Sent to all Republican Attorney Generals. It is now or never.
Dear Attorney General,
Is Donald Trump the only person who is actually willing to lead this country?
Many people do not like Donald Trump for a variety of reasons. I can understand why. He often exaggerates and seems full of outrageous braggadocio.
And yet, when he is right he is right. The man understands that the truth about reality is politically important, and even facing the possibility of corrupt elections in 2024, I think it is still possible that he will win because many people in America know that they need a fighter. This is what Donald Trump said last night:
“The Fake News Media cannot stand the fact that so many people in our Country know the truth, that the 2020 Election was rigged and stolen, yet almost every article written contains the words the “Big Lie” or “unsubstantiated facts,” etc., always trying to demean the real results. I am willing to challenge the heads of the various papers or even far left politicians, who have perpetuated the Real Big Lie, which is voter irregularities and fraud on a massive and determinative scale. This includes members of the highly partisan Unselect Committee of Democrats who refuse to delve into what caused the January 6th protest—it was the Fake Election results! While I am willing to do it, they will never agree because they cannot argue that facts in states including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, New Hampshire, and others such as New Mexico, where the Democrat Secretary of State changed the voting laws without legislative approval just prior to the Election, making it virtually impossible for the Republican presidential candidate to win. If anyone would like a public debate on the facts, not the fiction, please let me know. It will be a ratings bonanza for television!”
Trump, of course, is correct. Obviously, he has had a vested interest in following the development of these issues on the ground. I note that the recent court complaint, supported by men like Mike Lindell, Douglass Frank, and the former Navy Seal now lawyer Kurt Olsen, is stunning because of the powerful case it makes by gathering information from mostly “mainstream” media and government sources. This is information that has made it into the public realm, even though it has not, being suppressed, gained wide coverage.
Most of the information that is present in the complaint and its exhibits was covered also by Mollie Hemingway, who I highly respect for her integrity. Of her own book, Rigged, she has said the following: “it’s a meticulously detailed and researched book that certainly can be argued with but cannot be dismissed as unsubstantiated or not noteworthy…”
This, again, is exactly right.
I understand that a lot of intelligent people and others who “matter”, possibly some who are in your circles of influence, do not feel the same way. I get that you might think that supporting this case would make things very difficult for you.
That might be true, even as I doubt it, thinking that real courage can have a massive impact and that you would be more likely be seen as a hero (by many Americans initially and by most Americans in the long run).
Why? Because the fact of the matter is that many of us in this country are fully convinced that we are being gaslit and we believe that it is only people like you who, by doing your duty for your country, can help get us on a good path again. We cannot allow this kind of fraud – clearly seen in view of the blatant disregard of the law, the falsely certified results, and the spoilation of evidence that we have already seen – to continue.
For the sake of the continued existence of the United States of America, this lawsuit needs to go forward, and be taken and finally vindicated – at least in some fashion – by our Supreme Court.
We all wait for you to be the first to jump in the pool.
Our Country cannot move forward with legitimate elections without first fixing the fraud in the November 2020 election.
Our state interests, and our legal votes, must be protected. You can do that. Please bring this case to the Supreme Court to save our State and our Country:
I am highly confident in making this request of you this morning that this will not result in “social suicide” for you, but is a noble and right cause that will result in your being blessed, vindicated, and remembered.
“May [Christ] strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones…”
– I Thessalonians 3:13…
In the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians we can see that he not only enjoys spending time with these folks and loves them but also that he is impressed with them…
In particular, this church located the large capital city of Thessalonica in Macedonia – which he helped to found right at the beginning of his Apostolic ministry – had faced intense suffering and persecution but also held strong to the Christian faith….
Paul writes about them, for example, in the first chapter:
“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia…”
First and foremost, we can see that Paul takes a certain pride in the Thessalonians, like a father might of his children…
Second, we can see here that Paul is indirectly giving voice to something that all of us know is true, and that is that in life… there are certain people who show good character, as we say, and hence are good examples.
They are the kinds of people that we want our children and grandchildren to be….
And the kinds of people also that we want our children and grandchildren to be around!
And, in fact, this concern for good character – for morality – is something that we can find the world over…
People from all over the world, no matter where they live, no matter when the live, have always been concerned about such things. It is not only because people want their children to be socially successful in the world, to be respectable.
That, of course, is no small part of things. What they ultimately want, however, is for their children to be good people.
I mean, to an extent. People want their children to be good… but not “too good” either…
On the one hand, this “not being too good” might have to do with wanting your children to have actual wise character, and not just a legalistic predilection for “following rules”.
