Great sermon by Brian Zahnd on Isaiah 56:1-8, Acts 8:4-32, & Galatians 3:28. Exclusion is legalistic, the Gospel, grace, love, & mercy are all INCLUSIVE.
This past Sunday was “Trinity Sunday” in most churches. The Gospel lesson at ours was Jesus’ theological discussion with a member of the council of priests in Jerusalem, a Pharisee named Nicodemus.
I was struck hearing this discussion found in John 3 by how much Jesus was talking about the Holy Spirit before the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). In verses 3-8 He talks about being born in the Spirit.
Jesus isn’t talking about having to be “born again” emotionally or intellectually before choosing to be baptized as Fundamentalist Evangelicals or Baptists talk about. Nor is He talking about a baptism in the Holy Spirit or an “anointing” of the Holy Spirit as many Charismatics and Pentecostals talk about.
Jesus doesn’t separate the baptisms. He says we should be born of water AND Spirit. Not “or” or “then.” Maybe that’s why the Nicene Creed only mentions “one baptism…” it’s not we who do the work in this rebirth, it’s God the Holy Spirit.
Only God can resurrect a dead body as He did with the “first born (Colossians 1:18, Revelations 1:5) and only God can give new birth to a soul with His Spirit (breath, truth, essence).
Maybe God helped me make this connection because I’d been teaching Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address these last few weeks of school in my Civics class.
Did you just hear that needle scratching a vinyl record as the turntable abruptly stopped? Yeah, it was when you spat out whatever beverage you were sipping on with that epic “spit take.”
I know, how can I switch gears so fast from theology to American History. Hear me out.
In his famous two minute speech at the dedication ceremony of a veterans memorial cemetery, “Father Abraham” was using an Ancient Greek format for elegies at funerals. One that a learned scholar in Hellenistic, Roman occupied Palestine, like Nicodemus and Jesus (as the only begotten Son of the living God ) would probably have been familiar with.
The format was this; 1) Life, 2) Death, and 3) Rebirth.
For Lincoln, his speech followed the format like this:
1) America was founded on liberty and equality
2) The Civil War might just kill that dream of a country “so conceived and so dedicated.”
3) To give that country a “new birth of freedom,” we must become dedicated and devoted to a great cause, unfinished work- that same “proposition that all men are created equal.”
What good would it be if the Union had won the Civil War but not ended slavery with the 13th Amendment? Those who died that this nation might live would’ve died for nothing (“died in vain”) unless we the living aren’t devoted to “that cause to which they gave their last full measure of devotion,” namely the “proposition that all men are created equal.”
Likewise, Jesus wanted Nicodemus to understand three truths:
1) God creates us to be in His image; Love. In relationship with Him as our God and in relationship with our neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:4), however
2) Sin & selfishness have left us spiritually dead. Incapable of loving God or our neighbors. We can’t see past our own desires, we’re blind even to our own needs and helplessness (Romans 3:23). There is nothing we can do ourselves to change this. Dead people cannot rescue themselves from death.
3) But nothing is impossible with God. He loves us enough to send his only begotten Son to save us (John3:16). He didn’t come to condemn us but to save us (John 3:17).
Yet what good is a savior if we rejectHis salvation? When we refuse His love & grace & mercy, we stand condemned already, we remain spiritually dead (John 3:18).
Also- What good is having the very Son of the creator of the universe teach us the Beatitudes if instead we continue loving only our friends and hating our enemies?
Both Aesop and Jesus warned of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Too be sure, people who are selfish predators will try to fool us into thinking that they’re “one of us.” Witness the billionaire politician who claims to care about the working class. And Satan himself started as an angel of light (Lucifer, means light bearer). Temptation doesn’t look like a frightening monster, it looks like everything we want & think we need.
But I’d like to talk about reversing the metaphor- what Existentialist psychologist Viktor Frankl called being a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Frankl meant it as a way to encourage therapists following his style/philosophy of psychoanalysis/therapy to be open to adopting some of the ideas and methods of other “schools of thought” without completely abandoning his principles or adopting ALL of others.
