Tuesday, June 12, 2012
'Surprised by Joy' is the title of one of C.S.Lewis' books in which he describes how his faith was exercised by the death of his wife, Joy.
Joy is not something that people naturally expect to be associated with suffering. For Christians, however, it is different; because, when suffering affects believers, there is, in the midst of it all an exercise of faith. And there is joy in that exertion. It is a bitter-sweet joy, but it is a joy nevertheless. Perhaps it is a joy that only believers can know. It is the profession of the faithful that, if we feel joy in the midst of pain, it is because '...the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’ (2 Corinthians 4.7).
The apostle St.Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians contains great wisdom for us as we ‘groan’ over the troubles of life. He knew all about troubles! He writes, ‘We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body’.
In these times of ease and convenience we don’t like hardship. When difficulties present themselves, rather than rise to the occasion as believers, we act like spoiled children who cannot put things in perspective and fall to pieces rather that react like people who trust God.
In our affluent world we are particularly vulnerable to reacting badly to hardship. We are challenged by the example of St. Paul, who saw hardship as part and parcel of life on earth. The outward circumstances of life in which ‘stuff happens’ combined with his own physical limitations did not deter him from praising God and seeing a divine purpose working itself out in his life, nevertheless.
‘We have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’, he wrote. The weaker he felt, the more the apostle saw the strength of God and His grace being sufficient and, indeed ‘perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor. 12.9). So what, if God said no to his prayers, that the ‘thorn in his flesh’ be taken away? He would live with it, if that was God’s will, and even ‘rejoice’ at the exercise of faith that was involved.
He offers us comfort when he writes, ‘though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands’ (2 Cor. 4.16-5.1).
Deferred glory and deferred comfort was worth celebrating for St. Paul and should be for us, too. We fix our eyes on the glory that awaits us beyond this life, just as Jesus fixed His eyes on the accomplishment of our redemption. ‘For the joy that was set before Him, He endured the cross’ (Heb. 12.2).
After all, we are all beneficiaries of the suffering of Jesus that accomplished the forgiveness of all our sin and opened the kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
As Christ is risen and has re-assumed His glory, so He promises that He goes to prepare a place for us who trust in Him, in a glorious world to come.
‘Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling’, and God expects us to be ok with that. The glory is coming.
Thursday, May 24, 2012
Just before my birthday this year, I came home to find a box sitting on a ledge on one side of the front porch. It contained some presents from my parents and they had written a smiley face on every side of the box. As I picked it off the ledge to bring into the house, the thought occurred to me; this box could easily have fallen off the ledge and perhaps never been found. It could have languished outside, smiley faces and all, and its intended purpose would have been in vain. How sad that would have been!
But because I brought it inside, it was safe and my parents hopes for it were realized when I opened it up and cherished its contents. I should also add that I kept the box, too, as a reminder of the hopes that God our heavenly Father has that we will benefit from the gift that He has given us in the form of the forgiveness of our sins and the ongoing communion with Him that is the supreme ‘gift that keeps on giving’.
Sadly, however, many today, who have also been redeemed by the blood of God’s Son, so that they could enjoy the gift of everlasting fellowship with Him, leave this gift neglected outside of their lives like that gift box left outside of my home. They may have noticed it in passing, but thought to themselves that they would deal with it at some later date. They leave God’s gift outside, in all weathers, ignoring His hopes, His smiles, and risking the loss of that gift altogether when the time comes when it is too late to retrieve it from its precarious position on a ledge somewhere outside of their lives. ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock’, Jesus says to all whom He has redeemed (Rev. 3.20).
God’s gift of fellowship with Him, Communion and Participation in His life is not a one-time thing, like a box that we open once and then discard. Partaking of eternal life is something that God is ever-hopeful that we will continue to do throughout our earthly lives and forever after. In that way we will not only be ‘saved’, but safe.
By all means, ‘open the box’, but do not throw away the box. Yes, you have been ‘saved’ by God, but you must take steps to keep the faith that God has given you by His grace. He has called and enlightened you, just as Luther says ‘he called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true’.
And that which keeps us all in the one true faith is participation, fellowship (koinonia) with God that comes with a living connection to the life of Christ, by His word, His sacraments and His Church. The Church is the context in which God ‘forgives daily and richly all sins’. ‘Be all be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure’, writes St. Peter (2 Peter 1.10). Don’t leave the box on the porch. Take it in to your life for only then will you fully enjoy its contents and only in ongoing fellowship with God will His hopes and investment in you be realized.