On the other hand, this often will have to do with, again, the issue of respectability. Not everyone would necessarily be proud to have a family member whose truly ethical behavior makes them stick out… and just happens to make others around them feel uncomfortable…
For example, in Thessalonica, moral values regarding sexual issues were not of the highest caliber, to be sure. In this Greek harbor town, “the idea of sexual purity was [a] complete novelty…” and a certain level of craftiness would have been regarded as normal and prudent…
Paul also deals with this issue in this letter, reminding the Thessalonians that they are not pagans and that the Lord desires they avoid sexual immorality…[i]
Sometimes – most of the time really – people grow up in environments, in cultures, where what is considered normal and acceptable actually involves suppressing the truth about the real consequences for our actions a great deal, and hence a kind of ignorance of what is good persists as people form powerful false beliefs.
And so here Paul, even as he praises the Thessalonians here for being good examples, is working in this letter to also help them make some adjustments…
And when he does that, he uses family metaphors all over…
This is where, I believe, things get very interesting….
Let me read a few longer excerpts from this letter. In chapter 2 of the letter, Paul says the following:
“…we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts.5 You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed—God is our witness. 6 We were not looking for praise from people, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our authority. 7 Instead,we[, myself, Timothy, and Silvanus,] were like young children[a] among you.
Just as a nursing mother cares for her children,8 so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. 9 Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you. 10 You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed.11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children,12 encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and glory.
13 And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe. 14 For you, brothers and sisters, became imitators of God’s churches in Judea, which are in Christ Jesus: You suffered from your own people the same things those churches suffered from the Jews 15 who killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and also drove us out…
Near the end of chapter 2, Paul goes on to say this:
“17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you?20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy….”
Now, maybe when you hear Paul say these kinds of things, you don’t find anything unusual. And, if that is the case, I think that would be a very good thing!
At the same time, I think there are some who, at best, might have a lot of questions about what Paul is saying, and others, at worst, who might see some major problems with his words, saying “How can this possibly be relevant for today?”
Let me explain a bit…
I am under the impression that if the Apostle Paul hired a modern-day consulting firm, they would urge him to adjust his messaging a bit…
Please note, that in the next several minutes, I am intentionally imitating my imagined consultant who seeks to make the Apostle Paul more palatable for today…:
The first problem here is that with these family metaphors, Paul is not considering the currents of the contemporary world. He is out of touch and out of step.
After all, Paul brings up sexual morality in this letter, as we have already mentioned, which implies that he is concerned with more or less traditional morality.
Paul thinks marriage, for example, should be one man and one woman for life!
So, this creates a wide array of other problems… Paul is thinking about what some have called the traditional family. He is not being sensitive that today, because of the freedom of choice we all have, there are a multiplicity of valid family forms…
People don’t need to be married to have families! And in bringing up children and mothers and fathers, Paul is not acknowledging that someone might have two dads, or two moms, for instance. And what about those who have a mom who decides to become a dad or a dad who decides to become a mom? And what about moms who decide that having three dads, for instance, might be necessary to help make ends meet?
And doesn’t Paul think about all the single mothers and fathers who are doing the best they can? When Paul builds on the ideas of the work mothers and fathers do in order to talk about his own efforts, he is giving every impression that the work of both mothers and fathers is somehow uniquely valuable…. And its not, of course. None of us are replaceable, as we say today… and Paul should recognize that in speaking like this, some who do not have a mother or a father, for instance, are not going to be able to identify with what he is saying.
And they will feel alienated… So, some adjustments are in order…the child and brother and sister language stay – as long as we acknowledge brothers can become sisters and vice-versa – but the other stuff needs to go.
There are more problems too… In chapter 4, Paul says this….:
“…brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. 2 For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus….”
Well, this just kind of builds on what we just said, doesn’t it? It means that “being good” means operating in certain grooves that God means for us to inhabit. We are getting the impression here that we like a train which is built for certain tracks, and that that is the way it is with us…
That we can’t actually be good unless we are taking seriously something we call “the good”! This is a bit medieval. Again, starts with a prior understanding of what the natural family is and why it exists… This is why Paul can say, for example…
“You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. 11 For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children…”
This stuff needs to go! Here, by the way, we not only see that Paul persists with the problematic father-language…. But he is also taking about how “holy, righteous and blameless” he and his colleagues were. This brings us to the second issue…
When Paul talks about being “holy, righteous and blameless” he also piles on later on, as you heard in your reading for today, where he says…
“Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you…”
This is too much. Here, I should add that it is clearly not only the world who is unimpressed with his Christian view of the world that praises things like traditional sexual morality, the natural family, and hard work, but that many in Christian circles are also unimpressed with his condescending attitude….
