Beyond reason in creation and in redemption

I am thankful for fellow blogger Clyde Herrin for two reasons. First, he has been kind enough to repost several of my recent posts on his blog, thus expanding my potential audience. Second, he has given me food for thought in his comment on my recent “Summer Solstice” post. You may recall that I suggested that an Obsessive-Compulsive Creator would have given us thirty-day months and a 360-day year, allowing day and month and year to match mathematically. Clyde suggested that, in the beginning, the solar system operated in sync according to simple math, but that sin and the consequences of sin threw the system into a more chaotic set of relationships. He pointed me to a post of his ten years ago (which I had already read and liked some time in the past) in which he suggests that the turmoil of the Flood threw the earth’s day off from its previous length by about twenty-one minutes, resulting in the mismatch of days to years that complicates our calendars today.

I replied to Clyde that, in my opinion, God delights in complexity within creation and does not limit himself to simple relations. I mentioned complexity in biology and in subatomic physics, and I then offered the thought that God purposely put the sun, moon, and planets (including our earth) into a complex dance that does not simplify to easy mathematics. Continuing to ponder the possibilities after posting that comment, I have arrived at even more evidence that the patterns in our solar system are intended to be complex.

The evidence has been known for a very long time. Two thousand years ago, Greek mathematicians used geometry to study the world and even to comprehend complex ideas in number theory. Reality frustrated these mathematical geniuses. They wanted every number in the universe to be a fraction, a ratio, a balance of two other numbers. But these students of nature discovered that the relationship of the diameter of a circle to its circumference is not a rational number. It cannot be expressed as a fraction of two other numbers. That relationship of the trip around a circle to a trip across a circle is called “pi,” a number about (but not exactly) one-seventh more than three. Likewise, the relationship of the diagonal of a square to the side of a square is another irrational number, which happens to be the square root of two. Every square in the world, no matter how big or how small, has the same relationship of diagonal to side, and the number that describes that relationship is never a fraction or ratio of two other numbers.

It is no coincidence that we call those numbers irrational. Not only are “pi” and “the square root of two” not expressed by fractions, or ratios of two numbers; they also do not make sense to people who want mathematical simplicity in their world. It seems that God delights in complexity and does not settle for simple relationships in his creation. For people like Clyde and me, who believe in an Almighty God who created heaven and earth and all that exists, that raises interesting questions. Is the Almighty God limited by rules of geometry, so that circles and squares could not exist apart from the irrational numbers that describe them? Or could God have created a world with different mathematical rules and different geometric proportions, a world that was fully rational even to ancient Greeks who studied the world and the things it contains?

Such questions go beyond science and mathematics and geometry. Identical questions can be raised about ethics. Is the Almighty God answerable to rules about good and evil, or does he get to write all the rules? Those who call Him Almighty define “good” as “whatever God likes” and “evil” as “whatever God does not like.” Our debates about good and evil, then, come down to God’s statements to us about what he likes and what he hates, the behavior of which he approves and the behavior of which he disapproves. Yet some people feel qualified to judge God, to apply their own rules to the Creator and decide whether he meets with their approval. To such people, God speaks as he spoke to Job: “Where were you when I created the world?”

Imagining a world with different rules for mathematics and geometry goes beyond our comprehension. Imagining a world with different rules for right and wrong goes beyond our imagination. God, at his essence, is love; for love flows among the Persons of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are created in God’s image. The most important commandments God gave us are that we love him and that we love one another. God’s other commandments teach us how to love. Sometimes, what seems loving to us attacks others and harms others rather than truly loving them. God’s love sometimes is “tough love,” discouraging us from harmful behavior we might characterize as love and guiding us into true love for God and for one another.

But, because God is love, he also rescues us from the consequences of disobeying his rules. We cannot disobey some rules: we cannot defy gravity, and we cannot cause the relationship of the diagonal of a square to its side to become a rational number. In cases where we have broken God’s commandments telling us how to love, God rescues us from the consequences of our failure. Jesus, on the cross, bore the burden for our sins to reconcile us to God. Jesus defeated our enemies—even our own sins—and shares his victory with us. In a sense, God breaks the rules of justice, of power and authority, to establish grace and mercy and peace in our lives.

And he supports that message about his love and his grace by leaving in his creation other mysteries that defy reason and logic and the way we would do things—including quantum mechanics, including irrational numbers, and including the complex dance of the sun, the moon, and the planets. J.

Fathers’ Day sermon (shared by permission)

“Now before faith came, we were help captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” (Ephesians 3:23-4:7)

              On this Fathers’ Day, it is fitting for Christians to consider God the Father. We pray to him often, addressing him as, “Our Father, Who art in heaven.” We declare our faith in him, confessing, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.” We mention him at the beginning of every service, with the Invocation, “In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We were baptized into that Name, and so we remember his Name at the start of the service and also in the Benediction at the close of every service.

              We don’t often consider, though, the difference between naming him “God the Father” and calling him “Our Father.” Because we associate the Father with creation, we tend to think of God as Father to all he created. But God’s Fatherhood is not linked to his creation. God’s Fatherhood is eternal, as the relationship of God the Father and God the Son exists outside of creation—outside of space and outside of time. Family relationships in creation are pictures of the divine relationship of Father and Son. We might think that families in creation are the reality and that the labels are attached to God as a metaphor. But God came first. God is eternal. Families in creation are the metaphor. They teach us how to think about God. They show us an important truth about the God we worship.

              An essential difference, though, is that family relationships are governed by time, but God is outside of time. Sons are born after their fathers and develop and grow in their families. God the Father and God the Son are both eternal, equally powerful, equally glorious. God the Son has never been less than God the Father. He is eternally begotten by his Father; he does not enter reality after his Father, as is necessary in the families in creation, families that move through time.

