law or grace?

No matter how you shake it, and it’s not an easy passage to interpret or understand, Romans 7 makes it clear that there’s a strong human tendency to buck law, especially when it’s in your face, or one’s well aware of it. Law in Scripture is given for the good of people to show them how they ought to live in a flourishing free way, but it also serves to show people their sin and therefore their need of God’s grace. Grace here I refer to as both forgiveness and new life as in ability to keep the law. And by keeping the law, I’m referring to keeping the requirements of the law not by law keeping, but by a life which in a way is above the law in that it transcends mere law keeping, the life naturally doing what God requires.

One of the most memorable portions of Philip Yancey’s classic book, What’s So Amazing About Grace is the story about the man who sought to escape the evil of western society to what he saw as a society in which law and therefore righteousness could flourish. The only problem was that he got entangled and overcome by his own sin in stark, dark and troubling ways. His Christianity fell by the wayside because it was not formed by grace, but simply informed by law.

Law is important in its place, and in societies good laws are needed, for example against the taking of life, or practices which might endanger life such as driving when intoxicated. Law as mentioned in Scripture serves to convict one of sin, though the Spirit is needed to make that conviction more than condemnation and instead a life changing repentance.

I remember Christian schools that made a lot out of rules to the point of more or less micromanaging the students’ lives with the presupposition that such would keep them out of harm’s ways, curb their sinful tendencies, and even form them into godly people. The only problem is that it is grace which changes us, not law. Though it should be noted that God’s grace changes us through the law. God’s grace does the changing apart from law, but uses the law to help us see our guilt, need, and utter helplessness.

Grace and law in Scripture are not easy subjects. But having lived through some sad scenarios in the Christian world, I would say that one has to be aware of the place of both. And how our lives are truly transformed only by grace, God’s gift to us of forgiveness and new life. And how this is both in terms of a point of conversion and ongoing conversion in a process by the Spirit in and through Jesus.

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we hate all the hate that has been directed against African Americans and is still latent

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good.

Romans 12:9

Last night I heard a documentary on the brutal hate murder of a fourteen year old boy, Emmett Till. Instead of brushing off the past as the past, we need to understand how it impacts the present, but more importantly, we need to own up to our own responsibility in a more or less willful ignorance and at least not a listening ear and heart to  understand the plight of others.

Latent racism is a fact of life. It’s everywhere, period. While there’s hate on all sides, those who perpetrated the problem are the ones that need to take the brunt of responsibility. Victims who react in hate are responsible, too, but must necessarily be held to a different standard. We honor the many victims who have been hurt and are in justifiable anger, but are ready for a good solution short of any violence, except for the righteous plea for justice.

Any association with organizations having any tie whatsoever with racial hate groups is to be judged in the church as sin. So that if a member is part of any such group, they must be confronted and disciplined if need be. Hopefully they will see fit to first of all repent of this sin, and to sever any such tie, but if not, the church should remove their membership, and appeal to them as someone outside the faith.

I live in a northern city with plenty of churches, but those whose feet are on the ground, and not only African Americans make it clear that systemic racism is alive and at least active here. It is considered a significantly racist area.

We as churches would do well to commit ourselves to having African Americans in places of leadership, including the pastorate. To have a good mix of leadership. That is what eventually can help the church be the witness to the power of the gospel in breaking down all divisions. Through the cross, Jesus broke down the wall of separation between Jews and Gentiles, and ultimately between everyone. Every human is God’s child by creation, so that we’re one family that way. Through Christ, we become one in him, reconciled to God and to each other. A love we’re to live out in down to earth ways, and with a sensitivity for the injustices which remain. As we wait together for our Lord’s return, when evil forever will be banished, and we’ll all live together in God’s love, in and through Jesus.

 

longing for a better day

Woe to you who long
for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion
only to meet a bear,
as though he entered his house
and rested his hand on the wall
only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream!

“Did you bring me sacrifices and offerings
forty years in the wilderness, people of Israel?
You have lifted up the shrine of your king,
the pedestal of your idols,
the star of your god—
which you made for yourselves.
Therefore I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,”
says the Lord, whose name is God Almighty.

