Archive for November, 2018

The “calisthenic” of the Sermon on the Mount: why Paul doesn’t contradict Jesus

November 26, 2018

I preached a sermon yesterday called “Do Not Be Anxious” on Matthew 6:25-34. Since I no longer preach from a manuscript, I’ll transcribe and post the sermon later this week, God willing.

As I was preparing this sermon, I read the following words from Frederick Dale Bruner on the relationship between faith and works implicit within Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Bruner is a kindred spirit; whenever I get to preach Matthew (or John), I reach first for his very helpful “theological commentary” on this gospel. Bruner’s insights help alleviate the nagging fear of a convinced Protestant like myself that I might be in danger of—say it isn’t so!—overemphasizing the doctrine of Sola Fide—that we are justified entirely by faith in Christ, and our good works play no role in saving us beyond confirming the authenticity of our faith.

The Jesus revealed in Matthew’s gospel, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, emphasizes doing. So are we sure that we’re justified by faith alone?

Obviously, Bruner feels this tension as well:

For the Christian who comes to the Sermon on the Mount from the literature of Paul (as I, in my Christian history, do) there is a difficulty with this emphasis on doing. Paul’s theology of grace has shaken the foundations of all confidence in deeds (or “doings”), even in the best of deeds, namely, the deeds done in obedience to God’s teaching, called “the works of the law” (erga nomou). Paul contrasts trust in our “doing” with trust in Jesus Christ and his doing, for example, in the great third chapter of Galatians (Gal 3:2 and 5 especially). Paul’s gospel of salvation by Christ’s faith-eliciting work alone, received apart from even our best human doing, has more than once reformed and blessed the church and seems to be what the Christian gospel at its core is all about. What then are we to do with the Sermon on the Mount that asks us above all to do the good works of the commands of Jesus if we wish to be safe?[1]

Bruner reminds his readers of what he’s said about the Inaugural Beatitudes, with their emphasis on spiritual poverty before God (“blessed are the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”). Jesus begins his sermon, in other words, addressing people who recognize their need for God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness before anything else. We must remember, Bruner says, that these Beatitudes, “which can best be interpreted as Jesus’ gifts of grace,” precede the Commands and enable them.

Then the Commands themselves are so hard, so high, so total that they cannot be kept without a swift flight back to the Lord of the Beatitudes for mercy and help. No one who has tried to keep Jesus’ demands can, I think, deny this flight. Then the Commands are followed and backed up by the sixth chapter’s long call to faith. (Faith is especially the point of the Lord’s Prayer at the heart of Matt. 6).

This is all to say that the Commands to do in the Sermon on the Mount are preceded (in the Beatitudes) and followed (in the Lord’s Prayer) by gifts (especially the gifts of forgiveness: “forgive us our failures”; the following “as” does not cancel, it confirms). The fifth chapter’s Beatitudes and You Ares and the sixth chapter’s faith and prayer are all gifts to the seeking, yes, the trying people of God. I do not see how a single line of the sermon can be read without feeling summoned to one’s knees before God—that is, to what Paul calls faith. And yet the summons to our knees is never an end in itself; the calisthenic of this sermon is to move repeatedly from kneeling to walking. The direction of the Sermon on the Mount is to the deed—but it is equally from the gift. It is toward the neighbor through the Father.

Where Paul carefully separates faith from deeds in order to give all glory to God’s mercy, Matthew’s Jesus commands such high-quality deeds that we are driven to faith in God’s mercy. The dynamics are different but complementary. The height of the deeds to which Jesus calls in this sermon can only be approached by people walking on their knees.[2]

I can heartily say “Amen” to this, but not before saying more about how the Commands are “so hard, so high, so total that they cannot be kept without a swift flight back to the Lord of the Beatitudes for mercy and help.” This is, perhaps, an understatement.

