Philosophy

Should Christians avoid philosophy? Is the practice of philosophy one of the dark arts, like sorcery? To answer this question, one might quote Colossians 2:8: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits [or principles] of the world, and not according to Christ.” That is, in fact, the only verse in the Bible that uses the word “philosophy,” although Acts 17:18 does mention the philosophers addressed by Paul in Athens.

If philosophy is worldly and evil—part of the human world that is opposed to God’s Truth—then Christians should indeed beware. One cannot walk through mud without getting dirty, and one cannot dabble in worldly affairs without becoming tainted by the sins of the world. Yet many things in the world are good and God-pleasing when used rightly but dangerous and harmful when used wrongly. Water sustains life, but it also drowns. Fire keeps a person warm, provides light, and cooks food, but fire can also destroy property and cause great harm to the human body. Money can be used wisely to serve God and to help one’s neighbors, but “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (I Timothy 6:10). Before rejecting all philosophy, a Christian must ask what is meant by philosophy and whether it is all the same. When Paul writes to the Colossians about human tradition and about elemental spirits or principles, is he hinting that some sorts of philosophy are dangerous but that a different philosophy might be beneficial? Is it possible to have a philosophy that is, as Paul says, “according to Christ”?

I maintain that Christians can be philosophers. Christians can read what philosophers have written, can evaluate those writings, and can benefit from those writings without being harmed. Christians can sort through the concepts and the methods of philosophy, approving what is used “according to Christ” while setting aside what comes from merely human tradition or from elemental principles of the world. For the God who created us gave us minds to think, minds to question, minds to explore and learn and grow. In his teaching, Jesus did not hand out answers to every question. Often he arranged that those who heard his teachings had to think about them, consider what he said, and put his words into perspective. God thinks, and people are made in his image. We are meant to think. Philosophy proposes questions and seeks answers. So long as the questions and answers do not separate the thinker from Christ, the Lord cannot disapprove of our philosophical efforts.

We ask many questions. “Why am I here? What should I be doing? What is this world around me? Can I trust my senses and what they tell me about the world, or is there more around me than I can see and hear and feel? How does it work that a series of sounds or marks on a page or screen can transmit thoughts from one mind to another? And what is it that makes some sights and sounds and scents and flavors more beautiful than others?”

We ask questions, and we search for answers. We search in our own minds and experiences. We search the opinions of other people we trust. We search the opinions of recognized experts, and then we think some more. The same apostle Paul who warned us about philosophy also encouraged us to think. He wrote, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8). That is how the Bible instructs Christians to think. And that, my friends, is philosophy. J.

A date for Christmas

The Bible does not tell us when Jesus was born. The fact that shepherds were watching their flocks at night may hint that Jesus was born in February, when lambs also are born. This would be fitting, since Jesus is called the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But the shepherds’ nighttime watch could have happened any time of year, as the shepherds worked to keep their flocks safe from thieves and predators.

Christians celebrate the birthday of Jesus on December 25. Traditionally, that date is the first day of Christmas, a twelve-day season that continues until January 5. Often Christians complain that the world has stolen Christmas from the Church, turning a sacred holiday into a secular orgy of commercialism and worldly excess. Others say that the Church first stole Christmas from the world. In the northern hemisphere, celebrations of the winter solstice were common. Days had been getting shorter and nights longer all summer and autumn; after the solstice, days begin increasing in length. Winter weather continues for a few more weeks, but spring is coming. It’s a good time for a party, although in modern times any excuse will do.

Some Christians become defensive about the holiday and insist that the Church created this holiday apart from pagan or worldly suggestions. Complicated calculations are offered to demonstrate that the birthday of Jesus was known (or assumed) from the date of his death on the cross, a date known to be near the spring equinox because it happened at the time of the Passover. Supposedly, this calculation was done early in Church history and produced Christmas celebrations among even the first Christians. But I have read the writings of the Church Fathers, and I cannot find any discussion of the celebration of Christmas before the fourth century of the Christian (or Common) Era. Moreover, that discussion is based on a misunderstanding of a verse in the Bible, a misunderstanding that the earliest Christians probably would not have made.

A priest named Zechariah was burning incense in the Temple when he saw an angel. This angel promised Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son, one who would be an important messenger in God’s plan. (That son is known as John the Baptist.) The birth of Elizabeth’s son was a miracle, because she and Zechariah were beyond the age when people generally become parents. This miracle repeats that of Isaac, who was born to Abraham and Sarah when Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety.

Six months later the same angel visited a young woman, probably about fifteen years old, in Nazareth. The angel again announced a miraculous birth. This time the miracle would be conception of a son without the participation of a human father, because Mary was a virgin betrothed (promised or engaged) to a carpenter named Joseph. The angel specifically told Mary that Elizabeth, her relative, was six months into her pregnancy. Mary visited Elizabeth, then returned to Nazareth. John was born to Elizabeth, and six months later Jesus was born to Mary.

Because Zechariah was a priest performing priestly duties in the Temple, some Christians assumed that Zechariah was offering the annual sacrifice for the Day of Atonement in the Most Holy Place within the Temple. Luke does not mention the sacrifice of atonement; he says only that Zechariah was burning incense. Nor does Luke call Zechariah a high priest; he notes that Zechariah was taking his turn to burn incense in the Temple, along with other priests. But, misreading Luke’s account, those Christians deduced that the announcement of Elizabeth’s pregnancy and John’s coming birth must have been in September, at the time of the Day of Atonement. Therefore, the announcement to Mary six months later would have been in March, John would have been born in June, and Jesus would have been born in December. These two announcements and two births fall near the two equinoxes and two solstices, allowing for celebrations near these events among Christians (although the announcement to Mary, dated to March 25, is easily overshadowed by the greater celebration of Easter the same time of year).

Does it matter when Jesus was born? The earliest Christians didn’t seem to consider the date important. Christians celebrate, not just a birthday, but the miracle of the Incarnation, the fact that God became human to reconcile humans to God. That miracle merits celebration at any time, but why not observe it after the winter solstice, when the days are becoming measurably longer? As Jesus is the Light of the world, the Light the darkness can neither comprehend nor extinguish, so Christians celebrate their Savior at the same time that other people celebrate for other reasons. J.

