Sunday, March 31, 2013

Happy Easter!!!

I have posted the audio of my Easter sermon on the Wartburg Parish website -
The title is "No!/Yes!" - Look for the sermon dated 3/31/13
Have a blessed Easter!

The Book of Revelation

Making Sense of The Book of Revelation
During the season of Easter the scripture lessons that are appointed to be read in worship for the 2nd reading – the Epistle – will all come from the book of Revelation.  This gives us an opportunity to focus on this biblical book for the six weeks of the season of Easter.  And while in the space of seven weeks we cannot possibly cover the entire book we can still experience some of its most important and beautiful sections and begin to get inside this most confusing book of the bible.  The lessons themselves are listed below and will be the basis for a sermon series on those texts.
In preparation for these readings and the sermon series, I want to use this space to provide some basic information about the book of Revelation.  Probably there is no other book in the bible that is as misunderstood, but yet which has captured the public imagination as much as this book. The prevailing interpretation of the Book of Revelation is that it contains predictions of a time-table to the last days, and that all you have to do is decipher the code and you will know what and when the final horrific events will occur.  Not only that, but this popular interpretation also reads the Book of Revelation as a book of fear and terror.  Look, for example, at the immensely popular series of books called “Left Behind.”  These books, based on Revelation and a few other spots here and there in the bible, interpret the “Day of the Lord” to be a horrible and fearsome day, filled with violence; a day which will be heralded in by a “Rapture” which will remove all of the “true” believers leaving the rest of the people to experience the full wrath of God. (By the way, there is no “rapture” in the Bible, it was invented in the 19th century). 
So the first thing that needs to be re-stated here at the very beginning of any study of the Book of Revelation is to be reminded that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is Good News, about a creator God who loves this creation so much that God sends the Son to reach out in extravagant and unexpected love and grace to the people.  The Gospel is about love – not hate; the Gospel is about grace and forgiveness – not judgment; the Gospel is about freedom and peace (shalom) not fear and terror.  How can it be that we would allow one very cryptic book of the bible to have more authority than the Gospels to the point that we would throw out all of Jesus’ teachings about God’s love and grace in favor or hate, violence, judgment and fear?  Remember, Martin Luther’s instruction to Christians about how to read the bible – always read the Bible through the lens of the Gospel.  When in doubt The Gospels always should not only color our interpretations but should determine how we even approach these books.
So, some basic facts: The book was written around the year 95 AD during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian.  Domitian had revived the cult of Emperor worship and was demanding that everyone in the empire submit to this as a sign of their loyalty to Rome.  In earlier times Christians had been given a pass on these laws because initially Christianity was seen as a sub group of Judaism, and Jews were exempt.  But by the year 95, Christianity had broken from Judaism, therefore Christians were expected to submit to all the same laws and participate in all the same rituals as everyone else.  Principal among these was that people were expected to offer incense at the altar of the emperor and confess that Domitian was “our Lord and God.”  Christians, of course, refused and were thus subject to arrest, trial and execution.  Now Domitian did not go looking for Christians in order to single them out (in fact a letter exists in which he gives very direct orders not to search out Christians or to allow anonymous accusations), but when individual Christians made a public stand of refusal they were to be executed.  The result is that probably hundreds (maybe 1000’s – it is hard to know how many) of Christians were executed, some in very violent and gruesome ways.
The author is John of Patmos.  John was apparently a leader or pastor in the church who had been exiled to the island of Patmos, which was little more than a large stone in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. This is NOT the Apostle John, the beloved disciple from the Gospel of John.  In fact, John of Patmos has absolutely no connection with the disciple John or with the Johnnine community whatsoever.  The book we know as the “Revelation of John” is a pastoral letter intended to bring comfort to those who are experiencing the pressure of persecution under Domitian and who had seen some of their leaders and loved ones executed.  This is so important it is worth repeating – the book of Revelation is designed as a pastoral letter of comfort and assurance.  The basic message is this: the forces of evil have run amok, but fear not for God is with us and will never abandon us.  And, by the way, those who are perpetuating terror and violence will receive just punishment in the end.
The letter is written in Greek and is titled, in Greek, “The Apocalypse of John.”  The word “apocalypse” refers to the literary genre or type of letter, and stands in a long, long tradition of apocalyptic writings that go back to the book of Daniel in the Old Testament that includes a huge number of works that were written during the time of the Maccabean Revolt.  The “Apocalypse of John,” or “Book of Revelation,”  (no “s” – Revelation) is not by any means the only example of Christian apocalyptic writing, but it is the only such work that ended up included in the New Testament canon (and it almost didn’t make it as many churches and leaders opposed its inclusion.)  Another work of Christian apocalypse, “The Shepherd of Hermas” is another work which lays out a series of visions that almost made it into the New Testament but was excluded (thankfully) at the last minute.
The letter of the Apocalypse of John is a series of visions.  These visions are not to be taken literally, and they would not have been by the original readers of this letter.  John uses symbolism in order to create a series of pictures that were intended to provide comfort.  For example, the “beast” with seven humps refers to Rome, which is built on seven hills.  Additionally, there is an abundance of Old Testament references.  In fact, out of a total of 404 verses in the book, 278 of them contain one or more allusions to the Old Testament.  Another example is the number 7 – which was symbolic of perfection.  As we read through this book notice how many times the number seven appears. 
John’s visions should be understood in the same way we understand other visions that are recorded in the Bible.  Think of Ezekiel and the dry bones or the wheel “way up in the middle of the air;” or think of the important vision of Peter’s that is recorded in Acts 10 and led to an new understanding of the place of the law (especially the dietary laws) in the new Christian church.  These are all symbolic visions, and like the entire Book of Revelation, they need to be interpreted carefully in order to understand them.
The Apocalypse of John, or the Book of Revelation is a part of the Bible and therefore it has much to say to us. But we must set aside all the popular sensationalist interpretations and look at the book within the context of its times and culture.  We must take the symbolic visions and work to understand what they are trying to say to us instead of us imposing our own fears and prejudices upon the text.  We must move away from seeing this book as a set of predictions of the time- table of the end times and see it as a pastoral book of comfort written to believers during difficult and hard times.  When we do this we can unlock the secrets of this book and bask in the beautiful images that make up John’s vision.  Ultimately what we hear over and over again in this book is nothing less than a repetition of the promise that no matter what God will be with us and that God’s love is steadfast and sure.
The Lessons:
1.     April 6/7 – Easter 2 - Revelation 1:4-8
2.     April  13/14 – Easter 3 – Revelation 5:11-14
3.     April 20/21 – Easter 4 – Revelation 7:9-17
4.     April 27/28 – Easter 5 – Revelation 21:1-16
5.     May 4/5 – Easter 6 – Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5
6.     May 12 – Easter 7 – Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reflections on the Passion – St. Luke 22:1-23:56

