Posts Tagged 'salvation'

Daily Office

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?” He answered: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’“ “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.” But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

I know, before I make a single stroke on my laptop keyboard that this post will not be well received. I apologize in advance to those of you who will find my struggle with this passage offensive and immature. I do not intend to offend, but I think I will.

Fact is, and I don’t think anyone will disagree with this: the lawyer asks Jesus a theological question with eschatological implications. He asks Jesus this question: What must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus does not tell the man this is the wrong question to ask. No. In fact, the very fact that Jesus answers this question is enough demonstration that this is a valid question to ask and, to be sure, that Jesus is the right person to ask it of. Ultimately, the answers that Jesus gives all work their way back to the man’s original question: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

The theological, eschatological and practical answer that Jesus gives is simple: Love God, love people. Easy, breezy. This is something Jesus had said another time (Matthew 7:11-12). Even later on in the letters, Paul will say that love is the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:9-11). I think, at this juncture, we are probably all in agreement. Love is the fulfillment of the law; love sums up the Law and Prophets; love is what we must do to inherit eternal life. Love God; love our neighbors. Love. Seems a simple task, and easy requirement.

My problem is that this parable is often taught as simply a matter of defining who is a neighbor and that the Samaritan is the neighbor we must strive to be: loving those who hate us, tending those who despise us, helping those who hurt us. But this parable is not primarily about who is and is not a neighbor. This parable is spoken in the context of a theological, eschatological, question of salvation: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

When the conversation and the parable are done, Jesus simply says: Go and do likewise.

The problem I have is that Matthew or whoever wrote this Gospel, this book, wrote this story, this encounter, and this parable down after the cross even though the story happened, the conversation took place, and the parable was spoken before the cross.

Go and do likewise. To my knowledge Jesus never rescinded this command: neither to the lawyer in the story nor, since it was written down after the cross, to us.

All the commentaries I read, and have ever read, narrow this story down to this basest point: who is my neighbor? But none seem to wrestle with the real question that this particular passage of Scripture is itself wrestling with: what must I do to inherit eternal life? When Jesus said “go and do likewise” he was “this is what you must do to inherit eternal life: love God, and love like your Samaritan neighbor.” (William Willimon interprets this from the point of view of the man in the ditch, but I’m still not sure that is correct either. It doesn’t wrestle enough with how this parable answers the man’s original and secondary question.)

Please don’t be angry because I want to understand this passage of Scripture, why Jesus said it, and why Matthew preserved it. I want to understand how to better interpret this story and how to better teach it. There doesn’t seem to be, despite the exegetical gymnastics that the commentators engage in, an emphasis so much on being neighborly as much as there is an emphasis on what someone must do in order to inherit eternal life.

It’s tricky. I wrestle and struggle here greatly. I’m not trying to be contrary or difficult, but with all the emphasis we put on issues of grace and mercy and forgiveness and the cross and the resurrection, nothing seemed to change after the cross: Paul said love your neighbor; Matthew records Jesus telling us to do the same thing. Whatever else I might say, or confound, or struggle with here, one thing is certainly true. You can love your neighbor quite apart from loving God, but you cannot love God without loving your neighbor. Jesus does not define how to love God, but spends a lot of time defining how to love your neighbor. Hmm…

I don’t think we, as Christians, have struggled enough with this passage of Scripture and how it relates to the inheritance of eternal life—regardless of who are neighbor is or is not. The so-called Good Samaritan is not just someone who happens to do good deeds while he or she is on the way to McDonald’s to get a burger—as if the fact that he was a Samaritan is the main point of emphasis here. The Good Samaritan is, in some mysterious way, an example of what we must do if we want to inherit eternal life—since the emphasis in this passage is on what the Samaritan did.

Jesus didn’t say: Go and be (a Samaritan) likewise. Jesus said: Go and do likewise. Too many people are content to be mere Samaritans without any regard for how what the Samaritan did relates to his/her eternal inheritance. We should talk about what it means to do what the Samaritan did more.

