Sunday, October 30, 2016

Here--and After

Here—and After
Matthew 25:31-46
            Here I am, returning once again to what I consider to be one of the definitive Scripture passages concerning the end of time as we know it, and the continuation of time as God knows it.  We find several important passages about the hereafter in the New Testament.  There are a few in Revelation, but we should remember that they are addressed to first century Christians suffering through abuse and torture for their faith.  There is the passage in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians (4:13-18), but true as it might be, it isn’t what we want to believe about the afterlife.  There is Matthew 22:23-33, where the Sadducees ask Jesus about marriage in the resurrection, but that is a specific answer to a specific question.  None of these passages gives us an understanding of what we must do to gain access to God’s presence.
            Recently, I found four statements about the hereafter which I find interesting.  The first is from Confucius.  When asked by one of his pupils, “What about death,”  the master replied, “When we do not yet know enough about life, why worry about death?”  I’m sure Confucius believed that whatever happened after death would take care of itself.  He says we need to worry more about how we live this life.  Sounds like Confucius had read Jesus’ words in Matthew 25—except that he lived about 500 years before Christ.
            Does Confucius have anything to say to Christians?  I believe so.  If we look at his words in light of Matthew’s description of the final judgment, we might say, “Seek to understand what God wants of us here on earth.  If we follow Jesus’ teaching we will devote ourselves to lives of service.  Then when we stand in front of the great Judge, we’ll have nothing to worry about.”
            Charlotte Perkins Gilman sent somewhat the same message when she said, “Eternity is not something that begins after you’re dead.  It’s going on all the time.  We are in it now.”  We believe that God’s time is timeless.  It stretches from forever to forever.  We also believe that millions upon millions of people have already “passed into eternity,” meaning that they have left this life and begun another one.  If this is true then we are, as Gilman says, in the midst of eternity even now, and God’s kingdom is already here.  Look at Matthew 25 to see what that means for us.
            We hear Don Osman echoing the same thought.  He says, “What about the ‘hereafter?’  The after depends on the here.”  We can’t wait to begin living our life after death until after death.  We must live it now.  We should celebrate God’s presence with us and God’s kingdom in everything we do.  Return to Matthew 25 to see how this should play out in our lives.
            Finally, John Sutherland Bonnell said, “What a person believes about immortality will color his [her] thinking in every area of life.” I teach a course entitled “World Religions,” so these words hold special interest for me.  Each religion has a belief about what happens after death.  Some believe nothing happens:  once we die, everything ends and there is nothing more.  Some believe in reincarnation:  we should strive to be the best we can in this life to ensure a better existence in the next life and a final freedom from rebirth.  Some believe we must develop a personal relationship with God now—be reconciled with God while we can.  This, they feel, will ensure union with God after death.

            All these religions teach that our objective in this life should be to do good.  Most religions subscribe to some form of the Golden Rule:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  That takes us back again to Matthew 25.  Which side we are sent to depends upon the life we live:  loving service in the name of the God who calls us—or not.  Our after depends upon our here.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Staying the Course

Staying the Course
Romans 5:1-5
            At the beginning of World War II Germany overran most of Europe.  There was a handful of countries that were not under Nazi control, a group whose number constantly diminished.  British, French and Belgian troops were pushed back to a beachhead at Dunkirk, France, and surrounded by the German army.  They seemed doomed; but a hastily assembled armada of boats of every kind and description rescued 338,226 soldiers over an eight-day period.  From this auspicious beginning, the Allied forces began to push back against Hitler’s hegemony, resulting in the freeing of all European territory.
            One of the most significant figures in the battle for Britain and eventually Europe was the British prime minister, Winston Churchill.  His speeches and his never-say-die attitude inspired not only the British army, but the entire citizenry to stand firm.  His resoluteness spread far beyond Britain’s shores and had a lasting influence on the world.
            Churchill, faced with an almost impossible situation, said, “Never give up.  Never, never give up.  Never, never, never give up.”  That’s a lot of “nevers!”
Many years later, Jim Valvano, who won a NCAA basketball championship as coach of North Carolina State, was battling cancer.  In a speech to his supporters he used almost the same words as Churchill.  Valvano eventually lost his battle, but he never quit fighting.  Cancer may have killed him, but it didn’t defeat him.
I think Paul had somewhat the same idea in mind when he wrote his epistle to the Christians in Rome.  Because we have faith in God and in the reconciling power of Jesus Christ, we have access to God’s grace.  That makes all the difference in our lives.  From the moment we accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior our lives change.  Our relationship with God is restored, and we have all the encouragement we need to move forward with confidence. 
We know we cannot escape suffering, whether of the personal variety like Jim Valvano, or that which affects whole groups of people, such as World War II Europe.  Suffering will come, and not even God’s grace can stop it from reaching us.  But Paul says it doesn’t have to control us.  Grace will help us use suffering to build endurance.  Endurance in turn produces character, Paul tells us, which gives us hope, “and hope does not put us to shame.”  Another translation reads, “Hope does not disappoint.”
William Barclay said, “Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing but to turn it into glory.”  Like the oyster which reacts to an annoying grain of sand by surrounding it with a protective substance, we can learn—with God’s help—to turn our suffering into pearls of hope. 
It would have been easy for the soldiers embattled at Dunkirk, or the British people under constant bombardment to accept defeat and give up hope.  The soldiers would have languished in prison camps, where many would have died.  The citizens of Great Britain would have lived (who knows how long victory might have taken—if ever?) under Nazi control.
It would have been easy for Jim Valvano to give in to cancer, give up hope and pass quietly away.  What an inspiration we would have lost!  Because he fought, many others have been saved by the foundation which bears his name.

