Benediction Online

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Saved by God's Grace

Numbers 21:4-9
Ephesians 2:1-10
John 3:14-21

Today we continue our Lenten reflection as we practice looking at our readings from a different perspective. Rather than assuming that Jesus died on the cross to bear our punishment for sin, we are considering the idea that God did not need him to die. We are entertaining the possibility that Jesus died because the message he brought was so unpopular and so threatening to the powers of the world that they killed him. But that was not the end; Jesus the Christ was raised and in his resurrection God proved that he is more powerful than the forces of sin and violence.

It is from that perspective that I want us to look at the New Testament reading today, from the letter to the Ephesians. Scholars don’t agree about who wrote this letter but most think that it was not Paul but someone imitating his style. Its focus is the unity and reconciliation of the whole of creation to God through the work of the Church. I want to us to look at this passage quite carefully, section by section.

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else.

I know that we all like to think that everyone wants the best for everyone else and that we can all get along if we’re courteous and careful to play well with others. But just a cursory glance at the news suggests otherwise. Or spend a few hours watching reality TV. So-called reality shows depict people in strange and extreme circumstances clawing their way up at everyone else’s expense. It is a battlefield where only the fittest or the slyest survive and it makes sense to do everything you can to be the one ultimate winner.

That is “the course of this world” is to put ourselves and our group first, even at the expense of others. It is to put our own interests above those of others regardless of the consequences. We can see this on a big scale in corporations who are so concerned about immediate profit that they exploit their workers and ignore environmental concerns. We can see it in the political moves of those who want to deny that global warning is happening because to take that threat seriously would mean government intervention in industry and government intervention in the market because effective action is not going to happen if we all go on doing our own thing and no-one is taking care of the long-term consequences.

The writer’s description of the sin-system is a little difficult for us. Many of us grew up in households which at least dabbled in the kingdom of God and so it doesn’t fit to say “All of us once lived among them – the disobedient – in the passions of our flesh.” Things are not as clear cut today as they seem to have been for the early church; the seven so-called deadly sins are much more subtle in our day. But when we look at the world we can see that humans are by nature children of wrath. It doesn’t seem to take much for us to feel so threatened that we start to view those around us with suspicion. It doesn’t seem to take much for us to begin to put down people who don’t think the way we do. In the rapid response world of the Internet we can flame someone we’ve never met much more quickly than we can think about the nuances of what they’re saying. Most of us only have to listen to the conversations in our own heads to recognize that we are by nature violent even if only to ourselves.

The traditional concept of original sin is individualized – we are each sinful from the moment of our conception. I certainly prefer the idea of original blessing – we are blessed with the calling and opportunity to become the adopted children of God. But human society has a dark side and we are all mired in it just because we live in a world of sin and violence. It isn’t any individual’s fault, it is the way things have developed over thousands of years and continue to develop. If we don’t stop the cycle.

Let’s go on to the next bit: God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”

Even when we were so caught up in the sin-system that we were spiritually dead, God loved us. God loves us even when we are totally turned away from him. As the gospel reading says, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Notice it doesn’t say anything about God giving Jesus to die a violent death, just that he gave his Son.) God is rich in mercy and great love so she has made us alive together with Christ and raised us with him. We are joined with Christ in his resurrection – Paul says that in our baptism we are joined with Christ and raised with him. And here the writer to the Ephesians says that we are raised with Christ and seated with him in the heavenly places!!

Are we?

One of the important things to grasp in this New Testament living is the sense of both now and not yet. We are seated with Christ in the heavenly places - it’s a done deal, but we haven’t realized it yet, it isn’t actualized in our day to day lives.

How did we get here, to our seats in the heavenly places? By God’s grace we are joined with Jesus in his death, his resurrection and his victory over death and over the whole sin system. We no longer need to claw our way to the top, trampling over everyone else, because we are already here and no-one can take that away from us.

Let’s read on: For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Our salvation, our joining with Christ and being reconciled with God and getting to sit in the heavenly places is not our own doing. We did not do it by managing to get everyone else voted off the island. We did not do it by pushing our way up. Neither did we do it by diligent hard work. It is the gift of God, freely given from God’s unconditional love. So now we get to live the way God made us, we get to be the people we were created to be, living in relationship with God and showing forth God’s kingdom in all we do and say.

