29 May 2020

Luke 5:12-26 Jesus Brings Cleansing and Healing

In this passage, Jesus performs two miracles. The first, in Luke 5:12-16, Jesus heals a man with leprosy. The second, in Luke 5:17-26, he heals a man who is paralyzed. In both of these stories, the physical healing is not the real miracle, but the proof of the miracle.

Luke records that the man with leprosy "begged" Jesus, "Lord, if you want to, you can make me clean." In Mark's Gospel, Jesus is said to become angry at this request (Mark 1:40-45). This is likely because it is not a request, it is a challenge. It is not a question, but a statement. He is not begging Jesus, he is questioning his authority, his power, and his willingness to heal him. Jesus does not show him indignation first, but compassion. Jesus heals the man and then reprimands him. Had he done what Moses commanded of him, he would already be healed. Jesus orders him to go make the offering that had been commanded.

This passage presents us a wonderful map for dealing with conflict. Jesus does not immediately go to assigning blame. He solves the problem of the relationship first. This mas had leprosy. Because of that, he could not enter the Temple, could not be a part of his community, blamed God, and questioned Jesus. Before Jesus solves the problem, he restores the relationship by healing the man. Then Jesus shows him what the real problem was all along, that he did not trust God, did not engage with the authorities God had placed over him (the priests), and was rude even to his peers. The miracle is not the cleansing of his body, but the healing of his heart.

The second story is more overt in this way. In verse 17, Jesus is teaching and his teaching is being interrupted by the sick who all require healing. Because of the crowd, there is a paralyzed man who cannot be carried close enough to see Jesus, so those who are carrying him go to the roof of the house, take it apart, and lower him through it. Jesus says to the man, "your sins are forgiven."

Does Jesus mean the sins that caused the man to be paralyzed (as many thought in his day), or the sin of dismantling someone's roof? If Jesus forgives the man's sins, how can the owner of the house expect repayment? Jesus does not answer this. He proves he has the authority to forgive. Instead of answering the Pharisees, or the homeowner, he addresses the paralyzed man, "but that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, I tell you, arise, take up your cot, and go to your house." And so the man does.

Jesus is telling him that whatever sins have brought him to this point, even to the point of damaging someone's home, it is forgiven. By the smallest act of faith, the man can start a new life, forgiven of his past debts and transgressions. Not the Pharisees, nor the crowd can hold him to account, because God has forgiven his sins. The Pharisees themselves had said that none " can forgive sins, but God alone." If this is the power of God, what can any of them do?

The cleansing of a body is a sign, but the healing of a heart is a miracle. Jesus restored these two to their community, canceled their debts, and renewed their faith. That is the real miracle of healing. What happened to their bodies, that is mere cleansing.

Jesus still performs this miracle today. In baptism, he invites us to experience healing through a ritual of cleansing. That cleansing is an outward sign of the healing of our hearts that comes when we choose to walk by faith in the way of Jesus. It is a small act of faith that brings about a new life in which all is forgiven, relationships are restored, and none can hold us to account because God has forgiven us. If you have not yet been baptized, what is stopping you? Fill up the bath tub and call any Christian. A new life awaits.

Peace be with you.

22 May 2020

The Ethics of What We Eat

1 Corinthians 8-11

A significant portion of Paul's letter to the Corinthians is concerned with the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. In his day, sacrifices were sold after being offered. Sacrificed meat not only provided a source of cheap meat for those who would otherwise not even have access to meat, but it helped support the temple and pay the priests. That's just fine in Jerusalem, where the Temple is to God Most High, but Paul is writing to Corinth, where there is no Jewish temple. The meat he is referring to is meat sacrificed to idols.

At first glance, this passage seems pretty easy to write off. We don't have a bustling meat market tied to animal sacrifice and idolatry. So obviously, our values need not be compromised when we eat meat. Except that many of us do find that our values need to be checked when we go out to buy food, and not just meat. Whether we have concerns over a certain brand which supports slavery in Asia, use of pesticides, privatization of drinking water, the dairy industry's impact on climate change, the cruel treatment of farm animals, the ecological impact of over-fishing, or even concerns on the way a company treats its workers, we all have to consider how the food we eat matches with our ethics. This is further complicated with us having such a great disparity of ethical paradigms when it comes to food: some will eat anything, some are on medical diets, some eat only wild-caught fish, some eat only locally farmed meat, some are vegetarian, and some are vegan... to name just a few.

