Author: Tom Letchworth

Rev. Tom Letchworth, Senior Pastor of Marion United Methodist Church Bro. Tom was ordained an Elder in the Little Rock Conference of the United Methodist Church in 1985. He has served First UMC in Paragould, (2007-2011), St. Paul UMC in Searcy (2002-2007), and First UMC in West Memphis (1995-1998) as senior pastor. He has also served Salem UMC in Benton as pastor (1985-1995), and St. James UMC in Little Rock as associate pastor (1983-1985). As a full-time local pastor in the beginning of his ministry, he served the Morrilton Parish (1980-1981). While attending Perkins School of Theology, he served the Maypearl/Venus charge in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The son of an Air Force chaplain, Bro. Tom has lived all over the world. He received the call to ministry while he was a member of Yucaipa UMC in California, where he started the candidacy process. He was introduced to Arkansas through his seminary internship at Pulaski Heights UMC and thus completed his candidacy requirements with the Little Rock Conference. From 1999 to 2002 he was appointed as a General Evangelist, during which time he added dramatic presentations to his sermons and preached/taught workshops in Missouri, Kentucky, Kansas, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas. He and his wife, Celeste, have written full-length plays published by Lillenas Drama (Nazerene Publishing House): Mysteries With a Message, Volumes I and II; and Meet Me at Luigi’s. They are also the proud “authors” of Sam, a creative writing graduate of the University of Arkansas, and Joe, a music graduate of Asbury University.

Gospel for July 2, 2017

Every guest you receive, it’s like you’re welcoming Christ.
[St. Norbert College]

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Matthew 10:40-42

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Jesus concludes his missionary instructions to his disciples, as he prepares to send them out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6).

His closing words to them are words of encouragement as they go out into a world that will often be hostile and resistant.  He tells them that they are to be his representatives — when they  are received with generosity and hospitality, he is being received:

He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me.  He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. He who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward.  Whoever gives one of these little ones just a cup of cold water to drink in the name of a disciple, most certainly I tell you he will in no way lose his reward.

There is to be a “vicarious” nature to the ministry of the disciples.  They are emissaries, ambassadors for Jesus.  And even the offer of cold water will bring reward on those who offer it.

This is reinforced later in Paul’s ministry when he writes:

We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20).

And Jesus reinforces this theme of “vicarious representation” when he tells a parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats:

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink?  When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you?  When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’  The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’ (Matthew 25:37-40).

The disciples are the representatives of Jesus as Jesus is the representative of God the Father.  They are the prophets  and the righteous sent in his name.  And those who receive these ambassadors and offer them hospitality will be rewarded as though they had  ministered to Jesus himself.

APPLY:  

Following Christ — really following Christ — can be very difficult.  Jesus warns his disciples:

 See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles…. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death;  and you will be hated by all because of my name (Matthew 10:16-18, 21-22).

But following Christ — really following Christ, is also filled with superabundant rewards.  Jesus says:

Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven (Matthew 10:32).

Among the rewards Jesus offers is that those who represent him (who are the prophets and the righteous because of their relationship with him), will be a blessing to those who offer hospitality to them.  In fact, those who welcome Jesus’ disciples receive the same reward the disciples can expect!

We are not only to offer ministry in Jesus’ name; we are to welcome those who offer ministry in Jesus’ name as though they are Jesus himself — with the same generosity and hospitality with which we would welcome Jesus.

RESPOND: 

I have always been intrigued by the title “vicar.”   The vicar is usually a parish priest in the Anglican church, or a deputy or representative of a bishop in the Roman Catholic Church.  The Pope himself is known as the Vicar of Christ.

The etymology of the word vicar traces its roots back to the 14th century, as an Anglo-French word sharing the same root as vicarious.  Something vicarious is something that is done on behalf of someone else — as when we say that we are saved by the vicarious atonement of Christ.

But vicar also has to do with someone who acts as a deputy, or proxy, or representative of someone else.  In that sense a parish priest acts as a vicar on Christ’s behalf, offering Word, Sacrament and Service in his name.

And even more, all who claim the name of Jesus are to offer ministry as vicars on Jesus’ behalf.  And we are also to welcome those who seek to minister in his name as though they were Jesus himself.

What a culture of kindness and hospitality this would create in our local churches if this were consistently practiced!

Our Lord, you have offered your own life as a substitute for mine.  That is the first and most important vicarious substitution for which I am grateful. Thank you for the call to ministry, and the many ways in which your people have welcomed me as though they were welcoming you!  And may I also treat those who seek to preach your Word and share your sacraments and offer compassionate ministry in your name with the same honor and respect with which I would treat you.  Amen.

PHOTOS:
"A Wing and a Prayer: Radical Hospitality" by stnorbert is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Epistle for July 2, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Romans 6:12-23

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

Paul continues the discussion  he began in Romans 6:1-11  relating to the Christian’s death to sin and resurrection to new life.  He began this section with the question:

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?  (Romans 6:1).

His answer, of course, is unequivocal:

 May it never be! (Romans 6:2).

