Monday, October 31, 2016

Saintly Robe Fitting?



AS PEOPLE of God who are made saints in the kingdom through our baptism, today we read that which was taught to the saints in 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 discern what was specific to Matthew’s faith community… so that we might carry from the text 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 the Burbs
We study a well-known biblical text from Matthew today. Many a needlepoint club has sewed these words so that they decorate the walls of homes. The Sermon on the Mount, likely having common source to the Sermon on the Plain which is found in Luke, magnificently gives both reality and prophecy to hearers and listeners. Recorded here by the Matthean gospel author, and preserved by their community, the text delivered truth to our Lord’s early church.
 We concentrate here on that which was the message specifically spoken to Matthew’s community.  For example, comparing the two readings from both Matthew and Luke, we note differences immediately emerge in the first blessing. We find that the witness of Matthew contains the words, “in spirit”; where Luke did not use these. Consequently, since we do not have the source text… and do not know which is closest to the original, we can only theorize about the differences.
 We must ask, therefore.., “Was Matthew addressing Jewish Christians who felt shaky about breaking away from the large, established and moneyed synagogue in Antioch or nearby Damascus?” Was it that Matthew may not have wanted to offend wealthier members of the either community adherents, knowing that financial resources were to be needed for future ministries?
 I believe both may be true. Consider in our own day how many leaders of a modern church community have soft-pedaled a particular issue based on societal influences. I consider that this may be likely here, due to strong presence of stronger Pharisaic influences afflicting the church in Antioch. This may have been especially true since this gospel out of Syria displays more Jewish historical connection, such as exhibited by its first chapter that includes the genealogy of Jesus.
 If this is true, subsequently a Pharisaic “Follow the Money” mentality of financial power may have been a philosophy originally working in a comfortable parent synagogue. Therefore, the writer of Matthew de-emphasized the issue. He deliberately told only of our Lord’s “spirit” comforting of his infant church by this emphasis. Luke's reading emphasis on the "poor" wouldn't fly.
 To reinforce this theory, however, consider that there was indeed a heavy spiritual burden. My opinion is based on the fact that Matthew remained tied only to matters spiritual as the second blessing is pronounced. We note a differing of order in listing those who are “blessed”. Where Luke addressed hunger, Matthew listed mourning. Was mourning given higher precedence as his community was going through great spiritual torment? Did this result in the reordering and using the original sayings source document in a differing sequence? Was he ministering especially to those persons fevered by separation from the main synagogue?
 You see, as the blessings progress in the reading we realize a repeated sway from the earthly… to focusing on the spiritual. Matthew seemingly favored a spiritual strengthening. Rather than just hunger, a hungering for righteousness is found.  Rather than mentioning the poor, Matthew stated those pure in heart. Finally, those scorched by peacemaking efforts in the synagogue are were addressed.

Finally and Eternally…
Lastly we see a shift in the emphasis from what was present at the time of the writing, to what was to be. Matthew echoed our Lord’s words and thus highlighted the prospective growing persecutions that lay ahead for his faith community. Matthew became prophetic. He invited the Christian community into the prophetic task. Herein we have great agreement with Luke’s telling, as found with the timeless pronouncement of the final blessed outcome. From the latter decades of the first century come the words from both… “great is your reward in heaven.”
 We need pay attention to this final similarity in the gospel accounts. The prophecy that was present then still applies to us. We live in a very active and interactive world. Even while you now read this, we see a modern fact... that which is spiritual quickly affects and forms that which is temporal. Our spiritual faith in our salvation through Jesus Christ, given to us by God and expressed in the world… is quickly spoken out, takes root and becomes challenged by the Satanic.
 However, know that the power of the Word which is Christ shall go out. The gospel message strengthens us even as we speak. As we modern Christians encounter the mayhem of this world’s values, we see tensions rise and fall. In the earthquakes of demonic struggles, by the power of the Holy Spirit whether we are rich or poor, earthy or spiritual, urban or diaspora, or found large or small faith community… certainty and agreement through Holy Scripture is certain. What should the modern saint look and sound like?
 Certainly those baptized Christians who take up the cross and the task of evangelism shall be oppressed in their doing so. This was predicted by both Matthew and Luke. As promised, however, that which we do today shall not go to poverty tomorrow. Blessed are the poor who are wrongly impoverished by this world’s greed. Blessed are the poor in spirit who yet wait for the advent of God’s kingdom. Great is their reward! So it is written, and so it shall be.




Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Slave Or Servant?



