Archive for December, 2011

Hebrews on the New Covenant

Today’s lectionary reading comes from Hebrews 8:1-13. Here the author (who will remain nameless as we don’t know who wrote it) discusses the new covenant and then pulls out some Jeremiah in the discussion.

This particular portion of scripture continues the discussion fond in chapter 7. The discussion centers around priests and Jesus’ role as the high priest. I have always appreciated this take on Jesus. In my opinion it serves well to explain the role that he played in the salvation of humanity. Priests were (at the time) considered to be the mediators between humanity and God. If you had sinned (which as we know happens all the time) you needed to make atonement and the only way to do so was to offer a sacrifice at the alter.

Now here’s the kicker, regular people were not allowed to approach the alter. It had to be done for you by a priest. The priest serves as the go between.

Here’s where Jesus really takes things to head. In his perfect sacrifice, the division between God and humanity was erased. Through him we are able to approach God at all times. This is what chapter 8 is discussing. Specifically the point that is made here is that Jesus acts as our priest in Heaven itself. Perhaps this is why we are able to approach God because we have a mediator right there, sitting at God’s right hand according to verse 1.

The reading switches gears into discussing the new covenant. Perhaps it is not surprising that Moses is mentioned in verse 5. While Moses is a very important figure in terms of the Old Testament covenant, it is also important to note that the covenant was made with Abraham, long before Moses. However, Moses is important to note as he received the 10 Commandments from God, as well as the book of the law that outlined the whole sacrifice for atonement process.

But now things are changing, and we’ve heard about the change before. Jeremiah spoke these words long before Jesus came on the scene.

Obviously God himself finds the old covenant lacking. We see that in verses 8 and 9.  Personally I’m a fan of verse 10 and I think that it speaks of the work of the Holy Spirit within each of us. “I will put my laws in their minds, and write them on their hearts.” It’s no longer a tablet carried around in an ark. God is placing this where it will not be ignored…within us.

In my opinion, the high point of this passage occurs in verse 12. We see the enormity of Jesus’ sacrifice represented here. “I will be merciful towards their iniquities and I will remember their sins no more.” Sin has been defeated for us, but we must always remain mindful of the enormous cost. Jesus own life.

Philippians 3…the sequel

It’s not often that the daily lectionary reading gives us back to back passages. It happens, but not a lot. However, this is one of those rare times. Today’s reading comes from Philippians 3:12-16 and directly follows the reading that I explored yesterday.

Now, in yesterday’s reading (view the reflection here) Paul discusses how he considers all religious accomplishments as unimportant when compared with knowing Christ. He ends by saying I want to know Christ and become like him. This leads into the beginning of today’s reading when he says “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal.” I have to admit that this passage can present a bit of a tricky situation. At first glance it seems to support the notion that we, somehow, manage to improve our selves or our standings. This can be a slippery slope. Is Paul suggesting the idea of works righteousness here?

As we look through the rest of the passage I think it could certainly be argued. He does use verbiage that indicates our own actions. “This one thing I do” (verse 13), “I press on” (verse 14), “hold fast to what we have obtained” (verse 16). As a Lutheran who adheres to the notion of grace alone this idea of self empowerment is troublesome.  Can Paul really be suggesting what it sounds like he’s suggesting? Or is this some sort of misunderstanding?

As I mentioned a moment ago, this is the point where the “first glance” of this passage needs a second look. In my opinion, the moment of “Lutheran ease” occurs in verse 12 and we need to spot it. “Because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”  All these things that Paul is striving to do are the result, or perhaps the response, to what Jesus has already done. He is not suggesting that we are able to make ourselves into Christ. Rather, he is saying that we should learn from Christ’s example and strive to become more like him. Personally I think this is talking about the process of sanctification, which I believe is lifelong. It is also something that we do not accomplish on our own, but only with the help of the Holy Spirit within our lives.  Paul hints at this idea in verse 15 when he says that God will reveal things to you. It is through the Holy Spirit that truths are revealed to us.

So what’s the take home? Fake it till you make it? Sometimes I wonder if that’s what we are supposed to do. I’ll admit it, sometimes the whole bondage of the will verse free will, or the whole justification by works verses works as a response debate makes my head spin. I understand where the debates come from but that’ doesn’t mean that they are easy to wrap my head around.

Perhaps I’ll show my Norwegian heritage and simply say…uff-da.

Paul’s Talking Trash

Once again, I must apologize for my lack of recent posts. After doing this little project for a few weeks now, I’m finding myself enjoying the practice of the reflections greatly, but admittedly, sometimes other distractions get in the way and I don’t get to it. That’s been the case over the course of the past week or so…busy times which has equaled no postings.

