Thursday, May 31, 2012

Christ Figures in The Hunger Games

Once Christians have answered the question, "Can a Christian read or watch The Hunger Games?," we should ask ourselves: what Christian themes, if any, are in this trilogy? There have been more blog posts and news articles (some more helpful than others) written about the series than Haymitch has drinks in a day, especially in the wake of the box office boon. And like Haymitch's drinking, this flurry of activity is not without benefit (he was after all a good mentor). There are several good articles I've read while researching more of Suzanne Collin's background.

As an aside, I have yet to find a decent interview that asks the right kinds of questions about the author's own personal views on religion, politics, etc. and how those influence (or do not) her writing. Perhaps its the interviewers or Collin's own admitted shyness or both. It is far more easily to get a grasp on J.K. Rowling's worldview, for example.

At any rate, many of these articles have delved into the clear lack of religion in The Hunger Games and its Christian themes, both implicit and explicit. Here are the links to a few of my favorites so far:
And while these articles provide valuable insights into the books, both for the Christian and the non-Christian, there is one theme that has not yet been mined to the depths. I only pray that I do not delve too deeply as the Dwarfs in Moria.

When it comes to Christian themes in The Hunger Games many have called attention to the explicit "Christ-figure" of Katniss in the opening few chapters of the first book in the trilogy, and rightly so.

The story begins with Katniss’s self-sacrifice on behalf of her sister, Prim. Although her name was drawn in the lottery, Katniss volunteers as a substitute, taking her sister’s place in the games, even though the odds of returning home are not in her favor. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends...or their sister. In many ways this theme provides a major story arc from the beginning of the The Hunger Games to the end of Mockingjay. But that is only one "Christ-figure" and taken throughout the rest of the book it breaks down as all analogies and figures must. For if every one is a Christ figure then no one is. This is not a case of looking for Jesus in every arena and rock in Panem. However, there is yet one more compelling "Christ-figure" in The Hunger Games trilogy.

The theme of self-sacrifice unfolds in other places throughout the story. Love that leads to sacrifice and sacrifice that leads to love. This is true, of course, in the case of Katniss's substitutionary sacrifice on behalf of her sister, Prim. But it is even more abundantly clear in the character of Peeta. If we get glimpses of sacrifice and substitution with Katniss, we have an all out "passion" in the case of Peeta. It is only after Peeta has sacrificed and loved her that Katniss knows anything of love. To paraphrase the apostle, she loved because he first loved her. Like Christ's love for sinners, Peeta's love comes first and then love follows living sacrificially for others.

While Katniss is often selfish, Peeta is self-less. Everything Peeta does in the trilogy is for Katniss. Peeta is the Giver; he is always giving, even to the point of laying down his own life to save Katniss on multiple occasions. 

Shortly after Peeta is chosen in the reaping, the reader finds out that he has already selflessly - and at great risk to his own life - given Katniss something: bread (yet another Christian theme). When Katniss was at her worst, Peeta was at his best. Her father had died. Her mother had broke down and there were hungry mouths to feed. She was terrified, lonely and hungry. Then, as Katniss recalls, the encounter went this way:

Why him? I think. Then I try to convince myself it doesn't matter. Peeta Mellark and I are not friends. Not even neighbors. We don't speak. Our only real interaction happened years ago. He's probably forgotten it. But I haven't and I know I never will...
...The boy took one look back to the bakery as if checking that the coast was clear, then, his attention back to the pig, he threw a loaf of bread in my direction. I stared at the loaves in disbelief. They were fine, perfect really, except for the burned areas. Did he mean for me to have them? He must have...
...It didn't occur to me until the next morning that the boy might have burned the bread on purpose. Might have dropped the loaves into the flames knowing it meant being punished and then delivered them to me.

And after their eyes met at school and Katniss turned away in embarrassment, she saw something:

...and that's when I saw it. The first dandelion of the year. A bell went off in my head. I thought of the hours spent in the woods with my father and I knew how we were going to survive. To this day, I can never shake the connection between this boy, Peeta Mellark, and the bread that gave me hope, and the dandelion that reminded me that I was not doomed.

That loaf of bread brought Katniss - and by extension her family - back from the dead. Call it the bread of life. It wasn't the first or the last time bread and life would go together when Peeta and Katniss are together.

But the examples of Peeta's self-lessness go on. When training before the 74th annual Hunger Games, Peeta eventually insists on attending the sessions alone; he has a plan, a plan which Katniss eventually realizes in the arena. The love he showed at the opening ceremonies, before the cameras, before all of Panem was not merely part of the strategy, it was genuine. Love is why Peeta sacrificed everything for Katniss. Love is why he joined the Careers in the arena. Love is why he lay waiting death in a stream-bed and then rested in a cave for three days before emerging to win the games (and with horrific wounds to prove his love no less).

In the second book, Catching Fire, Peeta's sacrificial love continues despite Katniss's angsty teenage confusion: Gale or Peeta? Is my love for Peeta real or was that just part of my game-play? At any rate, when the 75th annual Hunger Games are commenced and the pair find their way back in a new arena with other Victors, Peeta continues to play the Christ-figure, ultimately resulting in Katniss's escape while allowing himself to be captured in a twist of events that further spreads the mockingjay rebellion into (the once "lost") District 13 and throughout Panem. He is captured. Tortured. Forced to speak publicly against the rebels - but even there is compelled to warn them of a coming strike against the District. And though he suffers greatly at the hands of the Capitol's machinations, he is returned to the rebels. Once again, all this he does for Katniss.

