Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sin, Salvation and Sabbath

Trinity 17 – September 26th, 2010

Text: Luke 14:1-11

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit + Amen.

Jesus and the Pharisees. Jesus is always teaching. The Pharisees are always grumbling. Jesus preaches repentance. And the Pharisees reject His Word. Jesus comes to dinner and the Pharisees watch him like the KGB.

Usually it's the Pharisees asking Jesus the tough questions: "Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life? Teacher, is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?" But this time, Jesus turns the tables on them. There's a man with dropsy – and whether he strolled in uninvited or was planted by the Pharisees in order to trap Jesus, it doesn't matter. Jesus responds to the lawyers – that's New Testament speak for so-called experts in the Law of Moses, the theologians of the day – and the Pharisees:

"Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?"

He stumped the Pharisees. They would not answer. Silent. Big on complaining, short on answers.
According to God's Law, there's no work on the Sabbath. And remember, the Pharisees were experts at the Law. Where God gives a Law, the Pharisees create more laws – 39 rules to keep in order to preserve the Sabbath from no work. This is what sinful man loves to do with God's Law – God gives the commandment and our old Adam inserts his list of demands. God gives His Word and sinful man constructs a ladder, or in this case, a hedge. Legalism sells.

"Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?" What do you say, if you're a Pharisee? It's a catch-22. If you say, "No, you cannot heal this man; it's the Sabbath," then you are unmerciful. Not only that, your hypocrisy is revealed: "for which of you having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on the Sabbath will not pull him out?"

If you say, "Yes, this man should be healed," then you have broken at least handful of the 39 the Sabbath Laws.

Either way, you're going to break some Law. If you keep the Sabbath you fail to love your neighbor and if you love your neighbor you fail to keep the Sabbath. This is the problem with legalism – it's paralyzing. Damned if you do; damned if you don't. And this is exactly where God's Law should lead you.

The Law always accuses. We – and the Pharisees – can't possibly live up to it, on the Sabbath day or any other day. The Pharisees were slaves to their own rules and traditions, fettered by their self-righteousness. And we are no different – for anyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.

"Fast bound in Satan's chains I lay, death brooded darkly over me.

sin was my torment night and day; in sin my mother bore me.

Yea, deep and deeper still I fell, my life became a living hell, so firmly sin possessed me."

(Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice).

The problem with the Law is not the Law; it's us. The Law is good and we are not. The Law oppresses, exposes and crushes us. Jesus only takes real, sick, good-as-dead-in-your-trespasses sinners. If you're just a pretend sinner then all you have, or need, is a pretend Savior. But you need a real Savior for real sin. Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

From the bondage of sin, death and the devil, there is only one way to be free. If the Son of Man makes you free you will be free indeed. Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world – not to be a new law-giver – but to free the world; to be a law-fulfiller for you. You are free from the Law. "Sin boldly," Luther says, "but believe in Christ more boldly still." In Christ the guilty are released; the captives are set free; the fettered chains of death and hell are broken and you are forgiven. The Law condemns. Jesus forgives. Satan binds. Jesus releases. The devil accuses. God takes your blame, your guilt, your sin, your debt, your captivity – all of it and hangs it on His Son so that sin will no longer have dominion over you.

Jesus comes to bring freedom and life and rest. Jesus is free and in Him so are you. But the Pharisees do not understand this. They reject Jesus. They prefer a freedom of their own labor and pervert God's Law into a new slavery, a new Egypt. Their silence condemns them.

Is it lawful for Jesus to do His healing, forgiving, rest-bringing, Sabbath-fulfilling, saving work? Of course He heals the man. This is what Jesus does – He heals. He saves. He rescues. He forgives. Jesus will not let the Law stop Him. He is not afraid to be ashamed. He will suffer all to rescue the lost. For though He was the Son of God, seated in honor at the right hand of God, he left that seat of honor to take on the servant's form in human flesh. He left the highest place of honor for the lowest place of humility on the cross and in the grave, for you. There is no lower seat. He humbled Himself to death for you. And from His humility He is highly exalted, seated in our humanity at the right hand of God the Father so that where He is you might be also. And it doesn't get more highly exalted than that.

You see, it's no coincidence that Jesus teaches over a meal. The Pharisees' selfish seating chart goes beyond bad table manners. Theology and practice always go together. Wherever you find bad church practice, you'll soon find errant theology. Your table etiquette reflects how you were taught. Just look at the Pharisees. They had bad table etiquette, not chiefly because they were rude (although they certainly were), but because of their theology. They feared loved and trusted in their 39 rules and in their outward piety and in the god of their own image. Their rules and traditions defiled, not sanctified, the Sabbath day; they despised Jesus' teaching and preaching of God's Word, grumbling and plotting and killing instead of listening, learning and inwardly digesting.

Teaching and Life always go together. It was true for the Pharisees and it's true for us too. This is why the Church practices closed communion. What happens at and around the Lord's Table reflects a church's teaching on the Lord's Supper. This is why the Church uses the liturgy and the hymnal. What happens during worship reflects a church's theology.

This is why we don't approach the Lord's Table as if we have earned the right to be there; as if God should be so flattered that we bothered to take the time and show up. No, we take the lowest place. "I a poor miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You. God be merciful to me, the chief of real, rotten, good-as-dead, no-hope-with-out-You, sinners."

