Tagged: cross

Fatherhood in Flux: Ephesians 5 in Changing Times

Pew Research, one of the largest sociological research groups in North America, surveyed mothers and fathers. Fifty-seven percent of fathers described being a father as “extremely important,” which was virtually identical to the women surveyed (58%). However, most of the moms surveyed said they did “a very good job” of raising their children; among the dads, just 39 percent said the same.

On the whole, fathers care about being fathers at the same rate as mothers care about being mothers, but a significant gap exists in how fathers feel about how they are doing at being fathers. Most fathers feel like they aren’t great fathers. Why is that?

I read an interesting article coming up to this father’s day by Daniel Engber from the Atlantic (I think the Atlantic writes probably the best articles on social issues out there, in my opinion). The article is entitled, “Why is Dad so Mad?” He writes,

Everybody knew that dads used to earn a living; that they used to love their children from afar; and that when the need arose, they used to be the ones who doled out punishment. But what were dads supposed to do today? In former times, the definition of a man was you went to work every day, you worked with your muscles, you brought home a paycheck, and that was about it… What it is to be a man now is in flux, and I think that’s unsettling to a lot of men. Indeed, modern dads were left to flounder in a half-developed masculinity: Their roles were changing, but their roles hadn’t fully changed.

They are left in a kind of lurch. Fatherhood is in a state of flux, retaining some conventional patterns but scrapping others.

I was reminded of this just this morning. My wife called me into the room. “What is it?” I said. She pointed to a spider on the wall. Apparently, in our marriage, it is the man’s job to kill the spider.

I jest, but many men feel seriously caught: if I work too much, as many jobs are demanding, this is no longer considered virtuous, and I am seen as a workaholic, neglecting my family.

If they work too little, society could perceive them as a deadbeat or lazy, particularly by the older generation that built and achieved so much.

Society used to value a man’s more forceful presence in discipline, but most parenting books have denounced harsher forms of discipline.

Women have made inroads in the workforce, but men have not gravitated the same way to homemaking or childcare, traditionally female roles.

There are increasingly fewer jobs that require physical strength. And increasingly, fewer fields of work are considered male careers.

It has left some men wondering: what do I contribute to my family or in my marriage? And this has many men feeling like they have lost their place in society and in the home. They don’t feel valued. They don’t feel what they do has value, or they don’t feel like they are successful in doing it. Fatherhood feels like it is in a state of flux.

In the wake of this, political groups have attempted to capitalize on this feeling of instability and nostalgia for the good old days. The movements by Jordan Peterson, who dies the existence of systemic sexism, or Joe Rogan and Tucker Carlson have tried to say that there is a war against masculinity wagered by feminists and liberals and other monsters under the proverbial bed of culture. These guys have made a lot of money saying what they are saying because this is a message a lot of men want to hear.

However, probably the more accurate explanation is that with the cost of living going up so much compared to what it was decades ago and wages not increasing in proportion, the idea of a single-income household that owns their own property can have a designated stay-home parent, is becoming extinct for the average Canadian, and with it that male role.

 Culture is in a state of flux. And when people feel this unease, this displacement of identity, it is very easy to look for someone to blame.

For many Christians, this has caused many to recede into nostalgia, longing for the days when everyone went to church, or when there was prayer in schools, when there was allegedly no divorce, or when, allegedly, everything cost a nickel (why was everythin always a nickel, by the way?).

Nowadays, I’m nostalgic for when gas costs a dollar a litre.

The text I am going to read today is a text that has often been misused by Christians. It is a text we have so often read, wishing to get back to the way things used to be when fathers’ and husbands’ roles were clear and revered.

It is really one of the most important passages on being parents and spouses, as well as being fathers and husbands, in the New Testament, but we often forget that the Biblical writers were writing for matters in their own day. They were writing because their situations were in flux also. We forget that.

It is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, chapter 5, what is often called the household code. I am going to first read this passage, but then we are going to ask some questions about what this means, both in the ancient context and what it means for us today:

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27 so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 ‘For this reason, a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’—this is the first commandment with a promise: ‘so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.’ And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free. And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

So, let me pause for a moment. Did some of those words make you uneasy a bit (particularly the submission and slavery parts)? Did some of those words sound agreeable (like the love parts)? I imagine most listeners will have mixed feelings reading this passage.

Perhaps you know this passage well. Maybe a pastor told you this is God’s pattern for marriage for today. Maybe you believe it is.

But, if this passage was giving us an obvious, clear, and timeless definition of marriage and parenting, why does it tell husbands to love their wives in order to make them holy and without blemish? Is Paul saying all women are unclean? Or is that what Jews assumed in that culture? May Paul is speaking in a way his audience would have understood.

It also says that wives should submit in everything. Should wives do that today? Aren’t there stories of women who did listen to their husbands and God was honoured, like Abigail or Rachel or Tamar. Maybe Paul is reacting to a certain circumstance woman in Ephesus face.

Sadly, this passage has been used to say to women that they cannot question or disagree with their husbands. It has been used almost like a club to clobber some people.

Maybe this passage brings up painful memories. I have dealt with women who were told that they had to submit to their abusive spouses because that is what this passage means. Let me be clear and say that whatever this passage means today, it does not mean that.

This passage also mentions slavery. It tells slaves to obey their masters with fear and trembling. I have heard some preachers say that this passage applies to bosses and employees today, but I just don’t think that is the case. There were day-labourers in the ancient world. But more importantly, as an employee with rights living in a country with employment laws, I just don’t think I should obey everything my boss says, let alone with fear and trembling.

But worse still, this passage has been used to justify slavery rather than the good news of God’s kingdom that Jesus announces: “freedom to the captive, that the oppressed can go free” (as he says in Luke 4).

For five years, I pastored the First Baptist Church of Sudbury, which had historic roots in the Social Gospel. The church historically led the charge for the miners of the city to have employment rights, safety standards, and eventually unions. They believe working to improve human life was an aspect of the kingdom of God. I think they were correct.

So, how do we understand this important passage today? How do we understand it as offering words that can build us up?

This will be a bit of a technical sermon (if you have not realized this already). I don’t know if you have met me, but I kinda like to go deep with my sermons. I do this because if we are going to become the fathers and husbands God wants us to be (and of course, this goes for all Christians as well), one vital way we get formed for that purpose is by meditating on God’s word, understanding it rightly, not in facile, careless ways.

Just like navigating what it means to be a man or a father in today’s world, God’s Word takes wisdom and work. So often, the church has assumed that the Bible is always so clear and straightforward it makes us ill-prepared to live in a world that isn’t.

Many want to go to the Bible to escape just how messy the world is, hoping to find a place that is black and white and clear, and there are some passages that are very clear, don’t get me wrong. But often, if you have read through the Bible, you see a lot of passages that cause you to have questions. Some that, at face value, don’t sound all that redemptive. In those cases, the path from what the words on the page say and what it means for us today is not straightforward.

Part of the reason for that is that the Bible was written not as an escape from the flux of history but written in its very midst. It was not written despite our humanity. It was written by humans for our humanity.

The Bible is a complex thing, and it’s complex because life is complex. And if we care about God’s word, we have to be willing to put in the effort to study and think about it in all its depth. It’s only then that its richness is fully appreciated. It’s only then that we realize that God isn’t trying to save us from the complications of life. God is trying to meet us there, in its midst, gently moving us forward in grace.

I sit on the board of an organization called the Atlantic Society for Biblical Equality. It is an organization that was founded by Hugh McNally and Harry Gardner to promote that men and women are made equal in the eyes of God and that when the Scriptures are considered in their fuller context and meaning, it teaches equality in marriage, that women can serve as pastors and things like that. I would encourage you to become members and support the work (perhaps the church could even be a supporting church partner in its mission).

This is one passage that people stumble over. I know people that are content to ignore a passage like this. But as Christians, that is just not a good plan, and so, our work as ASBE is to help Christians understand the Bible better.

My advice is that we need to study the Bible and study the difficult texts: Find the Bible’s meaning in the flux of history because that can really help us understand what it could be saying to us today.

So with that very long introduction, let me ask this: what was going on in Paul’s day that he needed to write this passage?

Well, the Apostle Paul is writing to the Ephesians, a Greek city in modern-day Turkey. It was a very important city both for Greek culture and the church. The Christian church had grown rapidly there, comprising of both Jews and Gentiles coming together, and that had caused some issues. The beginning of the letter speaks about how God’s household is where both Jews and Gentiles come together as one under God in Christ. Later in the letter, here, Paul turns to talk about what individual households could look like through the love of God in Christ. Here, if we do some digging, we find that Ephesus and the church there were experiencing their own state of flux, and Paul had to navigate that.

1.   Christianity in Ephesus was in Flux

Christianity came on the scene in the ancient world and caused a profound social change. You see, Christianity preached the individual responsibility of all people to repent and believe in the one true God revealed in Jesus Christ, and this proclamation saw Jews and Gentiles, men and women, adults and children, wealthy individuals as well as slaves seeing the gift of the Holy Spirit, and people trust this and are justified.  

In the ancient world, however, if you were a wife, a child, or a slave, your obligation was to worship the god of the head of your family, your father and master. If you were Roman or Greek, you were expected to follow the local gods. Christianity did not uphold this, and it caused friction.

Jesus warns about this in Matthew chapter ten. Jesus says that I have not come to bring peace but the sword, which is kind of a strange thing for Jesus to say. What does he mean? He speaks about how households will be set against one another, and if you are loyal to your family members more than Jesus’ way, this is not taking up Jesus’ cross. In other words, you are not a true disciple. For Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Jesus isn’t saying he is going to cause literal wars, but rather that the way of Jesus is going to cause social upheaval, and any peace that means people can claim loyalty to their families against Jesus to please them is not true peace. It isn’t the peace that Jesus’ way offers.  

Well, this insistence soured marriages and split families. Christians were viewed as traitors. Paul notes in his first letter to the Corinthians that spouses were leaving and deserting their partners over their change in religion, but Paul tries to say to Christian spouses to do their best to keep their marriages if they can: if their spouses leave, that’s their decision, but for the Christian spouse, commit to working it through, loving the other, hopefully winning them over. That is a good witness to the Gospel.

This is a thing Paul has to keep reiterating. In his letter to Titus, he says to young women to love their spouses so that “the word of God will not be maligned.” Paul’s letter to the Colossians chapter 4, just before it gives a similar household code, says that Christians need to walk wisely in how non-Christians are seeing them. 1 Peter similarly advises Christians to live in a way that prevents slander.  

Christianity in the Greek and Roman world was being perceived as a group of people that were disloyal to their nation, to their marriages and families, and therefore were out to ruin society. There were rumours that Christians were cannibals because they ate flesh and drank blood when they got together for worship. Christians were thought to be atheists because they refused to worship the gods of their communities.

For many, Christianity was perceived as strange and even dangerous. Now, while it was true that Christians opposed the worship of Greek and Roman gods and opposed the ways of the emperors, it wasn’t true that Christians hated their families. Far from.

We have to appreciate the irony: today, we look at Christianity and the way things used to be, and we think it’s our culture that has caused all this disruption and flux. For Ephesians, they believed their culture’s values gave stability, and they saw Christianity as causing the disruption and flux. Our contexts are very different.

And so, this helps us understand the statements in the New Testament, where the Apostles keep telling Christians to honour the Emperor (even though the Emperors were immoral people), submit to authorities (even those that were brutal and corrupt as the Roman powers), leave peaceable lives, and so on. Those are passages that also don’t straightforwardly apply today because we live in democracies where we can choose our government, whereas, in the New Testament, they couldn’t.

The Apostles were doing everything possible to prevent Christianity from being perceived as a threat to the well-being of their home communities. They are trying to walk this tightrope of the faithfulness of Jesus and peaceableness with their families and fellow citizens. What were they worried about? Its something we just aren’t worried about in our country:

The Apostles did not want to be perceived as an insurgent movement as they spread the Gospel. Why? Revolutions ended in violence, with Roman soldiers slaughtering anything that could be perceived as a rebellion or disloyal to the Empire, and so, the Apostles tried to be wise in portraying Christianity as upholding certain social mores that Greeks saw as fundamental to social wellness.  

What were those? Well, one of those was the Greek household code.  

2.   Ephesian Culture Believed Men were the Heads of their Households. Paul believed Jesus was the Head

And so, the second important aspect of Paul’s context was the Greek understanding of marriage. Ephesians believed it was good and proper for the husband and father to be the head of the household. The husband was often the educated one, legally was the one who managed the finances, and he was the one that procured the income for the family. Often the man was the religious representative of the family as well.  