By the end of the third book, Mockingjay, the full story arc is complete.  And though for many readers and critics, this third book fell flat in comparison to the other two, Peeta was there once again to redeem it all, in true loving humility, giving everything he has to Katniss. Gale knew it too

No, you won her over. Gave up everything for her. Maybe that's the only way to convince her you lover her...I should have volunteered to take your place in the first Games. Protected her then."
You couldn't, says Peeta. She'd never have forgiven you. You had to take care of her family. They matter more to her than her life.
Well, it won't be an issue much longer. I think it's unlikely that all three of us will be alive at the end of the war. And if we are, I guess it's Katniss's problem. Who to choose, Gale yawns. We should get some sleep.
Yeah...I wonder how she'll make up her mind.
Oh, that I do know...Katniss will pick whoever she thinks she can't survive without.

Gale was right. Katniss couldn't survive without Peeta's unconditional, bearing all things, sacrificing all things, always putting her needs first kind of love. And that is why the story ends with a glimmer of hope against the utter despondent background of war, violence, murder, the corruption of the Capitol and the utter inhumanity of it all. In the midst of death and destruction there was still rebirth and renewal, all because of Peeta, the Suffering Servant of The Hunger Games trilogy. There wasn't anything he would not do for Katniss. He is the bridegroom who gives his life for his bride. He is the Victor over death by giving himself into death for others. No wonder Peeta and the dandelion appeared as the sign at the end:

Peeta and I grow back together. There are still moments when he clutches the back of a chair and hangs on until the flashbacks are over. I wake screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children. But his arms are there to comfort me...I knew that what I need to survive is not Gale's fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that...You love me. Real or not real? Real.

The love Peeta displays and bestows upon Katniss is but a glimpse of the agape, the unmerited, undeserving love and passion of Christ whose love, in the words of St. Paul's great chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians, never fails. And that is exactly what we need.  He has taken our place in the ultimate hunger games - a fight to the death, a fight to destroy death - and emerged victorious for you.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Trinity Sunday and Narnia

Every day at sunset the table was renewed with a king's feast. A new day, a new feast. But the same song was sung, first by the Old Man and his daughter and then it was twittered by the birds as they fell like snow upon the island. According to Lucy, it was "a cold kind of song, an early morning kind of song." All the while, the Eastern sky revealed the rising sun growing larger than it had before on their journey. This was the moment they truly understood that they had finally reached the beginning of the end of the world. The Dawn Treader had reached Ramandu's (the old man) island. Like many good things in stories, this one happened around a table, Aslan's table no less. While Lucy stood there and watched the birds, she noticed "one bird fly to the Old Man with something in its beak that looked like a little fruit, unless it was a live coal, which it might have been, for it was too bright to look at. And the bird laid it on the mouth of the Old Man." Then the birds stopped their singing and the table was cleared as quickly as it had been prepared the evening before.

As I read Isaiah 6 - the OT reading for Trinity Sunday - I couldn't help but recall this scene from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. While it may appear that Narnia and Trinity Sunday have little in common, that is only an thinly veiled appearance. It's more than just the presence of winged creatures and holy songs. There's more.

Isaiah is given a vision of the throne room of Yahweh, a throne that could barely contain the train of his robes, much less his holiness. There were the six-winged creatures, the seraphim, covering their face and feet as they flew about the Holy One and said to one another (although I happen to think they were singing, not chatting):

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!

And the posts of the door were shaken by the voice of him who cried out, and the house was filled with smoke. So I said:
“Woe is me, for I am undone!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King,
The Lord of hosts.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it, and said:
“Behold, this has touched your lips;
Your iniquity is taken away,
And your sin purged.”

Isaiah needed that live coal from heaven. It was Yahweh's sacrament of cleansing for him: a Word and a sign. Isaiah was a man of unclean lips. And if the lips were unclean that meant the heart was too. That's why he is "undone" or silent, or better yet dead, before Yahweh of hosts. Without that coal, Yahweh's holiness was Isaiah's undoing. But with that live coal came atonement, cleansing, forgiveness.

Perhaps that is why the Caspian, Lucy, Edmund and Reepicheep do not immediately approach the table to eat - and even when they knew it to be Aslan's table they paused. There was something set apart, consecrated - something holy - about this table. Everything around the table sang: "you are on holy ground." The sun, the nearness of the end of the world, the Old Man and his daughter and the chanting birds. The same birds who set the table and took the feast away each day were the same birds that brought the live coal fruit to the Old Man. And just like Isaiah, he needed it. These were fire-berries, as he told the children later, from the valley in the sun. Each fire-berry took away a little of his age. "And when I have become as young as a baby born yesterday, then I shall take my rising again and once more tread the great dance," said Ramandu. He was cleansed, day by day. His lips purified. And like Isaiah, he was made ready for service. "Here I am, send me!"

Only in this case, it was Ramandu who sent The Dawn Treader to the utter east, to leave one behind and undo the enchantment of the sleepers at the table (three of the Narnian lords).

