The promised blessing

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Jesus and Nicodemus

Watching for the Morning of March 12, 2017

The Second Sunday in Lent

Sunday our focus turns to the Gospel of John and the visit of Nicodemus. In the background is the promise to Abraham that through him God will bring blessing to the earth. The earth is in travail. The flood has purged the land but not cleansed the heart of humankind. They denied the command of God to fill the earth and tried instead to storm the gates of heaven by building their ziggurat in Babel. A confusion of languages followed, a deep and fundamental disruption of humanity’s most remarkable achievement: words. With words we can storm the heavens and land people on the moon, but with words we also lie and steal and sow division and hate. With words we can connect on the most intimate level, and with words we can rend beyond repairing. In the face of this fragmented world, God speaks a promise to Abraham: in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

And now Nicodemus stands before Jesus failing to understand these words about being born from above, born of the Spirit, born of God, born of the promised blessing. He wonders what sense it makes to talk of coming forth from the womb a second time. He doesn’t understand the metaphor of the wind. He comes to Jesus “by night”; he is in darkness.

But Jesus does not drive this thickheaded lunk away. He speaks, and in his word is life. He bears witness to the majesty of God’s love, to the sacrifice such love will make, to the redemption that is at hand, to the new creation that is dawning.

Nicodemus will linger near this Jesus. He will defend him to his accusers. He will come with spices fit for a king to give this Jesus an honored burial. He senses there is something of God here, something of that longed for blessing of all creation.

Abraham was in a right relationship to God by faith, argues Paul, by fidelity to God’s promise, for Abraham was declared “righteous” hundreds of years before the law was given. The psalmist speaks of his confidence in God as he looks at the pilgrim road rising through the dangerous hills to Jerusalem. It is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in Nicodemus. And it is such a trust and allegiance that is being born in us who come Sunday to hear the words and share in the one loaf and taste the promised blessing.

Your Name Be Holy

Our focus in Lent on a portion of the catechism, the basic teachings of the faith, takes us into the Lord’s Prayer this year. Sunday we will consider the first petition: “Holy be your name.” What honors God’s name? And what shames it? And what, exactly, are we asking God to do? There is much to ponder in this simple prayer.

Reflections on the themes of each week and brief daily devotions related to those themes can be found on the blog site for our Lenten devotions.

The Prayer for March 12, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and Gracious,
who met Nicodemus in the darkness
and called him into your light:
Grant us to be born anew of your Spirit
that, with eyes turned towards Jesus,
we might live your eternal life;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for March 12, 2017

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a
“The Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” – Following God’s halt to the tower of Babel and the scattering of the nations, God calls Abraham to venture out to a new land trusting only in God’s promise so that, through Abraham, God’s blessing may come to the world.

Psalmody: Psalm 121
“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – A pilgrim song, expressing the people’s trust in God as they journey up towards the hills of Jerusalem.

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
“For what does the scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
– Paul argues that Abraham was righteous not by his keeping of the law but by his trust in God’s promise.

Gospel: John 3:1-17
“just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’” – Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the darkness, unable to comprehend the new birth of which Jesus speaks.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHenry_Ossawa_Tanner_-_Study_for_Jesus_and_Nicodemus.jpg Henry Ossawa Tanner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The end of “law”

File:Artists-impressions-of-Lady-Justice, (statue on the Old Bailey, London).png

Friday

Galatians 2:15-21

19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

If I had been a Pharisee at the time, I would have hated Jesus, too. And I would have hated Paul – hate in the Biblical sense of feeling no connection or sense of obligation. He is simply not one of us. (So, as with Simon, the customary courtesies don’t apply.) And when Paul begins to pull people away from the path of Judean observance…well, such a one is deserving of whatever ill fate befalls him. He is against everything I know about God and our identity as God’s people. He betrays core values of our community. His words are like someone burning a Qu’ran/Koran. They incite violence, just like an African-American sitting down at a white’s only lunch counter. You can’t transgress communal norms so willfully and not expect violence. Just ask Stephen, stoned to death by a mob.

Modern American society is no longer bound by such tight communal norms – although we still see its vestiges when crowds assault people for coming to hear Donald Trump. They would assault Trump, if they could, for he is violating core values of tolerance and inclusion. Such words must be silenced, shouted down, removed from the community.

