Christ Jesus and President Trump

When I opened my email this morning, I saw that I had been tagged on Facebook. The tagger was a Facebook friend, someone I knew in college and have not seen since. Although we are Facebook friends, we do not comment on each other’s posts very often—far less than once a year. In this case, though, I was flattered that she chose me as one of several of her Christian friends. She wanted our reaction to a video regarding Christianity and American politics.

The video, which runs for several minutes, shows a man discussing the politics of Donald Trump and his supporters, comparing them to the teachings of Jesus Christ in an attempt to show dissonance rather than agreement. Although the speaker’s presentation is calm, he accompanies his message with stock media footage of the President—including two images of conservative Christian preachers praying with the President—interspersed with images of White Supremacist demonstrators, violent confrontations between individuals, and even the photograph of a high school student apparently smirking at a Native American speaker in Washington DC, even though that last event was quickly revealed to have contained no hostility between the student and the speaker.

The tone of the message left no doubt: the speaker believes that, because President Donald Trump is supported by racists, white supremacists, homophobes, and other deplorable people, real Christians cannot support the President, cannot vote for the President, and cannot even sit out the election if Trump is on the ballot. Jesus Christ is portrayed as loving, accepting all people, defending the rights of the poor (including immigrants), and opposed to any expression of hatred or disapproval. The other Christians who had commented were strongly supportive of this position.

I carefully considered how to respond. I wanted to be gentle. I wanted to be brief. I wanted to oppose the thought that no real Christian can support President Donald Trump. Here is what I said (as best as I remember):

“Interesting. Jesus Christ is far bigger than American politics. Sincere Christians can be right-wing, left-wing, or in the middle. There is plenty of room in Christianity for political conservatives and political liberals, for Democrats and Republicans. Jesus expressed compassion for victims of abuse, for the poor, for widows and orphans and foreigners. When he forgave sinners, he also said, “Go, and sin no more.” People on the right and people on the left have both sifted through the words of Jesus seeking support for their political positions. In both cases, this is wrong. Jesus came to be our Savior and our Redeemer, not to support our political choices.”

The speaker wanted to speak for all Christians in his disdain for President Trump. He wanted his audience to believe that Jesus would stand up today and reject President Trump. He severely undermined his case when he quoted Jesus as asking, “What is truth?” For it was a corrupt government official named Pontius Pilate who asked that question of Jesus and then did not stay around for an answer. And it was Jesus who allowed himself to be mistreated without fighting back, without calling for a change in government, without protesting what the Romans were doing in Jerusalem.

Christians have an obligation to participate in the government of nations where that privilege is granted. We should vote, and we should share our opinions with our elected leaders. Christians also have an obligation to help the needy, to defend the oppressed, and to be kind to all our neighbors. That kindness does not include approving of their sinful choices. When the occasion was right, Jesus preached against sin. He did not focus only on the sins of the elite and powerful; he condemned sin in all cases.

We Christians should oppose hatred and violence. We should not be known for what we hate; we should be known for what we love. Because we love Jesus, we will not use his name or his words to advance a political agenda or any other worldly plan. Instead, by sharing his word and by living according to his example, we will make this sin-polluted world a better place while we await the Day when Jesus will complete his work of casting out all evil and making this world his kingdom. J.

The cost of discipleship (sermon on Luke 9:57-62)

(shared with permission of the author)

 

Being a Christian is the easiest thing in the world. Being a Christian is also the hardest thing in the world. Like the other paradoxes involved in our faith, if we look at only one side, we are likely to misunderstand the truth. Only when we see both sides of the paradox do we begin to understand what it means to be a Christian.

Being a Christian is easy because it requires no work. It requires no work to be a Christian because Jesus has already done all the work to claim us for his kingdom. Anything we do to try to earn God’s love and his forgiveness and a place in his kingdom is counterproductive. Saying that we must be good first before God will accept our lives and forgive our sins is wrong. Saying that we must finish the work that Jesus began by being good is also wrong. Even saying that we must give our lives to Jesus or invite him into our hearts is wrong. Anyone who tries to take credit for even the smallest part of salvation insults God and risks losing God’s gift. We are saved by grace, not by works. Jesus does everything necessary to make us his disciples; we contribute nothing to the process.

