Saturday, October 14, 2017

By Grace Through Faith

Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. Galatians 2:16
This month marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Christians of all backgrounds will gather to celebrate and remember the historic nature of Martin Luther’s protest and the subsequent movement of the church. While the Protestant Reformation had ramifications for all aspects of society, its theological foundations are what have captivated my attention for many years.

As a teenager, I was assigned to write a research paper on any topic I wished. I chose to write about Martin Luther. This project forced me to immerse myself in the history of Luther’s life and the theological doctrine of justification. While it was quite a lot for a sixteen year old to process, it left an indelible mark on my life.

Like Luther, I was deeply touched by the magnitude of justification by grace. This concept, articulated in the writings of Paul, makes clear that our relationship with God is made whole not by our good works, but by grace. Grace is a gift of God, undeserved and free. We cannot earn our salvation but are saved by Jesus Christ. This theological concept drove Luther to write the 95 Theses and take a stand against the Catholic Church. But it also changed his life and relationship with God.

Like many people, Luther had understood God to be a harsh and punishing judge. This led him as a young monk to repeatedly confess his sins and seek absolution. He lived in constant fear and trepidation of God’s judgment and damnation. When he read and began to understand justification by grace through faith, his life was transformed. Luther understood God as loving and merciful rather than angry and punishing.

When we realize the gift God has given to us through Jesus’ death and resurrection and no longer feel the pressure of having to be morally perfect, it is liberating. We are set free from anxiety and fear. We are set free for love of God and love of neighbor. We can love others freely because we have been loved. We can give ourselves away because Christ gave himself for us.

We are justified by grace, through faith, apart from works of the law and it makes all the difference! Let us celebrate this remarkable and life-giving gift!

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The First Apostles

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” Matthew 28:1-10
On Easter morning the women who were followers of Jesus came to the tomb. They came expecting to find the bodily remains of a dead man. They came with hearts filled with sorrow and despair. But they came to the tomb nonetheless. The earthquake and the appearance of the angel must have been quite startling. Then the guards shook and became "like dead men" (which I presume to mean they passed out). No wonder the first words spoken by the angel are "do not be afraid." The whole scene was like something out of a movie: surreal, powerful, and mysterious.

The message of the angel was to go and tell the disciples that Jesus had been raised from the dead and to meet him in Galilee. Jesus was no longer confined to the tomb and was alive! The women left with "fear and great joy" and ran to tell them. Fear and great joy. This is an interesting combination. Fear because of the awesome display of power shown by the angel and God. Joy because Jesus was alive and he truly was the Messiah! The empty tomb proved all their hopes had been realized and God was at work! Then Jesus himself appeared to women. He showed them he was real and death had been defeated. He also told them to go and tell the disciples.

The women at the tomb were the first apostles. They were witnesses to Jesus' resurrection and they shared the good news. They were sent by Jesus to go and tell, and they faithfully went and told. On this point, all the gospels agree. The women were the first witnesses, while the men got all the credit. The men didn't show up at the tomb, the women did. The angel didn't speak to the men, but to the women. These women had been part of Jesus' ministry from the very beginning, but Christian history has regulated them to secondary status. I believe these women are shining examples of faith, courage, and witnessing. God chose them to be the first witnesses and they were faithful. We could all hope to do the same.

Prayer: Lord, help me to be a faithful witness to you. Help me share the good news that Christ is Risen! In Jesus' name, AMEN.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Waiting in Hope

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. John 19:38-42
After Jesus' death his followers were no doubt feeling a variety of emotions: grief, fear, disappointment, anger, despair and more. What do you do next? The one you believed was the Messiah has been crucified. How do you carry on? In the time between Jesus' death on Friday and the empty tomb on Sunday the disciples of Jesus must have truly struggled to understand what it all meant. Was this part of God's plan? Was Jesus a fraud? Was the end near? Would the Romans hunt them down?

In the midst of confusion and fear, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus cared for Jesus' body and prepared him for burial. Joseph was a disciple in secret and Nicodemus was a Pharisee, so they were not at risk of being arrested. Their simple act of kindness and care for Jesus spoke to their ongoing commitment to Jesus. We do not know what they said to one another or what they were thinking. What we do know is that in the midst of their grief, confusion, and fear they did what they could.

The time between Good Friday and Easter is a time of waiting. We wait not knowing; we wait in grief; we wait in hope. Looking back on Jesus' death and resurrection, it is easy to understand Good Friday as a victory. But at the time, it must have seemed a stunning rebuttal and defeat. In times like these we need to cling to hope. The time before it all makes sense; the time before it all works out; the time before grief has passed. Easter is a season of hope in the midst of death and despair. We know how the story ends, let us cling to this hope as we wait.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Way, The Truth, and The Life

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” John 14:1-7
As Jesus gathered with the disciples for the last time he knew he was heading to the cross. He knew and was prepared for what this would mean for him. He also knew the disciples would face many of their own challenges after his death. They would have to live in fear because of being hunted by the authorities because their direct connection to Jesus. They would also be tasked with starting the church; sharing the good news with all people and calling all to faith. As Jesus meet with them, he wanted to assure them that while he was leaving them he was not abandoning them. He would go ahead of them and prepare a place for them and then bring them to himself.

