Sunday, July 28, 2019

All One in Christ

All One in Christ
Galatians 27-28
             In Genesis 11 we read that the whole earth spoke the same language.  Apparently they were all gathered in one place, for we are told they decided to build a tower to heaven.  This isn’t the first time humankind tried to invade God’s space.  Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat of the forbidden fruit so she could “be like God.”  We know the end of that story.
            The builders must have been making great progress because we are told God was concerned about the potential success of their project.  God’s solution was to “confuse their language” so they couldn’t communicate with each other.  Our minds can picture how that would have sounded.  Two people arguing over which stone should be placed next, or how to go about starting the next level, each one having no idea what the other was saying.  All this compounded many times over.
            This story is put forward as an explanation for the wide variety of languages and peoples in the world.  It may serve to explain the multiplicity of languages, but does nothing to account for the varieties in racial characteristics:  skin color, facial shape, size, hair color, eye color—all the things that make us physically different from each other based on our racial heritage.  For these, science provides better answers.
            Whatever the origins of our racial differences, they have created serious conflicts.  Whenever we encounter someone different from us our tendency is to dwell on the differences, making mountains out of what should be molehills.  Why do I say molehills?  Across the entire human race, our DNA is 99.9% the same.  That means all of the differences among us amount to .1% of the total DNA of all people.  Seems like an infinitesimal amount to fight about, yet fight about it we do—over, and over, and over.
            If we truly believe we are all children of God, we have one more reason—the best possible reason—not to dwell on differences.  Yet we have had to learn the lesson far too many times over the course of human history.
            Christians believe the heart of the gospel is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  The first phrase says that God loved the whole world.  These words taken seriously, and the 99.9% DNA similarity should bind us together so tightly that we have no room to think about the very slight differences.
            Peter learned this lesson in his encounter with Cornelius.  After seeing a vision of God’s care for all humanity, Peter says, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality.” (Acts 10:34) For a Jew brought up to divide the world into clean and unclean, this was a major revelation.
            Paul learned the same lesson, and passed it on to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
            Christians believe history will culminate with the return of Jesus Christ, when all will be gathered together.  Until that time, the words of Mohamed ElBaradei, diplomat and Nobel laureate might help us place our humanity in perspective.
            “The ultimate sense of security will be when we come to recognize that we are all part of one human race.  Our primary allegiance is to the human race and not to one particular color or border.  I think the sooner we renounce the sanctity of these many identities and try to identify ourselves with the human race the sooner we will get a better world and a safer world.” 

Sunday, July 21, 2019


Romans 7:14-25
            “If the world was merely seductive, that would be easy.  If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem.  But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.  This makes it hard to plan the day.”
            E.B. White must have been channeling Paul when he wrote these words.  This is the same dilemma Paul describes in today’s reading from Romans.  Only the words are different, reflecting the times in which they were written, and the personal style of the author.
            We understand this dilemma because we share it.  Like Paul and White, we’re caught between two desires—two laws Paul says—one positive and one negative.  We want with all our heart to do the right thing.  We want to follow God’s law in our “inner beings.”  We want to meet the challenge of improving the world.  We desire—we aim—to do good.  But too often something gets in the way.
            That something is the desire to enjoy the world, to obey the law of sin.  And it can be seductive—not merely seductive, but overwhelmingly so.  Paul puts it this way: “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”  Evil does not just lie close at hand; evil does everything possible to block our efforts to do what we know we should.
            At the beginning of this passage we see Paul’s pain.  He doesn’t understand his own actions.  He doesn’t do what he wants.  Instead he does “the very thing I hate.”  He has “the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.”  He recognizes that even though he has accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, even though he has committed his life to the service of Jesus Christ, sin continues to dwell within him and influence his actions.
            A word is in order about Paul’s references to the flesh.  We often interpret this word too narrowly.  Paul includes various forms of licentiousness in his lists of sins, and we think of these as sins of the flesh, whether those sins are of a sexual nature, or overindulging in strong drink, or giving in to any other habit that indicates we are captives of worldly desires.
            A list of sins of the flesh would certainly include sexual sins and other forms of licentiousness, but would also include any habit that attracts one to, as E.B. White would say, the “desire to enjoy the world.”  When you read Paul’s lists of sins, be sure to read to the end.  You’ll find yourself in there somewhere.
            Both Paul and White remind us that we can never (in this life) escape the dilemma of the two laws.  The world will always be with us, getting in our way, blocking our path, pulling us or pushing us off to one side or the other as we try to meet the challenge of improving the world and ourselves.  Be prepared for a lifelong fight against the law of sin, which seeks to thwart our good intentions and make us do that which we would rather not do.
            Paul reaches the height (depth?) of despair near the end when he says, “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  The pain Paul felt at the beginning of this passage has increased.  Wretchedness is his condition.  Hopelessness is his outlook.
            But then—then come the words of hope.
            “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
            There it is!  We know who will deliver him—and us; who will help us follow the law of God.  Jesus Christ is Paul’s Savior—and ours.  Jesus Christ will strengthen our desire to improve the world, and weaken our desire to succumb to it.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Lost Sons