              The eternal Son of God did something that the Father never did. He entered creation, becoming part of the world God made. Taking on our human form, he became one of us. As a man, Jesus is less than his Father, owing his Father obedience and honor and praise. Jesus became one of us to rescue us from sin and evil. As God’s creation, we were made in the image of God, intended to be pictures of God’s love. Because we rebelled against God, sinning when we broke his commandments, we were cut off from God. Jesus restores that relationship with God, bringing us into the holy family by his obedience to the will of his Father. God is now our Father, not through creation, but through adoption. Jesus paid to make us children of God. God sees us through the obedience of his Son and calls us his children. We have the privilege of praying to our Father in heaven, not because he created us, but because his Son redeemed us.

              For this reason, no one who denies Jesus as the Son of God has the right to call God a Father. Some people insist that God is Father to us all. They say that Jews and Muslims are our brothers and our sisters because they pray to the same God and call him Father. But no one knows the Father who does not know the Son. No one enters the family of God except through the work of God the Son. People might say the word “father” when they think of the God they are worshiping; but, if they are not coming to the Father through Jesus, the God they are worshiping is not the true God.

              We become children of God the Father through faith in Jesus Christ. Yet we do not always act like children of God. The Father gave us a guardian for our lives in this world: he gave us the Law, which tells us how God intends us to live. Since we are meant to be images of God, pictures of love, the Law tells us how to love. It teaches us how to love God, and it also teaches us how to love the people around us.

              The famous summary of God’s Law, given to Moses and the Israelites as the Ten Commandments, stresses the definition of that love. Two of the Ten Commandments focus on our families. Families are important to God. We learn how to love in our families. We learn about God’s love in our families. For that reason, God commands us not to commit adultery. The love of husband and wife is to remain faithful, in spite of all the temptations to sin that exist in the world. Marriage is a picture of God’s love for his people. Marriage is also the foundation of a healthy beginning for children who are born into the world.

              Likewise, children are commanded to honor father and mother. They are to serve and obey their parents. The authority of father and mother are pictures of God’s authority in our lives. As children grow, they learn to respect authority in other places. They honor teachers in the classroom. They honor bosses and managers at work. They honor and respect human government, obeying the worldly authorities to show their respect for God, the ultimate authority. Human authorities sometimes make mistakes. They sometimes sin. When given a choice, we must obey God rather than human authority. But most of the time, we are not forced to choose. Our respect for human authority shows our honor for God. Our rebellion against human authority shows our rebellion against God.

              Over the last seventy years, honor and respect for authority has been treated as old-fashioned and unnecessary. Entertainment celebrates rebellion against authority and rebellion against those in charge. Stories set in the family and at school and in the workplace typically depict those in charge as feeble or corrupt. These stories make disobedience and rebellion seem good instead of evil. Likewise, entertainers teach us to mock our government officials. They become the subject of jokes and of belittlement. Instead of honoring and respecting our leaders, we are taught to think poorly of them and to resist their leadership. The sinful world around us encourages us to rebel, to refuse to honor people with authority over us. It teaches us to rebel against human authority so we also will join the sinful world in rebelling against God’s authority.

              All around us, we see the consequences of that rebellion. Families have fallen apart. Schools no longer produce model citizens. Workers no longer care about doing a good job. Acts of rebellion against the government are increasingly common. Society is in chaos, because honor and respect for authority has disappeared. Along with that evil, we see a second evil. People with authority no longer use their authority as pictures of God. Fathers abuse their own children. People with power try to crush others instead of sustaining them and supporting their growth. Because government is treated as an enemy to the people, government often responds by acting as an enemy to the people. When things go wrong, people blame those in charge. At the very same time, they demand that those in charge fix the problem so things will not continue going wrong.

              God’s Law limits the power of sin to corrupt our lives. The Law of God curbs our evil nature. It teaches us not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to steal, and not to tell lies. As our guardian, it restrains us from evil. But the Law treats us, not as children of God, but as criminals who must be limited and restrained. At best, the Law treats us as runaway children, defiant to the authority of our Father, and needing the control of rules and regulations to keep us from destroying ourselves and the world around us.

              The Law cannot bring us into God’s family. The Law cannot make God our Father. The Law shows us our sins and our need for a Savior, but the Law can never be the Savior we need. Our efforts to obey the Law fall short of its demands. We cannot work our way into God’s family. We cannot purchase his love. We cannot deserve forgiveness for our sins. We are prisoners, held captive by the Law, set aside for eternal punishment according to the just and fair terms of the Law.

              What the Law cannot accomplish, God provides with grace and mercy. God’s Gospel, his good news of forgiveness and rescue, comes through the work of his Son. Jesus entered this world to rescue us. He placed himself under the Law, obeying all its rules and regulations. Jesus fulfilled the terms of the Law. He was not captured and imprisoned by the Law; he gained freedom from the Law by loving his Father perfectly and by loving the people around him perfectly.

              Yet Jesus allowed himself to be captured and imprisoned by corrupt human authority in this sinful world. Having obeyed the Law perfectly, Jesus took on himself the burden of our sins and our rebellion. He never sinned, but he was treated as sin for us. Suffering the penalty of sin, Jesus purchased us from the power of evil and made us the property of God. He paid a ransom for us, giving his life in exchange for our lives. That redemption, that ransom, set us free not only from our sins, but also from the burden of the Law. We are no longer captives, imprisoned by the Law. We have been adopted into God’s family. Through the price Jesus paid on the cross, we have become children of God. We pray to God, calling him Our Father, because the only Son of God has claimed us for his family. We are children of God, calling God our Father, because when Jesus took our place on the cross he invited us to take his place in the family of God.

              The price for our adoption was paid on the cross. The formal ceremony of our adoption took place in our Baptism. Jesus was baptized at the beginning of his ministry to give meaning to our baptisms. When Jesus was baptized, God the Father spoke to him. He said, “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well pleased.” Now, through Baptism, God the Father looks at us and sees Jesus. He says to each of us, “You are my Son. You are the one I love. With you I am well pleased.”