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Daily Office

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30)

If you look at the words and events surrounding these two short paragraphs you will notice that these words may seem rather out of place. Jesus has talked about sheep among wolves, the betrayal among family members, the sword that he brought, delight in a cup of cold water, and judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah and worse. We learn that John the Reformed Charismatic Presbyterian had serious doubts about Jesus and Jesus’ high praise of John. And we learn of the wit and wisdom of children. We learn of judgment on towns who had rejected Jesus. All of this is on one side.

On the other side we learn about Jesus who is accused of being a Sabbath scoundrel, in league with Beelzebul, more judgment, a ‘small’ miracle and the plot to destroy Jesus that followed, demon possession, the rejection of his family, and the simple nature of those who cannot even understand parables (!). Then John loses his head. It all makes for a great story—contains all the stuff we like: action, horror, drama, comedy, suspense. All this stuff we like, but there’s that point in the middle where Jesus inexplicably prays and talks about finding rest for the soul.

There’s a lot of sermon fodder in chapters 10-13, but this prayer in the middle bugs me. So does, for that matter, this business of Jesus’ easy yoke and light burden. You and I know how hard that yoke is and how heavy that burden is: could it be worse on the other side? And his intense statement about knowing the Father bugs me—it’s far too exclusive a club. And his thoughts about little children in the prayer bug me too—what do kids know? Jesus is saying something like, “What don’t kids know?”

Ultimately, however, I think that is the point: he is talking about recognizing something, someone in our midst, isn’t he? John may have been confused, but he was on the right track. Jesus says to him, “John, look what’s going on! The blind can see. The lame can walk. The unclean are cleansed. The deaf hear. The dead are alive. The good news is everywhere.” Then he says even children can figure this bit of nonsense out for themselves, “We play a flute, but you sit still. We sing a song, but you do not weep.” Jesus is shouting out: “Here I am! The One you have been waiting for and you are all missing it! You are so caught up in your own world that you cannot sing or dance or laugh or mourn. What sad people you are indeed.”

He says: “I did miracles in your cities and you missed it. Twice in these verses he gives props to Sodom and Gomorrah (10:15, 11:24)—ironically, the two places most Christians nowadays point to in order to prove God’s hatred of all things gay. Yet Jesus says those who lived in those places will get along better than most others. Strange. Strange that Jesus believed those who were most worthy of judgment and condemnation would most readily grasp what those who are right and good miss.

Then Jesus breaks out in praise and prayer: “Father I am glad for children. I am glad they have open eyes and see what adults do not. I am glad, happy, thrilled that you have revealed these things to those who can grasp them.” This stuff is so simple that even children can get it. Or, in the childlike heart and mind—the not too uppity—God reveals his good will and good pleasure. And the wise and learned ignore it.

I sense in these verses a joy that cannot be contained and yet is only marginally loosed. You sense it in Jesus: Go back and tell! Go back and dance! Go back and Praise and Pray! And when you get done reading about all the sickness and judgment in the world, come to me for rest. When you get sick and tired of trying to figure things out using all your wisdom, all your smarts, all your disbelief in the outrageous, come to me and I’ll help you figure it out; I’ll show you want you are looking for but will never find. I love Jesus’ short prayer here because it confirms what many of us know and believe but refuse to accept: wisdom isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“In some objectifiably verifiable and convincing way, we want God to demonstrate his own existence. Deep in our hearts, I suspect that this is what all of us want, unbelievers no less than believers. And I have wondered sometimes what would happen if God were to do just that. What would happen if God did set about demonstrating his existence in some dramatic and irrefutable way?” (Frederick Buechner, “Message in the Stars”, in Secrets in the Dark, 16-17

Life, or whatever Jesus is talking about here, cannot be figured out by ignoring miracles or pretending they do not happen. It cannot be figured out by not dancing or not singing. It cannot be figured out by not eating or by not drinking. It, that is, ‘these things’, cannot be figured out by an appropriate ABAB single subject reversal study model. It cannot be figured out by hard work or by carrying around burdens we are not meant to carry. Jesus is saying here something to the effect of: If you want to figure out ‘these things’ they will only be made known as the Father reveals them in foolishness, and even then, to be sure, through me. Jesus says: I am revelation.