When a wise man lost his head

[This post is a report from three years ago. I’m glad to say that the wise man in question has kept his head intact through the ten-and-one-half months of storage and is doing fine on display.]

When I was a child, my parents did not play Christmas music until Thanksgiving Day. That tradition continues in my household. On the other hand, Thanksgiving weekend always saw the appearance of the ceramic manger scene, another tradition I have continued. The manger scene belongs to the twelve days of Christmas, not to the season of Advent. Moreover, the manger scene is historically inaccurate, with the wise men arriving in Bethlehem at the same time as the shepherds. (Matthew 2 records that the wise men found Mary and the child (not newborn infant) in a house in Bethlehem.) The church I attend has solved the later problem by placing the wise men and their camels across the chancel from the manger scene with shepherds, sheep, and other barnyard animals. But my display at home has them all: Jesus in the manger, Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, wise men, and assorted animals.

Most of the scene consists of ceramic pieces made for the family by my mother-in-law some years ago. But two of the angels are Lladro figures. Their colors nicely match the style of the other figures, so we have always included them in the scene.

These ceramic pieces all survived the Cinco de Mayo fire of 2017. Our insurance company paid to have them professionally cleaned. They came back individually wrapped in bubble wrap, each surrounded by a layer of paper. I’ve chosen to keep the same wrappings, although prior to that they were wrapped only in tissue paper and never came to any harm.

But this year, when I checked to make sure I had the right box, the top figure made a clanging sound as I unwrapped it. Seeing that it was one of the Lladro angels, I feared the worst. But when I got the box inside and fully unwrapped the angel, I saw that she had dropped her harp. It had been glued to her hands, and the summer heat must have softened the glue. No harm done, so far.

I continued unwrapping figures and placing them into the scene. Then I came across a piece that had broken, in spite of the bubble wrap and paper protection. I gasped or sighed, I don’t recall which. A voice from the bedroom called, “What’s broken?” I answered, “A wise man lost his head.”

A wise man lost his head. It happens sometimes. In this case it was a clean break and can be repaired with glue. Other times when a wise man loses his head, the damage is not so easily fixed. Insults shouted in a fit of anger are not easily erased. False charges and accusations do not easily fade, even after a sincere apology. One might argue that a truly wise man or woman would never fly off the handle in such a manner, but these things happen. We try to be wise; we try to watch our words. On some occasions, though, we fail.

Christians live under forgiveness. Christ has atoned on the cross for all our sins. Christians also share forgiveness. Jesus told his followers to forgive, not seventy-seven times, or even seventy times seven times (490), but an imaginary number that might as well be translated “seventyleven times.” We remain sinners, living in a sin-polluted world. From time to time, even the best of us lose our heads. Thanks to God’s grace, forgiveness is the glue that puts our heads back where they belong. J.

Giving thanks

This Thanksgiving I am thankful for many things.

I am thankful to have food available—tasty food, healthy and nutritious food, food in great variety, for a family feast and later a light supper and the next day delicious leftovers. I am thankful for clothing and shelter—shelter with flush toilets, with hot and cold running water, with control over the temperature of the air in winter and summer and every day of the year, and with a wide variety of entertainment available at the push of a few buttons. These are not the greatest blessings I enjoy, but they are blessings all the same, and I am thankful.

I am thankful to live in a nation based upon liberty, a nation that protects its citizens from violence, a nation that shows compassion to those in need. I am thankful to live in a nation founded upon ideas and not upon military victories or the power of one ruler. I am thankful for freedom to think as I wish, to speak as I wish, to write as I wish, and to gather with like-minded people. I am thankful for freedom of religion. I am thankful that other people are free to disagree, even to insist that we have too much freedom, and that such opinions can be discussed and debated among ourselves.

With that freedom of religion, I am thankful to know the God who created all things and still upholds them by his power. I am thankful to know the God who tells us why he made us, yet who pays our debt when we fall short of his plans and rescues us from evil, even from the consequences of our own rebellion. I am thankful to know the God who calls us to repent and to believe, then gives us power to do those very things through his call. I am thankful to know the God who gathers his people around his promises, keeps us in the true faith, and promises eternal life in a perfect world to all those who hold to that faith. These blessings outshine all others.

I am thankful that my employer pays me not to come to work Thursday and Friday but allows me to observe the holiday of Thanksgiving with family and with the congregation. I am thankful for a four-day weekend in which I can sleep late some mornings, accomplish some tasks around the house, do some reading and some writing, and maybe even start unpacking decorations for Advent and Christmas. At the same time, I am grateful for those people (including two of my daughters) who will be working during this holiday, caring for those whose medical needs do not take a holiday. I am thankful that professionals will be available if needed should a problem arise. I am thankful for the man who came to our house Thanksgiving evening several years ago because our carbon monoxide detector was sounding an alarm. He checked for gas leaks and other dangers, and he correctly determined that the detector was at fault. I am thankful that we were not in danger that day, and that we did not have to wait for the holiday to end before we knew that we were safe.

I am thankful that family will gather and will celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving together, even if some members will arrive late to the celebration. I am thankful that we will be able to enjoy each other’s company and that we will also be able to contact those who are living elsewhere and share the joy of the holiday with them. I also am thankful that, when the weekend is over, the children will return to their various homes and living spaces and I will once again have a quiet house for reading, writing, and other leisure activities.

I am thankful for my online friends in the WordPress community, those who read my blogs and comment on my posts, those who leave their likes, those whose blogs I read and enjoy, those who share a piece of their lives online and are willing also to let me share my thoughts and experiences with them. May each of us, however we observe and remember this holiday, find joy in giving thanks and have a pleasant and enriching holiday weekend. J.