And before they headed to the end of the world and the beginning of Aslan's country there was a feast awaiting the sea-weary adventurers. The table was set. All was ready. But you don't just waltz up to Aslan's table (any more than you simply walk into Mordor). A table, you see, can look a lot like an altar (and vice-versa). That's where Isaiah was: before the altar of the Lord. The place of Yahweh's presence. and this presence was both destructive and creative, both Isaiah's undoing and his pardon, both terrifying and overwhelmingly joyful.

There is only one way to approach this table, in faith. Not the faith that looks to our own holiness before God (coram Deo). But the faith of Isaiah: "Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips." The faith that comes from unclean lips turned holy: "Send me!" The faith that joins Reepicheep in trusting the message: "Sire, of your courtesy, fill my cup with wine from that flagon; it is too big for me to lift." There's always room for beggars and dogs at this table.

At the Lord's table, things are not much different, although it is infinitely better.There is one difference of course, when the baptized approach the Lord's Table, there is no wondering: will it be good or bad for me? There is no need to fear the holiness he brings you at his Altar. It is good for you. Doubt not Jesus' words: take eat; take drink. This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you. This is the same body broken on the cross, the same blood shed for your atonement. Behold, the body and blood of Christ have touched your lips and your iniquity is taken away and your sin purged. This Supper is a feast of the King of kings. The Lord's Supper is your live-coal, your fire-berry. It is your life-giving meal. Pardon. Restoration. Forgiveness. Atonement. Cleansing. And like Ramandu, it turns us old sons of Adam into children born from above, born again, just like Jesus tells Nicodemus, with water and the Spirit.

Thankfully, you don't have to sail to the beginning of the end of the world to go to Aslan's table. The Lord's Table is weekly renewed for a feast. And the old song of the winged creatures remains the same:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Sabaoth...heaven and earth are full of Thy glory. And blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

An Apologetic for Lutheran Apologetics

I am to talk about Apologetics. Apologetics means of course Defense. The first question is – what do you propose to defend? Christianity, of course.
- C.S. Lewis, Christian Apologetics from God in the Dock.
For many this is an oxymoron, a fool-hardy attempt to argue with the unbeliever, or worse, a blasphemous confluence of faith and reason. For others this is nonsense. They have no idea what apologetics means, much less how to discuss it.

But I submit to you a third alternative. Lutheran apologetics is neither an oxymoron nor gibberish. Lutheran apologetics is essential and evangelical, Scriptural and Christocentric. We should be unapologetic in our apologetics.

In The Bondage of the Will, Luther responds to Erasmus’ lack of satisfaction with assertions (an ironic statement in itself) by saying:
Nothing is better known or more common among Christians than assertions. Take away assertions and you take away Christianity.[1]
Christianity is full of assertions: the Divine Service, ecumenical creeds, even the Book of Concord. This we believe, teach and confess as true. This we condemn as false. Jesus made assertions. And his Church follows her master accordingly. The central teaching and claim of Christianity is an assertion:
For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).
This is what separates Christianity from the world’s religions, a faith founded on fact. The Christian claim is historically verifiable and veracious. And unlike most other world religions, it is also falsifiable. That’s what St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15. If Christ is not raised your faith is futile. But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead.

Christians declare and defend the faith once and for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3) for we should “always be prepared to make a defense (apologia) for the reason for the hope that is within you” (1 Peter 3:15).

How do we articulate the truth of the Christian faith clearly in the face of skepticism? What should Christians say when their faith is challenged?

Apologetics answers in two ways. Negatively, logic and reason are used to tear down arguments, rebut presuppositions and remove obstacles in front of the cross. In the end, however, a Lutheran will always find a way to steer the conversation back to the only legitimate offense: Christ Crucified (1 Corinthians 1:22).

It is not enough, however, to tear down arguments. St. Peter also reminds us to defend the faith with “gentleness and respect.” Positively, apologetics makes a defense (Acts 1:3), arguing for Christianity and as well as against the din of false truth claims. Lutheran apologetics are unabashedly Christ-centered, always in service to the Gospel.

Therefore, Lutheran apologetics does not:
  • Attempt to argue someone into the Christian faith or sideline the work of the Holy Spirit. Lutheran apologetics is neither Pelagian nor semi-Pelagian.
  • Give the unbeliever the impression that he can think himself into Christian faith.
  • Pit reason against faith. Rather, it seeks a proper use of reason in all realms. Thus, Luther called reason the “devil’s whore” when used magisterially. And yet, Luther also highly praises reason as a 1st Article gift, when used ministerially.
It is just as important to say what apologetics is in addition to what it is not. Lutheran apologetics:
  • Acknowledges reason as a gift of God’s creation. Although man (will, emotions and intellect) is dead in trespasses and sin after the fall, he did not lose inferential capabilities. Man can understand, interpret and assert facts correctly.
  • Values notitia (knowledge based on fact and historical faith) and fiducia (faith and personal trust). The objective reality of Christ’s life, death and resurrection ground the subjective faith in the Gospel which is extra nos.
  • Understands the ministerial use of reason. That we declare the facts of the Christian faith as verifiable and historical in no way undermines the solas. On can  (and ought to) examine the remarkable amount of evidence in favor of Christianity since these events did not occur in a corner (Acts 26:26).
  • Is epistemologically objective and inductive, allowing the facts and evidence to move from the objective to the subjective. In other words, a bottom up approach, such as Luther advocated in his arguments concerning the Sacrament of the Altar. What does the text say? What are the historical facts? The data must precede the interpretation.
Why go to all the trouble? Daily, Christians fight a war on three fronts. The devil, the world and our sinful flesh work hard to stir up doubt, skepticism and outright lies. Our youth in the Church are bombarded with assaults on the Christian faith from the classroom to the playground. College students fall prey to professors, friends and the trendy new atheist movement. Whether it’s Bill Maher’s movies, Richard Dawkins’ books, Penn Jillette’s Youtube videos, local billboards or the local bar, Christians will come into contact with those who make assertions against the faith.