              Through Holy Baptism, we have gained a family. We have a Father in heaven to whom we pray. We also have brothers and sisters here on earth. All those who believe in Jesus—all those who know God as Father through the saving work of Jesus Christ—are our brothers and our sisters. We belong to this family through Holy Baptism. The power of Baptism is the cross of Jesus Christ. Adopted by him through the price he paid on the cross, we are now children of God and brother or sister to every other Christian on earth and with all the Christians in Paradise waiting for the resurrection and the new world Christ has promised.

              Jesus died to claim us for his family. Now we have an inheritance through the death of Jesus. He had no earthly property to leave for us to inherit. Even the clothes he was wearing were claimed by the soldiers who crucified him. But Jesus clothes us in righteousness. He gives us his sinless life to wear. Not only today, but on Judgment Day, God the Father sees us clothed in his Son’s righteousness. On that Day also he will say to each of us, “You are my Son. You are the one I love. In you I am well pleased.”

              On this Fathers’ Day, I have spoken about God the Father and about God the Son. But we should not neglect the third Person of the Holy Trinity. We also remember the work of God the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works through the Word of God and through the power of Holy Baptism. The Spirit gives us faith in Jesus our Savior and keeps us strong in that faith. The Spirit reminds us of our adoption and teaches us to pray, “Abba” (that is, Daddy). We are not slaves to the Law. We are not even slaves of God. We are sons of God, heirs to the kingdom of God, through the cross of Jesus Christ and through the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.

              When the time was right, Jesus came into this world to rescue us. When the time is right, Jesus will appear in glory and make everything new. We belong to him today. We belong to him forever. He has made us family, and that family will last forever, even as God is eternal and unchanging. To our Holy God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—be thanks and praise and glory and honor, now and forever.     

              Amen.

Festival of the Holy Trinity

Traditional Christian congregations divide the year into two halves. The first half follows the mission of Jesus. Four Sundays of Advent prepare the way for the Lord. The twelve days of Christmas celebrate His birth. During the Epiphany season, Christians remember the works and deeds of Jesus that reveal Him as Lord and Savior. During Lent, Christians consider the reason we need a Savior. Lent concludes with Holy Week, following Jesus to the cross. Holy Week concludes with Easter Sunday, beginning seven weeks that rejoice in the resurrection of the Lord. On Pentecost Christians remember the work of the Holy Spirit. With this, the festival half of the Church Year comes to an end, and Christians begin numbering the Sundays after Pentecost, sometimes referring to this half of the Church Year as Ordinary Time.

But the First Sunday after Pentecost is not ordinary. On this Sunday, traditional Christians remember the Holy Trinity. We recall that the one God is three Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each of the three is a distinct Person. They love each other. They talk to each other. They do things for each other. But they are not three gods: they are one God. One God created the world. One God tells the people he made why we are created, what we are intended to do. One God will judge us for our failure to fulfill his purpose. And one God planned our rescue, a Ransom that would pay the price for our sins, cleanse us of our failures, and reconcile us to God, making us His people forever.

The Triune nature of God was communicated in ancient times. The very word for God, “Elohim,” used many times in the Hebrew Bible, is a plural noun. From creation, God speaks of Himself in the plural, saying, “Let us make man in our image.” The Triune nature of God is found in key Bible verses, including Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God the Lord—is One!” and Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” Likewise, with words that Christians enjoy singing in a variety of different tunes, the angels around the throne of God praise him with the words, “Holy, holy, holy.”

God is not like us. If God were like us, he would not be worthy of our worship and praise. If God were like us, he could not rescue us from sin and evil and death. If God were like us, our lives would have no meaning and no purpose. But God is far beyond our understanding. The mystery of the Holy Trinity gives us reason to rejoice in God, reason to trust his promises of salvation, and reason to find meaning in his reality for the lives we are living today.

God is Almighty. He can do anything. People who play with words like to ask questions such as, “If God can do anything, can he create a rock to heavy even for him to lift?” Even the Bible concedes that, being Almighty, God cannot do some things. God cannot lie. Not only is God too good to lie; God is too powerful to lie. Whatever he says happens. He says, “Let there be light,” and there is light. He says, “Your sins are forgiven,” and our sins are forgiven. He says, “You belong to me forever,” and we belong to him forever.

God is eternal and unchanging. He created time and space; he is not limited by time and space. His presence fills the universe and exists in even the tiniest of spaces. His presence also fills time. God chose a name for himself, a name pronounced “Yahweh,” a name which means, “I am.” God has no past and no future; everything in the universe is in the present tense for God. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. His love, his mercy, and his grace never change.

Yet one of the three Persons, the Son of God, entered creation and made himself like us. He was conceived and born into the world. He experienced time and change, growing from a baby to a boy and then a man. He is like us in every way, except that he never sinned. He obeyed all his own commands, fulfilling the Law on our behalf. He also paid the price for all our sins, becoming a ransom to rescue us from death and to grant us eternal life. He established a Church based upon the words of his prophets and apostles. He gathers His people into that Church, granting faith in his promises and promising rescue and eternal life to all who believe those promises.

God the Father sent His Son, and the Father accepts as His children all those redeemed by His Son. God the Son, as Jesus as Nazareth, is a Ransom to pay for our sins and to reconcile us to His Father. God the Holy Spirit works in the Church to share the message of Jesus, granting faith to God’s people and keeping them in that faith unto everlasting life.

The Holy Trinity is a mystery beyond our understanding. On this Sunday we rejoice in a God we do not understand, confident in his unchanging love and mercy and grace. We praise him by singing, with angels and with all the saints in heaven, “Holy, holy, holy!” J.

