Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Fatback Stake House?

FOR THE Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost we hear again from Saint Mark concerning a behavioral tradition challenged by Jesus. The topic of conversation concerned adherence to a human religious habit founded by some for pious justifications, over against the heartfelt doings of the will of God. Therefore we respectfully read...

And he (Jesus) called the people to him again, and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand:  there is nothing outside a man which by going into him can defile him; but the things which come out of a man are what defile him.”
 And when he had entered the house, and left the people, his disciples asked him about the parable. And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)
 And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.” (Mark 7:14-23)

What May We Eat?
As Christians who have been taught to look at scripture for the dialectic tension maintained between the Law and the Gospel, we read that our lectionary menu supplied seems to have items listed numerously beneath the left Law column. These are items that condemn us, and yet only one thing artfully hidden lay within the right reading of the Gospel. This causes us great remorse, for we thus may easily find ourselves dining on sour grapes.
 Note here that the disciples, and in particular those within Mark’s church that had incorporated many Gentiles around them, found themselves adapting their diet to include foods that were not ritually kosher in the Jewish cookery. Not only did many disciples eat with ritually unclean hands, they would eat such horrid things as delicious pork chops, lobster and squid… such items forbidden that may even cost a lot of money today for any family dining in a favorite modern restaurant.
 Thankfully, according to Mark, Jesus cleared up our dietary confusion. He said that to be defiled so that one was unacceptable before God, was not a matter of what a person ate… but rather that our spiritual condition depended on what one accomplished in daily life. That dietary news came across favorably to those in the early church who were not Jews keeping kosher ritual. It was also good news for such as a contestant of a recent TV series “Alone”, who recently had to whip up a meal of slugs and seaweed in order to survive. It is astounding what the impoverished must find to eat from the dumpsters of our sinful world. But does that which we may find to eat in the physical world, carry us safely across the threshold of the spiritual realm?

What Should We Do?
The trouble for us becomes evident as our Lord addressed that which comes out of a man. Jesus basically said that what spiritually comes out is like smelly defecation which makes us want to place our outhouse far from the homestead. Now for me, this egregious thought rolling around in my head struck hard on my nose like being downwind of the privy. Indeed, the mental picture was so pungent to them then, that as the later gospel of Matthew was written some twenty years later, the scribe tried to lessen the impact. Matthew related that our Lord said…

 And he called the people to him and said to them, “Hear and understand: not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” (Matthew 15:10-11)

Thus it was even the early church winced beneath the smell of sin, so that they emphasized a dirty mouth. So too we should blanch at the menu of condemnations. You see, our behavior stinks like sour incense before God no matter which end of the worm you bite down on. Just examine the list! The menu of moral degradations condemns each and every one of us… whether Jew, Gentile, Roman, Greek, Russian, Oriental, African or American. Our Lord Jesus stated that these things come from the sinful, corrupted hearts of all humanity. By the time the list is completely read, we together possess a distinct urge to push back… away from the table. But it is too late! We are already condemned. What then shall we do? Where shall we go? What may we offer? To whom shall we cry to pay the check and save us?

Sweet Salvation
Take note here that the lesson then reveals to us the hidden one, a servant (in the Greek word “doulos” ), He stands very near. The steady and pure holy Servant, who is the Son of God… is the very one who has stood by us through the Spirit to teach us today. It is the Holy Spirit that has revealed the menu for our perusal. The Spirit tells us that like a patient waiter in your favorite Chinese restaurant, Jesus waits for you to choose between those sweet and sour sinful items on the left, or the singular saving item on the Right. If we choose as driven by the Holy Spirit… we find ourselves sitting at a wondrous, eternal table, where blessed Saint Paul reminds…

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
 In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.  Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.
                                                                           (1 Corinthians 11:23-28)

 Therefore, people of God… examine your hearts. For indeed hidden in, with and under the bread and wine that we consume in the holy meal of the Eucharist is the One who presents the gospel... that is the “Good News”. He is the holy Servant who wrapped a towel around his waist and washed our feet, preparing us for this wondrous dinner. Jesus Christ, our Lord, Teacher and Savior, has given us the food which is his body and blood. He thus provided forgiveness for us and informs of renewed mission. Most certainly, his menu empowers us for proclamations of grace, so that what comes out of our mouths is as sweet smelling incense burned before the altar of God. This is that gospel that saves, that which needs to be bountifully shared as it comes from the heart of the church.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tasting Life...

