Thursday, March 31, 2016

Worship in the Name of the Father, and of the Truth, and of the Spirit

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about what worship "in spirit and truth" means in John 4:23:

Q:  What does Jesus mean in John 4:23 when he says that “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth”?

This is a statement of Jesus that has been called into service for a variety of agendas over the course of church history.  One of the most popular has been to suggest that worship should be heartfelt (thus “spirit”) and not rote memorization or following a set order.  Others have included the idea that a person might have a direct experience of God in worship as opposed to contact with God that comes through channels such as the Word and the Sacraments. 

These understandings of Jesus words seem only to come in English-speaking contexts, though, and are not typically found elsewhere, and they fail to recognize the circumstances under which Jesus makes the statement.  The Samaritan woman to whom Jesus is having the conversation has just brought up the question over whether one ought to worship God in the Jerusalem temple as the Jews do, or on various mountains as the Samaritans do. 

Jesus’ response is intended to redirect her question away from consideration of where is the right place to worship God under Old Testament law, and instead, toward the question of the identity of the God being worshipped.  In both alternatives that the woman presents, the proponents of that form of worship have both departed from the Truth and rejected the Spirit by proposing their own worship rather than that given by God.  For the Samaritans, it was mixing the name of the true God with ways of worship borrowed from idols.  For the religious leaders in Jerusalem, it was the belief that they could please God with their own good deeds and observance of the Ceremonial Law. 

Jesus answer uses an answer that reveals to her who the True God is because He names the Trinity by saying that the true worshippers will worship “The Father,” of whom Jesus is the Son.  They will do so “in Spirit,” that is, by the faith given by the Holy Spirit.  And they will do so in “Truth,” which Jesus reveals to be Himself throughout the Gospel of John, especially when He says later in John, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  

So in Jesus’ words, we have the Father, the Truth, and the Spirit.  It is reminiscent of the traditional ending of the prayers of the Church, “Through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”  True worshippers are those who acknowledge the Triune God, according to Jesus, and now that He has arrived, He tells the Samaritan woman that both Jerusalem and the mountaintops of Samaria are now irrelevant, because they both seek to worship a God who will someday come to save them, but that God is now standing before her, and will soon go forward to the cross and grave, from which he will rise and make both the temple and the Old Testament law obsolete. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Extraordinarily Unreliable

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about why we see such a difference between the extraordinary events and revelations in Bible times and the seemingly ordinary events of present day life in the Church:

Q:  Why is it that there are so many dreams, visions, healings, and other miraculous revelations or interventions recorded in the Bible, but these do not seem to be a prominent part of the life of the Church today?

Before sin entered the world, Genesis describes Adam and Eve as having close, direct interactions with their Creator in their garden home.  Even upon their sin, God still speaks directly to them about the consequences of that sin, but more importantly about the promise of a savior who would come from among their descendants. 

From then on, reports of God’s direct interaction with humanity become less frequent and less numerous.  Seen in the lives of men like Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, these interactions occur to particular people for a particular purpose, namely that of preserving and protecting the family line that will eventually give birth to Jesus. 

Later in the Old Testament, these direct revelations become confined only to those called to the office of Prophet, and once Jesus Himself lives, dies, rises, and ascends into heaven, those holding the office of Apostle continue to receive inspiration by the Holy Spirit and proclaim the Divine Word in their preaching and their writings which now make up our New Testament. 

Many people, upon reading of the extraordinary events they see in the lives of the Biblical personalities, wonder why it is that they have not experienced such things if they also trust in Jesus.  What is often overlooked, however, is that these direct encounters with God are particular in nature, seen manifested in those holding the office of Prophet or Apostle, or in close association with those holding that office.  Additionally, these events which are described in Scripture are never connected with a promise that the general population of Christians will experience the same, whether then or thereafter. 

Even Jesus’ own description of the Holy Spirit’s work among the Apostles in John 14-16 does not include the promise that He will reveal anything new, but rather is described as reminding them of what Jesus has taught them and guiding them in their proclamation of the same.

Now, we do see occasional claims in the present day that similar events to those in the Bible have occurred.  The epistle of 1 John does give some general standards by which one might rule out that an extraordinary event was divine in origin, and this is given because of the possibility that spiritual evils could produce miraculous acts or extraordinary experiences as counterfeits to draw people away from Jesus. 

This is the danger for relying on these extraordinary things in the present day—that we cannot verify if they are genuine divine acts or evil counterfeits sent to distract us from Jesus.  In fact, many would warn that it is possible that the evil one or his angels might grant a person great prosperity or miraculous rescue and allow them to give God credit for it only to pull the rug out from under them so that they curse God when these things fail. 

