Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Reformation Sunday- Rom 3:19-28

The church is in a continual state of reform. Like a ship, it is always adjusting its course as it is tossed about by the waves of each generation. In the early days of the church the apostles dealt with (among other things) those that sought to hold the law over Gentile Christians and make them into Jews before they became Christians. Later, the Church Fathers and mothers dealt with those that tried to introduce strange ideas that removed either the divinity or the humanity of Jesus. There were some that tried to remove the Old Testament from the Bible as if it spoke of a different God. Much later, Francis of Assisi embraced poverty in a medieval church that was being corrupted by wealth and opulence. There are many examples and there have always been calls for reform. And the church has continuously, to a greater or lesser degree, been in the process of reforming. Every generation has challenges to face. There are always course adjustments to be made as the church charges through the waters of history.

There were a few times when the course adjustment was too rough to hold the church together. Sometimes the turn was too sharp and the boat wasn’t flexible enough. The reform of the 16th century was too much to hold the church together. For example, the church had come up with the idea of purgatory, which the reformers rejected as unbiblical. In the medieval church, Heaven was reserved for angels and the saints- It was reserved for those who walked the narrow road of the perfected. The other option was Hell, which was reserved for those who walked the wide road that led to destruction. The idea of Purgatory arose as a third option where the less-than-perfect could be purified before entering heaven. The purifying punishment experienced in purgatory was a painful and long process. It was something like hell, but less permanent. If you had a loved one who died, and they weren’t particularly saintly, you may have imagined them in Purgatory. Which is not a comfortable thought to say the least.

The Church invented a way that you could help your loved one. The church had access to a kind of bank account of merit that had been accumulated by the works of Christ and the saints. The church could then dispense that accumulated merit to others, in particular, it could be given to your loved one in purgatory which would lessen their time there and allow them to get to heaven quicker. The church made this merit available … for a price. It was called an “indulgence”. Greed led to corruption and abuse.

Martin Luther became famous for challenging the church on these kinds of teachings. He asked that if the Pope had access to this merit of Christ and the saints, why not open up the doors and pour it all out on purgatory. Why hold it back and charge people for it when the church had the ability to relieve the suffering of those in purgatory? Martin Luther, like many voices before him, challenged the church to reform. Other voices joined his and some political powers became involved. The church authorities resisted. Some desired quick or extreme reform and the structure of the church was too rigid to accommodate. This led to the Protestant Reformation when a certain portion of the Western church separated in protest against the Roman Catholic Church.

A major rallying cry of the reformers was the accusation that the Roman Catholic Church encouraged “works righteousness”, which was the idea that people could earn salvation (if even just partially) by doing good works. Against this they cried out that salvation was by faith, not works. In his younger years, Luther felt that he was constantly under the weight of his own sin and unable to do enough good to outweigh the wrong he had done. As Luther studied and taught the Bible as a university professor, Paul’s letter to the Romans had a particularly powerful effect on him. Suddenly he saw that God’s righteousness, a requirement of eternal salvation, was not something earned by human works, but was something freely given through trust in Jesus. This gave Luther an incredible sense of freedom.

What Paul said to the Romans was that indeed we are sinners. Jewish people and non-Jewish people alike- we are all sinners. The Jewish people had received the Law, but were unable to keep it. Non-Jewish people had their natural conscience and were unable to live perfectly according to their conscience. No one was able to live rightly. Sure people could be worse than they were, and people could also do good things, but in an eternal sense, according to how we have been made in the image of God, we are not able to be who we are supposed to be. We fall short. Even if you have the law, more often than not it just clarifies how you are not able to live rightly in God’s world. So we are in a stuck situation. We are a bit like criminals who haven’t been thrown in prison yet, but we know that any day the police could be showing up at the door.

We don’t like thinking of ourselves that way. We might even think it is an unhealthy way to think about ourselves- it’s bad for our self-esteem. Most of us don’t think of ourselves as all that bad. Usually that’s because we compare ourselves to one another. The one we are being compared to, however, is Jesus. He is who human beings are supposed to be. Human beings are made in the image of God, made to reflect His glory. We usually assure ourselves by saying things like, “well, I’m not like Hitler. I’ve never killed anybody. So I’m not all that bad”. But, I’m afraid that the holiness God created us for is not the same as not being a murderer. We are made to reflect God’s glory- that’s the standard. As uncomfortable as it is for us to hear it, we all fall short of the standard. Luther felt that acutely.