OUR LECTIONARY for the church comes this week with a variance in readings. Some Christian denominations will continue to read from the Gospel of John, while others change course and read from the Gospel of Mark. Here in this study we have already dealt for several weeks with the topical subject found in John; therefore, we choose to turn to the subject now covered in Mark. Within that reading, we historically find that during his teaching in the area around Capernaum concerning his being the “Bread of Life”, Jesus and his followers quickly became confronted by religious authorities. They rose to challenge him in the name of keeping Jewish traditions. We read…

Now when the Pharisees gathered together to him, with some of the scribes, who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they wash their hands, observing the tradition of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they purify themselves; and there are many other traditions which they observe, the washing of cups and pots and vessels of bronze.)
 And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with hands defiled?”
 And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written..,

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

 You leave the commandment of God, and hold fast the tradition of men.”
 And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God, in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die’; but you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, What you would have gained from me is Corban’ (that is, given to God)… then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition which you hand on. And many such things you do.” (Mark 7:1-13)

What is Pure?
The behavior of the disciples and others was pointed out by opponents. The disciples ate their meals without using customary ritual washing. Therefore the Pharisees, and other legalists who had come from Jerusalem gave rise to discussions about pure obedience to God. For them, obedience meant strict personal adherence to the dietary traditions that had set the Jewish people apart for centuries. Before eating, they would perform ritual washing that “purified” that which went into their bodies. These had been lifted very high in the few centuries before the time of Jesus birth. However, as pointed out by adherents, the practices to which they clung had roots in the Exodus from Egypt and the settlement of the people into the land. These were traditional ceremonial roots that they felt set them apart as God’s chosen people. However the problem of these traditions held up in the days of our Lord’s ministry, lay not in the original intent of preserving a robust and healthy nation walking before God, but that these had been boiled into an oppressive gruel of self-justification. By a menu of strict observances, a person could… and often would… claim righteousness before the throne of God and the company of men.
 In answering this challenge, therefore, Jesus ladled out a bitter taste. He accused that the religious authorities had overthrown the immutable Law of God. They had replaced divine instruction with many temporal rules. As proof, our Lord pointed out how divine mandate was intended to preserve proper care and respect for the elderly. The Law had long established…

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you. (Exodus 20:12)

… and …

“Whoever curses his father or his mother shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:17)

Using these unchanging mandates of God's Law, Jesus explained how the Law had been circumvented by traditions invented in the more recent days of Israel. You see, in the time of Jesus’ ministry and later, a Jewish head of household could take those funds which had been laid aside for his elder's care, preserving them for himself by vowing their use for the temple. A person could thus negate his responsibilities for parental care, while maintaining investment control of the finances. They would invest the funds, gaining interest from the principal.

What is Holy!
In the confrontation, therefore, we see that Jesus altered the conversation away from defending his disciples. He took rather to challenging Jewish tradition. Our Lord rightly focused the discussion on a sinful human flaw… that of our distorting or dismissing God's Law in order to gain religious, financial or political advantage. Thus his admonition to the Pharisees and scribes comes through the pen of Mark to his church. But we too must hear the truth about… “many such things you do.”
 You see, this was a message given universally to the Jews, the early church and to us as well. Mark wrote in a time when the officials of the synagogue looked down upon those Jews and Gentiles within the early church who did not keep to the “kosher” dietary laws of the chosen people. Therefore the admonitions of Jesus dismissed the distracting accusations of the synagogue legalisms. They were cast aside in order to focus the early church’s attention more properly on sinful disobedience as convicted by the Commandments. In this way, they saw that we all stand before the Law as convicted. Thus we are all driven to only seek salvation through Jesus Christ and not by what we may do. You see, thankfully we are saved only by grace through faith given in Jesus Christ alone, and not by either adherences to paltry man-made laws that we may keep, nor the Commandments which we fail to keep. We need to understand thoroughly that no one can get to heaven by legalisms, religious observances or the exercise of power or influence. We are justified only by our Lord’s death upon the cross. In this way we are made witness to the Father’s mercy through the power of the Holy Spirit.
 What then is the Law? Is it no more of use? On the contrary, the Law remains before us to be used as a guide for us in dealing and living with sin in the world. It stands as testimony that demonstrates our shortcomings and human need of salvation.
 Consider this! That which is "Corban", (laid aside) is indeed our secure salvation which is preserved for all eternity through Christ alone. For certainly Jesus willingly and exclusively paid dearly for our sinful ways and misunderstanding. He reconciled us to the Father! We are free from the penalty of the Law, though the Law yet stands. Thanks be to God that before dying upon the cross, our Lord clearly said… “Father.., forgive them. They know not what they do.”
 Thus it is now... as we gather at our Lord's table with unwashed, sinful hands… that we may rejoice and eat in peace, knowing forgiveness. From that holy place we may then rise in witness and work refreshed in this sinfully confused world. Thanks be to God.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Enduringly Yours!

