neither underestimate nor misunderstand the grace of God (nor think we can comprehend it)

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

We find again and again in scripture that God’s grace is key in our lives, in the lives of others. There are differences in teaching on this, as one might and should expect. There is what theologians call “common grace,” in which God pours down his blessings on all, in sunshine and rain, and provisions for life and more. This is not the grace described in this passage which brings salvation, according to scripture.

This is a big subject, but this post will touch mainly on one aspect of it, while addressing one common misunderstanding. God’s grace is alive and well in the world, and there is the light which enlightens every person (John 1). But the goodness and kindness of God is meant to lead people to repentance (Romans 2). There is no salvation apart from faith in Christ. It’s not just that somehow in an inexplicable, mysterious way that in the end all are saved through Christ. The NIV avoids this misunderstanding in the translation above, even if less literal. God’s grace is at work in all kinds of ways, but the special grace of salvation is always linked to repentance which means a turning from sin to God, and to faith, which means a trust in God and in God’s word, the message of the good news in Jesus.

Theologians also refer to “prevenient grace” which means the grace by which people receive the good news of the gospel for themselves by simple faith and trust in Jesus. Through Jesus’s death for our sins, and resurrection. We trust in what God has done for us through Jesus’s death, and receive forgiveness of our sins and new, eternal life.

So the grace which saves, to which the passage above refers, is not a cheap grace by which people get in with no change of life. Not at all. But at the same time grace is at work in spite of us, not because of us. That’s not to say that our efforts toward understanding and entering into this grace are a waste of time. Grace termed as prevenient by theologians might well include some of this striving, making every effort to enter into God’s rest (Hebrews 4). But also we have to remember that we still sin and have indwelling sin (1 John 1). And that is all the more true of those who have yet to cross over from death into life. They are sinners, period. Maybe Christians are both sinners and saints (Luther), depending on what you mean by that. God’s grace at work in people’s lives is in spite of so many things. God in his grace accepts us completely exactly where we’re at, but in God’s good grace, he certainly doesn’t leave us there.

Grace means we’re satisfied with nothing less than God’s salvation, which doesn’t mean only the forgiveness of sins, but also new life, a new way of living. By the Spirit in the love of God. Which means a changed life, a transformation both complete at conversion, and incomplete until Jesus returns (Philippians 1:6), meaning there is a process involved.

This grace gives us hope, and helps us to get out of God’s way, simply presenting the gospel, and trying to be responsive to God’s word. But this grace teaches us, teaches others. God’s full, unmerited, undeserved favor in helping us in ways beyond us, but in ways that indeed reach us in and through Jesus.

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not having easy ready answers

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience…

1 Peter 3:15-16a

The older I get, the more I question even my own questions or answers, for that matter. My typical response to things is “I don’t know,” or “It’s complicated.” That’s not to say that I don’t have some opinions on a whole range of issues. And even convictions. Although given the nature of things, much of it can be on matters that are rather open ended. The answer may be good insofar as it goes, but it’s open to refinement, and even some correction.

But when it comes to life itself, and what’s at the heart of it, I wouldn’t hesitate to think, and hopefully say, It is God in Jesus, and the good news in him in his incarnation and life, death and resurrection, ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit, with the promise of his return. That is something I believe without so much as a thought that it might need some correction here or there. Of course only God fully understands even the most simple gospel truth, such as John 3:16. We understand by faith as much as God helps us to, of these simple, yet profound truths, which are brought home to our hearts and minds by the Spirit of God.

And we’re to tell them to others. Not having all the answers, or being a know-it-all. But simply being able to point to the one who is the way, the truth, and the life. In whom we have put our faith and hope, our all. And through whom we know God’s love, which we share with all others. Jesus.

Jesus’s resurrection: the beginning of the new creation

The nuts and bolts of scripture are so important, and where we live, but we also need to step back and take a look at the whole. And get a breathtaking sweep of what’s going on. Or try to get some sense of that. If we don’t, we may too easily miss the point of it all. Yet it’s something that we need to keep working at. Which is why we need to be in all of scripture, as well as in each part of it, especially noting some of the places of beauty and grandeur such as Romans 8, Isaiah 40 and 53, etc., along with many beautiful scenes along the way. Not to mention a good number of difficult ones as well. Such is life. And we need to pay attention to life. And know that God will show up in unusual, unexpected ways in some of its most difficult, and to us, unlikely places.

But having just celebrated Easter yesterday, remembering Jesus’s resurrection day, we now enter into, what’s called on the Christian calendar, Eastertide, or Easter season. Since we’re no longer a part of a church which observes the Christian calendar, except for the big holy days such as Christmas and Easter, I won’t dwell much on tradition. Just to say that those practices can help us center on the gospel, which in the case of the resurrection is about a new life which begins now through faith in Christ (and baptism, see the New Testament; although it’s symbolic, it seems to be a symbolism which helps us appreciate and perhaps enter more fully into the reality: note Romans 6 and elsewhere).