Because of this, he was regarded as the authority of the family, and Ephesians felt it was only good and proper to have wives, children, and slaves living in complete submission to the family’s leader.

However, men in Ephesian culture were regarded as the heads of their households, and as such, they were afforded power and privilege. Wives, children, and slaves were their servants, all for the purposes of affording them a better life. Husbands had little to no moral obligation to their wives and could act with a great deal of self-interest.

If the Apostles attacked this teaching too forcefully, a lot of women, children, and servants could find themselves without a roof over their head or worse. It wasn’t that the Apostles were afraid to sacrifice for their faith, but they were trying to be prudent to not pick unnecessary battles. In their judgment, in this context, which is different from ours, they choose a cautious and more subtle path.

Women did not have legal rights, no sources of income; there were no women’s shelters; there was no such thing as unemployment insurance or alimony in a divorce. These are things our culture has created, and if we are tempted to see these as an obstacle to living this passage, we must look to the history of Christian suffrage advocates and Christian abolitionists, Christians that have looked at how humans are made in God’s image and said our laws should reflect justice and equity.

Our culture has been influenced by 2000 years of Christian proclamation; Ephesian culture was not. That does not mean we are always better, but it does mean we are in a very different place.

Paul was dealing with a world that operated under certain conditions, things that the culture took for granted as the norms of how things functioned, while Paul was against things like slavery (he was a Jew, after all, that knew full well the stories of the Exodus, where redemption meant liberation from physical oppression), he also realized that for some people, slavery was their sole means of provision or that to oppose slavery in a revolution could end with Roman legions coming and killing everyone involved with a revolt.

We have to do this in similar ways today: We know, for instance, that our use of fossil fuels is not good for the environment, but for many of us, we still have to own gas-powered cars or have homes that use oil. If we tried to just rid Canada of all fossil fuels right now, that probably would leave a lot of people without transportation and without heat in the winter, so we are trying to transition off fossil fuels. I don’t know if we are doing a good enough job of that, but that is a topic for another sermon.

So, what Paul does then, is try to word the Christian life in as close of terms as possible to the way Ephesians understood marriage and parenting and managing their homes. He meets them where they are at and how they understand things, but he adds a Christian twist to it. He sows a seed of Christ-like transformation in it.

And this is where we really miss the point of the passage when we refuse to read the Bible in its historical context.

Let me read one of the more well-known household codes in Greek culture. Ask yourself, how is Paul’s version different from this? This is from Aristotle’s Politics:

Of household management, we have seen that there are three parts—one is the rule of a master over slaves… another of a father, and the third of a husband. A husband and father rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the older and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature… [W]hen one rules and the other is ruled we endeavour to create a difference of outward forms and names and titles of respect… The relation of the male to the female is of this kind, but there the inequality is permanent.

Both Paul and Aristotle talk about husbands and wives, fathers and children, and masters and slaves. That’s how we know that Paul has something like this in mind for the context he is writing in. Did you spot some of the differences?

Aristotle talks about the rulership of all three. Men rule over women. Why? Because men are more intelligent by nature. They are, by nature, superior. They live in permanent inequality, and that inequality is a good thing.

Is that what Paul believed?

Paul is a Jew, and he knows that men and women are both in the image of God. He knows that if women are not equal to men, it is not because of nature but because of sin. The curse of Genesis 3 was that women’s desire would be for their husbands, but men would rule over them.

We have to ask ourselves: is it the church’s job to uphold the curse of sin? Or is it the church’s role to undo the effects of sin in this world with the power of salvation?

Paul says in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female, slave or free, all are one in Christ Jesus.”

If we look at Paul’s writings, we see that he had women leaders spreading the Gospel with him: church leaders like Chloe and Nympha, Pheobe (a deacon from Cenchrea), Eudia and Synteche (apostolic leaders along with Clement), Junia (an apostle listed that the end of Romans). If you have not heard those names before, look them up. Paul very much believed that the Spirit was moving to bring about equality in the world broken by sin.

We need to keep that big picture in mind when we interpret these passages. And when we do, the point of these passages of today becomes clearer:

Ephesians 5 begins with Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. When it gets to the next line, it actually uses the same verb as this sentence: Be subject to one another… wives to your husbands. In other words, wives are doing something all Christians, men, fathers, and husbands included, ought to be doing too. Yet, so often, we preach this passage as if the burden is on women to do something unique to them.

Aristotle’s view of headship in the family emphasizes male rulership; Paul takes that notion of headship in God’s family and emphasizes mutual submission.

The Greek household code said men did not have to care for their wives, children, or slaves beyond food and shelter. Families served the man’s own self-interest. Paul says things like this in his household code:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.

He who loves his wife loves himself. 

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger.

Masters, know that both of you have the same Master in heaven.

Aristotle emphasized authority; Paul introduced accountability. Which one do you think then is the principle that applies to us today?

3.   Jesus’s Love is the Pattern for Parents

Jesus told his disciples that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

In speaking to them about the authority, he said,

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28). 

Paul summarizes the pattern of Christ in Philippians chapter two when he says,

Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

And so, in a culture where men were assumed to be the heads of the household, Paul, in essence, says, “Okay, men, if you want to be the head of the household, then be one like Jesus. Be ready to give up everything for your family.”

But that is not some new way to reinforce male power. It is consistent with what all Christians are called to do. Notice the principle that Ephesians chapter five begins with: Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God (v. 1-2).

This is the guiding principle for what Paul says in this entire chapter, and it says all Christians are to live self-sacrificing love towards one another, and when we come to verse 21, the guiding principle for the household code, Paul says all Christians are to submit one to another. The household code is merely applying these to the way Ephesians needed to have it applied in that context. But ultimately, submission, respect, service, and accountability¾these are things all Christians ought to be doing for each other, regardless of gender.

It is funny how we have looked at Ephesians chapter 5, and we have tried to apply it to mean something more like the philosophy of Aristotle than the way of Jesus.

If we defined authority in Jesus’ way, we would give up our authority, not hold onto it.

If we define what it means to be a man through Jesus, we won’t be worried about how we can get power out of our marriages and families, power over our wives and kids. We will ask ourselves: How can I serve them? How can I even submit it to them? What sacrifices do I need to make in order to love them better?

That might mean doing something things that our culture, perhaps even our church cultures, might view as not very manly.

When Meagan and I were first married, we had just bought our first house, a little townhouse in Bradford, one hour north of Toronto. We had our first child, Rowan, soon after moving in.

Meagan was teaching at a Christian school, and the school wanted her to upgrade her teaching degree to a full Bachelor of Education. So, she used her mat-leave to go back to school full-time.

I was also in school, working on my doctorate. I was between work, and I eventually got a contract as a pastoral intern at Bradford Baptist Church, a few hours a week.

But with Meagan in school in an intensive program, I had to pivot to caring for Rowan most mornings as well as do cleaning and some cooking.

Can I confess something to you? I am just not as particular about cleaning as my wife is. If there is a dirty spot on the counter, I don’t notice it. My wife enters a room, and it is like radar detection. But in order to have a household that felt orderly enough that my wife did not feel stressed about, I had to learn how to clean better.

Admitfully, after 13 years of marriage, I still am not there.  

Of course, not having a full-time job, I got comments from family members: “So, when are you going to get a real job.” The implication is that my current situation was not what a man, a biblical husband, was to do. And I felt feelings of worthlessness, staying home, and caring for our son.

I had learned to equate my worth as a man and father with work and money.

I had to come to a point and say, but what does my family need? It is not about fulfilling some expectation of what a man or a husband or a father is according to our culture or even our church cultures. It is about asking our families, “what do you need?”

What does that mean for a world that is in such flux? Well, it is going to mean something very different for every couple and family.

It means that whatever life entails, it probably is not going to be easy. It means navigating decision-making, household work, finances, and childcare with fairness, with mutual submission.

And that takes sacrifice, and that is what we are celebrating today on Father’s Day. The ways our fathers have sacrificed to show their wives and children they love them.

For many of our fathers and grandfathers, these sacrifices fulfilled a traditional need, but for the younger generations, these sacrifices might look different.

Whether it is working a tough job away from home or working as a stay-home dad, whether it is mowing the lawn or cooking dinner, driving the kids to soccer or reading to them when they go to bed, there are little acts of service that show your families how much you love them.

The tasks may change, but love does not.

Paul says that when we do this, we are reflecting the reality that God is showing us in Jesus Christ, who loved us so much that he came in human form, became a servant, and became obedient even onto death, death on a cross.

Can I just say that Jesus knows a thing or two about changing to love those he cares for in the way they need it?

Fathers, husbands, men in the audience today, sometimes the world tells us that to be a man means relying on no one but yourself, don’t ask for help, don’t be vulnerable. Men don’t talk about love. Real men don’t cry and things like that.

That is just not true. It is not the pattern of Jesus. We can share our needs with our families and friends, but most importantly, we need to share our needs with God.

When we feel frustrated in life, we know that God understands, God is with us, and God is for us. God raised Jesus from the dead in victory over sin and all of life’s struggles.

Ask God, trust him, and he will help.

In all the change and uncertainty of life, God’s love remains constant. God’s love does not change. God’s love is perfect. God’s love is faithful and true. And God loves you.

Fathers, husbands, and men today, can you leave this place trusting that love in a new way today?

Let’s pray:

Loving and gracious God our Father.

You are our creator, and we are your children, made in your image and likeness.

We praise you today because you are loving and good.

You have shown your love for us in sacrificing your very self.

While we were sinners set against you, you died for us.

God, we are thankful.

And you have called us to reflect this love, this love that is your very being.

Father, teach us how we can do this better.

Many of us feel like we are not all that good at it.

And in a changing world, many of us desire to follow our ways, but the way does not seem all that clear.

God, give us wisdom.

Encourage our hearts: Remind us that there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love you have for us.

Show us how we can love our families better.

Thank you so much for all the examples of fathers we have around us. Thank you for the sacrifices they have made, the lessons they have taught, and the fun we have had with them. May we cherish these gifts among us today.

We pray that today the fathers, husbands, and men of this church would know your love in a new way, be able to trust that love, and live that out.

Give us your Spirit, for we know you are faithful.

Amen.

That They May Be One: The Trinity for Our Time

There are many great passages that I could use to talk about the Trinity. One of the challenges, however, if anyone has endured a sermon on the Trinity and thought, “the fact that God is like a cloverleaf really isn’t all that reassuring to me,” is that the Trinity is hard to explain with just one passage. The Trinity, as I will say again in this sermon, is not so much a doctrine of Christianity; it is the very structure that all doctrines cohere in. For all intents and purposes today, that is like saying, you know how some people say you don’t see the forest through the trees? Well, with the Trinity, it’s more like we see this vast forest, and now, we have to explain that majestic, complicated forest with just one tree. That’s hard.

Yet, if I had to choose one passage to explain the Trinity, it would be this. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is at the last supper, and he prays for his disciples: Jesus, who is God himself, as John says, the Word of God made flesh, the logic of God’s being dwelling among us personally and fully, this person Jesus is praying to God the Father. Listen to what Jesus says to the Father and what he prayers for his disciples.

17 When Jesus finished saying these things, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, so that the Son can glorify you. You gave him authority over everyone so that he could give eternal life to everyone you gave him. This is eternal life: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you sent. I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do. Now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I shared with you before the world was created. “I have revealed your name to the people you gave me from this world. They were yours and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. This is because I gave them the words that you gave me, and they received them. They truly understood that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. “I’m praying for them. I’m not praying for the world but for those you gave me, because they are yours. 10 Everything that is mine is yours and everything that is yours is mine; I have been glorified in them. 11 I’m no longer in the world, but they are in the world, even as I’m coming to you. Holy Father, watch over them in your name, the name you gave me, that they will be one just as we are one…

 20 “I’m not praying only for them but also for those who believe in me because of their word. 21 I pray they will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. I pray that they also will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 I’ve given them the glory that you gave me so that they can be one just as we are one. 23 I’m in them and you are in me so that they will be made perfectly one. Then the world will know that you sent me and that you have loved them just as you loved me. 24 “Father, I want those you gave me to be with me where I am. Then they can see my glory, which you gave me because you loved me before the creation of the world. (John 17:1-NRSV)

A Longing For Oneness

So, Jesus prays as one who is in the Father and the Father in him, one with God, but more than that; he prays that we would be one, share in this oneness as well. This gets to the heart of what the Trinity is all about. There is a band. You may have heard of it. It’s called U2. Bono from U2 has a song called, “One,” that goes like this:

Is it getting better?
Or do you feel the same?
Will it make it easier on you now?
You got someone to blame

You say, one love, one life
When it’s one need in the night
One love, we get to share it
Leaves you baby if you don’t care for it

Did I disappoint you?
Or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
You act like you never had love
And you want me to go without

Well it’s too late tonight
To drag the past out into the light
We’re one but we’re not the same
We get to carry each other, carry each other

U2 sings a song that speaks to this deep longing of the human heart. We long to affirm that we are one global family of sisters and brothers. We long to be at one with each other. And yet, we are different. And in our differences, we have competed against one another as if the resources of life are a zero-sum game, and in that striving against one another, we have hurt one another. We are not one with each other.