Today’s lectionary reading comes from Philippians 3:7-11. These particular verses follow a sort of resume written by Paul. In verses 4-6, he lists the various attributes that he has going for him in terms of Jewish zeal. While I obviously wasn’t alive at this time to know for sure, something tells me that this practice was likely common through pious Jews.

Here’s what I like about verses 7-11, and particularly 8. Paul regards all these attributes…or plusses or bonuses or whatever you want to call them…as loss in the face of knowing Christ and being assured of salvation through Christ. How amazing is that? Yesterday I had a conversation with a couple of parishioners regarding the materialistic attitude that is so prevalent in the United States today. Truly we are a privileged people that put a lot of stock in ourselves. Call it entitlement or justification or whatever you want to call it, but our society certainly places a lot of stock in these type of qualities.

But now here’s the part that really makes me smile. Paul goes on to say that not only does he count them as loss…he call them rubbish.  At least that’s what the NRSV says…”rubbish.” The original language…not quite so polite. If we take a look at the Greek, we see the work “skubalon.” Now I often say that if you want to read an English translation that is as close to Greek as possible, read the King James…I just took a look at the NKJ and see that Paul calls it “dung.”  We’re getting closer to reality here…just in a polite matter.

Perhaps you’re picking up what I’m putting down here.  (Moment of foul language warning) Paul is calling all these attributes shit…plain and simple. I count them as shit in order to gain Christ.

Good to see that Paul called things like they are right?

In short, I tend to think that Paul is really pushing at the Lutheran notion of grace alone here.  There is NOTHING we can do…nothing within us…that will earn our salvation from our own sinful nature. Regardless of our “religious boy-scout medals” we get nowhere on our own power. It is only through the grace of God in Jesus Christ that we are saved.  Paul really throws this point down in verse 9. “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ.”

Now that being said, Paul makes another interesting point in verse 10 as he talks about knowing Christ and sharing in his sufferings.  This point could certainly point towards Luther’s concept of theology of the cross…that salvation is achieved only through the mockery/suffering that occurred on the cross. It is folly to normal understanding, but it is truth none the less. Paul seeks to join in Christ’s suffering “by becoming like him in his death.” Truly, Paul seeks to follow Jesus through suffering and death, and marks those things as blessings as they connect him to Christ. It is important to note that he’s not saying that his suffering and (eventual) death earn his salvation. Rather, he is saying that they are signs of the salvation that Christ has already achieved for him.

This is a good reminder as we face our own sufferings in this world. Rest assured, suffering is a reality. We all suffer trials of some kind. But keep in mind that Christ has shared those sufferings. I recently taught my junior high confirmation students about the importance of Christ experiencing every aspect of life from birth through death. He experienced it so that he might overcome it. Life is sinful, we can’t get past that. But Christ did on our behalf. God has experienced the same sufferings that we do. He has walked that road so that one day, we will walk with him in paradise.

It’s all about Christ, not us. That’s why Paul is so quick to talk trash about himself.


The birth of Christianity?

Today’s lectionary reading comes from Acts11:19-26. Here we see another story (been in Acts several times since I started this little project a couple weeks back) of the early church. We know that they had some tough moments (ie the stoning of Stephen which I discussed a week or so back…see it here… and is also mentioned very briefly here in the opening verse) and they had some good moments as well (ie the early work with spreading the word to the Gentiles…see a posting on that here). This particular passage seems to indicate a little bit of both.

Perhaps that’s why I appreciate this passage so much. It reminds us that life is full of those ups and downs. Life is messy. Some parts are good and some aren’t so great…if I can go on a micro tangent here (even before I really begin discussing the passage) I’m reminded of something that occurred this morning at a mens Bible study that I attend. We were discussing the book of Psalms (ever so briefly) and the notion that some Psalms are happy and joyful while some are sorrowful and lament-full (is that a word? lamenting maybe?). I’ve heard the book of Psalms described as covering the entire gambit of life…it was a professor that said it but if memory serves me correctly they were referencing Martin Luther when they said it.

Okay, back on task…and back to Acts 11.

We hear that many of the believers had scattered after the stoning of Stephen. Initially this may seem like a problem, but in actuality it allowed the message of Christ to spread. Just one way that God can take lemons and make lemonade. We hear that in Antioch…which was a pretty happening (ie important) city in the Roman empire at the time. A great deal of trade happened there and so there was a great mix of many of the sub-cultures that were scattered around through the empire (for reference, the Romans were actually really good about letting conquered people maintain their culture as long as they didn’t cause problems and paid their taxes). Because of this mix, the population in the city likely included a large number of both Jews and various Gentile groups, so there would have been a great opportunity for religious pluralism here.