What does it mean to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing? Does it mean to pretend to be worldly and hide your faith? No. Although there is value to being humble, authentic and approachable- rather than inflexible, proud or judgmental, in other words, to be “all things to all people” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. But no, it doesn’t mean to compromise your principles or to try to look cool.
I feel that being a sheep in wolf’s clothing means to be shrewd as serpents (Matt 10:16). It means as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would say, being strong minded and soft hearted rather than soft-minded and hard hearted. It means not being so caught up in being right or reforming or controlling others that you fail to see how you can help others and encourage others.
Recently a friend shared a striking statistic, abortion rates dropped by 43% in a city which offered free birth control. This would be an example of loosening one’s grip on trying to enforce God’s rules in order to advance God’s ways. If it sounds like I’m promoting relativism or situation-ethics, I’m not- not exactly. But let’s face it, the spirit of the law is more valuable and effective than the letter of the law. This gets to the root of living by faith rather than works.
Lutherans often make a joke out of Luther’s famous quote, “Sin Boldly,” as if it gives us license to drink beer that Baptists and Methodists avoid. But that’s not the meaning, purpose or context of the quote. It doesn’t mean cheap grace, it doesn’t mean license to sin because Jesus already died for our sins. In part, it means that we don’t live in a sinless world yet, so unfortunately sometimes we can’t let perfect become the enemy of the good.
Mostly it means that we have free-will. God is not a tyrant. He created us with the liberty AND responsibility to make decisions for ourselves.
During the Protestant reformation, churches which had broken with Rome were sometimes paralyzed with fear of doing something wrong once they were freed from the tyranny of human tradition and dogma. Should priests get married? Should churches be spartan or elaborately decorated?
Luther wrote a letter to his friend Phillip Melanchthon in 1521 explaining how we should trust God to forgive us if using our best judgement and trying to serve Him, we unintentionally or inadvertently sin.
“If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (Sin Boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We, however, says Peter (2. Peter 3:13) are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign….”
This Summer I read a biography of German pastor and WWII resistance conspirator Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was recruited to become a member of the Abwehr, German military intelligence organization, within which he participated in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. How can a pastor deliberately engage in lying, undermining the government and planning murder? Aren’t those all sins? Didn’t that make him a hypocrite? I would argue, wouldn’t being complicit in the idolatry of nationalism, racism and militarism and genocide also have made him a sinner and a hypocrite?
Sometimes choosing the lesser of two evils is indeed not only a permissible choice for Christians, but the best choice available. I could start getting into philosophy and how Leibniz was right and Hegel, but this post has gotten out-of-hand long already. My children and students are always telling me “too-many-words!”
So let me just finish by sharing two great quotes from Bonhoeffer that speak to being a disciple, following the footsteps of Jesus Christ, rather than just a dumb sheep, blindly following a church or human leaders, clergy, televangelists, demagogues or others:
“Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”
“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.”
I heard a report today that former Arkansas Governor, Baptist minister and GOP Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee spoke to a group of conservative evangelical pastors today about how to become politicians. His goal is to raise an army of political candidates who will be able to clarify and represent “Christian values.”
Seems like we’ve heard this story before. Back in the 1970’s at the very moment that we had a born again Christian, Sunday School teaching Washington outsider in the White House (Jimmy Carter), the religious right organized themselves around Jerry Fawell and his “Moral Majority” whipping up the politics of division with indignation over wedge issues like abortion rights and the place of prayer in public schools. All through the Reagan era the like of Pat Robertson, Pat Boone and Pat Buchanan beat the drum of “family values.”
At best, I think this is another case of earnest, well meaning believers being used and taken advantage of for political leverage by oligarchs, ideologues, and opportunists. Posturing and pandering for power and privilege. At worst, it is the perennial ploys of shameless shills and charlatans.
Huckabee & his disciples claimed that “Christian values” included traditional marriage and the prevention of deficit spending.