FOR REFORMATION SUNDAY we find that our reading comes from the Gospel According to Saint John. In the lesson for the day, we hear that the scripture reveals those who are enslaved by sin and their religiosities. 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 Authority!
Our gospel writer tells of a tense time unfolding in the temple of Jerusalem. During the moments of the confrontation, people had already gathered during the feast of Tabernacles. Jesus was present. He taught before the crowds with authority. However, it was his teaching with authority that brought him in conflict with those who claimed religious leadership. These persons had great vested interest within the political realms of temple. However, they harbored hopes of not attracting too much attention from the Roman government, so they just listened closely.
 Trouble was on the horizon. The leaders had previously dealt with any unrest caused by Jesus’ teachings by claiming that he was not in his right mind. Somewhat unified, they claimed that Jesus was insanely beside himself.
 They asked him by what authority he taught. Jesus answered and we hear from the gospel writer…

“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 hearing this answer, those with vested interests in the temple hierarchy feared that they were losing control. Tensions heated the temple leadership, so they bubbled a pot of political intrigue. The leaders who thought themselves in control reacted adversely. Normally considered as adversaries with one another on many theological issues, many Jewish leaders then joined together… united in cause to deal with our Lord.
 Some leaders began by claiming that Jesus words challenged the traditional Jewish heritage. These threatened his simplifying of the temple sacrificial recipe. This matter of sacrifice was of great concern to them. You see, having much meat harvested from the temple’s sacrificial and financial stew, the opponents knew that great revenues from various sin offerings were being threatened.
 Jesus’ bold words shook the recipe that had been cooked and written for centuries. He challenged their dubious motives.
 However, before we judge the ancient systems without self examination, we see that this sacrificial concept also plagued the church during its history. For example, knowing that each of us fail to live up to the standards of God’s command, Martin Luther echoed rightly that we fall for the same ploy. As sinners we cannot purchase our favorable way into God’s presence though we find ourselves trying to justify ourselves to God through offerings made. We make offerings like those which were made at the temple in Jerusalem. We thus participate in harmful cultic practices within the church.

Slaves to Sin!
First, as sinners we need to have redemption in order to be reconciled with our Creator. Therefore, because of God’s infinity and our finitude, Luther wrote that we are not free from punishment, but are instead enslaved in a sinful, downward cycle. With nothing then to offer adequately for justification, we try to bribe Almighty God!
 We ask ourselves, “What can we give to God that God needs?”
 I say to you… “Nothing!”
"What can we give that does not already belong to God?" Again, "Nothing!"
Finally, since we all have sinned we fall prey to false religions... or likely worse... even reject that God even exists. As humans we try to find a tolerable realm. We wrongly place our faith in our own ability to “work” our way through life. Even Christians too often give offerings and seek priestly indulgence to justify ourselves and relieve our consciences..
 By doing this, however, the very act of trying to claim justification by our deeds quickly deepens the mire. Even monumental human efforts simply worsen our sinful condition.
 Jesus thus summarily warned the Jews who followed him. He taught that we cannot earn our way to heaven. Yet, even as he spoke, many of his followers were falling away... because of the challenges of temple authorities. Subsequently he called these to task in the temple courtyard.… speaking bluntly even to those who claimed to be disciples.
 How then can sin be paid for they rightly asked. How is our soul to be scoured brightly unto heavenly glory? His crucifixion gave us the answer. The payment could only be made by God himself.

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, Jesus clearly said that we are saved by the Father's grace alone. If anyone cannot accept this, they pay for a ride on what Luther explained was a burdened mule. That is a mule in a train trekking either to God or to devastation!

Faith in Jesus is Freedom…
You see, Jesus is God’s only begotten Son. He paid the sin offering for us. He was and yet is the sacrificial Lamb of God who went to the cross. He made the “perfect” sacrifice. His payment sets his believer’s free! Through faith in the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the alternative Jesus offered frees us.

Luther wrote through the Spirit’s witness that Jesus provided us with the opportunity to be a mule gently ridden by our proper Master. If we will accept the words and deeds of Jesus and claim no justification of our own… we may be forgiven our sin.
 Then, even as we ask, we are provided with forgiveness and growth in faith. Ultimately, we can stand before our Creator in the high court of God! The gift of salvation provides us with the freedom to properly serve our Lord God. We can move forward in ministry. Clinging to the Truth spoken, we are reformed and can contend with evil in this world. From this solid and holy place established by God we may challenge false authorities of both church and state. We are able to point beyond ourselves to that One who is clearly written of in scripture. We can show through the witness of our lives and love, that persons are only justified by grace alone, by faith alone, through Christ alone.
 Therefore I say to you, “Together let us gather on Reformation and pray to be reformed once again… as a people who have been established forever.”


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.”