Amos 5:19-27

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Martin Luther King, Jr., was I believe the greatest civil leader of the last century. He spoke with a moral authority which arose out of his Christian understanding, and with a gift of intellect, resolve and passion unmatched probably during his time, and nearly any time. And like the prophets of old, he called people to a better day, which would involve change, indeed repentance. He didn’t mince words, yet he spoke and acted as a follower of Christ, with no love withheld from enemies, in the midst of many prayers, and surely, struggles and tears. To do what he was doing put his life on the line. It was compelling, and could not be dismissed even by those who desperately wanted to.

The prophet Amos lived during a time of great evil in the land. God’s people Israel were continuing on as if all was okay, but in fact all was not. Rich people were living off the poor. The heart of God’s command to love God, and one’s neighbor as one’s self was not the heart of God’s people. So through Amos, God was calling his people to repentance.

They sell the innocent for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals.
They trample on the heads of the poor
as on the dust of the ground
and deny justice to the oppressed.

Amos 2:6b-7a

Here in the United States, racism is not erased. Society is still stacked against people of color, at least in many places. Of course some overcome, but for many, they settle down into what they have to do to make ends meet. Others, disenfranchised, don’t do as well, sometimes into a life of drugs in which violence is more or less an every present danger and threat. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is widening. I don’t see how God’s people who read scripture and take Jesus and the prophets seriously can remain silent in the face of such injustice and lack of love. To write it off as secondary to the tragedy of abortion is simply the refusal to do what God does throughout the pages of scripture. And see Amos on this. God doesn’t let some sins slide. Everyone for everything is held to account, particularly for sins against love for God and for one’s neighbor, including those different such as the stranger and refugee.

It’s up to us as God’s people in Jesus to do what Martin Luther King, Jr. did. To do our part, whatever that might be, in calling especially the church, God’s people along with others to a better day. Of course in the church we should be endeavoring to live this out, but alas, all too often we rest in the status quo. God is patient, but wants us to develop a sensitivity to these things. That we might have something of God’s heart for every situation. And show that heart through prayer and deeds in and through Jesus.

get blunt

Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

Matthew 16:23

Peter had just made the God-received pronouncement that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God, and Jesus had just declared that Peter’s name, rock would be figurative for the rock on which Jesus would build his church, in some ways Peter and the apostles, but directly the message of the gospel of Jesus which they proclaimed. Jesus then tells his disciples just what he as Messiah must do: suffer and die. Peter rebukes the Lord. Then the Lord roundly rebukes Peter. Notice that this is not some outsider whom Jesus is seeking to win. Yet at the same time when I read the gospels you really don’t have to read between the lines much if at all to know what Jesus is getting at. Jesus is characteristically direct and clear, although it’s certainly always in love.

I don’t think we have picked up much of that needed air. Yes, all we do needs to be marked by God’s grace. We’re as much in need of God’s mercy and help as anyone else. So we don’t at all think or if necessary speak from any position of superiority. We’re all on the same level at the cross. We need to be as gentle as possible. And it can depend on the person who we’re trying to help.

Be merciful to those who doubt; save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.

Jude 1:22-23

We certainly don’t want to alienate others. Of course there are those to whom we can’t appeal at all. They may not be ready to receive it, or they may set themselves up in opposition to God and therefore against themselves. Such blunt language should be reserved only for those who can receive it.

Some would say that this is a case of reading scripture and identifying with Jesus instead of the disciples. It should be and/both. We can’t identify with Jesus all the way, but we should be able to fully do so as those who are seeking to follow him all the way.

In any case I believe the lives of many would have been much better served if pastors and churches, those who are spiritual would have had the wisdom to be blunt when needed. To warn others in no uncertain terms about the path they are on or considering.

Read the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, and Luke especially, along with John, and you’ll find that Jesus didn’t mince words with those who were following him. We are blessed if we can both receive such words into our own lives, and then in grace pass them on to others. But bluntly at the right time, not harshly but gently, but with the force and emphasis needed to help the hearer wake up and change course in their thinking and action. In and through Jesus.

Jesus was not always “nice”

“Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and respectful greetings in the marketplaces.

“Woe to you, because you are like unmarked graves, which people walk over without knowing it.”

One of the experts in the law answered him, “Teacher, when you say these things, you insult us also.”

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.

“Woe to you experts in the law, because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering.”

When Jesus went outside, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to oppose him fiercely and to besiege him with questions, waiting to catch him in something he might say.