And now he continues to explain why sin and grace are incompatible.  The point of his argument is that the salvation and grace of Jesus Christ is not only for the sake of pardon from sin, but also power over sin.

For organizational purposes, I break our current passage into four parts:

  • In verses 12-14, he appeals to his readers not to let sin reign in their lives, but to yield even their very bodies to the righteousness of God.
  • In verse 15, he reiterates his rhetorical question, raised in verse 1 — Shall we sin, because we are not under law, but under grace? May it never be!
  • In verses 16-20, he employs the metaphor of servant and master to demonstrate that everyone inevitably serves something — either sin or righteousness.
  • And in verses 21-23, Paul compares the results of sin with the results of serving God. The fruit of sin is death, and the fruit of serving God is eternal life.

Paul frames his ongoing discussion of sin and righteousness as a matter of servitude.  A person is either a servant of sin, or a servant of God.

Jesus makes a similar observation:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You can’t serve both God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24).

Paul is really laying the foundation for the experience of Christian sanctification.  His logic is that sin leads to bondage and death;  submission to God — as represented in baptism (Romans 6:3-4) —  leads to new life in Christ, freedom from sin, and eternal life.

This section concludes with a stark description of the contrast between the life of servitude to sin vs. the life of submission to God:

 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Note that death is the wages of sin — these are wages that people earn by giving themselves over to sin.  Eternal life is not earned  — it is the free gift of God through Jesus Christ.

APPLY:  

Some modern Christians have a tendency to be Gnostic when it comes to sin and righteousness — that is, we  “spiritualize” our Christian lives.  Grace and righteousness and holiness and sanctification are, to them, all a matter of how one “feels” emotionally.  They seem to think that how one lives, what one says, and what one does with one’s body are irrelevant.

That’s why we note that Paul is no Gnostic — he warns the Romans:

Therefore don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. Also, do not present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God, as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.

The New Testament view of human nature is holistic  in the sense that body and soul are united — we don’t have a body as distinct from the soul, we are  a body and soul.  Body, soul, spirit, mind are constituent parts of one whole.

We are reminded that we Christians speak of the resurrection of the body, not merely the immortality of the soul.  When Paul speaks of the resurrection of the dead, he says:

 The body is sown perishable; it is raised imperishable.  It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.  It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body and there is also a spiritual body (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

But in the resurrection, there will still be a body — it will be a glorified body.

So when sin reigns in our bodies it affects our souls as well.  When we yield our members as instruments of sin there is a connection between soul and body.  C.S. Lewis once said that he knelt in prayer because where the body goes the spirit follows.  In his ingenious novel depicting the correspondence between a senior devil named Screwtape and his deputy, named Wormwood, Screwtape has this piece of advice for his “nephew” (Note that the Enemy  to which Screwtape refers is God!):

One of their poets, Coleridge, has recorded that he did not pray ‘with moving lips and bended knees’ but merely ‘composed his spirit to love’ and indulged ‘a sense of supplication’. That is exactly the sort of prayer we want; and since it bears a superficial resemblance to the prayer of silence as practised by those who are very far advanced in the Enemy’s service, clever and lazy patients can be taken in by it for quite a long time. At the very least, they can be persuaded that the bodily position makes no difference to their prayers; for they constantly forget, what you must always remember, that they are animals and that whatever their bodies do affects their souls.
[Screwtape Letters]

This is why Paul later will re-emphasize this principle of complete and total surrender to God with these words:

Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service (Romans 12:1).

Faith manifests itself in the fruits of the Spirit, and fruits form our character.

RESPOND: 

Bob Dylan’s reputation as an American folk musician, protest singer, and poet is well-established, and confirmed by his recent Nobel Prize for literature in 2016.  In the late 1970’s, he experienced a conversion to Christianity, and shortly thereafter cut an album with Christian lyrics, Slow Train Coming (1979).

One of his songs explores the same theme explored by the Apostle Paul — that we all serve somebody:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Dylan grasped a fundamental truth — whatever controls you is your master.   And the Christian message is that slavery to sin leads to death; submission to God leads to life.

Lord, my earnest desire is to serve you, but I know that I cannot do so in my own strength.  The bondage to sin is strong in human nature.  Where I still have chains, break them.  I pray that being made free from sin, and having become  your servant, I may experience the fruit of sanctification, and the result of eternal life.  Amen

PHOTOS:

"NOT I, BUT CHRIST Corrie ten Boom" by Corrie ten Boom Museum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Psalm Reading for July 2, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Psalm 13

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This Psalm is clearly an individual Psalm of Lament.  David’s context is unclear, but he seems to be at the bottom of the abyss, emotionally.

He feels forgotten by Yahweh — his previously intimate relationship with God has been disrupted:

    How long will you hide your face from me?

There is a possible hint as to the source of his despair, as he counsels in his own soul about his deep sorrow, and then says: 

How long shall my enemy triumph over me?

