Thursday, December 01, 2011

Taking your meds?

Anti-rejection drugs are daily medications taken by organ transplant patients to prevent organ rejection. Such drugs, also called immunosuppressants, help to suppress the immune system's response to a new organ. When a new organ is placed inside a patient's body, the patient's immune system recognizes the organ as foreign tissue and tries to reject it.

A similar thing happens when God puts a 'new heart' in us by '... the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior'  (Titus 3.5-6).  For the rest of our earthly lives, our sinful nature will try to expel the 'new nature' that God has given us from our souls.  We need to take 'anti-rejection medication', so to speak.  That would be what Christians call the 'Means of Grace' - God's word and sacraments.

These are powerful spiritual agents that remain outside of us and useless to us unless taken religiously (if you pardon the pun).  Those who think they can remain Christians, yet not receive the saving benefits of the Means of Grace are like transplant patients who refuse to take their anti-rejection meds.   They need to ‘repent’ of not taking their meds, if you see what I mean.  Otherwise there is a real danger that they will eventually become spiritually ill and reject the Spirit of God and the new life that was given to them to provide eternal life.

Now they did not have organ transplants and immunosuppressant drugs back in New Testament times.  But they did have to eat.  And so Jesus used the urgency of nutrition to make His point.

‘here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die (Jesus said). 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world."
 52 Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?"
 53 Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.
 54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.
 55 For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.
 56 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him’  (John 6.50-56).

Do you see how that phrase ‘remains in me and I in him’ resembles organ rejection?  Without the transplant patient eating the anti-rejection drugs, a vital organ transplanted into a body may not remain in the body – and the results would be death.   You can see the urgency in taking those meds.

The tone John took in his preaching was that of urgency also as he shouted, "Repent! For the Kingdom of God is near"  to his audience.  This same Kingdom of God, new life and the Holy Spirit came upon each of us when we were at the font, becoming baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It was there that the Holy Spirit entered into our hearts, creating within us saving faith in Jesus Christ, who died and rose again to purchase that new life for us with His blood.

The baptism of John the Baptiser differed from the baptism of Jesus in that John's baptism brought the newly baptized to look forward to the Messiah who was to come and bring about total forgiveness by what He would later accomplish.

By contrast, the baptism of Jesus, that which we have received, has brought us total forgiveness on account of what Jesus has done for us on the cross. 

Using a phrase that was later taken up into the Divine Service, St. John the Baptiser proclaimed about Jesus, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!  (Jn. 1:29-31).

In the Divine Service  that is what we proclaim because it is Jesus Christ who takes away our sin by the power of His forgiving touch.  Abide in Him and He with you.  ‘Walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin’  (1 John 1.7)  And the Spirit of Jesus Christ Who has caused us to repent, will  raise us up again.  Amen.

'To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy-- to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What Gets Your Juices Going as a Christian?

All my life as a Christian I have been caught between the cross-fire in the war against ‘subjectivity’ in spiritual things. Luther railed against the ‘schwermer’ (the fanatics) and Lutheran churches ever since have been scenes of conflict between those whose goal it is to protect orthodoxy from emotion and those who are addicted to the ‘high’ they get from emotion in their spirituality.

So what are we to make of the ongoing attraction of pleasure as a feature of Christian worship? Is it always ‘wrong’ to enjoy devotional experiences? Is the current interest in ‘spirituality’ today just another sign of contemporary hedonism – transferred into our religious experiences?

As Christians we do not subscribe to the dreadful anthropological theory that human beings are mere animals whose thoughts and emotions are nothing more than the result of electrochemical processes in their brains. We are not materialists. Having said that, we recognize that we are spiritual beings with material bodies, whose thoughts and emotions are influenced by neurotransmitters and other electrochemical agents in ways similar to that of all conscious living things. We accept the fact that our souls are hosted by and in some ways limited by our bodies in a fallen world.

Part of the reality of the religious scene in general and the realm of spirituality in particular is the routine stimulation and manipulation of the brain by practitioners to achieve an altered state of consciousness. Such exercising of the brain in religion encompasses a broad range, from the academic-sounding cerebral use of complex rationalistic concepts to the decomposed ‘language’ of glossolalia and everything in between.