Yet being a disciple of Jesus is hard work. Now that Jesus has claimed us for his kingdom and has taken away all our sins, we are called to imitate Jesus. We are to strive toward perfection. We are to have perfect love for God and perfect obedience of all his commands. We are to have perfect love for our neighbors, helping them in every way they need. We are to make the world a better place. As Christians, we are pictures of Jesus to the rest of the world. When our imitation of Christ falls short, we bring shame to his name. Instead of being his missionaries, we might give our neighbors reasons not to want to be Christians like us.

The best way to live with this paradox is to look at Jesus and not at ourselves. We remember that Jesus is eternally the Son of God. He is completely divine, as the Father is divine and the Holy Spirit is divine. But Jesus became human. He is like us in every way, except that he never sinned. He knows what it is to be human, because he is completely human. As God he is timeless and unchanging. As a man he moved through time—being born as a baby, growing from a boy into a man, suffering and dying on a cross, and rising to life again. Being one Christ, the Son of God experienced all those aspects of being human, and the Son of Mary has all the attributes of God.

Jesus came into this world on a mission. He came to save sinners. As a shepherd, he went out into the wilderness looking for sheep that had strayed. In the wilderness, Jesus battled the devil, who tried to discourage his rescue mission. But Jesus resisted the temptations of the devil. He remained faithful to his Father. In all his years between the manger and the cross, Jesus never sinned. He never did anything opposed to the will of his Father. He did all that his Father asked of him. That complete obedience is part of our rescue. Jesus has exchanged lives with us. When he took our sins upon himself, he gave us his perfect record of total obedience. When his Father looks at each of us, he sees us clothed in the righteousness of his Son. Therefore, God accepts us as his children. He regards each of us as pure and spotless.

But when Jesus took our sins upon himself, he also accepted the consequences of those sins. Jesus became a victim of evil, abandoned by his followers, rejected by his own people, treated unfairly by the government, and mocked by those who should have been worshiping him. Even his Father looked away from Jesus while he was on the cross, for God is holy and cannot bear to look at sin. We were in debt to God because of the times we sinned, but Jesus paid our debt in full. Now, even if we sin, Jesus reminds his Father that our debt is paid, and his Father continues to forgive our sins.

Because Jesus was battling evil and death, he rose from the dead to demonstrate his victory. Death could not hold him, and the devil has no power over him. Jesus promises us a resurrection like his. When he is seen in glory among the clouds, he will give a command, and all the dead will rise. Our bodies will be healed, and all of us who belong to him will celebrate his victory forever with him in a new and perfect creation.

Meanwhile, Jesus has not forgotten us in this world. He is with us always, even as he promises. Through the Bible he reminds us of what he has done for us and of what that means to us. In the Church he continues to proclaim forgiveness for each of us. In Holy Baptism he washes away our sins, bringing the power of the cross personally and individually into our lives. And he often feeds us at his Table, giving us his body and his blood to assure us of forgiveness and eternal life and victory, just as he has promised.

His forgiveness changes us. We once conformed to the pattern of the world, but now we are being transformed into his image. With our sins removed, we begin to act more like Jesus. The transformation has not been completed. We still sin every day and need forgiveness every day. But the change is happening. We have already been made saints by the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Now, being saints, we act like saints. We generally see the transformation more clearly in the lives of other saints rather than our own lives. We know where we have fallen short. But when we look at our fellow saints, we see the goodness of God shining through their lives.

One of the qualities of saints is that they are poor in spirit. Some have money and possessions and others do not, but the ones who have them are not owned by them, and the ones that do not have them are not obsessed with what they do not have. Saints are not attached to the treasures of this world. They are more interested in heavenly treasures than in earthly treasures.

One man told Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” but Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus knew the heart of this potential disciple. He could see that this man would not be content with the life of a disciple. When Jesus sent his disciples out as missionaries, he told them to take no extra supplies—not a change of clothes, nor money, nor a bag to carry extra food. As missionaries, they were to rely on the gifts given them for their work, and not to occupy themselves with questions about how to meet their worldly needs.

On another occasion, a young man came to Jesus boasting that he had obeyed all the commandments. Jesus responded, “Go, sell everything you own, and give the money to the poor. Then, come, follow me.” The young man went away sad because he had great wealth. It is not a sin to be wealthy. In fact, it is a blessing to be wealthy. We can do many things for the sake of the kingdom of God with money and possessions. But when they tempt us to forget our heavenly treasures and enjoy them instead, our earthly possessions can be dangerous to our lives as saints.