David is certainly a man who knew what it was to have enemies, and to need the friendship of God when he felt alone!  His enemies included Goliath and the Philistines,  his own king Saul, the Ammonites, the Moabites, Geshurites, Gezrites, Amalekites, Jebusites, and even some of his own people in a civil war led by his own son Absalom!

Each of these outcries to God is punctuated four times with the phrase, “How long…”:

How long, Yahweh?
Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long shall I take counsel in my soul,
having sorrow in my heart every day?
How long shall my enemy triumph over me?

He asks for an answer, for light to his eyes:

 lest I sleep in death.

He is clearly facing an existential threat.  But a part of his motivation is that he doesn’t want his enemies to be vindicated: 

 Lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed against him”;
Lest my adversaries rejoice when I fall.

That would involve a loss of face, which for a warrior and a man of his time and culture would be almost worse  than death!

However, at the end of the Psalm, as so often occurs in these prayers of lament, there is a twist that reveals that he still has faith:

But I trust in your loving kindness.
My heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to Yahweh,
because he has been good to me.

His past relationship with Yahweh provides him with the assurance that Yahweh is trustworthy, loving and benevolent.  David begins in despair, and ends with praise!

APPLY:  

The blessing of the Psalms is their honesty.  There is no “stained glass piety” in the Psalms.  They are the honest cry of the heart in relationship to God — sometimes filled with joy and thanksgiving, but sometimes also filled with despair and hopelessness.

What David may be experiencing is a kind of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — understandable for a warrior who had seen so many battles, and had also been betrayed by those he trusted — King Saul early in his adulthood, and his own son Absalom when he was old.

The truth is, PTSD is not restricted to soldiers.  Policemen, firemen, medical personnel, victims of crime, victims of illness, even caregivers may exhibit the symptoms of PTSD.

The Psalms may provide a kind of “therapy” for those astute enough to use them.  When dealing with stress, or a sense of abandonment, or existential fear, reading through the Psalms may be the best antidote for the believer.  The Psalms enable the reader to identify with all of the despair and the hopelessness, and then work through that to find a sense of peace and encouragement in a living faith.

David cries out to God how long? as a complaint about his sense of dereliction — but then finds himself  returning to faith:

But I trust in your loving kindness.
My heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to Yahweh,
because he has been good to me.

RESPOND: 

Years ago my wife wrote a musical for her youth choir, entitled “Pah-salms.”  As the title suggests, it had its share of levity and whimsy.  She was playing with the improper  pronunciation of the word “Psalm.”  We all know that the “P” is silent.  But someone new to written English might think it should be pronounced “Pah– salms.”

But the most significant breakthrough from her musical was the realization that the Psalms have a prayer or hymn for virtually every human mood — worship, joy, love, fear, despair, even hate.

What this reminds us is that our relationship with God is a real relationship.  We can bring everything that is inside of us to God as we pour out our hearts in prayer to him.  That doesn’t mean God will sanction everything we feel or say, but it does mean that we begin our prayers with honesty.  Only when we are honest with God, and ourselves, can God really begin to change us.  It is only then that we are really open to God.

We see the change in tone and mood in David in this brief Psalm.  And when we pray honestly, we can see the change in ourselves as well, if we give it time.

Lord, there are many times in my life that I feel abandoned and alone.  But I find that if I stay in dialogue with you, you help me work through all of those negative emotions to find hope, joy and peace.  Help me keep my relationship with you real! Amen.

PHOTOS:

"Despair" by Wokandapix is in the public domain.

Old Testament for July 2, 2017

“The Ram of Sacrifice”
Detail of a mosaic from the Rosary Basilica in Lourdes.
[photo & description by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.]

Start with Scripture:

Genesis 22:1-14

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This is a difficult passage.  Abraham and Sarah’s long awaited hope for a son has been fulfilled.  Isaac has been born to this aged couple, bringing great joy (Genesis 21:1-8).  They have weathered the potentially explosive tensions between Sarah and Hagar, the mother of Abraham’s first son (Genesis 21:9-12).  Abraham has experienced deep grief because he has sent away his son Ishmael, in order to keep peace in the family (Genesis 21:11-14).  Now life has seemingly stabilized for Abraham, Sarah and Isaac — Abraham has negotiated for possession of a well, which is an important source of life and prosperity in a dry land (Genesis 21:22-34).

All is well.  And then this:

After these things, God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!”

He said, “Here I am.”

He said, “Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, even Isaac, and go into the land of Moriah. Offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.”

Needless to say, this is unexpected and shocking!  Abraham has been in a trusting, vital relationship with God since he was living in Haran many years earlier.  He has been led to Canaan, and through all of the vicissitudes of life, he has remained faithful to God.  The most significant promise to Abraham — that he would receive this land of promise, and that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him — was that he would be the father of many nations, particularly through the son born of Sarah.

This request from God seems a direct contradiction to God’s original plan and will.  God is asking Abraham to sacrifice that which is most precious to him:

your only son, whom you love, even Isaac.