Here’s what I believe true Biblical values are: What does God require of you? At justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:8). Love your neighbor as yourself. (Luke 10:27). Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you (Matt.5:43), forgiveness, don’t judge or condemn others (Matt.7), encourage, build, community, share, sacrifice, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:21-24), selflessness, being supportive, trusting and hopeful (1 Corinthians 13). Being willing to lay down your life for someone. Being Christ-like and exhibiting the Fruit of the Spirit as your character- these are values worth having.
I hate to say it, but I’ve seen secularists, atheists, Muslims and homosexuals who are far more humble, far more committed to justice, and far more merciful than many evangelicals.
Anger, fear, outrage, smugness, superiority, wealth, ambition, competition, privilege, gun rights, avoidance of regulation and supervision, tax evasion, racism, sexism, homophobia? violating the First, Fourth, Fifth, or Fourteenth Amendment rights all in the name of protecting your own First Amendment rights? None of these are Biblical values. Whoever you are and whatever you believe, please don’t ever conflate the “values” of some conservative evangelicals with those actually taught by Jesus Christ or the Jewish & Christian Bible. And no matter who you are or what your political leanings, please, please don’t conflate American social or political “conservationism” for Christianity.
“Then Jesus said to all the people (in Luke 9:23) : If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross each day and follow me.”
Ask yourself, how many of Huckabee’s troops in the new “culture war” are willing to give up control of government, party and culture in order to help feed the poor, heal the sick, free the oppressed, visit prisoners, and care for widows and orphans? Will they turn the other cheek? Go the extra mile? Give people the shirt off their back? If they do, then you know they’re genuinely following Jesus Christ. If on the other hand, they’re wearing designer suits and asking for donations so they can buy a plane- probably not.
Which displays Christ’s values, fighting to root out systemic racism in our institutions, or fighting to help petroleum corporations keep their tax loopholes? Allowing gay domestic partners to have medical, legal and financial status when their spouse dies, or fighting to prevent semiautomatic weapons from being regulated? Fighting to protect the environment and reduce or reverse global warming, or fighting to deport people who’ve lived in this country for decades after their parents brought them here as children?
I’m not claiming that Jesus is a registered Democrat or that fundamentalist pastors shouldn’t be allowed to run for office. But I am saying that anyone who thinks that the “Christian values” are the ones you’ll see proposed by Super Pacs, the Heritage Foundation, ALEC, or FOX News doesn’t know either Jesus or Scripture very well.
Last Sunday’s Old Testament lesson was from Ezekiel 37:1-14. I was looking forward to it. I’ve been feeling dry in my faith walk and distant from God. This was Pentecost Sunday, so I anticipated that our pastor would talk about how God can breath His Holy Spirit into us and revive our faiths, just as He promised to do for the people of Israel in the allegory He gave in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.
Instead it was a reminder that if God can resurrect this entire valley of skeletons and His Son Jesus on Easter, we can trust that He will raise us up on the last day too. Don’t get me wrong, this is probably a more important message. Lutheran theology always puts the focus on Christ and Him crucified, not on us.
Lutheran theology (at least LC-MS theology) also believes that since God’s Word & His promises (like God Himself) are unchanging, the same yesterday, tomorrow and forever, therefore any talk of “revival” is superfluous if not heretical. Since God will never leave us or forsake us, if we feel dead and dry, guess who wandered off into the desert away from God’s Living Water?
I know all this, but I still feel lonely & dry and weary. I also know that our faith should never be a matter of how we “feel,” since feelings can mislead us. I still can’t help missing how worship and Bible study “felt” at Bethlehem in Canyon Country, CA and how it “felt” to be in ministry at Los Angeles Lutheran JR/SR High. Maybe what I miss is being in my twenties. I dearly love living in Iowa and belonging to St. John Lutheran Church and appreciate, value and admire our pastor.
I know that to grow in my faith and relationship with God I need to be more disciplined in my piety, prayer-life and devotion. If I want to be transformed by the renewing of my mind (Romans 21:2) I have to read Scripture and pray and praise continuously- but oh how the daily grind of selfishness, negativity, worry and responsibilities seem to weigh down on me. So I don’t know if it’s a paradox or ironic, but it just seems like neither God or the Church are going to breath new life into me or restore what I think of as joy without me continuing to work out my salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).