There is a fear that has pointedly inflicted us in this time of the aftermath of the waves of the pandemic. It is this feeling that a time of scarcity is upon us. The pandemic has had a cost in Canada of roughly a billion dollars a day. Last year (this is last year’s, please note), the US estimated the total cost today of somewhere in the ballpark of 16 trillion dollars. People worry: How do we get the economy back up and running? Will it ever get back to what it was before? Will I be able to hold onto what is mine? Will I keep my standard of living? What will happen if I can’t? Behind many political messages is the fear that in a time of scarcity, I am going to lose what is mine, or worse, I will have it taken. And it can be a drive to self-protection and self-preservation against others, whoever that may be, whoever becomes the scapegoat.

Is our freedom and meaning in life only found against others? Is this what it means to be human? Is this the right mentality to have? Worded another way: Is this what we trust about the way the world works and about our future?

I have learned that what we trust, we also worship. The word “worship” comes from the old English word “Worth-ship.” In other words, we worship what we are invested in. Whatever we trust ultimately is what we treat as God to us.

There is a simple fact that whatever we believe God to be, whatever or whoever is divine and ultimate to us, we will act like that God in some way. We become what we worship. And this means that each and every one of us has to ask this, who is God? What is God like? What are God’s character and essence? Do I trust? Because the answer to that question will decide who we are as a church, as a society, how we treat each other, and what our futures will be. So, who is God? Hold that thought for a second.

My son, Asher, is a very curious kid. The other day my son was sitting there at night in his bed. He asks the most random questions. The other day he was drifting off to sleep, then he perked awake and asked me, “Dad, if an earwig goes to your ear, could it get into your brain?” What, how is that the question that popped into your head?

Other times they are more spiritual in nature: “Dad, will we have skin in heaven?” Skin that is what you are worried about? The other day he asked me, “Dad, is Jesus God or is God, God?” To which I could only say, “Well, both…God is a Trinity.” I don’t think he was satisfied with that answer. It was kind of a theologian dad fail moment there.

I think my son’s question is probably pretty common. The Trinity is one of the most difficult and confusing teachings in Christianity. I want to impress upon you that it is also one of the most beautiful and essential. It’s fuzzy but fundamental. 

The word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible (but, then again, the word “Bible” never appears in the Bible, either), and so some groups throughout church history have denied the Trinity. My grad student just wrote a great thesis looking at the movement called Oneness Pentecostalism. Anyways, this does not mean the reality of the Trinity is not there in the Bible. The word ‘Trinity” comes from the early church where St. Tertullian coined the term in the second century to explain that when he read Scripture, he saw God have a “tri-unity” of identity. The word names something that goes on in the Bible; it summarizes it and brings a central truth together for us. This is where Christians, especially we, Protestants, can’t be afraid to recognize that while we don’t consider tradition an authority, we don’t deny that it is good advice, that the great saints of the past do have lessons we can learn to help guide us.

So, the recommendation of 2000 years of Christians reflecting on the Bible would say yes. The Trinity is the best way to read the Bible: that God is one being who has revealed God’s self in three persons, each fully God, one but not the same, that the experience of God in the Bible is the experience of God above, God beside us, and God within us. But how does the Bible teach the Trinity? That is the interesting part. And moreover, it gets to what the Trinity means for us today.

It has something to do with what U2 sang there: this profound longing for oneness, the oneness of all things, different things, different peoples, brought together by love, forgiveness, equality, and solidarity, which is all found in the very heart of who God is.

Dorothy Sayers, the great Catholic thinker, once joked that she felt growing up that the Trinity was something theologians thought up one day to make life difficult for the rest of us. Some of my students might be tempted to agree with her. Ya, caught me, Sayers! Just kidding. But Dorothy Sayers also has a great line that helps provide a solution: One reason why I think the Trinity is so confusing and abstract and ultimately feels irrelevant (the theological equivalent of the appendix: it’s there, but we don’t know what it does), is because we forget that the Trinity flows from the experience of God in the narrative of Scripture. Sayers says if you want to understand the doctrine, you need to look at the great drama of Scripture. The drama is the doctrine.  

The Drama is the Doctrine

As I said before, one reason why the Trinity is hard to teach is because you have to look at the entire Bible to see the big picture. Obviously, we can’t do that because I suppose you want to get out of here before supper time. So, let me do a few snapshots of the story where hints of God’s character show up.

Snapshot One: You need to look at the beginning in Genesis 1 and see a God who makes this world out of nothing, out of the sheer charity of God’s being. And God makes through God’s eternal word, and it says, God’s breath of life hovers over the depths, bring form out of the formlessness. Here God is this creativity that brings all things into being through an eternal logic of generosity, God’s word, and life itself is animated by the wind of God’s breath resuscitating, refreshing, and restoring. God creates, but he creates with. God creates with breath and word.

Snapshot Two: The narrative continues to Genesis 2. God makes humanity in God’s image, male and female, collectively. God is imaged through relationship. In Genesis chapter two, the story reads how God made the woman from the rib of the first man, and the man, who realizes he is alone and empty by himself, sees this companion and realizes he sees himself in her; he can’t be himself without her: bone of my bone flesh of my flesh, he rejoices. That is a profound statement, a subversive statement, for a time when women were treated as property.

This coming together in love of individuals who are different yet in love become one flesh–one but not the same–shows that already from the very first chapters of the Bible, we see God revealing God’s very self as creator by word and spirit, who are in a oneness, the very essence of which is love and relationship, and God makes us to share in this, to reflect it and to embody it.

Snapshot Three: Eventually, after being ransomed out of Egypt into the promised land, the people want to be governed by a king, and so God concedes and allows Saul and David and Solomon to be kings. However, as time goes on, we see the lines of kings fail. No human king can set right all that has gone wrong, and the people plummet into injustice and self-destructive corruption. But God is this liberating love, promises that one day a new king will come, a perfect king. But in the prophecies that long for this perfect king, there is a kind of hint here: No human king can be perfect. Only God is the perfect king. And so, these prophecies suggest that this messiah, this true king, will bear the presence of God. So, God promises a king that will be the presence of God himself. We read Isaiah 9 in the season of Advent: It says they will call him, “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” God up above promises to be God beside us.

Snapshot Four: As the story shows, Israel has a hard time keeping God’s law. Israel constantly falls away. And each time, there is this force, this imminent presence that comes and helps. This force empowers the judges to act formidably to protect God’s people, endowing them with wisdom and strength. It is like this breath from the original creation that breathed life into everything is resuscitating and re-invigorating God’s people with new life. This breath comes upon prophets to speak God’s word, his pronouncement. The prophet Jeremiah talked about the fire moving within him. So, the Judges and the Prophets sense this breath of God coming in them, moving them, empowering them to do God’s will. This breath is this mysterious agency that allows us to live out the word, the commandments, in the way they ought to be.

As God sees our hearts constantly captive to sin and evil and idolatry, God promises a gift of himself, the Spirit that sustains life will be poured out on human hearts and flesh to renew us from the inside out, bringing to fruition the fullness of life. So, God, who is word and Spirit, God who is relationship, this God above promises not only to come and be God beside us but also God within us.

The Centre Picture: This all sets us up the text we read earlier: Jesus appears on the scene as the Messiah, God Immanuel: God with us, the word from the beginning made flesh.

And Jesus keeps reminding the people that he is at one with the God they worship, who they pray to as the Father. Jesus is the Son that when you look at Jesus, the man who heals the sick, the one who commands love, the one who loves his enemies even to the point of dying for them on the cross, this is who God is. Love itself with us. And Jesus promises to bring us into this love by imparting his Spirit.

And so, he prays here in John 17 that this oneness that the Son has with the Father in their very being, the Son in the Father and the Father in the Son, perfectly equal yet different, perfect love within themselves and perfect love for all–this Jesus prays that all people will experience and participate in, begin with us. The Trinity is this longing to have God above come and be God beside us as well as God within us bringing us into the oneness of God’s love. The Trinity is this movement of love that wants to bring all things, everyone into the loves of God.

How Can God Be Three Yet One?

Now, I have to pause and ask: How can God be above, beside, and within? How can God be the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit without being three Gods? How can God be one being and yet have these relations within him?

Theologians have tried to solve this question for two thousand years, trying to get all the right terminology or the right analogies: God is one being three persons, God is like an egg or water or a cloverleaf. The problem with these pursuits is simply this: God is not like anything in this world. When Moses says, what do I call you?” to God in the book of Exodus, God simply answers, “I am who I Am.” God simply is.

Saint Augustine once said that the God that I can comprehend would not be my God. So, if you find that you have a hard time understanding the Trinity, you find it confusing and hard to wrap your head around, don’t feel bad. I think it is actually a very good thing. If we ask ourselves how God can be three persons in one being, we are simply left with this fumbling: I don’t know; he just is. I don’t know about you, but I find it comforting that there is nothing in the world like God.

We will not be able to understand what God is. However, when we ask, “What is God showing us when he reveals himself as the Trinity?” Here we get a different answer: this God who is ineffable, infinite, incompressible, this God loves us. This God is for us, not against us, and God is showing us that God is love with his very being, and we are invited in.

The Trinity Means God is Love

I did not understand the value of the Trinity until when I was pastoring. I had the privilege of meeting on a weekly basis for coffee with a woman who struggled with addiction.

Often she would describe times when she was failing at managing her addiction, and these were dark times. I would ask her: “Where do you think God was?” Her answer was clear: “God was not near me. H wants nothing to do with me in those moments.” And I would ask, “What makes you think that God was not with you? Who do you think God is?”

“Well, God is holy and just, and he is, I think, full of anger at me because of all the bad choices I have made. God was nowhere near me.”

Her image of God was one where God was not fundamentally love, and so, God was far away because God was primarily something more like a distant parent figure that was always disappointed with her. I wonder where she got that idea.

So, I asked her: “When you look at the cross, Jesus in the place of sinners, where is God there?” She answers, “God is up able, looking away.” I suspect she learned this from that song we always sing on Good Friday, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us,” which is a beautiful song, but it has a line in it that says about Jesus at the cross that “the Father turns his face away.” Nowhere in the Gospels does it say that. The Gospels are saying something much more profound: When we look at this man, crying out forsaken, bearing the weight of sin, we are staring at the face, the very heart, of God revealed.

If Jesus and God the Father are one, and Jesus at the cross is at one with sinners, you are seeing the truth that God is with us sinners. God was there in our worst moments.

To see the cross with the help of the Trinity is to know that the same love the Father has for the Son, God has for all sinners through Christ dying in our place.

The Triune God came in Jesus to say that I love you with my very self. What happens to you happens to me. We are in it together. That is my choice. However, what happened to me also will happen to you. Whatever darkness your life is stuck in, whatever darkness you have chosen. God is there with you. God has bound God’s very self to our fate to say, “I will never leave you or forsake you, for I cannot forsake myself.” And so, in those dark moments, God brings love and life and light, shining in the darkness of hate and shame and hurt and blame, and John says, “the darkness could not overcome it.” The same love that made and moves the sun, moon and stars, the eternal loves of Father, Son, and Spirit, invaded the corpse of crucifixion with Easter’s hope of new life. This is the hope we are invited into. This is the oneness that God longs for everyone one of us. May they be one as we are one.

The Trinity Means We Were Meant for Love

The Trinity is not just an abstract doctrine; it is a revolutionary truth of how to be human. We were meant for love.