The question isn’t whether or not we should engage in apologetics as Lutherans, but how? Lutherans have no reason to fear apologetics and every reason to engage in lively discussion. What’s more, we have every room for confidence and certainty, a living hope in Christ Crucified and Risen. Lutheran apologetics is essential – now more than ever. And it’s evangelical: We proclaim Christ Crucified. When the opportunity arises we bring the preponderance of historical evidence to bear on history’s most important event: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. History is for you. Jesus’ death is for you. Apologetics is for you.

If you want to read more about apologetics, here are a few good books:
  • The Defense Never Rests, Craig Parton, CPH.
  • Religion on Trial, Craig Parton, Wipf and Stock.
  • History, Law and Christianity, John W. Montgomery, Wipf and Stock.

[note 1] Luther, Martin: Pelikan, Jaroslav Jan (Hrsg.) ; Oswald, Hilton C. (Hrsg.) ; Lehmann, Helmut T. (Hrsg.): Luther's Works, Vol. 33 : Career of the Reformer III. Philadelphia : Fortress Press, 1999, c1972 (Luther's Works 33), S. 33:21

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hunger Games Q & A

For our church newsletter I recently compiled a few basic questions about The Hunger Games based on several conversations with members, friends, etc. You can read the questions and their brief answers below. And if you have any seminal questions that you think I left out, by all means, comment below so I can do a part 2. Many of these questions (and others) deserve more ink (or ones and zeroes in this case). However, I intenionally designed this little Q & A to be brief for use in bible studies, inserts, or a one page, double-sided flyer if needed.

To that end, if you find it useful for yourself, your congregation, youth group, etc., please use it, copy it and so forth. Unlike the Capitol, I value information like this being freely distributed, just like the Gospel.

What is The Hunger Games? 

The Hunger Games is a New York Times best selling trilogy authored by Suzanne Collins. It has sold over 26 million copies since its first publication by Scholastic Books (2008). Recently, the books received increased media attention accompanying the March theatrical release of The Hunger Games, the first book in the series to hit the silver screen. 

What is The Hunger Games trilogy and movie about?

Based upon the Greek myths of Theseus and Spartacus, The Hunger Games takes place in the dystopian world of Panem, formerly known as North America. The books are written from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen year old girl thrust into the annual Hunger Games. The games comprise of twenty four participants, two from each of the twelve districts of Panem. The tributes, children ages 12-18, are chosen by lottery. Once selected, the tributes fight to the death in an artificial arena where the games are televised throughout the districts of Panem. The Capitol uses the games for three primary reasons:
1)       A warning, reminding the districts of the cost of their past rebellion,

2)      A perennial form of physical and psychological punishment, quelling potential insurrection and,

3)      Entertainment for its own citizens, much like the Romans and the coliseum; recall the popular phrase: panem et circensus.

What themes make The Hunger Games so popular?

The Hunger Games follows the popular book series like Harry Potter and Twilight, in generating media attention, broad readership and interest across the age-spectrum. The books are also easy to read, the characters are well-developed and the story draws you into the events that unfold throughout the series. But there’s more to these books than action, science fiction, and suspense. Many themes common to real life are mirrored in literature. The books tackle many issues that resonate with readers of all ages: love, sacrifice, the struggle with death and life, war, hope and survival in the face of adversity. The author weaves these together into a compelling and thrilling story, demonstrating that these themes extend outside of  Panem into the real world.

What age is appropriate to read or watch The Hunger Games?

The books are written for an older audience and the film is rated PG-13. Although the author is tactful in her narration of death scenes, the violent content of the books makes them more appropriate for those who grasp  the difference between science fiction and non-fiction. One possibility would be to begin reading the books at the same age of the main character, Katniss. In any case, parents should take an active role in  knowing their child’s maturity level for film and movie consumption and be involved in reading books and watching movies with them.

 Is The Hunger Games a social or political commentary?

In some ways it is. As in 1984, the books provide a dire warning of what happens when government seeks to use and control its citizens rather than serve and protect them.  This also seems to be a cautionary tale when it comes to so-called “reality television. As the books skillfully illustrate, people are easily desensitized when it comes to suffering, oppression and human need once it is televised and further promoted as entertainment, appealing to today’s me-generation.  Parents and children should discuss these existential and intellectual questions together, such as: Is it ever appropriate for Christians to disobey governing authorities? How does “reality TV” affect the way we view everyday life? What does The Hunger Games say about death and life?