Reformation, part four

Pontius Pilate asked, “What is truth?” but he did not wait to receive an answer from Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Fifteen centuries later, the followers of Jesus were still debating how to know the truth. Roman Catholic theologians, then and today, taught that God continues to reveal new truth to the leaders of his Church (that is, the Pope), but Martin Luther insisted that God’s truth is unchanging. Everything we need to know about God and about our salvation is clearly stated in the Bible, as written by God’s chosen prophets and apostles. No new revelations are to be expected; no additional truths will be given to the Church.

This applies to religious knowledge, not to all knowledge. Since Luther’s time, scientific study has learned much about God’s creation; no doubt, much more remains to be learned. Even scientific discoveries, though, do not cancel religious truths revealed in the Bible. Likewise, the Holy Spirit does not reveal new religious truths that contradict the Bible. Even while Luther was protected in the Wartburg castle, prophets arrived in Wittenberg claiming to have new messages from the Holy Spirit. Luther continued to say, as he said at the Diet of Worms, that he would not be convinced of any new religious truth unless it was shown to him from the Bible—not from popes or councils, and not from prophets who claimed new messages from God.

Luther did not mean that every Christian is free to interpret the Bible his or her own way. While placing all other Church authorities under the Bible, Luther also said that the Bible interprets itself. If it is confusing or unclear in one place, God’s people look for another part of the Bible that discusses the same idea, using that to enlighten their minds regarding the reading that is difficult to understand. The book of Revelation is best understood in light of the sixty-five books that precede it. Divisions that hindered the work of the Church in Luther’s lifetime and afterward largely developed from sincere misunderstandings of the Bible, but those sincere misunderstandings sometimes resulted from a determination to put reason and logic, or emotion and feeling, or some human authority, ahead of the Bible when seeking truth.

Ulrich Zwingli was a preacher in Switzerland at the same time as Luther. Zwingli claimed that he received his understanding of Reformation independently from Luther’s writings, although the time lag between Luther’s published work and Zwingli’s proclamations makes historians dubious about Zwingli’s claim. Luther and Zwingli met at Marburg to see if they could work together to oppose the Pope and lead the Church in Reformation. They agreed on eleven important points but disagreed on the final point. Luther insisted that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine served in Holy Communion; Zwingli said that the bread and wine are reminders of Christ’s body and blood. Luther pointed to the words from the Bible, “This is my body”—according to some accounts, he had written them in chalk on the table—saying that “this” and “is” and “body” all had to be taken as true; none of them permitted an interpretation of “reminds” or “represents.” Zwingli disagreed, and the two could not combine forces. Zwingli later died on the battlefield fighting against forces representing the Pope, the Emperor and the Roman Church.

A generation later, John Calvin became Zwingli’s heir in the Reformation. In many ways, Calvin represented a revival of the scholastic vein in Christian theology, seeking to combine reason and faith. Calvin suggested that, when receiving the Lord’s Supper, a Christian is lifted to heaven and enjoys Christ’s presence, while Luther’s heirs replied that Christ comes to earth and is thus really present in the Lord’s Supper. Where Luther had emphasized God’s love and mercy, Calvin emphasized God’s power. Calvin reasoned that, since God is Almighty, all those saved and going to heaven will arrive there because God wants them there, and all those condemned and going to eternal punishment will arrive there because God wants them there. This teaching of “predestination” counters Bible verses that say that God wants all to be saved and wants no one to be lost. Other Christians swung to the opposite approach, teaching that God saves those who want to be saved but condemns those who refuse to be saved. Luther’s teaching—and that of Lutherans since his time, a teaching called “election”—holds to the paradox that no one can be saved without God’s work but all who are lost have rejected God’s work. Calvin’s predestination and the opposite approach—labeled Pelagianism or Arminianism from the names of two advocates of this approach—are both more satisfying to logic and reason than the teaching of election. Luther and Lutherans assert that election is more faithful to Scripture than the more logical suggestions regarding who is saved and who is lost.

Calvin also held that only Christians should govern a Christian land. Luther affirmed that Christians could serve in government, but he did not demand that only Christians could lead; Luther even said that he would prefer a government led by a Muslim who is a competent leader to a government led by a Christian who is incompetent. Luther felt that the government should punish the wrongdoer and protect citizens from danger, but he also said that only the Church can forgive sins and preach the Gospel; the government should not enforce religious beliefs.

Other groups of Christians were distinct from Luther, Calvin, and the Pope. Some called for violent revolution to establish the kingdom of God on earth, while others withdrew from the world and tried to remain pure from worldly concerns, including government. Some went beyond Zwingli, not only saying that bread and wine are merely reminders of Christ’s body and blood, but also that Baptism is merely a reminder of our commitment to God, and therefore only adult believers should be baptized. Politically, some parts of Europe including the southern parts of the Holy Roman Empire remained within the Roman Church; northern parts of the Holy Roman Empire held to the teachings of Luther, as did the Scandinavian countries; while parts of Switzerland, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Netherlands favored Calvinism.

King Henry VIII of England at first favored the Roman Church. He wrote an essay against Luther’s teaching, for which the Pope rewarded him with the title “Defender of the Faith.” All of Henry’s heirs, including Elizabeth II, have claimed that title. But a few years later, Henry ran into a practical problem. His wife Catherine, a princess from Spain, had been pregnant six times, but four of the children were stillborn, a fifth died within a month of birth, and only a daughter survived into adulthood. Henry knew he could father healthy sons—he had done so with other women—so he assumed his marriage was cursed. Catherine as a child had been married to Henry’s older brother Arthur, who died young, and Henry needed special permission from the Pope to marry his brother’s widow. Now he wanted special permission to divorce his wife and marry a woman who could provide him with a son.

Pope Leo had died by this time, and the new Pope (also from the Medici family) had to make a decision. Pope Clement could agree with Henry and please this king of part of an island at the west end of Europe, or he could agree with the Spanish princess and please her nephew, Charles, who was king of Spain, the Netherlands, and the New World, as well as Austria, and also Holy Roman Emperor. Obviously, Pope Clement decided in favor of Charles’ aunt. Henry then declared himself head of the Church of England and broke with the Pope. Negotiators sought to ally Henry’s movement with the Lutherans, but when their theologians learned Henry’s reason for breaking with Rome, they were unwilling to declare an alliance.