Desmond Tutu, who passed away at the end of last year, was the Anglican Archbishop in South Africa, who opposed the apartheid, enduring threats and violence, terrible racism, bringing a message of forgiveness and reconciliation, receiving a Nobel peace prize for his work on the commission for truth and reconciliation. In his message, he preached the Gospel of God’s love for all, victim and perpetrator, justice and restoration. He used an African proverb to drive this home: Ubuntu.

What is Ubuntu? It is an African saying that people are people through other people. That is essentially what the Trinity is, only perfectly.

Ubuntu. In other words, we are all essentially connected. We cannot succeed ourselves without helping others succeed. If I diminish your dignity and humanity, I will have diminished myself. People are people through other people, reflecting a glimmer of how God is God through Father, Son, and Spirit.

There is a myth we have as westerners of the self-made person. This myth has gotten us in a lot of trouble. We believe as modern western individuals that our autonomy is so fundamental, moral obligations are burdensome, relationships are seen as an affront to our identity, and community is seen as repressive to self-expression and mobility. There is a saying that goes like this: “No person is an island.” Well, I think our assumption as modern people is that we are islands.

But this is where Desmond Tutu’s saying helps us understand the mystery of the Trinity that we are invited into. God is free and equal between Father, Son, and Spirit, through a relationship of perfect, mutual, self-giving, other-empowering love. It is through love that we are free. It is through love that we truly are ourselves.

That is a better account of how we came to be who we are as individuals and what we are as a society. Before we could walk or talk or even feed ourselves, we were nourished by the love of our parents, born into a society we did not choose but greeted our existence with order and stability, basic things we needed to flourish. These relationships, this connectedness, makes us who we are. As I think about it, as a Father and Husband, these roles define who I am. They do not monopolize who I am, but to say that I am less free because of these commitments and obligations, misses what Ubuntu is saying. True love ought not to be co-dependent. It sets boundaries and loves with tough love some days, and it is a love that is not afraid, to be honest. With that in mind, these relationships are freedom in a deeper sense: the relationships of our lives that liberate us into goodness, the freedom of love.

This is what God wants for all society. God wants us to realize that we are never going to succeed as a society if all we ever do is obsess about me and what is mine. We are never going to get through all this unless we learn how interconnected we all are.

What would the world look like if we took to heart these truths? The scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said that society was revolutionized when human beings harnessed the power of fire all those millennia ago: to cook meat, warn homes, sterilize water, see at night, refine and craft metal, to power engines. Civilization was made possible by harnessing the power of fire.

However, he says, the next age of humanity, the next revolution of human social potential–which we may be living on the cusp of–will only be possible when we trust the truth of love. If we accept the true potential of love, the power that is God’s very presence and being, if we are open to living that love out, allow it to permeate all levels of our society and self, he wagers the world we could build with that will make our world today look like the stone age.

That sounds very ambitious, but it begins with simple tasks. It starts with us, the church, the family of God. Mother Teresa once said, “I never tire of saying God loves you,” because she knew that in it, even the smallest act has the power to heal our broken world.

Do we trust this love today? Can we commit ourselves to sharing this love with others today?

“What Do You Want to Be Known For?” My Final Sermon at First Baptist Church of Sudbury

first-baptist-church-sudbury-ontario

What do you want to be known for?

Interestingly you can take courses online on how to be known for things. They are called personal branding courses. They are marketed to business people, and the theory is just as a company should be known for a motto and a certain style, so you should be too. The course essentially gets people to think in simple terms:

Because I am x, I am known for doing y.  Or Since I do y, I am x. Answer that yourself. Think about it.

What do you want to be known for? What does First Baptist want to be known for? It is something I have thought about this week.

A few people have asked me, “Now that it is your last sermon, you get to say whatever you want, because you are leaving.” Like I can now air out a list of grievances that I have kept to myself for five years, like this is Seinfeld’s Festivus: “I got a lot of problems with you people and now you’re gonna hear about it.” [Spoken in Jerry Stiller’s voice, of course].

I have to admit, I really don’t have grievances or axes to grind or anything of that sort.

As I looked through the scriptures, I came to 1 Cor. 2, which actually had Paul reporting to the Corinthians what he resolved to do and be when he was with them, and therefore, I think, what he wanted to be known for.

I think it is the right answer. It is the answer that we should all strive for. He writes:

“I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” – 1 Cor. 2:2

I have resolved to know nothing, except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Paul wants above all else to be known for the Gospel. I do not want my last sermon to be about me (although I will tell a story or two). As I planned out my final sermon, I have resolved to center it on the most important thing I can be about and First Baptist can be about: who Jesus is, the Gospel.

The Gospel is our salvation, our purpose, our unity, our joy and hope.

1. The Gospel is Our Salvation

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4: 7-10)

“Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David—that is my gospel,” (2 Tim. 2:8)

I admit, 1 John 4 is probably my favourite chapter in the Bible. I had to mention it on my last sermon! God is love because God was found in the person and work of Jesus. That is our Gospel.

Our Gospel is that God is love. God is our creator. He made the world out of his generosity.  He has made every human being in his image and likeness, as his children even though we, as prodigal sons and daughters, have failed to realize him as our Father.

We worship a God that made us, loves us, and will not see any of his creation be lost. We do not worship a God that only loves some of his creation or only seeks to save some of his creation, but a God the loves perfectly without limitation.

We know God is love because God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an eternal community of love in one being. Before the world began, before creation and sin, God is love.

God came in Jesus Christ, in human form, in sinful flesh, to show the loving solidarity of God with all sinful humanity, and the restoration of God’s people in him.

God in Jesus Christ died on a cross, died a cursed death, the death of a sinner for all sinners, to show us sinners, he has died our death. It is the mystery of our faith that constantly baffles me: God in Christ loved us more than his very bodily self. God is that kind of self-less love.

God our Father raised Jesus from the dead to show a love that is victorious and powerful. As Jesus has taken on our flesh, now in Jesus, we all have the hope that the very worst of this world, the very things that have stolen us away from his love – these things do not have the final say.

As my friend, Brad Jersak was saying this week, “God is love. God is not love but also just or holy or wrathful. God is love period.”

God’s love is holy because it is pure. God is infinite because his love is immeasurable. God’s love is powerful because it is unfailing. God’s love is just because he is in equal measure merciful. God’s love is capable of anger because God’s love passionately cries out to a world gone astray, hoping that we would change and come back to him.

We understand all of God through Jesus. We understand all of God through Jesus’ cross. If there is an idea of God that contradicts the display of a God who would willing give up his very life for us because of his great love for us, we simply have departed from the God of the Gospel.

God’s love is not simple or sentimental, it is complex and mysterious, surprising even uncomfortable, but it always comes back to love. It is always understood through love.

If we can define God in any way other than love, as I have found, we will inevitably find ourselves without a Gospel that offers salvation to us sinners.

We stand on the Gospel that God is love. If God is not a God of consistently personal, perfect, and powerful love, we simply do not have a Gospel. Period.

One pastor told me that preaching is the fine art of being a broken record. If I have been a broken record these past five years, I have also learned that this truth is so counter-intuitive to our limited, sin-soaked minds, that we have to constantly remember it, re-hear it, re-tell it, and re-live it.

Otherwise we simply forget it. Never forget this, First Baptist Church.

2. The Gospel is Our Purpose

“To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:21).

The Apostle Paul writes this to the Philippians saying life for him is serving Jesus, walking with Jesus, being willing to die for Jesus, death being nothing in comparison to having Jesus.

When you know what you are about, you have purpose, nothing else matters.

Funny story: I know a person that put that as their high school year book blurb, and the school called the police because they were worried he was suicidal.

We ended up going to college together. He is now a pastor in BC. He is not suicidal, he just believes in something this world does not understand. Although he probably has gone a little nuts since he has a big batch of kids like I do. As long as I have known him, he has lived with purpose.

When we rest in Jesus Christ, when we draw close to him, when we resolve to know nothing but his Gospel, we are captivated by the beauty of what he is, and we want to live that love out to others. That is our purpose: We live to see what the Gospel can do in us and others. That is what gets me up in the morning (other than screaming babies).

Sharing the Gospel can take on implicit and explicit ways. I have gotten to share the Gospel on Sunday mornings, at weddings, at funerals, in times of blessing and in times of tragedy. I have gotten to share the Gospel over coffee and over board games, on the street and in my office. I am always surprised at when people say they are reluctant to share their faith since they are worried about a negative reaction. When we set out to live and speak good news for others, saying and doing something good to them and for them – without an agenda of trying to force them to become a Christian or come to our church or believe this or that, but simply being there for them, to listen, to give hope, and share ourselves, my experience has been overwhelming positive.

Yes, a lot say no thanks. A lot say they want to but there is no follow through. It does require patience.

I think of our McCourt meals and taking people to the food bank on Tuesdays. This simple an act of service and fellowship has openned doors for me to sit and pray with dozens of people, many of whom as shut ins are too sick to come to church, but are precisely the kind of people that God has a special heart for. Or others are people that face terrible mental illness. Many times I have gotten the privilege to be an ambassador of Christ to be the first person that sees them as a person of value and worth, and when they ask, “why do you do this for people?” I get to tell them why.

Sometimes sharing the Gospel is quite explicit and decisive, other times it is a simple act of kindness or service.

Or it can be planting a community garden to promote community and food healthy food in our community. That lead to Alexander Kuthy to start coming here. Remember Alex? He sadly passed away a little while ago, but he shared his testimony with us. An irreligious man that hated the church growing up because a priest tried to sexually assault him. He lived most of his life completely unconcerned with God until he had an accident and he said, “All of a sudden I was aware that I needed God.” Alex would stroll into my office and chat with me. In five years, I can probably count on my one hand how many appointments I had at my office that were actually booked in advance. That’s just fine, my life is far more interesting for it. Alex lived with a new purpose. You saw that in him. He said he lived all his life for himself, now he was making up time living for God. He believed in devoting his life to “spreading peace” as he said it often.

I hope everyone goes home, reads some scripture, meditates, and prays upon it, and asked themselves, “What is my purpose? Is my purpose living the Gospel, completely without reservation? Is my reason for being alive walking in God’s love, worshiping in God’s love, showing others God’s love?”

If it is and the person next to you agrees, that is the church, brothers and sisters. That is what we are doing here together.

3. The Gospel is Our Unity

“If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9)

It is such a simple phrase. Jesus is lord, and salvation is in trusting that work of the resurrection. Jesus is our unity. We so often make it Jesus plus a hold lot of other stuff, or Jesus can only mean the way I relate to Jesus.

I have spoken before that I was raised with a very fundamentalist faith. My grandfather was a fundamentalist Baptist pastor, and that is what formed me growing up. Fundamentalism is a lot of things. While many come by it sincerely, as I did, at its very worst, it is an arrogance that all my thoughts and interpretations are the right and infallible ones. It is often obsessed with control and certainty and simple pat answers; that affective sense of certainty in essence shields the reality that since most fundamentalists do not believe God loves all people perfectly, there is a deep sense that God might actually not love them either, unless they do and think a certain way. It is also oddly then obsessed with very specific and convoluted doctrines, whether about creation, the Bible, the atonement, how Jesus will return, you name it, and perfectionist behavior, usually obsessed with sexuality above any other sin. Each doctrine or behavior is then turned into a litmus test of who is truly a Christian and who is not, disregarding the historic creeds of our faith and that our communities must embody grace. It also sees everyone who believes differently and acts differently as dumb, delusional, or dangerous.

I know this not because I look down on fundamentalists, but because I used to think that way. I really did not know any other way to be honest.

I have learned the simple biblical truth that, as James McClendon has put it, “Fundamentalism just isn’t fundamental enough.”

When I came to First Baptist, I did see something different. First Baptist, like many other historic First Baptist Churches in North America, has a long history, enduring all the movements over the last century. Some of our members have been in this church for over 50 years. It has learned to endure diversity. Many of the First Baptist Church family when I came had lived together as a community for so many years they just resolved to keep being a family together, no matter what.

Being committed to being historically Baptist we have upheld the liberty of the conscience of members of this church to interpret the Bible for ourselves in community as our denomination on the whole upholds that our churches are autonomous yet partner together for the Gospel.

For the last five years I have marveled at just how diverse First Baptist is, the different faith backgrounds and experiences, the different doctrines and ideas of faith and how they have functioned in people’s lives, and the sincere commitments to keep learning the Bible together.

That is rare. It is difficult to live out, but it is refreshing in this divided world we live in.

It has been oddly refreshing to lead a Bible study hearing all these perspectives come out, and sometimes quite heatedly, but then have a recognition that we are all sincerely trying to follow Jesus together, and he is our unity.

