Sunday, October 29, 2017

Love God

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18     Psalm 1     I Thessalonians 2:1-8      Matthew 22:34-46

I think it fair to say that Christianity really does not know what to do with the Jewish Law. We are not "under the Law," yet we reject lawlessness. Even grace-centered Evangelicals use Leviticus 18:22 in debates on same sex marriage. If Progressives disdain this use of law, they still trumpet the social justice text in 19:9-10 as Gospel truth. Yes some Bible laws seem silly to us, yet many touch the core of our humanity. Even Paul says that saving faith in Jesus cannot co-exist with idol worship.

In the introduction of the Jewish Study Bible to Leviticus, we hear that "the study of the laws of Leviticus stood at the center rabbinic learning....It was customary for small children to begin their study of the Bible with Leviticus...[because] 'the pure' (i.e., children) should be engaged in the study of purity...Leviticus remains at the foundation of Jewish life." (p205, Baruch J. Schwartz) However, it is what follows that most resonates with my Christian soul, "Leviticus teaches that the ritual commandments and the ethical or social ones (between humans and God and between humans and humans) are equally important and equally valid....the love of one's neighbor is a divine commandment and every offense against one's fellow human being desecrates the name of God....
[this] is the reason for the Jewish people's existence. God has entered into a relationship with the Israelites so that they might perpetually sanctify His name. Their role in the world, and in history, is to attest to His existence, to publicize His oneness, and to advertise His greatness.... When they fail to do so, His name is profaned, that is, His name is diminished and His reputation tarnished; when they live up to this charge and duty, He and His name are sanctified." (206)

It would take me years to ponder this remarkable book. While often painfully repetitive in detail, it deals with a primary religious question, "How do sinners become holy?"

Our corporate and individual sins diminish the presence of God in the world. Jesus says that Jews (and be extension us) are the light of the world. Like the Jews, our reason for existence is also to glorify God's name. We have no Temple sacrifices, we have Jesus, but Leviticus' instructions help us to understand Jesus more deeply. It also reminds us that human behavior matters to God. Behaviors matter because it is at bottom about a relationship. Law, however it is described, still functions and love is at the heart of the law. 

Jesus' answer to the question, "Which law is the greatest?" reminds us that God's instruction and commands are not random or arbitrary. Jesus does not reject the question as redundant, nor does He say, "Forget the Torah, just believe." Human sin is a breeding ground for Evil and Darkness. Our mind, heart and soul are diseased and sick, in need of healing.  Decay in the human soul begets societal decay. The Gnostic reduction of salvation to "an escape to heaven when I die" is a rejection of the Biblical God Who has intervened to redeem creation. God loves His creation. Creation groans for the coming salvation. Today one gunman can wound and kill hundreds of people. One match can destroy thousands of acres. One false prophet can peddle his lies to millions. All of this harms creation and brings shame on God's name. This is anathema to those who love God.

Sin and death are the direct fruit of humanity's failure to love God. Jesus tells us to love God with all our mind, heart and soul.* This is total love--not a feeling, but loyalty to His Cause. It is a pledge of all I am and all I have. In other words, it is way more than we give. Do we love God totally? No. Do we love others? No. Honestly, lots of times I do not even like myself.... Take heart, each week the liturgy includes the confession, "we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves." Apparently, they already knew we wouldn't!  Perhaps, some day, we will. The first step is to say, authentically "We are truly sorry and humbly repent." (Confession is from the Book of Common Prayer, p360) And never, ever forget, the Lord does love you totally, and that is our hope. 

If we repent and begin to change our lives; that is all God needs.
So ask for Holy Spirt fire of love to burn in you.
Trust Jesus as Lord and be open.
Tell the Heavenly Father, "I love you, help me love you more"
It will begin to happen, here and now. 