A second quality of saints is that they are faithful to God. They make no excuses; when God gives a command, they obey. The perfection of Jesus was like this: he did everything his Father asked of him, even going to the cross to rescue sinners. As we are transformed into the image of Jesus, we also learn to obey his commands and not to make excuses to escape what he commands.

When Jesus said to one man, “Follow me,” the man replied, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” That seems like a reasonable request, but Jesus knows an excuse when he hears one. “Leave the dead to bury their own dead,” Jesus told him, “but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” So we also should avoid excuses when Jesus tells us what to do. When he tells us to forgive those who sin against us, we should forgive them. No excuse releases us from the obligation to forgive. When Jesus gives us an opportunity to share his good news with others, we should share it. No excuse releases us from the obligation to proclaim the gospel.

Peter and Andrew and James and John left their nets and their boats to follow Jesus. Matthew left his tax collector’s booth to follow Jesus. So we also leave behind anything that would keep us from following Jesus. Any distraction from him, any competition for his place in our lives, needs to be left behind. We love him more than anything else; we trust him more than anything else; we even fear him more than anything else. Therefore, we do not allow our love for other things or our trust in other things or our fear of other things to keep us from following Jesus.

A third quality of saints is that they keep going forward; they do not look back. They do not think of their former sinful lives as the Good Old Days; they regret the sins for which they have already repented and been forgiven. The earthly treasures and worldly excuses that would have kept them from following Jesus do not have the power to pull them away from Jesus. Instead of looking back at what was past, saints continue moving forward on the Lord’s path.

Someone said, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say farewell to those at my home.” Again, Jesus knows our minds and our hearts. He knew that this potential disciple would never come back to Jesus if he first went home to say goodbye. So Jesus answered him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” When a farmer plows a field, the farmer does not lock back behind the tractor to see if the furrow is straight. Anyone who tried driving a tractor while looking backwards would wander all over the field. A farmer plowing a field chooses an object across the field, focuses attention on that object, and plows straight toward that object. With that technique, the furrow behind the tractor will always be straight.

Once Jesus sent his disciples across the lake in a boat, then followed some hours later, walking on the water. At first the disciples were frightened, thinking he was a ghost. But, when he assured them of who he is, Peter said, “Lord, if it’s really you, let me walk on the water toward you.” Jesus agreed to this request, and Peter got out of the boat. As long as Peter was looking at Jesus, he was able to walk on the water. When he was distracted by the wind and the waves, he fell into the water. Jesus had to pull him out again. So we also, when we focus on Jesus, can do whatever he wants us to do. When we are distracted by other things, we are more likely to sink than to walk.

These seem like challenging things to accomplish: to be poor in spirit, to be faithful to God without excuses, and to move forward without looking back. In fact, we fall short every day. Every day we repent of our sins and ask God for his forgiveness. Every day God forgives us, because on the cross Jesus paid for all of our sins. Every day our Baptism is renewed, as God looks at us and sees the righteousness of his Son and treats us accordingly. Every day we are being transformed into the image of Christ.

When the rich young man went away sad because Jesus told him to sell everything he owned, Jesus commented that getting a rich person into the kingdom of God is difficult, harder than threading a camel through the eye of a needle. The disciples were appalled and asked, “Who then can be saved?” “With man this is impossible,” Jesus told them, “but not with God: all things are possible for God.”

Being a Christian is the hardest thing in the world. We have to imitate Christ and do it perfectly to be worthy of the name “Christian.” But being a Christian is also the easiest thing in the world. It is easy because Jesus has done all the work. He has accomplished the impossible, changing us from sinners into saints. We remain sinners in this lifetime, but because of Christ’s work we will be saints forever. To Jesus, who has forgiven our sins, changed us into saints, and is still transforming us each day, to Jesus be thanks and praise and glory, now and forever.                      Amen.

Guest post from Johannes Tauler

Years ago we used to sing a song in church with the title and refrain, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Christians indeed ought to be recognized by their love. We were created in God’s image, and God is love. Redemption transforms sinners back into the image of Christ, and Christ is love. The greatest commandments require us to love God and to love our neighbors. Love should be characteristic of every Christian.

