Sunday, April 26, 2015

IT'S A MYSTERY TO ME


While in doctoral studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary I participated in a small discussion group.  The minister of a church in Oakland told us one day of a man who started coming to church by himself, sat on the far right, about two thirds down, and left quickly after the service.  One Sunday the minister caught him as he left and in the process of getting acquainted asked what drew him to the service and the man said simply, “The mystery.”  He went on to explain, “I am a scientist at the University of California and deal constantly with hard, cold facts and so I feel the need to experience the mystery.”

             Neal Windham of Lincoln Christian University, wrote in a recent issue of The Christian Standard, “When asked what’s missing when churches marginalize the Lord’s Supper by breaking bread casually and infrequently, Eugene Peterson replied, ‘Mystery’”.

             Peterson wasn’t using the word “mystery” in exactly the same way Paul does who spoke several times about the long held plan of God which, he said, has been hidden but has now been revealed in Christ and the Gospel.  That which had been hidden through the ages and only hinted at by Moses and the Prophets has now come to light in Jesus Christ.

             But Peterson put his finger on something very important.  There is still mystery involved in the Lord’s Supper and what it signifies.  How can God love all human beings, sinful, slimy, despicable, inhumane, bumbling, self-righteous, and stubborn human beings so much that he would send his son to die for us?  It’s a mystery to me.  How can an innocent, sinless Jesus, as Paul says, “become sin for us” and obediently suffer an agonizing death on the cross?  That’s a mystery.  Or when Jesus takes the bread and says, “This bread is my body – this cup is my blood.”  Or, as in John 6, “he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” How can that be?  It’s a mystery to me.

             Two disciples, a few days after the crucifixion, are sadly making their way home to Emmaus when someone they do not recognize joins them.  Soon he begins to teach them from Moses and the Prophets that the Messiah must suffer and die.  Perhaps wanting to hear more they invite him to eat with them.  Although it was their home he takes the bread, breaks and blesses it and gives it to them.  And their eyes are opened.  Immediately they run, find other disciples and say, “We recognized him in the breaking of the bread.”

             There is a hymn that expresses the mystery this way:

Here, O my Lord, I see thee face to face,
Here would I touch and handle things unseen;
Here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace,
And all my weariness upon thee lean.


             Yes, it’s a mystery, but one that draws us in and gives us life.  How?   I don’t know, but it does, and we need that kind of mystery in our lives every week.

Friday, March 20, 2015

OUR ELDER BROTHER


            Hebrews 2:11-15 is one of the great theological statements in the New Testament about Jesus and his death: 

The one who makes others holy, and the ones who are made holy, all belong to the same family.  This is why he isn't ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters, when he says, "I will announce your name to my brothers and sisters;  I will sing your p;raise in the middle of the assembly," and again, "I will place my trust in him," and again, "look, here I am, with the children God has given me."  Since the children share in blood and flesh, he too shared in them, in just the same way, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and set free the people who all their lives were under the power of slavery because of the fear of death. (N.T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone).  

            This text says we are all in the same family.  A number of texts in the New Testament speak of the church as a family with God as Father and us as brothers and sisters.  The Gaithers wrote a song about it:  I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God …”.  But  this text focuses on something that the others do not.  It is all about the elder brother in the family.
           
            Elder brothers have not always enjoyed a good reputation.  Sometimes they are patronizing, bossy, and look down on their siblings, or just ignore them.  But even when there is squabbling among brothers and sisters, if an outside threat appears, the elder brother or sister will do everything possible to protect the others.  As in Sprague, WA last recently when a young man attempted to kidnap a toddler and his oldest sister screamed and chased him until others joined in and saved the boy.

            When I was a boy about 12 years old I had a newspaper stand in down town Milwaukie where I sold Portland papers on Saturdays.  One day a bigger, stronger bully showed up who wanted to take over and threatened bodily harm if I returned the next Saturday.  I didn’t know what to do.  I didn’t have an older brother to take along for support.  Fortunately, my Dad learned about the problem and went with me to make sure nothing happened.


            Hebrews is saying that we have an elder brother who has acted on our behalf.  The biggest bully on the block, the devil, had threatened our very lives.  He held the power of death and there was nothing we could do about it.  But then our elder brother came and, as Hebrews says, through death he destroyed the one who has the power of death and set us free.  He fought the fight for us.  He laid down his life on our behalf.  Which is why we hear him say to us now:  “This bread is my body, given for you … this cup is my blood shed on your behalf”.  And we respond, “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord – our elder brother!”

Monday, February 2, 2015

"REJOICE WITH TREMBLING

“REJOICE WITH TREMBLING”

            I have never liked wearing a tie.  I much prefer the unconstrained freedom of an open collar.  I like the appearance of a tie; it’s the discomfort that I dislike.  Not wearing a tie to church, or to the office also fits in quite well with the trend of being casual.

