Confusion and Joy

My message for Easter Sunday Celebration at First Friends Church in Emporia, KS.

John 20:1-21

Confusion and Joy

These were the emotions that accompanied the experiences of Jesus’s closest friends and followers on the day of his resurrection. And why not? Any one of us would feel the same. For years they had followed him, listened to his teaching, witnessed his miracles and even the glory. They believed he was the Messiah, the one who would rescue God’s people Israel from their cruel oppressors. He would be their hero, arrayed in armor for battle, leading the charge.

Only he wasn’t. And he didn’t.

Instead he surrendered without a fight. He wouldn’t put up a defense in his trial. He let them bind him, whip him, beat him, spit on him, mock him, pull out his beard, and then he carried his cross to the place where they would crucify him.

Maybe they were wrong. Maybe he wasn’t the Messiah. Maybe they’d all been conned by a smooth talker who knew just the right things to say. Maybe they were wrong and he was just a good teacher intent on reminding Israel of God’s love and mercy. Maybe…the maybes were endless. What do you do when your dreams come crashing down?

The disciples holed up in an upper room, one with a good solid lock on the door.

The women gathered their spices and went to finish the job of burying the man they had followed who treated them like no man ever had before. Like persons of worth. Like bearers of the divine image. Like God’s children, not objects, not slaves, but companions for the journey. The women rolled up their sleeves and got to work as soon as the Sabbath had ended and they set out to anoint the body before it had another day to swelter in the tomb.

When they arrived, they were met with a puzzle. The stone was rolled away. The door open and unguarded. The tomb empty. What had happened? Who had been here, where was the body, how do they now carry out their final tribute to their friend without a body? The questions multiplied by the minute. Not once did they dare to hope that they would see him alive again.

Mary took charge, running to find Peter and John. She told them what they had seen, and they ran to the tomb to see for themselves. John stopped at the door, but Peter being Peter ran right on in and stood in the space that had just held the body of their friend. Empty. Just the cloth binding that had wrapped his corpse lying on the shelf to show that the space had been occupied.

They returned, more questions than before. No answers. No idea of what to do next.

Mary stayed behind. Overwhelmed with grief and frustration, unable to perform this last service for her teacher, she wept. Through her tears she gazed again into the tomb and there—where minutes before there was darkness and empty space—sat two angels. I don’t know if the day could have gotten any stranger for her at this point, but they speak to her of her tears. Why is she weeping when Jesus is not dead? Who is she looking for?

She turns as she answers, as if to search for him once again, she just wants to know where his body is. And then she sees him. Thinking he is the gardener, she asks him where they have taken him. She volunteers to go and carry him back to where he belongs. He speaks her name and she knows. It’s Jesus.

Her confusion turns to joy in a moment, so great that she throws herself at his feet. Fresh tears burst forth. There is no logic in this moment, she doesn’t try to figure it all out. He is alive and that is all that matters to her. She is consumed by a joy as overpowering as her grief had been moments ago.

Jesus gave her a message and she carried it faithfully to tell the disciples that he was alive, risen from the dead.

Other Gospels tell us that they did not believe her. It was news too good to be true, the delusion of a woman lost in despair.

That night he stands among them and blesses them. “Peace” he says, imparting to them divine wholeness, healing, restoration, forgiveness for their faithlessness, all in one breath. And then he begins to speak to them of the mission he has for them. Just as the father had sent him, he now is sending them to carry his message of the kingdom, to bring hope and healing and light where darkness, brokenness, and resignation have reigned for so long.

If this were a fairytale, at this point we would say that they all lived happily ever after. But we know that is not true in this case. They did not immediately lose their questions, their doubt, their need. They did not immediately receive the peace he offered. They did not immediately understand their mission. Like us, they were human beings living real lives with real hardship. But on that day, resurrection day, their confusion was overcome by their joy.

Jesus is alive.

They walked with him, and listened to him again for a time before he ascended into heaven. And he promised them that they would not be left alone. That promise is ours as well. We have been given the Holy Spirit to guide us in our real lives with real hardship, real questions, real doubts.

Today we celebrate the day that their confusion turned to joy, and we can join our joy with theirs because in rising from the dead, he defeated the last fear, the last stronghold. Jesus has conquered death and hell and the grave, and no matter what we experience in our earthly lives we know we do not walk alone and the victory he won is ours as well.

Jesus lives and so do we, free to live in this bodily life, free to look forward to a life that does not end, free to know that our lives can have eternal significance as we follow him.

Christ has risen, Alleluia!

 

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When Justice Rolls Down, Don’t Get Swept Away

An address given at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Celebration
January 16, 2017

Amos 5:24 “But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

I don’t know about you, but when I look at the world I am often discouraged. It doesn’t take much, if our eyes are open, if our hearts are tender, for us to see the trouble around us. When we watch the news, when we talk with people and hear their stories, we see injustice, oppression and evil. Everywhere we look, there are those with power lording it over the weak. People in authority abusing their positions, and the world applauds or turns away to walk on by. If we are people of compassion, this is troubling.