But I also know, as Luther taught in his explanation of the Third Article of the Apostle’s Creed- “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
So what can a struggling Midwestern believer do? I will pray for revival (even if that’s heresy and sounds like Charismatic Pentecostalism instead of Lutheranism. I will pray for fellowship, that God will lead me to friends in my own community, congregation and workplace who share my faith and who will nurture and support me- and people He will put in my life whom He wants to use me to mentor, disciple or minister to. And, even though there are plenty of Summer responsibilities replacing all of the school-year ones, I will try to use this blog as a place to write about my thoughts about faith, God and His Word.
I have a feeling that when Jesus talked about springs of water welling up inside of us (John 4:14), he meant for us to be vessels, not storage tanks. To keep refreshed, we need to be mediums for living water, not depositories of it. Stationary water grows stagnant.
Lord, make me a hose or a sprinkler, not a septic tank.
LUTHER’S COFFEE CUP PRAYER
An empty vessel that needs to be filled.
My Lord, fill it
I am weak in the faith; Strengthen me.
I am cold in love; Warm me and make me fervent, that my love may go out to my neighbor…
O Lord, help me.
Strengthen my faith and trust in you…
With me, there is an abundance of sin; in You is the fullness of righteousness.
Therefore I will remain with You,
Whom I can receive, but to whom I may not give.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Christians often see Romans, chapter 1 as an indictment of the “world” & it’s self indulgent sinfulness. Conservative Christians like to wield this chapter as proof that homosexuality is wrong.
I just read the second chapter of Romans and I have to say that I see it as a pretty clear indictment of the judgementalness, hypocrisy & myopic sense of arrogant superiority & entitled “tribalism” of many of us “Christians.”
Paul’s warning against being a Jew in name but not at heart applies to us today too. Aren’t we also quick to judge non-Christians, meanwhile deluded about ourselves because we’ll go so far as to oppose the very things Christ did & would have us do as well? Self-righteous about our “family values” and being “true Americans,” but apathetic about injustice, strangers, orphans, widows, and the poor?
Don’t we make our own opinions, ideologies, comfort, convenience, security & above all our pride into our false idols, even as we judge others for doing the same?
How often do we look down at those who use drugs but can’t wait to have some drinks after work or on the weekend? Pose gay marriage but on our second divorce? Indignant about people living together, but spend plenty of time looking at porn? Appalled by burglary, but look for every way possible to avoid paying taxes? Offended by profanity but can’t get enough gossip? Horrified by neopaganism yet check our horoscopes frequently?
I think if we’re serious about following Jesus,we’ll read, review, and reflect on Romans chapter 2 frequently. If we do, we’ll see ourselves very differently. We’ll also see “the world;” humanists, agnostics, skeptics, secularists, non believers, and members of other faiths dramatically different too.
“The infallibility of the messenger and the message does not guys rented the infallibility of our reception. Humility is always in order.” -Dallas Willard
This is why I have such a problem with Christians so often harping on the evils of relativism. Because God may indeed have definite opinions, and insofar as it is His divinely inspired word, the Bible may indeed reveal His truth, but anyone arrogant enough to presume that they have a monopoly on correct interpretation of that truth is usually sorely mistaken. Deluded at best and a charlatan at worst.
I contend that absolutism is every it as dangerous and prone to human error and abuse as conservatives accuse relativism of being.
My confidence doesn’t come from an assumption that I’m always right. I’m bolstered rather,from the knowledge that EVERYONE else is almost always just as wrong as I usually am!
What a great feeling of freedom from the tyranny of hierarchy once you realize the truth that you don’t HAVE to always be right because you’ll never be alone in being wrong!
This viewpoint permits & promotes intellectual curiosity and healthy skepticism, egalitarianism, a deeper relationship with God (not just religious tribalism), empathy, and openness to community.
Think about it.