The Lost Sons
Luke 15:11-32
            Kenneth Bailey was a Lukan scholar who taught at universities in the Middle East for forty years.  His time there, interacting with people at all levels of society and from various religious outlooks, gave him a unique insight into the world of the Bible.  He wrote several books on the gospel of Luke and other biblical passages.  I have been both blessed and challenged by his writing.  Blessed because his insights have given me a better understanding of the Bible.  Challenged because those insights have caused me to examine much of what I thought I knew about the Bible and re-evaluate both my knowledge and my beliefs.
            In my devotions I have been working my way through Luke’s gospel.  Recently I reached chapter fifteen, which contains three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal (lost) son(s).  Bailey’s writing has opened me to new ways of looking at this chapter.  As I read through the story of the lost sons, I was struck by three insights of my own.
            First, the translation I was using (English Standard Version) said the younger son “squandered his property in reckless living.”  I have seen the word riotous used, but never the word reckless.  This word sounds right to me.  From the moment we meet the younger son we are struck by his recklessness.  He asks his father for his share of the inheritance with no regard for what it will do to the family financial structure.  He takes his inheritance and leaves home with no thought of what it will do to the family social structure.  He goes to a “far country” with no thought of what he will do for a support system.  He spends his entire inheritance with no thought for his future.  When his reckless behavior finally catches up to him he is forced to accept the lowest possible employment, and finally to return home in disgrace.
            Second, when the younger son appears on the horizon, the father runs to him and kisses him.  Bailey reminds us that Middle Eastern fathers didn’t run.  They were too dignified to gather up their long robes, expose their legs and run to anyone, but especially to a son who had disgraced the family.  But what struck me is that the father gathered the son in his arms and kissed him.  Dirty from days living with pigs and walking dusty roads, disheveled, quite possibly with clothing in rags—a complete mess, the son is embraced and kissed by the father.  I am reminded of St. Francis kissing the leper even though he has an overwhelming loathing of lepers.  This is the depth of love, to express physical affection even to the most unclean.
            Third, I believe focusing only on the younger son misses the point Jesus was trying to make.  It is easy to be distracted by the younger son’s story.  His actions take up the majority of the parable.  He is front and center for two thirds of the story.  His return to the family is dramatic and complete.  The older son’s story seems like an afterthought.
            Jesus addressed this parable (actually all three parables) to the scribes and Pharisees, who criticized him for associating with and even eating with sinners.  How could he stand to be so close to those the law said were unclean? Couldn’t he see their condition?  Didn’t he know their lifestyle and how offensive it was?
            Jesus leaves the parable open ended.  We don’t learn what happened to the older son.  Does he join the party?  Is he reunited with his brother?  With his father?  Or does he choose to stay outside the family circle as the Pharisees and scribes are choosing to stay outside the kingdom of God?
            All three parables end with rejoicing.  Jesus uses earthly rejoicing to envision the celebration in heaven over a sinner who repents and finds his way home.  Jesus was inviting the religious leaders to join the party, hoping there would be rejoicing in heaven over their return.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Cost of Discipleship

The Cost of Discipleship
Luke 14:25-33
            There’s a wonderful line from the musical Nunsense.  One of the nuns is talking about the vow of poverty.  Her companion says, “We can have anything we want; we just can’t own it.”
            I am not denigrating nuns specifically, or Catholics in general.  I know the vast majority of those who have committed themselves to God’s service are dedicated servants, living out both the letter and the spirit of their vows.  I admire them.  I am also aware that every profession, religious or otherwise, has a few practitioners who, by cutting corners, and serving themselves first, give the rest a bad name.  In the same way some choose the path of discipleship not because of love for Christ, but for material reasons.
            The cost of discipleship can be high.  Jesus’ first century followers found this to be true, often paying with their lives for keeping their vow to follow their Master.  Later generations of Christians often suffered torture and death for their faithfulness.  You can’t say they weren’t warned.  Jesus made very clear what discipleship could cost. 
            He made it clear in words, telling his disciples that following him might cost them their families.  I could argue that Jesus might not have meant hate the way we use the word.  I could argue that he might have been using hyperbole, as he did elsewhere in the gospels.  Whether he really meant that we must hate our families, or was only describing the cost of discipleship in the most powerful terms is less important than the concept.  Following Jesus means Jesus comes first, and everything else is of lesser value.
            In the first century, following Jesus often meant giving up one’s family.  Jesus was a divisive factor in relationships.  Those who did not choose the path of discipleship often turned their backs on those who chose to follow Christ—even their family members.  They could not understand how someone could become a disciple of an itinerant preacher who had been executed by the legitimate government.  Furthermore, what he taught was so foreign to the current belief and cultural systems that nonbelievers couldn’t accept it.
            Jesus also made the cost of discipleship clear—unmistakably clear—by his willingness to die for his beliefs.  He demonstrated the cost by example.  Those who chose the path of discipleship knew it could lead to death, and still they chose to take up their cross.
            What is the cost of discipleship today?  Do we have to turn our backs on our families?  Must we deny ourselves the pleasures of human existence?  Must we die for our beliefs?
            All are possibilities.  There are still families that will not accept a member’s decision to become Christ’s disciple.  We don’t see it often in our country, but in other places becoming a Christian is an alienating decision, sometimes cutting a person off not only from his family, but from the entire culture. 
It is possible that following the call of Christ may mean an existence devoid of the luxuries of life.  There are monasteries and convents where followers of Christ gather to live a life of simple devotion to prayer and study. 
            We are fortunate that few people in our country die for their Christian beliefs.  There are more legends about this than confirmed accounts.  Still, dying for one’s beliefs—anywhere, anytime—is always a possibility.
            But familial alienation or giving up one’s culture or one’s life for Jesus Christ is not the point Jesus was making.  Jesus wanted his followers to understand they had to be committed to the possibility of the cost, and willing to accept that possibility out of love, not out of obligation or entitlement.  The gift we make is saying, “Here I am; send me,” wherever that might lead.