And I believe it is troubling to God, too. I say this because from beginning to end, we hear God’s prophets speak out on behalf of the oppressed, the powerless, the marginalized of society. Isaiah tells God’s people to stop their noisy pretense of worship and do the right thing. Micah tells God’s people that God’s requirements are simple: justice, mercy, humility. Jesus tells us God has a special relationship to the poor, the grieving, the empty, and the weak. James tells us that true religion is caring for the orphan and widow and holding the world at arm’s length. Revelation invites all who are thirsty to come. God cares about justice.

When our hearts cry out at the brokenness around us, you can be assured that we stand in agreement with the God of the universe, and we can know that we are not alone.

We are not the first people to look around and see that the world’s systems are broken. Tonight we celebrate and honor a man who stood not long ago crying out for justice. Before him marched men and women who called for release from oppression. We’ve been fighting for justice for a long time.

In tonight’s Old Testament reading, Amos the prophet spoke these words that are so familiar to our movements for justice. He says, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

This is our cry for justice. This has been a freedom cry, a battle cry against oppression. We cry out for justice with these words, but did you know that this verse comes in a passage not about foreign oppression of Israel? They are not in the context of deliverance. No, they comes in a passage outlining how the nation God established has itself become an oppressor. The people were calling out for justice, but it was their justice, justice for themselves but not justice for all. This passage details God’s disappointment with God’s people. It is a lament, and a call to repentance. A call to turn from their own ways and to walk in the ways of God.

Tonight, my friends, we need to hear that call for repentance, as well. Repentance simply means a change of mind and heart, a turning from one path to another, to go a different way. All it takes is a glance at the situation where we find ourselves in the world to know that we need to walk in a different way! We need to turn away from oppression and toward justice. We need to turn away from injustice and towards the peace of God. We must turn away from our own solutions that have become idols to the power of God for deliverance.

We have a problem. We have lots of problems, but we have one big problem, one big failure that needs to be laid aside. It is not a new problem, this isn’t a 21st century problem, it’s a human problem. It is as old as Cain and Abel. It is an “us” and “them” problem. We see humanity divided into those who are righteous, like us, and those who are sinners, like them. We can also say we are divided into those who are oppressors, like them, and those who have suffered oppression, like us. This division kills compassion, it kills empathy, and mercy. It divides us and disables us. It leaves us all looking after our own self-interest and forsaking the interests of others.

We want things to be different! We try all kinds of ways to bring about change, we fight wars, we launch campaigns, we protest and lobby. We even lobby for God to get involved. For us, for our rights, for our own sense of righteousness.

We pray for deliverance from oppression, and this is good, but if we stop there, we fall short. What I want to know is do we also pray for deliverance for the oppressor?

Dr. King recognized that the one who oppresses us is also a child of God. They also stand in need of mercy, grace, love, and peace. Through their acts of oppression, they oppress themselves as well. Oppressors need to experience repentance, deliverance, and freedom from their own brand of evil that eats away at their very souls.

That is why Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us. He does not say to pray that God would smite them because he knows they are smiting themselves by their own hand. Jesus does not tell us merely to pray for the persecutor, for the oppressor, but to love them. To love our enemies, Jesus says, is to reflect the very nature of God in heaven who sends rain on the just and unjust and the sun to shine on the good person and the evil person alike. Jesus does not pray for God to strike his enemies down, he prays for grace.

Dr. King echoes this call for forgiveness, compassion, and recognition of our shared humanity with those who are oppressors. In his work that we have heard from tonight “Love in Action,” we hear his words commending Christ who prayed, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.” Dr. King tells us that Jesus had other choices!

…he could have said, “Father, get even with them” Then he could have said, “Father let loose the mighty thunder- bolts of righteous wrath and destroy them in their tracks.”  Then he could have said, “Father open the flood gates of justice and let the staggering avalanche of retribution pour upon them.” But this was not his response Though subjected to inexpressible agony, though suffering excruciating pain, though despised and rejected, nevertheless, He cries, “Father forgive them.”

Dr. King compels us to see that the injustice towards Christ, the very sinless Son of God, results not in a cry for revenge, but a cry for mercy. Jesus prays for their restoration. He prays for them to be forgiven and returned to a right relationship with their creator. Our nature cries out for revenge, but Christ presents another way, a path of forgiveness and wholeness and truth. The path seems impossibly hard for us! Jesus does not expect us to walk alone, it is a trail that he himself has forged before us, marking the way to peace. Jesus went first, so that we could walk in his footsteps.