These words Jesus spoke, may not have been understood by the disciples at the time, but after his death they would provide great comfort and strength. Thomas was particularly confused about where Jesus was going. Thomas asks "how can we know the way?" Jesus tells him: "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Jesus is the way to the father and by following in the ways of Jesus we will discover the truth about God and ourselves, and receive the promise of eternal life. Following the way of Jesus is the starting point for truth and discovering a life worth living.

This passage is often misused as a hammer against anyone claiming an alternative path to God or salvation outside of Christ. They reason that "if Christ is the way, then no other way can be legitimate." While I cannot affirmatively argue for another way to God outside of Christ, I do not think this is what Jesus had in mind. Jesus' statement was not given in the midst of a discourse about different religions and paths of salvation. He was trying to assure his disciples to not lose faith after his death. His message is that even in death, he is the way to God. Jesus' death on the cross does not invalidate his ministry, but rather proves it. Taken in this context, we can understand Jesus' goal to be to calm the fears and anxieties of his disciples, rather than making an abstract argument for the exclusivity of Christianity.

In the end, Christ offers us the promise that through him we can be in relationship with God. The way of Jesus leads to the cross and the empty tomb. The way of Jesus shows us the truth and offers us life. Faith calls us to believe and trust this promise. Outside of this promise, God gets to decide.

Prayer: Lord, let me follow your ways, live the life you have called me to and discover life in and through you. Help me to share your love and grace with all in my life, in Jesus' name, AMEN.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Love in Action

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” John 13:1-11
On the last night of his life Jesus chose to wash feet. He did this as an act of love and service. In ancient days, the wealthy would employ a servant at the door of the home to wash guest's feet as they entered. This was a luxury and considered to be beneath the master of the house to perform. This is why Peter is perplexed by Jesus' actions. Peter most likely thought the disciples should wash Jesus' feet not the other way around. Nonetheless, Jesus performs this humble aspect of hospitality because of his deep love for his disciples. He knew the end was near and wanted them to always know his love for them.

But Jesus' act of footwashing is not only an act of service and love, but also provides an example of faithful living. Jesus modeled servant love and calls the disciples, and us, to follow.

Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:33-35

Jesus commands the disciples to love another, just as he loved them. He commands them to show so much love that all will recognize them as followers of Jesus because of their acts of love. The command to love others entails more than simple affection or care; it implies acts of compassion and sacrifice.

Love, understood from a Christian perspective, is action. Love is not a feeling to be expressed but serving others. We are to love others as Jesus loves us; completely, selflessly, and unconditionally. In a world filled with darkness, despair, brokenness and sin, love is the answer. Jesus commands us to love others because on our own we will struggle to love. Jesus commands us to love because we need to be constantly reminded of the gift of love we have been so freely given. Jesus commands us to love because love makes all the difference.

Lord, let your love rule my heart, mind, and actions. Let me love others as you have first loved me: freely, without condition, and with humility, in Jesus' name, AMEN.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Glory Time

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor. John 12:20-26
Throughout the gospel of John, Jesus performed signs that he was the Messiah. These signs allowed those with eyes of faith to understand what God was doing. The final sign that reveals God's plan for salvation is Jesus' death and resurrection. This sign was designed to take place at a particular time and place. As Jesus entered the first Holy Week, he sensed the time was upon him as both Jewish and non-Jewish visitors entered Jerusalem for the Passover celebration. The timing would allow a maximum number of people to be exposed to Christ's death on the cross, creating a greater opportunity for people to come to believe Jesus was the Messiah. And just like the grain of wheat that in death produces life, so to will Christ's journey to the cross produce the promise of eternal life for all who believe.

As contemplated his journey to the cross he knew he would both fulfill God's plan and be incredibly painful.

Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” Jesus said to them, “The light is with you for a little longer. Walk while you have the light, so that the darkness may not overtake you. If you walk in the darkness, you do not know where you are going. While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.” John 12:27-36
The time had come for Jesus to go to the cross. He understood everything he had done had led to this point. The healings brought the crowds, the teaching opened minds and hearts, and his followers would share the good news. Jesus is the light of the world and came to eradicate all darkness. He did this for you, me, and all of humanity. He gave his life so we might live. Let us walk as children of the light.

Prayer: Lord, let me walk in your light and see the promise of your Son. Prepare my heart to receive your love in this most Holy Week, in Jesus' name, AMEN.