Can a Christian read or watch The Hunger Games?

Yes, Christians are free to read/watch it or not. However, there are several good reasons why Christians can enjoy The Hunger Games.
1)       Families should read and watch movies together. Catechesis takes place even while engaging popular books or films.
2)      Children are reading and watching this literary phenomenon; they speak the language of pop-culture. Adults who are in tune with popular movies and books are able to engage in the discussion.
3)      The Hunger Games is enjoyable to read. Good books address the human condition no matter the reader’s age.
4)      Reading the books also provides Christians a bridge in communicating the Christian faith with our children and neighbor.
5)      There are many Christian themes in The Hunger Games.

What are some of the Christian themes in The Hunger Games?
The story begins with Katniss’s self-sacrifice on behalf of her sister, Prim. Although her name was drawn in the lottery, Katniss volunteers as a substitute, taking her sister’s place in the games, even though the odds of returning home are not in her favor. The theme of self-sacrifice unfolds in other places throughout the story as do other themes, including: love, hope, death and life, hunger and needs of daily bread and the bread of life imagery. Although many of these are not uniquely Christian themes, the Christian is able to say something unique about each one found in the books. One of the largest over-arching theme appears to be love that leads to sacrifice and sacrifice that leads to love.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ascension Sermon: "Ascended but not Gone"

+ The Ascension of Our Lord – May 17th, 2012 +
Text: Ephesians 1:15-23; Acts 1:1-11; Luke 24:44-53
 In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.
             Luke’s Gospel ends where it began: in the temple.
            God’s plan of salvation once announced to Zechariah and held in the arms of Simeon in the same temple has now been fulfilled. Already at age 12, Jesus knew he must be about his father’s saving business. For Jesus is the new temple, destroyed on Good Friday and raised up on Easter Sunday. And after Jesus ascends to the heavenly Jerusalem, his disciples return to the earthly Jerusalem, to the temple.
            Luke says they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Jesus’ ascension is not a day to hang your head and mope about like Eeyore, “Oh bother, Jesus is gone. Guess I’m all alone now.”
            No! Jesus’ ascension is good news. That’s why Luke’s Gospel also ends how it began: in worship. Zechariah, Mary, Elizabeth, even baby John the Baptizer in the womb, the Shepherds, Simeon and don’t forget Anna – they all worshiped Jesus. And now at Jesus’ ascension, the disciples join in praising God for all he’s done: teaching, preaching, healing, saving, dying, rising and now ascending.
             We know it’s a joyful day. That’s why we’re here: to hear Christ’s Word, receive his forgiveness, thank and praise him. But we still have questions:
            “How did Jesus ascend?” Was it like Buzz Lightyear – to eternity and beyond!? No, Luke simply says he parted from them and was carried up into heaven; a cloud took him out of the disciples’ sight.
            And where did Jesus go anyway? Is this some kind of hide and seek game? Or a Where’s Waldo book? “Look I think I see Jesus over there in the striped shirt. You’re so sneaky, Jesus!”
            The Scriptures simply say, “He sits at God’s right hand.” You won’t find that on your smart-phone GPS or google maps; you can’t just go walking into heaven’s throne room at the right hand of God. Christ comes to you in order to bring you to him; because the Right hand of God is not a place. It’s a position of power.     
But there are still two more important questions: Why did Jesus ascend? And what’s he doing there?
            The Gospel of Luke brings us full circle, from Christmas to Ascension. When all was still and it was midnight, Your Almighty Word, O Lord, descended from the royal throne. At Christmas, God takes on human flesh. God becomes man. Heaven comes to earth.
            Now at Jesus’ Ascension, the child of the manger returns to his throne, taking humanity back with him. Now we know the reason for Christmas. God becomes man to exalt mankind to the throne of God. You want to know why Jesus takes on human flesh and blood? Look to his ascension. Everything that he has, all that it is his is now yours. Inheritance. Life. Salvation.
            God became Man to rescue fallen humanity and bring mankind back to God. Jesus came to earth alone. Born in a lonely feeding trough. The Son of Man walked the lonely way, no place to rest his head…and he died alone, forsaken by the Father, buried in a borrowed empty tomb. But Jesus does not go home empty handed. Oh yes, there are the scars. But there’s also a blessing for his disciples and you. Jesus doesn’t go to heaven alone. He takes you with him. Where Jesus goes you go.
            Jesus returns home, but not alone. He takes his humanity with him. Think about that next time you have a crappy day or get depressed by the news or hear about loved ones falling ill or dying: The Lord who created the heavens and the earth by the Word of his mouth becomes human flesh, suffers, dies and rises for humanity and brings humanity back to God.
            Christ is your Great High Priest and your brother in human flesh. He shares your humanity. He knows your sorrows, illnesses, fears, doubts, pain, your suffering and death – he who is like you in every respect, yet without sin, is on the throne for you. The God-Man Christ now rules all creation with the same human flesh and blood shed for you on the cross, the same flesh and blood that comes to you in the Sacraments. 
            The ascension did not take Jesus away, rather by his ascension, he brings heaven near. He goes away to be closer to us. He is as near as yesterday’s prayer, today’s fear and tomorrow’s sorrow.
            That’s what Jesus is doing there. He’s praying for you. Interceding. Mediating. Always bending the Father’s ear to tell him how he died for you: “Remember the blood, the nails, the thorns. Remember the cross! For their selfishness I became the sacrifice. For their guilt I became the guilty. For their sin I became the sinner. For their death I died to destroy death.”     
            The disciples were often afraid of death and judgment. We’re no different. But who is sitting on the throne in Judgment? Christ. And he has already judged all things in his death on the cross. Jesus is judged for you. Who’s before the Father pleading for you constantly? Jesus. You have nothing to fear. You have an advocate, a defense lawyer who never loses. Your sin is paid for. Your death is conquered in Christ’s death. Your judgment sentence is already given: not guilty; you’re free. Heaven is yours. Life is hard, sin kills; death brings fear. Good thing salvation is easy. Christ has done it all for you.
          In Revelation John peals back the clouds of heaven so we can get a glimpse of Jesus’ ascension from heaven’ perspective. Who is on the throne? The Lamb standing and yet slain. With Jesus on the throne, you have nothing to fear, not in his ascension, not in his second coming and not a day in between.
            Jesus’ ascension is Good News, for He has taken to the Father all of our righteousness and salvation and the Devil can't take it away from Him. It's like the big kid who holds the ball up in the air so that the little kid can't jump up and swipe it away. The Devil would love to snatch us and our righteousness away from Jesus, but he can't do it. He's powerless now that Jesus is ascended and crowned with glory.
            Jesus ascends to prepare a place for you. To make ready for your homecoming. And what a joy that will be. But your joy – like the disciples’ joy – is not limited to some day off in the future. It is good to pray, “come quickly, Lord Jesus. We long for your return.” And yet he comes to us even now. Jesus is ascended and hidden but he’s not gone.
             Go back in Luke’s gospel a few verses from today’s reading and Jesus tells you where to find him: in the Scriptures and the Breaking of the Bread. That’s Luke’s way of saying, you want Jesus? Go to the Lord’s Supper.
            You want forgiveness? Don’t go to Calvary. Go to the Lord’s Supper. For the forgiveness won for you on the cross comes to you here. Christ’s Life and Salvation won freely for you on the cross is distributed here freely for you in the Sacrament.
            In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is closer to his church today than he ever was with his disciples. There’s no need to stare at the clouds wondering where He is. Jesus is right where He promises to be for you: in the Scriptures, the Prayers, the Breaking of the Bread. Jesus is ascended and hidden, but not gone. He is risen. He is ascended. He is with you always.
             Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered in Jesus’ Name, he’s there. Wherever sinners are Baptized in His Triune Name, Jesus is there. Wherever God’s Word is read, Jesus is there. Wherever you hear the declaration: “I forgive you all your sins,” Jesus is there. Whenever you eat and drink his body and blood, Jesus is there.
             Rejoice! And join the angels and the disciples and all the saints in heaven in joyful thanksgiving: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain for all power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and blessing are glory are his.” And all that is his, is yours.
 In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Narnia and Jesus' Ascension

