “work” our way into God’s heavenly graces. We give offerings and seek indulgences in churches to justify ourselves. But by doing so, the very act of trying to claim justification by any of our works or deed simply deepens our error. Our efforts worsen our sinful condition because we insult the majesty of God, since we believe him swayed by these paltry worldly offerings. Jesus thus warned those Jews who followed him. We cannot earn our way to heaven.
 But, even as our Lord spoke, many were falling away because of the challenges of temple authorities. He called these persons to task in the temple courtyard.… speaking to they who had claimed to be disciples. Likely they wondered, "How then can our sin be paid for...?. They wilted in the blast of sin even as he spoke. How is our sinful soul to be scoured brightly unto heavenly glory? Jesus answered those that stayed true. Remember the conversation spoken just before our Lord's crucifixion...

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”  (John 14:5-6)

 According to the witness of this gospel, it is clearly said that we are saved by God’s grace alone, through the sacrifice of  Jesus Christ alone. If anyone cannot accept this, they buy a ride on a Satanic mule… down a path that travels to devastation.
 Be not deceived by anyone! Jesus is God’s only begotten Son. He paid the sin offering for us. He was the sacrificial Lamb of God who went to the cross to save us. He made the perfect sacrifice. Do not turn away... his payment sets us free!

Faith Gives Freedom…
Through faith in Jesus... his works... his death and Resurrection... the alternative offered to us frees us unto eternal life. As Luther wrote through the Spirit’s witness, Jesus provided us with the opportunity to be gently ridden by our proper Master. If we accept the words and deeds of Jesus and claim no deeds of our own… we are forgiven our sin even as we confess.
 You see, through the Spirit we are provided with faith as a gift. If you want to have faith in Christ, just ask for it! If you've already asked for it, it is granted. And if you walk in that faith you are given in Christ, it shall grow.
 Therefore we find by that by faith given to us, and not through any deeds of our own... we are justified through Christ. We can stand before our blessed Creator. Believing in the salvation provided by Jesus crucifixion and his Resurrection, we can clearly see we are made free to serve God in Christ without ultimate burden… a blessed exchange indeed!
 Once we've accepted this free gift of salvation, we are provided with the power to properly serve God. As sinners, without fearing condemnation under the Law, we can move rightfully forward in ministry. Clinging to this truth, we can be reformed into right ministry for the church. We can contend with evil powers working in this world. From this holy place of faith, we can challenge false authorities in both church and state.
 How is this task done? Simply point beyond ourselves to that which is clearly written in scripture! We may show through the witness of our lives and the love of Jesus, that indeed persons are only justified by grace alone, by faith alone, through Christ alone. I ask that we join together and be reformed again… as a people firmly established in the kingdom by the grace of God.







Sunday, October 12, 2014

Clique Clank?



FOR THE Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost we wrestle with matters financial as they were told in the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Herein we read that Jesus was confronted by temple personalities who believed they had a lock on the tenuous treasury of Israel

Then the Pharisees went and took counsel how to entangle him in his talk. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man; for you do not regard the position of men. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”
 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the money for the tax.”
 And they brought him a coin. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
 When they heard it, they marveled; and they left him and went away.

                                                                                                       (Matthew 22:15-22)