Can we do any less?  When God has supplied us with so much grace—grace for every one of our struggles, shouldn’t we, like so many others before us, endure in the sure and certain knowledge of hope  and glory?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Righteous Anger

Righteous Anger
Matthew 21:12-13
            We love the phrase “righteous anger.”  We believe we have the right to invoke it any time we imagine there is a just cause.  As with so many other concepts, in our brokenness we abuse righteous anger.  Any reason for losing our temper will do as long as we think we have a legitimate case.
            We must be very careful with anger.  It is definitely a two-edged sword.  In the third chapter of his epistle, James warns his readers (and us!) about the trouble the tongue can cause.  I’m sure he knew the tongue wasn’t at fault; it was the mind behind it that caused the trouble.  When the mind is distorted with anger or other negative emotions, he was saying, a whole army of bad things can happen—and usually do.
            Bill Van Sickle said, “Anger is only one letter short of danger.”  One letter separates the two words.  Even less space separates our anger from actions that can cause danger—danger for us and for those who get in the way of our wrath.
            Even knowing this—intellectually—we still hold on to our right to express our anger when we feel justified.  As long as we can put a righteous face on it we believe it’s all right to say whatever—or do whatever—comes to mind.  It’s not evil—it’s righteous anger.  Forget the trouble it causes—the hurt feelings; the broken relationships; the ruined lives.  We have a right to our righteous anger.
            Some of our justification, I believe, comes from places in the Hebrew Scriptures where God becomes angry:  with the Israelites in the wilderness; with the enemies of Israel in the Promised Land; with Judah at the time of the Babylonian exile.  We hear that anger in God’s conversations with Moses and in the words of the prophets, and we say, “If God can be angry in a righteous cause, why can’t I?  Don’t I have a right to be angry here?  Aren’t I justified?  Isn’t this what God would do?  Isn’t this how God would speak or act?  But we forget—we’re not God.
            Aristotle believed that virtue lay at a balance point—a mean between two extremes, both of which were vices.  Expressing that concept he said, “Anyone can be angry.  That is easy.  But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose and in the right way—that is not easy.”  In other words, control your anger, focus it in the right direction, and use it in a constructive rather than a destructive way.
            Once again we have Jesus Christ as our example.  In the light of Aristotle’s statement, look at the times Jesus displayed anger.  He was never angry at anyone who came to him asking for help.  He was never angry at his disciples even when they said and did really stupid things.  Above all, he never showed anger to those who hurt him in any way—including those who executed him.  Instead he said, “Father, forgive them…”
            Jesus was angry at hypocrisy.  When the religious leaders claimed to be acting righteously but were actually taking advantage of the people for whom they were responsible, he called them “whited sepulchers, full of dead men’s bones.”  When these same leaders took money that was intended for the care of their parents and used it for themselves he said they were defiled from within.
            In today’s reading we have the supreme example of Jesus’ righteous anger.  People were selling and buying in the temple, a clear violation of Mosaic Law.  Jesus upset their businesses like a holy hurricane, telling them they had no business doing business in God’s house.

            Unless our anger meets Jesus criteria, we have no business being angry.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Thirst that Drives Us