I will ask it again, when we pray for deliverance from oppression, do we also pray for deliverance for the oppressor?

This is an important question to ask, not only out of concern for our fellow flawed human beings but for ourselves because:

What if we are participating in the oppression of others?

When we pray for an end to injustice, we must be careful that we are not heaping judgment upon our own heads. The prophet Amos says, “Why are you looking forward to the day of the Lord?” God’s people wanted justice, they wanted the day of the Lord to come so that there would be an end to oppression. But Amos the Prophet tells them they should not pray for it to come quickly because they are also in danger of judgment!

It is all too easy to walk through life blind to the ways in which we ourselves participate in the problems of injustice. Remember that Jesus said, “They know not what they do.” If those men had known that they were driving nails into the hands that shaped the universe, would they have continued? Or would they have fallen on their faces? Would they have cried out for mercy in anguished repentance?

Dr. King tells us:
“We must continue to see the Cross as a magnificent symbol of love conquering hate, and light overcoming darkness  But in the midst of this glowing affirmation, let us never forget that our Lord and Master was nailed to that Cross because of human blindness. Those who crucified him knew not what they did.”

My friends, tonight, I am afraid that if we called for a flood of justice and righteousness, we would ourselves be swept away. How often have we participated in oppression, and systemic injustice blindly? Sometimes that blindness comes from our culture and our media and our politics. We are blinded by rhetoric and celebrity opinion. Many times we have acted in blindness and with good intentions. Dr King says again, “Sincerity and conscientiousness are not enough History has proven that these noble virtues can be relegated to tragic vices There is nothing more dangerous in all the world than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Maybe more tragic for us than well-intentioned ignorance is that sometimes we choose blindness. We feel justified by our position and our privilege. We believe that our perspective on the world, our good intentions, and our opinions are the only ones that matter. We shut out the views and experiences of others, we refuse to listen. We stubbornly blot out any hint of imbalance or inequality in the experiences of others. We are so convinced that our experience of the world is the right one that when privilege is removed, it feels like we are being oppressed. Remove advantage given to us based on our religion, based on our race, based on our class, and the leveling of the playing field causes us to feel suddenly off-balance. We have walked crooked for so long, when we stand up-right the world itself seems slanted.

Sadly, at other times we face the temptation to participate in injustice justified by our own experience of oppression. “I was oppressed, now I will show them what it feels like to walk with a boot on their neck.” We refuse to forgive. We refuse to follow in the way of mercy. We want more than justice. We are looking for vengeance.

Dr. King has something to say about this:
“Jesus eloquently affirmed from the cross a higher law He knew that the old eye for an eye philosophy would end up leaving everybody blind. He did not seek to overcome evil with evil He overcame evil with good. Although crucified by hate, he responded with a radical love. What a magnificent lesson. Generations will continue to rise and fall, men will continue to worship the god of revenge and bow before the alter of retaliation, but ever and again this noble lesson from Calvary will come as a nagging reminder that only goodness can drive out evil, and only love can conquer hate.”

How can we call for justice to roll down like the mighty waters if we are the ones perpetuating injustice? We must ask for the light of truth to illuminate not only the darkness of our enemies, but our own darkness as well. We must cry out to God both:

Forgive them for they know not what they do…& LORD, forgive us for we know not what we do.

Those we view as oppressors need forgiveness for the ways in which they rend both their own souls and the lives of their victims. They need mercy for the brokenness brought about by ignorance to the reality in which they live. The oppressor does not need to be repressed, the oppressor needs to be regenerated. They need to be redeemed, they need to be renewed in the image of their creator. And so do we.

The truth is that we need freedom, and so do they. Let us not forget that Dr. King so eloquently said, “No one is free until we are all free.”

You and I, friends, we all need the same things. We all need the grace of God that forgives us when we know not what we do. We all desperately need the mercy of Christ who will open our eyes to injustice, not only at the hands of our society, the hands of those in power, but injustice wrought by our own hands in our own families, in our own schools, in our own churches, in our own towns and cities, and in our own hearts.

If we would pray: Forgive them for they know not what they do…LORD, forgive us for we know not what we do, that would make a good start because:

Justice begins with repentance.

 I want to share a story with you to illustrate my point. It goes like this:

There was a man who had a problem. You see this man had a neighbor with a speck in her eye. This speck bothered that man and he was troubled day and night over the inability for that woman to see clearly. He was worried about her family. He was worried about her kids. He was worried about her workplace. He was worried about how this speck, this impediment to her vision would affect her community involvement, her church attendance, her giving to the poor. He was so worried about it that one day—he was determined to help her, you understand—one day he walked over to her house with a first-aid kit. He had tweezers and antibiotic drops and gauze bandages. He was going to help her with her speck, but she would not let him in the door. You see, he had a bigger problem of his own. There was a tree branch stuck in his eye.