So what is God to do? Human beings are disobedient to their original calling, and so they are out of sync with God. They are disconnected from the source of life and so they edge towards death and separation from God. This was the future Luther felt he was unable to escape. But, God created us in his image and loves us. On the one hand there is what we deserve, and on the other there is what God, in His mercy and love, wants for us.

Jesus came to do what we couldn’t do. Jesus came to live a human life as it should be lived- reflecting the glory of God. But, he still needed to make his life available to others. The blood spilled in the temple for forgiveness of sins pointed to the blood Jesus spilled on the cross for us, to draw us into communion with God.

Jesus is the perfect representative of Israel. Israel was meant to be the conduit of blessing for all humanity, but had failed in their task. Jesus succeeded on Israel’s behalf. The work of Jesus became available through trust in him- through faith. It is available for all, Jewish people and non-Jewish people. All are on equal footing before God through Christ. This was a massive shift. The Temple was the place to deal with sin. To gain access to the services of the temple someone who was not born Jewish had to essentially become Jewish, but now the temple is useless. Jesus is the new temple. Jesus is now the place to deal with sin. And he is available to everyone everywhere by faith.

Luther had gotten lost in the structures and traditions of the church. He had gotten lost in the system of confession, and merit, and penance, and indulgence. He felt crushed under the weight of his own sin and he felt the way out from under that boot was too hard as the church presented it. He felt destined for damnation. Until he began studying the Bible deeply and he came upon readings like our Romans reading this morning. Suddenly he realized that he didn’t have to do anything except trust. In fact, he couldn’t do anything to earn salvation. He had to receive it as a gift from one who could do what he wasn’t able to. There is a place for works, but it is not in earning anything. Works do not make God owe us anything. But, out of love God offer us life and we receive it as we receive Christ. I should also say that we don’t just receive him once. We receive him like we receive air. We can’t just breathe once then assume we are good for life. Just as we constantly breathe and so we must constantly be receiving Christ so that his life is constantly growing within us.

Just as the church must be in a constant state of reform, so do we. The saints called this living in a state of repentance. Repentance could be understood as a course adjustment. Whenever we come to God in confession we are making course adjustments, and recognizing where we have drifted off course, or taken wrong turns. We constantly readjust our lives so that we are better able to live a life in union with Christ, so that by trusting him he can fill our lives with his own eternal life.

The concerns of the reformation were important for making a course adjustment in the church. If we are to learn from their difficulties we should be constantly returning to Scripture in humility to allow it to correct our course- the church’s and our own personal course of life.

Monday, 12 October 2015

How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God- Mark 10

For the last few weeks we have been dealing with some difficult teachings. Last week we heard some hard words about divorce. The week before that we heard about the danger we are in if we cause someone to stumble as they try to follow Jesus. And the week before that we heard how Jesus was turning the world upside down, making the servants and children into the most important people in the society of the Kingdom. This week we encounter yet another difficult teaching of Jesus- the difficulty of entering the Kingdom of Heaven.

I find that I have two reactions to these hard messages of Jesus. One, is the thought of crushing defeat. I want to give up because it just seems too difficult to live up to his teaching. The other reaction I have is that I try to soften his teaching. I try to twist his teaching to match my life so I don’t have to make any changes. The Danish Philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said:
“The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.” (Kierkegaard’s journals)
Perhaps Kierkegaard is exaggerating, but I think I know what he is saying. Jesus asks difficult things of us. He asks us to live in ways that don’t make sense to the rest of the world. Wouldn’t it just be easier if we could twist his teaching a little bit so that we don’t have to live in such an extreme way? … Somehow we have to find a way to not feel crushed by the weight of the teaching of Jesus, but also not try to soften his words by twisting them to make them easier.

In our Gospel reading today a rich man runs up to Jesus and kneels in front of him and asks him what he has to do to gain eternal life. Jesus asks him about some of the commandments- murder, adultery, theft, lying, fraud, and honouring parents. The man responds that he has been obedient to these commands since his youth. Jesus looked at him and loved him. … So here before Jesus is someone sincerely seeking eternal life, he humbles himself before Jesus by kneeling at his feet, and he is obedient to the Hebrew Law. This is a very good man. There is only one things standing between him and eternal life- his wealth. Jesus names the man’s problem- 
"You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 
Jesus probably could have asked him for anything else and the man would have obeyed, but Jesus asked him to give up the one thing he loved more than God- his wealth. We read about Jesus saying to others, “follow me” and they leave their nets and boats behind and they follow him. But, this rich man is not willing to leave his riches in the same way the disciples left their nets to follow Jesus. We read, 
“When [the rich man] heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’ And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’”

Jesus’ directions to the man are shocking. First, it is an incredibly difficult thing he asked. He asked him to change his entire life, even though he was a good man. We usually think bad people need to change their lives, not good people. Second, wealth was often considered a sign of God’s favor. They believed that if God was pleased with you that you would be blessed with wealth. Asking someone to give away a sign of God’s blessing would have been difficult to accept.