Apparently, the good news of Christ was well received here in Antioch and we hear that many became believers (verse 21). Word spreads…likely by word of mouth at this time…and the believers in Jerusalem (which likely still included the apostles at this time) hear about it…cue up Barnabus who we’ve heard about before (he stood up for Paul…still known as Saul at this point…and vouched for him after his conversion). Barnabus is sent off to check things out and then, thinking he needed some backup to help guide this group of new believers…he goes after the man himself…Saul (of course better known as Paul but not until Acts 13…approximately 2 pages after this story in Acts 11).  They spend a year in Antioch, teaching and guiding the new believers.

I enjoy the last part of the passage. Verse 26 where it says “they were first called Christians.” This is where I pulled the title of this posting by posing the question birth of Christianity.  Now, are these the first believers? Absolutely not. There had been believers in Christ ever since he began his ministry…certainly before his death and resurrection and definitely before this point of the story. But up until this point, believers of “the way” (as it was called) were still considered to be part of the Jewish faith. A new sect yes, but still part of the larger body. At this point we really begin to see the division, possibly for the first time. At this point they are given a name and perhaps that distinction is what began the individual recognition (note that I don’t really have anything to back up this train of thought but I’m simply making an opinionated observation here).

And so I wonder, is this where “Christianity” really started? Now, to be honest, I would say no. Christianity began with Christ himself. I would therefore say that this is simply the first point where the distinction is made from the Jewish culture, or at least the Jewish religion.

As I look back at what I have written today, I must admit that it seems more as if I’ve covered the history behind the story more than anything…admittedly there hasn’t been a great deal of theological reflection here…and for that I apologize. But sometimes we go where the Spirit leads us…and that means we went the historical route today.

Hello 1 Thessalonians

Today’s lectionary reading comes from 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10.  In this particular portion of scripture, Paul writes a greeting to one of the congregations that he had started over the course of his missionary journeys. Scholars believe that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest of Paul’s letters that are included in the Bible. Now, I should be able to relay the argument that supports this as I had a class on it last spring, but I’m going to admit that my brain is failing me at the moment and I’m unable to come up with it.  That being said, just trust me, it’s the earliest.

Right away in verse 2, Paul offers us a good example of one portion of prayer life…lifting up those that you know. He says “we always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers…” This offers us insight into just how important the people were in the various congregations that Paul helped found on his various journeys. I can only imagine how long his daily prayers became. Perhaps the best comparison that I can make comes from the movie MASH…not the tv show mind you.   In the movie, the character of Frank Burns, played by Robert Duvall, is a devout Christian and prays every day. In the first interaction with his character, two other characters that share his tent witness him praying for the first time. He begins with the Lord’s prayer, but doesn’t end there. He begins to list various people…he goes on and on until one of the other men ask him how long he goes. He replies “it gets longer all the time…and now I need to pray for you.”  Honestly, its meant as a joke, but I like it…I think its a good example of how we are called to lift up our neighbor. Speaking of the notion of examples…that topic is raised by Paul in this passage. We see in verses 7-8 that Paul commends the Thessalonians for being positive examples of believers for others around Macedonia and Achaia.

Another point that I’m reminded of when reading this passage is a very Lutheran concept of our faith being the result of the work of the Holy Spirit. In verse 5 Paul says that the gospel came in the Holy Spirit. To clarify, as Lutherans we confess that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. This is the notion of sola fide (faith alone). Namely we are saved by faith in Jesus Christ. It is only by the grace of God, not by anything we do. Specifically, even our faith is a gift. Without the work of the Holy Spirit within us, we cannot believe and therefore we cannot be saved.

Now, on this topic, I admit that I wrestle. If that is the case I struggle to understand why the Spirit is not at work in all people. Why doesn’t everyone share in the gift in a like manner? I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t have a good answer to this question at this point. I hope to someday wrap my head around it, but that will have to wait for another time, because it’s not my reality today.

One final point that I’d like to draw out of this reading occurs in verse 9. Paul says the Thessalonians have turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God. Now, it is likely that Paul is making the point that the believers have turned away from idols, or false Gods to one that is true. Idolatry was a very prominent issue within the various Gentile communities. Many different gods and religions were practiced through the Roman empire and beyond. Thessalonica was no exception. What I find uplifting about this verse is the notion that we serve a living God. By living I’m referring to active. Our God did not simply create the universe and sit back in a chair. God continues to be active within the world every day. Personally, I find that very reassuring especially on days when I’m struggling with something. Its good to know that we aren’t alone.