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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.