God’s gift to us is forgiveness, God’s gift to us is love, God’s gift to us is Jesus the embodiment of the kingdom and the author of our salvation.

And Jesus said, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Moses held up a brass serpent on a pole and everyone who looked at it was healed from fatal snakebites. So too we must look at Jesus – we must keep our eyes on him as if our lives depended on it, for in a real way they do.

Only when we keep our eyes on Jesus, on his life and teaching and his presence here today, can know that we are raised with him, seated in the kingdom of heaven, the daughters and sons of the Most High God.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

What’s the Problem with “Jesus died on the Cross for our Sins”?

This week someone told me that they couldn’t deal with the “whole Christianity thing”. When I asked which bit was particularly difficult to swallow, she said “well the whole thing - Jesus dying for our sins.”

We learned it in Sunday School, we hear it from all the prominent preachers and televangelists. Everyone knows that Christianity is about Jesus dying for our sins because we are such schmucks.

But is it?

Since about the 11th century the Church has taught that Jesus died on the cross because God’s sense of justice meant that someone had to die for our sin. So God as Jesus took it upon Godself to die in our place. This was further developed during the Reformation when our degradation in sin was stressed together with God’s grace which allowed Jesus to die in our place and saves us from our sin. Today lost of questions are being asked about everything including whether this makes sense with what we know about God.

We know that Jesus taught us to be peaceful, forgiving and to avoid violence in all its forms and that Jesus practiced non-violent resistance. If Jesus is the Christ, one of the three Persons of the Trinity then what is true of him must also be true of the Father/Creator and of the Spirit. So God must be non-violent (or else Jesus is not God, but that’s a whole different conversation).

If God is non-violent then why would he demand that ANYONE die a violent death in order to achieve “justice”?

Here’s the alternative: Jesus the Christ was incarnated as a human man to show us the kingdom of God which he embodied in his life and explained in his teaching. We humans were so enmeshed in the sin-system that people couldn’t stand his message and killed him. By resurrecting Jesus, God demonstrated another aspect of God’s kingdom – complete and total victory over the sin-system whose most powerful weapon to keep us all in line is the fear of death. Those of us who choose to sign up for the kingdom of God now get to demonstrate by our lives that we are part of that victory.

If it wasn't Lent I'd say "alleluia".

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Christ Crucified

1 Corinthians 1:18-25
John 2:13-22

Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom but we but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is talking about how foolish the gospel seems. This is true today too. Often people don’t realize that they are looking for Christ because they are looking for something different. They think they know the Christian message and it isn’t for them.

Today we might say, “Jews demand signs, Greeks demand wisdom and Americans require proof.” My good friend says that she’ll believe in God when God starts answering her prayers, by which she means that she’ll believe in God when he does what she wants and fixes her life. That is not what God is about. God will work in partnership with us when we are ready and willing to turn our lives over to her and listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit leading and guiding us.

We are used to images of God’s son hanging on a cross. But if we were not, the idea of a Messiah hanging limp, powerless and in agony on a cross would be an absurd contradiction. It cannot be the Christ, the Son of the High God, the one who has dominion over the nations of the earth. If it were truly the Christ wouldn’t he just get down and walk away?

He could have done just as earlier in his life when the people mobbed and tried to stone him, he simply disappeared into the crowd and walked away. Why did the Christ allow himself to be crucified by mere mortals?

Because it was the fulfillment of his mission. A couple of weeks ago we heard that Jesus at the beginning of his ministry was preaching the good news of the kingdom of God. That was what Jesus came to do – he came to show us the kingdom of God. A kingdom which is quite different from the kingdom of the world. Even today after 2000 years of us trying to live into Jesus’ teachings and Jesus’ example, the world we live in every day is quite different from the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of the world is based in the sin-system of violence and fear. A quick look at the news is enough to make the point. We spend our time competing for what we believe are scarce resources. Those who want to be President spend time and vast sums of money trying to prove that they are better than their fellows, not by demonstrating their abilities and arguing policy, but by putting each other down. The country is gripped by fear of an unstable economy, the possibility of attack, of others having as many nuclear weapons as we have. While we are in the clutches of fear we turn on each other and cannot cooperate to address the very real problems of poverty, hunger, homelessness and global warming that threaten human flourishing.