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another, Jesus began to speak first to his disciples, saying: “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.

“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Luke 11:43-46, 52-54; 12:1-7

The entire passage of the above link, Luke 11:29-12:12 is worth a good slow read. Jesus’s sayings are not only hard, but at spots seemingly impossible (verses 47-51). We don’t necessarily understand, but maybe in the latter case we could surmise that given the light from the past that those of Jesus’s day had, they should have learned and done better. Jesus’s words are often blunt, not coated with the spiritual flourish we often spin in our words and explanations, or more like simply being largely mute on the subject, saying little or nothing.

Of course these hard sayings of Jesus have to be put in the context of the whole. Jesus was welcoming to everyone. At the same time, Jesus never spared anyone. Think of Peter and the other disciples. If you want someone nice who will bless everything you do, and thinks you are fine just the way you are, then don’t look to Jesus. As to how we’re created as humans in God’s image, each and everyone of us, that Jesus would fully affirm. It’s our sin that he won’t. And that’s for our good. Just like children, we shouldn’t suppose that whatever we think and do is somehow okay, or that self-actualization according to our whims or fancy is good.

We have to receive this for ourselves, and I think it also translates over to how we’re to try to help others. We do no one any good at all by simply accepting all they do as alright. It’s not like we should be critiquing those who don’t care. After all, Jesus said not to throw your pearls to pigs. But we do believe anyone can turn and choose to listen so that the light can shine in the darkness so that by God’s grace there can be change, indeed a changed life.

But we must emphasize this for ourselves. And be slow and light to ever put it on someone else. Anyone who is willing to receive such from the Lord or from one of his disciples is indeed truly blessed.

This is all for our good; we need it. We need to receive it for our own benefit, and as an example to others. That they too might learn to receive it for themselves. In and through Jesus.

cast on God’s mercy

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Luke 18:9-14

The older I get, it seems the easier for me to realize just how much I need to be cast on God and God’s mercy. The hard knocks and places of life, and my past poor and even ungodly reactions to them, along with my drifting before I finally started moving toward a better direction, all that part of the past helps me, and really helps embed in me the awareness of my complete and utter need for God and his mercy in Christ.

I love this parable our Lord told. Only those who don’t understand their own great need will look down on others. And it’s not like I no longer can’t become foolishly proud. But if I look into the light of God’s word and reality, and pray, then it won’t take long for that to dissipate and disappear. Or at least I would hope not.

We’re ever in need of God’s grace to understand our need for God’s mercy. A great gift to us from God in and through Jesus.

what are we becoming?

It’s interesting how people think that if they repent and say they’re sorry, and maybe even ask for forgiveness, that then they’ve changed. The point of repentance actually is more than confession and reparation. It is indeed change. And the needed change doesn’t come overnight, even though in initial repentance one is turned from wrong to right. Thorough change of heart and life ordinarily if not always takes time, and even in a true sense, a lifetime.

Psalm 51, the great penitential psalm expressed woeful sorrow to God for offending God over the sin done, and asks for changed heart out of which can come a changed life. A good question is simply: What are we becoming? And another: What factors are involved in that, or behind it. Often there can be a mix of things in the works, even contradictory. We can be pulled this way and that. But we can’t go two directions at the same time. Whatever form the flesh takes is the flesh still. It’s either the flesh or the Spirit, serving God or serving Mammon/money, or whatever. Which in part is why we’re told in Proverbs:

Above all else, guard your heart,
for everything you do flows from it.

Proverbs 4:23

It is a scary thought actually, the idea that we can be becoming something other than what God would want, and actually therefore, what we would want as well. Just something small can get hold of the heart, take over, and eventually change us through and through. Or the good thought and hope, that as by grace we pick up just something of the goodness of God, what can help us in the way in Christ, that too can permeate us, and put us on the road to Christ-likeness and the restoration of our true humanity in the new creation.

What God did in the Incarnation which we especially remember this time of the year: becoming one of us, fully human, in the Son uniting his deity with our humanity (Gregory of Nazianzen). God changing so that we might change, humanity forever elevated through new creation to fulfill the goal of creation through the Incarnation and the salvation which came through the death and resurrection of the God-Man, the Human One. Amazingly God became human so that we might share in God’s nature. In and through Jesus.