Marc Chegal

If you have ever watched one of the film versions of the life of Jesus you know that no matter how hard they may try to soften the violence done to Jesus it is impossible to be faithful to the account of the Passion without representing the violence.  The old Franco Zeffirelli film, “Jesus of Nazareth” (for example) tried to tone down the violence, while maintaining the intensity of the story. Other films, most notably Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” and the new made for TV series “The Bible,” almost seem to glory in the violence that is then depicted in excruciating detail.  The fact is, that Jesus died a very violent death.  Crucifixion was a method of execution that the Romans had devised to drag out the violence and misery as long as possible in order to send a message; and that message was “Don’t mess with us!”

We Christians believe that this man, who died in such a terribly violence way, is none other than God incarnate (John 1:14).  Through Jesus, God enters fully into human life.  And through his life, his ministry, his death and his resurrection God reaches out in love and grace and acceptance and forgiveness to all of humanity – you and me included – through Jesus.  The ministry of Jesus is a ministry of God’s love incarnate.  So then why all of the violence?  Why did Jesus have to die?  Why did Jesus’ ministry have to end in this manner?  Why did this death have to be so incredibly horrific and painful and violent? Why was Jesus’ death so shameful and humiliating? Why?

Most of us are not strangers to this question.  We have all had moments in our lives of great loss and sorrow and pain and it is natural for us to ask the question – why?  It is for us an effort to make sense of what is otherwise senseless.  “Why did __________ (you fill in the blank) have to happen?” Even if we can’t come up with a definitive answer there is something comforting in the posing of the question. And the struggle can help us move towards healing and acceptance of the reality of whatever it is.

