Like newborn infants

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel by Victor Hugo, tells the story of a baby who was left on the steps of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris the Second Sunday of Easter. The baby was found and adopted by a priest, who gave the baby a name derived from the Latin name for that day. The story of Quasimodo is not much of an Easter story. It has more sorrow than joy, more tragedy than triumph. Yet its origins link the novel to the life of the Church, and as such the story can be used to illustrate and celebrate the Christian season of Easter.

But a few things must be explained. When I was a boy and heard that the story of “the Hunchback of Notre Dame” would be shown on television, I assumed that the movie would be about football. I knew that Notre Dame had a football team (confusing the university in Indiana, USA, with the cathedral in Paris, France). I guessed that hunchback was a football position, something like quarterback and halfback and fullback. I did not expect priests and gypsies to be part of the story. But I saw the movie; I have read the book several times since then. Quasimodo and Esmeralda are as meaningful to me as the three musketeers or Christine Daae. Classic French literature is a joy, even if its sentences and paragraphs require more effort to consume than our post-Hemingway American novels and stories.

Other people might question what is meant by “the Second Sunday of Easter.” The traditional Christian calendar assigns more than a day to Easter—the Easter season is a week of weeks, forty-nine days, ending on the fiftieth day which is the festival of Pentecost, celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit. During those seven weeks, especially on the seven Sundays, the resurrection continues to be celebrated—not with colored eggs and candy, but with Bible readings and hymns and sermons and prayers that remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ and apply his victory to our lives today.

Like all the Sundays and holidays on the Christian calendar, the Sundays of Easter each have a special “praise song” called an Introit. The words of the Introit are taken from the Bible, mostly from the book of Psalms, although other verses of praise are also used. The Introit for the Second Sunday of Easter begins with a quote from I Peter 2:2-3: “Like new-born infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” The Latin words for “like new-born infants” are “Quasi Modo Geniti”—hence the name given to the baby hunchback, Quasimodo.

The Quasimodo theme, though, is not about human deformities or about dancing gypsies. Quasi Modo Geniti speaks of new life—the new life Christians receive through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his work, Christians are born again. Our old sinful selves are killed and buried with Christ; our new selves are raised with Christ and live with Christ forever. In his letter to the Romans, chapter six, the apostle Paul links this death and burial and resurrection to Baptism. Therefore, traditional Christians claim to be “born again,” not because of any prayer they prayed or invitation they gave to Jesus, but because of his death and burial and resurrection, because of baptism, and because of the ongoing work of God the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Because God is outside of time and unlimited by time, his people can be new every day. Every day we can be born again; every day we can be “like new-born infants.” Every song of praise is a new song sung to the Lord, even if we sang it before, even if Christians have been singing it for centuries. The commandment to love one another is a new commandment every day. Christ spoke it as a new commandment the night he was betrayed, but it had already been spoken in the past by Moses and the prophets. It is new because Christians are new—new-born infants, born every day through the resurrection of Christ and through his forgiveness, his restoration, and his transforming power.

Two years ago, the cathedral of Notre Dame was damaged by fire. Today it is being rebuilt. That holy place, dedicated to God, is both old and new, transformed even as each Christian is transformed through the work of Jesus. The fire of God’s judgment is quenched by the water of his Sacrament, washing away our sins and adopting us into God’s family. Jesus endured that fire for us on the cross. Jesus provided us with victory. Jesus makes us new every day—born again by his grace as children of the heavenly Father and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. We have tasted that the Lord is good. We rejoice in his goodness forever. J.

Christ’s new covenant

(a sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 10:35-45)

              We take it for granted, and generally we don’t even think about it. When we do stop and think about it, the topic confuses us. Sometimes it seems to rush by quickly; other times it seems to drag. Physicists like Isaac Newton assumed that it is the same for everyone everywhere, but Albert Einstein insisted that it is relative. Many modern philosophers say that it doesn’t really exist, that it is only there when we notice it.

              This strange quality is called time. We measure time with years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Without time, nothing could move and nothing could change. Nothing would be new or old if time did not exist. Time has a direction: we move from past to present and from present to future. Because of time, we have worries; and because of time, we have hope. Our lives are shaped by time. Yet the more we think about time, the less we understand it.

              God created time. He made the universe and all that exists in it “in the beginning.” God established time by making evening and morning, the first day. Our relationship to the sun creates days and years; our relationship to the moon creates months. Weeks are special; God created weeks by making the world in six days and resting on the seventh day, giving the people created in his image a day of rest every seventh day. God’s commandments of sabbath rest extended to sets of seven years, in which farmland got to rest every seventh year. God also created the Jubilee Year after every seven sets of years. On the Jubilee Year, debts were canceled, slaves were set free, and land was returned to the families who had received that land from God.