Maybe it will be more familiar this way:

Jesus said “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make, you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” Matthew 7:1-5

Justice begins with repentance. It begins with our own repentance. It begins with a recognition that we are all God’s children. That we have all gone astray, each one to their own way. We all need to have our sin-wounds bandaged. We all need to have our feet set on paths of righteousness for God’s name sake and for the sake of our souls. We must have our understanding broadened to see the ways in which we have participated in oppression. We must acknowledge that we have not loved our enemies, we have not prayed for our persecutors, we have not sought God’s peace, but instead we have walked in our own way. We call for justice, but chase vengeance. We call for freedom, while putting others in chains. We call for the healing of our nation and our world, and we think we will get there if we can only convince that “other person” to let us take the speck out of their eye.

Friends, I stand before you and admit, I am guilty. I will confess with the Apostle Paul that I have not already attained all this, nor have I already been made perfect. I do not stand above you as one who is free from this trap. I find myself making an idol of my own causes and methods and heroes and programs. Likewise, I find myself making demons of those who stand opposed. I need to repent, to turn away from my path to the pathway of God that leads to true peace. I want a peace that is not just an absence of conflict, but a peace that restores. I need this peace.

We all need this peace of God that begins at the root of who we are, a healing and a wholeness that leaks out, pouring forth into the lives of others, flowing over the land and filling the whole earth. If we want an end to injustice, we must seek this peace and pursue it in our lives and communities, increasing the health of our bodies and the justice in our society. We can only find this peace in a person, the Prince of Peace himself, the embodiment of the Divine who showed us how to walk in peace regardless of the absence of peace in the world around us.

This is how I want to see God’s justice roll down, not in a wave of destruction, but as a well of living water bubbling up from within to bring healing to nations, starting right here. It can start right now, in our hearts, in our homes and our churches and our community!

Our nation may be like God’s people of old, a people freed from tyranny turning that tyranny on others. But there is hope. There is hope in each one who will turn away from injustice and cry out for mercy. There is hope every time two or three gather to pray for release for the oppressed and restoration of the oppressor. There is hope when we recognize our common humanity and humbly seek restoration in ourselves as well as the world around us.

Then, and only then, we can pray for God’s justice to roll down like a mighty water, then we can call forth righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, and we can be confident in that day that we are already moving in the flow of those waters, and we will have no fear of being swept away.

 

 

Fundamentals—Salvation

When Christians talk about salvation, we often give the impression that it is a moment in time in which we flip a switch that means we will go to Heaven when we die. While I believe Heaven is important, salvation is bigger than what happens when we die.

In the last Fundamentals post, we looked at humanity and sin. Sin broke our good relationship with God, with our fellow humans, and with creation. Salvation brings an opportunity for restoration of those relationships as well.

Walking with God

God has always wanted to walk with us. He created us to be in relationship with himself. In the days of the Garden, he walked with the man and woman in the cool of the day. It was his habit. Through the times of chaos, the patriarchs, and the early law, God reached out for fellowship. The Old Testament writers spoke again and again about a time when God would write his law on our hearts and the need for external coercive measures would fall away. A time of restored relationship with God, and a renewed sense of fellowship with him.

Jesus came, announcing a fulfillment of prophecy and the nearness of God’s Kingdom.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand…” The response that Jesus calls for is repentance and belief.

Repentance is a concept that gets a lot of bad press. At it’s core, though, it is simply a call to change your mind and change your direction. We do it all the time without even thinking about it. I was using a particular brand of laundry soap, it gave me hives, so I repented of using that soap and switched to one that didn’t.

Photo by linder6580

Photo by linder6580

My daughter had a choir concert out of town a while back. It was important that we get there on time for the rehearsal because I was driving 2 other girls to this event. I followed the directions and couldn’t find it. I drove back and forth, up and down the same street for a half mile in both directions and couldn’t find it. Finally I rechecked the directions and realized I had turned right when I should have turned left. I repented and went back to where I made the wrong turn and took the right one. We got there right on time.

The story of humanity making a wrong turn at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil begins with an idea that we need to be more like God. There is just one problem.

Only God can be God.

We’ve displaced God, taking on the role of owner of creation and judge over ourselves and others. We’ve often trashed creation, and we do a terrible job of judging rightly. We tend to see our wants as needs, and the mistakes of others as much greater than our own. Salvation begins the process of restoring God to his rightful place in every aspect of our lives.DSC00977

Relationships Healed

The way to restoration in our relationships is taking on a new view of self and others. A realistic view that Jesus talks about in his parable about the speck of dust and the log. The Holy Spirit helps us discern where we’ve gone wrong and begins to form in us the ability to see through the lens of grace. We have to know who we are in our brokenness and receive God’s healing grace for ourselves when we find we are not able to live up to a perfect standard. Only then can we begin to extend that same grace to others. That is how we find healing in ourselves, forgiveness for our mistakes and the ability to offer the same healing forgiveness to others.