The New Testament however never really poses the question “why?” in reference to Jesus’ passion, consequently the New Testament never really answers the question. Jesus is constantly telling his disciples what is going to happen, but he never explains it.  This is one of those issues where the writers of the Gospels and Paul (in particular) just tell or refer to the story of what happened to Jesus, and then assume that everyone understands that Jesus’ Passion was somehow a part of God’s plan and that somehow Jesus’ suffering and death and subsequent resurrection are redemptive; in other words, that we are brought into a loving relationship with God through the sufferings, death and resurrection of Jesus.  But this leads us back to the initial question – Why!???

Many Christians are surprised to learn that this question is never answered in the New Testament.  But later theologians and church leaders, especially in the early church were quite disturbed by this question and came up with a number of theories that are all lumped together under the heading “The Theology of Atonement.”  The word “Atonement” itself can be defined literally as “at-one-ment” – the theology of how God makes us one with Him in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  There are 5 popular theories - all of them from post-biblical theologians and all of them providing (I believe) a glimpse of the truth, but none of them can be considered the definitive final answer.  Here is a list of these theories:

1.         Perhaps the most popular (that you find is used as the theological basis for Mel Gibson’s movie) is what is called “Substitutionary Atonement” or “Satisfaction Theory.”  This theory was developed by St. Anselm in the 11th century and sees Christ’s death as a substitution for our own.
2.         Another popular theory that is related to “Satisfaction theory” is by an evangelical theologian named J.I. Packer and his theory is called “Penal Substitution.” In a nutshell this theory is as follows: “Jesus is sent to earth, lives a sinless life, and then dies upon a Roman cross where God pours out the fullness of wrath upon the Son. Wrath satisfied, God is now able to love sinners, and Christ is raised from the dead. Humanity is reunited with God, and all one has to do is accept the sacrifice that Christ has made on his or her behalf.”1. One can find this theory is a lot of popular Christian music in particular.
3.         The early 2nd century Bishop of Alexandria, Origin developed what is known as “Ransom theory:” which holds that Christ satisfies God’s requirement for holiness and thus Christ pays the penalty for sin making it possible for us to draw near to and be accepted by a perfect and holy God.
4.         Peter Abeland (12th century) sees the Passion of Christ as a moral example in what is sometimes called the “Moral Influence Theory.” “In this theory, Jesus is not a sacrificial lamb or a ransom payment. He is the primary example of a Godly life and death.”1.
5.         Finally, from Gustav Aulén in 1931 we have the theory called “Christus Victor” which holds that the meaning of the Passion is found in Christ’s victory over death and the devil.  Central to “Christus Victor” is “the image of the diminished and naked Christ, who, far from representing the judgmental God of fear, experiences the depth of human alienation and condemnation himself. In this we see not the necessity of God to change something within God’s self, but bear witness to the depth of the divine love that will do anything within its power to break the powers that hold humanity enthralled. God wins by losing, lives in dying, and creates a new justice by suffering the worst of the unjust system of dominance.”1.

None of these theories can claim to provide the final word on the atonement.  Each contains some truth, each raise a number of difficult questions and all of them cannot stand up completely to biblical scrutiny.  In other words, while some may be helpful and instructive, none of these theories can finally answer the question “why.”  And we are left where we started: without an explanation from Jesus, but a lot of later theories.  However, Jesus does answer another question, perhaps an even more important question.  We read in Paul that on the “night in which he was betrayed, our Lord…” took bread and wine blessed it and gave it to his disciples saying take and eat, take and drink … given “for you!”

“Did you hear that? Those last two words? “For you.” For those disciples, including, as the Evangelist records, Judas who betrays him, Peter who denies him, and the rest who desert him. And if for these, then also for us! And knowing this, I believe, makes all the difference.
So while Jesus doesn’t answer the question “why?” he does answer – and answer definitively – the deeper question of “for whom?” That is, though Jesus may not explain the full meaning of his death, he leaves no doubt as to its significance for you and for me, as above and beyond all our confusion and questions, we hear in these two words the shocking, unimaginable, and utterly unexpected promise that everything Christ suffers – all the humiliation and shame, all the defeat and agony – he suffers for us, that we might have life and light and hope in his name!”2.