This month several Christian bloggers have commented on other people who call themselves Christian and yet are deficient in love for their neighbors. Such observations generally are tempered by the understanding that not one of us is without sin; and that even the most annoying and aggravating Christian would likely be an even worse person without the redemption of Christ and the guiding of the Holy Spirit. One saying tells us that we cannot understand another person until we have walked a mile in his or her shoes. (Taken literally, that’s a silly picture. What would we do—expect them to walk that mile barefoot? Or leave them barefoot while we take their shoes a mile away from them?) We cannot know what kind of aches and pains, digestive problems, fears, and anxieties might cause another person to act unloving towards his or her neighbors. If they that they are Christians, we owe it to them to assume that they are doing the best they can under the circumstances. At the same time, Scripture encourages Christians to exhort one another toward a higher standard of behavior. If the love of Christ has changed our lives, we want to bear witness to his love by example and not by words alone.

Johannes Tauler would have blogged if he had the technology. Born around 1300, he never had that opportunity. Instead, he preached and he taught. Tauler noticed the people of his century who called themselves Christians, yet whose lives made that label questionable. He observed, “Then there are the others, who are devoted to religious life and enjoy great esteem and reputation. They are pretty sure that they have left the darkness far behind; and yet they are fundamentally Pharisees, filled with self-love and self-will. All their striving is centered on themselves. Outwardly one can barely tell them from God’s friends, for they often spend more time on pious exercises than God’s friends. One can always see them reciting prayers, keeping fasts, and strict rules. If judged by externals, they are hard to recognize. But those in whom God’s Spirit dwells know them for what they are. In fact, even outwardly there is a way of distinguishing them. They are always sitting in judgment upon others, also on those who love God: but you never see them judging themselves, whereas the true lovers of God judge no one but themselves. In everything, in God and in his creatures, such people seek nothing but their own gratification. So deeply embedded is this pharisaical tendency in their nature that every corner of the world is invaded by it. It is impossible to overcome this habit by natural means: one might as well try to break down mountains of iron. There is only one way, and that is for God to take over and inhabit man. And this is what he does only for those who love him.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same. J.

Baptism

InsanityBytes wrote a charming piece on baptism which you can (and should) read here. As I commented to her, I agree with most of what she wrote. Many of the other comments began to head in several different directions. There are some more things I want to say about baptism, but rather than trying to say them all in her comments section, I decided to say them here.

First, Christians can disagree about baptism without condemning one another. We can have different opinions about what baptism is, what it accomplishes, where and how it should be done, and so on. To use technical language, each Christian believes that he or she is orthodox (or correct) and that Christians who disagree are heterodox (or incorrect), but we do not accuse the heterodox of being heretics, hypocrites, or unbelievers. We have the same Lord and Savior. We will meet in the same new creation, where we will know and understand all truth and will be able to identify (without shame or embarrassment) who was wrong about what teachings in this world.

Why then continue to discuss baptism? Why not “agree to disagree” and remain silent? Because those Christians who misunderstand baptism are missing the fullness of a blessing God intends them to enjoy. Because of their misunderstanding, they are missing the peace and comfort that comes to them through their baptism.

The key question is: is baptism something we do for God or is baptism something God does for us? If baptism is a work we do for God, then it cannot be involved in our salvation, for we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9). But Peter wrote, “Baptism now saves you” (I Peter 3:21). On Pentecost, to answer the question “what shall we do?” Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children” (pardon a little throat clearing at that last phrase) (Acts 2:37-39). Mark 16:16 says, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.”

Can God save people apart from baptism? Of course; God can do anything. Unbelief condemns; lack of baptism does not condemn. But God links salvation to baptism for a very important reason. Even the most faithful Christian sins, and we all need assurance of forgiveness that goes beyond our repentance and our faith. We all have bad days when we wonder if we have repented correctly and sufficiently; we all have times when we wonder if our faith is strong enough for us to be saved. If we were left only to measure our repentance and our faith by the way we feel or by the good works that we do, we would be left in doubt.

To rescue us from doubt, God gave us the gift of baptism. When the devil and the sinful world and the sin still within us accuse us and make us doubt our faith and our salvation, baptism is our escape. Because God has linked the promises of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life to the blessing of baptism, we use baptism as our defense when we doubt or when others attack. The correct attitude is not, “I was baptized on a certain day,” but, “I am baptized.” Baptism is a state of grace under which each Christian lives in this world while looking forward to the life to come.

Earlier this year I wrote more about baptism, which you can read here, here, here, and here. J.

Hallowed be thy name

Jesus says, “When you pray, say ‘…Hallowed be thy name….’”