As C. S. Lewis indicated in his classic, The Great Divorce, “Heaven”, as we call it, is not going to be something more mystical, but actually more material and solid than what we know now, so that if we were to step into the new heaven and new earth without the change to come in the resurrection, we wouldn’t be able to endure it. Heaven coming down to earth and becoming one, is central to the new creation in Jesus which begins at his resurrection (N. T. Wright), so that the new creation in Jesus begins there, he being the firstfruits of those to be raised from the dead, who have fallen asleep in death (1 Corinthians 15).

And this new creation in Jesus does not just include the resurrection of our bodies, but the resurrection and renewal of all things, actually a brand new creation, making all things new. The God who created all things, can make a brand new creation, one not subject to the physics and destiny of this old creation. Just as Jesus’s body was not subject to the limitations our bodies have now, or for that matter his body had before his resurrection, so the material world will then be different. I think there will be those who carry on the work of science during that time. They will be just as astounded as now, probably all the more. There will be an endless amount of worlds to explore, discoveries to be made.

But what does all of that matter for us now? At the end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul nails it down with the point that since the resurrection of Christ and all that follows is true, then we’re to give ourselves fully to his work, knowing that’s it’s not in vain.

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

As N. T. Wright suggests, the tie is surely to what preceded it, the point of the resurrection. Otherwise, as the same passage says, we might as well eat and drink and be merry, live it up now, because tomorrow we die, so that there’s no point in thinking what we do now matters beyond this life. But beside the point that it can actually matter greatly for better or for worse in this life, we need to remember and hold on to the truth that somehow in Jesus what happens in this old creation impacts what will be true in the new creation. The subtleties of that, how it will be worked out remain to be seen. We just have to believe it to be the case, so that on the basis of Christ’s resurrection we know that what we do now in him does matter. Not only for this life, but also for the life to come. In and through Jesus.

Jesus buried

It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.

Mark 15:42-47

Jesus dead and buried meant to the disciples that whatever it was that was coming, that they were anticipating, even if they would acknowledge that they had more questions than anything else, was now dead and gone. Ended. Period.

Unlike the Eleven, Joseph of Arimathea (along with Nicodemus in another gospel account) felt far enough removed from Jesus to not feel threatened by his sentence and execution. He did what needed to be done in honoring Jesus.

Metaphorically, I would like to think that whatever dreams I might have, or have had in my life are to be dead and buried with Jesus, so that what can arise is nothing short of God’s will in the new life raised with him. Baptism is a picture of that (Romans 6). It’s not like God doesn’t give us dreams, but the point is that they need to come from God. So much of the flesh, not to mention the world and the devil can get in.

I wonder if something like that wasn’t happening even to Jesus’s disciples on that day. Their dreams were dead and gone. They didn’t get what Jesus had told him at least three times: that he would suffer, be crucified, and on the third day rise. That made no sense to them. So they were surely in despair. It is hard to put ourselves in the disciples’ place, even impossible since we can’t escape the knowledge of what followed, and all that has come from that.

We need to be ready to let go of whatever dreams we have for the dream and vision God would give us. We are to offer ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life (Romans 6). For nothing less than God’s good will in Jesus. In and through him: his death, burial, and yes, his resurrection. Amen.

the grandeur of the cross

And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Mark 15:39

Yes it was ugly, horrible, horrific. Shocking to say the least for followers of Jesus during that time. But there is a certain beauty and grandeur in the cross, in how Jesus carried himself on it in the fullness of his humanity and deity, in the completion of his suffering. There is a marked greatness in the cross, by which we mean Jesus’s crucifixion and death which he suffered for us and for the world. Which is why I can see crucifixes as being apt, although the tradition I was raised in and am a part of has the empty cross as the sign that Jesus is now the resurrected Savior and Lord.

You can read the passage for yourself, and let it set in: the beauty and grandeur of the cross in the reality of what Jesus suffered for us on that day.

A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus,was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. The written notice of the charge against him read: the king of the Jews.

They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, come down from the cross and save yourself!” In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph, and Salome. In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

Mark 15:21-41

grace to continue

The week of Jesus’s death and resurrection, which we now call Holy Week was a most difficult time for Jesus’s disciples, as we see from the gospel accounts. It is practically amazing that all of them except Judas not only were in it for the long haul, but gave their lives up in martyrdom because of their testimony to Jesus, and his death and resurrection.

This reminds me of the grace we need to continue no matter what. Why do some drop out of the Christian faith altogether? Some do, and there are surely a good number of reasons surrounding that. But the crux of the matter from one angle is the failure to simply continue in the grace of God available in Jesus. We see from various passages in the New Testament that simply to continue on in the grace of God is what keeps us keeping on in Jesus. We all need that.

The grace of God here simply refers to what we need to keep us both believing and following our Lord. Of course there is much involved in that, as we see from scripture. We continue to follow Jesus not because of us, or our circumstances. But always because of God’s gift to us in Jesus. Not even with the natural good by creation that is in us, that we are. But only through the new creation in Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:17). And so we follow. Only in and through him.

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.