O Jerusalem–sermon on Luke 13:34-35 (shared with permission)

              “It’s all God’s fault.” That’s been part of the temptation from the very beginning. When things go wrong, we look for someone to blame, and who is easier to blame than God, the One who started it all? When Adam ate the forbidden fruit, he pointed the finger of blame at Eve, at “the woman you gave to me,” as Adam said to God. Since that time, many other people have asked why God put that tree in the Garden. He knows everything—didn’t he know that the tree would cause a lot of trouble? God created everything that exists; if things go wrong in creation, it must be his fault. God has the power to do whatever he wants; if he wanted to help us and protect us from harm, he certainly could do it. When Jesus said that there would be wars, rumors of wars, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and other disasters, he showed his knowledge of the future. Why didn’t Jesus do something about these problems? Why didn’t he offer us a better future?

              One conclusion that people reach is that God must want things to be this way. He must want human history to consist of war after war, complete with death and destruction and all the trauma of war. He must want diseases to spread and limit the growth of the human race. He must want people to starve in some parts of the world, even as people in the rest of the world are throwing their extra food into the garbage. Most of all, he must want to send sinners into the fire of eternal punishment. If God did not want to condemn anyone to hell, he didn’t have to make hell. If God wants everyone to be forgiven for their sins and to live with him in heaven, all he has to do is forgive us our sins and welcome us into heaven. He has the power to do whatever he wants; therefore, whatever happens, that must be what God wants.

              This is what some people say. But the God they blame—the God they hate—is not the God of the Bible. They have created an imaginary God, a God they can reject, so they do not have to deal with the real God. Ask a group of atheists about the God in whom they do not believe, and you will receive a full description of God—a God who makes lots of rules just so he can catch people breaking the rules, a God who invents cruel punishments just to watch people suffer, a God who watches the problems and struggles of this world and refuses even to lift a finger to help people. This is the God they reject. This is why they do not believe in God. But we Christians can honestly say to those people that we do not believe in that God either.

              Instead, we worship a God who became one of us and lived among us to rescue us. We believe in a God who loves the world so much that he gave his Son to redeem sinners. We believe in a Savior who saw the sins of Jerusalem and who saw the punishment that would fall upon Jerusalem, and who wept over the city and its problems. Jesus cares. He cares so much that he sacrificed everything he had to rescue sinners. When he must turn away the people who reject his forgiveness, Jesus weeps. He does not want to punish and destroy any sinner; he wants all to believe in him and to receive the benefits of faith, the rewards that he earned for every sinner. When people blame God for the problems in this world, they ignore his love. They ignore his compassion. They ignore the work God has done to rescue sinners. When people blame God, they ignore the love that God has for them and the genuine sorrow that God has because they refuse to be rescued. They refuse to be forgiven. They refuse to let God do what he wants to do, lifting them out of sin and evil and carrying them to everlasting life.

              These enemies of God confront us with the things we say about God. We say that God is good. We say that he loves all people. We say that God knows everything. We say that he is almighty; He can do anything he wants. Having quoted those things to us, the enemies of God say that they cannot all be true. If God is good and he lets bad things happen, then perhaps he is not almighty. Or if he can do anything he wants, perhaps he is not truly good. Either God is not good enough to help us, or God is not strong enough to help us. Maybe he is good enough and strong enough, but he simply does not love us. Either way, it is all God’s fault. By saying these things, the enemies of God think that they have defeated God. They have removed God from their lives; they have put themselves in charge, because they have judged God and have found him lacking. From now on, they will be their own gods, because the God you and I know is not good enough for them.

              Sometimes you and I fall into the trap of God’s enemies. We focus too much attention on the fire and suffering of hell, and we make it sound as if God likes to see people suffer. We ask questions about the world, about why things go wrong, and we fail to show our faith that God is still in control. We get caught up in the matters of this world—the wars, the diseases, the political problems, the economic problems—and we fail to proclaim that it all belongs to God and that everyone will answer to Him. We even act as if we are in control of our own lives, as if we need to take care of ourselves and turn to God only as a last resort when all our plans have fallen short of our goals.

              Jesus came into this world to forgive sinners. He is obsessed with forgiveness. He tells us to forgive sinners, and he links our forgiveness to the forgiveness that we share with others. Not that we forgive those who sin against us by the goodness of our own hearts. When we try to find in ourselves the power to forgive, our goodness and our forgiveness falls short of God’s glory. But when we are confident that Jesus forgives sins, we pass along the forgiveness that Jesus earned on the cross. Because we are forgiven, we also forgive. Because we have been given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, we act as agents of God. We warn sinners of the cost of their sin, speaking to them the Law of God. We call them to repent. But we also share the good news of forgiveness to all those who repent. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is bigger than all the sins of the world combined. His Gospel is far bigger than all the sins which have caused us to suffer. We love our neighbors and forgive those who sin against us because God loved us first and because Jesus has already paid the debt of all sinners in this world.

              We too are sinners. We have fallen short of the glory of God. We do not always love and forgive as we should love and forgive. We deserve to be rejected by God, punished by God for breaking his laws. Instead, Jesus came to rescue us and forgive us. Jesus mourns over our sins as we wept over Jerusalem. We grieve the Holy Spirit when we sin. Even in his grief and sorrow, God desires our forgiveness. He wants to restore us to a right relationship with him; he wants to call us his children. Therefore, Jesus came into this world. The only-begotten Son of God paid the cost of our adoption so we also could be children of God and could live forever with him in his kingdom.

              Jesus lived as our substitute. He obeyed the Law perfectly where we have fallen short. He was circumcised, shedding his blood even as an infant to wash away our sins. Later, he also was baptized to fulfill all righteousness. He was tempted by the devil, but he resisted temptation. He loved his Father perfectly; he loved his neighbors perfectly. He submitted to earthly authority, even when that earthly authority was corrupt. He earned the rewards of a sinless life so he could grant us those rewards at no cost to ourselves.