Luther explains, “What does this mean? God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also. How is God’s name kept holy? God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”

Salvageable adds: God’s name includes everything that tells us about God. His name starts with the labels we use for him: God, Lord, Jesus, Christ, Savior, Redeemer, and so on. But God’s name can also refer to the Bible, the Church, the cross, and anything else that calls God to mind. God’s name is represented by anyone who calls himself or herself a Christian.

God’s name is so important that God protects it in the Ten Commandments, telling his people not to misuse his name. His name is misused when it is spoken carelessly, as punctuation, rather than as a prayer addressed to him or as a statement about him. It is misused whenever people try to use it magically, treating the cross as a good-luck charm or treating prayer as an incantation that gives the one praying control over God. God’s name is misused whenever it is invoked in an effort to deceive other people, whether perjury (promising by God’s name to speak the truth, and then lying) or false promises (God wants you to send me one hundred dollars, and he promises you greater prosperity in return when you do so).

Of course God’s name is always holy. Anything that belongs to God is holy. God does not require our prayers to preserve the holiness of his name. But our prayers remind us that God’s name is holy. As Luther indicates, when we pray to God about the holiness of his name, we pray that his name would be holy among us. Instead of bringing shame to the name of God by our deceit, by our selfishness, and by our cold lack of love for our neighbors, we want the name of God to be honored by our neighbors when they see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

Children sometimes misunderstand the words of the prayer and tell God that his name is hollow. When people pray this prayer and then go and do what they want rather than doing what God wants, they make his name hollow. As Luther prays, “Protect us from this, heavenly Father!” As Christians, may we bring glory rather than shame to the name of Christ our Lord. J.

Judging the wolves

Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15-16). He never told us to judge ourselves by our fruits. If we want to know whether or not we are saved from evil and promised a place in heaven, we look to the Word of God. We trust what God has said there about our forgiveness and our place in his kingdom. We turn to the Church—the people of God gathered around God’s Word—and to the special blessings of the Church for confidence that we are the people of God, redeemed from all sin and evil, and guaranteed eternal life in a new creation.

We do not judge ourselves, but we do judge others. Especially those who claim to be prophets and teachers must be judged so we will be safe from false prophets and lying teachers. The best way to judge such a teacher is to compare the teacher’s words to God’s Word. If their teachings differ from the Bible, they are to be corrected; if they refuse correction, they are to be ignored. (Under the Law of Moses, they were to be executed.) Another way to assess the fruits of a preacher or teacher is consider their lives. I Timothy 3:1-7 describes the qualities that the leader of a congregation must have. Fourteen qualities are listed. While I do not want to comment upon all fourteen, several are worthy of special mention.

“Above reproach”—no one but Jesus is without sin, but not all sins are equal in this world. All sins equally separate sinners from God, and all sins are forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice, but in other ways some sins are worse than others. A leader who does not abuse authority can be considered beyond reproach. One who uses authority over others to take advantage of them does not belong among the leaders of the Church. The Church’s leaders are to be servants rather than lords.

“The husband of one wife”—aside from excluding polygamy, this qualification has generated controversy. Can the leader of a congregation remarry if his wife dies? What if the marriage ends in divorce, but it was entirely the fault of the wife? I am uncertain of the answer in these cases, but in other matters I am certain. A church leader who commits adultery, or one who abuses women or children, cannot remain in leadership or return to leadership. The sinner might repent, confess, and be forgiven, but even being forgiven that former leader cannot return to leadership. The harm he has done to others is too great to ignore, even under forgiveness.

“Not a drunkard”—sad to say, many Christian leaders buckle under stress and turn to alcohol or other addictive substances or behaviors rather than finding their strength in the Lord. While a person is under the power of an addiction, that person cannot lead others. Following recovery, including repentance and confession, I believe such a person can return to leadership in the Church.

“Not violent, but gentle; not quarrelsome”—how many prominent leaders in the Church do these words disqualify? When a person is causing fights and schisms in the Church, either by beginning such fights or by entering them as a participant rather than working as a peacemaker, that person should not be entrusted with a position of leadership. In this case, also, recovery, including repentance and confession, can be considered grounds for returning to leadership.

“Not a lover of money”—anyone who considers wealth to be proof of genuine faith and Christian living is unworthy of leadership in the Church. Anyone who teaches others to believe the same is unworthy of leadership in the Church. Some Christians are obsessed with money and worldly property. They have turned their backs upon God and upon treasures in heaven to claim as much wealth as they can seize on earth. Worse, they are using God’s name to gather such wealth. If they persist in this error, they face serious judgment on the Last Day. Meanwhile, those who will not be corrected should be ignored.