The Thirst that Drives Us
Matthew 5:1-12
            What is the hunger that drives you?  What is the thirst that motivates you?
            We call them “the Beatitudes.”   They are the statements with which Jesus begins his Sermon on the Mount.  Because they are his opening remarks we can assume they’re important.  The word “beatitude” means “blessed,” and each statement begins with that word.  Jesus is teaching his disciples.  He wants them to know what they must do to receive God’s blessings.
            The first thing we notice is how different Jesus’ standards are from the world’s standards.  These aren’t “dog eat dog” statements, not “do unto others before they do unto you” proclamations.  The Beatitudes are about as far removed from what society preaches as you can get.  In order to succeed in God’s world you have to be poor in spirit, be able to mourn over the losses in your life, be merciful, be a peacemaker, and be pure in heart.  When you are reviled and persecuted for following God’s standards rather than the world’s you must not return evil for evil.  That’s a tall order, and one we can’t fill in our own strength.  How fortunate that God supplies the grace we need in order to achieve what we could never accomplish on our own.
            It’s the sixth verse that I want to call attention to.  It reads, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” 
            Just as physical hunger drives us to find food, and physical thirst motivates us to find something to drink, so we are moved to satisfy our spiritual needs.  Our problem is that too often we become sidetracked, and try to fill those needs with things that are at hand, that we can easily grasp.  Even if we’re aware that these things cannot satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst we turn to them because they are within our reach.
            Sometimes we seek to quench our hunger and thirst with material goods—things that we can see, touch and hold.  If only we can have the next new item in the TV ads we’ll be happy!   We’ll be fulfilled! We’ll be satisfied!
            Often we pursue relationships, sure that if we can be a member of the right church, or the right social club, or the “in group” in our school or community we’ll never hunger, never thirst again.
            Perhaps it’s the right job, the right home, the right marriage partner,or the right number of children that we believe will fill that empty space within us.  Sooner or later we find that none of these things satisfy our hunger and thirst.
            St. Augustine said, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”  Some say we have a “God-sized hole” in our hearts that nothing else can fill.  If this is true, all our efforts to satisfy our spiritual hunger and thirst with the things the world recommends will end in a feeling of failure and loss.
            God calls us to be righteous—to be as much like God as can we possibly be.  We know we can never be righteous on our own.  It’s only by God’s grace and God’s righteousness that we can achieve anything.  God’s righteousness—God’s “right-ness”—can and will quench the feeling of emptiness that makes us long to be filled.

            “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness,” Jesus said.  Once our longing is turned in the right direction, God will take care of the rest.  Jesus says when we hunger and thirst after righteousness we will be filled.  No more longing, no more emptiness, just the satisfaction of knowing we are sitting at God’s table, and our spiritual hunger and thirst will be satisfied.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Cost of Following Jesus

The Cost of Following Jesus
Matthew 8:18-22
            One year our boys’ soccer team won the regional championship.  I was the junior varsity coach so I shared in the victory, although peripherally.  Some of the players on that championship team had come through my program, so of course I felt proud. 
            The next fall, boys came out of the woodwork to try out for the team.  The varsity coach told me this always happens when a team wins a championship.  Everybody wants to be part of a winning program.  That’s why, when you watch a sporting event on TV, you see that the stands are more full when the home team is having a winning season.
            Most of the boys who tried out didn’t make the team.  Either they didn’t have the talent, or worse, they didn’t have the work ethic.  It takes a lot of effort to produce a winning team.  The majority of these young men wanted success without paying for it.  Our varsity coach was a disciplinarian.  He insisted that his players play the game the right way, paying attention to fundamentals, strategy, and conditioning—a high price to pay for those not committed. 
            “At heart, discipleship is obedience,” say Julia L. Roller and Lynda L. Graybeal.  They understood what so many would-be athletes don’t.  You have to be willing to follow your leader, obey his/her instructions, and subordinate your own talents, ego and will for the good of the team.
            Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this principle.  He said, “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ”—and that means, of course, no Christianity at all.  How can you have a movement if you turn your back on the leader for whom you should be willing to sacrifice whatever necessary to achieve success?
            If anyone understood sacrificing in order to follow Jesus Christ it was Bonhoeffer.  At a time when the Christian Church in Germany had either sold out to Adolph Hitler or chosen to sit on the sidelines as he obliterated freedom at home and abroad, Bonhoeffer took a different path.  He stood against Hitler and against his fellow Christians—stood for what he believed was right.  By opposing the Nazis he condemned himself to arrest, prison, and eventually death—but stand he did.  Today we remember him for his discipleship.
            The problem with becoming a member of a winning team is that you have to give up so much to achieve it:  free time to do what you want; late nights awake and early mornings in bed; weekends to hang out with friends; bodily comfort—all so you can say, “We are the champions!”
The same is true in the Christian life.  Every bit of who we are must be turned over to Jesus Christ.  His ideals, his will, his work must come first in our lives.  Paul Tripp put it this way:  “If Christ does not reign over the mundane events in our lives, he does not reign at all.”  If Jesus Christ is Lord, then no one nor anything else can be.  Everything is subservient to Christ.
            Today’s reading tells of two persons whose encounters with Christ—while brief—forced them to make a choice.  The first offered to follow Jesus wherever he went.  Jesus told him how difficult the life could be, perhaps even lacking a place to call home.  The second person wanted to fulfill his obligation to his parents before taking up the life of discipleship.  Jesus told him that unless his commitment to his Master took precedence he wouldn’t make the team.
            Did these two make the cut?  We don’t know.  We’re not told their decisions.  What we do know is what G.K. Chesterton said about discipleship.  “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and untried.”