FOR THE Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, in the Gospel According to Saint John we continue to read a teaching given by Jesus. Within the text of this discourse for today, given by our Savior in a synagogue, is an eternal fact laid out knowingly before Jewish religious leaders of the day. Jesus said…

I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh.”
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
 So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.
 He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread which came down from heaven, not such as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:51–58)

True Food and Drink?
As hearers of this reading from church pulpits, we join the early congregations of John in noting a rather subtle shift in the nature of the audience gathered before our Lord. Rather than addressing only the people of the synagogue located in the city of Capernaum, suddenly we find that our author communicates that Jesus was speaking before “the Jews”. Using that term, he denoted the attendance of religious leaders which had come from the Temple to hear Jesus. Therefore Jesus was speaking to those of both high and low social and economic status. He spoke to believers and unbelievers.
 The radical description that Jesus gave of himself, first that he had come down from heaven and second that he was the flesh and blood of sacrifice… caused great turmoil and misunderstanding in the midst of those gathered. Even now in today’s world, the meaning of what he said has caused differences of opinion in his church. Therefore we need to clearly unpack the meaning of what he taught.
 Throughout John’s gospel witness we find that he writes often with double meanings. Just when it seems that we have wrapped our mind around the abstract meaning of Jesus words, our author reveals yet another subsequent meaning which overlaps that which was said. So it is I believe, with this message as we read it. If we as God’s people, baptized in water and the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son, can come to grips with the abstract concept that Jesus is indeed the “Bread of Life”, then our author wonderfully leads us farther… to know that we of the modern church are also strengthened by the eating of his body and drinking of his blood… that which was broken and poured out by our Lord for the forgiveness of our sins.

Remain in Me!
 As Christians, we are thus drawn from being mired in a moldy loaf of unbelief like those in the synagogue, and firmly kneaded by the Spirit. We begin to grasp the greater reality of just what our Lord meant by the word “remains” or “abides”. The Greek word, “menei” means “abide with” in describing such closeness that eternal oneness of body and spirit is accomplished. Therefore Jesus was relating to his followers within that synagogue, and later the church of John, and to our own faith communities… concerning his eternal remaining with us. Participating in the same way, the communion of bread and wine that we share exists as a blessed sign which participates in this real abiding of Jesus Christ in our lives. Hence we know the true forgiveness of God.
 You see, our Lord Jesus comes to us each and every time we receive the Holy Eucharist. Jesus with very real presence, the most real presence… comes to us in the body of Jesus broken and his blood poured out… provided within the elements of the bread and wine distributed from the altar. With this miraculous gift God provides. God marvelously turned the horrid cannibalistic language of death wherein one must die so that another may live... into the words of saving grace that we use in the worship experiences of the church… even unto this day. As the finite we are invited to partake of the Infinite! We are invited by the Holy Spirit into participation of that real Sacrament established by Jesus Christ during the Last Supper.
 Our author John revealed that all who thus come to the Table are united eternally with believers from every age. In receiving such grace with them, we too are forgiven our sinfulness. In this way we who are yet sinful are empowered by that same Spirit, to leave a loving sanctuary and proclaim his message of deliverance to “the Jews” and those who were indeed caught in unbelief in our own day. This holds true no matter their heritage, nationality or error. This indeed I believe is the message related by John to his churches, and to us. To this may we only answer in eternal thanksgiving, and say to our Lord, “Give us your loving food always!”