Easter is a time when we marvel at the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. One of the most reliably documented and established facts of history, the miracle of life returning to the crucified, dead and buried body of Jesus is not just an astonishing phenomenon in itself, but a source of great comfort to all believers. This is because of the connection between Jesus’ bodily resurrection and our own.
‘Because I live, you will live also’, Jesus promised (John 14.19). And His apostle, St. Paul, in his writings explains how this affects us, even after physical death.
Writing to the Corinthians, St. Paul said, ‘in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ’ (1 Corinthians 15.20-23).
By calling the resurrection of Jesus the firstfruit of our resurrection, St. Paul taught that since the bodily resurrection of Jesus took place we can expect our own bodily resurrection to follow, for we belong to Him. The term firstfruit refers to the Old Testament practice of offering to God the ‘firstfruit’ of their crops, a sheaf of grain to represent and anticipate the rest of the harvest (Leviticus 23:9-14).
Referring to the sacrament of baptism, that unites all believers to Jesus, St. Paul’s assertion was this: ‘For if (through baptism) we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his’ (Romans 6:5).
St. John’s reasoning is similar: ‘Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3.2).
In the Apostles’ Creed, when we confess our faith ‘in the resurrection of the body’, it is the belief in the future of our own bodies to which we refer.
This resurrection of (every)body is promised on the last Day – the Judgment Day. Both those who are banished to hell on that day and those who will spend eternity in Heaven receive their bodies back. Although their bodies may have been reduced to dust after centuries of decomposition, the Bible says, ‘those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt’ (Daniel 12.2).
A resurrection of human bodies is not, strictly speaking, necessary. God’s angels have a complete existence without bodies. Also, in Luke 16, Jesus revealed that the souls of the dead even have sensations without bodies. Nevertheless, a bodily existence is what God designed human beings to have, and have them we shall.
If the judgment Day occurs during our earthly lives we will not need a bodily resurrection, but we will need to be changed and God will change us to be like the resurrected Jesus. ‘Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ’.
Probably second only to the sadness of unrequited love is the depressing feeling of being left out of a pleasurable shared experience. Others get to enjoy it – you are left out; what could be worse than that! It is a kind of ‘Hell on earth’ to miss out in that way. Contrast that difference between the sadness of being excluded and the thrill of full participation in something wonderful and you will have touched upon a key insight in Christian belief.
God’s Word describes some ‘entering into the joy of your Lord’ and others being ‘cast into outer darkness… (where) there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Matt. 25.23-30), This applies to more than the end of the world or Judgement Day. It also describes the difference between participating in the life of the Body of Christ and not participating.
By the ‘thrill of participation’, I do not refer to merely attending church activities – even the Divine Service. People can attend things, but still be left out of the true benefit of the activity. True ‘participation’ has to do with the original meaning of the word. ‘Participation’ is but one of several shades of meaning of the single Greek word: Koinonia. Other meanings of that word are ‘sharing’, ‘fellowship’ and ‘communion’.
The thrill of Koinonia belongs to those who, not only show up and ‘walk’ with other people, but who – above all - walk with the Lord in repentance and in favour with God and men. ‘…if we 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).
Talk to sportsmen and they will make a distinction between simply being ‘in the game’ and being ‘in the zone’! Being in the zone means ‘You have total focus. Your performance is effortless. You are in synch within yourself, and you display total dominance in whatever you are pursuing’. There is nothing hypocritical, superficial or perfunctory about being ‘in the zone’. And the result is thrilling.
That is what God intends Communion to be. Fellowship with Him is supposed to be full integration into His life. Those who are ‘double-minded’ - who try to ‘serve both God and Mammon’; for example, will not know the thrill of participation. They may show up, but their spiritual walk will be hindered by the weight of un-repented sin. Far better to ‘lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith’ (Hebrews 12.1-2),
Being in Communion starts with ‘going to Communion’, but does not end there with the forgiveness of sin. ‘How can we who died to sin still live in it?’ (Romans 6:2). No, communion does not end with God’s forgiveness; it BEGINS with God’s forgiveness. It continues with a discipline to forsake sin and follow Christ who leads us in ‘the paths of righteousness for His Name’s sake’ (Psalm 23).
‘Thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved’ (2 Corinthians 2:14-15).
Remember the comparison I make between the Christian life and soaring in a glider. Don’t let divided loyalty to God force you to hit the ground. Remain aloft by His grace. Live every moment ‘prayerfully’. ‘Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:22-24). Taste the thrill of full participation, full communion and koinonia and you will not look back.