Something in here says to me: you cannot think your way to God. In a way, you have to embrace foolishness, wrap yourself in absurdity, traipse along with incredulity at this God who takes delight in revealing himself not to the wise and learned, but to the most foolish of the foolish: children (Gk. naypios; infants). This is God’s ‘good pleasure.’ This is the God who does things all backward like. God reveals himself to infants; God reveals himself in Jesus; God reveals himself through things we cannot believe or understand.

Thus Jesus concludes: God reveals himself in mercy, gentleness, humbleness. Can God do that? Why does God reveal himself to us in ways the world does not understand, in ways that we can scarcely appreciate, in ways we hardly approve?

If we can reach
Beyond the wisdom of this age
Into the foolishness of God
That foolishness will save
Those who believe

–Rich Mullins, Let Mercy Lead

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A First Sunday of Lent Reflection

“When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:17)

I like to wonder sometimes exactly what life was like ‘inside the narratives.’ Man, I have been reading these stories in the Bible since I learned how to read. Trouble with me is that I have never spent a day outside the church. There’s never been a doubt. That’s not to say I didn’t wander at times-for large swaths of time. It is to say, however, that ‘church’ has always been my life. I knew, or at least had inklings, that I would be a preacher from a very early age of my life (like around the age of 6 or 7 when I ‘preached’ to my school bus driver one day after another student got all excited about finding a dollar bill on the floor.) So I like to wonder and wander. I stay near the center, but like one of our bloggers here says, I try to stay close enough to the edge to matter.

I mean it must have been crazy living in those days and experiencing what they experienced. Who can understand it? All of the sudden a man walks up to John the Baptist and asks to be baptized. The next day John points at him and says, “Behold the Lamb of God!” which is something closer to, “Hey, you people, you people, wake the hell up and look at the One God has provided! Shake yourselves out of your stupor and Look at this One among you! If you can believe it, if you can accept it: The Lamb of God!” I’m sure not a few laughed a serious belly laugh that day. If the eleven could stand on the mountain with Jesus after his death, burial, and resurrection and doubt what they saw then imagine how it must have been for those that day when John simply said, “Behold!”

“They worshiped…some doubted.” Doubted. Indeed. They worshiped; some doubted. Yet none were excluded, all were commissioned. And Jesus, perhaps not ironically, didn’t condemn them for doubting.

Commenting on the book The Resurrection of the Body LaVonne Neff writes, “This, I think, is the book’s chief charm: it re-creates some of the bewilderment people surely felt in Jerusalem during the weeks following Jesus’ crucifixion.” Bewilderment? That’s an understatement. She titled her book review “Giving Up Certainty for Lent.” When I first saw it I thought, “Ha!” Then I wondered, “Do I have the courage to give up certainty…forever…until at last my eyes behold him?”

But you know what? I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Struggling mightily to overcome something inside that has stirred up all sorts of strange feelings and ideas. And I cannot (overcome it). It’s that perpetual ‘what if?’ I don’t like it because, and this is the truth: I don’t have the courage to doubt. I like certainty, knowing. I like the world devoid of doubt. I don’t like uncertainty. I don’t like thinking: Oh my God, what if I am wrong? What if my wrong is too much? What if I am not right enough? Of course, this is where grace comes in and rescues us. It doesn’t matter how hard I try to outrun grace. I can’t. I. Can’t.

You know how much courage it must have taken for those disciples standing right next to the resurrected Jesus to worship and doubt? Sadly, we have made it the job of theologians and preachers and apologists to work hard, ever so hard, to go about erasing all those doubts instead of creating a space where that worship and those doubts are held in tension. We feel like we need to fill the void that exists between worship and doubt. Jesus said, “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” What he didn’t say is, “Blessed are those who have the courage to eliminate all doubts in order to believe” (John 13:29). But Jesus also said, “Stop doubting and believe” (John 13:27). Yet, Matthew 28:17 evidently occurs after this exhortation. I’m not interested in the nature of or the reason for their doubt. All I know is that Matthew had the courage to tell us that even those theological behemoths had the courage to doubt–standing right next to Jesus no doubt.