First Baptist is a diverse place, we all don’t think the same, and we have to reckon with all our diverse backgrounds and experiences and ideas, whether on theology, politics, or on what color the carpet should be.

But if Jesus is our unity, we are bound by blood as family.

As we do this within our walls, we have a vital witness outside our walls. The Gospel has been our unity with all the other churches here in Garson and Coniston. I don’t think you realize the high regard we are held in by the other churches. And it has been an honor working with so many excellent pastors and priests.

One of the most powerful moments in my years here was when we gathered for worship with St. John’s, Trinity United, and the Anglican churches.

I remember the second ecumenical service I participated in here, we went to St. John’s. That year the liturgy called for each person to pair off with a person from another church, and come to a font of water, dip your fingers in it and make the sign of the cross over the other person’s head, asking forgiveness for the sins we have done against each other.

I have never seen the Spirit move so powerfully. People broke down crying in repentance and hugged right there.

That moment was not of ourselves. That was the Spirit moving as we, Christians from very diverse traditions, simply came together to worship Jesus.

The Gospel, the simple Gospel, is our unity. Nothing else should be or can be.

4. The Gospel is Our Hope

“But Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.” (Heb. 3:6)

When you are able to be there and see our God working. It is the best thing in the world.

While pastoring can be quite difficult, it is propelled along by the conviction that God never gives up hope on people and neither do we.

One more story: Some of you remember Jered. He does not live around here anymore. A troubled young man, who had been in and out of prison, with so much chaos in him you could immediately tell just from hearing him talk.

The chaos and pain with him was so bad, he once told me he resolved to stop believing in anything because his mind was so unreliable he just had had enough. If you can imagine living like that and being at that point?

I remember coming home that day shook-up by his words. “How can the Gospel reach someone that unstable?” I thought. How can our Gospel mean anything if it can’t bring hope to someone like him?

A few days later, I remember seeing him at the residence.  He came up to me: “Spencer, I had a really difficult night. I was in a really dark place…Then he showed up.”

“Who?” I asked. Jered just pointed upwards. “He did. I can’t be an atheist anymore,” he said. God showed up for him in a time of need, far beyond what I or anyone is capable of. In that dark moment God appeared and told him he had worth and that he was loved and that there was hope.

That is the hope of our faith. God does not give up on people. He has not given up on me; he has not given up hope on you; therefore he will not give up hope on anyone. He simply will not give up on this broken world.

Because of this – this good news – we live with purpose, with unity, with joy and hope.

Let us pray…

Benediction:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

The Shack (Part Three): The Scandal of Evangelical Orthodoxy

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So, if you have been tracking with this review, I began by summarizing the story of The Shack and remarking how I simply do not see a lot that people should be upset about. It is robustly trinitarian, Christ-oriented, a free-will theology with forgiveness at the centre. It is a narrative written by a man who obviously does love Jesus, and has an amazing testimony of working to understand that through pain and suffering and brokenness.

In my second part, I noted that The Shack has gotten a lot of bad criticism. I think a lot of this comes from a mentality similar to the fundamentalist one I had, so I offered bits of autobiographical information where I noted the irony that much of what I thought was “conservative” in my more narrow tradition of upbringing, ironically, when I started reading broader in the tradition, was found to be unorthodox. Here we will explore some of the objections to The Shack to point that out.

Here we go… Allow me to put on my theologian hat, since technical objections warrant technical responses.

God as a mother: God appears as a woman named Papa. Some people lost their minds about this. However, the Bible does use motherly imagery, which I argue at length here. And it is important to note that if a mother’s love and femininity are good, they can and should be used to communicate God’s love and goodness. The same God is a shepherd, a warrior, a rock, and a fire. To refuse to use these metaphors undermines the goodness of women and replaces God’s love with patriarchy. Notably, there have been accepted teachers of the church, like St. Julian of Norwich, a gifted mystic, who records theological vision of God as mother in her Revelations of Divine Love.  In The Shack, God appears as a woman, but that is because God appears to Mack, who had an abusive father, with the love that he already understood. By the end of the book, after Mack forgives his father, Papa appears as a father as well.

Non-hierarchical nature of the trinity: Some got upset at the idea that the trinity in The Shack is submissive to each other, Father to Son, Son to Spirit, etc. While Scripture does have the Father directing the Son, who in turn responds obediently, that is just one contour. Jesus is the Word of the Father, such that when you look at Jesus, you see the Father. Their identities converge. The Son has no authority but the Father’s, but the Father has no Word but the Son. John 17, one of the most clear passages of trinitarian relations in the New Testament, has Jesus saying that the Father is in him and he is in the Father. They glorify each other. It is reciprocal and reflexive, not one-sided. It is language of mutual possession similar to Song of Songs, “I am my beloved and he is mine,” or the mutual ownership of 1 Cor. 7:4.  St. John of Damascus noted that the persons of the trinity are not individuals, but are persons through each other, thus an inherent mutually and equality is implied. Augustine and Athanasius both insisted what the one member of the trinity has and does, they all do together. This is enshrined in the Athanasian Creed. To depict mutual submission in the trinity, I think, is getting at the unity and mutuality of the trinity that the greatest trinitarian thinkers have affirmed.

Constructing a hierarchy between Father and Son is quite dangerous.  It is often used to legitimate hierarchy between men and women, which is easily abused. Often, those that support this hierarchy also deny that there are women leaders in the Bible. It is very problematic when it comes to the cross as we will see, but it falls into a kind of sub-ordinationism. If God is God because he is sovereign and has authority, if you define God that way, then the Father has sovereignty and authority over the Son, effectively making him more “God” than the Son, which is why St. Athanasius resisted that so heavily. Does not the submission of Christ in his love, the tenderness of Christ on the cross show God as well? There is nothing the Father has that the Son does not. This also makes the death of Jesus, his weakness of the cross, a scandal to God. That is obviously a problem…

Not penal substitutionary atonement?: As I said, the unity of God in the trinity is very important. It is especially so for the view of the cross. Young wisely depicted the Father as having the marks of the nails. He is reminding us, perhaps unwittingly, of Augustine’s dictum: what one member does, they do together. Obviously not all of God died, or else there would be no resurrection, but the cross was a trinitarian act. The cross shows the entire character of God. If Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God, there is no God that can be known apart from the cross. Father, Spirit, and Son are cruciform love.

Young seems critical of what is called penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). Now, all Christians hold that the death of Jesus saves us from our sins, but there are many particular theories about how this happens. PSA is complex parsing of the atonement that emerged in the theology of the reformers like John Calvin. At its most basic, it holds that God had to kill a substitute, namely Jesus, in order to atone for sin. It is largely absent in the early church because they used other readings, notably a kind of ransom view. So, historically, there is more than one way to read the work of the cross.

Personally, I resist using language of PSA, not because there aren’t any passages that suggest aspects of it (like Gal. 3:13), but because the cross is understood by several metaphors and strands of logic, each valid: obedience, military , sacrifice, priestly, legal, ransom, economic, kinsman redeemer, etc. They are distinct but overlap, and offering one grand theory often sloppily forces the proverbial circle into the square hole. There is substitution imagery and sacrifice imagery that has nothing to do with punishment. In the OT, it is not commonly understood that the animal sacrifice (or grain for that matter!) is being punished in the person’s stead. If Genesis 22 has anything to say, it speaks more about God already in his mercy providing than God in his wrath needing something to punish. The sacrifice was not for God, but for human conscience (Heb. 9), cleansing guilt. Shedding of blood has everything to do with sealing an new covenant and cleansing, not necessarily punishing something. In Mark 2, Jesus is able to forgive sin by mere pronouncement, no sacrifice necessary, so the logic of crucifixion rests elsewhere.

I find there are a number of scriptural themes that PSA does not incorporate well. No one ever talks about how Jesus lifted up is a means of healing like the bronze serpent (John 3:14). It becomes extraneous. The fact that the cross discloses Jesus as the King of the Jews (God’s messianic identity), the Son of Man and Son of God, the true Prophet and Priest, all in event of the New Exodus, New Passover, the day of the in-breaking kingdom (Daniel 7), all that is shoved off as the husk to be peeled back to get to PSA. If it is skin and not backbone, why are these themes the very substance of the narrative in the four Gospels? The New Testament does not think in “theories.” It thinks in rich figures.

The Gospel of Mark fundamentally understands the cross as something Jesus’ disciples must do as well, which I find PSA often undermines (the cross is something only Jesus as sinless does). In Mark, Jesus is not propitiating God; he is giving a ransom to the dark powers, redeeming people from demonic slavery (Mark 10:45). And if the punishment of sin is merely death, there is no reason why Jesus had to die on a cross or be tortured. He could have died at home in his bed. Jesus is living out his teaching of becoming last for his disciples to follow, forgiving when sinned against in the most ultimate way, against the demonic forces of betrayal (the people/disciples), religious hypocrisy (the temple), and empire (Rome).  It showed that God’s character and our character is not one where we inflict eye-for-eye, but turns the other cheek and blesses our enemies (this is central to Peter’s atonement theology in 1 Peter 2:20-25). This kind of love is the in breaking of the kingdom of heaven itself. Many conservatives miss that for the New Testament and the early church, unanimously, the cross was teaching Christians non-violence as the primary response to evil (see Ron Sider’s book).

Perhaps that is too complex for some. Let’s just stick with one reading. Young, I think, helps those that hold to a PSA word the doctrine more carefully (for an excellent modern statement of PSA, people should read Pannenberg’s in his Systematic Theology). Pop PSA too often makes God the problem, and no one should be happy about that. The cross came to heal us, not fix God’s wrath. The cross is not Jesus in his love saving us from the wrath of God the Father. Jesus is providing a way that we are not punished ultimately, yes, but it is not Jesus saving us from the Father. This severs God’s being. All of God is loving, including the Father, and all of God can be wrathful, including Jesus.

The Father did not abandon Jesus on the cross. This misunderstands Psalm 22, which is not about a sinner but about the persecuted righteous, the messiah, crying out to God for vindication (which the resurrection answers).  This was  important to the martyrs of the early church. The cross is the call to martyrdom (this is why Stephen’s stoning in Acts mirrors Jesus’ crucifixion in Acts), and the martyrs will enter eternal life. The Cross is Jesus’ way, God’s way, and also our way. It is the way to heaven.

God was fully present in Jesus at the cross. God was at one with sinners as the Son is showing the cross-shaped love of the Father for sinners. God in his love, one with Jesus, bore the penalty of the law, which was not functioning according to God’s will for it (so says Galatians – it was hijacked to only create condemnation, not grace). This tangibly shows that our sins were forgiven, that God loves sinners, and Jesus rose from the grace on the third day to show that the curse of death had been beaten. This is why the gospel has everything to do with the resurrection in Acts 13.  So, here Young I think invites us all to word our doctrines of atonement better.

Religious inclusivism: The Jesus character in The Shack references how he is using all systems of religion and thought to being people to the Father. Some accused Young of pluralism. I think this is simple missional contextualization. God meets us where we are at, using the concepts we are used to. Think Don Richardson’s Peace Child.

If it is not that, I would insist, that some kind of religious inclusivism (that God’s mercy does extend beyond the bounds of the church) is completely acceptable. I would point out that religious inclusivism is implied in Acts 17, where Paul insists the Athenians are actually worshiping God already as the “unknown god” on one of their altars. Paul then invites them to put away idols and see God more clearly in Christ.  He even quotes a pagan poet as evidence of this truth, that all people are God’s children. The Bible has an intuitive awareness that there are those that are outside the covenantal relationship with God that do in fact get it and do in some way participate in the kingdom of God, whether Melchizedek in the OT or the centurion in the NT. This does not undermine the missionary call of the church to make Christ fully known. While Christ is the only way,  St. Justin Martyr, a second century apologist, held that if the Logos is eternal, ever-present, he is using all things everywhere to bring people into knowledge of himself.  If they do not hear of Jesus explicitly, it makes sense that God, in his mercy,  would judge them according to the amount of his truth they were told and accepted. There are, of course, difficulties with this view, but no more than the assertion that those who have never heard the Gospel will perish without any chance of believing. Call it liberalism if you want, but at the end of the day, inclusivism is the oldest view of the church, espoused by a man, one of the first public defenders of the faith, who also gave his life for the faith.