And Jesus loves dining with sinners. He rejoices in gathering you for the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end. That kingdom which comes among us today in bodied and blooded forgiveness. Divine healing in, with and under simple bread and wine. He doesn't invite you expecting to repay Him. He invites empty-handed, poor, broken, beggarly sinners, the likes of you and me, to come and feast:

"Friend, I forgive you. Come up to the higher place. Sit with me at My table. I have taken care of everything. Dine with Me - I am the host, the waiter, the cook and the feast. It is all here, given and shed for you. You are no longer salves. You are free. Come and kneel at the place of honor for I was humbled and exalted so that you who are humbled by sin are exalted in my life. No, It is not lawful, but it is merciful.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit + Amen.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Can Anybody find SomeBODY?

How do you disprove Christianity? It's easy, really. St. Paul even tells us how: "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God..." (1 Corinthians 15:12-15). That's it. Produce the body and Christianity is done; at that point it's no different than any other world religion. Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Christianity without the resurrection is not really Christianity at all (Gerald O'Collins). Christianity, however, is unique. St. Paul (not to mention St. Peter and the early apostles in the book of Acts) open themselves up to historical investigation. They do not consider the events of Christianity closed to serious investigative inquiry. Christianity is falsifiable. It does not depend on some burning in the bosom, mysterious golden plates, some secret knowledge or some magic moon tricks to verify it's truthfulness. The eyewitness accounts speak for themselves. Or, as St. Paul testifies, these things did not occur in a corner (Acts 26:26). Now I have assumed for the sake of this argument that the homework has already been done on the reliability of the New Testament; that's another post for another day. Suffice it to say, the case is iron-clad, passing the scrutiny of any court of law.

But back to the main topic for the day...the body of Jesus. St. Paul's formula can be used this way: If Jesus did not rise from the dead, what would that mean? And if Jesus did not rise from the dead, the skeptic has to answer this question: what happened to His body?

So there I was on the Huntington Beach pier (yes, I know hardly suffering for the Gospel, but you should see the cost of housing!) hanging out with Pastor Mark Jasa (www.ulcbruins.org) and a member of our church talking with a gentlemen who had come to our bench to talk with us. After many twists and turns in probabilities and possibilities, we finally came to the question posed above...what would it mean if Jesus did not rise from the dead? It's false. But, I asked, "what if Jesus did rise from the dead; what would that mean?" Well, it would be true. Or as this man answered, "That would be an interesting phenomenon." There's no doubt about that! Dead people usually stay dead when they are placed in tombs.

However, the eyewitness accounts make it very clear. Friday, Jesus is dead and buried. Sunday, the first day of the week, Jesus is no longer in the tomb in which He was laid on Friday. And then, He is seen, not only by the women (which is significant in and of itself. A woman's testimony was inadmissible in a court of law in 1st century Judaism, making the fact that the Gospel writers agree on their finding the empty tomb a highly convincing argument for its veracity). But we continue; He is also seen by the 12 and at least 500 others.

But, as the man - let's call him Mr. Huntington - said, "That's highly unusual...It's more likely that the disciples stole the body and made the whole thing up." "Why," I asked? The usual answer ensued...power, prestige, control, etc.

Before continuing, here are some basic facts of the resurrection that both secular and religious scholars agree upon (thank you William Lane Craig for the work on this):
1. There was an empty tomb thought to be Jesus'.
2. Believers and unbelievers alike had access to it.
3. the earliest report is too early to be considered legend/legendary.
4. The account itself is simple, showing earliness and accuracy.
5. The women were the 1st to declare that the tomb was empty.
6. The unbelieving Jews knew they had to come up with a counterclaim.
7. Many Jews in power/leadership positions converted to Christianity, weakening their story.
8. The disciples went from depressed, scared and disorganized to confident, assertive and willing to risk everything, including their own lives, for the sake of this message.
9. The disciple were certain they saw the risen Christ.

With that in mind we proceed to considering what happened to Jesus' body if He did not rise from the dead. In the first place, many people, friends and foes of Jesus, knew where the tomb was, including Joseph of Arimathea, the women the guards and not the least of which were the Jewish authorities who had Jesus killed. Remember, the tomb was marked with a Roman guard, per request of the Jews (Matthew 27:62-66) precisely because they feared that someone would steal the body and say, "Look, Jesus rose from the dead, just like He said He would!"

There are several possibilities, but which is most probable? What explanation best accounts for all the evidence? What about the Roman soldiers? Well, Jewish religious practices were hardly popular with the Romans. Moreover, Pilate was quick to calm any riot that may have ensued as a result of Jesus, the King of the Jews. This was purely superstitious religious babble in the eyes of the Romans. What motivation would they have to steal the body? What could they possibly hope to gain from stealing Jesus' body in order to further the teaching of some wayward sect and some backwater Galilean rabbi? This would have been contrary to their own interest, since the Romans wanted nothing more than to quell this little upstart rebellion. They had every motivation to produce the body and dispel all rumors of a resurrection, but they did not.

If not the Romans, perhaps the Jewish authorities. But what motivation would they have? Even far less than the Romans. It was in their particular interest that Jesus was dead. That's what they wanted. That's what they got (or so they thought). Again, why not produce the body if they had it and silence the Christian/newly created "Jewish sect" immediately? Furthermore, think about the kind of men that followed Jesus, all Jews. Even St. Paul who was welcomed into fellowship later was a Hebrew of Hebrews according to his own words. Why would good, God-fearing Jews put their faith and trust in a man who claimed to be God? They believed that Jesus claimed nothing less than being the Lord Almighty come in human flesh to save the world by His death on the cross.