Leaving aside the manipulation of the brain by mind-altering substances, legal and illegal, found in some religions, an altered state of consciousness can be achieved by means of words. Language is one of the most potent brain stimulants in religion. Language is a divine gift – a miracle to which we have become so accustomed that we take it for granted and often abuse it.

Neurobiologists tell us that the area of the human brain that processes language is located right next to the area of the brain that processes transcendent and religious concepts. Synaptic connections being what they are, language and spiritual thoughts overlap and we find words to be very evocative and spiritually charged.

The use of language to achieve an altered state of consciousness is, of course, not just a religious phenomenon. It is used by everyone from child-minders to horse-whisperers to calm and focus minds. Lovers use ‘pillow talk’ and lovey-dovey language to generate feelings of intimacy as mind-altering as those generated through sexual activity. As they say, the most important sexual organ is the brain.

The use of language among lovers has much in common with the use of language in spirituality. The common denominator and ‘bottom line’ is pleasure – specifically the pleasure associated with intimacy. ‘Sacred pleasure’, if it can be achieved, is a kind of ‘holy grail’ for spirituality. Religious practitioners quite understandably long for religious exercises that are as pleasurable as they are obligatory. If we must resist the pull of gravity (that is ‘the law of sin that wars within our members’ (Rom. 7) in order to soar into a meaningful heavenly conversation with God, wouldn’t it help if we could ‘get our jollies’ at the same time? What if Christian devotional exercises could be, on some level, genuinely pleasurable?
Having crudely described the holy grail of spirituality, it is hard to identify very much else that can be said to be held in common among the myriad seekers of pleasurable intimacy with God. What one does find are schools of spirituality that seek to guide individual believers into common experiences of intimacy with God.

Such schools of spirituality are by no means conducive to unity among believers (This is a real understatement!) Splits between believers have often been caused by clashes between them over ‘what gets your juices going’ spiritually. Some clash over whether pleasurable intimacy with God is even right or valid. ‘If it feels good, it can’t be right’, they reason.

Often such splits are defined by their doctrinal disagreements even though some ‘doctrines’, such as the ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’ or ‘devotion to the sacred heart of Mary’ are less dogmatic than they are experiential. Speaking in tongues and endless repetitions of the Ave Maria, despite the diversity of their denominational origins, have much in common with each other. Both are among many manifestations of the use of experiences and mysticism to stimulate and manipulate the human brain to achieve a pleasurable altered state of consciousness. They are examples of devices employed in the up-hill effort to enjoy an intimate relationship with God.

Perhaps aware that the word ‘spirituality’ attracts book sales, recent Lutheran authors flirt with a kind of ‘bait and switch’ game claiming to describe spirituality but ending up discussing how Lutheran appreciation of objective doctrines rescues Lutherans from the perils of subjectivity.
Consigning the experiences properly associated with spirituality to the realm of dubious subjectivism and fleshly pleasures, these Lutherans fail to do justice to the way that even Lutherans are wired neurologically as human beings. Is the best we Lutherans can do to arrive at an almost Buddhist renunciation of all fleshly experiences in our efforts to cultivate an orthodox spirituality? Offering a ‘spirituality’ like this, without subjective experiences, is like offering a feast without food.

Part of the reason for Lutheran suspicion and disdain for experiential spirituality is that feeling a pleasurable intimacy with a god is not exclusively Christian. Yet, since when do Christians deplore using their brains, just because non-Christians use theirs? Just because we are all using the same ‘wiring’, does that mean it is uncertain or unlikely that the true God is involved in such use of our brains? After all, the true and only God is the one who has given us our brains in the first place.
No human brain is intrinsically Christian. If non-Christian brains have experiences associated with false gods that does not mean that such experiences are un-available to the true God. If anything, the opposite is true. Spiritual experiences available with the True God should make the subjective experiences with the false god’s feel like cheap fakes by comparison!