DSC00889

Creation Care

In the beginning we had a job to do. We were to be stewards of creation. When we walk in sin, that relationship is broken as well. Paul says that creation cries out for redemption. It is our job as Christians not only to administer grace to our fellow human beings, but to care about all of creation. That means asking God how we can participate in stewarding creation in our daily lives. It means caring about things like waste of resources, mistreatment of animals, and even climate change.

You and I can’t fix these things on our own, and that is not our job. But it is our job to care and to do what we can to manage this gift well.

God desires to do more than give you a ticket to heaven. God wants to bring restoration to your daily life, your relationships, and the whole earth.

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” John 3:16-17

 

Below is the statement on salvation from our regional Faith and Practice.

Salvation.

Salvation is a personal matter between people and their Maker. It consists of forgiveness for sins as well as sanctification or the cleansing of sinful human nature. People can be redeemed because of the atoning death of Jesus Christ and the direct work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit restores people to fellowship with God the Father and enables them to love Him wholeheartedly. Salvation does not depend on outward ceremonies or symbols. Sanctification is the work of God which is accomplished through the baptism with the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer who is yielded totally to God. The believer is thus empowered to witness to the living Christ. Sanctification is both an act in which one’s heart is cleansed and a process in which the life is continuously disciplined to God’s holy standards.

Fundamentals—Humanity

With the topic of the human condition we inevitably include the issue of sin. Don’t click away! This isn’t your average bash-you-over-the-head discussion of sin.

I asked my Facebook friends for questions they ponder about humanity and sin.

Facebook Questions Sin

To begin to understand humanity we have to start with creation.

Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”
…God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.
Genesis 1:26, 31

God caps off creation by making people, and surveying all that was made, issues a declaration that it is “Very Good!” I don’t know about you, but I haven’t met anyone yet who would look at the world and say that everything is just as it should be. We may have different views of what would make a perfect world, but we all agree, this isn’t it.

If we keep reading, we find a story about why all is not right with the world. It tells of man and woman going outside the will of God in effort to become more like God. The temptation was to see creation as incomplete, especially in regard to just how much divinity was instilled in humanity. The result? Relationships were broken and fear was born.

Mutiny and the Beginning of the Blame Game

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
Genesis 3:8-9

God came walking in the garden, and the people hid. When asked what happened to change their relationship, the man points the finger at the woman and at God.

“The woman you put here with me—she did it. It’s her fault!”

And the woman passed the buck to a fellow creature.

“It was the serpent! He did it!”

The writer of Genesis tells us in detail what our brokenness looks like. Distance from God. Disturbance in our relationships with self & others. Fighting for survival in a hostile world.

We still see the same things thousands of years later. And we are still playing the blame game. There’s just this one nagging problem.

We have no Leg to Stand On

One thing we all agree on regarding sin is of course which sin is the worst, right?

Somebody else’s.

Ask anyone and they can tell you why their mistakes are understandable, their choices justified, and why that person over there is a big-fat-sinner. You might think this is the official position of the church, but the writer of Romans disagrees:

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things…do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?
Romans 2:1-4

By sitting in judgment over others, we go back to that first temptation to put ourselves in God’s place! And we don’t do a very good job of responding to failure with kindness, forbearance and patience. We don’t even respond to our own sin in that way. By seeking to justify our actions, we just bury the lead that sin is sin because it is destructive. Wounds need to be cared for with kindness and our sin needs to be addressed with grace.

Repentance is built on an acknowledgment that we are wounded and in need of care. It is literally translated as a change of mind. We change our minds, our attitudes about the choices we are making. Instead of duct-taping that gash on our leg and crossing our fingers that gangrene doesn’t set in, let’s go to the doctor and get some actual medical help!

Our Attitude Should Be Humble

Especially those who are Christians, we have received nothing from God but kindness and patience, who are we to condemn someone else? The Apostle Paul has a great take on sin. I think it needs to become our new Christian talking point in regard to sin.

Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.
1 Timothy 1:15

Not because we are worthless, but because we know better and choose to wound ourselves and others anyway. We have great value as image-bearers of God, and we are ALL worthy of spiritual healthcare. When we choose to see our failure as worse than the person in front of us, and we know that God has responded to us with grace, we are better situated to dispense that grace freely as well. If God has forgiven my sin and accepted me as a full heir of Heaven, God can accept anyone.

Sin describes where we go wrong, but it is not the end of the story. It isn’t even the biggest part of the story. Would you find it refreshing if I told you that what is broken can be restored? What if it is God’s dream to make it all “Very Good” again? Check out the next post in this series on Salvation.

Fundamentals—What about the Bible?