Now wonder C.S. Lewis mentions: "One attempt consist in saying that the man did not really say these things; but that his followers exaggerated the story, and so the legend grew up that he had said to them. This is difficult because His followers were all Jews, that is, they belonged to the nation of which among all others was most convinced that there was only one God - that there could not possibly be another. It is very odd that this horrible invention about a religious leader should grow up among the one people in the whole earth lest likely to make such a mistake."

Which brings us to our next point. What about those disciples? Did they steal the body? Well, first they would have had to have made it past Roman guards (No small feat. Seriously. Have you see Gladiator?). Then they would be responsible for moving the stone. For more on this, see Frank Morrison's seminal work, Who Moved the Stone?

But the larger issue with the disciples' alleged knavery is this: they would not only have stolen Jesus body, but also lied about His teaching concerning the resurrection - two things which Jesus specifically taught against. Moreover, they would have had a hell (pun intended) of time trying to keep their lies straight between each other for decades. Not even politicians (who have every motivation to be kept in the best light) can't do that! But we digress...Not only is it terribly difficult to keep a lie going that long among that many people. It is also illogical. Why did the early apostles (11 of 12) go to their death for this lie? No of course, many have died for a lie. But why would they not have confessed even in the face of death? And while many people would be willing to die for a cause they believe to be true, but in reality is false, why would they willingly go to their deaths for something they know to be false. This is would be a psychological disorder of the first order (John Warwick Montgomery). And we have no reason to think that they are mentally unhinged in any way. In fact, their eyewitness testimony suggests all evidence to the contrary.

And quickly, we can dispel the myth that Jesus was not really dead but awoke after a "swoon" or a faint in the tomb. Even the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded Jesus was dead as a doornail; He had ceased to be, kicked the bucket and so on. (http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/255/11/1455). But if somehow Jesus did survive the cross only to awake in the tomb not quite dead yet, we must believe the following: that Jesus suffered severe blood loss, was too weak to carry his own cross, his hands and feet were pierced, his shoulders were dislocated, his Achilles' heal was likely torn/severed, he would be utterly dehydrated and then he would have to remove ~75 lbs. of bandages, push away the stone by himself, overpower the Roman guards, convince everyone that he was the Lord of Life even though all evidence would be contrary to the facts, and then spread lies that he had risen from the dead.

Now, it's possible that all of that happened. But does that theory make the most logical explanation and account for all the evidence at hand? No. It doesn't. There is only one explanation that fits the evidence in question: Jesus actually physically rose from the dead.

Now, Mr. Huntington Beach didn't get all of that argumentation, but he got enough and still thought it was a power trip conspiracy theory made up by the disciples. Which really suggests one big problem...you can't argue someone into the faith. You can give someone all the evidence to the intellect, but the will is the problem. And apologetics can't touch the will. That's the realm and work of the Holy Spirit. And thank God for that. Mr. Huntington Beach heard the Gospel before and after our little trip down apologetic lane. The Word is sufficient and will do what which God promises it to do (Isaiah 55:10-11). So, let's flip the question around: what if Jesus di rise from the dead, what would that mean? It's true. And He's in the best possible situation to raise you from the dead as well. Which is exactly what His Word promises.

Thanks be to God for His performative Word. That Word which proclaims to us: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born...But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep...For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15).

And that's all I've got to say about that...for now.

Eucatastrophe: What Does This Mean?

I've been asked several times what the word "eucatastrophe" - in the subtitle of the blog - means. If J.R.R. Tolkien - a master linguist and philologist, not to mention writer, poet and devout Christian - couldn't find a word to describe what he wanted to communicate, he made one up. Hence, eucatastrophe. For all you linguists out there you may recall the Greek word eucharist, meaning thankfulness and joy and so on, combined with catastrophe. Tolkien describes it as a good catastrophe, a collision of joyous events. It's not an oxymoron, however. It is a word to describe the indescribable. A word which tries to explain something infinitely more joyous than we are capable of explaining this side of heaven. Which is ultimately what he was doing in his collective work as a writer, defending the Gospel with the pen and elves and hobbits (although in very different way than, perhaps, C.S. Lewis does in Narnia).

In an essay entitled, On Fairy Stories, written to Charles Williams (fellow member of the Inklings - more on them another day), Tolkien speaks of this eucatastrophe - what it means in fairy stories and chiefly, what it means in the greatest true story, in fact the central story of all human kind, the Gospel. What does this word - eucatastrophe mean? Here in his own words, Tolkien tells us exactly what he means.

The consolation of fairy stories, the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous turn...it does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow or failure; the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance...it denies universal defeat and in so far is evangelium...giving a glimpse of joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

The Gospels contain a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories. The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatasrophe of the story of the incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the inner consistency of reality. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find is true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Pimary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject leads either to sadness or wrath...

It is not difficult to imagine the peculiar excitement and joy that one would feel, if any specially beautiful fairy story were found to be "primarily" true, its narrative to be history...the joy would be exactly that same quality, if not the same degree, as the joy which the "turn" in a fairy story gives: such has the very taste of primary truth. It looks forward (or backward) to the Great Eucatastrophe. The Christian joy, the Gloria, is of the same kind; but it is pre-eminently (infinitely, if our capacity were not finite) high and joyous. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men - and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused."

- J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy Stories.

The Absurdity of the Unjust Steward

Pentecost 17 – September 19th, 2010

Text: Luke 16:1-15

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

The Gospel is absurd. Think about it. What Shepherd leaves 99 sheep out in the desert to go rescue 1? What woman calls her neighbors to throw a party when she finds one lost coin? What kind of Father runs out to his wayward, prodigal son and publicly restores him to the inheritance he had rejected?