Many of Scripture's events are painted by Lewis in The Chronicles of Narnia from its creation to its close. In preparation for tonight's Ascension Day service I searched my memory for an ascension in Narnia. In one way, Aslan's coming and going, along with his sending of the children, is like the ascension of Jesus in some ways. Although it is unlike it in many ways since Aslan frequently reappears for different purposes. Perhaps those are mini, or quasi-ascensions.

At any rate, I do think there are (at least) two major events in Narnia that illustrate Jesus Ascension for us here in the Shadowlands. While they appear to be two separate events, in the end, they are rather similar. One is from earth's perspective and the other, from heaven's perspective.

Dr. Peter Scaer brought this first illustration to mind in the most recent issue of the Concordia Pulpit exchange where he writes:

"One of my favorite children's stories is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. Many of you have read the book or seen the movie. In fairy-tale fashion, Lewis tells the story of our salvation. The ruler of Narnia, a majestic Lion, laid down his life to break the dark magic. In the end, Narnia is restored, and four children are crowned and seated on thrones of the kingdom. And when you think about it, we are those children. We are destined to rule."

What a marvelous picture of Jesus' death, resurrection and ascension; the Lion conquers death victoriously and gives his throne to us sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. Jesus conquered death and risen from the grave and completed his saving work and ascends to the throne at God's right hand. On the cross, his saving work is finished. And yet in another sense, his work is never done. He sits at the right hand of God we confess in the Creed. Present tense. He rules. He reigns. And He lives for us, interceding, preparing and drawing near to us with his crucified, risen and ascended body. The head once crowned with thorns is crowned in glory. He wore those thorns so we could be crowned in glory. He made his throne on the cross so we would be given the kingdom and the glory forever and ever. All that belongs to Jesus is now given to you.

He who once made the manger his throne and exalted humanity in his incarnation, now returns to his rightful throne still bearing our humanity. God became Man to rescue fallen humanity and bring mankind back to God. Christ’s ascension glorifies our humanity. In Christ, Our human nature is now exalted at God’s right hand, enthroned in glory. We are all kings and queens in the King of kings and Lord of lords. We behold it now by faith and by sight in the resurrection to come. For the God-Man rules heaven and earth.