              But then Jesus was crucified. Jesus compared himself to a mother hen, spreading her wings to gather her chicks. God the Father and God the Son do not often portray a feminine nature, but on this occasion Jesus does call himself a mother hen. When a hen chases away the intruder in the barnyard, and when she gathers her chicks to protect them from danger, she spreads her wings wide. With that image, Jesus pictures himself on the cross, spreading his arms over the world to provide protection for all the people he loves and gathering us all under his wings at the cross. There he suffers and dies for us. There he pays our debt and adopts us into his family. There he defeats his enemies and reclaims us as his people so we can live with him forever in his kingdom.

              This payment was necessary, because evil has a price. God cannot forgive sins by ignoring sins.
God cannot pretend that everything is good when everything is not good. God hates evil, because evil damages the good things God made. God hates evil, because evil hurts the people God loves. God hates evil, because evil brings darkness in the place of light. Evil brings death in the place of life. Evil is a barrier that separates us from God. We cannot remove the barrier. We cannot replace darkness with light or death with life. Therefore, on the cross, Jesus pays in full for our restoration. He takes away all our sins, redeeming us, paying the full cost to make us the children of God and guaranteeing us eternal life in his kingdom.

              Having defeated evil, Jesus dies and is buried. On the Sabbath Day he rests, his body in a tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father in Paradise. At the dawn of a new week, Jesus rises from the dead. He proves that he has won the victory over all evil, even over death itself. He presents the evidence of his resurrection to his followers, promising us a resurrection like his resurrection. He sends his followers as messengers, bringing forgiveness and the guarantee of eternal life to all nations.

              Jesus ascended into heaven, but he did not abandon his followers. He is with us always, even to the end of the earth. He is with us in his Word, guiding us by his Law and reminding us daily of his Gospel promises. He is with us when two or three gather in his name, reminding us of his forgiveness and giving us power—through that forgiveness—to live as his people. He is with us in Holy Baptism, daily renewing the forgiveness of our sins and the promise of eternal life. He is with us in Holy Communion, feeding us with his body and blood, and giving us forgiveness and eternal life by the power of his sacrifice on the cross.

              In the Bible, the Church, and the Sacraments, Jesus shares with us the good news of a God who cares. Jesus wept over Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, he spread out his arms on the cross to embrace all the sinners of the world. Through the Church, Jesus continues to reach out to the world with the good news of forgiveness and eternal life. He shares his blessings with us this morning. He sends us again into the world to be his messengers, carrying with us the keys to the kingdom of heaven. He is with us always, just as he said, working through us to change the world, and keeping us faithful to him as we walk the paths he planned for us.

             

Reformation, part one

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

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

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

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

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

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

Camel versus needle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Early Christianity, part one

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

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

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

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

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

The historical Jesus

After Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, a theologian and historian named Dionysius began the custom of numbering years based on the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. According to Dionysius’ plan, Jesus was born in the year 1 A.D. (which stands for Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord); the previous year was 1 B.C., so there was no Year Zero in his system. Unfortunately, Dionysius made a miscalculation in his counting. We know this today because Herod the Great, the king who tried to kill Jesus, died in the year 4 B.C. Having this knowledge, we could correct Dionysius’ arithmetic so that it is now the year 2026, Columbus first sailed west in 1497, the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1781, and so on… or we can just live with the odd statement that Jesus was born around 5 B.C., which is what we have chosen to do.

Few historians today doubt that Jesus from Nazareth lived two thousand years ago, even if some Internet commenters and pop-up pages claim otherwise. Even though the name of Jesus does not appear in first century documents not written by believers, the very existence of those believers demonstrates a historical Jesus in the first century. While some have tried to dismiss the New Testament writings as inaccurate summaries of the life and teaching of Jesus prepared two or three generations after his lifetime, the New Testament writings are clearly based on an oral tradition that is anchored in the time of Jesus and in the first generation of his followers. Paul’s understanding of Christ and the Gospel was formed while many eyewitnesses were still available. Theories that discount the accuracy of the New Testament rest upon presuppositions that miracles never happen, that accurate knowledge of the future is impossible, and that people always manipulate oral tradition to accommodate their beliefs. None of these presuppositions are scientific or logical, and the third of them has been thoroughly debunked by recent studies of oral tradition in a nonliterate community.

 Historians agree, then, that a person called Jesus stands at the heart of Christianity. “Christ” is not a last name (Jesus was not the son of Mary Christ); “Christ” is a title that means the Chosen One or the Anointed One—kings and priests were anointed in Israel and were called christs or messiahs. In Nazareth he was Jesus son of Joseph; elsewhere he was Jesus from Nazareth. Though he was not part of the official teaching structure in first century Judaism, he did preach and teach. He emphasized the Law of Moses, making its commandments even more strict than the experts at the time were teaching. Jesus emphasized that anger at another person, to the point of shouting insults, is equivalent to murder, and that looking at another person for the purpose of lust is equivalent to adultery. At the same time, he countered the detailed analysis of the Law regarding details such as work allowed on the Sabbath and the ceremonial washing of hands. Jesus viewed himself as consistent with the teachings of Moses and the prophets. More than that, he identified himself as fulfillment of Moses and the prophets. His parables—which, on the surface, seem to be lessons about living property and loving one another—centered on his identity and on his mission to bring unconditional forgiveness to sinners. Unlike most holy people, Jesus associated with sinners and was honored by sinners. Jesus did not proclaim revolution against political and religious authorities. His proclamation of the Kingdom of God was defined by his testimony when he said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus called upon people to repent (to confess their sins and throw themselves upon God’s mercy) and to believe the Gospel (the good news of God’s mercy as delivered through Christ Jesus).