Recent efforts to elaborate upon ‘Lutheran Spirituality’ have failed to address these issues. I suspect that, in our zeal to avoid subjectivism tainted with sinful flesh we are underestimating what God can and is willing to do. And in rejecting intimate experiences with God as a priori dubious and heretical, we are letting our doubts get the best of us, and cheating ourselves out of a much more pleasurable spirituality than we feel is available or legitimate.

We excuse ourselves by insisting that we do not doubt God – we doubt man; we doubt ourselves. So we have not because we ask not. We find not because we seek not. And where is this emotionless, dispassionate piety exemplified in God’s Word? Nowhere. Emotionally dead orthodoxy is probably a remnant of enlightenment rationalism disguised as good Lutheranism, rather than genuine Christianity.
But, we argue, only experiences that are from God, like the Means of Grace, like the dominical Sacraments, are valid experiences for spirituality. This sounds reasonable: if the experience is ‘from God’ it’s legit; if it’s of human origin its not. But is that what we find in real life? Is this even what we find in Scripture? Or is spirituality more nuanced, less clearly defined, more of a mysterious mix of the divine and human?

Did God give us such enormously complex brains so that we could only interact with a few sacraments intended for the forgiveness of sins?

What do we find in Holy Scripture? The Bible exposes us to all kinds of ecstatic spirituality that we are taught today to dismiss as limited to biblical times. St. Paul says, ‘I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also’, and we have no clue what he is on about. He says, ‘I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you’, and we exclude his experiences from consideration because he was an apostle. We read his apostolic direction, ‘do not forbid speaking in tongues’, but we have seen congregations torn apart by that practice. (1 Corinthians 14.15,18 & 39).

We are also pretty hypocritical on this score, as well. I say that because many a believer, denouncing the smell of incense, will actively promote the sound of their favourite inspirational artist. And many, turning up their noses at the sound of ‘Casting Crowns’, will get misty-eyed at the sound of a Mozart or Schubert Mass, sung by a choir. We all have different stuff that gets our juices going as Christians, so why disparage others? As we read in Romans: 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's’ (Romans 14.4-8)
Maybe the problem with spirituality is that it belongs in that growing catalogue of things about which it has to be said that ‘people ruined it’.

Nevertheless there is something to be said for re-habilitating the concept of spirituality in our circles. I only appeal to us to do justice to the subject. Let’s really pursue and expect pleasurable intimacy with God and heavenly things – each one of us ‘being fully convinced in his own mind’, as the Bible says.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Revisionist History Channel and Jesus

BEWARE of a phone call from the History Channel offering you a free 30 day preview of their DVDs as a ministry resource! Unless you are 'Church of Satan', you will find the History Channel hacks have nothing edifying to offer with their biased anti-Christian 'documentaries' about our Lord Jesus Christ. The following were some of my reactions:

Judas, Betrayer or Friend?’ has a polished appearance and loaded with scripture, but all the ‘scholars’ undermine the Gospels and viewers are taught that the Gospels can be wrong and biased about Judas. The holocaust is held up by the end of the show as the result of Christian tradition that Judas was the only ‘Jew’ among the apostles, a thief, greedy and whose name sounded like ‘Jewish’ in German: ‘Jude’. The show finishes with a clear depiction of Christ’s death as redemptive, but the damage had already been done rendering this show likewise unsuitable for Christian audiences. It contained some very obvious examples of exploitation of the audiences ignorance of the Bible. One ‘scholar’ announces that Jesus never calls Judas ‘betrayer’ or ‘traitor’, but only friend. Yet those who are not biblically illiterate will know that Jesus does say of his betrayer ‘one of you is a devil’. Is ‘devil’ another way of Jesus calling Judas ‘friend’? Or the Greek language is invoked to undermine the English word, ‘betray’. It literally means, ‘hand over’, little more malign that making an appointment. Yet what about the Bible quoting Jesus asking Judas, ‘do you betray the son of man with a kiss?’? It is the same Greek word. Is Jesus simply asking, ‘do you make an appointment for the son of man with a kiss?’? The show was counting on people being ignorant of the scriptures and then exploiting that ignorance. That sounds pretty diabolical, don’t you think?