And maybe, there are some of you thinking today, "Well, it seems absurd to build a church in this economy." And perhaps there are others who say, "It seems absurd not to build a church." O Lord, teach us to pray: Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Then there's today's reading from Luke 16 – the so called parable of the unjust steward. Talk about absurd: "the master commended the unjust steward for his shrewdness." And that's where we get hung up. Who does this guy think he is? He'd make Michael Scott or Bernie Madoff blush. And why does it seem like Jesus is commending an unjust steward for behaving quite unjustly?

Jesus confronts the Pharisees over their own self-righteousness so that they will repent. Their self-righteous, outward piety is closely tied in with their view of mammon – worldly possessions and earthly stuff –he hits them right in their wallet – where their god is. Jesus preaches the Law to make comfortable sinners uncomfortable in their sin.

"There was a rich man who had a steward and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his possessions. So, the rich man called him and said to him, "What is this I hear about you? Surrender your accounting books, you're no longer the steward." "I know what I'll do," the steward says, "so that when I'm fired, people will receive me into their homes." Then, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he said to the first,

" How much do you owe my master?"

"100 measures of oil"

"Take your bill and write down 50."

Then another, "How much do you owe?"

"100 measures of wheat"

"Take your bill and write 80"

And then the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness…wait for it. Yes, grammar matters. The rich man commends the unjust steward…because…the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their generation than are the sons of light. If the steward is shrewd, the rich man is even more so. He deals with his own generation – the steward - most shrewdly by commending him and his cleverness; he knew how things work in this world.

One who is faithful in a little will also be faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in little will also be dishonest in much – that's the unjust steward, dishonest in his managing and even more dishonest upon getting caught. That's the Pharisees, dishonest in their handling of God's Word and even more dishonest in their handling of God's Word made flesh. They would rather kill the Master than listen to His Word.

Then, Jesus draws us into the parable. For we – like the Pharisees – are constantly seeking to justify ourselves by any means necessary, except the ones God ordains for our own justification. "If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own."

Jesus' words condemn everyone of us. Pledge card or no pledge card. Faithful in tithing or not so faithful in tithing. Blue collar. White collar. Clerical collar. We're all guilty of squandering that which is not our own. God doesn't want 1st place in your top 10. He wants you to fear love and trust in Him above all things. It's tempting to think that commitment Sunday is our part and God will do His part – but it's all His. There's nothing we have to commit that isn't already given. Yes, God will use His means – pledges and time and treasures and architects and all of your God-given vocations. And above all, He will use the very means where He causes His name to be placed: Baptism. Absolution. The Word. The Lord's Supper. He is the Lord of the Church.

We are but stewards, and if we're honest, poor ones at that. Our old Adam is a hoarder…taking what we think is ours and feeding our own navel-gazing, sinful flesh. Even the most pious Christian among us, who has given faithfully, been abundantly merciful, acted in the kindest manner, is confronted by the fact that they have never done enough. You cannot serve two masters. You will either hate one and love the other or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and mammon.

"Ah, now you're talkin," our old flesh chimes in, "then, I'll serve God, not mammon." But this is not Gospel. Twisting service to God into a list of rules is no different only another designer made deity – another way to justify ourselves. The problem is you cannot serve two masters. You cannot fear, love and trust in God above all things.

But there is One who does. Lucky for us we don't have to deal with a just steward. A just steward does not forgive. He demands all debts to paid in full. Immediately. No exceptions. No grace. Pay up or suffer the consequences. No, God's justice does not work this way. Instead He sends Unjust Steward Jesus – yes, you heard that right.

Unjust Steward Jesus replaces your heart of rebellion and creates repentance. Unjust Steward Jesus up and gives everything away, for free – He gives salvation away, gives faith away, gives the Gospel away, gives the Father's kingdom away. The Gospel is absurd! God loves a cheerful – no – a hilarious, squanderous, prodigal, unjust giver. He loves His Son. And His Son is your hilarious, absurd, unjust steward.

So, you owe your entire life to God and cannot pay that debt? – don't worry, Jesus paid it. Your life is forgiven.

So, you've been poor, wasteful stewards of God's gifts and worshiped mammon as an idol? – You are forgiven.

So, you've been so self absorbed in your sin that you've forgotten to bear witness and show mercy; so, you've been the god of your own praise? Take your bill for all of it, don't write down 50, or 80, but forgiven. Debt paid. The record of sin – cancelled. Your money is no good here. The Father only deals in particular currency - His Son's holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death – for you.

In Christ Crucified, you are absurdly, ridiculously, unjustly forgiven. For you who only seek to serve yourself, Christ is the faithful Son, perfectly obedient to God for you. Christ serves God's justice so that the unjust are justified in His cross. He is unjust towards the unjust. Jesus is baptized into repentance for sins He never committed so that He baptizes you into forgiveness you never deserve. And the Father couldn't be more pleased. "This is my beloved Son." For your sins He suffers. For your debt He dies. He creates repentance, faith and life. For your sinful flesh He provides His own – take eat. Take drink. He who is faithful in a little is also faithful in much.

This how we deal with mammon. We use it. "Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into eternal dwellings." Notice, Jesus says, it's not if mammon fails, but when. Mammon will fail. Look no further than the current economic crisis for a reminder. And that's a theological statement, not a political one.