William Willimon wryly notes, “God is proved only by God’s speaking, not through natural theology arguments of God’s existence. Since the unbeliever lacks the one requisite for true knowledge, that is, faith, there is no wonder why apologetics, which tries to get around the need for faith, doesn’t work. Where God fails to convince the unbeliever, there is little that we can do to convince” (Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 178). That’s not all. It gets worse, far worse:

“The only means we have of making sense of the gospel is Christ. Apologetics tends to speak and reason as if the cross and resurrection of Christ were incidental to comprehension of what we have to say, as if Christian claims can be comprehensible even if one rejects the Christian world. In other words, if we ever devised an effective apologetics that enabled us to present the Christian faith without recourse to a God who speaks for himself, then all we would have done is, through our apologetics, convinced people that there is no God who speaks. To put it in another way, apologetics is a sort of backhanded way of saying that what we believe about God is not really true. We have no weapon to defend Christ; he can only defend himself. We have no weapon to defend Christ; he can only defend himself. We have no ‘knock down’ arguments for Christ; he himself is the only argument” (Conversations, 178)

What? Not one? Upon what shall I base my, uh, belief then? Faith? Pshaw! Thus the door is open to doubt. And doubt opens the door to faith. “Without faith, it is impossible to please God” and “the righteous one will live by faith.”

I have a confession to make: I wish I had that kind of faith. That is, I wish I had the courage to doubt. I wish I had the intestinal fortitude to doubt, say, the literal reading of certain books of the Bible. Part of the ongoing experiment that God undertook when he called me was to lead me to the sort of faith that gives me the courage to doubt. In this I have discovered why I went from being an avid reader and cheerleader for certain blogs to fierce opponent: that which is based upon absolute certainty is not based on faith; that which has all the answers has not asked enough questions, let alone the right questions; that which knows and sees beyond doubt cannot be that which lives by faith or perhaps has passed on from this world already. Only that which is found in confusion, perplexity and doubt can truly be said to be that which is by faith. It’s like believing in bodily resurrection and still having the courage to be cremated. It’s like believing in bodily resurrection, being cremated, and still having the courage to have your ashes scattered in the wind.

I guess even that kind of faith has courage to face death doesn’t it?

You know where certainty comes from though, right? It comes from fear: Bold, unashamed, unmitigated fear. It comes from the sort of fear that actually prevents us from growing. It is the sort of fear that stagnates us, leaves us on the plateau of certainty. Fear is, I’m convinced, the catalyst for works righteousness and the complete abandonment of faith as life and grace as salvation. Fear believes it is saved because of certainty. Faith believes it is saved in spite of doubts.

Doubts don’t arise from fear, but faith. I’m not talking about the sort of doubt that leads to apostasy or blasphemy. I’m talking about the sort of doubt that can only lead to faith. I’m talking about the sort of faith that doesn’t resort to mere apologetics but is willing to live in the place between worship and doubt, between seeing and not seeing, between wisdom and foolishness, between weakness and strength.

I have a confession to make. God is leading me there and the journey is not easy and not without resistance from me. I like certainty. I like answers. I like knowing. I told someone in a thread the other day, “I’m not confused at all.” Well, that was a lie I told to cover up all sorts of fears, not to cover up all sorts of doubts. I wish now I hadn’t said that. Doubt is not sin. Doubt doesn’t necessarily lead to death, but perhaps it does lead to a deeper faith in the One who overcomes death.

God is leading me to a place where I don’t have to be right. He is leading me to a place where I can be wrong. He is leading me to the place where He is, to Jesus. Being courageous enough to doubt, to live in uncertainty, to not know all the answers, is the courage to live in His grace and find it sufficient. Doubt, then, is the catalyst for salvation by grace, and grace alone.

You could say I lost my faith in science and progress
You could say I lost my belief in the holy church
You could say I lost my sense of direction
You could say all of this and worse but

If I ever lose my faith in you
There’d be nothing left for me to do.

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