            It’s OK to be informal and casual but we need to realize that it can be dangerous.  We could be standing on a slippery slope that leads to something not so good.  A cartoon I saw last week said it well.  It pictured a business office with people in various stages of dress and undress.  One of them is saying, “Casual Friday was so popular we decided to try naked Monday.”

            In worship and the practice of our faith being casual and informal is OK unless it leads to a lack of reverence.  When Prince William and Kate were here recently it was really not OK for LeBron James, even if he is called the “king” in basketball circles, to casually drape his arm around her shoulders.  How much more important is it that we come into the divine Presence with awe and reverence.  Psalm 96:9 says, “Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness (some versions say “in holy attire”); tremble before him, all the earth.”

            When Isaiah saw the Lord high and lifted up in the temple he was filled with fear and awe and his voice may well have trembled as he cried out, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isa 6).  In the Psalms, “the fear of the Lord” is a common theme.  One Psalm captures particularly well the attitude that we should have in our worship when it says, “Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling” (11:2 esv).  Coming into the Lord’s Presence calls for a kind of holy hesitation, a joyful trembling.

            Paul recognized that the Lord was present in his church.  In 1 Cor 4 he even calls the church the dwelling place of God in the Spirit and then goes on to say they are defiling it by their divisions and their sinfulness, their lack of reverence and respect.  It all comes to a head in their observance of the Lord’s Supper which leads him to say this in 1 Cor 11:26-28, as seen in Peterson’s The Message:  What you must solemnly realize is that every time you eat this bread and every time you drink this cup, you reenact in your words and actions the death of the Master.  You will be drawn back to his meal again and again until the Master returns  You must never let familiarity breed contempt.  Anyone who eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Master irreverently is like part of the crowd that jeered and spit on him at his death.  Is that the kind of “remembrance” you want to be part of?  Examine your motives, test your heart, come to this meal in holy awe.


            Let us “rejoice with trembling” whenever we enter the divine Presence and especially as we come to the table of communion.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

FEELS LIKE HOME


             Linda Rondstadt would probably be surprised to learn that a communion meditation sold one of her albums, but it did. When Judy, a few weeks ago, used a song from the album Trio, featuring Rondstadt, Dolly Parton, and Emmy Lou Harris, titled “Feels Like Home,” Frances and I decided to get it.  I won’t try to repeat what Judy said but her theme deserves re-emphasis.  The verses of this Randy Newman song make it clear that the reason it feels like home to her is because  there is someone there who loves her. 

            I thought of this as I studied and began memorizing Psalm 84 last week.  The first four verses say: How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.  My soul is longing and yearning for the courts of the Lord.  My heart and my flesh cry out to the living God.  Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself in which she sets her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God.”  Clearly, the Psalmist feels he has found a home, the dwelling place of God, His temple in Jerusalem.  There he feels loved, secure, and safe in the presence of the Lord of hosts, his king and God.

            We too can find our home in the very place where God dwells, but it isn’t in the temple on Mt Zion in Jerusalem.  In the NT, Jesus refers to his own body as the new temple and Paul speaks of God living fully in Him.  Remarkably, the NT also speaks of us, the church, God’s people, as his dwelling place.  Ephesians 2:19 says, “You … are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household.”  It goes on to say that the apostles and prophets are the foundation and Christ is the cornerstone and the whole building is “a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.”

            Today the Psalmist, if he were a Christian, would look at the church and say, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts.”  That is what I want to say today.  This church feels like home to me because I sense God’s love through you in it.  It is a love that begins with God in Christ at the table.  Here is his overwhelming, unconditional love that was demonstrated on the cross and remembered by us at the table.  From this table his love flows out throughout his holy temple, his reconciled people, to you and me.  That’s why it is so good to be here.  It feels like home.

            How can we make sure it continues to feel like home?  The song that follows “Feels Like Home”on the album tells me how.  Sung by Emmy Lou Harris it is titled, “When We’re Gone, Long Gone,” and the chorus says:  “And when we’re gone, long gone, the only thing that will have mattered is the love that we shared and the way that we cared, when we’re gone, long gone.”


            It was love that created the church and it is love that will sustain it.  At this table we are reminded of where it all began.  If there has been a failure to love, let us repent, and resolve to love again.

Friday, December 5, 2014

WAR IS ALWAYS WITH US

            The gods of war seem to always be with us.  Last Veteran's Day many of us put out our flags.  It was a day of remembrance, a time to pause and say thank you to those who have given so much.  A spectacular picture was created in London where red ceramic poppies filled the moat surrounding the Tower of London in honor of the over 800,000 British citizens killed in World War I, the war to end all wars.  Of course, it did not end all wars.  I wish it had but history tells us that the gods of war seem to always be with us.

            Like some great drama such warfare with guns and planes, tanks and battleships, take place on the main stage of this world.  Behind the scenes another war is raging.  Paul speaks of it when he urges us in Ephesians 6 to “put on the whole armor of God, that you might be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against … the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” 

            In a sense, the whole book of Revelation is a commentary on this text in Ephesians.  It depicts in highly symbolic images the spiritual war that the devil is waging against God and his people.  Like any war, it is difficult and costly.  Winning freedom is not easy.  There are always casualties.  But if the book of Revelation says anything, it says that God is going to win.  If one statement could be picked to express this theme of victory it could be this one found in 12:10-11, Then I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, “Now salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night, has been cast down.  And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death.”