* in Mark 12:28-34 there are four: heart, soul, mind and strength. The source text, Deuteronomy 6:5 says "heart, soul and strength." However the word in Hebrew me'od is usually translated as an adverb meaning 'very' or 'exceedingly' and implies strength, but could also be translated as 'wealth' or 'property.' The discussion of the "inner person"--raises the question, what exactly are the mind, heat, soul, spirit? The overlapping definitions and different opinions confuse as often as they clarify. Also, unlike Matthew, in Mark the interaction is more positive. The Scribe (not a lawyer as in Matthew and Luke) commends Jesus for His answer and Jesus tells him that he is "not far from the Kingdom of Heaven." In Luke 10:25-28 the engagement has shifted from a hostile test to an inquiry, "what shall I do to attain eternal life?" Most Christian do not know that Jesus responds by turning the question back on the lawyer, "what do you think?" When the lawyer answers love God and neighbor Jesus tells him that he is right so "do this and live." This leads Jesus to explain who is the neighbor with the famous parable of the "Good Samaritan." I was shocked to find this morning that very reading was assigned in the Gospel of Luke for morning prayer.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Thessalonians Three Threes of Salvation Living

Isaiah 45:1-7      Psalm 96:1-9(10-13)      I Thessalonians 1:1-10      Matthew 22:15-22
Our Abba Father has a plan to save His out of control creation. Through His Incarnate Word and Holy Spirit, the Father leaves eternity and intervenes within the limits of time and space. He is finding a way to accomplish His purposes, sometimes  through human actors. In Isaiah, today, God declares that Cyrus, the Persian ruler is His Messiah. This is an amazing claim. A pagan king called Messiah? Revelation: Our Father is the God of unbelievers and He can use them as tools of salvation. Perhaps this is why Jesus is not worried about giving Caesar his due? Jesus trusts His Father. The Kingdom of God is bigger than human politics. God's Kingdom encompasses all the earth, even as it penetrates our minds and hearts. The human and demonic powers at odds with God are already defeated. We can live in shalom peace trusting our loving Father.

The early church was small and weak, yet trusted in the power of God. The power of the Roman Empire seemed unassailable, yet Jesus followers in Thessalonica received the Gospel even as they suffered persecution. Rome's pagan culture seemed to be eternal. Yet today there are over two billion Christians while Rome's pagan temples lie in ruins. Jesus is worshipped as Lord while Caesar is only a salad.  

1st Thessalonians, the earliest New Testament letter, says that the church is in God. The two word greeting says it all: grace (that which provides joy, pleasure or delight; kindness bestowed) and peace (security, tranquility, quietness, rest, translates Hebrew shalom- completeness, contentment, prosperity, friendly relationship with God and others) are the gifts of God to His church. Hear this gospel message in your own heart.

Paul's gratitude challenges us to constantly thank God all day. 

Paul commends their faith, hope and love.  He calls it the work of faith and the labor of love.  Sometimes it is (Greek ergos)  labor/work to trust God and be faithful. It is a (Greek kopos) "difficult struggle" to truly love God and others. The daily journey of faith and love requires steadfastness. The Greek hypomenos can also be translated as patience or endurance. People of hope are patient during theosis/divinization--as we grow in faith and love we enter deeper union with God. Becoming holy takes a lifetime and more, yet the moment we turn back to God (repentance) it is already begun. The church is in God, after all.

A second set of three describes their response to the gospel. "He has chosen you" Paul says to them and to us. The word ekloge literally means "called out/from."  How awesome, God calls you out from the broken world into relationship. The message has POWER--the empowerment of being beloved and chosen. The message is Holy Spirit filled--God Himself is the gift. The message evokes pleroporia--full conviction, absolute assurance--that it is true. When we turn from fear and doubt and embrace God's Promise amazing things happen.

Faith, then and now, opens us to transformation. We are made into imitators (mimetes - mimic or follow; a mime) of the Lord. Even persecutions can not diminish the real joy. Is there joy in being called? Yes, and we must affirm that joy regularly. We must say I am called, I am beloved and my Father wants me to be with Him forever. It is okay to have joy in your heart, especially if it is the joy from a love relationship with our Lord.