The place of the sacrifice was to be Moriah  — also known as the Mountain of Yahweh.  Moriah is significant in Biblical history.  One thousand years after Abraham, David bought the threshing floor of  Araunah the Jebusite, which was at the summit of this mountain (2 Chronicles 24:18); this would also become the site of Solomon’s Temple.

What we know of Caananite religion is that there is strong evidence of the requirement of human sacrifice.  Molech was one of the gods of the Canaanites —  and one of his greatest demands was child sacrifice.  We know that later in the history of Israel, human sacrifice, and particularly child sacrifice, would be strictly prohibited (Leviticus 18:21; 20:2, etc.).  This may explain why Abraham was willing to even entertain this request, although it seemed out of character for Yahweh.  Perhaps he believed that Yahweh was asking for the same sacrifice as Molech.

Abraham carefully follows the prescribed ritual — he splits the wood for the burnt offering, he travels with Isaac  and two other servants, and then bids the servants to stay behind when they arrive at Moriah.  All of the ingredients for this ancient ritual of sacrifice are there — the wood, the knife, the fire — all but the lamb!

Isaac cannot help but notice this, as he himself carries the wood for the burnt offering.  When he asks about it, did his voice quaver a bit nervously?  Abraham’s answer reveals that he is still a man of faith:

 Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

Either Abraham is deceiving Isaac, or he is still hopeful that God will intervene.

When they arrive at the summit of Moriah,  Abraham follows through on all the rubrics of ancient worship — he builds the altar of stones available on site, lays the wood in order — and then binds his son and lays him on the altar!  What a perilous moment, as he takes up the knife to cut his son’s throat!

And, in good Hollywood fashion, at the last moment, there is an intervention:

 Yahweh’s angel called to him out of the sky, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!”

He said, “Here I am.”

He said, “Don’t lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”

Was it a test of Abraham’s faith and obedience to God?  Or was it a means by which God uses Abraham as an example that God repudiated human sacrifice as a form of worship?

In any event, Abraham learns, or re-learns, a lesson about God’s character — God provides what he requires.  If he requires a sacrifice, he himself will provide it:

Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and saw that behind him was a ram caught in the thicket by his horns. Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering instead of his son. Abraham called the name of that place Yahweh Will Provide.  As it is said to this day, “On Yahweh’s mountain, it will be provided.”

A key aspect of Yahweh’s character is revealed — he is Yahweh-Jireh, the Lord who provides!

APPLY:  

A sick and troubled interpretation of this passage would draw the conclusion that God may require human sacrifice.

A healthier and more accurate interpretation would argue that while God tested Abraham’s obedience, he uses this opportunity to repudiate the pagan practice of human sacrifice.  It is true that Abraham proves his faith in God.  James, in the New Testament, praises Abraham’s obedience:

Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works, in that he offered up Isaac his son on the altar?  You see that faith worked with his works, and by works faith was perfected (James 2:21-22).

But it is also true that God never requires a father to sacrifice his son — and in fact repudiates this practice officially in the Mosaic Law.

A typological interpretation of this passage draws this conclusion — that a substitute was found that made Isaac’s sacrifice unnecessary.  Christ is described in various places in the New Testament as a substitutionary sacrifice for us:

For indeed Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed in our place (1 Corinthians 5:7).

In any event, Abraham had faith that Isaac would not be lost to him, because God had promised that he would fulfill his covenant through Isaac:

By faith, Abraham, being tested, offered up Isaac. Yes, he who had gladly received the promises was offering up his one and only son;  even he to whom it was said, “your offspring  will be accounted as from Isaac”;   concluding that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Figuratively speaking, he also did receive him back from the dead (Hebrews 11:17-19).

The application for our faith is that God does ask for our complete surrender of everything.  Everything we have will one day be taken away from us, and the only way to receive it back from God is to give it up to God.  And furthermore, God provides whatever he requires from us — whether it be the substitutionary atonement of his Son, or granting us a strength and grace beyond what we have in ourselves to do what he calls us to do.

RESPOND: 

As the father of two sons, I cannot imagine being placed in the position that Abraham was in. He had already “sacrificed” one son, Ishmael, to the jealousy and dysfunctions of  a complicated family situation.  Now, the son who was to fulfill God’s covenant was literally on the chopping block!

The truth is, though, every  parent must sacrifice their children, figuratively speaking.  When our children grow up and begin to make their own decisions, we must understand that in a unique sense those children belong to God in a deeper way than they belong to us.

I’m reminded of a story told of Andrew Young.  Andrew Young had been an aide to Martin Luther King, Jr., a pastor, and eventually the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia.  But on one occasion he was saying farewell to his daughter in the airport.  She was leaving to participate in a Christian mission in Africa.  After watching her board her flight, he was heard to say, “I wanted her to be a Christian, but I didn’t mean a real Christian!”

Any honest parent can understand his sentiment.  We want our children to live exciting, adventurous lives — so long as they are protected in bubbles.  Life just doesn’t work that way.

But when it comes to the sacrifices that are required in our lives, we can do no better than to pray as St. Augustine of Hippo prayed:

Command what you will, and then give what you command.