Nevertheless, the English Reformation at first followed Lutheran guidelines. Henry—who married six times in all—eventually died and was succeeded by his only son, Edward. Edward was in poor health and died soon afterward. His older sister Mary became queen and tried to lead the Church of England back into the Roman Catholic Church, but she failed. Eventually, she was replaced by her sister, Queen Elizabeth I, who guided the Church of England largely on Calvinist paths, although with a broader tolerance for diversity in the Church than was being observed in most European nations.

Meanwhile, under Clement and his successors, the Roman Catholic Church tried to resolve its internal problems. The Council of Trent affirmed penance, indulgences, purgatory, and the authority of the Pope, but the council took steps against misuse of power within the Church. Meanwhile, Ignatius of Loyola provided the Romans with a mind equal to that of Luther and Calvin, Ignatius had been a soldier, but was seriously wounded; during his long recovery, he read the Bible and other Christian works. He wrote Christians works himself, including devotional works still studied today. He also organized another movement like the Augustinians, Franciscans, and Dominicans. The Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, would become the ground troops defending the Church of Rome in Europe and bringing its teachings wherever European governments were sending explorers and colonists. J.

Reformation, part three

My last post described the political and economic factors that led to the Reformation of the Church, as sparked by Martin Luther. I did not mention Jesus Christ or redemption; I described the Church only as a political entity, not as the Bride of Christ and the mission agency established to bring Christ’s Gospel to the world. Martin Luther was aware of the political implications of the Reformation, but those implications did not change his thoughts, his words, or his behavior. He was deeply committed to Jesus Christ. He cared more about redemption than about all the kingdoms of the world. He saw the Church as Christ’s own people, not as the possession of any pope or archbishop or emperor.

The young Luther is often pictured as a troubled man, deeply aware of his sin and his guilt, desperately seeking a way to be reconciled to God. Genuine Christianity, it often is implied, had disappeared from the world until Luther rediscovered the true faith. Luther did want to know God and to be right with God. He was, for a time, drawn to seek God through his own penance, his own good works, and his own efforts to love God and serve God. But the true Christian faith had not vanished. In many parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, men and women and children were still calling on the name of the Lord, seeking redemption in Jesus Christ. The movements of John Hus and Peter Waldo had brought many Europeans to a proper knowledge of Christ. Even within the accepted movements of the Church in western Europe, many Church leaders knew and shared the Gospel. Luther had a mentor named John Staupitz who encouraged Luther to read the Bible and to believe the promises it contains. Staupitz even assigned Luther Bible classes to teach, hoping that teaching others would make Luther aware of the Bible’s message of the grace of God, of salvation by that grace through faith, and of the love of God who wants to be reconciled to sinners. On the cross, Jesus paid the debt of sinners; he gave his life to reconcile sinners to his Father and to claim those sinners for his kingdom. The Bible clearly teaches this promise, and Luther came to believe this promise.

Therefore, Martin Luther challenged the faulty theology used to sell indulgences and to acquire money for the Church through that marketing. He posted 95 theses to be debated in the seminaries—that is what seminaries did back then; instead of playing football and basketball, they debated theology. In the 95 theses, Luther wrote that repentance is not an occasional act of penance or a one-time act, but is an on-going reality in the life of a Christian. He said that, if Church leaders want to release sinners from purgatory, they should do so out of love and not for money. Luther did not want to split the Church or start a new movement in the Church—he was calling all Christians to understand and believe what the Bible says about redemption and forgiveness, about repentance and faith.

The more Luther defended these ideas, the more he studied the Bible and the early leaders and thinkers of the Church. The more he studied, the more firmly he believed that redemption and repentance and faith were being taught wrongly by many in the Church, all for the sake of money and of political power. By the time he was called to answer for his words at the Diet of Worms in 1521, Luther was firm in his faith. He demanded that his accusers show him from the Bible where he was wrong. He would not accept the statements of popes and councils, because they contradict one another and are sometimes wrong. “Here I stand,” he reportedly said, “I can do no other.”

Pope Leo had already declared Luther a heretic and had excommunicated Luther, claiming that Luther was not part of the true Christian Church. Now Emperor Charles also called Luther an outlaw, saying that anyone who killed Luther would be doing a favor for the Empire and for the Church. Luther was kidnapped on his way from Worms back to Wittenberg. He was taken, not by enemies, but by friends, by servants of Elector Frederick. For about a year, Luther was hidden in a castle called the Wartburg. He was disguised as a knight, Sir George (not to be confused with Boy George!).

While at the Wartburg, Luther continued studying and continued writing. He began translating the Bible into German. After that year, he returned to Wittenberg. He continued teaching at the University of Wittenberg and preaching in the Church. He redesigned the traditional Christian worship service, removing elements that supported false beliefs and emphasizing the true promises of redemption and forgiveness, with traditional and with new material. He wrote catechisms—books of instruction to instruct children and adults the basic teachings of the Bible and the Church. He wrote several hymns. He lived two dozen more years in Wittenberg, remaining condemned by Church and Empire. He married a former nun, and together they were the parents of six children.

Eight years after Luther left the Wartburg, another Diet was held at Augsburg. Charles had concluded his war with France and needed to discuss three issues with the kings and dukes and princes and margraves and archbishops of his Empire. He needed to discuss the economy. He needed to discuss defense against the Ottoman Empire. And he needed to discuss division among Christians in the Empire. Luther’s supporters used the occasion to present the Emperor with a document stating their beliefs. Longer and more detailed than any creed, the Augsburg Confession explained what Lutherans believe and teach, showing that Lutheran beliefs and confessions match the teachings of the Bible and the early Church. Along with the ancient creeds of the Church and the Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Augsburg Confession remains a document that describes Lutheran beliefs—church workers among Lutherans pledge to follow the teachings of the Confession, not in place of the Bible, but because it correctly summarizes the Bible’s teachings. Luther did not write the Augsburg Confession; it was written by a fellow professor from the University of Wittenberg, a man named Phillip Melanchthon. But Melanchthon’s writing summarized Luther’s own thoughts; Luther himself said that Melanchthon was more tactful than Luther could be, but that he was correct in what he had written.