We use mammon – the stuff and possessions of this world, the pledge cards, the meetings, the planning and the labor - not for self-righteous gain – like the Pharisees or the unjust steward - but for the sake of the Church; for the work of the Gospel in this congregation and our community; for witness, mercy and life together. And to know that you are a steward is to know that you - and all you have - belong to the faithful, the prodigal, the absurdly gracious, Unjust Steward Jesus.

In the Name of Jesus + Amen.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Ω Man

Richard Matheson writes book. Boris Sagal writes movie. Francis Lawrence remakes movie. There and back again, the post-apocalyptic tale with Robert Neville, the apparent last man standing in this book made movie made recent remake, at the center of LA (or NY for all the newbs and Fresh Prince fans). In the world of Omega Man, warfare wreaked havoc all over the world leaving some very strange company behind. And like Neville, there was a whole world that is found hiding right outside of my window. So what if it's just a window into the digital world courtesy of Steve Jobs. Some days you watch movies and Biblical imagery seems inadvertent, or naive at best. But the The Omega Man is different. Somebody slipped those screen writers a copy of David Scaer's book and changed the title, All Cinematogrophy is Christology. Some days it's unavoidable. But I didn't think of this all by my lonesome. I was tipped off by a member at our church (here's to you, Andy) that this movie was loaded with symbolism. Apparently there are blogs and discussion boards all over the Internet mining the riches of one of Charlton Heston's lesser known films in an ongoing theological discussion of the movie's symbolic, Biblical significance.

So, get your shovels. There may still be some gold in them thar hills. Even the title would pique the ears of any first year Greek student: Omega. Even if you're not a philologist (that's nerd=speak for one who studies language origins, etc.) Revelation comes to mind (Rev. 1:8, 21:6, 22:13). Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. It appears that Neville is the last man on earth he is not. There's the plagued Family who have become experts at pillaging, burning and killing anyone and anything not inflicted by their disease (hmm, sounds like sin). Matthias, the Family leader finally thinks he's got Neville in his sights. He's trapped and they put him in their kangaroo court:

"We waited for you, Neville, so you could see this: The end. The end of all you done. You see, none of it was real. It was illusion. Your art, your science, it was all a nightmare. And now it's done. Finished. My brethren, our task is nearly complete. He was the last of those who brought the punishment to us. We have cleansed and purged his world. Now we must build."

"Build coffins, that's all you'll need," retorts Neville. Quite right.

The plague effects everyone, kills everyone. Everyone except Neville. He may not be the last man on earth, but he might as well be. He is immune to the plague. In fact, His blood becomes the serum that saves some would-be-members of the Family from death. But not before he narrowly escapes the "cleansing" fires of set by the Family in Dodger Stadium, and much like Jesus walking through the crowds who sought to stone him off a cliff in Luke 4, Neville escapes. He lived to die another day. Another hill. Another day. It was not yet the fullness of time.

But when Neville meats Lisa and the children she's guarding, one of the other adults, known as Dutch, says, "Christ, you could save the world." What else could you say when you discover that the only possibility of rescue is found in one man's blood? Of course, most people drop the C-bomb or the GD-bomb in vain. But Dutch gets it. And sadly, so does the Family. They know Neville is the last man standing between them and "victory." Which is why they seek to kill him. And spoiler alert - they do kill him. He gives His blood for the healing of Ritchie, Lisa's son and then he gives his life for the rest of the children. In a fountain. With 8 sides. He is pierced by a spear. There's blood. There's water. There's a man dying for the life of the world, killed by those who had no use for life at all. The Omega Man becomes the Alpha of life for Dutch and the children. He dies a cruciform death and his blood saves and in doing so points us to the only Omega man we need, Jesus Christ. His blood avails for all.

But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come,with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance...For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives. Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you.” Then likewise he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission. - Hebrews 9:11-22.

So when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs...But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water. - John 19:33-34.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, proclaimed that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ - 1 Peter 3:18-21.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. - Romans 6:3-4.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

It’s a Good Day to be a Lutheran

After his election July 13, Rev. Matthew C. Harrison addressed the convention and introduced his wife, Kathy, to the assembly. Following is the edited text of his brief statement.

"If one member suffers, all suffer together. If one rejoices, all rejoice together. Right now, there are many rejoicing, and there are many suffering.

Luther says when you're walking along, and you strike your little toe on a chair or a table leg, what happens is the whole body bends over, the face grimaces, and the body grabs that little toe. There is no use saying, "That's just a little toe," because the whole body suffers.

This, I realize, is a tumultuous change in the life of our Synod. I wish to thank President Kieschnick for his heart for evangelism and his deep desire to move this Synod forward. Many are suffering, and it will be very challenging times to work together.

I wish to inform you that you have kept your perfect record of electing sinners as president of the Missouri Synod. I guarantee you I will sin and fail. I will fall short. I will sin against you. I wish also to say that right now I forgive all who in any way have sinned against me or anybody else and plead your forgiveness for anything that I said or did that offended you.

I beg of you your prayers. I beg of you your daily prayers and intercession. These are challenging times. I promise you that I will be as straight with you as I possibly can, to the best of my ability, guided by the Spirit of God.

I pledge to you that I will not coerce you. I will do my best, by the Word of Christ, to lead with the generous Gospel of Jesus Christ, which forgives us all of our sins and motivates us to love and care for our neighbor in mercy and compassion. And I will work as hard as I possibly can for unity around the clear and compelling Word of God and nothing else." (Lutheran Witness, August 2010).