At the risk of being a full-on Lutheran, I like the way the Very Rev. Paul Zahl, a retired Episcopalian minister, puts it a series of talks he gave on the Sermon on the Mount called “The Merciful Impasse”:

This is the power of the Sermon on the Mount: Christ pitches it high. People think because I talk about grace that I’m lowering the demand of the Law – quite to the contrary. I’m increasing the bar; I’m lifting the bar of the demand so you can earlier begin to say, “I cannot do it” …I’m telling you that the demand actually is higher than you know, and that allows you to go on your knees more quickly.

Deep down, we’re so incredibly consumed with anxieties and fears. And so the point of the Sermon on the Mount is simply to express the truth of human life – that the truth of human life is an inward conflict between what I ought to be and what I am, and this causes enormous anxiety, fear, trouble, guilt, and anger, just to name a few. When I talk about this, people think I’m saying that He’s attacking you. But all He’s doing is exposing the fact that before the Law, or the standard of God, the only possible response is humility…

The moment that I recognize that I, by my own efforts to atone, or to expiate, or to do better, or to fly right, or to do more, or to work harder, or to be nicer, are doomed to perdition – at that moment there is a release. And the release spells joy, power, significance, exuberance, happiness, creativity, love, and – come to find out – holiness.

1. Frederick Dale Bruner, The Christbook, Matthew 1-12 rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 368.

2. Ibid., 368-9.

Reductio ad Hitlerum, Part 26: What if Hitler had a deathbed conversion?

November 10, 2018

I’m a fan of Ask Away with Vince and Jo Vitale, an apologetics podcast from Ravi Zacharias’s ministry. In each episode Vince and Jo (along with host Michael Davis) answer often difficult questions about Christianity that are submitted by listeners.

In the most recent episode, a listener asked the following: “If Hitler repented to God on his deathbed, would he have been forgiven?”

Please note that no one is asserting that Hitler did repent and believe in Jesus. Indeed, since he committed suicide, it seems unlikely that he even had a deathbed. So the question is hypothetical. But I like Jo’s response:

This is what it comes down to at the bottom of it, right? This may be the hardest thing to accept in Christianity. People say that if there’s a loving God, why would he judge people? But I think the much harder thing is, if there’s a loving God, why would he forgive people—even this person, even Hitler? But actually, the reality of the Christian faith is, either it’s for everybody or it’s for nobody. There’s no middle ground here. And I think what this question reveals is that on some level we’re still thinking of forgiveness as about what we deserve: that there are certain people who deserve forgiveness and there are others who don’t. But the bottom line here—the message of the Bible—is that none of us do. Grace is completely unmerited.

The theologian Christopher Wright says that every victim of sin is also a sinner. There is none who is not also sinned against. That’s the state we’re in. It doesn’t mean that all sin is the same. I do think there are certain things that are horrifying and grotesque and sick and evil, and Hitler is the example we go to for that, and the life he lived is absolutely appalling. We’re not leveling out and saying that there aren’t differences in the way that we sin. But nevertheless we are saying that we’re all in the same boat in the sense that, yes, we’re still dead in our sin—whether it was extreme sin that killed us or small sin, we’re still dead in our sin.

And I think the question here becomes, Is the cross big enough to carry it? No matter the horrendousness of the evil, is God big enough to defeat it? Is his love strong enough to wipe out even the most horrendous kind of hate? And what does that say about what Christ carried on the cross, and the gravity of that, and the enormity of it—that even something so heinous could be what Christ is bearing for us at the cross?

My favorite part of her answer is this: “On some level we’re still thinking of forgiveness as about what we deserve.” We believe we have to deserve or earn or pay for or prove ourselves worthy of God’s saving grace. Some people measure up, while others clearly don’t.

What about you? Do you believe that you have to deserve forgiveness?

The dying Capt. Miller speaks the most unhelpful words possible to Private Ryan.

Before you answer, consider how you respond to the following scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan. If you’ve seen it, you may recall the dying words that Capt. Miller, Tom Hanks’s character, spoke to Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. After nearly everyone in the unit dies in order to save Ryan’s life, Miller grabs Ryan by the lapels and says, “Earn this… Earn it!”