Jesus accompanied his preaching with miracles. He healed the sick, cast out demons, calmed storms, and raised the dead. These miracles demonstrated his power over nature as the Creator of nature. They revealed his compassion for people in need. They fulfilled promises given to God’s people through Moses and the prophets. They sampled what Jesus promises to do on the Day of the Lord when all the dead will be raised, all sicknesses will be healed, and all evil will be cast out of the world. Suggestions that gullible and superstitious people were tricked by Jesus, or that later tradition attached stories from other myths and legends to the person of Jesus, are countered by Christian insistence that Jesus himself, having been killed, rose from the dead. Following that resurrection, the opponents of Jesus could not produce his body and were limited to claiming that his disciples stole his corpse. But those same disciples, risking their own lives, insisted that Jesus had died and was risen. His resurrection was presented as evidence that Jesus is who he claimed to be—the Christ, the Son of God—that his promise to defeat evil and rescue sinners has been kept, and that the Day of the Lord is coming, a Day when Jesus will raise all the dead and will invite those who trust in Jesus to live within forever in a healed and perfected world.

The opponents of Jesus accused him of blasphemy—of insulting God by claiming to be God. If Jesus did not believe himself to be the Son of God and the Christ, he could have escaped condemnation and execution by saying so. Instead, he confirmed the truth of the charges against him. Needing Roman permission to execute Jesus, his opponents brought him to a Roman governor who had a different understanding of what it meant to be the son of a god. Governor Pilate would not have dared affirm charges against another Hercules, or any heroic son of any god. But Jesus’ opponents rephrased their charge. They chose the foulest word in Latin and said that Jesus claimed to be a king—Rex Jesus. For this he was executed by the Romans, who posted the charge on his cross: “Jesus from Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (This charge is often abbreviated in artwork to the letters INRI.) The shameful suffering and death of Jesus would be an embarrassing contradiction in most religions, but Christians affirm that Jesus endured the cross to pay the debt of sinners and to defeat the forces of evil. Christians teach that Jesus took upon himself the punishment sinners deserve so he could give in exchange the rewards he deserves for his perfectly obedient life. He is the only Son of God, but those who trust in him become God’s children. He is the only one without sin, but he bears the burden of all sins so those who trust in him are now clothed in his righteousness.

Jesus was a teacher about love and righteousness, but he was far more than just a teacher. Jesus was an example of sacrificial love and righteousness, but he was far more than just an example. As the Christ, Jesus defeated evil, and he shares his victory with all who trust in him. Jesus rescued sinners from the power of evil; he paid a ransom that ends the debt of every sinner. He established a Church to proclaim news of his victory and to share his forgiveness with all people. He is with his people always, and he will appear in glory on the Day of the Lord to finalize the work that he finished on the cross.

All this happened in a small region of the world during the time of Caesar Augustus and Tiberius Caesar, emperors of Rome. The accomplishments of those Roman Emperors are largely forgotten, save to a few professional historians. The accomplishments of Jesus, King of the Jews, continue to shape the world today. J.

A tent and a building

 For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling,if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord,  for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. (II Corinthians 5:1-10)

              For centuries, thinkers and philosophers have tried to figure out what it is that makes us the people that we are. What is it that makes me me? What is it that makes you you? We have many words to describe that unique individual experience that belongs to each of us. We speak of the spirit, the soul, the mind, the heart, and the self. In India it is called atman; in China it is called chi. Some people think that only human beings have this individual self; others see the life force flowing through animals, through plants, even through rocks and rivers and mountains. Science has tried to find this self, but it cannot be located or measured or described scientifically. We generally assume that we have a soul or a spirit. Most religious descriptions of people include a soul or a spirit. It’s hard to imagine ourselves without a soul or a spirit. But the information we have about our souls and spirits comes, not from scientific investigation and study, but from the Bible, the Word of God. Since God created us, we willingly learn from him how we are made.

              Since we each have a soul or spirit, we want to know: what happens to that soul or spirit when we die? Does it disintegrate, as a dead body falls apart over time? Does it linger in this world for a while, haunting places as a ghost or a phantom? Does it come back again and again, born in a new body each time, experiencing the world repeatedly through history? God’s Word assures us that some part of us survives the death of the body. It does not return again and again—it goes somewhere to wait for the resurrection at the end of time and for the new creation. For believers, that waiting place is called Paradise. We are with Jesus in Paradise, in the hands of God the Father. For unbelievers, that waiting place is called Hades. The Bible describes Hades as an uncomfortable place, but it still involves waiting until the resurrection and the final judgment. On that Day Jesus will divide us into two groups, welcoming his saints into the new creation where we will live with him forever. The other group, the sinners who refused to believe in Jesus, will be locked outside of that new creation, stuck forever in the outer darkness.

              The apostle Paul describes our current bodies as tents. We are camping on a battlefield, dwelling in tents, surrounded by a world polluted by sin and evil. The only existence we know is life in these bodies, but we know that this life is temporary. Even if we survive in this world and make it to one hundred years, that century is merely a drop in the ocean of eternity. We have been promised eternal life in a better world, a world without sin and evil and death. We are looking forward to that new creation. We camp in tents today, but God has prepared buildings for us in the new creation, bodies that will last forever without sicknesses or injuries or allergies. Paul says that today we walk by faith, not by sight. Our hope is not merely to leave these bodies behind and to live as spirits with God in Paradise. Our hope incudes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. We eagerly await our final destination, the new bodies God will raise from the grave, changing them so they will last forever.