Many famous and prominent leaders in the contemporary Church fail to show these qualities. They are not fit to lead God’s people. So long as they persist in their errors, they should be regarded as ravenous wolves. Every Christian is advised to flee from such wolves and to seek protection from Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. J.

May Day and Christian freedom

The first day of May is roughly half-way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. For more than two thousand years, this date has been marked by celebrations in Europe and in North America. Romans marked Floralia, Celts observed Beltane, and Germans commemorated Walpurgis on or near this date. While many neopagans try to restore these ancient celebrations, some Christian groups make the day an occasion to remember Mary the mother of Jesus and/or Joseph her husband. Meanwhile labor groups, socialists, and communists all mark the first of May as International Workers’ Day.

For some people in North America, the expression “May Day” is associated with a call for help, since the same syllables spoken in French mean, “Help me.” In one May Day tradition, children or families leave baskets of flowers or sweet treats by the front doors of their neighbors or their friends. Another involves dancing around a pole while winding colorful streamers around that pole to celebrate the springtime. About the only May Day celebration I observe is to set the alarm to awaken me with a song for May Day, “The Merry Month of May,” from the musical Camelot.

A few Christians are opposed to any event or ceremony remembering a date once used to honor pagan gods. Drawing inspiration from God’s prohibition of mixing Canaanite religious practices with the worship of the true God, such Christians oppose even Christmas trees and Easter eggs. They fear that such worldly traditions dilute the meaning of Christian beliefs. They note that most of the earliest Christian communities established in North America ignored–and in some cases banned–the celebration of Christmas. In particular, the maypole appears to resemble the Asherah pole of the Canaanites. God’s prophets severely criticized those Israelites who took part in the custom of the Asherah pole.

Clearly, any effort to honor any god other than the true God is idolatry. Christians should oppose efforts to revive ancient religions, be they Greek and Roman, Celtic and Germanic, Egyptian, Babylonian, or Canaanite. Does this mean, though, that any practice even remotely associated with false religion must be banned among Christians? Does God’s Old Testament position against the Canaanites mean that Christians today should be like the Taliban and ISIS, destroying historic treasures and works of art because they were created to honor false gods?

Paul told the Colossians, “let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath” (Colossians 2:16). Although the immediate context of those words applies more to Jewish holidays such as the Passover, I am convinced that Paul would say the same thing about Christmas trees, Easter eggs, carved pumpkins, and even maypoles. Paul proclaimed Christian freedom. He counseled that such freedom be practiced with restraint, that love for one another should prevail over doing what one is free to do. But Jesus can be honored with traditions that once had pagan meanings. Nothing in creation is so tainted by false religion that it cannot be reinterpreted to proclaim the true message of the Living God.

For Paul, the test case involved meat sold in city markets. That meat generally had first been offered on an altar to a pagan God. Paul did not forbid Christians to buy and eat such meat. He told the Romans and the Corinthians that each believer should follow his or her conscience. Those who feared that buying and eating such meat honored a false god should not buy and eat it. Those who saw that meat is meat and it did not matter where it had been were free to buy and eat. Paul added, though, that those who were untroubled by the past history of the meat should not eat it in the presence of those who were troubled. Out of love for fellow Christians, one should abstain from eating meat when those Christians are around. In their absence, freedom to eat meat was not restricted.

Many aspects of modern life seem tainted to some Christians. Because their consciences are troubled, fellow Christians lovingly limit their freedom to partake of worldly pleasures in the presence of those who are troubled. No kind person would drink wine or beer in the presence of a recovering alcoholic, one still struggling to resist the temptation to drink to excess. In the same way, any Christian is free to enjoy rock music, Harry Potter books and movies, Dungeons and Dragons, dancing, playing card games, or anything else that is not specifically prohibited by God’s commandments. A Christian is free to decorate a Christmas tree, color and hide Easter eggs, carve pumpkins for Halloween, and even celebrate May Day–so long as that Christian is careful not to offend others by these celebrations.

Christ’s victory over evil has set us free from the power of evil. As the redeemed, we are the property of God, and we wish to do nothing that brings shame to his name. Bear in mind, though, that Christians bring shame to God’s name by legalism, defining Christianity by rules and regulations rather than by free forgiveness and purifying grace. To the pure, all things are pure. Any Christian is free to fast–to deny one’s self alcoholic beverages or meat or rock music or books about magicians–but no Christian is free to demand the same fast from others. Whatever we do, we do it in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, bringing glory to God through his name. J.