Whether God chooses to intervene directly in the present day or not, there is a source for reliable hope which is far greater.  In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul describes the miraculous and extraordinary things we might seek as the imperfect or partial revelation of God, while He points to the Scriptures and the hope of the Resurrection on the Last Day as the perfect and complete. 

The eyewitness reports of the death and resurrection of Jesus are secure and trustworthy, along with the rest of Scripture which flows from them.  When God deals with us through this revelation, as well as that Word made visible in the Sacraments in His Church, we can know it is Christ Himself and no imposter who comes to us, because these are firmly attached to His own promises, for which there is no counterfeit.  And when He returns on the last day to judge the living and the dead, He will reveal Himself to all people and heal all that is wrong forever. 

Lead us not into Temptation; but Lead Jesus Instead

For last week's newspapers, I answered a question about the Holy Spirit's role in Jesus' wilderness temptation:

Q:  If it is Satan who is responsible for the temptations we face, and not God, then why do Matthew and Luke say that the Holy Spirit led Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted after His Baptism?

These details do seem to be in conflict with each other on the surface, but if we wanted to be very detailed in looking at the sentence, we could note that the Spirit simply leads Jesus into the wilderness, where Satan does the actual tempting. 

But that answer is not necessarily adequate, because we still see the Holy Spirit serving to lead Jesus into temptation when James, the brother of Jesus, writes in his epistle, “God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.” This seems to place the temptation far too close to the Holy Spirit’s work of leading Jesus for the comfort of most. 

Since the words tempt and temptation do not refer only to sin, but also to other various types of tests, trials, and tragedies, some have used the same kinds of explanations here that are often used by pastors when people face hard times in life.  Among these are explanations like that God does not tempt people, but allows people to be tempted or tested to achieve a greater good.  While explanations like this may be comforting and may be true, they still seem less than satisfying in this instance. 

When reading the details that Matthew and Luke give about Jesus’ temptation, it is interesting that there are repeated Old Testament connections made by the events of Jesus temptation which point us in the right direction about what is happening there: 

The best example might be that the temptation lasts 40 days.  The number 40 shows up dozens of times in Old Testament history and in the life of Jesus.  The most relevant here would be that Moses was on Mount Sinai 40 days when He received the Law in God’s Ten Commandments, and the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness 40 years on their way from Egypt to the Promised Land, giving in to many temptations along the way. 

Jesus, on the other hand, spends His 40 days in the wilderness perfectly resisting temptation, and while the Law revealed by Moses brought only the bad news that we have sinned and fall short of God’s demands, Jesus spent His 40 day temptation, and all of His earthly life, fulfilling God’s Law in our place.  His perfect record under temptation is a reversal of our failure to resist sin. 

In another case, an Old Testament Sacrifice on the Day of Atonement involved sacrificing two goats.  One was slaughtered as a Sacrifice for sin, while a family would confess their sins while laying their hands on the goat’s head, after which they would lead it into the wilderness and abandon it never to be seen again, pointing forward to this temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. 

These among many others, point Israel, and us with them, to the work of Jesus as the Savior who lives and dies in our place.  Because of this office as Messiah and Savior, Jesus is different from us in His relation to God.  Just as He suffers the cross in our place to exchange our well-deserved punishment for His perfect rewards, it is necessary that He be tempted, and so the Spirit leads Him to it in a way that might not be true for us. 

Jesus temptation was done to fulfill the righteousness God demands and to achieve God’s will which is that people would rely on Him for forgiveness and be give eternal life through Him.  Likewise for us, even when we do face tests and trials in life, we trust that they occur for the greater purpose of pointing us to God’s salvation and an eternal, resurrected life in which there will be neither temptation nor suffering of any kind.  

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ash Wednesday

For this week's newspapers, I answered a question about the ceremonies of Ash Wednesday and their meaning:

Q:  What is Ash Wednesday and what is the meaning of applying ashes to people’s foreheads on that day?  What reasons to churches have behind their decision to use ashes or not, and how does this custom fit with Jesus warnings in Matthew 6 about showing off one’s repentance, prayer, and good deeds? 

Ash Wednesday is the name that has come to indicate the first day of Lent.  It occurs 46 days before Easter Sunday, and emphasizes the themes of sin, mortality, and repentance that carry forward throughout the season of Lent, which is a period of contemplation and often fasting that prepares for the celebration of Easter. 