One commentator puts it that Pauls’ desire is to “correct, restore, and equip them in respect to faith… they had room for additional growth, and Paul felt his presence could foster it…” (Robert L. Thomas, Expositors’s Bible Commentary).
Well, that is one way of putting it… but another is to say that Paul seems to be implying that he is, in some sense at least, holier than the Thessalonians! Somehow better than them; superior to them! Thinking that he is going to be a father to them, perhaps suggesting some patriarchal authority…
So here is our second issue really… Why does Paul have to act so self-righteously? He’s one to talk like this![ii]Why does he have to treat the Thessalonians like they are immature children who need his wisdom and guidance? Doesn’t he realize how bad this looks?
And really, Paul should see that even from a practical standpoint, it might make sense to tone things down a bit, by which he might distinguish himself with some of the politically radical persons today who give off an aura of self-righteousness…. That turns people off and a backlash should be expected. Paul could likely gain followers and acceptance from the wide swath of more moderate folks out there….
That brings us to the last part…. The third thing we need to point out is that men tend to not be as emotional as women. They should be more emotionally deep of course, as they shed their toxic masculinity. But in the meantime, as we slowly approach that future goal, it might also make more sense for Paul to lay off his expressions of great love for the Thessalonians…
After all, the 4th century church father John Chrysostom noticed that “Paul’s payers [here] demonstrate a fervent soul unable to restrain his love… Do you see the unrestrained madness of love shown by these words?”
Yes John Chrysostom, that is right — and this kind of thing really won’t do for now… Comparing yourself to a nursing mother is bad enough. You are going to make a lot of men feel uneasy and uncomfortable…
Yeah, no man should be calling other people their hope, joy, and crown… Seems too extreme. You should not make yourself sound so needy…. This could make you seem like a high-maintenance person…
OK, enough making light of things here – though I hope you get my point…
In view of all of the above, let’s seriously reflect as Christians on all of these things…
The fact is, we need to recognize that it is indeed true that many in the Western world at least do see the Apostle Paul in particular, and the Bible in general, as being out-of-step with the contemporary world. Right now, in Finland, a pastor is looking at possibly two years in prison for talking about what the Bible says about homosexual acts. Elsewhere, in America, University Presses are normalizing pedophilia…
They say that a fish doesn’t recognize the water in which it swims….
We need to recognize the water in which we swim, and the problems which it creates for us according to the Bible.
We need to know who we are at the core of our being, and to focus on the external things that will nurture that inner life and truly bless us and others, and not those things that will bring curses…
And we also need to recognize that there is nothing unhealthy about the fervent desire that the Apostle Paul has for the congregation of Thessalonica.
God does indeed mean for us to be emotionally deep and profoundly aware of who we are and who the others are around us – He means for us to know one another ever more deeply, being more invested in each other… and we do that in part by knowing who we are in Him…
And finally, when it comes to the matter of spurring people on to lives of holiness that are pleasing to God, there is nothing wrong with what Paul implies about himself or the congregation…
Consider, for example, what he says in Galatians 6 where we actually read the words:
“…If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load….”
We probably all know people who are self-righteous jerks. Maybe you even felt that way when I was being the consultant… : ) And, yes, listening to Paul, we might have been prompted to think of the country song that says “O Lord, its hard to be humble when you are perfect in every way…”
…but we also know that there is really something to what he is doing….
Character matters deeply, after all…
We do want friends who will treat us well, who will be good people. We don’t just marry anyone, but we should look for a person who is of good character. We know that God means for all of us to indeed “get better,” that is, to go from immaturity to maturity, to completion, which is just another word for perfection…
Yes, again, we are all sinners. Indeed!
None of us “deserves” God’s grace and mercy. Indeed!
But these things are true as well!
So Paul really does think he can say this, and set himself up as a “standard of love to be emulated”. Why? Again, not necessarily because of any self-righteous pride but because of his own very real imitation of Jesus (see 1:6) who is the ultimate standard (John 13:34; 15:12).
That is why he says earlier: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord…” He indeed wants the Thessalonians to continue on with this…
Just like a good father and mother desire the best for their children, for them to eat healthy food and to participate in good activities, so God, through the words of His Apostle Paul, desires the best for us… has high expectations for us!