              God created time. We live in time. Our relationship with God works in time. When God speaks to us, he mentions time. Yet time does not limit God. He exists in time, but he also exists beyond time. To God, it is always “today.” God is eternal and unchanging. He sees all time at a glance. To God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. “Old” and “new” do not have meaning to God as they have meaning to us. Therefore, when God speaks to us, he uses our sense of “old” and “new.” Yet to God, everything is new and nothing is old. What seems old to us might be very recent for God, and what seems new to us might be old news for God.

              The prophet Jeremiah lived centuries after the time of Moses. When God called Moses, he had Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. On the way, Moses and the Israelites stopped at Mount Sinai, and God made a covenant with his people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God spoke about the behavior of his people under that covenant. They would have no other gods. They would respect God’s name, God’s time, and the human authorities that represent God’s authority. They would love their neighbors and respect their lives, their marriages, their property and their reputations. They would be content with what God provided them; they would not covet the things God provided to their neighbors.

              Under the terms of this old covenant, God would bless his people when they obeyed him, and God would punish his people when they disobeyed him. While his people obeyed, God would provide favorable weather, fertile fields, abundance of crops, and security from their enemies. But if they broke the covenant, God would withhold the rain and would let the crops fail. He would allow enemies to invade and to harm his people. If they obeyed the old covenant, they could stay on the land God had given to them; but if they broke that covenant, God would take them away from the land and would force them to live among their enemies, even though their enemies were also God’s enemies.

              When Jeremiah came, the Israelites had been breaking the old covenant for generations. They had worshiped false gods, the gods of the Canaanites and other neighboring nations. They had taken advantage of one another, forcing their neighbors into poverty for their own wealth and comfort. They had broken the sabbath commandments about rest and freedom and restoration. Under the terms of the old covenant, God had no reason to provide for them or protect them. Jeremiah, like the prophets before him, warned that consequences were coming because of the broken old covenant. Enemies would destroy the nation Israel, killing many of its citizens and carrying others away from the land. God had no obligation to prevent these bad things from happening, because his people had already broken the covenant God made with them. The Assyrians and Babylonians were tools in the hands of God, instruments used to accomplish his plan according to the terms of the covenant he had spoken to his people at Mount Sinai.

              Terms of the old covenant seem natural to us. Some people call it karma. We expect good things to happen when we do good things; we expect bad things to happen when we do bad things. If we obey the commands of God, we expect God to reward us. If we break his commandments, we expect God to punish us. We all know how the old covenant works: what comes around goes around. You harvest whatever you plant. In the end, we all get what we deserve. Therefore, if something good happens to you, sometime in the past you must have done something good. If something bad happens to you, the first question you ask is, “What did I do to deserve this?”

              Jeremiah spent much of his career warning God’s people of the consequences of breaking God’s covenant. But Jeremiah, like the other prophets, knew that God has an old covenant and a new covenant. Under the old covenant we get what we deserve. Under the new covenant, God forgives our sins and blesses us. The new covenant is based on God’s grace, not on our obedience. Under the new covenant, God rescues us from our sins. He rescues us from what we deserve. He rescues us from the power of evil, because God forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.

              The new covenant is not fair. The new covenant involves an exchange. In that exchange, the Son of God becomes one of us and lives among us. He obeys the commandments and earns God’s blessings. He deserves nothing but good. But, in the new covenant, the Son of God takes the burden of sins and iniquity, and he pays the price in full. The guilt of the world’s sins falls upon him, and he consumes the punishment that sinners deserve. In return, when God has forgiven iniquity and forgotten sin, he is able to bless those who broke the old covenant. God is able to claim us as his people and to give us the good things that Jesus deserves. He is our God and we are his people, just as he said in the old covenant. But the sins of our past have not destroyed that relationship. He remains our God and we remain his people, because through the cross of Christ God has forgiven our iniquity. He remembers our sin no more.

              The old covenant is fair. It makes sense. The new covenant is unfair. It transcends our understanding. In a perfectly fair world, the new covenant would not be allowed. Jesus could not suffer, because he never did anything wrong. Each of us would get what we deserve. Because we have all sinned—we all have broken the commands of God—we all have fallen short of his plan for our lives—he would no longer be our God, and we would no longer be his people.