Jesus’ mission was to open our eyes to the possibility of living in another kingdom, the kingdom of God a place of love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness. mercy, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. Jesus’ mission was to invite us to enroll in that kingdom so that like him we could live free of the downward drag of the sin-system which takes fear and resentment and turns it to anger and hatred and violence.

The path which Jesus took was the path of non-violent resistance. He did not fight violence with violence but taught a different way; to resist violence in every form but to resist it in a way which takes away its power. When the soldiers came at night to arrest him, one of Jesus’ companions made a clumsy attack and cut an ear off the high priest’s servant. Jesus said, “Put your sword back in its place for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt. 26:53)

Jesus did not especially want to die but it became the only way forward. He knew that death was not the end and that it was better to die than to fight back with violence. He knew that it was God’s way to accept death rather than resort to violence.

A crucified Messiah. The final victory of the sin-system. The one who claimed to be the son of God dying at the hands of his enemies.

But we know that it was not the end. We know that Jesus the Christ was resurrected. That he won the day, not the powers of sin and violence.

And that is our hope.

We too can resist the sin-system. We too can live not in a violent way but in a strong gentle way like Jesus of Nazareth. Who, we heard in today’s gospel reading, resisted the commercialization of the temple.

The sin-system always attempts to take the things of the Spirit and corrupt them. When we are called to prayer and meditation, there are immediately catalogs of things that we need to meditate – the right cushion, the best bell; when we decide that God is calling us to live simply, there is a glossy magazine to help us buy the right products.

The kingdom of God is not a commodity to be bought and sold. It is not a system to make us feel good and make our lives easier. It is not the key to happiness and prosperity. It IS a hard path of non-violent yet strong resistance to all that seeks to corrupt and distort the gift of God to us in creation and in Godself.

Christ crucified is a symbol of our faith because it is the ultimate image of faith and love. Faith that God will not allow violence to win. Love because it is God’s peace offering to humanity. Christ crucified is the ultimate symbol of non-violence resistance – the God of the Universe allowed himself to be humiliated, scorned and physically injured rather than fight back in kind.

The empty cross is also a symbol of our faith, because we know that the crucifixion is not the end, that resurrections follows, and there is our hope.

Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Jesus is God's Peace offering to Us

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
Psalm 22:22-30
Romans 4:13-25
Mark 8:31-38

Today we start Jesus’ journey to the cross and beyond. Our gospel reading is a familiar one about taking up our cross. The other two lessons put this in the context of a discussion of faith and being reconciled to God. The first lesson told us that even in the face of death, Abraham believed God’s promise of a son and it was “reckoned to him as righteousness” and in the second lesson Paul parallels that with our faith: Abraham believed in God who fulfilled the promise: Christ-followers believe in God who raised Jesus.[1]

Righteousness is a word which is sometimes misunderstood because we talk of someone who is smug and hypocritical as being self-righteous and sometimes shorten that to say “she’s very righteous”. That’s not at all what the Bible means. God is often described as righteous, because he does what is right – in fact he is the epitome of what is right. So when we are made righteous we are reconciled with God – we are made to be at peace with the one who exemplifies righteousness. We do not make ourselves righteous – our participation is through our believing in God’s willingness to make God her promises, and in God raising Jesus so that we might have a way out of the sin-system.

During Lent we are re-examining ideas about how that reconciliation between God and man was facilitated by Jesus’ death and resurrection – how we are made one with God – which is often called the atonement – the at-one-ment. So the last few sentences of the second lesson are important for us to think about in more detail.

“Faith will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.”

We are so used to hearing words like these and interpreting them as the Church has interpreted them for the last thousand years that we have to work to see them in a new way. But the Holy Spirit is constantly opening our eyes to new possibilities and challenging us to get out of our ruts and think about things from a different perspective. A literal translation of the Greek puts it in slightly different words: “Who was handed over for the trespasses of us and was raised for the justification of us.”