Whose Collection Plate…?
Likely within the same decade, both our Matthean gospel writer and the author(s) of the Gospel According to Saint Luke recorded a scene previously described in similar fashion by the community of Mark (see Mark 12:13-17, Luke 20:20-26). In all three gospels, we read of financial wrangling in the Jerusalem temple. The challenging conversation was laid before Jesus, possibly challenging him toward entrapment as he sat amongst powers of the political and religious world. Present were the Pharisees who possessed some vacillation about the tax structure in Israel, concerning the practice of paying a per-capita tax to Caesar. With them, making strange allies to some of the Pharisees, were the Herodians. These last favored Herod, the King. They held firmly to his reconciliatory attitudes of paying taxes toward the Romans and supporting the rule of Caesar. Lastly, but not mentioned here, were the Zealots, If they had a say, the Zealots wouldn’t give Caesar the time of day, nor a coin from the Jewish people.
 Here we see that the conversation began with a group giving high praise to Jesus and his powers of perception. Then, likely having thought they had gained favor, they pushed a loaded question. Indeed, it was a question that, when answered, would give all within hearing a foretelling of Jesus political bent. His politics would then be something to be held up, examined, supported or challenged. If our Lord said that one should pay taxes to Caesar he would offend those such as some Pharisees and the Zealots, both of whom harbored hopes for Israel’s independence. If Jesus said not to pay… he would glean accusations. He would risk offending the Herodians, Herod, and Caesar himself. You see, the Herodians could have objected, for the coin itself not only carried the imprint of Caesar, but Jesus saw that the Roman ruler was given a divine title. The title was pressed on that very coin.
 After examining the coin, our Lord responded to the question. He said to give that which belongs to Caesar to Caesar, and that which belongs to God to God. By answering in that way, Jesus countered the entrapment set before him.
 However, as we examine the response closely, we see that the issue has great importance for the church. The words did far more than elude conspiring worldly powers. For us, it defines indeed worldly values as to what belongs to whom. If we hold the Caesar and the Father as co-equal, one might interpret that the earthly, silver coins rightly belonged to Caesar... or whatever other earthly power caused their minting and printing. This thought pattern concluded then, that God is interested in a strictly spiritual realm. Earthly coinage is adiaphora.., beside the point.
 But consider this! Given that our Lord sat in the temple as singularly fully man and fully divine, I would question the claim of Caesar or any other finite power… upon either worldly or heavenly riches. You see, I believe that all things fall under the province of God, including any denarius, dollar or any trade commodities on any stock market. If we render unto God that which is of God’s making… we see that all things ultimately belong to God. Therefore, though Caesar can pound silver or sand into any form that he wants… all raw materials are created by God. These earthly things are simply placed into our care. From the very beginning we read…

“A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there.  The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one which flows around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is Tigris, which flows east of Assyria.  And the fourth river is the Euphrates.
 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”
                                                                                                  (Genesis 2:10-16)

 Thus from the beginning of Israel’s faith history, all things belong to God. We humans were created by God and given the task to care for the earth. Therefore, within that created province we find ourselves rightly mining both that soil which is merely usable, or minting that which is rare and highly valued.
 However, as we duly note that the powers of this sinful world can work toward evil accomplishments, we often see that which has been gifted to us by God becomes a burden that is sinfully hoarded. Hoarding gives rise to jealousy, and jealousy brings even greater sin. Indeed, from biblical history we know that after ancient Israel had asked for a king, so that they could be like other nations… they enthroned Saul. And King Saul eventually became rich.., and jealous for greater power and influence. Thus covetousness and jealousy became his downfall.
 Saul's mistake? He valued the gift beyond the Giver. History then reveals to us that distorted, powerful positions of either government or church can surely lead us to downfall before the judgment of Almighty God.
 Therefore, we must know that if any church or government receives the divine mandate to rightly care for God’s people, it is to render decisions and taxes fairly, and also be supported fairly by the people. If these are not good stewards… and so become oppressive in seeking their own profit, they shall be held to account by God. As well, if any citizenry fails to support right government in church or state, they also shall reap righteous judgment.

Assume the Servant Role…
What then are we Christians called to do in light of scripture? How do we avoid clique clank amongst churches or denominations? Let’s examine Saint Paul’s letter to Rome. He related that God works in the world through both church and state. Thus Paul wrote that we are to first assume favorable rulers...

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.
 Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good.
 But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.
 Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”  (Romans 13:1-7)

 However, because of human sin we must note a caveat here! If either church or state abuses that servant power which has been afforded to them, they shall reap the violence of God. This may eventually occur through the throes of angelic fiat or civil unrest.
 This topic of church and state was covered at length by Saint Augustine from the ancient Pauline theme of the two authorities (civitates). The “two kingdoms doctrine” developed out of the Middle Ages was further developed in various forms during the Reformation. It became a disputed topic for such as Martin Luther, and is still argued today amongst the ranks of scriptural scholarship. Worse yet, things are much more complex for we who now live in modern financial society. With the powers of church, governments, corporations, stock markets filtered through the hiccups of world events and markets that affect trade and finances, we can often find that financial paths become unclear. As Christians we therefore reminded. Surly, we are called to support right government and proper, orthodox church polity, but because of complexities that would make Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Herodians cringe... and Caesar swoon… we often find ourselves confused. However, we are not without assistance.
 You see, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the witness of the written and spoken Word of God, we have firm guidance as to the rightness of corporate and personal finances… even those made available to us through the maze of economic modernity. It all boils down to a few simple, but profound words. Jesus said to render to God that which belongs to God!
 Knowing that everything belongs to God, we begin rightly. We must know that we just tend the garden. Thus how much financial support any person provides to either church or state should be prayerfully questioned, calculated, and freely decided. All this needs be done so to first glorify our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier… as an offering brought before the throne of Almighty God. And finally remember… you can’t out give God, but it’s okay to try.