Lord, you don’t require human sacrifice; but you do require that we take everything that we love, cherish, and value and place it in your hands.  At our best, we are like Abraham who trusts that you give it all back.  Increase our faith, even as we pray as Augustine did — command what you will and then give what you command. Amen. 

PHOTOS:
The Ram of Sacrifice” by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Gospel for June 25, 2017

This mosaic of Simon of Cyrene carrying the Cross of Christ is in Aberdeen’s Catholic Cathedral. It is by Gabriel Loire of Chartres.
[photo & description by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.]

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Matthew 10:24-39

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

The ministry of Jesus has reached a turning point.  He has been discipling the twelve through teaching and example, but now he has set them apart to go out into the mission field themselves:

He called to himself his twelve disciples, and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every sickness (Matthew 10:1).

Jesus then began to teach them what they were to teach, to whom they were to go, what they were to take with them, etc.  In our current passage, he continues to prepare them for their mission — and he is warning them of the hardships that are to come.

He advises them that:

 A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his lord.

They are deeply linked to Jesus as his followers. What this means is that they will face the same kind of name-calling from his adversaries that he faces; but they will also be protected by God in the same way he is protected:

If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul,  how much more those of his household!  Therefore don’t be afraid of them, for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed; and hidden that will not be known.

To be called Beelzebul is a profound insult — especially for the Messiah, as we know Jesus to be!  Beelzebul is literally The Lord of the Flies, which is slang for the Devil.  In fact, just before Jesus set apart his disciples and began to prep them for their mission, the Pharisees denounced him:

 By the prince of the demons, he casts out demons (Matthew 9:34).

This is nothing less than blasphemy!  We note that the Pharisees weren’t questioning whether Jesus was a conduit for power —they were questioning the source of his power.

But Jesus tells the disciples not to be afraid, because the truth will come out!   

What I tell you in the darkness, speak in the light; and what you hear whispered in the ear, proclaim on the housetops.

And his assurance to them goes even deeper than the promise that the truth will be vindicated.  He makes it clear that there are spiritual forces at play here that are far more powerful than mere human authorities:

 Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Rather, fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.

The question we must ask here is, who is the one who can destroy both soul and body? Is he referring to Beelzebul, or is he referring to God?

Gehenna, historically, is the Valley of Hinnom (Ge Hinnom) which is a valley on the border of Jerusalem.  It had earned a reputation for infamy as the place where children had been sacrificed to the Canaanite god Molech in the days prior to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.  According to archaeologists, it had also become a kind of town dump even in Jesus’ time.  It was a place of filth, where the bodies of animals and criminals were burned. As a dump, fire and smoke rose from its heaps constantly.  Jesus is obviously speaking metaphorically — Gehenna must refer to Hell itself.  Therefore, it seems clear that he is warning them to be afraid of the one who presides over this place of filth — Satan.

Jesus is offering encouragement and inspiration to his followers:   

Aren’t two sparrows sold for an assarion coin?  Not one of them falls on the ground apart from your Father’s will,  but the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.

Jesus is assuring the disciples of their inestimable value to the Father.  He uses an interesting analogy, reasoning from small things to greater.  He speaks of sparrows, which are sold in the market at the rate of two for an assarion — according to notes this was a small bronze or copper coin with a Greek name that was in current use in the Roman empire.   It was one of the smallest denominations of coins, approximately equal to the wages for a half hour of farm labor.

And yet, Jesus says, these two sparrows, so cheap in the market, don’t escape the notice and will of the Father.  Therefore, the disciples need to be assured — they are made in the very image of God, and are of much greater value to him.  Jesus uses a very similar metaphor in his Sermon on the Mount  when he teaches his disciples not to be anxious about anything:

See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they? (Matthew 6:26).

Jesus then makes a decisive application in regard to the loyalty of his disciples to him:

 Everyone therefore who confesses me before men, him I will also confess before my Father who is in heaven.

The good confession is a phrase that becomes extremely important in the early church.  To confess is to declare one’s faith in and allegiance to Jesus.  The public confession in the presence of witnesses becomes one of the key criteria necessary for inclusion in the church, along with faith:

If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart, one believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation (Romans 10:9-10).

Likewise, Paul also writes:

 Fight the good fight of faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you confessed the good confession in the sight of many witnesses (1 Timothy 6:12).

But the flip side is also very serious — cowardice and faithlessness in the face of opposition and persecution are not rewarded.  Jesus describes what happens when he is repudiated:

But whoever denies me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven.

After these assurances to his disciples, Jesus also adds warnings.  Some of what he says may be called  “hard sayings:”

Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword.

Those who have concluded that Jesus is weak and timid haven’t considered the whole Gospel record.  John the Baptist had prophesied:

 Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down, and cast into the fire.  I indeed baptize  you in water for repentance, but he who comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you in the Holy Spirit.  His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his threshing floor. He will gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn up with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:10-12).