This is exactly what Paul is concerned with in writing to the Corinthians, the consciences of its different members pull them in all different directions until they cannot even eat together. He addresses first the position of those who may eat anything because "they possess knowledge" that "there is no God but one" (8:1-4). They know that there is no other god, and so they can eat anything with a free conscience. As Christ declared, food is for the stomach, not the heart (Mark 7:19). However, there are some who cannot eat without thinking of where their food came from. Paul warns that for them, they cannot eat in good conscience, and so eating meat drives a wedge between them and God (8:7-13). He concludes that, "If food causes my brother to stumble, I will eat no meat forever more, that I don’t cause my brother to stumble."

Note that Paul implies those who may eat anything are of "stronger" faith than those who cannot as he calls them "weaker." In fact, at the beginning of chapter 8, he confirms their belief. Those who conform to a legalistic view are of weaker faith than those who understand that they are not under law. Instead of calling all to a higher standard, Paul sets those who are stronger to protect those who are weaker. It is the relationship of the Church's members that is important, which he confirms in chapter 10.

Initially, he seems to confirm the beliefs of those he previously characterized as "weaker", advising that all "flee from idolatry" (10:14). He then reminds the reader that we are all of one body as we participate in the same Lord's Supper (15-17). He then confirms that participating in a sacrifice is to participate in idolatry (18-22). In other words, those "weaker" members are not wrong.

He then advises that while there is no need for us to be burdened with conscience in these matters (23-26), we should follow our conscience anyways while remaining gracious (27-30). The only thing of any importance is that "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God" (31-32).

The purpose of a conscience is what we do with it, not only for our own sake. In chapter 11, Paul seeks to correct an abuse of the church in which he sees each acting on their individual conscience to the exclusion of their community. During the Lord's Supper, which is a meal, not just a wafer and a sip of grape juice, "some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk" (11:21). In acting on their own consciences, they separate, and some go hungry.

There is a balance to be found between individual conscience and the needs of the community. Some may have to live to a higher standard, others may need to protect their weaker brothers and sisters, and some may just need to learn to share. If we live from conscience, in fellowship, and share without hesitation, then and only then are we really the body of Christ.

Peace be with you.

15 May 2020

Luke 5:1-11: Simon Answers the Call

Luke 5:1-11

The chapter opens near Capernaum, at the Sea of Galilee. It's a beautiful morning without wind, because Jesus is able to teach from God's Word while sitting in a boat (3). At the edge of the shore, fishermen are washing their nets (2). Jesus asks of Simon to "put out into the deep water and let down the nets for a catch" (4). It's morning, Simon worked all night, he's already packed up his nets and is ready to go home, having caught nothing (5). Still he answers Jesus, "because you say so, I will let down the nets" (5).

Why does Simon do this? It's the wrong time of day for fishing and he already spent all night and caught nothing. Jesus is not a fisherman, he's the son of a carpenter; he is not even remotely qualified to know where the best fishing spots are. Simon knows he's going to have to wash these nets out and pack them up again. He's had a long day of work and he's signing himself up for more. He may even have to work into the heat of the day because of this. He will certainly lose sleep.

Still, Simon lets the nets out, because Jesus asked him to. The catch of fish is so large that even with the help of another boat, they can hardly contain it (6-7). Simon and his partners, James and John are astonished. Simon reacts in fear, saying "go away from me for I am a sinful man!" (8-10).

Jesus may not be a qualified fisherman, but Simon knows he is far from a qualified disciple. This passage does not tell us what his sins were, but his reaction tells us he was full of regret. But Jesus does not call Simon, James, and John based on their qualifications, or even upon the goodness of their hearts. When Jesus calls them, they are sinful and they know nothing about the work that is before them. He calls them based on their faith and their willingness to work.

When they get to shore, they leave everything: the boats, the nets, and the largest catch they ever hauled, a fortune in fish, right there on the shore and go to follow Jesus, to become "fishers of men" (10-11). What do they see in Jesus? Certainly he could lead them to success beyond their wildest dreams, but he already did that. They left that on the shore to follow him. What Jesus offers is far more valuable, to restore their relationship with God.

Simon had said, "I am a sinful man" (8). This is who he thinks he is. He thinks he has no value because of the mistakes he has made. He fears to enter the presence of God because he cannot even forgive himself. Jesus shows him that not only is he forgiven, he is called, he is valued. Jesus invites him to embark on a transformation from "sinful man" to spiritual leader. For that promise, he, James, and John abandon everything. From that moment, they live by faith.

Peace be with you.

08 May 2020

The Power of the Cross

"For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." --Romans 6:23

Every human dies because every human sins (Romans 3:23). This is not an inherent (or inherited) condition, as with Original Sin, but an action we each perform. If it were inherited, Christ could not have been sinless (2 Corinthians 5:21). Sin comes from a wrongness which takes root in our hearts and captures our minds (Mark 7:21). The Gospels give the example of trees bearing fruit (Luke 6:44). Wrongness within the heart causes it to produce evil deeds. The Apostle Paul tells us that the inspiration of this wrongness is the action of "one man," Adam (Romans 5:12-21).