Lutherans—and other Protestants—celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, the anniversary of the day when Luther posted his 95 Theses. For Lutherans, the Augsburg Confession and the Catechisms of Martin Luther are far more important than his 95 Theses. And there are many other results and ramifications of this Reformation that must still be addressed in future posts…. J.

Reformation, part one

The Christian Church contains sinners. We are forgiven sinners, made saints by the work of Christ, heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Yet at the very same time, we remain sinners, desperately needing a Savior. For this reason, the Church from time to time needs reformation. The Church needs reminders why it exists: to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, to rescue victims of sin and evil, to announce the forgiveness of sins and call sinners to repent, and to share Christ’s victory with the people he loves. The Church is not a private club, nor a business selling a product and making a prophet. The Church is a hospital for the healing of broken lives. The Church is a lighthouse to steer people away from danger. The Church is a haven on the battlefield, equipping soldiers and assisting those who have been wounded by the attacks of the enemy.

The Cluny Reform around the year 900 healed the Church and the monastic movement from some of the abuses that had been building within them over time. The ministries of Saint Dominic, Saint Francis, and Saint Peter Waldo helped to reform the Church around the year 1200. A movement of inner spirituality led by teachers such as Meister Eckhardt and Thomas Kempis aided Christians during the later middle ages. Troubles with the papacy, including its relocation to Avignon and then rivals claiming the office, encouraged a conciliar movement that had potential to steer the Church in the proper direction. As the time of Martin Luther’s reformation drew near, John Huss in Bohemia and John Wycliffe in England and Girolamo Savonarola in Florence, Italy, all raised their voices to call for reform. Luther, though, would be the heroic figure who could not be silenced or ignored.

Luther challenged the Church’s practice of selling indulgences. The roots of this problem extended back to early Church times, before Constantine, when Christians were being persecuted by the Roman government. During times of persecution, some Christians would leave the congregations, obey the government’s commands to honor false gods, and so spare themselves the trouble that their fellow Christians endured. When the persecution ran its course, many of these fallen Christians sought to return to the Church. Those who had endured the persecution reminded the lapsed believers of the words of Jesus, who said, “Whoever disowns me before men, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” But the returning believers reminded the leaders of the Church that Jesus came to rescue and forgive sinners. Jesus forgave Peter, who denied knowing Jesus. The mission of the Church is to forgive. A compromise was reached: Christians who left the Church to avoid persecution and then wanted to return were forgiven, but they were required to undergo a time of probation. They had to show that they truly believed and that they were truly sorry for their sins. They had to do works of penance—essentially, a milder persecution from the Church to replace the fierce persecution imposed by the Roman government.

Penance first was required only of those who had denied Christ to avoid persecution. Later, it was extended to all sinners. As the book of James urges Christians to confess their sins to one another (thus providing an opportunity to receive absolution, the spoken guarantee of Christ’s forgiveness), so all Christians were expected to confess their sins, receive absolution, and then be given penance, a set of tasks that would express their sorrow over sin and complete the process of being forgiven. When some Christians wondered what would happen to believers who died before completing their penance, they were told of a place called Purgatory, where believers could complete their penance before ascending to Paradise. The poet Dante, in his Divine Comedy, located Purgatory on the far side of the globe from Italy, a mountain surrounded by the great ocean and accessible only to the Christians traveling to Paradise.

Penance did not always involve money. It could take many forms: prayers, pilgrimages, kindness to strangers, and other good works. The completion of an act of penance was called an indulgence; in the case of a gift of money, the indulgence might take the form of a piece of paper, a receipt that acknowledged the good work. Soldiers who fought in the Crusades were given indulgences, saying that they had done a good work for Christ and the Church. Those who paid the expenses of a crusading soldier were given indulgences. Those who gave gifts of money to Christian hospitals were given indulgences. Those who gave money to build churches or maintain and beautify churches were given indulgences.

In theory, an act of penance and receiving an indulgence were not equivalent to buying or earning God’s forgiveness. Forgiveness was earned by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and was given freely to all sinners who repented and sought forgiveness from Christ through the Church. Absolution—the promise of forgiveness—followed confession, and penance followed the absolution. But many Christians misunderstood the subtlety of penance and indulgences, and some people in the Church took advantage of those misunderstandings. Because of the perception that God’s forgiveness could be bought, could be transferred to another person already dead and in purgatory, or could even be treated as a license to sin, the Church was in desperate need of Reformation. This need set the stage for Martin Luther’s dramatic act in 1517, an act that is still remembered and celebrated as the Reformation of the Christian Church. J.

Camel versus needle

              Some preachers say that the city of Jerusalem had a gate called the Eye of the Needle. Other gates were high and wide, but this gate was low and narrow. People could pass through the gate and enter the city if they went single-file and crossed through the gate one at a time. But for a camel, the gate was almost impossible to navigate. To get a camel through the Eye of the Needle, one first had to remove all the packs from the camel’s back. Then the camel had to be forced down to its knees. On its knees, without any baggage, the camel could pass through the Eye of the Needle and enter the city of Jerusalem.

              Now that I have painted this picture in your minds, I have to work to erase it again. Jerusalem had no gate called the Eye of the Needle. Even if it had such a gate, no sensible person would have tried to get a camel into the city that way. There were plenty of other gates one could use to enter Jerusalem without forcing a camel to its knees. I can see why a preacher might think that Jesus was pointing to a gate called the Eye of the Needle when telling his disciples how hard it is to get a rich person into the kingdom of heaven. But the preachers who make a metaphor about removing the baggage from a camel and forcing the camel to its knees are preachers who do not understand Jesus and the message he was sharing.