Everyone knows that first impressions matter. Perhaps none have been more important in recent years for the public life of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, than the one you just read. Many of you have probably heard of Pastor Matthew Harrison. Redeemer Lutheran used one of his books, Christ Have Mercy: How to Put Your Faith in Action, for Bible study in fall of 2008. This is a must read for any Christian. We are also preparing to study his most recent book, A Little Book on Joy: The Secret of Living a Good News Life in a Bad News World, in Sunday morning Bible study later this fall.

Yes, first impressions matter. And, for those of you who might be saying. "Harrison-who? Synodical President–what?" – this is our newly elected president of the LC-MS.

Like the men of the early days of our synod, Pastor Harrison is just that, a man with a pastoral heart. He is also a theologian and a man of mercy. For the last 9 years he has been heading up the mercy arm of the LC-MS, known as World Relief and Human Care.

And upon being elected, the first thing out of his mouth at the convention was God's Word. The second thing: another confession, a confession of his own sin. For it is God's Word and the confession of faith in the same that will bind us together, not synodical bureaucracy or governance. Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura, Solus Christus, not Sola Structura.

Hopefully it is no surprise to you that the Missouri Synod is in the midst of difficult days. She faces a host of challenges from the world around her. And sadly, she also faces many divisions from within. President Harrison speaks openly and plainly about the tumultuous times in which we live. Our church body is divided on a number of issues from political disunity and partisan politics to a wide range of theological issues, for example, the role of theology and mission work, doctrine and practice of the Lord's Supper, theology and practice in Lutheran Worship, the place of women in the church, and lay ministry, just to name a few.

In order to begin to address these issues others, President Harrison has set a tri-fold theme for the newly elected boards and directors: Witness, Mercy, Life Together. In the Greek it's even better: Martyria, Diakonia and Koinonia. This is a remarkable Biblical picture of the work of the LC-MS both nationally and internationally.

These words also form a picture of the work of the local congregation. The Church's witness in the community, the family and the congregation begins, hinges and centers upon Christ's martyrdom for us on the cross. The article of Justification by grace through faith in Christ is the article upon which the Church either stands or falls. The witness of Christ Crucified for our sins gives birth to a clear, unashamed confession of the Gospel through hymns and liturgy, through doctrine and practice and through our life of mercy. Diakonia. This is where Christ serves us and we, as His masks, serve others in need. This is our life together, koinonia. We first come to know this life together in the waters of Baptism. And Christ's Koinonia with His people continues in the Koinonia (1 Corinthians 11) of the Lord's Supper. Fellowship is always fellowship in God's Word and Sacraments. Therefore, life together - in everything from meetings to car washes, from movie nights to Bible studies and all activities - flows from Christ's gifts at the altar, font and pulpit and leads right back to His gifts.

You will, no doubt, be hearing more from our Synodical leadership in the weeks and months to come. Read the publications of the Synod. Stay informed about what is going on in our District, and Synod. Believe it or not, these things really do matter to our local congregation. And of course, keep President Harrison and all our church leaders in your prayers. They bear an enormous burden for the sake of the Church. And yet that burden is not theirs but Christ's. For this is not our church, but Christ's Church and He will continue to serve us with His good gifts. Indeed, it is a good day to be a Lutheran. In the LC-MS we are clearly and unequivocally built upon the theology of the Reformation, remember your solas – not because it's Luther's theology – but because it is the clear confession of the Word of God. And therefore our Confessions, the Book of Concord, the Catechisms – even our hymnal – serve as a trumpet for the Gospel here in our community and throughout the world, that in these gray and latter days there may be those whose life is praise, each life a high doxology (LSB 834:4). It is a good day to be a Lutheran. It is a good day to confess what the Scriptures teach, what our Confessions teach for a world in dire need of Witness, Mercy and Life Together.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Burning the Book of Eli

Rev. Terry Jones has made quite a name for himself in the news lately. Seems to be another bad rash of a shepherd in wolf's clothing. What is it with American protestant pastors and their media harlot obsessions? It's even debatable whether or not the Dove World Outreach Center even falls into general American Protestantism, which isn't saying a whole lot about either group. But there's no doubt about the frenzy stirred up by Rev. Jones' plot to destroy Islam by burning one Qur'an at a time on the 9th memorial of the events of September 11th, 2001.

So, tell me, what do you do with books you don't like?

"We burn them!"

And what do you burn apart from books?

"More books."

Ah, now it all makes sense. "Islam is of the devil", says Rev. Jones. Orthodox Christianity must, and indeed already has, condemned the teachings of Islam as false. This is why Christians confess creedal, doctrinal statements. The Lutheran Confessions, not to mention Luther, have a lot to say about the false teachings of Islam. But let's not confuse orthodox Christianity with the Ministry of Truth. Luther not only recommended that Christians read the Qur'an in order to prepare a ready defense against the truth of Christ's death and resurrection, but he also wrote a preface to the German edition. Christianity is not in the business of book burning. Just Like Luther was not in the business of iconoclasm. That was Carlstadt's tomfoolery which led to heresy. The Radical Reformation was no reformation at all. It was simply a regression to a new set of rules under a new papacy - the papacy of the individual. And it's just as deadly as the old papacy.
What does any of this have to do with one lone pastor in Gainesville who's all ablaze (pun intended) and ready to squeeze some lighter fluid igniting a pyre of Qur'ans? If he decides to go through with this little publicity stunt the Qur'an won't be the only thing burning. No, that's not an eschatological prediction of his whereabouts. Burning books is never a good idea. Many Christians boycotted Harry Potter when it came out. Some probably even torched a few just to make a statement. But the veracity of the Christian faith is not upheld or supported by burning books. The veracity of the Christian faith is found in the historicity and overwhelming evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity based upon the record of events in Jesus life and death. Overthrow Jesus' death and resurrection and you've won. If Christ is not raised then we of all men are most to be pitied. But, as St. Paul reminds us, Christ is raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15). Christians don't burn books. Big Brother (not the CBS show!) and the Hitlers and Stalins burn books. Leave that to the fascists. Because sooner or later it will be the Bible one the main menu at a local bonfire. The same arguments used by Rev. Jones to burn the Qur'an could be used by other religions, or even atheists, to burn the Scriptures. Just like the same arguments used to deny the Ground Zero Mosque because it is unwise, could be used to argue that Christian teaching is unwise. Especially when we start teaching about sin and death and forgiveness and Christ.