The source of the name for Ash Wednesday comes from one of the customs associated with it—the application of ashes to those who attend that day’s services.  In Old Testament times, covering oneself with ashes was used as a sign of mourning or sorrow for sin.  In keeping with that Old Testament tradition, churches began centuries ago to use this as a way of marking the beginning of Lent, as it fits closely with its repentant character. 

A common tradition relating to the making of the ashes is to make them by burning the prior year’s palms from the Palm Sunday procession, and the ashes are usually mixed with a small amount of olive oil in order to achieve the right consistency for application.  Holy water may also added, such as in Roman and Anglican traditions of Christianity.  The traditional words which accompany the application of the ashes are “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” again emphasizing the themes of sin and mortality by echoing the words recorded in Genesis as being spoken by God to Adam and Eve after their fall into sin. 

In addition to the Roman and Anglican tradition, the use of Ashes is also fairly common among Lutherans and Methodists, as well as some portion of most denominations which observe the season of Lent.  A trend in recent years has been for even representatives of some traditions which have not typically observed Lent or other elements of the broader liturgical year to restore the traditions of Ash Wednesday as part of a renewed interest in the ceremonial heritage of the ancient Church.  It is rare, if not outright forbidden, in traditions which devalue ancient ceremony or reject it as merely human tradition. 

Some Christians do avoid the use of ashes at all because they perceive that it violates Jesus’ warnings about self-righteous displays in Matthew 6, while others, particularly among Roman Catholics, choose to wear their ashes for the remainder of the day after their application as a public testimony of faith in Jesus.  Others may receive the ashes, but remove them soon after in response to Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 6.  Some even see the receiving and immediate removal of the ashes as an excellent illustration that we are born sinful and deserve God’s punishment because we engage in actions which disobey God’s law, but that the sin has been washed away in Baptism, allowing all who trust in Jesus to forgive their sin to stand before God at the judgment in His righteousness and purity rather than their own death-deserving sin. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Jesus' Birthday?

For last week's newspapers, I answered a question about the date of Jesus' birth and its significance for salvation:  

Q:  How did the Church figure out if Jesus was born on December 25?  Do we celebrate Christmas because Jesus saved us by being born? 

Many people do not realize that the date of Christmas on December 25 was never intended to be understood as a claim to be the literally precise date of Jesus’ birth.  A handful of ancient Church Fathers believed and defended the possibility that it might be His actual birth date, but the date of December 25 is more significant for its role in illustrating through the rhythm of the Church’s year the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. 

This begins with the common acknowledgment that the day on which Jesus was crucified was March 25.  Because it was not customary for the Jewish people to record birth dates at the time of Jesus, it was a popular belief that the date of a person’s death coincided with the date of their conception.  By this reasoning, Jesus’ conception began to be celebrated on March 25 of the Roman calendar while His death and resurrection were celebrated on the Friday and Sunday of Passover week by the Jewish calendar. 

Out of this eventually developed the complete Church Year which celebrates the date 9 months after March 25 (which is December 25) as the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, and through its various seasons remembers the events of Jesus’ life during the first half of the calendar and His teachings during the second half of that calendar. 

In addition, one can also look to the record that John the Baptizer was conceived on Yom Kippur, the day his father served in the Temple for the Jewish Day of Atonement, which occurs in the last week of September.  Luke then records that Mary conceived Jesus when Elizabeth was six months along in her pregnancy with John, which would be the last week of March, resulting in Jesus birth nine months later, in the final week of December. 

But, the significance of Christmas does not come because Jesus birth is the act by which He saves.  The perfect life He lived after that birth, and His death and suffering of God’s wrath on the cross in place of sinners are necessary in order for salvation to be accomplished.  His birth alone would be majestic and worthy of note, but it would not by itself be able to deliver forgiveness of sins to humanity or reconcile us to God. 

Instead, we celebrate the birth of Christ because it is the concrete event where God’s salvation first becomes visible to His creation in the person of Jesus.  In the early Church, the Annunciation (the angel’s announcement which caused Jesus’ conception in the Virgin Mary) was actually revered of more highly than Christmas, because they recognized that the significant event was already full and complete as Jesus was already fully God and fully human from the moment of His conception—a truth Christians refer to as the Incarnation. 

However, we celebrate Christmas because of the same significant truth, which is that God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus.  God the Son voluntarily allowed Himself to be conceived, born, grow, and mature in the normal course of human life.  He became fully human so that by taking on our flesh He could stand in our place both in life and in death. 

He accomplished that in the events of Good Friday and Resurrection Day, but we recognize and celebrate that He began the earthly life which leads to that on the day of His birth—whether that literally happened on December 25 or not.