              Jerusalem had no gate called the Eye of a Needle. If Jesus had been pointing to such a gate as a metaphor, his conversation with the disciples would have been very different. If the disciples had seen a camel removed of its baggage and forced to its knees, they would not have asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” Nor would Jesus have answered their question with the words, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

              Putting a camel through the eye of a needle is impossible. Rescuing a sinner from evil in this world is also impossible. Our possessions, our burdens, our attachments to worldly things all make it hard for us to find our way into the kingdom of heaven. Like camels, we simply cannot fit through the eye of a needle. Any effort of preachers and teachers to change the message of Jesus, to make the impossible merely difficult, misses the point. We cannot rescue ourselves. We cannot earn forgiveness and eternal life. We cannot defeat our enemies—the sins we have committed, the sinful world around us, and the devil who masterminds the evil that exists in God’s creation. All things are possible for God; but I am not God, and you are not God. We cannot do the things God does. Things that are possible for God remain impossible for you and for me.

              We know that good deeds cannot earn us a place in the kingdom of heaven. From childhood we have been told that we are saved by grace through faith and not by works. Some people who were wealthy might give away all their possessions. Others might use those possessions to do great things for the poor in this world and for the work of the Church. Some people commit their lives to work in the Church; other people have different callings, but they give their spare time to serve the Church. Some sinners have turned away from their sinful ways and are trying their best to imitate Jesus. We salute their good works and rejoice in the good things they are accomplishing. But we remind them—and ourselves—that those good works are not good enough to earn God’s love and approval. Like the rest of us, they are forgiven by God and granted eternal life as a gift. Heaven is not a reward for their goodness; heaven is a benefit they receive because of the good things Jesus did for them.

              While we know that we cannot earn a place in heaven, many Christians still confuse their good works with the gift of forgiveness. After all, they want to be certain of their salvation. How do you know that you have enough faith to be saved? How can you be sure that the promises of God are true for you? Some preachers fall into the trap of saying that, when you come to faith, your life is changed. You turn away from sin; you become better at imitating Jesus. They tell Christians to look at the good things they are doing and to be confident of their salvation because they have been changed, because they are acting like Christians and no longer acting like sinners.

              Jesus never said that. The Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles never said that. They said that our good deeds would be signs to other people, but they did not tell us to measure our good deeds. We teach other people about Jesus by trying to imitate Jesus, but we cannot prove to ourselves that we are Christians. The more we measure ourselves, the more we realize that we still fall short of the kingdom of heaven. We still sin every day and need a Savior every day. Our lives as Christians are a paradox: at the same time, we are saints and sinners. We belong to God, and we know that he has forgiven our sins and guaranteed us eternal life. But none of us has arrived yet at perfection. No matter how hard we try, we still are not pure and righteous. Measuring our good deeds honestly shows us that we still are not good enough for God and for the kingdom of heaven. Left to our good deeds as proof of our salvation, we must despair. We still fall short of saintly lives. We are still stained by the sin and evil of this wicked world.

              We can be saved from our sins and from the evil in this world only by God’s gift of grace. This gift enters our lives through faith. Many Christians are confused about faith. They treat faith as a work, as something we do for God. They measure faith the way they measure works: do I have enough faith? Is my faith strong enough to save me? When we think of faith as something we do for God, then we are certain to conclude that we do not have enough faith, or that our faith is not strong enough to save us. We know that we must believe. But when we treat that requirement as a burden placed upon us, we are forgetting God’s grace. God’s grace rescues us from sin and evil; God’s grace also gives us the faith we need to be saved. We come to Jesus, not by our own reason and strength, but by the work of the Holy Spirit. He calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us, purifies us, and keeps us in the true Christian faith. We are saved by grace through faith, and even the faith that saves us is God’s work in our lives, not our work for God.

              “But we have to repent,” someone might say. “We have to say we are sorry, or God won’t forgive us.” Even when we understand that grace and faith come from God, we still think of repentance as our responsibility, something we do for God. After all, the sinner who refuses to repent is a sinner who cannot be forgiven. The sinner who loves sin more than he or she loves the Savior cannot be brought into the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, we are back to the camel that must get rid of its baggage and drop to its knees before it can enter the gate. We are creating that false picture of a camel at the imaginary gate to Jerusalem whenever we say that something must be done on our end before the gift of salvation and eternal life can belong to us.

              If we had to do anything to enter the kingdom of heaven, that kingdom would be a reward and not a gift. We must repent and believe the Gospel. But repenting, as well as believing, is work that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in us. God’s Word changes us; it gives us the ability to do what was impossible for us before God spoke. Jesus told a paralyzed man to stand and walk, to carry his stretcher home. That man stood and walked and carried his stretcher. The Word of Jesus made him able to do what he could not do earlier. Jesus told Lazarus to come out of the grave. Lazarus could not have left the grave without that Word of Jesus. Lazarus was dead, and dead people do not move. But when Jesus called Lazarus, Lazarus was no longer dead. He was alive, able to obey the command of his Lord. Likewise, when Jesus tells us to repent and to believe, we can repent, and we can believe. His Word changes us, making us capable of doing what once was impossible for us because we were sinners trapped in a sinful world.

              With God all things are possible. When Jesus acts, we are no longer sinners trapped in a sinful world. Jesus enters this world as one of us to do the things we have not done. He obeys the commandments of God and earns his rewards; then he passes those rewards on to us as a gift. In exchange, he takes on himself the burden of our sins. He pays our full debt on the cross. He battles our enemies and defeats them, and he shares with us his victory. The only-begotten Son of God pays to adopt us into his family so that we also are children of God. His kingdom is our home, not because of anything we have done for Jesus, but because of what Jesus has done for us.

              With God all things are possible. Jesus dies and is buried, but he returns to life and leaves the grave. He also promises us a resurrection like his. Even if we die, we will not remain dead forever. Jesus will appear in glory and will call us out of our graves as he called Lazarus from his grave. We too will answer his call and will rise, healed and able to live forever in the kingdom of God. Because we belong to his kingdom, we possess eternal life. We will be with Jesus and with all his saints forever in a world without sin or evil or death.