“Who was handed over for the trespasses of us” does not actually mention death but it makes it very clear that God is the one taking the action. Jesus and the atonement that comes through his life death and resurrection is God’s initiative. Earlier in Romans (3:25) Paul uses the unusual word hilasterion. He says, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a hilasterion by his blood, effective through faith.”

Hilasterion is often translated sacrifice of atonement – in less pompous language we could call it a peace offering. But what’s amazing about this is that the hilasterion is being offered by God. In Jesus God is making a peace offering to humanity. Because we have become mired in the sin-system which perpetuates violence and oppression we also see God as violent and oppressive. But God has brought us a peace offering and in accepting that offering, in believing in the loving and powerful God who raised Jesus from the dead, we are freed from that system.

Going back to that literal translation of Paul’s words, “Jesus was handed over for the trespasses of us and was raised for the justification of us.” God gave Jesus to deal with our sin and raised him from the dead. In his resurrection we are vindicated and justified, just as he is. He is victorious over the sin system which tried to eradicate him – yes he died but it didn’t stick. So too we can be victorious over the meanness, the bad habits, the sins which drag us down and sometimes seem so powerful that they will suffocate us.

Before I end I do want to offer some thoughts on taking up the cross but let me just mention parallelism; in Jewish poetry there are frequent parallels – we see them especially in the psalms. A quick example from our psalm this morning: “For kingship belongs to the LORD; *he rules over the nations.” (Ps.22:27) – there’s not a great deal of difference between “kingship belongs to the Lord” and “he rules over the nations.” There is a subtle difference which enhances our understanding.

I think Paul is using a similar rhetorical devise when he says, “Jesus was handed over for the trespasses of us and was raised for the justification of us” – those are not two entirely different and opposing things but very similar concepts.

There seems to me to be parallelism in the two parts of the gospel reading too. In the first part Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to be killed and raised. Peter pulls him aside to say that this is outrageous and he mustn’t even consider putting himself in such danger. Jesus has a strong reaction, “Get behind me Satan!” I am sure that Jesus had had similar ideas to Peter’s – it would have been much easier not to go towards Jerusalem, not to head towards that painful encounter with the darkest forces of the sin-system. But to turn back would have been to follow his human nature and inclinations not his divine calling. In order for God to hand Jesus over “for the trespasses of us” Jesus had to be obedient and willing.

In the second part of the reading Jesus says to the crowd "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” If we think of this as paralleling the conversation with Peter then it is amplifying or adding in some way to what he just said. So he’s saying – if you want to be my followers you also get to take up your cross.

It’s not the same cross that Jesus had. But each one of us if we are truly to be Jesus followers get to play our part in opposing the forces of the sin-system. That’s what it means to be followers of Jesus – we can no longer be unconscious participants in the kingdom of this world which is caught up in power plays, greed and violence – we have to take our own stand against it.

The sin-system is so pervasive that there are a million different ways to oppose it and we all get to resist on several fronts at once. There is the pain and difficulty we experience within ourselves as we grapple with the residue of traumatic and painful experiences – yes we all have them – and seek healing so that we can be serene in the face of adversity. There is the temptation in our personal relationships to be critical, to complain and make jokes at other people’s expense. This is a huge temptation in faith community where we are constantly living with each other’s beauty and grace AND each other’s failings. Adjusting our expectations and behaviors to accommodate the broken places in each other without being critical but rather unconditionally loving and at the same time maintain healthy community – that is standing up to the sin-system.

And then there is the temptation to believe that we are powerless and so to do nothing in the face of oppression and exploitation in our society. It has been said that “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” Needless to say I would expand that to include good women. We are called to take up our cross and oppose evil in all its insidious and subtle forms in ourselves, in the church and in society.

The good news is that Jesus rose again! In doing so he completely and ultimately broke the hold of the sin-system, so we are not fighting a losing battle. God has provided a peace offering so that we may be reconciled with God and enroll in his kingdom. We can choose to be on the winning side.

Jesus was given for our trespasses - to break the hold of the sin-system – and he was a peace-offering given by God so that we might become righteous – at-one with Her. In our eucharist we are invited once again to participate in that meal of coming-together-oneness with the divine. It is God who invites us into her presence to become participants in the kingdom , members of the Body of Christ, daughters and sons of the most high God!

[1] Frank J. Matera, Romans