I wish I knew all that Paul meant when he declares, “I have been crucified with Christ.” His world is far different than mine and I’m sure those words speak differently to him than to me. There is a kind of death of self that is part of true religion. A turning from a life preoccupied with my wants and desires to a life focused on what I can give, from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. It’s the turn towards compassion, kindness, generosity, sacrifice.

But I don’t think that’s quite what Paul means here. I think he means that his old life, defined by obedience to Torah, has perished in his encounter with the crucified and risen Christ. He has come to see that God’s favor does not come from the observance of Judean cultural practices. It comes from allegiance to the God who raised Jesus from the dead, allegiance to God’s work of bringing the kingdom, allegiance to the gathering of all nations and peoples to proclaim God’s praise, allegiance to the rebirth/re-creation of the world that has begun in Christ and is dawning for all the world.

He has died to the life he once lived, the way he once defined his identity. And now he has been raised into a new life, a new identity, a new vision of God and the world.

Those who talk about being “born again” understand something of this fundamental transformation and reorientation of life.

The notion that we are saved by some law is like a huge gravity well that tends to draw everything into itself. It is that fundamental assumption that there is some standard by which we obtain some sense that we are the right kind of people. It changes from group to group. The way we dress is a group marker. It shows our affiliation – and the people with whom we identify establishes our identity. Language, too, shapes our identification and identity. In Detroit, a black child could be mocked for “talking white”. Trump was mocked for say “Two Corinthians” rather than “Second Corinthians” – it was a tell revealing he was not an insider.

Custom, culture, practice, law written and unwritten, it is all part of the “law” that defined Paul. And now he has broken with that past and given his allegiance to the world of the resurrected Jesus. But gravity keeps pulling Jesus back into the realm of culture and custom, of “law”. People are right with God, pleasing to God, because they observe certain practices, be they rituals in church or personal prayer and Bible study. People are acceptable to God because they are generally good people, kind to pets, tolerant of children, decent neighbors, or because they have had the correct kind of religious experience. There was a time that people were acceptable because they put on their Sunday best and attended church each week, though that is fading fast. Success, education, political views, opinions about creation and evolution or sex and abortion are all markers of who is and who is not acceptable to God. This gravity well of “law” sucks Jesus and the human religious impulse into its center.

But then comes the resurrection of Jesus, this new reality in the world. What was once an event for the end of time when people would be sorted by their conformity to “law” has become a living reality in the midst of time. And the hope of a world transformed, set free from its sins and called back into the peace of God – a world that was thought to follow the general resurrection – that “age to come” is here now in this Jesus risen. And so Paul declares that he has been crucified with Christ. The old world is gone and a new one dawns.   And what matters now is not “law” in any shape, but allegiance to the new world God is making where sins are forgiven and bread shared and all people are regarded as members of one family (“love one another,” “love your neighbor as yourself,” “love your enemy”). The old has passed; the new has come.” This is the dawning truth of the world, and what matters now is allegiance to this new life of the risen Christ (“faith”).

It’s not easy to fight the gravity well of “law”. But the grave is empty and the door open for us to be born from above.

It’s why the woman bursts into Simon’s house ignoring all custom and law to declare her love and allegiance to Jesus and to give her most precious gift: herself.

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For other reflections on the texts for this Sunday from this and previous years, follow this link Lectionary C 11, or Proper C 6

File: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AArtists-impressions-of-Lady-Justice%2C_(statue_on_the_Old_Bailey%2C_London).png By https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Lonpicman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like Christmas morning

Christmas Tree and gifts

Friday

Romans 3:19-28

There is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

I was baptized in a Lutheran congregation as a child, in the church where my father had been raised. My mother was raised in a Lutheran congregation. Their parents were all from Scandinavia, so of course they belonged to Lutheran churches. I made my confirmation in a Lutheran church; I attended a Lutheran college; I went to a Lutheran Seminary. But it was in my fourth year of seminary that I became a Lutheran.