What we believe about the Bible is important because it is the basis of the Christian faith. It is the record of encounters between God and humankind. The Bible records words from God and man about who God is and what it means to put one’s trust in God.

I reached out again on Facebook, since last week brought such a good response. This time, the questions came from entirely different people, which is super.

Here is what they wanted to know:

Facebook Responses Questions about the Bible
What great questions. This week the questions came from those dedicated to following Jesus. Their questions reflect their knowledge of scripture, and their honest wrestling with how we apply a book written over the span of a thousand years and finished nearly two thousand years ago.

A lot changes over the course of three thousand years. There is a huge difference between the culture and daily lives of people leaving Egypt and those driving SUV’s down the freeway to the directions of their GPS-enabled smart phones. We can’t answer all of these questions in one sitting. What we can do is take a basic look at what the Bible is and what the Bible is not, and what the Bible’s purpose is in our lives.
Here is what the EFC-MAYM Faith and Practice has to say about the Bible:

The Bible.
The Holy Bible was given by the direct inspiration of God. It is sufficient to inform people of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. The Bible is the written authority by which all guidance should be measured for truth. God’s Holy Spirit, who inspired the Scriptures, also interprets them, working through those yielded to Him within His Church. Genuine guidance from God is in accord with the Holy Scriptures.

Practically speaking, the Bible is made up of 66 Books, written by about 40 authors, all telling us One Message about One God. Like a mosaic, the bible writers all give us a different angle, different point of view in history, but all coming together to show us a glimpse of our God interacting with human beings.

Not a magic book.

The Bible does not exist to give us magic formulas for making life what we want it to be. There is no magic prayer or special verse that we can say to get what we want instantly.

It is not a book of magical words. It is not a book of secret power. It is not a book by which the full might and power of God is placed at our disposal. It is not a book where the ability to quote a few verses will help you defeat all temptations, persevere under every trial, and break down every stronghold.
–Jeremy Myers https://redeeminggod.com/bible-is-not-a-magic-book

There is power at our disposal, but it is not in the words of the Bible, rather in the Spirit who inspired the words of the Bible. God inspired the scriptures and enlightens our minds to understand the scriptures, and God uses the scriptures today in many ways to continue communicating his message to the world. The Bible is important, but it is not magic.

Not a mere book of fairy tales. The pictures we are given of people in the pages of the Bible are very real. They are flawed human beings who have extraordinarily difficult lives. But they also have real divine encounters that change their lives, and their communities.

Not a history book or a science book. The Bible was not primarily written to give us what we would consider in our modern mindset to be scientific or historic information. Instead, everything in the Bible was written to point us to God.

A book with a purpose. The Bible has a singular purpose, to reveal the heart of God to mankind and invite a response. From creation to revelation, there is a great arcing story of God creating, reaching out for fellowship, forming a covenant, providing redemption, and drawing people to himself.

A book with a past. Some of the most common questions I encounter about the Bible have to do with what is included and what is not included in our Bible. The Old Testament and New Testament were assembled differently.
The early Church leaders in the third century came together to put in place a canon—a measuring rod for what they accepted as true about Jesus and the Church. In this process, they examined many writings and used some basic criteria to determine whether they should be included in the new collection of books that would become the New Testament.

1. Apostolic – The book must be written by an apostle, or a ministry partner of one.
2. Orthodox – The book must agree with the the accepted and approved teachings of the church.
3. Christocentric – The book must focus on the person and work of Jesus Christ, especially in relation to His redemptive work on the cross for the world.
4. Inspiration – The book must have the qualities and characteristics of the divinely inspired Word of God.
5. Testimony of the Holy Spirit – The church authorities felt the inner witness of the Holy Spirit in helping them select certain books.
6. Acceptance by the Church – The book must already be widely accepted and used by the majority of churches.
https://redeeminggod.com/canonization-of-scripture/

Lawrence H. Schiffman writes a good article on the formation of the Jewish canon at MyJewishLearning. The Old Testament was formed in parts, and with much less formal deliberation, rather the texts that were found to be valuable were kept and others were allowed to fall away. A canon of the Old Testament among Jewish communities was basically in place by 70 AD, and more formally by about 150 AD. When Jesus walked the earth, most Jewish scholars would have agreed on the books that were most important for teaching about God.

Knowing how the books of the Bible were put together takes away some of the mystery. This is ok. It helps us remember that while the Bible is inspired by God, it does not contain God. God does not live in this book. God is not limited to this book. God is active and alive and moving in our lives today. It can be tempting to make an idol of the Bible.

Not an idol. The Bible is not to be worshipped, rather it is to be studied. Not to gain knowledge that puffs up, but as a path that leads to greater understanding of the true Word of God, Jesus. Jesus offers this rebuke in John, and I think it is all too valid today, John 5:39-40 “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” The scriptures, both Old and New Testaments are only beneficial to us if they lead us to God.

