counting the cost

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.

“Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

Luke 14:25-35

Jesus didn’t care about popularity, or even about being misunderstood, it seems. It’s not that Jesus didn’t want people to understand and follow. It’s simply that he knew better than to think that everyone would, in fact, just the opposite. He assumed most people would not (Luke 13:22-30; Matthew 7:13-14).

This passage fits into the “hard sayings of Jesus”. Hating loved ones, as well as one’s own life is not to be taken literally. It is a way of helping one understand just how supreme one’s allegiance to Jesus is to be. So that the disciple who does love their family, and in the proper sense their own life as well, does so out of their supreme devotion and allegiance to Jesus. And ironically to not love Jesus in that way would mean that one loves others and one’s self all the less. But when push comes to shove, there’s only one God and one Lord that we give our hearts completely to. And in so doing we find that there’s plenty of love to go around for everyone, even for, as Jesus taught us, our enemies.

We might as well face reality, because there’s no escape from it. Following Jesus in this world is not always going to be easy, and sometimes will end with the ultimate sacrifice. Indeed that was what Jesus was referring to in this passage, that whoever wants to follow him would have to take up their own cross, which meant one thing at that time: crucifixion. Jesus knew that only those who understood something of what they were getting into, would persevere. The call is stark here, but it is in the rest of scripture. We’re to have no other gods before God, and we’re to realize that the world in which we live is no friend of God’s. This is throughout all of scripture from almost the very beginning, to close to the very end.

Jesus calls us to count the cost. And to realize that unless we give up everything we have, we cannot be his disciple, which means his follower. It’s a matter of allegiance, as well as trust. It involves giving our all to the One who gave his all for us on the cross.

Jesus deserves all of this devotion because he is God. But also because he as God is completely human, one of us. So that he takes us with him on the one true way to life, through his death and resurrection. May we have God’s grace to follow, and keep following to the very end. In and through Jesus.

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keep on forgiving

Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

Luke 11:4a

Forgiveness is not something we withhold from others. We at least need to forgive everyone for whatever wrong they’ve done to us from our hearts. But there’s what I have called a functional forgiveness as well. Meaning that we forgive them only when they acknowledge their fault to us, being sorry that they did it. That kind of forgiveness is for their good. For some things, and especially concerning those in the church, people need to be held to a certain standard. And our Lord teaches us to do that (Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 18:15-20). But forgiving others from the heart includes both the functional forgiveness we extend, as well as forgiveness for all the other wrongs done to us, even by our enemies who might want to harm us all the more.

We might say that the functional forgiveness is primarily for the good of the other, the one who has sinned against us, while forgiving from the heart is not just for their good, but primarily for the good of the one who forgives. It’s a heart matter.

And being a heart matter to me suggests that it is more than functional, which we automatically do when someone acknowledges repentance to us. It is something we may well have to work through, in a heart by God’s grace of love, yes, forgiving them. But the wrong done to us may have been so bad, and perhaps the perpetrator is not even sorry they did it, that such forgiveness we may have to struggle through, and do again and again. God does this for us, and we need to do it for others.

We need to remember the example of our Lord on the cross when he prayed for his enemies, even for those who put him there, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). But we also need to be honest to ourselves and to God, that there will be times when we are once again struggling to forgive someone for the wrongs they have done, either real or imagined by us. Once again, it’s a heart matter. Psalm 51 is a great passage to read about heart change. We often sin, and actually probably always do, when others sin against us. So that confession to God will be necessary, and perhaps to the person who sinned against us, if we responded in kind against them, returning evil for evil. If we just harbored it in our hearts we need to confess such to God, and work through it. We do this on the basis both of God’s mercy to sinners (Luke 6), and because of the cross where we find that God reconciled the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them (2 Corinthians 5).

And we may have to keep forgiving someone again and again. If we’re repentant ourselves over our struggle to forgive, God’s grace will be present, as it actually already is, to help us so repent. God will help us, and if need be again and again, to forgive the wrongdoer. It will probably take us awhile, and maybe will be something we keep doing the rest of our lives. Even if reconciliation with them is not possible. We forgive them, and release them into God’s hands, praying for their salvation, and for God’s good will to be accomplished even in the midst of evil, or what is not good. All of this in and through Jesus.

being led by the Spirit/the peace of Christ is individual, but essentially communal

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

Colossians 3:15

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law….