A life of  real faith becomes its own witness. The third set of three illustrates for us. We turn FROM false gods, idols of our own making, the futile search for salvation and life in the temporal circumstances of a dying world. We turn TO serve a living and true God. The Christian life is the best of lives, and it is time for us all to experience more deeply. And we WAIT. Jesus taught frequently of the need to watch and wait. Hope gives us patience until all things are made new. This is the in between time: Christ has come, Christ will come again. In the meantime, chosen by God, we are to do the work of trusting and the labor of loving. In the meantime, we serve our God as we await Jesus return. In the meantime, together, as the church in God, we live in joy as the chosen people whose way of life is a witness to all those around us!
Amen, so be it.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Praying into Union

Praying into Union

The word “salvation” (yasha; yeshuah=Jesus) first appears in Genesis 49:18 “For your salvation I wait.” The Hebrew (yeshuah=Jesus) word can be translated “salvation, deliverance, welfare, prosperity, victory, help, health and saving health.” It is the feminine passive participle of yasha (literally--to be open, wide, free, opulent; by extension save, savior, deliver, preserve, rescue, (give) victory, defend). These words have both a mundane, temporal application and a spiritual, theological application. A large number of usages were in the context of military deliverance.

Salvation is God's work of love and mercy. Our response, repentance, is the work or returning to God. The Greek word, metanoia, is a compound of "meta" and "nous" and means a change of mind, a mind from above. Repentance is a "nous" centered phenomenon. The central focus of Christians has two elements: God's grace/mercy entering covenant with us and our response repentance/fidelity/love/trust.

Ultimately, “salvation” includes victory over sin and death, freedom from the world, flesh and devil and healing of our brokenness in body, soul and spirit. It is also reconciliation of humanity with God in perfect unity. Salvation is a process. I believe that there are similarities in how the physical, emotional, mental, relational and spiritual dimensions work. So physical exercise can be a model for understanding spiritual exercises; healthy body and healthy soul.
The least helpful way to understand salvation is “going to heaven.” “Going to heaven” is impersonal, it focuses on a reward earned or a gift given to people who get access to enter the “greatest amusement park ever.” Many people imagine a family reunion, however, it is often devoid of any sense of worship. God's role is reduced to “providing the fun”… The theological debates, in light of this, question of the admission process: good works or grace? The modern salvation debates have centered on law court justice. God is envisioned as The Judge. Theologians ponder the decree of guilty or innocent and shift the focus from relationship with God to exoneration. The relational model is organic. By definition it cannot ignore God. The theosis model is about transformative union, it is, therefore, about the existential and ontological state of a person, not their legal status.

However, if Heaven is actually a circumlocution for God, then relationship with God is actually the content of Heaven. Relational models do a better job of grasping that reality then a Law Court explanation. Based on Incarnation theology—God became one of us so we could become one with Him—it is helpful to have a developmental approach as well.

If our goal is to repent and turn back to God; then prayer should be part of that return. Prayer is opening the mind and heart to the triune God. Prayer is an experience of the Kingdom of God now. However, it is a long, slow and imperfect experience of the Holy Three God. The communion of prayer is impacted by the divisive power of Sin. We constantly turn from God  and prayer is the eternal return to God. It is more important that we connect with the Holy Three God  than it is provide a "to do list"... 

“Mind/Soul” [Greek nous] is the seat of perceiving—both intuition and sensing; feeling; thinking—to include knowing, reasoning and understanding; judging and choosing. The ‘mind’ is darkened by sin which means we are often misled. We are in broken communion with God. The Divine Light does not fill our “nous” which wounds us to our core (heart). We cannot "see" rightly so we cannot choose rightly. We need saving: forgiveness, healing and renewal. 

The ongoing problem of “bad thoughts” and the resultant “sinful desires” (called ‘passions’ because they cause pain) is the sin which divides us further from God, each other and ourselves. Sin is both an outward act and an inward disposition (hence Jesus in Matthew 5 “You have heard it said “do not…” but I say to you…).