Not defined by cherry-picked verses. The Bible is not primarily something for us to pick and stitch together proof-texts for theological arguments. There is no commandment “Thou shalt be right.” We find instructions to read and study, but we are never told that we must or even can have all the right answers. Admission to the Kingdom is never dependent on a quiz, rather on our relationship with God and our faithfulness to follow the example of Christ.

Reveals God’s identity. The Bible shows us God’s character so that we may become ever more “children of our Father in Heaven” as Jesus put it. The stories we read by what people did right and what they did really badly, they teach us how to live our lives to honor our connection with God.

Trustworthy guide to living a good life. The Bible offers us principles by which we can live in whole and healthy ways. These principles show us a path to shalom, a peace with God, with ourselves, and with others. Not every command is valid for every person in every generation, but the themes we find again and again give us a path to peace. Welcoming the stranger. Generosity to the poor. Making time to rest. Honoring our family. Speaking the truth. Living with integrity. Loving God. Loving others.

Measuring rod. The canon gives us a tool to measure our experience. If what we hear is not consistent with what we find in the whole counsel of scripture, we need to question its validity. If we believe God is directing us and the directions do not align with what we read of God’s character and heart in the Bible, we need to ask again.

In order to have a complete picture of who God is and what God desires of us, we cannot depend on a verse or two.  We must study the whole Bible and learn from the whole council of scripture. What we read in the Old Testament can help us understand what is going on in the New Testament. What we know about God through the person of Jesus, who we see in the Gospels, can help shed light on God’s actions in the Old Testament. When we study the whole of scripture, we find consistently that God is continually reaching out toward imperfect human beings to draw them to himself. Themes of redemption, forgiveness, and love blanket the pages of scripture. You may not find all of them on every page, but when you put them all together the picture comes together.

 

Fundamentals—Who is God?

I don’t typically post my sermons on this blog. This series is going to be an exception. Six weeks of the basics of belief for me and many of those who follow Jesus calling ourselves Friends or Quakers. This will not represent everyone, or even a majority view, but I believe these messages bring a valuable perspective to the table.

When I planned this series a few months ago, it all seemed so simple to cover what we believe about the basics in a short summer series. 6 weeks is what I have allowed for the fundamentals of our faith. It looks great on a calendar and the topics divide easily enough, but as I was preparing to cover everything we believe about who God is in one 25 minute sermon I felt a bit foolish. How do I cover Father, Son, and Holy Spirit– in 8 minutes each? An impossible goal when we have been pondering, debating and seeking for millennia to describe God. Maybe I was just a little bit optimistic in my planning. But here we are, and we are going to do our best, knowing that there is simply no way that we will cover it all.

In my research, I came across this amazing video from The Work of the People. The first half seeks to answer our question, “Who is God?” the second half deals with our response as believers. (If you don’t have time, for our purposes you can stop it around 4:00, but I would recommend the entire video, about 8minutes.)

 

In preparation this message, I reached out on Facebook and Twitter to see what questions people had about God. I don’t want to just give you the Faith and Practice definition of our faith in God, I will do that in a moment, but I want to make sure the information I am giving answers actual questions from real people. (Much of our teachings and preaching in the Church over the years have presented answers pretend questions from hypothetical people.)

Here are some of the questions I received in response: (Some serious, some obviously tongue in cheek.)
I find it interesting that when I asked for questions about who God is, the responses came in the form of questions about creation, about sickness, about belief, atonement, the trinity, and the Church. At first, I wanted to respond by clarifying that these are supposed to be questions about GOD, but then I realized that they are! These are questions about whether God is good, loving, trustworthy, or greedy, uncaring, and cruel, and whether that has any bearing on the way believers live their lives. They are questions not about the theological definitions, but about the practical reality of life on this earth.

We believe a lot of things about God, that God existed before all things, and that God will exist forever–the alpha and omega, beginning and the end. We believe that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and existing everywhere, all the time. These are important, and we profess them, but it all comes down to how this affects us where we live. Don’t tell me about God in high-sounding language, tell me how God affects my daily life!

The EFC-MAYM Faith and Practice says this about God:
God.
There is one sovereign God who is revealed through the Bible in the person of His son, Jesus Christ. God is the Maker and Preserver of all things; He alone is worthy of worship. In the unity of the Godhead exist three equal and distinct, yet inseparable, persons: the Father, the Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

The Christian Church generally accepts the doctrine of the Trinity and many other theological descriptions of God which are such great mysteries that no one has yet given a good explanation of how and why they work. We have all kinds of analogies to describe the Trinity from shamrocks to Oreo cookies, and they move in the right direction but they all fall short. What we do know and accept and approve and believe is the “who.”