And now for something different. That's what happened in the background of the Book of Eli. A movie all about a book that no one in the movie really understood. Eli seems to have had the only copy of the Bible around after some kind of war broke out in which all the religious books were burned as a major part of the war. A war which led to this post-apocalyptic world of Denzel Washington's character, Eli. So much could have been said but so much was left unsaid. One man searched highways and wastelands for the Scriptures chasing for the one book that he thought would give him power and control over everyone else. It's the opiate of the masses right? And Eli for all his protection and study of the book only got as far as Rick Warren: "do good unto others and treat people well, that's about what I got out of it." And finally, when Eli finds his way to Alcatraz, the book ends up on a shelf next to all the other religious flavors of the centuries. You see, the Bible is just one narrative of many religious truths that help us on our journey. Ack, it pained me even to write that terribly post-modern drip of a sentence. But that's how our culture views it.

Burning books and religious "tolerance/diversity" are two sides of the same coin. Objective truth becomes relative. And ultimately the clear message of Christ Crucified for sinners becomes lost in the mix. This is distinctive. It is an exclusive message but it is given to all for all. Christianity rests on this message. Not upon the fires of books burned that we disagree with, but on the fire of God's wrath placed on His own Son. The proclamation of the Gospel will win. Put all the religions on trial in a court of academic ideas, debate and discourse and let the evidence speak for itself. The claims of Christianity are vindicated in Christ's death and resurrection, not by the ashes of those who so desperately need the Gospel.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Problem with the Problem of Evil

One of the more frequent objections to Christianity is the problem of evil: If a good and loving God exists, why is there evil (i.e. the Holocaust and the terror attacks of 9/11), why is there wide-spread suffering in the world (i.e. AIDS in Africa, Avian flu in Asia) and why does God allow natural disasters (i.e. hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes) to happen? There are several conclusions most people draw from this dilemma (often called theodicy): 1) Either God is not good because if He was He would surely not allow evil to exist or 2) He's not powerful enough to stop evil and suffering or 3) He's actually the cause of evil. No matter how you look at it, this seems to be the Achilles heel for Christians. Atheists often challenge Christians with the argument (ignoring the great, in fact, overwhelming amount of evil that has been done in the name of Atheism in the 20th century alone). Either God is not good or not powerful enough to stop evil therefore He doesn't exist. After all, who would want to worship a god who is petty, unjust, malevolent, vindictive and fickle?

Usually there is something bad that happens in someone's life– and while they may ask you in the form of an intellectual question – there is usually real pain and hurt in their life. This may take some probing on your part, but the question they have put to you in academic terms, may be very personal – perhaps their dad just died of cancer. In fact, sometimes un-believers ask this question to see if Christians really do care.

Of course Christians care – having been freed from sin and death, we are free to serve the neighbor in mercy and compassion. But, how would you respond? No doubt, this is a complicated answer.

The answers that some Christians have given are hardly adequate (or faithful to Scripture either): 1) God is punishing you for your sin. This is what Gerry Falwell said when New Orleans was hit by Katrina because they were such horrendous sinners or when Haiti was struck by the earthquake because they had made a pact with the devil. What did Jesus say when the tower of Siloam fell and killed eighteen people: "were these Galileans worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish" (Luke 13:2-3).

Or how about this one: 2) God is doing this to teach you a lesson. As if God was the author of evil sitting in heaven planning things to trip you up throughout your life in order to train you like a drill sergeant at boot camp.

3) Perhaps you've been suffering because you haven't been praying enough; maybe you just need to have more faith. This is one of the most damaging, not to mention un-biblical, answers given.

Before moving on to provide a brief answer, first we must dispute a logical problem with the argument made by unbelievers, namely, the existence of evil disproves the existence of God. As Lawyer and Christian apologist, Craig Parton writes:

"Without an absolute moral standard (which the analytical philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein established is not possible without a transcendent source), one cannot speak of 'evil' save in a totally relative or culturally conditioned manner. In short, one must presuppose an absolute standard to even employ the word 'evil' in a comprehensible fashion. However, an absolute standard of morality is impossible unless God exists. If there is no God, both good and evil are strictly relative concepts and by-products of cultural conditions and sociological-political-psychological factors. If God does not exist, there is no 'problem of evil.' What is, is and no more can be said."

The fact that there is objectively moral evil in this world does not disprove Christianity's truthfulness. In fact, Christianity has the best explanation for the entrance of evil into the universe – namely, that evil originated in the acts of the creature, not the Creator. "Evil entered the human condition as a result of a completely free moral choice by the creature to do his own will in direct contradiction to the edict of God Almighty. The result was eternal separation from God, as well as suffering and death in this life [Genesis3]. Sin is irrational, however, and does not obey nice, clean rules of cause and effect (i.e. you get what you deserve)."