I was one of those students who would ask the provocative question. I was never content to take notes and regurgitate answers; I wanted to understand, to push through to the heart of the matter. So one day, when my required World Missions class had a guest speaker from the Lutheran Church in Thailand, I raised my hand and asked “Why do you, a person from (then) 20th century Thailand, identify with a 16th century German monk?”

Without being phased at all, he answered me: “I don’t identify with a 16th century German monk; I identify with his understanding of the Gospel.”

In that moment all the light bulbs went off and I became a Lutheran. The Lutheran expression of Christian faith isn’t about the culture of church music, hymns, coffee and potluck suppers. It is about an idea. One central, unshakeable idea: God has come to make us his own for no reason but his own goodness. God has come to give salvation as a gift. God has come to heal a broken world, forgive an indebted world, deliver a captive world, redeem a world in bondage. God is the physician who does not ask whether her patient is worthy of her ministrations; she simply works to save the life of the patient before her. God is the lifeguard who does not ask what kind of idiot swims out beyond their depth. God is the fireman rushing up the World Trade Center without asking if its safe; there are people to be rescued and a fire to be extinguished.

Lutherans call it grace. The official phrase the 16th century reformers used to summarize all this is: justification by grace through faith. We are brought into a right relationship with God by his free gift and favor, a relationship that is a relationship of faith, of trusting the gift that is given.

There are other things to talk about in Christian faith. What does it mean for us to live as sons and daughters of the Most High? What is our mission in the world? What does the scripture mean when it calls us to holiness of life? Lutherans can argue about all manner of things – and usually do: sexual ethics, capital punishment, worship and liturgy, gender neutral language, the authority of bishops, whether we should even call them bishops. But none of this defines us. What defines us – or should define us – is this idea of grace.   We defend that idea like a dog with a bone.

It’s not grace and works. It’s not grace and a certain spiritual experience. It’s not grace and a doctrine. It’s not grace and democracy or capitalism or liberalism or anything. It is just grace. Life is gift. Redemption is gift. Forgiveness is gift. The life of the age to come is a gift. It is not the only doctrine, but it is the font of all other doctrines.

Yes it’s a gift that is of no use unless you receive it. But the receiving of it is no credit to us. No one stands around on Christmas morning to say, “Oh, look how well you opened that gift!” They ooh and aah at the gift.

Sunday morning is, and should always be, a kind of Christmas morning, oohing and aahing at the gift.

And Christian life is living every day as Christmas day.

 

Photo: dkbonde

“Apart from law”

Saturday

Romans 3

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for ri...

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness (Photo credit: TheRevSteve)

21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed.

“Apart from law.”  They are words of stunning significance.  The righteousness of God is revealed apart from law.  Law is the wrong category for discussing righteousness.  It cannot lead to righteousness.  It cannot produce righteousness.  It’s like bringing a baseball bat to play football.  It’s the wrong tool for the job.

This doesn’t mean that law is unimportant.  Obviously, the commands of God matter.  They comprise the great portion of the Pentateuch.  They are the measuring rod of Joshua through Kings.  The prophets decry the failure to keep them.  The psalms celebrate them.  Jesus intensifies them and gives his followers a new one.  Jesus is not afraid of the imperative case; his last words are a command: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations…” But a bat is for baseball, not football; law is not the right equipment for righteousness.

The problem is that we keep thinking of righteousness as keeping rules.  But I can tithe even my garden herbs (mint and cumin) without any generosity of heart.  I can keep my pants zipped without any real faithfulness to my wife.  Jesus has those troubling sayings equating lust and anger with adultery and murder.  Rules protect my neighbor, but they cannot cure the heart.  They coerce an outward righteousness, not create an inner one.  Mother can make me say “thank you,” but she can’t make me mean it.

There is value to an outward righteousness.  It matters a great deal to my neighbor that I follow the rules, whether they be the commands of God or the nearest stop sign.  In the intersection, my neighbor does not care about my motives.  But God cares.

Rules are essentially selfish.  I stop at the stop sign because I don’t want a ticket more than because I have given thought for the safety of my neighbor.  Or perhaps I stop because I want to think of myself as law-abiding…as righteous.  But it doesn’t create love to say: “you should love.”  At best, it creates guilt; at worst, hardness of heart.