We believe that God reveals himself to the world most clearly and personally through Jesus. We believe the Holy Spirit moved in the Old Testament to empower the prophets and leaders of God’s people, anointed and infused Christ’s ministry on earth, and is freely given to all who will choose to become followers of Jesus Christ in order to direct, equip and empower them to live as citizens of God’s kingdom. We don’t know how it all works, but we trust that it is true. We trust that Jesus is God’s only begotten or uniquely begotten son, but about how that came to be our scriptures are less than forthcoming. Like the process of creation, the trinity and the conception of Christ are left as mysteries.

God is credited with the creation of all things, John tells us the Word-Jesus- was the means of Creation. In him all things were made, without him, nothing was made that has been made. Genesis tells us that before the start of creation on earth, the Spirit of God hovered over the waters. Creation is God’s masterpiece, and every part of the God-head took part in crafting something beautiful, so why is it so broken and painful? We will talk about sin in a future message, but it needs to be said here that God is not the only one influencing things on earth.

There are other forces at play, physical and spiritual ones. God created the earth, and God is the rightful owner, but God gives his creations the ability to make choices. Every part of creation, from angelic beings to the smallest microbe, all have freedom within their scope. God does not control everything like a cosmic puppet master. If he did, that god would be cruel indeed with all of the wars, oppression, injustice, sickness, and death. If the god of the universe was the cause of all those things, we should despair of ever seeing goodness because not even heaven would be safe. But our God is not that. Our God is all-powerful, and all-loving which means our God allows for free choices to be made, freedom is a prerequisite of love relationships. It is rare for God to exercise his power over creation, taking control from his created beings. That is why miracles are so miraculous.

What it boils down to is this, God is not the only one influencing what we see around us. Other spiritual forces are at play in our world, as well. The Bible refers to them in many ways, but one I have always found intriguing is “the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” There are Spiritual forces working diligently to cause destruction and to incite rebellion. These spiritual forces are real, and they are active, but they may not be the biggest threat to creation.

Our God seeks to draw our hearts to himself so that we make the right choices, but God does not force us to choose what is good, or right, or healthy for ourselves and others.

Humanity was given dominion over the earth, God entrusted the stewardship of creation to us. That means we can destroy creation if we want to. We can hunt animals to extinction. We can bomb the cities of our neighbor. We can enslave the children across the street and around the world to cater to our whims. We can do these things, and we do every day. These things can happen because God is not a dictator.

We want God to give us freedom, he has. We want to do whatever we please, we can.

But we are not free from the consequences. If I kill you, you are dead. The end.

Here is how God describes himself in Exodus 34 as he reveals himself to Moses on the mountain:
Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.”
Exodus 34:6-7

Perhaps the most amazing thing is that God continues to sustain creation through his loving grace. God continues to pour forth creative power to breathe life into the next generation and the next. “In him we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28

Here is what other Bible-writers say about God:
One thing God has spoken, two things I have heard: ‘Power belongs to you, God, and with you, Lord, is unfailing love.'” Psalm 62:11 
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Hebrews 1:3
The Son is the image of the invisible God.” Colossians 1:15
God is Love.” 1 John 4:20
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” 1 John 4:9

God’s attitude towards creation, all he has made, including you and me, is love. God looked at creation and declared it to be very good. God’s love continues to reach towards us even when we are not following God, believing God, or even when we are actively running from God. God’s love is not dependent on our response.

God’s love and mercy abound as much as God’s truth. That does not mean that we don’t face the consequences of our actions, or even that we are the only ones who suffer when we choose poorly. God’s love does not mean that we will not face trouble or persecution or hardship or poverty or even a violent death at the hands of violent people. But we are promised again and again that when we walk through difficulty, God walks with us. God walked the most painful and sacrificial of roads to demonstrate his love for us. Why do we think he will shrink back from our pain and brokenness today?

“He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.”
Psalm 91:15
For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,
neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us
from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Romans 8:38-39
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace.
In this world you will have trouble.
But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
John 16:33

God is love, God is good, God is with us, and we can trust him. God loves us and wants to be in fellowship with us. God has revealed himself in the person of Jesus, the exact representation of his likeness and possessing God’s full character. If you have images or definitions in your mind and heart that do not look like Jesus, it is time to let them go. If you have been told that God isn’t loving, or that God only loves some people—the good and perfect ones—it is time to let that go.

God demonstrated his love for us in this, while we were still at war with God, he stepped out of Heaven into the flesh to live and teach and walk among us, to show us who he is and to demonstrate the lengths to which he would go to seek reconciliation with this broken humanity. I hope this prompts in you a desire for a renewed sense of God’s heart, and maybe also to challenge old and inaccurate pictures that seek to take the place of the truth that God is the creator and sustainer and healer of all things because of his unfailing love.

Perceiving God’s heart,
ReFreshing