Next we see an elderly Ryan, decades later, near the end of his own life, standing beside the grave markers at Normandy beach—asking his children and grandchildren, “Did I earn it?”—in other words, did he live a life worthy of the sacrifices that Miller and his fellow soldiers made for him so long ago? Did he deserve the life that their deaths made possible for him?

His family reassures him: “Of course you did, Dad!”

And I’m like, Really? Who are they kidding? A dozen or so men sacrificed their lives to save Ryan’s life: How could he possibly “earn” that sacrifice? How could he repay that debt? How could he balance those scales?

He couldn’t… which is why I find this scene between Miller and Ryan more horrifying than any of the bloody carnage depicted in the movie. Miller places on Ryan an impossible burden of guilt.

Yet, in a way, this scene depicts our predicament before God. Because of our sin, we owe God a debt we can never repay. The difference, of course, is that instead of insisting that we repay the debt—a debt infinitely greater than what Ryan owes—God himself pays it for us on the cross of his Son Jesus, who is also God.

Instead of grabbing us by the proverbial lapels and saying, “Earn this,” God says, “Receive this… receive this free gift, which I paid for on the cross. It was my pleasure to purchase this gift for you because I love you that much! Receive it!”

So the question is not about Hitler, and how evil he is, but Jesus and how powerful the cross is. Do we believe, in other words, that Jesus accomplished something objective on the cross to make forgiveness of sin possible, such that both God’s perfect love and his commitment to perfect justice—both of which are aspects of God’s nature—would be upheld?

If the Bible is telling the truth, the answer is a resounding yes.

In Mark 10:35-45, which I preached on a few weeks ago, Jesus hints at how the cross accomplishes this. When James and John ask about sitting at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory, he says, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”

This “cup” is the same cup to which Jesus will later refer in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:36 (and parallels): “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” This is also the cup to which the Old Testament refers—a symbol of God’s wrath, which, scripture warns repeatedly, the unrighteous will have to drink as punishment for their sin:

For in the hand of the Lord there is a cup
    with foaming wine, well mixed,
and he pours out from it,
    and all the wicked of the earth
    shall drain it down to the dregs. (Psalm 75:8)

Thus the Lord, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.” (Jeremiah 25:15-16)

The good news, as Isaiah prophesies, is that God will remove the cup of his wrath.

Thus says your Lord, the Lord,
    your God who pleads the cause of his people:
“Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more.” (Isaiah 51, 17, 22)

In the interest of justice, how can God do this? Does humanity not deserve to drink this cup? What causes God to take the cup away?

Only this: God offered an acceptable substitute for us. And who could possibly serve as a fitting substitute? Only God.

In other words, we owed a debt to God that only God could pay. So he paid it—willingly, out of love. This is why God came into the world in Christ: to “give his life as a random for many” (Mark 10:45). Jesus’ words in this verse point back to Isaiah 53:5, 10:

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed…

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.

As a result of God’s offering of himself on the cross, an “offering for guilt,” we—those of us who believe in Jesus—become the “offspring” of God himself. As John himself (the very one who, along with his brother, is squabbling over sitting at Christ’s left or right hand) would later write,

But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)

This is the gospel, the very foundation on which I’ve built my life. Thank you, Jesus!

Journaling through Proverbs: “Buy truth, and do not sell it”

November 8, 2018

Today’s reflection (which I’m transcribing with minimal editing from my journaling Bible) comes from Proverbs 23:17, 23:

Let not your heart envy sinners,
    but continue in the fear of the Lord all the day.

Buy truth, and do not sell it;
    buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding.