God as universal father: Central to Young’s theodicy is that God is a loving father to all people, trying to bring even Missy’s murderer to repentance. There are some that deny this truth despite it being explicit in Acts 17. Clearly they have never read Athanasius, On the Incarnation, who sees God universal fatherly love as part and parcel with the incarnation.  I would argue this truth is the bedrock of Old Testament ethics and central to the Gospel as Paul sees it in Acts 17. I have argued for it at length here.

Universalism: The final objection I saw is that The Shack is universalist. This is true, not going to deny that. Young is a universalist, but I would point out that there are forms of universalism that are considered historically orthodox. Only one form was condemned at the Council of Constantinople. It was highly speculative and relativistic: “God will save everyone, so who cares!” There are noteworthy universalists that were upheld as orthodox like Gregory of Nyssa or Julian of Norwich. Norwich held to a hope that “All will be well.” It was a universalism of mere prayerful hope, which i think most of us do have, particularly at funerals where someone died under tragic circumstances. At the end of the day, we are all in God’s merciful hands, and we pray that the mercy we were shown as  sinners will be the same shown to everyone else.

Nyssa is a more important case. Many western believers do not know him, but he was the most important bishop and defender of orthodoxy of his day; the “Flower of Orthodoxy” was his title. He confidently thought that universal salvation was the only logical possibility of God’s total victory over sin. He was not corrected because he was robustly biblical in his views and his doctrine lead him deeper into prayer, mission, and obedience to Christ. If we know a tree by its fruit, this  sounds like what good doctrine should do! You might insist that there are passages in the Bible that speak about eternal punishment (he would insist that too), but what cannot be argued against is that Nyssa’s arguments were read and accepted by the community of the faithful. Their decision might be fallbile, of course, but the fact of their decision makes the interpretation plausible, the acceptable range of Christian faith. So entrusted was his judgment that he was a final editor the Nicene Creed (which notably says Christ will “judge the quick and the dead,” it does not say how!). Historical facts are historical facts. If orthodoxy is the historic bounds of what the creeds mean for acceptable reading of Scripture, there are versions of universalism that are and have been accepted.

Now, perhaps you do not agree with these readings, that is fine, Augustine would have probably hated Nyssa, but at the end of the day, both were accepted. That is the bounds of orthodoxy. Those that hold at the possibility that all may be saved and those that hold to the possibility of eternal punishment are both in those bounds. I would argue that both need each other to counter their extremes. We can never take God for granted, and we can never give up hope on sinners.

This is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy: it has forgotten so much of this history and reflection on Scripture. It has forgotten the breath and beauty of what the saints have to teach us.

Sometimes the people pointing the fingers have three fingers pointing right back at them.

For sake of argument, take a hardline Calvinist like John Piper. Now I think this guy has character in spades, and I do think he is a legitimate Christian, a great preacher and teacher, but if we are going to play the heresy hunting game with historic orthodoxy, I often get confused at the free passes Calvinists give themselves.

Piper, like most Calvinists, is an overt double-predestinationist, the idea that God elects some to be saved and others not, without any choice in the matter.. While a type of universalism was condemned (and many may accuse me of splitting hairs when I say only one form was condemned), so also was a form of double-predestinationism.  Double predestination was seen as undermining freewill and God’s love, something that all the fathers saw as the supreme characteristic of God. Augustine’s radical follower, Gottschalk, was condemned at a local council for holding this, whose decision was treated as universally acceptable. Calvin was highly influenced by this form of radical Augustinianism. Yet, Calvinists really don’t want to talk about this.

Piper has gone on to insist that since God is fundamentally sovereignty (not love as the church has universally held), God causes evil for his own glory. To me this is a perilous opinion. How is God holy if he causes evil? If God is in Christ and Christ is sinless, I have a hard time thinking God would commit a tragedy humans are bound by the Word of God never to do in order to be holy. Also, I have heard him say that he cannot recite the entire Apostle’s Creed because he does not think Jesus descended into hell. He has reasons for this (a peculiar reading of 1 Peter 3), but the matter rests: he cannot affirm even the most basic statement of Christian orthodoxy, yet all his pals are okay with this.

Why is it okay? Well, the Bible is able to correct what we think is traditionally orthodox, which is what I think he would insist. I would affirm that too, but that means the term “orthodox” can become molded by the wax nose of biblical proof-texts.  In principle anyone who argues something with bible verses against a creedal norm cannot in principle be condemned. Arian had biblical reasons for his theology, so again, the definition of orthodox as a historical descriptor must be maintained, even if modestly. Perhaps Piper is biblical, but not orthodox. Is he comfortable with this? Or perhaps orthodoxy is being applied with an uneven standard.

Perhaps orthodoxy is more than words.

I bring this up to remind the reader that I do think both Young and Piper are legitimate Christians, both of which with their respective imperfections. I am merely using them as foils in the naive hope that one day we might all actually have grace on each other. Perhaps a foretaste of the kingdom of heaven would be to have people of each other’s ilk coming together and just saying, “I get where you are coming from. I do see Christ working in you.”

Perhaps propositional orthodoxy is just one tool to gauge and nourish our relationship with God among others. After all, “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). The second part is perhaps most important and it is in the heart.

Yes, doctrine is important, but remember that Peter confessed Jesus to be the messiah, yet he was then rebuked because the deeper meaning of that for Peter was a notion where it was a scandal that Jesus had to go to the cross. His correct confession did not save him from denying Jesus. Only Jesus’ grace saved him in the end. Words can only go so far. Good doctrine nourishes relationship with Christ and living out Christ, but it cannot replace it. There is no verbal test for having a heart that follows Christ. Only discernment can see if a person has a heart of humility, love, and forgiveness.

I met Paul Young once at a conference. He is a remarkably down to earth and a genuinely, humble guy. He told us that a speaking engagement of his was protested by other Christians. In the heat of the day, some of them were fainting from the heat. So, he brought out some water to them personally. They did not even know who he was, so he struck up a conversation. He revealed his identity to them, and asked, “Is there a single person here that has read my book?” Not a soul. He kindly asked if they would at least do that. He did not have a problem if they disagreed, but he would hope that they at least listened. They shrugged. As he went inside, he heard them go right back to their angry chanting.

I know some people that have great “theology,” but frankly do not have a relationship with Christ. They honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him. I know some people that have the heart of Christ, following him daily, that frankly believe some pretty erroneous stuff. Personally, if pressed, I would take the later over the former. I’d take a Christ-like heart over a person with Christian ideas.

So, here is the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy, (it by no means applies to all evangelicals): a tradition that has often become so narrow and detached from the rest of historic Christianity, members of it anathematize positions that Christianity has long held. The obsession with being correct, its isolating and alienating mode, ironically, can deafen the ear and corrupt the heart, the true source of relationship with Christ and with others.

Don’t like the movie, The Shack? That is fine. It does have its cheesy moments. The book is not fine literature. Young is no Dostoevsky. Condemn it; refuse to read it; refuse to be open to what a fellow believer is trying to show you about Jesus, and frankly, you are missing an opportunity for a movie with a clear depiction of the Gospel to impact people. Your loss and others. But it is worse than that…

When it comes to The Shack, Paul Young might not have all his doctrinal ducks in a row (I wonder who next to God perfectly does), but it should be apparent that he does follow Christ and deserves the decency that implies. So many times Christians shun each other creating fractions in Christ’s body. We bicker while his body bleeds.

If to love a person in part is to listen to them, I know that the close-minded are often the close-hearted. If the summary of the law is love God with your entire being and love your neighbour as yourself, we have a lot of half-Christians.

As Paul tells us, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love” (Gal. 5:6).

Perhaps the scandal of evangelical orthodoxy is also the scandal of evangelical charity, a scandal we are all implicated in.

Martyr’s Mirror: Living the Cross: Dirk Willems

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“For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.” – Phil. 1:21

Like good Protestants, but bad students of church history, we are going to have to jump 1500 years into the future, to the dawn of the Reformation. In this room here, I imagine we have Christians from different denominational backgrounds like Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, Mennonite, Pentecostal, even some Catholics as well. And some of you even know what those words mean! Those words tend to mean less today not just because we don’t know our church history, but also I think because we have a deeper recognition that we are all one in Christ Jesus, despite minor doctrinal differences in how we interpret our Bibles. It was not always so…

The first Baptists, called by their enemies, the “Anabaptists,” were radical Protestants that saw all the wars of religion, killing between Protestants and Catholics, and the concluded that faith has to be free and voluntary. They were committed to non-violence and refused to let the government legislate religious belief one way or another. This is what Baptist call the separation of church and state – more accurately it is the separation of faith from power.

Again, most Christians now affirm this in one way, shape, or form, but back then, the Baptists who preached freedom of religion and conscience, something we take for granted now as our un-revocable right as a citizen. However, back then, they were deemed enemies of the common good by the established churches and their governments, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. And so, authorities hunted the Anabaptists. This was a dark moment in European history, Catholics killing Protestants, vice versa, Protestants killing Protestants. Christians who all believed in the same Jesus, executing other Christians. What were they killing over?

Baptists held to believer baptism, Reformers and Catholics to infant baptism. In hind sight that is a terrible thing to fight over, let alone kill. It was petty. Yet, where state-religions were strong, so also was the need to control people to get them to believe, and so the Anabaptists, who dissented from this, were chased. Their punishment: they were often dragged to bridges and lakes and flung into the water to drown as a kind of ironic punishment for being re-baptized.

One man was arrested by the Dutch authorities for his Baptist convictions. His name was Dirk Willems, and he was imprisoned purely for saying he no longer believed what other Christians of his day believed. He never hurt anyone. The accounts say that he managed to escape the prison, slipping out of an unbarred window. It was winter time, and so, in order to evade his pursuer, he ran arose a frozen lake neighboring to the prison.

The guard chasing him, being a bigger man, fell through the ice. Dirk was home free. But then he stopped. What would Jesus do? His conscience pricked him, and he was moved with compassion on his persecutor. At great risk to himself, he dragged the man out of the icy water, warming him with his own body heat. Dirk carried the man back to the prison, accepting that if he retuned, he would be re-arrested. Sure enough, some prison guards did not care about his very obvious compassion and bravery, let alone the injustice of his charges to begin with, and sent him back to his cell.

For being a Baptist heretic and because he refused to let his own enemy die rather than escaping, Willems was burned at the stake 16 May 1569.

Can you imagine his thoughts? Turning to save the man that would imprison him, knowing that it mean confronting prison and the death penalty?

It seems difficult to imagine, but that is what Jesus did for us. While we were still sinners [still his enemy], Christ died for us.

Father, we pray for Christian unity, as Jesus prayed “May they be one as we are one.” Empower us to end our petty squabbles and focus more on you. Remind us that the only way we will show the world your son is by having the same reconciling love Willems modeled for his own pursuer. You teach us to love our neighbors as our selves and may we love even our enemies the way Christ loved us, counting their lives more important that our own.

Amen

Seven Final Words: Into Your Hands

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“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” Luke 23:46

Jesus at the cross began by praying; here he also ends by praying.

These are often words spoken on people’s deathbeds and at funerals. They are profoundly comforting words. They comfort because they remind us of the sobering but reassuring truth. One day, whether unexpectedly or at the end of a long life, we will die. Our physical lives will end. All that we are, had, and hold on to will cease.

This is sobering because we realize the truth that we cannot save ourselves. We cannot preserve ourselves. We cannot control the very foundation of our lives. Millionaires have died in car accidents and cancer just like the rest of us.

We cannot take this world with us. Celebrities pass away and their fame eventually with them. You can be buried with your money, if that is your will, but that is not you anymore in that casket anymore than that money is useful. What we are and have, ultimately and finally, is not up to us. It is up to whatever or more importantly whoever lies thereafter.

This is why it is reassuring, even liberating. It reminds us that at the end of the day, whoever we are, it is all in God’s hands.

Here, God in Jesus Christ is modeling for us the very essence of faithfulness: trusting God in the last moment of life, at uncertain threshold of eternity.

One way or another our lives are in God’s hands, the question is what will God do with us?

As Jesus said these words, we was dying on a Roman execution cross for the crime of blasphemy, while sinless, he made himself a sacrifice for sin. He gave himself up for us. I would emphasize that he did so, completely. We do not have to fear death because Jesus faced that fear for us.

He had the promise that God is in him and the Father will resurrect him, however Jesus was fully divine and fully human: prone to doubt, prone to uncertainty, prone to anxiety and fear. You can imagine the question is his human, all too human, head: Will my Father be faithful? Will he come through? We have already meditating on his cry feeling forsaken.