Novella

Last spring I started writing a short story. After a while, the characters took over the story. They changed their names, and they kept extending the action until the short story became a novella. I was curious to see how it would end, when suddenly they told me they were done. I allowed the story to rest for a while. This week I pulled it out again, dusted it off, and tweaked it one last time. You can now read this novella by clicking on the word “novella” near the top of this page.

Someone once said that the first words to every story are “what if?” In this case, the story began this way: what if a young pastor was asked by his old flame to give counseling to her and her husband? I could imagine any number of possibilities, and it was interesting to toy with them as the story developed. Please believe the disclaimer at the start of the novella: Any resemblance to real people or real situations is unintended and purely coincidental. I would not want any reader to think either that this story is autobiographical or that it betrays confidences.

I hope you enjoy my novella. J.

Christ in Genesis: Raising Cain, Raising Abel

Because of their sin, Adam and Eve were removed from the Garden of Eden and were not allowed to return. Yet they left with a promise that they would be rescued by a descendant of Eve who would crush the serpent’s head and would reconcile them to God. Adam and Eve’s children faced the same burden of sin that their parents had brought into the world, but they also inherited the same promise of forgiveness and reconciliation.

When Eve gave birth to her firstborn, a son, she uttered a sentence which consists, in Hebrew, of three words: “I-have-gotten, a-man, the-LORD.” Most translations add helping words to her sentence, rendering it as, “I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD.” Even the Septuagint, the Hebrew Bible translated into Greek more than twenty-two centuries ago, adds the proposition “apo” in front of the Name of the Lord. A few Bible scholars believe that adding words to this sentence is a mistake. For example, Martin Luther taught that Eve had said, “I have gotten a man, the LORD.” Luther believed that Eve understood the promise of her descendant, who would crush the devil’s head, would be God taking on human form, as Jesus took on human form from his mother, Mary. If indeed Eve thought that her firstborn son was the promised Savior, what a dreadful disappointment occurred when Cain instead became history’s first murderer.

When they had grown to manhood, Cain and his brother Abel both offered sacrifices to the Lord. God accepted the sacrifice of Abel but rejected the sacrifice of Cain. Much needless speculation has tried to discover the difference between the two sacrifices. The answer is found in Hebrews 11:4. Abel offered an acceptable sacrifice “by faith.” Cain evidently did not offer his sacrifice by faith. No sacrifice to God has any value if it is not offered by faith.

All the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament were pictures of Jesus suffering and dying on the cross, having his heal bruised as he crushed the head of the serpent. No sacrifice, other than Christ, ever purchased mercy and forgiveness from God. No human act, other than the work of Christ, can purchase God’s forgiveness. God hates the times when people go through the motions of worship or sacrifice apart from faith in him. (See Isaiah 1:14, Amos 5:21-23, and Psalm 50:7-11.) He wants these things to be done by faith. When people do these things without thinking about what they mean, God is displeased. When people do these things thinking that they are earning something from God, putting him in debt to them, God is angered.

The animals that died so Adam and Eve could be clothed were pictures of Jesus. Likewise, the firstborn animal offered by Abel—and the countless animals offered to God by his people over the centuries—were pictures of Jesus. It appears that Cain forgot this important truth. He offered a sacrifice to God, but not by faith. Therefore God did not accept the sacrifice Cain offered. The fact that Cain was angry to have his sacrifice refused shows that he expected to gain something from God by that sacrifice.

Jesus warned Cain of the dangerous temptation lurking in his anger. Cain ignored the warning. Instead, he acted in violence, murdering his brother. He thought that his crime would be secret, but no one keeps secrets from God. As God had given Adam and Eve the opportunity to confess their sin, so Jesus also asked Cain about Abel.

Cain lied to God. He said that he did not know where Abel was. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Cain asked. The answer to that question is “yes.” We are all commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, and a brother is a very near neighbor. We are all expected to help one another, to bear each other’s burdens. Obeying God’s commandment not to murder is not as simple as never violently taking another’s life. We are not to hurt or harm our neighbors, but we are to help them and care for them. Neglecting a neighbor in his or her need is sinful, just as violently striking him or her is sinful.