An audio recording of the sermon - delivered 3/24/13 - is available here: Wartburg Parish Media Page

1. Aaron Carr from the blog “Church of the Malcontent.” -
2. Dr. David Lose, “A More Important Question.” -

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reflections on the text – Lent V – St. John 12:1-8

Read the text here: John 12:1-11

Mary: Model Disciple
When you hear the word disciple what, or whom do you think of?  My guess is that you probably think of those 12 men that Jesus called to be his followers in the Gospels.  The most prominent of these are Peter, John, James, Andrew, Matthew, Thomas and Judas. Because of this we could almost get the idea that a disciple was someone who had a special status in relation to Jesus and that this select group was limited in number (12 only) and that only men were allowed.
During the time of Jesus there were many travelling Rabbis who would attract students (the Greek word – mathetes – translated as disciple actually means student).  There were several different classes of students. The first group were the beginners.  This group tended to be a larger group of young men, but after a certain period of time, and after covering specific material this group would reduced substantially to a much smaller group of more serious students.  The others would return to their homes and villages with the basic knowledge they had gained from the teacher and resume their lives.  The advanced smaller group would begin a very rigorous study.  They might stay with the teacher for years and would often assist him with teaching the new novices.  Finally, there was one final group, those who showed particular brilliance and who would be on a track to become a Rabbi themselves.  There were very few of these, sometimes only one every few years.
This is the system that was in place when Jesus was a traveling Rabbi in the Galilee.  Jesus is both a part of this system and alters it in a couple significant ways.  If you read the Gospels carefully you will notice that at any given time Jesus is always attracting large crowds to listen to him teach.  Not only that, but he has a larger group of followers that are always with him.  This is particularly the case in the Gospel of Luke.  In other words, there is a large group of disciples/students that follow Jesus throughout his ministry.  This larger group is like the beginners-novice group and includes the 12, but is not limited to them. The 12 serve as the inner core of disciples/students that are like the more advanced group above.  There seem to be no disciples/students out of either of these groups that Jesus has promoted to the future Rabbi track (thought one might argue that Peter, James, John and possibly Judas might qualify.)
So the Rich Young Ruler petitions Jesus to become a disciple/student and then decides it will be too demanding.  (Luke 18:18-30) Others get picked up here and there.  After the crucifixion the famous and wonderful story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-27), tells the story of 2 students who encounter Jesus, one who’s name is Cleopas.  These two are not part of the inner 12, but they are clearly identified as disciples.
But perhaps the most radical difference between Jesus and other Rabbis of his age was the fact that Jesus welcomed women to be disciples/students.  While the inner 12 were men, the larger group of Jesus disciples/students included many women, some of whom had some means and provided financial support.  This group included Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother Mary seems to be a part of this group as well.  Then we have Joanna, Salome (not THAT Salome, a different Salome – see Luke 24:10) Martha and Mary (the sister of Martha).   In the famous passage from Luke, Mary is pictured listening at the feet of the teacher - the position of a student/disciple.  Martha’s objections to this are completely understandable in the context of the times: women are not students in 1st century Palestine!  Jesus’ response makes it clear that this is something that he is changing and that women are students of his.  (Luke 10:38-42)
Not only is it significant that Jesus welcomed women as disciples/students but it is also significant that it is these women disciples who are often models of discipleship.  The men had lots of baggage, they did not understand where Jesus was going and what he was doing, they often jostled for position and tried to manipulate Jesus.  In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is particularly harsh with his inner 12.  But it is the women who consistently seem to “get it.”  It is the women who do not flee and hide after the arrest but follow Jesus to the cross (Matthew 27:55); it is the women who come to the tomb early in the morning and are the first witnesses of the resurrection (Luke 24, Mark 16, Matthew 28).  And in our Gospel story from today from John 12 is it a woman – Mary (sister of Martha) who anoints Jesus for kingship and for burial, who washes his feet with her hair and is thus a model of discipleship.  In chapter 13 Jesus will do the exact same thing for his disciples and they (represented by Peter, their spokesman) will object (John 13:1-11).  But in chapter 12, Mary does it willingly on her own initiative.  She understands who Jesus is, what is about to happen and what it means to be a disciple/student of Jesus. She is ahead of the curve.  She gets it!
In this way is Mary a model for us.  For we too are called to be disciples/students of Jesus - to sit at his feet and learn; to sup with him; to give ourselves to him and to serve others in his name! 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Reflections on the text – Lent III - Isaiah 55:1-11