Such deadly consequences have led many to wonder, "How long, O Lord, until Your return? Why don't You return now and put an end to suffering in this life?" It is precisely for the sake of the Gospel that God puts up with (allows) evil in this world. Consider the words of St. Peter: "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9) for God desires that all men would be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). God is long-suffering for the sake of those who have yet to hear the Gospel. And in this way, God's justice serves His mercy.

Thankfully, the Biblical account does not end with man's separation from God on account of sin. God did not sit back and hope we, as fallen human beings, could make the best of a world gone terribly wrong. In Jesus Christ, death – the wages of sin and evil – is conquered and destroyed forever. In reality, the problem of evil is not a problem for Christianity; Christianity is the best (and only) solution to the problem of evil.

"Contrary to the attitude of benign resignation in eastern religions towards evil (the concept of karma and the essential unity of good and evil emasculate any real ability to aggressively counter the cause and effects of human evil and suffering), Christianity speaks of human depravity being so real and dreadful that it required the entrance into grainy human history by the sinless Son of God in order to make atonement. Thus not only is evil condemned, but God Himself takes on the consequences of that evil in His very body."

God knows and understands exactly what we suffer with here on earth. Jesus knew what it meant to suffer; He was unjustly treated, He bore the evil consequences of sinful men, innocently, unto death. Furthermore, Christ has promised to return and upon that return there will be no more weeping, no more tears, no more pain or death. Yes, in the mean time we live between the cross and the consummation of Christ's return. We don't know how long the negative consequences of our sin will be allowed to endure until Christ returns. But we wait with confidence in Christ on the basis of what He has done for us – His death and resurrection – and has promised – His return. "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us" (Romans 8:18).

Not only does Christianity understand the true nature of evil, but the true solution. Central to the Christian claim is the fact that evil is so serious that God sent His only Son into the world, not to die for perfectly, deserving, worthy people but for sinners. We have confidence in this regard because God has made the most amazing efforts to help our situation even though He was not in any way obligated to do so.

"For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.
But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Theology Goes to the Movies: Toy Story 3

Pixar and quality films have been synonymous for over 15 years. Many have tried to imitate the graphic quality and rhetorical, comedic and adventure story style but few, if any, have come close to matching their wit and humor. Not to mention their seemingly never-ending ability to create indelible characters. Buzz Light-Year, Woody, Doc, Heimlich and Nemo - just to name a few.

But I rarely watch a movie without thinking theologically. If Confessional Lutheran theology is the most practical thing one can have (and I would argue it is), then it only makes sense to view movies, listen to music, watch plays, observe culture, etc. with this in mind.
For the longest time, I'd always thought of Andy as the "Christ-figure" of the Toy Story movies. Especially given the way he names his toys. If you are Andy's toy you know it. He marks you. He makes you his own. He goes so far as to write his name on Woody's foot. That's when Buzz finally realizes it's good to be a toy. He belongs to someone. He has been named.
And this is the way of the Christian life.

"Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin." - Romans 6:5-7

"For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." - Galatians 3:27

"And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." - Matthew 28:18-20

"In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you." - Exodus 20:24

That's God's mark. That's His work. He baptizes. He saves. If you are God's child you know it - not by some kind of inner burning of the bosom. Not by some special revelation or secret knowledge. Not by works lest anyone can boast. It's a gift. Plain and simple. Baptized. Buried. Dead and Raised. That's how you know God loves you. He marks you with the blood and water. He makes you His own in the font. He goes so far as to write His Name - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - on you with the sign of the cross, some ordinary tap water and those performative words: I baptize you...for the forgiveness of all your sins. And if that's not enough, He inscribes your name in the Lamb's book of life.

But the Christology of Toy Story goes deeper than one character. There isn't any one character that can embody such incarnate bodied and blooded for you in its fullness and perfection. I came to this realization after watching Toy Story 3.

If you haven't seen it, consider this your spoiler alert! Andy's heading to college and the toys are in a panic. Does Andy want them anymore? What will happen to them? Well, you'll have to see the movie to fill in the gaps but in the end, Andy gives his toys to little Bonnie (who by the way is an adorable little computer-generated girl). He simply gives her all the toys, knowing she'll take good care of them. But this is not yet the "Gospel Handle" as Rev. Francis Rossow would say. The Gospel lies in this statement:

"Now Woody, he's been my pal for as long as I can remember. He's brave, like a cowboy should be. And kind, and smart. But the thing that makes Woody special, is he'll never give up on you... ever. He'll be there for you, no matter what."

That's right...He'll never give up on you...ever. He's the great Hound of Heaven. The Shepherd who leaves the 99 to rescue the 1. The woman who searches tirelessly for that lost coin (no this is not an endorsement of feminist theology). The Greater Aslan. The Greater Andy. Our Prophet, Priest and King. The telos of all types. The Greater and second Adam. Christ, the true and only indelible character. His incarnation is the euchatastrophe of mankind and His death and resurrection are the euchatastrophe of the New Testament, indeed, of all human history. And all of this is for you who are buried with Christ in Baptism so that He may drown you into eternal life and raise you as a new creation. Washed. Marked. Saved. Named. Not Andy's, but Christ's.

"For when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life." - Titus 3:4-7

So, enjoy the movies and don't forget to take your theology with you.