              But God is not fair according to the terms of the old covenant. He replaces it with a new covenant that is unfair. He allows good people to suffer so he can suffer on the cross to pay for our sins. He allows sinful people to receive good things so he can give us good things we do not deserve. He is unfair for our benefit, breaking the terms of the old covenant and replacing it with a new covenant that allows him to remain our God and allows us to remain his people.

              In our travel through time, we encounter the old covenant first and then the new covenant comes later. Sinai happens first in history, and then comes Calvary. We are born knowing the justice of getting what we deserve, good in return for good and bad in return for bad. We then are told about the new covenant, an agreement when God reverses everything we took for granted. He absorbs our guilt upon the cross, paying our debt, reducing his wrath to zero; and he forgets our sins, gives us good things we do not deserve, and changes us to be his people. As a result, we also forgive those who sin against us. We also give good things to our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We also are unfair, showing love and mercy to our neighbors and loving them, even and especially when they do not deserve our love.

              For us, grace and mercy are a new covenant. For that reason, God speaks of an old covenant at Sinai and a new covenant at Calvary. But to God, nothing is old and nothing is new. In fact, the new covenant is (in a sense) older than the old covenant, because the new covenant is truer to the nature of God. God responds to sin with punishment; he reacts to evil by judging and condemning evil. At the core of his nature, though, God is love. He wants to give good things even to those who do not deserve good things. He wants to rescue victims of sin and evil. He wants the world to be good, and therefore he restores what is good, fixes what is broken, and reshapes us into the image of Christ after we first sinned and lost the image of God. He is our God, and we are his people, because that is what God desires. Forgiveness is more natural to God than judgment. He sees our sins for a while, but the blood of Christ erases our sins. Every day, in the sight of God, we are new people—cleansed, restored, and spotless in the eyes of God. Every song of praise we sing is a new song to God, and every time he tells us to love each other is a new commandment, because we never stop being new in the new covenant God has established with us through the cross of his Son.

              The old covenant comes in the course of time. The new covenant stands outside of time. Before God began to create, before he said, “Let there be light,” he had already planned our salvation. He knew that we would sin. He knew that his covenant based on our obedience would be broken. He knew the price he would pay to rescue us from the punishment we deserve. But God had already chosen his new covenant. That new (and timeless) covenant rests in the eternal and unchanging love of God, love by which God chooses to become a victim of evil on the cross to rescue us victims of evil and give us a share in his victory over evil and sin and death.

              We live under the terms of the new covenant. The old covenant no longer threatens us with punishment for our sins. But sometimes we forget where we live. We still want the benefits of the old covenant, so long as its judgment applies to others and not to ourselves. James and John, the disciples of Jesus, were thinking of the old covenant when they asked a special favor of Jesus. They wanted to be at his right hand and at his left when he claimed his glory. They were thinking in Old Testament terms of the kingdom, the power, and the glory when they made this request. They were not considering the unfair new covenant that Jesus had come to fulfill. Jesus denied them a place at his right and at his left when he claimed his kingdom and came into his glory. Those places belong to others—not to Moses and Elijah, not to Simon Peter, not to Martin Luther or any other great Christian heroes. Jesus claimed his kingdom and accomplished his glory on a cross. At his right and his left were two thieves, being punished for their crimes under the old covenant. Because Jesus was establishing his new covenant, when one of those thieves confessed his faith, he was promised a place with Jesus in Paradise. James and John and the rest of us are also promised a place in Paradise, not under the old covenant where people get what they deserve, but under the new covenant where, by grace through faith, we are forgiven of our sins and claimed as the people of God.

              Speaking of both covenants, Jesus speaks of a baptism and of a cup. Baptism washes and purifies. Jesus endured the cross as a baptism of fire, a baptism of his Father’s wrath, so we could be spared that wrath and our sins could be forgotten. The cup of God’s wrath is filled with our guilt and our sins. This cup contains a poison that kills, for the wages of sin is death. But Jesus drinks the poison in that cup. He consumes the wrath of his Father so he can adopt us into his family, making each of us a child of God.

              Jesus has another baptism, one of water rather than fire. Having endured the fire for us, Jesus washes us with water in Holy Baptism. As the new covenant is stronger than the old covenant, so the water of Holy Baptism extinguishes the fire of judgment and gives us eternal life in God’s kingdom.

              Jesus has another cup, the cup of salvation, the cup of the New Testament. At his Table, Jesus trades cup with us. He takes our cup, the cup of wrath, the poisoned cup, and he drinks from it until it is empty. Jesus did not want to drink from that cup. In Gethsemane, he prayed that the cup of his Father’s wrath would be taken from him. But he accepted the will of his Father and drank from that cup. Now, in exchange, Jesus gives us his cup. “This is the cup of the New Testament,” he says, “given for the forgiveness of your sins.” His blood removes our sins, because he shed that blood to take away our sins. They are forgiven and forgotten by God because of the work of Christ on the cross. As often as we drink from his cup of salvation, we proclaim the death of Christ until he comes. We proclaim the death that conquered death, the death that was followed by resurrection so we could rise to eternal life according to the terms of God’s new covenant.