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Galatians 5:18,22-26

Being led by the Spirit and the peace of Christ is both individual, but it’s especially communal. At least that’s the case in the two passages quoted above. I think we often think of them in individual terms and maybe due to our culture. Here in the United States we are steeped in individualism in terms of individual liberty/freedom. From our heritage in the founding of the nation based in the Modernist Enlightenment in which this emphasis was one of its tenets. While there may be some good in that, overall it obscures what is at the heart of humanity: relationships. To be human is to reflect the image of the Triune God who lives in Relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And we were made to be and practice the same both in our relationship to God and to each other.

So we have to think and live in terms of what is best not just for us, but for others, in fact the emphasis being on the others in our following of Christ, even as we’re reminded elsewhere (Philippians 2:1-11). It’s not like we all simply try to make each other happy, though joy and peace should characterize our lives together in the righteousness the Holy Spirit gives (Romans 14:17-18 in context). Sometimes in our gifting, what we are led to do, always gently, might be a challenge to others. But in the love of Christ that is present, we should receive such in God’s peace: the ideal. And remember too that this is a major way God will lead us and give us his peace: through each other. All of this as always, in and through Jesus.

Sermon on the Mount Christians

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Matthew 5:1-12

It is puzzling to me, how Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (see link above: Matthew 5-7) is so easily relegated to another time, or as being under the law and not under grace. While Jesus’s context is different than today, which is after his death and resurrection, and his ascension and the pouring out of the Spirit, yet the new era of the gospel of God’s kingdom and grace in him was being revealed in significant part in his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, and is echoed elsewhere in New Testament letters which follow.

And I’ve found too that it seems to be a strict either/or. Either a tradition such as the Mennonites sees the Sermon on the Mount as basic to their lives, or many evangelical traditions really do not. An exception to the rule might be John R. W. Stott who wrote a book on it, as well as a Bible study, and in his last book emphasized taking up the cross and following Jesus. And I appreciate it when at least a church often cites scripture from the Sermon on the Mount.

What seems to mark a church or tradition as Sermon on the Mount Christianity as we might call it, is their view of the church and the state, and whether or not Christians should serve especially militarily in the state. A plain reading of the Sermon on the Mount, as well as taking in the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as a whole seems to me to suggest something different than what has occurred historically beginning with what is called the Constantinian turn, effective, even if different, right up to the present day as in the United States, where, while there’s separation of church and state, church is still allied with state in a way that seems to me to be foreign to the New Testament.

Of course there are arguments on the other side, such as the military centurions who had faith as in Jesus’s day. The gospel is open to all, and God’s grace meets us all where we’re at. I’ve lived most of my Christian life with Christians who take it for granted that Christians can serve in the military. And I’ve known a number of fine Christians who have.

I was raised in the tradition of Sermon on the Mount Christianity as a Mennonite, even though it may have been taken too much for granted, and not as indelibly impressed on us as it needed to be, though being so far removed now from that time, I can’t really say, but I’m wondering. My own inclination it to completely embrace the Sermon, which for me included a pacifist Christianity. And arguments supporting Christians going to war for the state, and possibly killing other Christians along with nonChristians seems to me to be rather far fetched. Yet with the Romans 13 seeming (to me) to authorize police force (not military might, as a study of that passage would bear out), although I see it in context with the end of Romans 12 and the rest of the New Testament in a way that still sees the state as other than the church, I think I’ve come to the place where I’m not sure if there can’t be some use of force to stop evildoers by Christians functioning as part of the state. In fact it seems for sure that at least God uses those in worldly governmental authority to do that when necessary. Although I hold to a position of no capital punishment under any circumstances in line with what Jesus himself taught contrary to the Old Testament law. But I still hold to the position, that Christians should not bear “the sword” in the function of the state.

Should Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) be central to our faith as Christians and the church? I think so, regardless of how we answer some of the thornier questions. Jesus’s teaching should characterize our walk and our life in this world as a witness to the one who is the gospel: to Jesus. That people might see the new life breaking in, in contrast to the old, and even in the face of the old, bearing the mark of the gospel, which is weakness to Greeks of old, and foolishness to Jews of old, and certainly remains counter to this day. The message of the cross. In and through Jesus.

blessed to be a blessing

Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”[d]

Galatians 3

There is no doubt that through faith in and baptism into Christ that we are all blessed. But what was the good news to Abraham? That all nations would be blessed through him. And greater is the one who blesses, than those who are blessed (Hebrews 7:7).