Jesus challenged Cain’s lie. “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground,” Jesus said. Other Bible verses also describe the blood of victims as crying for justice. Because God loves each of us, God is angry when any of us are hurt by a fellow human being. All the blood of all victims in history cries for justice, and God hears those cries. On the Day of the Lord, the justice of God will be revealed. Those who have harmed their neighbors will finally receive what they deserve.

Cain knew what he deserved. He had taken away his brother’s life; now he deserved to be killed. His parents, his other brothers and sisters, his nephews and nieces all had the right to take vengeance on the killer of Abel. Yet God did not give Cain what Cain deserved. Instead, Cain was marked by God so that no one would kill him, even though he deserved to be killed.

The firstborn animal offered by Abel was a picture of Jesus. Abel himself became a picture of Jesus, innocent before God and yet killed by his brother. Jesus was rejected by his own people and sent to his death. Yet the blood of Jesus does not cry for vengeance. Instead, in his death, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them.” His blood is more powerful than the blood of Abel. Our sins caused the suffering and death of Jesus, but now he washes us in his blood to redeem us as God’s people. Because of the death of Jesus, we will not receive what we deserve on the Day of the Lord. Instead, we will receive what Jesus deserves—eternal life in God’s perfect new creation.

Like Cain, we have been marked by God so we will not receive what we deserve. He has marked us with the blood of Christ; he has marked us with his own Holy Spirit. On the Last Day, Jesus will see that mark on us and claim us as his people. He has already paid to purchase us. Now and forever we belong to him.

Guest post: an open letter to Carl

I have not invited guest writers to post on the Salvageable blog hitherto. However, a fellow blogger appealed to me so convincingly that “certain things need to be said,” that I am allowing this one-time guest-posting. As a Grammar Dalek, I could not resist correcting some of the writer’s grammar, punctuation, and spelling. However, the thoughts expressed below are those of the guest writer. J.

An open letter to “Carl,” whoever he may be.

My dear brother,

You are in enormous danger, a greater danger than you realize. Not only your happiness is at stake. You could lose your health to a rightfully jealous husband. You could lose your job because of a just supervisor. Worst of all, you are threatening your relationship with the Lord and his gift of eternal life because of your thoughtlessness.

Consider the words of Scripture. “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14). ”Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). “Keep the marriage bed pure” (Hebrews 13:4). “Whatsoever things are pure… whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). ”Avoid even the appearance of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:22).

You may well say to me that you are looking at Number Seven with eyes of friendship and not of lust. Yet you cannot deny that you are approaching her, not to serve her as a neighbor, but to enhance your own good feelings inside your heart. In that, you are using a woman—another man’s wife, for that matter—for your own selfish purposes, and that is sin. It borders upon abuse, no matter whether or not she knows what you are doing.

Your co-worker and friend warned you to be careful, suggesting that you might be hurt as you were hurt before. I would respect Esther more if she told you to be careful not to hurt Number Seven, not even to allow any suspicion to fall upon her. If you truly loved her as Christians should love one another, you would be cautious not to bring any sort of trouble upon her.

I know that, in your imagined conversation with Number Seven, you said that you would never allow anyone to harm her, not even yourself. Noble words, my friend, but said in the way you said them, they went against your stated purposes. I know you prayed to God to guide you away from temptation. A godly prayer, my friend, but those are mere words, and your actions are speaking louder than your words.

By all means be a friend to Number Seven. But equally be a friend to the other five workers in your office. By all means, visit with her. But visit just as much with your other coworkers, as much as your jobs permit. When you allow Number Seven to be more special to you than the other people in the office, you flirt with danger. When time spent with Number Seven makes you feel good for the rest of the day, watch out! You are deliberately walking along the edge of temptation, and few who follow that path fail to fall into sin. If you believe that your affection for her is making you a better person—calmer while driving in bad traffic, I believe you said somewhere—please be aware that evil has a tendency to take one danger away from us for the very purpose of leading us into a greater danger.

One final thought, and this concerns your lingering memories of “Rosa.” I have read J’s First Friday Fiction, and I strongly suspect that Rosa lives there under other names—Michelle, Jessica, and Crystal come to mind; I think there are others. One heartbreak seems to have led to several cries of pain. If you learned your lesson with Rosa, why, oh why, would you consider making the same mistake again?

These words are not meant to hurt you, my brother. This is a sincere rebuke from a fellow Christian. I beg you to change direction before it is too late. And I commend you for trying, at least, to seek the will of the Lord in this matter.

My name is Salvageable, and I approved this message. J.