‘Paul’, another show dominated by attempts to make St. Paul interesting by making sensational, often inaccurate claims, such as exaggerating the difference between his theology and that of St. Peter and the original apostles. Prominent among the liberals interviewed is Dr. John Gager, ‘re-defining Paul’. I almost switched it off after the narrator claimed the Gospel in St. Paul’s teachings shows him to be ‘the master of spin’ (!). I concluded I could not use this in my parish. Would I really want to have people taught by a DVD that St. Paul’s zeal was driven mainly by his conclusion that the end of the world must be imminent because the resurrection of Jesus showed that the dead were already starting to rise, reasoning he never articulated in any of his writings? Dr. Pamela Eisenbaum, a Jewish feminist, teaching at a liberal Christian seminary, says, I don’t know that Paul ever made it to Rome. I think that might have died in Jerusalem…’ Since human opinions are on centre stage, I might as well say what I think. And my question is, ‘why focus on what the revisionists are saying; are sensational new claims that make good television, the only things viewers should hear?’’

‘The Execution of Jesus’ is from the History Channel’s ‘Mysteries of the Bible series’. Although nicely narrated by the English actress Jean Simmons, very soon into the show viewers were subjected to the cynical materialistically biased prating of Jesus Seminar founder, John Dominic Crossan who announces that Jesus never called himself divine. ‘Since when?’ Well - since the ‘Jesus Seminar’ becomes the real star of the ‘Act I’, that begins with the alarmist observation that the gospels were written after Jesus’ earthly lifetime, ergo we have absolutely no written eyewitness testimony (!). Act II is about holy week, ruined by Crossan’s stupid doubts that Lazarus was really raised. Acts III & IV is about the triduum, ruined by narrative saying, ‘…scholars attempt to separate poetic license taken by the gospel writers from the actual events of the day’ and more of Crossan’s doubts (repeated from an earlier segment) and his own admission that, if it was not for the cleansing of the temple, Crossan has no idea why Jesus’ execution was sought. Act V is wholly devoted to the resurrection, ruined by more ‘scholars’ trying to explain it away as psychosis or myth. Would I inflict this on members of my parish? Far from it.

The Last Supper was the subject of a DVD from the History Channel devoted to ‘the holiest meal in the history of Christianity’. With the biblical narrative read by the late Jean Simmons, there is mercifully less of the Jesus Seminar hacks, but Crossan still pops up routinely as ‘scholars struggle to re-construct (read destruct) what actually happened’. Never is there the slightest hint that anyone regarded the bread and wine as anything but symbolic. For this reason alone, I would never contaminate my parishioners minds with this program.

With ‘Mary of Nazareth’ we get a program that is far more reverent in its depiction than any of those dealing with Jesus. Yet it is a program with inexplicable omissions: Lots of references to angels are made (including the non-biblical immaculate conception); why not mention that angels guided the shepherds to the stable to visit the newborn Jesus? How else did the shepherds know to go there? Other omissions are even more strange. Why omit the child Jesus in the Temple narrative? This had to be bad editing, with this important part of the story ending up on the cutting room floor or something. On the plus side there are comments from Dr. Paul Maier several times. But still, I would not waste the money on this DVD or the time to show it to my parishioners.

‘James, Brother of Jesus’ was a good documentary on the ossuary that may both prove in stone the existence of James, Jesus and his step-father, Joseph.

The 'Apostles Collection – 2 DVD set' was harmless and quite good. Perhaps, at some point in the future, I may obtain a copy, but not now.

After viewing all the DVDs sent to me by History Education, It did not take me 30 days to conclude that they are quite unsatisfactory for my pastoral use. I will NOT tolerate the Holy Scriptures being assaulted in this way, as I am sure no other religions would tolerate such disrespectful treatment of their holy books.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Passionate about the Passion of Christ

The Latin variations on their word for suffering: 'passus', 'passio' and so forth, are the origin of our word 'passion'. It is from the word 'suffering' that we get the word 'passion'. But in modern English we don't tend to mean pain when we use the word passion. If you tell me baking cookies is your passion, you are not saying you find cooking a pain. Likewise if I hear that she loves him with a passion, I don't understand by that that she finds him to be a pain.