The church keeps falling back into rules, because we are human, and humans are caught up in themselves.  Rules operate in the arena of the self: I am righteous.  I am in control. I have earned my place in heaven.  I have been the author of my own salvation (all the time alienating friends and family and multiplying the brokenness of the world).  Or, alternately, I am wicked, corrupted, a failure, unworthy of heaven.  Most of us, of course, think we are neither righteous nor wicked – but that we are “good enough.”

So God simply says no.  You can’t get there from here.  It’s not just that you need more practice to break the four-minute mile; you are never going to fly like superman or breathe underwater.  Rules cannot make you worthy of heaven; they do not create fellowship with God.

But then come these wondrous words: “apart from law.” Apart from command, apart from rules, apart from guilt and shame and social pressure, God has made known another righteousness.  God has revealed God’s righteousness, God’s faithfulness, God’s mercy and truth.  God has revealed a redemption for all.  God has revealed a forgiveness unearned, a love unmerited – a love that is pure gift.

Such a love need only be received.  Not that the receiving merits the love – the love is there with or without my receiving – but it only works its magic if received.  Apart from law, in the receiving and trusting and abiding in a love without limits, a new Spirit is born within, and new compassion, new joy, and new life.

Defenseless

Wednesday

Deuteronomy 30

An illustration of the Parable of the Good Sam...

An illustration of the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the Rossano Gospels, believed to be the oldest surviving illustrated New Testament. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

11Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.

When I was a child the confession at the beginning of the worship service said I am “sinful and unclean.”  When our church body adopted a new hymnal the language was changed to declare that we are “in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.”  I understand theologically what the confession was stating.  I also understand why no one wanted to think we were not in control of our own righteousness and salvation.

It is part of my innate rebellion against God to wrench the title “savior” from God’s hands and claim it for myself.  We are all Little Jack Horner wanting to declare, “What a good boy am I.”  The parade of self-conceit in politics, news, business and religion is tiring.  Like the lawyer whose challenge to Jesus prompts the story of the Good Samaritan, we are all eager to claim we are the righteous.  Watch any family argument and you will see a battle of self-justification.  We are not naturally inclined towards the truth but to self-preservation.  And part of that self-preservation is the denial of our sinfulness.  Oh we will acknowledge that we are imperfect, but hiding behind that statement is the conviction that, graded on a curve, we are still better than average, good enough to be welcomed into the eternal habitations.

But the old prayer that we are “unclean,” didn’t mean we were vile; it meant we were unworthy to stand in God’s presence.  We are not “holy.”  And “sinful” didn’t mean we were wholly corrupt, but that deep within we are turned towards ourselves rather than towards God and our neighbor.  The desire to be our own savior, to be the judge who declares us worthy, is prime evidence of that inward turn.  Like a car repaired after a collision, we may look fine on the outside but, hidden from view, the frame is bent.

If we are honest, we must acknowledge that something is off-kilter in the human heart.  Were it not, peace and harmony would be the norm rather than conflict and resentment.  But in that wondrously talented way we have of twisting things, even our “bondage to sin” becomes a rationalization and excuse: “I’m only human.”  And there it is again, our self-justification.  Psychological studies confirm that it is much more important for us to be able to claim innocence than to be innocent.

To this human heart that wants to excuse itself comes this word that God’s commands are not esoteric or difficult.  God’s will for us does not require heroic effort.  The voice of God through this verse from Deuteronomy strips away our excuses.  It is not that hard to be faithful to God and our neighbor.  It is not that hard to be mindful of the poor, to honor our parents and our neighbor’s marriage.  It is not hard to guard the possessions and life of others.  We just don’t want to.  And there is our bondage.  We can’t give up the self-justifying self, so we trim and edit the commands of God to suit our needs.  Like the legal expert before Jesus, we limit our obligation by limiting who is regarded as our neighbor – and labeling some as our enemies.

Between Jesus and Deuteronomy we are defenseless.  God’s commands are not hard, but we are addicted to self.  And so we are back to the core question: who gets to be God?  Who will be Savior?  In whom shall we trust? And, therefore, how will we live?  Mercy, justice, compassion, are not heroic tasks; they are simple deeds – if only we will let God be God.