Finally, how does all of this fit in with the text that I have chosen for today?:
“May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones…” – I Thessalonians 3:13…
This doesn’t mean that we are saved by our good character and actions.
That is not true, even if bad character and bad actions will certainly set us up for faith-destroying and doubt-inducing circumstances!
No, again, it simply means that God desires you to be ever more fully the man or woman who He has called you to be, particularly in these last days when you can be a good example to those around you…
Yes, you are not in heaven yet, in Paradise, yet, and you have an Old Adam that clings to you, and that will attempt to drag you down this or that dark path…not only in deeds, but words and thoughts…[iii]
Nevertheless, cling to your Good Shepherd and the forgiveness and strength He gives you daily…
Identify with Him always and His work!
…because the person who has learned how to die with Jesus Christ is the person who has also learned how to live!
I hope this kind of talk encourages you.
I hope that each and every one of you, having even only a spark of faith within – given to you by God when you hear about His great love for you in Jesus Christ – can identify with what I am saying…
If you are not sure, know that even now you can be sure though His blood, and be ready to “lift up your head” when He comes!
Even as that fearful Last Day we heard about in our Gospel lessons comes fast and furious, you can know right now that you have real peace with God, that Jesus Christ is for you and not against you!
As one pastor put it, encouraging his own congregation:
“…what the world cannot see is that even though we are all muddling through this life with our tilted halos, scrappy faith, and scuffed-up Bibles, Jesus nonetheless pronounces us blessed – yes, blessed! We are blessed because He opens our hands to receive continually; blessed: because we are continually given the gift of sorrow for our sins; blessed: because we are given a hunger for the Lord and His gifts. Yes, we are blessed because just like those Saints who have passed away and are with Jesus, we too are clothed in the same righteousness of Jesus….”
As we heard, the prophet Jeremiah says…:
“14 “‘The days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will fulfill the good promise I made to the people of Israel and Judah.
15 “‘In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. This is the name by which it[a] will be called: The Lord Our Righteous Savior….’
This is the prophecy of the coming Messiah, the Jesus Christ, the heartbeat of the message of Advent, which we begin today!
This is our Lord Jesus Christ.
The ever-just One.
The ever-powerful One.
The ever-merciful One.
The ever-empowering One….
And so let us all pray, along with the Psalmist:
4 Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. 5 Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior, and my hope is in you all day long. 6 Remember, Lord, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old. 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways; according to your love remember me, for you, Lord, are good…
“It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; 4 that each of you should learn to control your own body[a] in a way that is holy and honorable, 5 not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; 6 and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister…”
[ii] And the old Adam in us rebels vs. the person of the Apostle Paul.
Better: the old Adam in us strengthened by particularly American cultural characteristics rebels….
“Paul – you jerk – I’m not so bad!
My faith isn’t any weaker than the next guy! We are all sinners Paul – your love isn’t so hot either!
(and I saw what you wrote about women earlier!)
I suppose you think that you are progressing in holiness and leaving the rest of us behind!
I suppose you think you superior because you have the gift of celibacy!
I suppose you think you are just better than us…
I’ve heard about you rigorous types! I wonder what secret sins, struggles, you are hiding?…”
Has this ever happened to you?
Do you find yourself thinking – or even saying such thoughts?
If so, don’t feed the beast…
[iii] The fact of the matter is that no true Christian would talk like our imagined consultant this morning…
Oh, they might to be sure – for a short while or so…
But then they catch themselves, as the Holy Spirit stirs up within them and reminds them who they really are in Jesus Christ:
Those who are God’s children, all dearly loved by their father in all their uniqueness and glorious particularities!
This is one of the reasons that Paul is so clearly emotionally moved here…
The Thessalonians are those who rejoice in the victories of others, who find great comfort in Christian fellowship, and who desire, even long for, both correction and guidance…
As those who are new creatures in Christ, we have new impulses, spiritual impulses… and one of those impulses is to take on the old Adam in us and tell him to take a hike. Go for a walk, etc…
Go away old Adam! Get behind me Satan!
Don’t you know that the Apostle Paul gave us a model of how to understand what is happening to us? What is going on inside of us? How even as the old Adam remains and our sinful impulses are not fully eliminated until the grave that we have newness of life in Jesus Christ?
He saves us from this body of death!
Don’t you know that God not only declares me to be righteous – perfect in His sight! – because of His own beloved Son but that He also continues to forgive and strengthen me, so that I have the desire and power to live a holy life in His presence?