And Jesus seems to make reference to John the Baptist’s preaching a little later in the Gospel narrative:

From the days of John the Baptizer until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force (Matthew 11:12).

The truth is, Jesus is not always a unifying and peaceful figure.  He warns the disciples that people must make a choice, either for him or against him, and the consequences can even affect the most intimate family relations:

For I came to set a man at odds against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.  A man’s foes will be those of his own household.  He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me.

Note that Jesus doesn’t say that family members are not to love one another — what he does say here is that love for him must supersede even love for family!  This may be a reference to the prophet Micah, who wrote in the 8th century B.C. in Judah.  He was warning the people that their faithlessness and idolatry would be punished, and he denounces the apostasy of the people of Judah.  He declares that in these times there is only one sure thing that they can trust:

Don’t trust in a neighbor.
Don’t put confidence in a friend.
With the woman lying in your embrace,
be careful of the words of your mouth!
For the son dishonors the father,
the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.
But as for me, I will look to Yahweh.
I will wait for the God of my salvation.
My God will hear me (Micah 7:5-7).

Jesus seems to be saying something very similar to his disciples — that parents and in-laws and children may turn against them, but they are to love him.  He won’t fail them.

Finally, he forecasts the adversity and persecution that is to come:

He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me.  He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.

This paradoxical statement can only be understood in the light of Jesus’ own mission.  This is the first time in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus has brought up the cross, but it won’t be the last (see Matthew 16:21; 17:12).  He becomes increasingly vocal about the death he himself is to die as they approach Jerusalem.

And he is telling the disciples that they must take up the cross, as he will tell them in more detail:

If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it.  For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his life? Or what will a man give in exchange for his life? (Matthew 16:24-26).

Following Jesus requires the ultimate sacrifice — giving up loyalty to family as one’s priority, and even giving up one’s own life.  And yet the reciprocal reward is disproportionately abundant.  The disciple who gives up his own right to himself not only finds life — he finds his true life.

And, for the purposes of balance, Jesus does offer immense rewards to those who follow him without reservation.  He says to the disciples, who are bewildered at the rich young man who declines to follow Jesus because he had great possessions (Matthew 19:16-22) that those who have left everything for him will receive far more than they have given up:

Most certainly I tell you that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  Everyone who has left houses, or brothers, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive one hundred times, and will inherit eternal life (Matthew 19:28-29).

APPLY:  

Jesus is aware that his disciples are going to experience adversity as they enter into the mission field.  He is, we might say, offering them an immunization against darkness by warning them and preparing them ahead of time.  And yet he is also reminding them of their inestimable value to God.  Jesus is also strengthening their courage  — but he reminds them that their confession of faith in him only really works if they commit themselves completely to him.  Half measures and lip service won’t do.

These are stark words for many Western Christians where it is reasonably safe to follow Jesus.  Christians in Egypt, Syria, China, Indonesia, and many other lands have personal experience with the kinds of conditions that Jesus describes. They resonate deeply with the warnings and the promises Jesus makes.  They know from experience what it means to face name-calling and even death because of their faith.

But even for Christians in the safer west, where religious freedom is generally respected, there are key points here:

  • We are to be as much like our teacher, Jesus, as we possibly can be.
  • We are of incalculable value to God.
  • We are to openly confess Jesus as our Lord, no matter the consequences.
  • Our first loyalty, above all others, is to Christ.
  • If we are to take up our cross and follow Jesus, we are to choose self sacrifice and self-denial over security and safety.

RESPOND: 

These are uncomfortable words for Western Christians. They are uncomfortable words for me.  I may console myself that some 37 years ago I entered into full-time Christian ministry, which meant that I went where my Bishop sent me — whether I liked it or not.  It sometimes meant having to make hard calls, and go into places and situations that have been uncomfortable and sometimes (though rarely) a little unsafe.

But I can’t say that I have really “suffered” as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Let me be clear — I don’t think that Jesus demands that we suffer.  What he asks is that we follow him and be willing to take up our cross and follow him.

On Memorial Day recently I thanked my brother for his service in the Navy during a time of war.  He reminded me that he never actually saw action in battle.  I said that wasn’t my point.  He was willing. When he took the oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, and received his commission in the U.S. Navy, he belonged to “Uncle Sam.” They could deploy him wherever they chose, and he was obliged to obey every lawful order.

In a sense, Christians must see themselves as soldiers, who have given up their right to themselves.  But the rewards, as Jesus tells us, are immense — relationship and life with him, forever!

Lord, following you does have a cost.  If we are truly committed to you, then other commitments dim in comparison.  And sometimes we are called upon to make sacrifices.  But if the trade-off is a relationship with the Lord of All Life, the sacrifice is worth it.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:
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Epistle for June 25, 2017

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Romans 6:1-11

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

In this lection, Paul is addressing some of the objections to his radical doctrine of justification by grace through faith. He has been carefully laying out his doctrine about human nature and God’s grace in Romans 1 through 5.