So, the comfort of these words must also be kept side by side with the pain of the cross, the willingness of the cross. It is a willingness that seems to admit that Jesus was willing to not only die trusting the Father but also embrace the possibility of the ice-cold silence and darkness of death and hell.

Understanding this fear perhaps explains why he pleaded that this cup may pass, sweating out drops of blood. “But not my will but yours be done,” he prayed. And so again, into your hands, I commend my spirit, as into your hands, all our spirits. It is always in God’s hands, not ours.

Just as he says this, Jesus breathes his last. Jesus dies. The Son of God died. God was found in death. God bound himself to the fate of death. God of infinite joy and life came into the finite space of wretched mortality.

When we think we are sinful and unclean, when we suspect that in our final breath we will disappear in judgment before an exacting God of judgment, we must remember that God died our death penalty. God entered our mortality. God became a rotten corpse, the very object of the consequences of sin, the very object of uncleanliness according to the law. The incarnation was complete, completed in the act of perfect atonement.

No piece of artwork shows this better than Holbein’s the Body of Dead Christ in the Tomb from 1520. Holbein depicts the remnants of the crucifixion on Jesus’ boy: the mangled, pieced, blacked hands, the stretched tortured body, the limp and lifeless face.

At the cross that mission was accomplished. Sin, death, corruption was defeated, but it was through Christ’ willingness to die.

Luke’s gospel reads, “Having said that, he breathed his last. When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ And when all the crowds who had gathered there or this spectacle had saw what had happened, the returned home and lamented.”

Matthew records that at that very moment, the curtain of the temple, the divide between God and man, was torn asunder.

If God is in Jesus Christ, he will not leave Christ to rot in the grave. And the Father didn’t. He rose to new life on the third day. God is love and hope and healing. As we are in Christ, we have the hope that, as everything is in God’s hands, one way or another, we can rest assured they are in good hands, the hands that are mighty to save us.

Final prayer:

Father, we pray recognizing the cost of the cross. We pray trying to understand its pain and shame. We will never understand its full weight, but give us enough understanding to receive it into our hearts. We pray that we would not just hear about the work Christ did, but receive it. We pray would not just look upon the cross, but take it up ourselves. That is taking up the life the cross demands of us, the love it embodies, the truth is sacrificed for. Do not let us leave this place without our heart changed with a new commitment to living out the way of our Lord Christ. Thank-you for your justice, mercy, and love. Thank-you that your cross comes with the promise of the resurrection. Amen.

Seven Last Words: Thirst

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“I thirst” (John 19:28)

In the beginning as Genesis two tells us, there was a stream that bubbled up and watered the earth. From the clay of this stream the first man was molded, from its water Eden was irrigated, and from there, the text says, out of the garden the stream became four great rivers. Here is the archetypal river of life, fountain of salvation.

The human body is about 50-80% water, and doctors recommend that a person drink about 2 litres of water a day to be healthy. It is no stretch of the imagination that we can say that water is life.

Not surprisingly, there is a persistent image of water in Scripture as a source of cleansing, purifying, and revitalizing.

John, a master story-teller, makes use of the theme of water and thirst throughout his Gospel. Disciples are baptized in water. Those entering the kingdom of heaven are born of “water and spirit” (Jn. 3:5). Jesus poured out water to wash the disciples feet, the quintessential act of servanthood.

One instance is particularly applicable. Near the beginning, a woman comes to the well in Samaria, who has been married five times and is living with a man not her husband. Jesus meets her there, and asks her for a drink. She protests, saying the well is deep. Jesus uses this to tell her that there is water that will make her thirsty again, and than there is living water form which she will never be thirsty again. While naïve and uninitiated, she tells Jesus that whatever this is, she wants this water.

She does not understand what this water is, but she is thirsty for it. She is thirsty for water that is more than water. She is thirsty for compassion, for love, for forgiveness, for truth.

Of course, this water is eternal life, and this water is found in Jesus.

The Samaritan woman is, as we all are, thirsty for salvation.

Psalm 42:1: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.”

Yet, here on the cross, Jesus, the God-man, the one who is life, who is living water, is now thirsty. In this beautiful use of irony, water does not mean water, and thirst does not merely mean thirst: Thirst is the thirst of the soul. Jesus becomes thirsty.

As Jesus cried out in thirst, they gave him sour wine. The offering was not a malicious gesture as sour wine was considered better for quenching thirst, often used by soldiers like modern-day Gatorade. But Jesus’ thirst here is more than just thirst.

Psalm 63:1: “God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”

The Scriptures say, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.” (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ, the son of God, the son of man, died representing all humanity before God and representing God to all sinners. He died in our place. He took on our pain. He took on our thirst.

His parched throat mirrors the desert wasteland of our souls.

In John’s gospel, as he died, after crying out “I am thirsty,” a soldier pieced Jesus’ side and it says water flowed out. Here we see another allusion to Psalm 22: “I am poured out like water.” Water flowed out of the one whom was thirsty. Through Jesus’ death, water flows. Through Jesus taking our place, God dying as a sinner, our souls will one day drink of the river of life.

So the vision in Revelation 22:1-3 says,

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse…

In this passage thirst, water, and the overcoming of the curse are intimately connected. We are all thirsty. We thirst for Jesus. Jesus is that water that restores us to vitality perfectly. We know this because Christ bore our curse. Jesus is the only thing that refreshes our parched, dry souls.

Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Jesus made this promise, and here on the cross, he cries out thirsting for justice himself, dying from the oppression of a corrupt religious and political system. Yet his thirst was not for vengeance, but for the healing of sick, sinful souls. So Revelation depicts a day here water flows from the New Jerusalem “for the healing of the nations.”

Jesus is righteousness. Jesus is truth. Jesus is forgiveness. Jesus is living water.

And because of the cross, because Jesus chose to be at one with the thirsty, to thirst in our place, we are free to drink of the water of life; We are free to drink of the resurrection reconciliation.

So Revelation 22:17 says, “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”

Father,

We realize that we thirst for you.

We may think that we thirst for other things – money, safety, popularity, health – but it is you that we ultimately thirst for.

Thank you for becoming thirsty, taking on our thirst.

May we drink of the water of the river of life that flows from Christ who died in our place.

May the day come quickly that we see all nations gathered to be healed by the water of the river of life.

Let all who are thirsty come to you, Lord Jesus.

Amen.

Seven Last Words: Forsaken

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“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)

In his book, Night, Elie Weisel gives his bitter account of the Holocaust, an event so horrifically evil it unsettled the very core of his Jewish faith. He was only a boy when he saw  the execution of an innocent man, starved, emaciated, beaten, broken – broken of his very humanity. He was robbed of his dignity by people devoid of their own humanity, the Nazis.

This man was hanged in front of all the other prisoners: the poor man was made into a spectacle of the Nazi’s brutality as the audience was made to watch, feeling the full measure of their own powerlessness. Weisel, a boy, was made to watch.

As this happened, someone called out, “Where is God?” That man had had enough, the injustice caused him to cry out at the risk of his own execution. “Where is God?!” As if to say: How can he not be here? How could he not intervene in a moment like this? The crowd could give no answer as he indicted God in a crime of cosmic proportions.

“Where is God?” the voice rang out again, again and again.

Elie Weisel, a young man at the time, felt in his heart the only possible explanation: Where is God? God is dead. He died there in those gallows.

Weisel saw this admission as the very moment his faith collapsed into a bitter semi-atheism. His hope in God was shaken.

But as Weisel reports, he did not lose faith, for while he felt hurt by God, the prospect that there was no God at all rendered the events of the Holocaust even more tragic: no God to denounce the evil as fundamentally wrong, no God to command compassion rather than indifference, no God to offer the promise of restoration.

Weisel’s shaken faith, I think, is an honest faith. Faith calls for nothing less than honesty about ourselves and our world, and that honestly about our world calls for nothing less than the honesty of being deeply upset over the tragic injustices of this life.

But to have that honesty in faith means addressing that frustration and lament before God as Jesus did: “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?”

This phrase comes from Psalm 22, a psalm written by David, who was a righteous man that was attacked by his king, his friends, and later, even his own family. He spent much of his life on the run, hunted like an animal.

One way to understand the cross – perhaps the most basic way – is to understand that Christ died, “according to the Scriptures” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Jesus embodies the story of Scripture. He is the word of God.

He is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” He is the “stone that was rejected that is now the corner stone” (Psalm 118:22 cf. 1 Peter 2:7). He is the perfect Passover lamb, slain as a sin offering for us, etc.

Jesus fulfills this scripture as the rest of the psalm shows:

Dogs surround me,

    a pack of villains encircles me;

    they pierce my hands and my feet.

All my bones are on display;

    people stare and gloat over me.

They divide my clothes among them

         and cast lots for my garment. (vv. 16-18)

In claiming these words as his own, he is not merely fulfilling the Scriptures. He is showing God’s solidarity, his oneness, with all the forgotten of this world. Jesus in crying out in forsakenness, embodying the cry of the oppressed, the abused, the victimized, the neglected, the humiliated – all who feel that God was not there when they needed him. Listen to the rest of the Psalm:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

    Why are you so far from saving me,

    so far from my cries of anguish?

My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,

    by night, but I find no rest (vv. 1-2)

But I am a worm and not a man,

    scorned by everyone, despised by the people.

All who see me mock me;

    they hurl insults, shaking their heads.

“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,

    “let the Lord rescue him. (vv. 6-8)

I am poured out like water,

    and all my bones are out of joint.

My heart has turned to wax;

    it has melted within me. (v. 14)

This is the lament song of a soul in despair. This is also the words of God in Christ.

In Christ, God knows what it is like to be abandoned, betrayed, tortured, humiliated, blamed, and executed.

Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the subject of personal betrayal: his best friends and students ran, denied him, and even received money to betray him.

Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the victim of religious corruption and abuse. He was accused of blasphemy for his message of forgiveness: that God is with us, sinners. He was tried falsely by corrupt priests who didn’t want their sins exposed or their power taken away. As John 8 tells us, Caiaphas, the high priest, ironically saw Jesus as his sacrifice to save their religion.

Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the target of political oppression. He was brought before the magistrate, Pilate, who ultimately cared only for order at any cost. So, he gave Jesus over to his psychotic soldiers for torture, humiliation, and finally execution by the slow death of the cross.

The cross is a rare kind of anguish. It is the slow death by bleeding out from the torture and nails. Hanging on the nails meant one’s diaphragm would be stressed, causing the person to gasp for air. The subject would hang there starving to death, slowing hallucinating in a delirium of despair as people stand there and mock. Nailed there, few pictures of the atonement render it accurately: few picture the victims unclothed and naked, exposed to desert sun that would blister exposed skin. (Ironically, no crucifix renders Jesus naked – an accurate depiction of the cross is still too scandalous, even Christians!) And the nakedness of exposure was more than physical: hanging there naked, the victim was exposed to the scoffers, jeering, removing whatever dignity remained. Jesus had the added pain and humiliation of a thorn crown pressing into his head and a sign above, mocking his claim to the throne of David.

How could God let this happen to Jesus? How could he have forsaken him? Where is God?

The answer is right there. God was right there. God was in the man who was godforsaken. God revealed that he is with those who feel forsaken by God.

Jesus, Immanuel, “God is with us,” is here as God bound to our fate, our death, our despair, our pain, our sense of the absence of God. He loves us so much he stands with us in our darkest moments.

This does not make sense by our worldly logic, but this is the logic of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it well when he said, “Only a suffering God can save us.” Only love that is willing to suffer with a victim, feeling their pain, willing to take their pain as his own, can disarm the anguish of suffering.

Jesus cried out, “My God why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus deserved justice’s vindication, but he gave it up to live in solidarity with those whom justice has forgotten.

Jesus deserved the throne room of heaven, but chose a crown of thorns.

Jesus deserved to inhabit heaven, but instead he chose to harrow hell.

So, we return to our Holocaust anecdote: Where was God as an innocent man died in the gallows of the Holocaust?

God was with that dying man. He was in that dying man. He was dying for that dying man. God is that dying man, “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).

God did die that day, but not in the sense that would lead us to atheism.

God did die that day, because he is love; he is suffering love; he is a God that refuses be far away from those who feel forsaken.

God refused to stand far off as his beloved children suffered. It is that same refusal of a God that chooses to suffer with us that refuses to leave suffering forever forsaken in our broken world. If God suffers with us, we know that God did not cause our suffering. If God suffers with us, we also know that he would not will this suffering to be without end. A God of love is a God of hope for us.