              Today we cope with what we have. We take care of these bodies, these temporary dwellings, these tents. Consider how much time we invest in our teeth, our hair, our faces. We clean these bodies and then we cover them with nice clothes. We prepare food and eat food and then wash up after each meal. We give these bodies rest and exercise. We shelter them in buildings, and we keep those buildings at comfortable temperatures in the summer heat and the winter cold. God gave us these bodies. Good stewardship includes caring for these bodies, making them fit for the good works that God intends us to do in this world. But many people become obsessed with their bodies, their earthly tents. They forget that we have a heavenly dwelling, prepared by God. While we are in this tent, we groan. We are vulnerable to the many things that go wrong in us and around us in a sin-polluted world. We think about our health and comfort today and tomorrow, investing our time and energy in maintaining these current tents. Meanwhile, we neglect our purpose in this world. As Paul says, we should make it our aim to please God today. We will receive what is due us for the way we have served God while camping in these bodies. Stewardship is more than keeping our bodies fed and clothed and clean and healthy. Stewardship is also living actively in these bodies, loving God and loving our neighbors. Stewardship includes using these bodies to do good works, works that help the people around us and bring glory to God, because we are God’s people. We are Christ’s body, doing his work in this world.

              Doing good works is half the struggle. Camping on this battlefield, we also face temptations to sin. The devil and the sinful world around us are constantly showing us where we can do things for our pleasure rather than for God’s glory. The sin still within each of us would like to follow the path of temptation and sin rather than following God’s path. Different people are tempted in different ways. For some of us, the temptations are different at different ages, different stages of life. But temptation is always available. We aim to please God, but our aim can be diverted by the cloud of temptations that surrounds us.

              We have learned how to protect ourselves from viruses in this world. We wash our hands for twenty seconds; we wear masks in some situations. But how do we protect ourselves from spiritual danger? How do we purify ourselves from threats to the soul? We are under attack. We are constantly being threatened with evil. What mask, what sanitizer, will keep us safe from temptation?

              Martin Luther said this about temptation: you can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair. Temptations will surround us as long as we live in this world. Jesus was tempted as we are. How we respond to temptation is what matters. We realize that we should just say no. Many times a day, that is exactly what we say. But it is one thing to say no; it is another to move on past the temptation and not linger in the thought and imagination of what we could be doing. Holding on to our anger can be as sinful as striking out in anger. Remembering and reliving a temptation can be as sinful as giving in to that temptation. But even when we resist temptation, the devil has not finished with us. He can still battle us with the temptation after we have said no. He can make us feel guilty for being tempted. When he tries that attack, we remind ourselves that Jesus was also tempted, that Jesus said no, and that Jesus has given us the strength to say no. We should not feel guilty for being tempted; we should only feel guilty for surrendering to the temptation, for sinning, or for hanging on to that temptation and enjoying the thought of sin.

              When we have resisted temptation, when we have moved on to good works instead of living in the temptation, Satan’s other attack is the sin of pride. He wants us to keep score of our goodness. He wants us to measure how good we are, how many sins we have avoided. When he has us measuring ourselves and taking pride in ourselves, he helps build barriers that separate us from God. Even though, at first, our aim was to please God, soon we are pleasing ourselves by our goodness. We will be in big trouble on Judgment Day when we stand before the throne of God, boasting in our goodness, because our goodness never will be good enough to bring us into God’s perfect new creation.

              We will receive what is due for what we have done in these bodies, these tents, whether we have done good or have done evil. But God’s standard calls for perfection. The smallest sin, the smallest surrender to temptation, can bar us from the new creation. When we think of that Day when we will stand before the throne of God, we must remember how Jesus prepared us for that Day.

              Jesus lived among us as one of us. Jesus resisted temptation in our name. Jesus lived the perfect righteousness that earns a place in the new creation. Jesus then exchanged lives with us. Jesus took upon himself the guilt for our sins. Jesus paid our debt in full on the cross. Jesus has sanitized our lives to make us pure and acceptable in the sight of his Father. What we receive on Judgment Day is shaped by the work of Jesus. God will see no evil in us, because Jesus has removed every sin. God will see only good in us, because Jesus has credited each of us with his righteousness.

              Paying attention to Jesus and not to ourselves, we begin to imitate Jesus. We do good things that help our neighbors and bring glory to God. Again, the devil tempts us to take credit for those good things, to focus attention on our selves, to forget Jesus and the changes he has made in our lives. Our growth comes, not from our efforts to imitate Christ, but from his power working within us. The kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like seeds that grow. The seed is planted, it sprouts, it produces roots and stems and leaves; eventually a crop appears, whether grain or grapes or mustard or apples or figs. A healthy tree produces fruit: the fruit does not give life to the tree, but the tree naturally produces fruit if it is alive. In a similar way, a Christian life is recognized by good works. Good works do not create Christian faith—faith is God’s gift, and life and growth come from that faith. When we focus on Jesus, these good things happen in our lives. When we focus on ourselves and forget Jesus, whatever good we accomplish is tarnished with pride and self-righteousness.

              Jesus Christ defeated sin and all its consequences, including death. Jesus Christ grants new life to his people. Jesus Christ lives in us, working in us the good things that God had in mind when he created us. Jesus Christ also sustains us in this new life. As seeds, when they have sprouted, need sun and rain and soil and tending, so we need the continuing work of Jesus in our lives. We need his Word, which guides us and also gives strength for our faith to grow. We need his Church, as Jesus works in us to build our faith and to make one another strong in the faith. We need his Supper, as Jesus nourishes us by his own body and blood, removing our sins and guaranteeing us eternal life. God’s Holy Spirit, given to us as a guarantee of all his promises, works through the Word and the Church and the Sacrament to give us faith and to help that faith grow and remain strong.

              We are always of good courage. We live today in tents on a battlefield, at home in the body and away from the Lord. One day we will leave these tents behind—we will be with the Lord and away from the body. We will be with Jesus in Paradise. But the best is still to come. God has eternal mansions for us, new bodies that will live forever in a new creation. Our place there is guaranteed, not by what we do for Jesus, but by what Jesus has done for us.