But it wasn't just the four Pevensie children who ruled Narnia. In The Last Battle, the whole cast of main characters - a great procession of Narnian saints - enter the gates of Aslan's country, the true Narnia with Reepicheep's shrill voice: "Welcome in the Lion's name. Come further up and further in."  There they meet Lord Digory and Lady Polly, Fledge,  Glimfeather, Puddleglum and Rilian, Caspian, Lord Drinian and Lord Berne, the Beavers, and Mr. Tumnus among so many other beloved characters. (Characters seems such a harsh word after reading the stories; they're almost more like friends or close family members really). But there's also King Frank and Queen Helen, the first of the kings and queens of Narnia. And they all moved further up and further in until King Frank's horn sounded: "We must all go up."

"And soon they found themselves all walking together - and a great, bright procession it was - up toward the mountains higher than you could see in this world even if they were there to be seen...the light ahead was growing stronger. Lucy saw that a great series of many-colored cliffs led up in front of them like a giant's staircase. And then she forgot everything else, because Aslan himself was coming, leaping down from cliff to cliff like a living cataract of power and beauty."

This sequence in Narnia takes place at the end of the world - which is the promise of the ascension, that Christ will come again as he parted, in the flesh and in glory for our homecoming - and recalls the way that Revelation and Daniel describe the Son of Man ascending to the throne giving us a glimpse, at least in a small way, of our own resurrection and reunion with Christ in heaven. Christ's ascension also points us forward to the resurrection of the dead. As we sing in the ascension hymn:

He has raised our human nature
On the clouds to God's right hand;
There we sit in heav'nly places,
There with Him in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels;
Man with God is on the throne.
By our mighty Lord's ascension
We by faith behold our own.

This is the ascension from heaven's perspective. Jesus goes further up and further in to the glory of his gracious rule and reign. In The Last Battle we get a glimpse of that from the other side of things: the Lion on his throne, ruling and preparing a place, bounding from corner to corner of his mansion, readying all things for you, his children, his kings and queens. Your homecoming is prepared. In Christ, the dark magic is defeated. In his sacrifice, death works backwards. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah rises from the dead victorious and he gives his crown of victory to you. Where he goes you go. In Baptism you are buried with him, you rise with him. And His ascension is the guarantee of our own.

For if there is more joy with the angels in heaven over one sinner who repents on earth, imagine the joy in heaven over the stream of sinners welcomed as saints robed in white, going further up and further in, being seated at the Lamb's high feast with a place set for each one of us.

Lewis captures that joy like few others with words that cause me to weep every time I read them:

"You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be."
Lucy said, "We're so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. You have sent us back into our own world so often."
"No fear of that," said Aslan. "Have you not guessed?"
Their hearts leaped and a wild hope arose within them.
"There was a real railway accident," said Aslan softly. "Your father and your mother and all of you are - as you used to call it in the Shadowlands - dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning."

I was wrong. There are (at least) three ways Narnia shows us the hope of Jesus' ascension. For Jesus' ascension is both the culmination and the beginning. To paraphrase Lewis, all of his life in this world, his teaching and preaching, healing, casting out demons, suffering, dying and rising had only been a cover and the title page. For now at last, in his ascension, Jesus begins Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

And because Christ was crucified, risen and ascended, that is also our story. A blessed Ascension Day to you all.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Sermon for Easter 6: "All You Need is Agape"

+ 6th Sunday of Easter – May 13, 2012 +
Series B: Acts 10:34-48; 1 John 5:1-8; John 15:9-17
 In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.
            “All you need is love,” the Beatles sang.  Sounds good enough. But what does that mean? We say “I love you” to family or friends as easily as we say, “I love chocolate, sports or meat-lovers pizza.” That snarky kid on the playground points out the absurd difference. “If you love it, then why don’t you marry it?” Like that recent Jack In the Box commercial: “Mom, I’m getting married…to bacon!”

            Talk about confusing…or worse. Maybe that 80’s song was right…love stinks.  Sadly, English only has one word for love. Thankfully the Greeks had four.
            Storge. nurturing love. A mother and her child. Mother rabbit with her bunnies. C.S. Lewis called this as “all in a squawking, nuzzling heap together, purrings, lickings, baby-talk, milk, warmth, the smell of young life.” There's no need to command this sort of love. It’s instinct.
            Eros. Erotic, passionate, head over heels falling in love. It’s sexual and romantic. It’s is the love described in the Song of Solomon. Again, there’s no commandment for this love, except that it’s expressed the way God intended.