23:17: “Let not your heart envy sinners”: The antidote to “envying sinners,” this scripture says, is “fearing the Lord.” What does it mean to envy sinners? For me, it means wanting the praise and recognition that other people receive. I want (in the case of fellow UMC pastors, who are also fellow sinners) their more prominent church appointments. I want their social media “likes.” I want to live in their hip and trendy neighborhoods. I want their respect. I want them to love me. (They love others; why can’t the love me, too? Do they not know how clever, charming, and funny I am?) But God’s Word is telling me, by contrast, to desire only God’s praise and approval, not other people’s (“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”); to care only about what God thinks of me, not what other people think of me; to fear God, in other words.

At the heart of envy is fear: What if other people are getting something that I’m not getting? This scares me. The acquisition of glory (which I so desperately crave) is a zero-sum game: If someone else is getting it, they are stealing it from me. If other people are being exalted, I am being diminished.

What a miserable way to live! Why not trust instead that God is giving me everything I need? This is in part what it means to fear the Lord.

23:23: “Buy truth and do not sell it”: And just think: it’s not even something that I have to buy; it’s completely free. And alongside “wisdom, instruction, and understanding,” it’s available in this book, Proverbs, and this Book of Books, the Bible. Buy it? I don’t even have to. But if there were a price for it, this scripture says—even an expensive one—it would be worth paying.

Instead, it’s free. Yet too often I think, “It’s still too expensive! It’s not worth the time and effort to invest in. It’s not worth getting up early, or (worse for me) going to bed early, in order to acquire this truth, wisdom, instruction, and understanding… I’d rather be lazy… I’d rather suffer!” Because  make no mistake: that’s what I do! My envy (as I point out above) causes suffering. My anger causes suffering. My resentment causes suffering. It causes me to suffer, not to mention the suffering of others—those poor souls who have to live with me, or deal with me on a regular basis!

So, in the interest of “loving my neighbor,” if not loving myself, I need to “buy truth,” wisdom, instruction, and understanding.

Do I really think it’s worth it? Or would I rather suffer? This verse, please notice, says it is worth it.

Lord, teach my heart to believe it. Amen.

Journaling through Proverbs: “Do not toil to acquire wealth”

November 5, 2018

Today’s reflection (which I’m transcribing with minimal editing from my journaling Bible) comes from Proverbs 23:4-5:

Do not toil to acquire wealth;
    be discerning enough to desist.
When your eyes light on it, it is gone,
    for suddenly it sprouts wings,
    flying like an eagle toward heaven.

The book’s ambivalent relationship with (attitude toward) wealth continues. Having wealth, per se, is good and preferable to not having it: You can accomplish great good with it and, to some extent, protect yourself from harm. The problem is that we can’t acquire wealth without being sorely tested. Indeed, Proverbs warns that most of us will fail the test. Prosperity is as much, if not more, of a test than poverty. It tempts us to place our trust in earthly treasure rather than in God. See Proverbs 30:8b-9. Notice v. 4 says, “Do not toil to acquire wealth,” not “Do not acquire wealth.” In fact, Proverbs makes it seem as if a life devoted to God’s wisdom and knowledge will naturally lead to some measure of material wealth. But the acquisition of this wealth should never be the goal: our goal should be to seek our treasure in God alone.

Inasmuch as we don’t have wealth (in which case who among us can deny that folly and sin—whether personal, familial, or institutional—don’t play an important role?**), we can, by God’s grace, have wealth in God. Finding our treasure in God is independent of earthly treasure. Indeed, this is why we need discernment: to know that worldly treasure is fleeting, unlike the treasure we find in Christ, an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” (1 Peter 1:4).

** I can already hear skeptics of the Bible objecting to this, but not so fast: Who among us, regardless of financial means, is able to say, “I have applied all the lessons of wisdom found in this book to my life; I have not behaved foolishly or sinfully or greedily; I have always worked hard and never been lazy; I have always been a good steward of the gifts that God has given me; yet I still find myself in desperate financial need”? Not me! I suspect that none of us can.