  • All human beings are sinners, and fall short of God’s glory.
  • The law, though given by God and therefore holy, just and good, only intensifies the awareness that humans are sinners. The difference between human aspiration toward righteousness and human achievement of righteousness is like the chasm between the farthest stars in the universe and earth.
  • Jesus provides the fulfillment of the righteous demands of the law in his perfect life, his atoning death, and his resurrection.
  • Therefore, salvation is not something that can be earned by works of the law. Salvation is God’s gift of grace, received by faith.

But someone hearing Paul’s argument might conclude that if the law is powerless to make human beings righteous, then they don’t need to worry about whether they sin or not.  Their faulty logic might argue that since Jesus has fulfilled all the righteous demands of the law, then ethics and morality and sin should be irrelevant to the believer. This faulty logic is sometimes called antinomianism,  meaning lawlessness. This can result in anarchy.  

So, Paul must address this misconception.

He had earlier made a radical statement — that because of one man’s trespass (Adam’s) all people were infected by sin; but because of one man’s act of righteousness (Jesus’), many will be made righteous.  And it was the law that increased the trespass because it made people aware of their desperate straits. Therefore:

where sin abounded, grace abounded more exceedingly;  that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 5:20-21).

So Paul asks a rhetorical question, one  that his argument about law, sin and grace might provoke in some people:

What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?

His answer is decisive:

May it never be! We who died to sin, how could we live in it any longer?

The answer to sin….is death!  Those who have died no longer sin.  But this is not physical death.  This is death to the forces of sin that have caused the ultimate curse of death.  This death occurs when the believer identifies with Jesus by faith, and it is powerfully symbolized in baptism:

Or don’t you know that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

But even more importantly, baptism signifies identification with the resurrection of Jesus!

We were buried therefore with him through baptism to death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.

The Christian follows the pattern of Christ — dying, rising, and then walking in this new life as a new creature.  In a powerful passage, written almost lyrically, or like a musical fugue, Paul writes:

For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will also be part of his resurrection;  knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be in bondage to sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. But if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him;  knowing that Christ, being raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no more has dominion over him!  For the death that he died, he died to sin one time; but the life that he lives, he lives to God.  Thus consider yourselves also to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This beautiful passage provides a whole new foundation for righteousness and holiness.  Righteousness and holiness — freedom from sin — is no longer an external observation of laws and rituals.  Now, righteousness is an ontological reality — meaning that it defines the very being and nature of the Christian.  The Christian has died to sin and lives in the resurrected new life of Christ! This passage illustrates the dynamic process of  God’s grace, from death to new life.

APPLY:  

There are two extremes that can distort the Christian life. One extreme is to reduce our doctrine and practice to a list of legalistic “do’s and don’ts,”  and become Christian Pharisees.  The other extreme is to reduce the sacrifice of Christ, and the discipleship of following him to “cheap grace” which doesn’t change our lives at all.

Both extremes are the wrong direction.  Salvation is a gift of grace that is not based on our performance or our accomplishments.  It is given by the sheer love of Jesus Christ, and experienced through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

However, if we have truly experienced this grace, how can we possibly remain the same?  Paul says  it this way:

For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we will also be part of his resurrection;  knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be in bondage to sin.

RESPOND: 

I hear it all the time.  Christians who tend to excuse negative  personality traits or bad habits or even open sin, say: “I’m not perfect. Just forgiven.”

Of course there is truth to that.  But it is a half-truth.  What the Scriptures teach is that Jesus offers us pardon and power from sin.  We aren’t to use “cheap grace” as an excuse to keep living like those who are dead in their sins.  We are, instead, to die to our sins, and be raised to new life, freed from our sins through the power of Christ!

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remain as it was before….Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
[From The Cost of Discipleship]  

And Bonhoeffer, who went to the gallows because of his opposition to Hitler and Nazism, also wrote that “costly grace”:

is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.

Our Lord, you have died for our sins so that our sins may be put to death in us; and you have been raised to life so that we may be raised with you and walk in newness of life. How can we go back to deathly sin when we have experienced life in you?  Amen. 

PHOTOS:

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Psalm Reading for June 25, 2017

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.
— St. Augustine of Hippo

START WITH SCRIPTURE:

Psalm 17

CLICK HERE TO READ SCRIPTURE ON BIBLEGATEWAY.COM

OBSERVE:

This Psalm of David has been called a Lament, but in many ways it seems to be a prayer of petition rounded off with a declaration of hope.  He begins with a plea:

Hear, Yahweh, my righteous plea;
Give ear to my prayer, that doesn’t go out of deceitful lips.

He is quite anxious to demonstrate that he is worthy to be heard by Yahweh.  He is asking that he be judged according to justice and equity.  David is quite sure that Yahweh has measured him and vindicated him:

You have proved my heart.
You have visited me in the night.
You have tried me, and found nothing.

David asserts that he won’t speak amiss, that he will avoid gratuitous violence, and then uses a familiar Biblical metaphor about walking with God:

My steps have held fast to your paths.
My feet have not slipped.