              That guarantee belongs to us today, even though we remain sinners living in a sinful world. We are not trapped; we are already free because of what Jesus has done for us. The Holy Spirit purifies us and gives us faith; he also gathers us into the Holy Christian Church. His gifts are found in the Church, because his gifts create the Church. We gather in the name of Jesus—we gather around that Word that causes us to repent and believe, to be his people and to have life in his name. The work that Jesus did for us, dying for us and rising again for us, is transferred into our lives through Holy Baptism. In Baptism we die with Christ and are buried with Christ; in Baptism, we rise with Christ. We leave behind our old sinful lives, and we rejoice in our new holy and purified lives. Jesus feeds us at his Table. He shares with us his body and his blood, welcoming us into his kingdom and guaranteeing us forgiveness and eternal life with him and with all his saints.

              Because we are given power to repent and to believe, we also are transformed. We can imitate Jesus now, because he has changed us. We are not perfect yet, but other people can see our good works and know that God is shaping our lives. Peter could boast of all the worldly things he had left behind to follow Jesus. Jesus reminds Peter (and the rest of us) of the things we gain by God’s grace through faith. While we measure the burdens we have left, we are not yet focused on the kingdom of God. When we measure the blessings we receive by grace, we no longer care about the burdens we have lost. Belonging to God matters more to us than any worldly riches and wealth. We can be poor in spirit, using what we have today to serve God. We can be good stewards of our worldly blessings while we focus our attention on the heavenly riches that we possess. Those heavenly treasures are not earned by works we do in this world. The heavenly treasures are gifts. But their existence changes how we see the things that God has given us for this lifetime in this temporary world.

              With Jesus, everything turns upside down. In this world, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush; but in eternity, the wealth we have today is nothing compared to the treasure already stored up for us in heaven. In this world, the past shapes our present and the present shapes our future. In eternity, our past is erased and has no effect on our present, and our guaranteed future shapes the lives we live today. “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” Jesus, who is first in the kingdom of God, makes himself last, suffering and dying on the cross for our redemption. He moves us to the head of the line where we are given as a gift the rewards Jesus earned. J.

Early Christianity, part two

One of the first challenges of the early Church came from the combination of Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ Jesus. The question arose: how many Jewish rituals and customs did Gentiles have to adopt to become Christians? Since the Jews were obeying commandments from God, were Gentiles required to obey the same commandments?” Or did the work of Jesus cancel some or all of the commandments God had made through Moses and the prophets? A meeting of Church leaders (described in Acts 15) resulted in a compromise that asked Gentile Christians to respect a few dietary restrictions, as well as sexual morality. Paul, using his authority as an apostle, later canceled all dietary restrictions, affirming what Jesus already had taught.

The question was not one of distinguishing different types of commandments from God, calling some ceremonial and others moral. Jesus Christ is the end of the Law, rescuing his people from all demands of the Law as well as from all punishments for breaking God’s Law. He fulfilled the Law for Jews and for Gentiles, granting freedom in the place of commandments. But Christians are not free to do whatever their sinful hearts desire. They are free, instead, to be the people God intended in creation. Therefore, Christians love God wholeheartedly and love their neighbors—they do not worship false gods and do not murder, commit adultery, steal, or lie. Christians imitate Christ, the sinless man. But where God’s Law pointed to Christ’s work by its ceremonies (circumcision, animal sacrifices, food restrictions based upon those sacrifices, and holy days), Christian freedom allows Christians to work together forming Christian ceremonies. Loving one another, Christians sacrifice their freedom to one another for their common benefit.

The second challenge came from Hellenistic Gentiles trying to blend the teachings of Jesus—and of Moses and the prophets—with Greek philosophy. Stoics saw reality as spiritual, with the physical world considered unimportant. Epicureans saw reality as physical, with all things dying and disintegrating—even the human mind or soul. Neither group had room for the Resurrection. Over time, some Hellenistic Christians developed new religions called Gnostic—a few of them used the label Gnostic, claiming to have special knowledge from God, but many similar groups are gathered under the same label by contemporary historians. Using the names of Jesus and his apostles, Gnostics taught a Hellenistic form of Christianity that viewed Jesus as a spiritual messenger from another realm, one who came to release sparks of divinity from the physical world and grant them true spiritual freedom. The cross of Christ was emptied of its power—one Gnostic writer pictures the body of Jesus nailed to the cross, while the spirit of Christ hovers overhead, mocking his enemies for thinking they could hurt him. Sin became a question of attachment to the material world; redemption became a matter of becoming truly and fully spirit. Gnostics tried to replace the New Testament writings with many other books (often attributed to Old Testament and New Testament figures) that denied the goodness of God’s creation, the redemptive power of the cross, and the resurrection of Christ and of his followers. These Gnostic writings are easily distinguished from the true apostolic books of the New Testament.

One powerful movement sometimes included among the Gnostics is Manichaeism. Its founder, Mani, blended Christian teachings with Zoroastrian beliefs from Persia as well as some Buddhist beliefs from India. Mani said that only one God exists, but Mani’s one God is opposed by an evil enemy who is his equal in power. The world is their battleground, and the war is fought within each person. Those who choose God’s path—a path of holy living, love for others, and care for the world—find salvation, but those who choose his enemy’s path—a path of selfishness and destruction—fall into eternal fire. Some modern Christian writings resemble Manichaeism more than they do the New Testament. Writings that picture Satan as king of hell, capable of successfully opposing God’s will in the world, are Manichean. Writings that suggest that human choices can determine the outcome of the war between God and Satan are Manichean. Writings that say that faith is a choice made by human individuals apart from the will of God are Manichean.

Along with these challenges to the Christian message came other struggles to understand the nature of God and especially the nature of Christ Jesus. Hearing of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, some people thought that Christians worship three gods. Others thought that the three names reflect a single divine Person doing different things at different times. Some thought that Jesus of Nazareth was adopted by God the Father, making him superhuman. Others (influenced by Hellenistic theology and by Gnostic leaders) thought that Jesus was a divine spirit who only pretended to be human. By the time of Constantine, a preacher from Egypt (named Arius) convinced many Christians that only God the Father is eternal and all-powerful; Arius said that the Son of God was created by the Father and is inferior to the Father. Constantine called Christian leaders together to resolve questions about the identity of Jesus as the Son of God. More than three hundred Christians gathered in Nicaea because of the Emperor’s request. They prayed together, studied the Bible together, and reached agreement. From their Bible study, they concluded that Jesus—the Son of God—is equal to the Father. They wrote a document, or Creed, which affirmed that Jesus is “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten—not made—Being of one substance with the Father.” Only three participants at this meeting disagreed with the Nicene Creed. This statement of faith became the measure of genuine Christian belief. It was called “orthodox” (meaning “right-thinking”) and “catholic” (meaning “united and existing everywhere”).