We know this because three days after the cross, Christ rose from the grave. Suffering will stop because the cross leads to resurrection.

So the Psalmist affirms in his suffering that one day…

The poor [i.e. the oppressed, the abused, the abandoned] will eat and be satisfied;

    those who seek the Lord will praise him—

    may your hearts live forever!

All the ends of the earth

    will remember and turn to the Lord,

and all the families of the nations

    will bow down before him,

for dominion belongs to the Lord

    and he rules over the nations. (vv. 26-28)

There will be a day when suffering stops, when tears are wiped away, when hunger is satisfied, when wounds are healed, when pain turns to praise, when repentance and reconciliation reigns.

There will be a day of perfect justice, perfect mercy, and perfect peace.

That day is coming because the God who died on the cross, rose from the grave. Death could not change the impassible character of a God who is boundless life.

The cry of the cross was answered with the triumphant joy of resurrection. Let’s pray…

Father,

We ask with Jesus sometimes, “Why have you forsaken us? Why all the injustice? Why all the destruction? Where are you?”

God, remind our broken souls that you were with us in the times that seems like you were absent. Help us to look to Jesus and trust that you are not far off. You are with us. You are for us. You bear our pain.

You did not abandon us as you did not abandon Christ. Soften our hearts to let go of that pain and anguish, knowing that you have already taken on that pain in the cross.

Lord, allow the wounds of our past to heal in the same way the cries of Golgotha were answered with the resurrection.

Allow the cross and resurrection to inspire us. Give us the grace to live out what your promises demands. Convict us of the courage to confront the injustice of life with Jesus’ innocence. Convict us of the empathy to confront the suffering of this world with Jesus’ solidarity. We pledge to act in trust, compassion, and hope, knowing that you will restore all things.

Amen.

Seven Last Words: Mother Mary, Brother John

 

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“Woman, behold your son” … “Behold, your mother!”  (John 19:26)

While it is easy to see this passage of Christ looking to his mother, Mary, and instructing her to embrace John, the beloved disciple, and John vice versa, as a simply provision undertaken by our Lord to ensure his mother is cared for, these passages offers us glimpses of something deeper. Let’s look at both John and Mary here.

Why is Mary told to refer to John as a “son” and John to refer to Mary as his “mother”? The provisions of care do not necessitate this, yet Jesus insisted. He could have just said, “John, take care of her.”

Some have seen this as Jesus recommending a relationship between Mary and the disciples.In Christ, there is a new family, a global family, of the redeemed that all began at the cross. Mark 3:35 says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Here we see the constitution of that family, gathered around the crucified Jesus, listening to his instructions, and so, compelled to treat one another as family.

But it surely meant more than that for John. Mary and John are among the few that actually stayed close to Jesus. They did not flee like the rest of the disciples. John was allowed near the crucifixion site, perhaps because he was so young.  We know this because only boys too young to serve in the military could come near the execution site for fear of uprising to save the crucified.

This helps us understand why John sometimes refers to himself as the “beloved disciple,” who “reclined at Jesus’ side.” Peter would have been much older, the eldest of the disciples, possibly. It is also possible that John was the youngest. He was only a boy, small enough to need hugs from Jesus. He may have seen Jesus has a father figure.

Jesus taught us to call God, “Abba” (Daddy). John may well have called Jesus, “Abba.”

John is standing there, watching his father figure die. So, this was more than provision of care to Mary, it was recognition of mutual support. They would need each other. You can understand Jesus’ words now as commissioning the young John. “It is time to be a man, now John, take care of Mary, treat her like your mother.”

As we see John’s writings through the New Testament, particularly in his epistles, John took up this commission well. He was an apostles of family and love through and through. He constantly refers to his congregation as his “little children,” not unlike what he was when he learned his essential instructions from his master.

We know from church tradition that John’s dying words to his church was, “Little children, love one another!” Love shun through John’s writings at all points, especially in passages like 1 John 4:7-12:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

His church was his family, and love was his ministry because Jesus was his hero.

Can we look to Jesus like John did?

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Now, Mary: Protestants have often forgotten the importance of Mary. We have done this out of understandable reasons: it is out of discomfort with how high Mary is elevated in Catholicism. But as Catholicism raise Mary too high; Protestants are guilty of not raising her high enough.

In church history, veneration of Mary began because of how Mary pointed to a proper understand of Jesus. Jesus died in the flesh (contra some who denied his humanity) because Jesus was born to a human mother: Mary was the guardian of Jesus’ humanity, the theotokos, “God-bearer” in Greek.

But, sadly, Mary was elevated to a kind of co-operator with Christ in some Catholic theology, which Protestants simply feel makes her into an idol. But we should ask is how do we properly adorn Jesus’ mother so that she once again safeguards her son’s high place? We might phrase this better by asking, how does respecting Mary as a mother – us looking to her motherly qualities – how does that bring us deeper into appreciation of Jesus? Or, how does understanding Mary as mother deepen our understanding of Jesus as our brother?

The picture displayed above renders this clearly: eyes too sorrowful to see clearly, but too concerned to look away; hands, clenched praying perhaps both that her son would be faithful to the onerous task she bore him for, but because she bore him, praying pleading with God to relent of the suffering her son is feeling.

To look to Mary as our mother is to look at Jesus’ hanging on the cross, not as an abstract idea, a stale doctrine, a historic account, or an expression of our own sentiments, it is an attempt to see the cross for what it is, and not bypassing it too quickly.

Seeing the cross as our salvation can too readily jump from its tragedy to the benefit we get out of it. We can easily see Christ as suffering on our behalf and we can say, “thanks,” and continue on our merry way. We can selfishly forget the cost of the cross. We can easily look at the cross for what we get out of it, not what God put into it.

When we look to Mary as the mother of Christ, we also look at the cross through the eyes of a mother. Someone’s son died on that cross. Someone’s little boy, her pride and joy, everything she lived for, is being murdered mercilessly, dying that miserable death.

And do you not think that it may have occurred to her that while she knew Jesus was dying for her sins, she would have gladly died in her sons place just to save him from the pain? Don’t you think even that she would have gladly refused her own salvation if it meant saving her little boy’s life?

It is only when we look at the cross through Mary’s eyes do we appreciate the cost of the cross for us. It is the cost of a life more precious than our own.

It is only when we lament the cross through Mary’s tears are we ready to say thank-you to a God that gave so much we will never understand.

It is only through the love of Mary for her Son that we ready to love the world as Jesus loved it.

Lord,

May we love as John loved. May we look to you as our daddy, our father figure. So close to us that we can “recline at your side.” Help us to remember that we are beloved disciples, not just disciples. Draw us closer into the family of God. May we treat your sons and daughters as brothers and sisters. Give us opportunities to be big brothers and sisters to others.

May we mourn for you as Mary mourned. And in our mourning, let us remember the provision that Jesus gave at that very moment, the only true provision against the tragedy of this age: You gave us the church, the family of God. Help us to take care of one another. Help us to love one another.

Amen.

Seven Last Words: Paradise

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“Truly, I tell you, today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43)

Our world is a world that has closed itself off from the transcendent. We have bought into the discourses of science that tells us the immediately tangible is all there is, everything else is suspected as superstition.

Do not get me wrong, science has earned its place in the world, and many need to listen to its voice more. Science has offered enormous explanatory power for our worldview. In the great feuds between scriptural literalism and science, science will usually win. We have found the sun does not revolve around the earth, that the earth is much older than chronicled, that rain comes from weather systems, illness from poor hygiene, etc.

The world has pushed God out of its purview. God has been viewed as too burdensome a notion to trust.

The events of the primordial church fade into the distance of history. History, itself, seems to crocked a path to see providence. Divine intervention seems like misconstrued co-incidence. Many of the great political advances have been done despite religious influences.

We immerse ourselves in the comforting hum of media noise. Talk of God becomes as rare as genuine conversation itself. Hearing from God becomes as rare as genuine listening itself. An atheism falls over us because we feel the blunt force of divine absence.

Our daily lives, even for many Christians, are often practically atheist. Church becomes an cumbersome ritual. Work is more important than worship. Singing praise to God does not feed a family. Prayer and Scripture reading get sidelined to more relaxing practices: Television, sports, etc. So, we say to ourselves, why bother believe?

However, we deceive ourselves into thinking the modern world was the first to discover doubt, as if doubt was an invention by the same brilliance that discovered flight, electricity, or the theory of relativity. Yet, doubt is not a modern novelty.

The cross was a scary time for Jesus and his followers. The cosmos, let alone their little band of disciples, hung in the balance. The circumstances had become so chancy that most of the disciples deserted Jesus: belief in this man as the messiah was simply too insecure at that moment. Peter initially drew his weapon to defend his lord, but upon realization that violence was not going to resolve the conflict between Christ and the priests, upon seeing his master taken rather than fighting back, unleashing the kingdom of power that he was expecting him to unleash, Peter himself turned to deny Christ, three times in fact. Other disciples deserted him far sooner, unfortunately.

Thus, there Christ hung, condemned, and by all accounts at that very moment, defeated and disproved. Jesus as messiah was no longer a tenable conviction anymore. He did not seem to be bringing in a new kingdom, as prophesied. He did not defeat the Roman occupation, as prophesied. Far from! There he was pathetic, disheveled, beaten into irrevocable submission to the powers he should have pulverized with legions of the faithful, perhaps having even angel armies come to assist. Thus, Pilate, either out of mockery to the Jewish people or out of some deep seated pious guilt over killing a truly innocent man, wrote “King of the Jews” and hung it over Jesus’ head.

If one was to look for a reason to believe in Christ at that moment, one would have looked in vain. The man on the cross was exposed many times over as just a man, flesh and blood, ashes and dust, rejected by his people, betrayed by his closest followers and friends, accused of blasphemy by his own religion’s authorities, tortured and in the midst of his execution by his people’s most hated enemies, the most idolatrous power in existence, hanging there, slowly bleeding out, slowly succumbing to his wounds, to thirst, and to death.

Atheism’s objections pale in comparison to the scandal of Good Friday.

As onlookers mocked and jeered, even a man, a wretched thief, dying the same death as Christ next to him, felt no solidarity with the co-condemned, no compassion for his neighbor in this death, only cynicism and despair. Even the thief on Jesus’ one side mocked him.

At this moment, there seems to be no good reason to trust Jesus. Jesus hung there, discredited.

Would you have believed that Jesus was the messiah then? I know I probably would not have. Sadly, that is because I am a “reasonable” person.

More sadly, is that the only reasonable people in this story are monsters: Judas, who calculates how to profit from Jesus’ arrest; the Pharisees, who have the foresight to plan against possible agitators; the Romans, who brilliantly invented means of rebellion suppression.

And yet, in this moment of darkness and doubt, despair and destruction, one person believed! One person dared to see something more. One person had faith. The other thief, what tradition refers to as the “penitent thief,” dying at Jesus’ side. He believed. He had nothing left to hold back. He could have mocked like the other thief, but he didn’t.

We know next to nothing about this person. The Gospels left him unnamed. Having no hope left in this world, he still says to the other thief, “Do you not fear God? You are under the same punishment.” He admits that his punishment is just, yet Christ’s is not. Christ is innocent and he is not.

At the very end of his life, he is moved with humility and honesty.

But his confession is more radical than that. If one was worried about self-preservation, they would have petitioned far more prestigious powers than a dying messiah.

When no one else believed in Jesus, this man did. And so he simply requests that Jesus would remember him when he comes into his kingdom. He, in the darkness moment of his life, in the darkness moment in history, chose to trust the kingdom is still coming.

This man had perhaps the greatest faith in all history, and yet we do not know his name! But God does. God is not dead because God did not stay dead.

Jesus did promise to remember him. In fact, this man, in his final moments of life, was given the most definitive assurance anyone had before the resurrection: Jesus turned to the man and said, “Today, I truly tell you, you will be with me in paradise.”

Sadly, it is only when we realize that our lives stand on the edge of oblivion that we can feel assured that our lives are in the hands of something more absolute than what this world offers.

Father,

Help us to have even just a fraction of the faith this man had.

We complain about our lot in life, yet we are unwilling to admit our faults.

We so often mock and mistrust your salvation. When we do that, we must acknowledge that our punishment, like his is just.

But we must also cling to the hope of your kingdom of forgiveness.

Remember us Lord Jesus, as you remembered him.

May your kingdom come.

Amen