Paul puts forward that if the action of "one man" can cause evil to abound, then so too can the action of "one man" cause righteousness to abound. Christ's answer to evil is forgiveness, that "where sin abounded, grace abounded more exceedingly." Christ's answer to "death through sin" is that forgiveness ("grace") might bring about "righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord" (Romans 5:12-21).

Just as corruption (wrongness of thought) brings about a transformation of the heart so that we perform evil deeds, so too does forgiveness bring about a transformation. While the fruit of corruption is evil deeds, the fruit of righteousness, which come from the Holy Spirit, is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

So what then of divine justice? Does sin not demand punishment from God? That is ultimately for God to decide. Colossians 2:13-15 tells us that God not only "wiped away the handwriting in ordinances which were against us" but that with the very demand for justice he "has taken it out of the way, nailing it to the cross." If God judges us, he judges us to be good based on the fruit we bear, "against which there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23).

The cross then is not a place where payment is made or justice is served, but a demonstration of God's grace (Romans 3:24-26) and an invitation to participate in the transforming power of God's love (Galatians 2:20). Paul expounds on this in Romans 6:3-14. There he explains that by baptism we are crucified with Christ, buried with him in his death, and with him we are raised from the dead. In this way, we are beyond the power of sin because we dedicate our lives to God.

In order that our relationship may be restored, God himself bridges the gap between who we are and who we should be (Colossians 2:13-15). Jesus died as the demonstration of God's love (Romans 3:24-26), proving to us that nothing can keep us apart from God's love. Through baptism and sanctification, we share in Christ's death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-14). In his death, we become free from sin, as the consequence of sin is death (Romans 6:23). In his resurrection, we enter into a new life in which the Holy Spirit dwells within us, transforming us (2 Corinthians 5:21) from within to become the living temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16).

This is not something that God does alone, which we can embrace or deny, it is a choice we make and a walk we share. The cross, Christ's death and resurrection, is participatory in nature (Galatians 2:20). In choosing to emulate Christ, To walk with God, to be indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are choosing to be transformed in God's image. The proof of this is in the fruit we bear, the Spirit brings about in us "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). When we embrace God's love, we can be no longer under the requirement of any law, because by "the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6:38). Our measure is mercy, our portion is love. Against which can there be no law.

Special thanks to Pastors Michael Schiefelbein and Erin King for their invaluable input during this article's research.

01 May 2020

The Kingdom of God

The "Kingdom of God" (or "of Heaven" in Matthew's Gospel) is a phrase unique to the New Testament. Even after two millennia there is little agreement on what it means. Some teach that the Kingdom is a way of living, some that it is the Heaven promised when we die. There are those that believe that the Kingdom will be established after the apocalypse, while others teach that it is already here. The biblical authors differ on what this phrase means, and when we look to the gospels, even Jesus seems to use the phrase in a number of ways. When faced with such a confusing topic, it is always helpful to look at the original source.

The first time we see reference to the Kingdom of God is in Mark 1:15 (Mark's Gospel is older than Matthew's.) When Jesus arrives in Galilee he proclaims, "The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent, and believe in the Good News." Does Jesus mean that he is the kingdom, that the gospel is the kingdom, or that the kingdom is something else which comes with one or the other?

In Mark 4, Jesus gives several parables to explain the Kingdom of God: The Parable of the Sower (4:1-9), A Lamp on a Stand (4:21-25), The Scattered Seed (4:26-29), and The Mustard Seed (4:30-34). He tells these parables to crowds of people but to his disciples he gives the meaning of the parables (13-20). This is so that the crowds may hear, but not immediately understand (4:10-12). Perhaps this is because if they understood, they would not later be willing to crucify him.

Whatever the Kingdom of God means, it is intimately connected with the Gospel. In each of the parables, the preaching of the word is likened to the scattering of seed. Where the seed grows, it transforms the land (the hearts of those who receive the Gospel). So complete is the transformation that it produces an abundant crop which can be seen, felt, gathered, and distributed to others. So which is the kingdom, the seed that is spread or the land on which it grows? For the metaphor to work, the kingdom must be the land, which is the hearts of those who receive the Gospel.

In this context, does the Kingdom of God exist in the past, the present, or the future? Is it here in our world, is it in the afterlife, or in a world yet to come? The Kingdom of God is in the hearts of those who love him. As long as the Gospel is preached, as long as it is transforming hearts, as long as it is lived, the Kingdom of God is always here: regardless of whether "here" is on Earth, in Heaven, or on some future world to come. It was, it is, and it will be.

The Kingdom of God is salt. So have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.