            Philos, the love of friendship. Philadelphia. Brotherly love. Think of David and Jonathan. You trust them implicitly. A friend who’s got your back no matter what. This too needs no commandment. It’s easy to love the people we get along with.
            And finally, there’s Agape. The word for love in both today’s epistle and gospel reading. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.”  Sacrificial love. Laying down one’s life for another love. Unconditional love. Love to the loveless and unlovable. Divine love. God is agape, God is love.
            This love must be acted upon, willed to be, promised. Storge, eros, philos – those all happen naturally. But Agape doesn’t “just happen” for us, only for God. It must be created, given, bestowed.
            This is a before the foundations of the world, from all eternity love. It goes to the very essence of God. The Triune God created the world out of love so that God, who is love, might have more creatures to share His love with.
            “God’s love is Gift-love. The Father gives all He is and has to the Son. The Son gives Himself back to the Father, and gives Himself to the world and for the world to the Father, and thus gives the world (in Himself) back to the Father” (Lewis, Four Loves).
            Paul uses the same word in 1 Corinthians 13. Although it’s nice for weddings, the original context is the congregation. Agape is patient and kind. It is not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Agape bears all things, trusts all things, hopes all things, patiently endures all things. Think about that the next time you're in any church meeting.
            “But I can’t love that way,” you say. You’re right. You can’t love this way. There is only one who has. Jesus loves this way, and you get to remain, abide in that love. That enduring all things, patient and slow to anger love that never fails.  That’s why Jesus begins, not with a command, but a promise, with His own love. To abide in Jesus’ love is, above all, to be on the receiving end of His love.
            You may claim to return the favor, that you love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind and that you love your neighbor as yourself, but you’re fooling no one, least of all God. You may sincerely believe that you only love the things in this world that are gifts from God – family, friends, the fruits of God’s creation - but you are sincerely wrong. Strip everything away like Job and you’ll quickly find out that behind each one of your loves there is an idol before whom you have genuflected, whether you know it or not. God is love. But try as we might…our love will never be a true god, only an idol, a star-crossed love doomed to a tragic death.
             Thankfully your infatuation with your sinful, selfish love is not the greatest love there is. For greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. That’s Jesus. The Vine dies to give life to the branches. Jesus sacrifices himself to bring you everlasting joy. Jesus loves us sinners unconditionally. Jesus lays down his life for you his enemies that he may call you his friends. Jesus takes all that is unlovable and makes it lovable in his cross. He loves you the way you can’t. He loves you to death in His death on the cross. The love you need is the love Christ provides. And once you have that love, all the others are thrown in.
            You don’t need to pluck the Tulip with misty eyes wondering, “does God love me, does he love me not?”
            For “God…creates the universe in love, already seeing the buzzing cloud of flies about the cross, the flayed back pressed against the uneven stake, the nails driven through the mesial nerves, the repeated suffocation as the body droops, the repeated torture of back and arms as it is hoisted up time after time, for breath’s sake. If we may dare the biological image, God is a ‘host’ who deliberately creates his own parasites; causes us to be that we may exploit and take advantage of him…” (slightly paraphrased from Lewis’s, Four Loves).  How do you know Jesus loves you? Look to the font and see your sins washed away in love. Look to the chalice his love overflows from the cross to your mouth. Look to the Word where he declares his abiding love for you.
            “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love,” Jesus says.
             How? By keeping His commandments. Now don’t get confused by the word commandments. Perhaps teaching or Word is better then: “If you keep, cling to, hold fast to, my teaching and Word, you will abide in my love.” What does this mean? “Abide in your Baptism, receive forgiveness, hear my Word, eat and drink my Body and Blood, there abide in my love for you.” These aren’t commands to make God love us, but means by which we abide in His love. For the love that Jesus commands is the love he gives to you.
            It’s like parents and their children. We don’t give our children rules in order for them to earn our love; rather, we give them instruction and rules because we love them, so that they abide in love with one another.
            “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Turn it around and it’s clear. “As I loved you, so love one another.” As I have laid down my life for you, lay down your life for your neighbor. Everything begins and ends with Jesus’ love.
            We are chosen in love, for love. We abide in Jesus’ love and Jesus’ love abides in us for the neighbor. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit,” Jesus says.
            Notice Jesus doesn’t tell you what the fruit is or how much to produce. He doesn’t give you a grocery list for the Christian life. There’s a simple reason why. Lists are deadly. Lists are law, not love. Your neighbor needs the Gospel and mercy, not a to-do list.

            Our old Adam wants lists: Send 5 cards to shut-ins each week. Shake 20 hands before you leave church this morning. Attend one Bible study per week. Take five prayers a day and “Look, Jesus, what nice fruit I’ve produced! What a good branch I’ve been!
             The Pharisees acted the same way, keeping fruit inventory. Sure, you see some of the fruit…walking the neighborhoods with Gospel Seeds, making homeless food bags, assisting our seminary student, Jim Toma, in Hispanic outreach, just to name a few. But let God do the counting. Some plant; others water. God gives the growth and his love. Abide in his love. And where there’s faith, there’s love. A good tree, a good branch, can’t help but produce good fruit.
            Christ bears good fruit in you through your vocations, fruit that will not rot: the household, church, work, as citizens.  There’s no expiration date. It’s ongoing and ordinary. Abiding in Jesus’ love, you are one giant fruit-factory. Faith and love pour out more fruit than you know what to do with. That leaves plenty left over to share with your neighbor. Christ’s love through you for others.
            It’s not instinct, not command; it's a gift. Agape is given to you. And in order to give and show love to others you must first receive it yourself. Branches wither and die away from the Vine. But here you, his branches, are fixed to the Vine, watered daily in your Baptism, fed by the Word, nourished in the Lord’s Supper. Living in the forgiving fruit of the cross…you Abide in my love, Jesus says.
            It’s true…all you need is agape.  
In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.