            They overcame him by the blood of the lamb.  Today we remember and give thanks for the greatest casualty of all, the one that secured victory.   I came across a little poem by one of the lesser known poets of the First World War, Edmund Sillito, that expresses this with a striking image of God.

             The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak.

             They rode, but thou didst stumble, to a throne.

             But to our wounds, only God’s wounds can speak;

              And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

           
            Yes, as Isaiah said, He was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell on him, and by his scourging we are healed.


            For our wounded God of Calvary we give thanks and remember the words of Jesus who said of the bread, “take, eat; this is my body,” and of the cup, “this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.”  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

That's Important to Me

     The country and gospel singers, Joey and Rory, have a song that I enjoy.  Joey said on one of the Gaither TV programs that she was reflecting on her life before and after she married Rory and ended up writing a song titled, "That's Important to Me."  In it she sings about many things like paying  our bills and staying out of debt, telling the truth and being real, and feeding my family a home cooked meal.  "That's important to me," she says.

     As I thought about this it occurred to me that what is important to us changes somewhat from time to time.  What's terribly important at age 16 is not so important twenty years later.  What's important to me when I have a young family is not the same as when they are grown and gone and I have reached senior citizenship.

     And yet, are there not values, actions, relationships that are always important to me?  Some that never go away, that always must be respected?  And then I asked myself, is there one, or perhaps two or three core values that rise above them all and are most important to me?

     Maybe that is what Jesus was getting at when someone asked him about the greatest commandment and he replied, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. ... The second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Matt 22:36-39).  Which reminded me of Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13, "But now faith, hope, love abide these three; but the greatest of these is love."

     It becomes even clearer when we ask, 'what put Jesus on the cross?' and John answers: "God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son ..."

     When Paul told the Corinthian church that he was "determined to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2) it must have been because he saw love there most of all.  Yes, Paul knew all of the big theological words for it -- propitiation, redemption, ransom, and others -- but all of them fade into the background, overshadowed by love.  It is the power of love that Jesus spoke of when he said, "If I am lifted up I will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32).  It is the magnetic power of love that draws us to him even now as we come to the Lord's Table.

The 17th century English poet, George Herbert, said this eloquently in a poem titled "Love (III)":

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back
     Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
     From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
     If I lack'd any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
     Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful?  Ah, my dear,
     I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
     Who made the eyes by I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them:  let my shame
     Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
     My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
     So I did sit and eat.

Love invites us here, to His Table.  That's important to me, as I am sure it is to you also.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The One Body

        "Several years ago popular church of Christ author Carl Ketcherside told of two elders who shattered the morning worship service when the got into a fist fight at the communion table.  They not only belonged to the same central Missouri church, but they were sons of the same parents.  Theirs was a classic case of sibling rivalry gone amok.  They had been growing angrier with each other for several months as each man accused his brother of pressuring their aged mother to change her will in favor of himself.

        On this Sunday, when one went forward to serve at the Lord's Table, the other also went forward -- to accuse him of being unfit and to order him to sit down.  Before the members could quite grasp what was happening the brothers' fists were flying.  They had to be physically separated.  The church chose up sides, some favoring one brother, some the other.  It took a generation to repair the damage."*

        Paul doesn't mention fist fights in his letter to the Corinthians but he is dealing with a similar situation.  He refers in chapter one to how they were choosing up sides and pleads with them to be united in one mind.  Their divisions were bound to affect their observance of the Lord's Supper.  It was their custom to observe it as part of a communal meal but they had robbed it of any meaning by their divisions.  Thus, he wrote in 11:20, Therefore, when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord's Supper.  The way they conducted the meal and the communion actually perpetuated the divisions.  Consequently, he drew a radical conclusion in 11:27,  Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.  To partake in an unworthy manner is to join with those who are guilty of crucifying the Lord.

        He goes on to give this urgent advice to all who would escape being guilty of crucifying the Lord, Let a person examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup,  for he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not discern the body rightly. 

        His use of the word "body" here does not refer to the physical body of Christ but to the church as the body of Christ.  To discern the body rightly is to see it in its beautiful unity and harmony.  One of the founders of the Christian Churches, Thomas Campbell, back in 1809, used this imagery of the body in a foundational document to describe the effect of division in the church of his day.  He saw the divisions as a sword thrust into the body of Christ mangling and rending it to shreds.  He too was pleading for the unity of Christ's body.

        The divided, warring world we live in today needs a model of unity, of peace and harmony.  May it see this in us when we gather around this table as the body of Christ.

*Carl Ketcherside related this story in Christian Standard (Oct 30, 1977).  LeRoy Lawson used it in a communion meditation in Christian Standard (Feb 4, 2007).