So why did Jesus ask the rich man to give up his wealth? It seems as though the man made an idol out of his money. Anything we place in priority ahead of God can be an idol. Anything we trust more than God can be an idol. If you have lots of money in the bank, then you feel secure. You can lose your job and you aren’t worried about paying your bills or feeding yourself. Money can also make you feel a sense of control. You can pay people to do things. If you want something, you can buy it. If you have enough money you can get on a plane and go anywhere in the world. Money is a powerful tool, but it can also be a powerful idol. We can trust it to take care of us more than we trust God to take care of us. The rich man in our story might not have been able to put himself in the position of trusting God to give him what he needs.

Maybe the rich man didn’t think Jesus had the right to ask this- to give it all away. Maybe, like us, he felt like he deserved his money. He has earned it and so it is unreasonable for Jesus to ask him to give it away. That is our normal way of thinking about our money. But, much of our wealth has to do with the circumstances we find ourselves in rather than our particular talents or efforts. There are people who work very hard and long hours picking through garbage dumps in Calcutta, or farming in places like Ethiopia. Do we have more wealth because we work harder than them? Much of our wealth is due to being in Canada and having certain opportunities that come from being born in a wealthy country. Often we have opportunities because of the families we are born into. Where we happened to be born gave us the opportunity to make certain friends, or attend certain schools. How much of that can we actually take credit for? Of course our effort counts. I’m just saying that there are plenty of hard working and talented people in other parts of the world that live in absolute poverty. It seems to me that the circumstances we find ourselves in has much more to do with whether we are wealthy or not. … Isn’t it God who places wealth into our hands? And doesn’t that give God the right to direct our use of our wealth? In the offertory of the Book of Common Prayer we pray a portion of scripture, 
“All that is in the heaven and in the earth is thine. All things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee” (1 Chronicles 29. 10, 11, 14). 
It’s all God’s. We can’t really imagine anything that doesn’t belong to God the creator. So surely God he has the right to direct us in how we use our wealth.

So what do we do with this teaching? On a global standard we would probably be considered to be rich. Should we give away everything we own to the poor? There were people who heard this reading throughout the church’s history and gave all their wealth away to live a life of poverty. In the late 2nd century St. Anthony, who is considered the father of monasticism, heard in this reading his own call to give away his wealth and go off into the desert to live a life of simplicity and prayer. St. Francis of Assisi in the late 12th century was also inspired by this reading to lead a life of poverty. The monastic movement that has been a part of Christianity since near the beginning and has desired to be obedient to Jesus’ words to the rich man. Maybe some of us are called to this. Though, I don’t think this is what all Christians are called to.

I think the key question here is “would you give it all away if Jesus looked you in the eye and asked you to?” There is no inherent good in being poor. What Jesus is after actually doesn’t have anything to do with money. He cares about the disposition of our heart. Do we trust Jesus? If he asked us to give it all away, is our heart so disposed towards him that we would be willing? This is something we should meditate on and pray about seriously. Would I give it all away if Jesus asked me to?

(If that question brings discomfort, as it does for most of us, then it is worth bringing that to God in prayer.) … Jesus saw that for the rich man the only way he would learn to trust God more than his money would be for him to give it away. That would destroy his money idol and teach him to be vulnerable and trust God for his wellbeing.

Ultimately, though, the rich man’s problem is shown in his question, “What must I do?” The man is pursuing eternal life as something that is earned- something that is bought by an action. The kingdom can only be received, not earned. Earlier in the chapter Jesus says “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:14-15). Like a child we become vulnerable and dependent on God, and receive the Kingdom from God, we don’t earn it. There’s nothing we can “do” to get it. It doesn’t matter how well we obey the Law. The Kingdom is not earned. It is received. As a child receives food and shelter from their parents, that’s how we receive the kingdom. To learn to become like children we might need to be willing to sacrifice our wealth or our position in society.