The purification of the “nous” has two dimensions. The human dimension is our responsibility. It is the so-called “spiritual disciplines” including prayer, study, ascetical practices and love. The purpose of the church is to support this healing process ("soul healing" or from the Greek words; psycho-therapy). All of our efforts open the mind and heart to receive God’s gracious activities. Remember, God saves us, we just cooperate. However, He does not save us against our will. For example, if God reveals Himself to us in the Scripture, then if we prayerfully read (or hears) the Scripture we encounter God. If we turn away..... It is the work of the Holy Spirit but we cooperate (synergism= work with) and this is because free will is required for a genuine relationship. Love cannot be bought, coerced or programed, it must be freely given. 
Simple, relational prayer is the best: 

1.    Focus on the reality of God. Spend time in awareness.

2.   Focus on opening to God and request the Lord's help in this. It is about unity and relationship, not getting stuff.

3.   Jesus’ name—we pray in and through Messiah--is central. The word Yeshuah has a depth of meaning revealing His identity. Pray with gratitude and trust His Promise. Mt 7:7-11 “Ask... Seek… Knock…” you will “receive… find… it opens...” 

4.   Trust God is responding. Confidently acknowledge it in faith even if you do not see/feel it. Focus on what is taking place. Work on receptivity. Thanksgiving prayer, over and over, is the proper response.

5.   Spend significant amounts of time in prayer each day. Repetitive prayer with a focus on being present to God, opening to God’s purifying, healing and unifying Spirit and with the desire to give ourselves to the Father (rather than cajole Him into granting some wish list) should become one of your daily occupations.    

6.   In addition, Listen. Read the Bible. Repeat verses or phrase prayerfully. Psalms is a rich source, by the way. It may take decades for our ‘nous/mind’ to be purified by His Holy Fire and Light. We are on a long journey into the heart of God, but paradoxically from the first step we are already in, but always we have farther to go. Prayer is a key component of successfully reaching that destination.  

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Salvation as destruction: a cowboy movie perspective

Isaiah 25:1-9 Ps 23 Philippians 4:1-9 Matthew 22:1-14

I read once that the appeal of cowboy movies was that they have the veiled Gospel. Gospel means the Good News of salvation. Helpless townsfolk need a hero, we need someone to face down the bad guys and rescue us. There are variations, of course, but in the end, usually after a violent encounter, the bad guys are defeated. And in the best of them, the hero suffers for his faithfulness...

Israel's stories of God are ancient templates for the Cowboy movies. The People of God need saving and YHWH, the Father God, hears their cries. Salvation, however, also leaves carnage. The bad guys do not experience salvation as a joyful thing. And sometimes the bad guys are the People of God. Jesus' parable is very much influenced by the prophetic books of Israel. The message of Judges, Samuel and Kings is two fold. "I will save my people and destroy her enemies," says the Lord, "but if you act like them I will destroy you too." This message fuels the works of Isaiah, Jeremiah and all the rest. This message is at the heart of Jesus' parable--a thinly veiled summary of Israel's history.

The King is graciously honoring citizens with an invitation to the wedding feast of his son! They dishonor the King,then abuse and kill his servants. In retribution their city is burned to the ground and leveled. The reference, perhaps lost on us, was quite apparent to Matthew's original audience. It was Jerusalem, the city of God destroyed by the Roman army in their lifetime. Jesus invited them to His Feast, but as they had rejected and killed the prophets so now they rejected and killed Him. In Matthew, the sinners and outcasts, even the late arriving Gentiles, were gathering around Jesus for the feast. However, Matthew would not have us misunderstand the nature of grace. It is a free offer but it requires an appropriate response. The wedding garment, I think, is a symbol of love, repentant faith and loyal discipleship. Good guys wear white robes in the Bible after all...

Isaiah 24-27, a collection of prophecies with an apocalyptic flavor, reveals the same story of salvation. John uses some of the language and imagery in His Revelation. No surprise then, that Isaiah's song praising God's salvation, begins with an announcement that the enemy's city is laid waste: a heap, a ruin, a rubble... The adjectives to describe the people and their city mean strong, fierce, greedy and terrifying. Their oppression is compared to the relentless summer sun or the destructive winter storm. The people seek refuge in God. Refuge for the poor and needy. Refuge in the safety of His love and protection. And what do you call people who are in a refuge? Refugees. It is easy to forget in our middle class comfort and splendor, that we are all spiritual refugees, brothers and sisters of all the marginal and outcasts.