Abraham was blessed by God to be a blessing to others. He is the father of us all in not only being the source of blessing through the children which came through him, ultimately fulfilled in Christ, but also in being the example to us of faith, so that we’re to walk in his steps. I take it, not only in receiving the promise, but in seeing that promise extend to others. So that ultimately, we’re to be like Jesus, who did not come to be served, but to serve, and of course to lay down his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).

That is why we’re blessed in and through Jesus, to be a blessing to others. And “it is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Something we’re to keep in mind to live out in and through Jesus.

nonviolent love

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[i] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5

One of the great legacies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is his call for nonviolent love. They practiced that amidst all the hate they encountered. They practiced a soul force as it was called, and regularly engaged in prayer and acted in love in the face of violence and hate. And in so doing, they followed the way of our Lord, who prayed for his enemies when he was nailed to the cross.

Do we know what it is to love in the face of evil? Like Dr. King said, it’s not an affectionate love, but rather a principled agape love, the love of God which is committed to the good of the enemy, for their redemption as one of God’s own into the family. So that they might become friends, and brothers and sisters.

Regardless of what anyone thinks about this, it’s true: we can utterly hate the deeds of someone, yet love that person. There is always hope in God, that somehow that person will come to repentance and faith and be delivered from their own evil through Jesus. But it’s not easy. Grace helps us, but doesn’t make the difficult places a cakewalk. But the same love from God which puts up with us, we’re to extend to others, to everyone, yes to our enemies. Following Jesus, in and through him.

 

“we shall overcome”: Martin Luther King Jr. Day

We Shall Overcome” was a beautiful anthem of the American Civil Rights Movement. It was sung by the African-Americans of that time, and those who stood with them in their cause for justice in equal rights in the United States. It was more than a push back against the Jim Crow laws of the south (not to mention the segregation in the north), but a stand in saying, “We will accept, and take no more of this.” Rosa Parks was a key person in getting the movement started, and there was no more prominent leader in it, in fact he is considered the leader of that movement, today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The song expresses a stand rooted in God’s image within all humanity. That we are made for relationship and love, and an understanding that we are in this life together. And that we all have our part in it, both in relationships, and in vocation. And it’s a song of commitment to overcome injustice together, but not in a violent way, but with a commitment to nonviolence. Martin Luther King Jr. was impacted both by the life and example of Mahatma Gandhi, and preeminently by Jesus himself who taught his followers to love their enemies and turn the other cheek. King over and over again preached and spoke in these terms, and with the words of Jesus. And he and many others put those words into practice again and again.

We do need to stand up for what is right, particularly when it affects others. And we who in the United States live to this day in a privileged condition, especially compared with our African-American sisters and brothers need to be sensitive to how we might play in that ourselves without realizing it, as well as develop sensitivity to how society itself is bent in this direction. How we are all, each and everyone impacted by prejudice in prejudging others through some stereotypes, instead of really getting to know them, and becoming aware of their difficulties and plight.

And we need to remember what was done to them: They were stolen from their nations in Africa, and forced to be slaves with no possibility of freedom, at least not under the normal circumstances. And to this day are discriminated against in the criminal justice system, and before that, all of this lending itself to the fallout which would occur with any of us. And a deep wounding which can only be healed through much time, leaving its scars behind.

As in all things, and as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. knew and preached, the one hope for all humankind and against all evil is found in the gospel of Christ. Through that good news we are reconciled to God and to each other. Sin is dealt with, and all the injustice with it through the atoning sacrificial death of Christ on the cross, the resurrection bringing the new life of love into the here and now, to break all the chains of injustice, and bring in nothing less than the freedom of God’s children.

We are all in this together. Today I celebrate and remember the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and of all those who stood with him in love against the hate of that time. And remember that though some most significant changes came through that movement, we have not yet arrived to the place where we fully love and accept each other, and have the best interest of the others in our hearts. We’re not there yet.

Laws of the land can help and actually are crucial against corrupt systems, but what is especially needed is the change of hearts through the gospel, and an acclimation toward justice which we find in scripture fulfilled in the gospel, as well as in other places where this ethic is taught on earth through God’s image within all humankind. But there is no place where it is so thoroughly taught with the hope of being fully realized as in the gospel of Christ, to begin in the church.

This is an essential part of the heart of our calling as witnesses of Christ and the good news in him. Something we wish to carry on in the love and compassion of Christ, in and through him.