These are hard teachings from Jesus. We want the kingdom of God to be easy to enter, and in a sense it is. It is hard if we think it is all up to us, but as Jesus says, 
"For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible" (10:27). 
 That’s not to say effort isn’t expected of us. Effort is expected, but we don’t earn a place in the kingdom by our efforts. The kingdom is given and received, not earned, so get rid of anything that is blocking your ability to receive.  Can you have wealth and be a Christian? Sure. But be sure about your priorities. If you aren't able to put God first, then give it away. 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Teaching religion in school

Responding to the following article: 
Who's going to teach religion? by JC Schaap  

Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for this!

My first university degree was in Religious Studies. The methodology we used meant that we (usually) bracketed out the historicity of certain figures and events (particularly supernatural events). We would present the religion as "this is what they say about themselves". We didn't often ask the question, "is this true?" No doubt the question is important to ask at some point (I heard a fantastic lecture on this point by John Stackhouse entitled "BEYOND BRACKETING: WHY ACCOUNTING FOR THE SUPERNATURAL CANNOT BE INDEFINITELY POSTPONED" available through the Regent Audio Book store). I don’t see any reason why this kind of bracketing couldn’t be used in public schools.

Originally, I put my children in the public school system hoping that my sons would be exposed to those who have a variety of backgrounds. I hoped they would learn about Islam from their Muslim schoolmates (as opposed to CNN). I believe it is important to be able to have discussions with those from differing worldviews and my hope was that a public school system would help facilitate this kind of discussion. The “public” is made up of a variety or religions and worldviews after all. What I actually found was that our school was frightened of talk about religion. It was shut down whenever it was brought up and I was concerned that my children were learning to not talk about religion. In particular I was concerned that my sons would learn to be ashamed of talking about their religion. Yes, it can be a minefield, but so is talking about politics. Should we refuse to talk about politics in our schools because it is a volatile topic? Any topic that is important will have emotion attached to it. Wouldn't we have a better society if children knew something about how others viewed the world? What if they knew the substance of their religion rather than just crude stereotypes or by the most surface level identifiers (a hijab, a turban, a cross)? We now have our children in the Catholic school system where religion is at least a valid and valuable topic of conversation and curriculum.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Mark 10 On Divorce

On Divorce

The first marriage ceremony I ever conducted ended in a divorce a decade later. I have been with couples as they have struggled to save their marriage. Sometimes they sought help when it was already too late. Some were unwilling to give up their pride in order to heal the relationship. Some struggled for years, but they were just such different people it was a constant battle. Some dealt with mental illness. Some had different levels of commitment to the marriage. Some had different levels of emotional maturity. The breakup was always painful. A divorce is like a death. While it might have some sense of release for some, it always comes with grief. Of the dozens of couples I have married I’m na├»ve enough to believe that none of them expected to get divorced as they walked down the aisle. And yet, many couples do.

We hear more uncomfortable words from Jesus this morning. Today we hear his teaching on divorce-
“…what God has joined together, let no one separate. …Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 
This is an uncomfortable teaching to hear in a country with a 40% divorce rate (Alberta is around 46%).[1] Nearly half of all marriages are ending in divorce. I remember reading a sermon by Archbishop Futon Sheen that was preached in 1939 in the United States where he presented the shocking divorce rate at one in four.[2]

I’m not so sure the divorce stats were that different in Jesus’ day. The Law of Moses assumed divorce was a reality (Deut 24:1-4). The rabbis before and during the time of Jesus argued about what was just cause for divorce. Some said that divorce was only justified in the case of sexual infidelity, but that was a minority position. The majority said that a man could divorce his wife if he grew tired of her- even if she cooked him a bad meal. All the husband had to do was give his wife an official certificate of divorce, and to give back the money he originally received as a dowry (unless the divorce was brought about by sexual infidelity). (If she was from a poor family this may not have been much). This left many divorced women in a very difficult economic position, especially if they didn’t have family that were willing to take them in. In the patriarchal Ancient Middle East women were almost property, and divorce was the exclusive right of the husband.

Jesus by-passes the cultural norms of his day. He looks to God’s purposes at the very beginning. He looks to the first human couple in the Genesis story. Jesus looks to God’s original creation and uses that to point to God’s future kingdom. These take priority over the Law of Moses. The Law is often about managing the effects of sin in a broken world. Jesus says the Law of Moses allowing divorce was really adapting to the hard-heartedness of men. It was to manage their sinful brokenness. Jesus is concerned with the future Kingdom of God. It is a restoration and perfection of what has been broken. In this way of thinking, the brokenness of divorce doesn’t make much sense in God’s kingdom of wholeness, unity, and restoration. Divorce speaks about our fallenness rather than about God’s kingdom. It is not God’s original intention for human relationships.