The point is, each of us can take responsibility for our sinful contribution to our own financial troubles while at the same time recognizing the sinful forces at work outside of ourselves that have contributed to these troubles. Isn’t this why this same book (Proverbs) commands compassion, generosity, and almsgiving to the poor—because it recognizes the extent to which sin outside of ourselves or beyond our control has harmed us?

Nevertheless, this book, along with the Bible as a whole, loudly affirms that we can find true wealth in God—any one of us! God’s grace, therefore, couldn’t be more democratic!

But the book’s overriding preoccupation is this question: Do we desire God more than any earthly treasure? Do we want the wisdom and knowledge that come from God’s Word more than silver or gold? If not, then Proverbs has nothing to teach us, for this is the book’s starting point: the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 9:10):

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
    and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.

“And put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite”

November 4, 2018

I’m currently journaling my way through the Book of Proverbs, using this beautiful resource from Crossway. I wrote the following in reference to Proverbs 23:1-3:

When you sit down to eat with a ruler,
    observe carefully what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
    if you are given to appetite.
Do not desire his delicacies,
    for they are deceptive food.

23:2: “if you are given to appetite”: By which this rich ruler can make you do his bidding. This warning need not apply only to food! We sell ourselves out for many other things, too—all for the sake of our appetites. Yet the Book of Proverbs (along with the rest of scripture, of course, though Proverbs makes this point many times) tells us repeatedly that we can satisfy our truest, deepest appetite in one place, in one object: in God alone, and in those things that belong to him. This book, the Bible, in which I’m writing these words, contains everything necessary—as God’s Spirit speaks to me through it—for my happiness. How many times does Proverbs say that the knowledge and wisdom it offers are better than gold and silver—and that I should pursue this before anything?

Dear Lord, give me a deeper appetite for all that is within this book. Indeed, this is exactly what you’ve been doing for years—since 2009. But I want and need more. I need more of you! You want me to be happy with the happiness that’s found only in you. I want that as well!

As C.S. Lewis said:

God gives us what He has, not what He has not: He gives us the happiness that there is, not the happiness that there is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.[†]

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.

Sermon 10-21-18: “Whoever Would Be Great Among You”

November 1, 2018

I preached this sermon on October 21, 2018, at Cannon United Methodist Church in Snellville, Georgia. My first sermon in a while! (I will preach again on November 25.) The video comes directly from an iPad, so the quality isn’t as good as it will be as soon as we get some multimedia equipment replaced at our church. We had some recent flooding… it’s a long story. Anyway, I hope you enjoy it!

Sermon Text: Mark 10:35-45

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As we read the gospels we often like to identify the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” the heroes and the villains. And we identify with the good guys. And in the gospels that’s usually Jesus, right? We are like Jesus, and we are not like those bad old Pharisees. Or we’re like the Good Samaritan, and we are not like the bad old priest or Levite. Or we’re like the sheep, and we’re not like the bad old goats. And when we read today’s scripture, chances are we say to ourselves, “We are not like those obstinate, slow-witted, egocentric disciples—especially James and John! We are not like James and John!”

And I agree. We are not like James and John.

Consider one of the most difficult teachings in the New Testament, which comes from the lips of Jesus himself: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26.

Jesus is using hyperbole—that is, he’s exaggerating on purpose to make an important point. But the point is clear: that his disciples’ love for and have allegiance to Jesus is so great that all other loves and allegiances look like hatred in comparison. If you’re forced to choose between your love for and allegiance to Jesus and your love for and allegiance to everyone and everything else in the world—including the people who mean the most to you—the choice is clear: we disciples choose Jesus every time!

And we may read these words and think, “It’s so difficult. I’m not sure if push came to shove, I could make that choice” But guess what? Back in Mark chapter 1, that’s exactly what James and John do! They are literally mending their fishing nets on their father’s boat, working as part of their father’s business. And when Jesus calls them to follow him, they literally leave their father behind. Could I do that? Thank God I’m saved by grace because what Jesus is asking is so hard! Read the rest of this entry »