8For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. 9For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.  Isaiah 55:8-9

Pastor Eugene Peterson has published a new contemporary language translation of the bible (called "The Message") and in his work the verses above are translated like this: ‘I don’t think the way you think.  The way you work isn’t the way I work.’ ... ‘For as the sky soars high above the earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think is beyond the way you think.’”  Think about this for a minute.  If God is truly God, that is if we really believe that God is the creator of heaven and earth, that God is incarnate in Jesus, that God is available to each and every one of us, then we have to acknowledge that God is ultimately outside our ability to understanding or even comprehend God’s immensity.  But yet, we Western Christians have a knack for shrinking God to our size and making God into an imitation of slightly more powerful human monarch.  This was true in times past and it is true today.
How many times have you heard other people speak for God? I hear it every day.  It comes mostly in the shape of powerful pastors or bishops or well-known Christians who represent themselves as so devout that they know the mind of God and can speak for God.  Now, I would not question their devotion, but it always strikes me as curious when the priorities and positions they claim that God holds are remarkably similar to their own positions and priorities.  And by far the worst are those who would ascribe hatred to God.  “God hates…. !” and you can fill in the blank.  This seems to be a popular position to take.  From the church in Kansas who is constantly protesting soldier’s and celebrity funerals spewing forth their hatred; to the mega-church with the outside billboard ascribing hatred to God, we see this way too often.  Maybe we can agree with some of their positions, maybe we can agree that “God hates evil” – but this immediately raises questions for me.  Even if we are convinced of our rightness – do we really have the authority to ascribe hatred to God?  Really?  And 2nd, the problem with a generic phrase like, “God hates evil,” is we don’t know how the speaker is defining the word “evil.”  Is the “evil” God hates just things or positions or people who are different than we are? Jesus says, “Judge not, lest you be judged.”
St. Paul writes in Romans, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  And he talks about himself as being evil and having evil desires and thoughts, and doing evil things, and then explains that this is the human condition.  But a human condition for whom Jesus died so that we might be forgiven.  When we start ascribing hatred to God we are really categorizing some people as being in with God and some as being out.  The phrase “God hates evil” then means “God hates you” or “God hates me.”  And hate is such a strong word.  But “God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…” to die for us so that we “might have life and have in abundantly.”
In our text from Isaiah, I am sure that the people of Israel felt as though God hated them.  After all, they had been driven into exile and their land and homes were destroyed.  But Isaiah calls to them – “Hey…. Come!” Come the banquet!  Come and receive God’s bounty and love – free and unconditional.  Come and receive God’s forgiveness – no strings.  In the Gospel text Jesus challenges the culturally accepted notion that when bad things happen it must mean God is displeased and that those who are being punished are punished out of God’s wrath and hatred.  Jesus, says No, No, No!  And then tells them a parable about 2nd chances; and 3rd chances and 4th chances and so on.  God’s grace and love and forgiveness know no bounds!  After all God doesn’t think like we do – God’s ways are not our ways! 
So, I want to suggest that we should retire the word “hate” especially as it refers to God.  God is not a hater – God is a lover.  And God calls us to be lovers.  So instead of being so quick to ascribe hatred to God, let’s ascribe love: God loves those who are outside the mainstream; God loves those who are different; those who no one else likes; those who are angry or damaged; God loves those who are struggling with abuse or addiction or rejection or loneliness; God loves those who are coming to grips with loss and change and grief and bitterness; God even loves those who are themselves haters.  And we can keep going – make your own list.  But start with the words God loves… God loves you; God loves me – unconditionally, without cost and without restrictions. 
And how do I know?  How can I be so confident that God is a lover?  Well I look up there at the cross – the cross with Jesus, God’s Son hanging upon it and then I lower my gaze and I see a banquet that has been prepared for you and for me; a banquet of bread and wine; a banquet that is for everyone.  “Hey – everyone who thirsts, everyone who is hungry – Come – Come to the banquet of the Lord – given and shed FOR YOU!”