So language changes. That's fine. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, for the purposes of preaching the Gospel, I'm glad that 'passion' doesn't mean 'pain and suffering' to us today! Because it is the modern understanding of the word 'passion' – an intense and all pervasive driving force of love - that best describes the impulse behind God's Son dying on a cross for the sin of the world!

For, if we focus on the original meaning of the word passion, as in 'Ooo doesn't crucifixion really hurt', then what are we doing? Or, if we emphasize what a terrible thing it was to cause Jesus so much suffering; again – where are we going with this? You see, there is a right way and a wrong way to meditate on the passion and sufferings of Jesus Christ.

This is why we are not here this evening to express outrage at the way those Jews or those Romans mistreated Jesus. We know God is not impressed when we congratulate ourselves that we are not as evil as 'those people'.

Nor are we here to merely sympathize with Jesus, like the women who wept for Him as he staggered by them carrying His cross. You may recall that Jesus actually said to those women, 'weep not for me' (Luke 23.27). His view on that has not changed.

All the wrong ways to meditate on the passion of Christ have one thing in common: they aim to achieve God's favour and earn His approval. Such meditation has the opposite effect of what God intends!

God wants us to take away from the passion of the Christ one message only and that is that none of us could earn God's approval nor make up for our own sins and failures necessitating God's Son's coming into the world – to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. He had to save us from our sins or else we would be lost to God forever. That is the precise message of the passion of the Christ.

During this 2011 Lenten Season, we have been turning our attention to the miracles of Lent. I would suggest to you that the sacrifice of Christ by which He redeemed sinners like you and me is the great miracle of Good Friday.

Webster’s dictionary defines the word miracle as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention.” It seems most appropriate to describe as a miracle the intervention to save humanity that the atoning death of God's Son is. It is most extraordinary that God would do this and the most wondrous example of divine intervention there is.

St. Peter wrote: “Christ . . . suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God.”

The salvation of the human race is truly God's passion – an intense and all pervasive driving force of love. When Christ was hanging on that horrible cross, He was thinking not of Himself but rather of you, me, and the whole world.

And it was truly 'passion' – in the modern sense, meaning love – that was the impulse behind His saving us and the plan to do so from the very creation of our world.

Scripture abounds with the use of this word 'love' to describe the accomplishment of God's work of redeeming the world through Christ' crucified:
In Galatians 2:20, we read, “Christ . . . loved me and gave Himself for me.”
• In Ephesians 5:2, we read, “Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
• In Ephesians 5:25, we read, “Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”

Jesus Christ, out of passionate love for us, accepted the full punishment for our sins and the sin of the whole world, as I said in my opening text:
“Christ . . . suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God.”
It was a miracle that God would take us, in our unrighteousness, ruined and contaminated by sin and not discard us forever, but instead choose to save us – and to do so despite the unthinkable pain that it would cause Him! But He did it! That is the miracle of Good Friday – the miracle of the passion of the Christ!

As the result of that miracle of Good Friday, you and I can rejoice in the Gospel, the Good News that although '...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23–24).

We will spend eternity benefitting from the fact that “The wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” as St. Paul wrote to the Romans (Romans 6:23).

To be sure, the phenomenon of three hours of darkness at mid-day, the torn temple curtain, the earthquake, and the other miracles were all supernatural events intended by the heavenly Father to set apart the death of His Son from absolutely every other death—past, present, and future, but the greatest miracle on Good Friday, is the passionate love that was the impulse behind Christ crucified.

As I like to quote Isaac Watts, 'Here His whole Name appears complete; nor wit can guess nor reason prove which of the letters best is writ, the Power, the Wisdom, or the love'.

The love of God, the Father the Son and the Holy Spirit for us, is certainly different from the other miracles of the Passion. In fact it is absolutely unique.

And there is nothing like the Gospel. Just as it was God's passion to make it a reality for us, so it deserves to be our passion that the awesome price paid in blood by Christ so that our sins might be forgiven that we need not perish but have everlasting life, should be proclaimed to the end of time and beyond. Amen.