Therefore, he seems to feel sure that God will answer his prayers.  He trusts in God’s marvelous loving kindness.  And then he uses another metaphor that recurs throughout Scripture:

Keep me as the apple of your eye.

The imagery appears to be related literally to the pupil of the eye, but figuratively it refers to someone or something that is profoundly cherished — someone that is the focus of one’s undivided attention.

The entire nation of Israel is referred to as the apple of God’s eye when he cared for them in the desert (Deuteronomy 32:10).  The young man who is being taught wisdom by his father in the Book of Proverbs is told:

Keep my commandments and live! Guard my teaching as the apple of your eye (Proverbs 7:2).

And in Zechariah’s apocalyptic vision, Jerusalem and the cities of Judah will be restored by Yahweh  with great prosperity and blessing — and he warns their enemies:

For honor he has sent me to the nations which plundered you; for he who touches you touches the apple of his eye (Zechariah 2:8).

What is extraordinary in David’s use of this metaphor in this context is that he personally sees himself as the apple of God’s eye!  When we recall Yahweh’s promises that David would be the first of a long dynasty of kings, and that his greatest descendant would be the Messiah, this isn’t quite so disproportionate.

He then turns to another familiar metaphor when he prays for protection from his enemies:

    Hide me under the shadow of your wings,
from the wicked who oppress me,
my deadly enemies, who surround me.

Yahweh is described in terms that evoke images of a mother hen, or perhaps a protecting eagle, as he is described when he delivered Israel from their enemies:

You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself (Exodus 19:4).

David doesn’t minimize the danger he faces from his enemies, who have calloused hearts and speak boastfully, and presumably have surrounded David and his forces.  Again, he returns to figurative language, using a simile: 

He is like a lion that is greedy of his prey,
as it were a young lion lurking in secret places.

So, David recognizes he needs Yahweh’s help:

Arise, Yahweh, confront him.
Cast him down.
Deliver my soul from the wicked by your sword;
from men by your hand, Yahweh,
from men of the world, whose portion is in this life.

David returns to his thoughts about the many blessings that accrue to those who are the apple of God’s eye:

You fill the belly of your cherished ones.
Your sons have plenty,
and they store up wealth for their children.

And even more than full bellies and treasure, David asserts that his own satisfaction comes from his personal relationship with God:

As for me, I shall see your face in righteousness.
I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with seeing your form.

We are reminded of David’s earlier reference, that God had visited him in the night, and tested his character.  Perhaps he had a dream in which God appears to him — but what really matters to him is that even after he awakens, he will see God’s form.  Perhaps this suggests that even in his waking moments, he will be keenly aware of God’s presence.  As David is the apple of God’s eye, so God becomes the focus of David’s vision.

APPLY:  

David doesn’t pray from a position of humility and despair in this particular Psalm.  Here he is making a righteous plea that doesn’t come from deceitful lips. 

This may be hard for most of to identify with in our own lives.  If we are honest with ourselves, we cry out to God more from a sense of desperate need for mercy and for help.  And, to be fair, many of David’s Psalms do reflect a sense of humility and repentance.

What it does remind us, though, is that we are called to a good life — a righteous life, a truthful life, a life that does follow the paths laid out by God’s Word.   We have to remember that David’s theological perspective in this situation is based on the notion that if we are good, we will be rewarded.  This is sometimes called  Deuteronomic theology, which is based on the clear consequences of our actions:

It shall happen, if you shall listen diligently to Yahweh your God’s voice, to observe to do all his commandments which I command you today, that Yahweh your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.  All these blessings will come upon you, and overtake you, if you listen to Yahweh your God’s voice (Deuteronomy 28:1-2).

Moses then details what all the blessings are — fertility, children, crops, etc.   But he also points out the shadow side of this:

But it shall come to pass, if you will not listen to Yahweh your God’s voice, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command you today, that all these curses will come on you, and overtake you (Deuteronomy 28:15).

Of course there is truth to all of this — good behavior does tend to result in blessings, and bad behavior does  tend to result in….bad consequences.  However, the Bible also offers a nuanced view of the problem of suffering — for that we only need to read Psalm 73, Romans 5:1-5, 2 Corinthians 4:7-10, and of course the entire masterpiece of the Book of Job.

We are reminded that the apostles were persecuted, some martyred, and Jesus himself was crucified — which tells us that suffering is not simply a quid pro quo  punishment for their own sins.

But we may all hope to be described in the same way that David describes himself — as the apple of God’s eye. One of my favorite quotes is that of St. Augustine of Hippo, who said:

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us.

RESPOND: 

Somewhere in my reading I came across a story that I love.  One day an Irish priest  sees an old Irish peasant kneeling by the side of the road praying.  Impressed, the priest says to the man, “you must be very close to God.” The peasant looks up from his prayers, thinks a moment, and then smiles, “Yes, he’s very fond of me.”

God is very fond of us.  We are the apple of his eye.

Lord, thank you that you hear our prayers as though there were only one of us; and yet you love all of us. May we awaken from our sleep and see you with us always.  Amen. 

PHOTOS:

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