The Axial Age and Israel

As I reported in this post, religious scholars tend to fall into two groups: some see religions as evolving over time, coming to more mature positions of faith, while others see religions as beginning with a common truth but straying from that truth in various directions. After choosing between those two options, scholars tend to interpret religious writings and practices according to those assumptions. They even assign dates to important events and writings based on those assumptions. The traditional dates given to writings and events in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) are rejected by advocates of evolutionary religion; they are far too early to fit the pattern that supports the evolution of religion. Redating allows evolutionary scholars to fit traditional and prophetic writings within their own historic pattern, thus perpetuating a circular argument in which the theory determines the dates and the dates support the theory.

According to the figures given in the Hebrew Bible, the Exodus from Egypt occurred about 1446 BCE. The Israelite conquest of Canaan began forty years later, about 1406 BCE. This allows about three hundred years for Bronze Age Israel under Joshua and the Judges, culminating in Samuel and his anointing of the kings, Saul and David. David’s son Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, dedicating it in 957 BCE. From there we can trace the kings of Israel and of Judah, leading to the fall of Samaria (the capital of Israel) in 722 BCE and the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 587 BCE.

If the Exodus happened in 1446 BCE, then the monotheism of Pharaoh Ikhnaton came in the aftermath of the Exodus and was a response to the preaching of Moses and to the battles God fought against Egypt and its gods. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Ikhnaton came first and that Israel imitated his monotheism. If Zarathustra lived in Persia during the Axial Age, then he might have learned about monotheism from exiles displaced from Israel. Evolutionary scholars prefer to say that Zarathustra’s ideas contributed to the growth of monotheism among the Israelites and Jews. Many of the prophetic writings—even many of the writings attributed to Moses—are redated by evolutionary scholars to be created in the Axial Age. According to the traditional dates, only Ezra and Nehemiah (along with the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) belong to the Axial Age. Moses and Elijah and Amos and Hosea and Isaiah preached and wrote earlier; even Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel land just before the emergence of the Axial Age in China, India, Persia, and Greece.

Individual responsibility and personal accountability are important marks of Axial Age thinking. Earlier religious movements tend to be corporate instead of individual; they see gods working with families and clans and tribes and nations and with all of creation rather than stressing individual relationships with the gods. The Hebrew Bible presents a blend of corporate religion and individual spirituality. Throughout Moses and the prophets, God sometimes deals with his people as a whole but sometimes works with people as individuals. Scholars dissect writings attributed to Moses and the prophets, trying to place some writings before the Axial Age and others within or after the Axial Age. This dissection often overlooks the structure of the texts, ignoring the unity and organization of the writings to assign their ideas to different times and communities and to insist that the final form of these writings was achieved relatively recently by anonymous editors.

The real impact of the Axial Age in Israel can be found only after the time of Ezra. The priest Ezra helped to gather the Jews around God’s Word while Jerusalem and the Temple were being rebuilt. He read the writings of Moses to the Jews and led them in observing God’s commands. Ezra may be responsible for some of the editorial work that gathered and united the book of Psalms. He may have also gathered the writings of the Prophets and organized them into the books that are read and studied today. Ezra demanded faithfulness to God, faithfulness expressed in both communal and individual ways. Reading the ancient books of Moses, Ezra assured the Jews that these commandments and promises were as important to God’s people at his time and place as they were to the Israelites following Moses centuries earlier.

After Ezra died, Axial Age influences began to seep into the Jewish community. They were not isolated: they were first part of the Persian Empire, then part of Alexander’s Empire, then part of the Hellenistic world, encamped on the moving border between the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt and the Seleucid Empire in Syria. Hellenistic thought was Axial Age thought, strongly flavored by Greek philosophers and scientists. Jewish scholars studied the writings of Moses and the Prophets, and they began to apply them to individual life, separating them from the shared life of the community of God’s people. They took requirements out of the Temple—such as priests who washed their hands before offering sacrifices—and applied them to life in the Jewish home. They took the requirements of the Sabbath Day and established detailed regulations describing what is allowed and what is forbidden on that day. What they were doing, they described as “building a fence around the Law.” They remembered how their ancestors had violated the covenant God made with his people on Mount Sinai. Seeing themselves as living under the same covenant, they tried to ensure that they would not displease God as their ancestors had done. Instead, they would earn his favor by careful observation of all his rules.

Jesus of Nazareth was born in the midst of this Axial Age restatement of the holy covenant between God and his people. Jesus disagreed with the interpretations offered by the Hellenistic Bible experts among the Jews, people called “Pharisees” in the New Testament. Jesus demonstrated that Moses and the Prophets involved more than rules and regulations for God’s people: they offered the promise of a Savior, a personal visit from God, who would redeem his people, crushing the enemies of sin and evil and death. Jesus also claimed to be that promised Redeemer, a personal visit from God, come to claim his people and to bring them out of the wilderness into a Promised Land.

Many Jews trusted Jesus and followed him. Gentiles also came to faith in him. Experts in the Law opposed him. They resented his rejection of their interpretations of the covenant. They especially resented his promise to forgive sins, to be the Redeemer who rescues God’s people. They tried to destroy Jesus. Instead, they worked to fulfill the promises stated in Moses and the Prophets. Followers of Jesus, called Christians, preserved the Hebrew Bible, but they included with it writings of apostles who said that Jesus had fulfilled the promises of God and had created a new covenant to replace the one that was broken.

Christianity is not an Axial Age movement. In some ways, Christianity is a reaction against Axial Age thought. It restores the concept of a people of God, a community that is now called the Holy Christian Church. Yet Christianity also stresses individual responsibility and a personal relationship with God. Like Moses and the Prophets, Christian faith covers both sides of life, offering its members citizenship in God’s kingdom but also personal status as royalty in that kingdom. This new teaching, according to Jesus and his followers, is as old as the timeless plan of God, a plan of salvation that goes back to the very beginning of creation. J.