In contrast to this, Isaiah lays out the wonderful feast awaiting all those who climb the mountain of the Lord. For people who never have enough to eat, such a feast was an unimaginable blessing. Food and drink in abundance is less amazing to us, we have too much, but the Lord makes an announcement which even our affluence cannot buy. "I will destroy death." The most beautiful verse to me, one which John uses in the Apocalypse as well, "My Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces..."

In the end, death is the ultimate enemy. It separates us from all we love, from all we hold dear. The Gospel message is death is on a short leash. The one thing missing from the cowboy movies is resurrection. Resurrection, however, is not missing from the Gospel. You and I, we have an invitation to a party. The greatest party ever. And it is a party where eternal life is the main course. Life. Abundant life. Glorious life. Already His strong hand overthrows the enemies who would oppress His people, already His gentle hand wipes away the tears. Come let us sing to the Lord and rejoice in God our savior.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Connections: Chronicles and Matthew

Although I have read straight through the Bible through many times, I never caught this connection between 2 Chronicles and Matthew. In preparing to preach, however, my ears were attuned to pick it up this morning. In Matthew 22, the Sunday Gospel in two weeks, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who sends out his messengers to announce the Feast is ready. The invited guests make light of the invitation and went about their lives. However, that story takes an uglier turn as they proceed then to abuse and kill the messengers. It was the mocking, though, which I heard echoed.

In 2 Chronicles 29-30 we read of the emergence the new king, Hezekiah. Hezekiah pleases God because he is a good king like David. His first order of business is to purify the Temple and its priests, after years of syncretism (mixing the true faith with other elements) and outright paganism (worship of other gods). Scholars discern a priestly authorship behind the Chronicles (Ezra and Nehemiah also). Concern with ritual purity, Temple worship and priesthood are, therefore, not unexpected. Hezekiah wants to celebrate the Passover, though surprisingly at an irregular time, a month late. The connection, however, which caught my eye had to do with the invitation. Hezekiah's message (30:6) "Return to the Lord" (repent). Repentance will lead to blessing, he declares, they will be delivered from their captors, this is also called redemption. The Lord is gracious and merciful. Return to be saved by the grace of God is also the central message of Jesus. Indeed, the response to Jesus, alluded to in the parable, was generally negative, "they were laughed at and mocked."

Did Jesus have this story in mind as He told His parable? Would His listeners see connections between the Passover celebration in Chronicles and the wedding feast? Was laughter and derision, which sealed the fate of the exiles, not going to have the same impact on Jesus' audience (the Second Temple to be leveled, the city destroyed)? If so, then the vicarious slaughter of lambs (30:17) by Levites on behalf of those who were not clean may be hinting at Jesus, the Lamb of God, Who is slaughtered on behalf of unclean humanity. As regards the sinful masses, the king (a type of the Messiah Jesus), declares that (30:18-19) "The good Lord will provide atonement for everyone who set his mind on worshipping God, the Lord God of the fathers, even if he is not purified for the sanctuary." This seems consistent with the Gospel this past Sunday (Matthew 21:31) where Jesus said that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom Heaven. Jesus, we will hear at the Passover celebration in Matthew 26 will identify the bread and wine of the meal as His Body and Blood. He is the new Passover meal and He is the sacrifice for atonement.