That is a message that might sting for a few of us who have experienced a divorce, either our own or the divorce of someone close to us. We want to say that life is more complicated than that. There is the ideal, but then there is the nitty gritty of life. There are emotionally immature people, abusive people, selfish people, alcoholics, drug addicts, gambling addicts, child abusers, cheaters, manipulators, and workaholics. There are money problems, false expectations, the hum drum boredom of daily routines, lack of wisdom around dealing with conflict, and a million other daily realities that married couples sometimes face that edge them towards divorce. We want to remind Jesus that life is complicated, and that makes it difficult to live up to an ideal.

There are a few aspects of Jesus teaching that are worth pointing out that might soften the blow. 
First, Jesus’ teaching would have likely had the effect of protecting women from being thrown into poverty by men who thought they could divorce their wives for little or no reason. In Jesus’ day, making divorce hard was probably universally good for women’s living conditions, and probably for their children too. 
Second, in Jesus’ teaching on marriage women were elevated to an equal status as men. Jesus says, 
"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (10:11-12).
 In ancient Middle Eastern understanding a man commits adultery primarily against another man. He commits it against a daughter’s father, or a woman’s husband. It is a violation of property in that culture. A man doesn’t commit adultery against his wife. … But, Jesus says a husband can commit adultery against his wife. He makes a parallel statement saying that a woman can commit adultery against her husband and a man can commit adultery against his wife. Jesus elevates the woman’s position in marriage from being property to being an equal, which was unheard of. So originally, Jesus’ teaching on divorce elevated women’s status, and also protected them from a cruel social convention that may have resulted in them being thrown into poverty. … (Upon reflection, we could actually be going against Jesus’ intentions to protect the vulnerable and elevate a woman’s value if we suggest a woman stay with an abusive husband rather than be divorced.)    

As we try to apply this teaching to our lives we also need to look at the Bible as a whole, and in this case the New Testament as a whole. In Matthew, Jesus seems to allow divorce in the case of sexual unfaithfulness (Matt 19:1-12). 

St. Paul teaches that, 
“the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest [Paul says] that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.” (1 Cor 7:10-15). 

Like Jesus, Paul elevates the status of women in marriage. Paul also seems to think that divorce is permitted for those who have converted to Christianity and their partner is unwilling to live with them as Christians. He doesn’t seem to think of it as ideal, but he does make allowance for it.

So this is not exactly a black and white issue. The ideal of God’s original creation and for God’s future kingdom is for husband and wife to remain as once flesh. But even in the New Testament there seems to be allowance for divorce. There is concern for the vulnerable, there is recognition of the intense pain and brokenness of an unfaithful spouse, and there is the recognition that we need not remain married to someone who is unwilling to live with us because of our dedication to Christ. We have a high ideal, but we also have a recognition that life is often complicated and full of brokenness.

As we try to determine how to make a decision about divorce, we should also remember that we don’t live under the Law. This is not license to do whatever we want. We live under the direction of the Holy Spirit who inspired the Law and who was and is alive in the Church. We are to take Scripture as a whole and pray as a community for the leading of the Holy Spirit. We should also be aware of our own inner desire to get our own way, which isn’t always in accord with God’s will. We need to place all this in the crucible of prayer. This will not produce an easy set of laws to be obeyed. It will give personal spiritual direction to the couple as they stand before God seeking His will for them.

Rather than thinking of how to avoid the negative of divorce, we should perhaps look to the positive ideal of marriage. (I should also say that singleness is held in very high esteem in the New Testament). In the letter to the Hebrews we read “Let marriage be held in high honour by all” (Heb 13:4). In the letter to the Ephesians marriage is used as an analogy of Christ and his Church (Eph 5). This is an image we see elsewhere in scripture- God sees himself as married to Israel (e.g. Hosea). The loving couple as presented originally in the garden, where two become one flesh, is a beautiful image of intimacy that is analogous to the intimacy God desires to have with us. In the book of Revelation John describes his vision saying, 
“I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new’ (Rev 21:2-5). 
That is the desire of God. A deep and intimate marriage between God and His people, but one where divorce is not a thought that enters either of our minds.

[1] http://well-being.esdc.gc.ca/misme-iowb/.3ndic.1t.4r@-eng.jsp?iid=76
[2] The Seven Capital Sins,  Lust, p.26
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