Later Church meetings further defined the orthodox and catholic Christian faith. All these meetings were based on sincere Bible study, seeking ways of expressing the truth about God and his messages. The Holy Spirit was understood to be God, equal to the Father and to the Son, a Person as the Father and the Son are Persons, yet united as one God, not three gods. Jesus was understood to be completely divine and completely human, so that anything said of the Son of God can also be said of the Son of Mary, and everything said of the Son of Mary can also be said of the Son of God. God was born in Bethlehem and placed in a manger. God was hungry, thirsty, sleepy, and tempted to sin (although he never sinned). God was nailed to a cross and killed. Yet the Son of Mary is almighty. He is present everywhere in the universe. He knows everything. He has the power to judge sinners and to forgive sins. The two natures of Christ cannot be separated, because only one Christ exists.

A European preacher named Pelagius offered a version of Christianity tainted with Manichaean and Gnostic beliefs. He suggested that every person maintains a spark of goodness that can please God with good works, can come to God, and can be accepted by God. Orthodox and catholic Christians insisted that (as the Bible says) all persons are dead in sin until God makes us alive by the power of his Word. We cannot find God, but Jesus our Shepherd finds us. We have no goodness in us until the redeeming power of God removes our sins and reconciles us to God. The early Church resisted these teachings, but they would return in later forms of Christianity. J.

Early Christianity, part one

Jesus of Nazareth designated some of his followers as “apostles”—messengers with authority to proclaim his word, to forgive sins, to perform miracles as he had done, and to declare his victory over all evil. Convinced by his resurrection that Jesus is the Christ—the promised Savior of the world, a visit from God to his people—the apostles began at Jerusalem to share the message of the Christ. Their audience carried their message to many parts of the Roman Empire. Soon the apostles themselves were preaching in the surrounding area. Traveling the roads built and protected by Rome, they carried their message throughout the Hellenistic world and beyond its borders into Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The apostles of Jesus preached first to Jews, then also to Gentiles. Roman civilization tolerated the Jews, in spite of their uniqueness. Jews worshiped only one God. They observed a holiday every seventh day. Their religion defined the food they ate, the clothes they wore, and many other details of everyday life. At first, Christianity was treated as another Jewish movement, like the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots. Because of its popularity among Gentiles, though, Roman officials began to take wary notice of the Christians. Rome was always willing to add one more god to the list of gods it worshiped. Persian and Egyptian gods had been added to the pantheon, as had Julius Caesar and Caesar Augustus. The insistence of Christians that only one God is the true God, that they could only worship to one God and pray to one God, offended the tolerance sensibilities of the Romans. Fearing that the monotheism of the Christians might offend the gods, some authorities demanded that Christians pray and sacrifice to the Fortune of Rome. When Christians refused, they were imprisoned, tortured, and sometimes killed. Persecution of Christians was not consistent or enduring for the three hundred years between Christ and Constantine. Often Christians were tolerated and ignored. But some local officials, and a few of the Caesars, demanded uniform tolerance throughout the Empire. Christian intolerance of other religions made them suspect. For that reason, they were sometimes called to answer to the authorities, facing persecution if they remained faithful to Christ and to their one God.

Many Christians endured persecution, even to the point of death. Others fell away from the faith. When persecution ended, some of those who had denied Christ wanted to return to the Church. Their return caused a crisis among Christian leaders. Some leaders reminded the fallen that Jesus had said, “Whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven.” Other Christians reminded those leaders that the central theme of Christianity is forgiveness of sinners, that even the apostle Peter had denied Christ and had been restored to the Church. A compromise was reached in which fallen Christians could be accepted back into the Church, but only after they had endured a time of testing, or probation. Forgiveness was granted freely and unconditionally because of the suffering and death of Jesus. Church membership was allowed only after candidates had demonstrated their sincere repentance through good works, or penance. When asked about Christians who died before completing their penance, Christian leaders invented a condition called “purgatory” in which Christians could complete their penance before arriving in Paradise. Centuries later, these ideas of penance and purgatory would lead to a crisis in the Church, generally called the Reformation.

The apostles developed a pattern of preaching that centered around the person of Jesus. They mentioned his baptism by John, they described some of the miracles he worked, and they quoted some of his teaching, including his parables. The bulk of their message focused on Holy Week, from the Sunday when Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem through the Sunday he rose from the dead after his crucifixion. They also explained the relationship of these events to the teachings and history of Moses and the prophets and the consequences of those events to the lives of those who heard and believed the message about Jesus. Eventually, the apostles began to write letters to congregations containing the same message. Already in the first century, Jews and Christians agreed on a core of older writings from Moses and the prophets—called the Hebrew Bible by the Jews and the Old Testament by the Christians. Now Christians formed a New Testament to accompany the Old Testament. Already in the second century the official New Testament was being collected, although some variations of that collection existed into the fourth century. To be included in the New Testament, a writing needed to pass three tests. It needed to be written by one of the apostles (or by someone closely associated with an apostle—Mark, who wrote what Peter preached; Luke, who traveled with Paul and who interviewed eyewitnesses of Jesus; and James and Jude, the brothers of Jesus). It needed to be consistent with the message taught by the apostles and their followers. It needed to be known in all the major congregations of Christians, not only in one part of the Roman world. No conspiracy gathered the books of the Bible; consensus formed the canon (or list of approved readings) based upon those three simple rules.

Christian thought contained some diversity, including movements that went very much against the grain of what was said and done by Jesus and his apostles. In my next post, I will address some of those early Christian movements. J.