              Jesus did not come to claim what belonged to him under the old covenant. The Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve and to give his life as a Ransom. Because he is a Ransom, our debt is paid. Our sins are forgiven and forgotten. The God who made all things—who created time itself—has chosen to be our God. He has chosen us to be his people. We are new every day because of the new covenant, the covenant fulfilled by Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross. To our Savior Jesus Christ be glory and honor and praise, now and forever.                 Amen.

A message from God (part two)

The Bible is the Word of God, the only trustworthy communication we have with the Creator of heaven and earth and the Redeemer of sinners. As God’s Word, the Bible can be used to test and judge other messages—not only dreams and visions, thoughts and feelings, but also preachers, teachers, and writers. If their message contradicts the Bible, their message is not from God. Because our understanding and interpretation of the Bible’s message can sometimes be diverse and unclear, I have written about how to reconcile different Christian interpretations of the Bible here.

But once we have acknowledged that the Bible is God’s Word, that it is the only test of other messages, how can we be sure that the truth of the Bible is true for us? Written long ago in foreign languages and foreign cultures, the Bible might not seem like a very personal message to Christians in the contemporary world. Therefore, some Christians seek and trust additional connections to God, additional ways that they can receive his Word and apply it to their lives.

Jesus knows everything. He knew this yearning for closeness could lead to problems. Therefore, Jesus promised that he could be found. “But if from there you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).

Where did Jesus promise to be found? Jesus says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). Some Christians are frustrated with the Christian Church on earth. It is filled with sinners. It sometimes fails to protect members and visitors from sinners in offices of power. The Church sometimes neglects the most needy and pays too much attention to worldly wealth and power. Yet Jesus promised to be present where people gather in his name. A study on discipleship I took when I was in high school proclaimed, “There are no Lone Ranger Christians.” The Church is the Bride of Christ and the Body of Christ. Those things that happen in the Church give us a closer relationship to Jesus—closeness that we will not find by enjoying Creation, meditating quietly in our rooms, or waiting for dreams and visions and quiet voices.

We see sinners in the Church. Jesus sees saints, already forgiven through his work. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27). Because the Church is his Bride, Christ does not allow us to seek a relationship with him apart from the Church. If you love him, you must love his Bride and see her with his eyes. When we see the sins committed in the Church and remember that those are forgiven sins, we are reminded that our sins also are forgiven through the cleansing work of Jesus.

What happens when people gather in Jesus’ name? The forgiveness of sins is proclaimed and believed. The Word of God is read and explained. Prayers are raised to God on behalf of the Church, its members, and the world in which we live. Sacraments also happen in the Church. It is no mistake that Paul uses baptismal language when talking about Christ’s cleansing of the Church, “by the washing of water with the Word.”

To some Christians, Baptism is a thing they did for God, an act that shows that they love and trust Jesus. They see Baptism as obedience to a commandment. But Baptism is a gift from God. It makes a Christian new every day, able to obey the “new commandment” to “love one another.” Studying the commandments does not make us better; God’s grace and forgiveness makes us better. Only through God’s grace and forgiveness are we restored to our Maker’s plan, being transformed into the image of Christ. Baptism is one of God’s expressions of this grace.

The other expression of God’s grace is called the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, and the Sacrament of the Altar. Again, some Christians eat and drink at the Lord’s Table as obedience to a command. They are remembering Jesus and showing that they love him. But Paul calls this Sacrament participation in the body and blood of our Savior: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (I Corinthians 10:16). Jesus says of the bread, “Take, eat, this is my body, given for you.” He says of the wine, “This is the cup of the New Testament, given for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He urges Christians to “do this often, remembering me.”

A quiet whisper like the one Elijah heard, a message from the Lord that springs into the mind unbidden, might seem like the closest relationship a believer can have with the Lord. But receiving his body and his blood in the Sacrament is even more intimate than hearing a whisper or receiving a message. It seems that the Christians most determined to experience God through dreams and visions and inner thoughts and voices are those who are neglecting the intimacy of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. The Bible urges us to cling to these Sacraments for confidence of our salvation and for connection to the Lord. I joke with Jesus about receiving messages from him through the radio, but Jesus earnestly reminds me to base my relationship with him upon the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. J.