The connection of scripture, many different books yet one Grand Story, is behind the idea that Jesus fills-up (fulfillment) Scripture. I suggest you read both and find your own connections. I hope this brief illustration is on value in your own prayer and in a deeper understanding of the Gospel in two weeks.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

On Synergism and Theosis: God's Salvation for All and Each One

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32   Psalm 25:1-8   Philippians 2:1-13   Matthew 21:23-32

The Jewish Bible was composed over a time period stretching some one thousand years. The different time periods and settings generate the sort of  pendulum effects we have always seen in human history. Within the Bible there is even theological development, and today is an example. The prophet Ezekiel's word rejects the longstanding way Israel understood sin and guilt. The twenty missing verse explain it in detail, but basically sin/guilt/punishment was considered a corporate/family issue. Families shared in the blame. This is a communal understanding of human existence which was the norm in ancient culture (and eastern culture). However, now God declares that each nephesh//living soul will be held accountable for his/her own personal life. This is a radical shift toward the individual, and our cultural norms are shaped by it. However, we must not miss the central point: relationship with YHWH Lord is always in present tense. What you did, good or bad, is not determinative, what is the relationship right now, that is what is determinative. Repent, come back, return to ME He says over and over. God shares His heart, "I don't want people to perish, I want them to live." He repeats, "I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies...Repent, then, and live."

Whatever else God can do or could do, what He has done is make creation where there is free will. Freedom is a requirement for relationship and love. This is the meaning of the Cross--God made people who can reject Him. Our choices can thwart God's will that "all live." Life requires "a new heart and a new Spirit." The Hebrew here is enlightening. The verb 'asah (to do, to make, to labor, to fashion) occurs numerous times in the creation account to describe God's creative work. Now it is applied to the work of the human agent in making a new heart. Many prefer to think that salvation is a "God only" affair. There are isolated verses which seem to say this, but that is not the message of the entire Scripture. Both the teaching of the New Testament (synergo=synergy/with+work; see 1 Thessalonians 3:2; 1 Corinthians 3:9; Romans 8:28; 2 Corinthians 6:1 and Mark 16:20) and Ancient Church* recognize that human labor--the cooperation/synergism--are the journey of life. The goal is a new heart (leb-heart, mind, center, inner person, character) and a new spirit (ruah-wind, breath, spirit, mind). The process begins by literally to "casting off sin" (repentance and conversion) while you transform from within. Spirituality is a moving from (sin/death) and a moving toward (God/life). Although human effort is not sufficient, the Scripture cannot be broken--God's revelation is that you must do the hard work needed to have a new heart and spirit.

This may be why St. Paul says: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."

In isolation such a message may discourage us. It can be misunderstood to imply that salvation is a human centered process (the Pelagian heresy). In reality, we learn that our efforts to create a new heart and spirit produce so little. We take a few steps forward, only to slip backward. Progress is measured in inches, and so we give up by being preoccupied with the distractions of passing things. Who wants fear and trembling about salvation when daily worries consume us? Fortunately, it is not our work alone. Paul continues, "for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and work for His good pleasure." The Ancient Father's understood synergism holistically: God saves us in and through our own conversion work. God is the source of this He supports the process which turns us from Sin and Death toward union with the Holy Three God.

Jesus is central to this. The incarnation is the instrument of this. Paul, as we have seen recently, often speaks of the mind and our way of perceiving, thinking, feeling, judging... Paul says we must think alike, we must have the mind of Jesus Christ. How much time do you focus on this task? Do you understand the world you live in? Do you understand how many of  the values and beliefs which shape you are not of God? Your mind, heart, and is a battlefield---but we do not battle alone. God is with us in Jesus.

The Eternal Son, emptied Himself of "God-ness." (kenosis-make empty)
No mystery is more mysterious. How can God become human?
No mystery is more unfathomable. How can the Eternal become finite and limited?
No mystery is more beautiful. Jesus emptied Himself to make us full.
This is love! This is redemption and salvation. This is also our purpose and goal in life.
God became human so that humans can become God. Theosis-divinizaton!
Perfect union in love.

So receive His mind. Read the Sacred Scriptures and pray, engage in acts of love and resist the thoughts and desires of the fallen mind (nous) and heart
It is the most important thing you will ever do.
Understand that it will be terribly difficult but trust that He will accomplish all that you labor to achieve.

(*In the Eastern Orthodox and non-Augustinian West synergism is embraced; see