“…show mercy with fear—hating even the garment stained by corrupted flesh.” – Jude 23b (ESV)[i]
God’s baptized saints: On this last Sunday of the church year, right before Advent, it is fitting we speak of the Last Day…
As we heard the prophet of Isaiah say:
Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.
And in our Gospel reading we just heard:
“Be on guard! Be alert!… What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”
The message is this: The day is fast approaching when Our Lord will come again to deliver His people in the ultimate way!
Rise, my soul, to watch and pray, From thy sleep awaken; Be not by the evil day Unawares o’ertaken. For the Foe, Well we know, Oft his harvest reapeth While the Christian sleepeth.
Know He desires good things for you when He separates the sheep from the goats… The clean from the unclean! The sparkling from the stained!
Why do I put it like that? Well, I’ll get to explaining that in a moment but it is going to take a another moment to provide the necessary background to my explanation.
In the process of preparing for this sermon, studying this passage from the end of the book of Jude – which, very confusingly for us, mentions stained clothing or garments from corrupted or unclean flesh — I came across passages in the Old Testament book of Leviticus about how to handle defiling molds in clothing or leather articles (in chapter 13[ii]) and passages talking about how bodily discharges or emissions (things like seminal discharge, menstrual flow or hemorrhage, or human excrement) – as well as contagious diseases! – should be dealt with as well…
In short, because of the literal stains of uncleanliness, this defilement or corruption caused by things like mold, bodily discharges, and leprosy that contaminated clothing needed to be isolated… quarantined…. For it was unclean….
Keep that stuff far from us!
And not only this, but this quarantining often involved the people too… The one from who the uncleanliness came, and even others affected by it as well!
Now this might sound a bit familiar to us today but have we really begun to understand the full extent of what was happening here?
Well, in part – even as there were undoubtedly practical considerations with some of these matters – all of this ultimately has to do with the supreme importance of the symbolism of the Old Testament, the “shadows” as the Apostle Paul called them in the book of Colossians, which really pointed to, indicated, the Reality behind such shadows…
Take the daily sacrifices offered in the Old Testament, for example. These were at times offered on behalf of all, and finally should not be seen as something having to do with God’s Law – even if we sometimes call them a part of God’s “ceremonial laws” – but to the Promises of Salvation through the Coming Messiah, Jesus Christ.
You know, as John the Baptist said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”. It is very likely that when the sinner of Luke 18 stands in the court of the temple and will not even lift his eyes before God, beating his chest and saying “God be merciful to me, a sinner,” that he is saying, “Oh Lord, let these sacrifices be for me!”
This sacrifice, involving lambs, was performed daily at the temple in Jerusalem! Every morning and evening. This lamb was sacrificed for the sins of the people (see Exodus 29:38-42, for example)…
But when Jesus comes, no sacrifice for sins is left, as the shadows recede! If it helps, think of shadows like these as the temporary scaffolding for the real Sacrifice, Priest, and Temple, Jesus Christ…
Not only this, but we should also realize this: In the Old Testament, these sacrifices provided safe access to a Holy God.
Sins of course were always an issue here, but then there is also original sin — the sinful infection that we all share from birth. It is like a spiritual leprosy.
Gasoline burns in the presence of fire – God’s holiness is gracious but also destructive. He cannot abide the sin – the leprosy, the uncleanness – within us (Kleinig).
This is why in the Old Testament we see so many of these signs, these shadows, these “divine object lessons”.
Finally, these externals are often “typological” of the internals of human life.
Therefore, with leprosy, for example, eventhe external signs of leprosy/infection, like corrupted clothing, are a sign of the *real* inner infection that infects us all and causes the outer infections. The leper or menstruating woman is “unclean” and “unworthy”, but this is really meant to serve as a symbol for the greater uncleanness and unworthiness that infects us all.
For we all, in our fallen nature, are the contaminated who contaminate… And this also, of course, is why we die. The wages of sin is death…
While we are at this stuff, let’s go on. Unclean animals also serve a similar function as a divine object lesson – spiritual holiness is symbolized by physical perfection, not oddities. (what one author called the “no oddballs allowed” principle).
One biblical scholar, Gordan Wenham, expands on the matters these object lessons point to, putting it like this:
Imagine two poles of existence, there is the positive and the negative. The positive has to do with God, life, order, normality and being clean… The negative has to do with chaos, death, disorder, deformity, and being unclean….
So, what finally, to take away from all of this? God’s overall message here, in the Old Testament but especially in the New Testament is this:
I am not like the Gods of the other nations. I am holy. Do not get excited because of your blood descent, ethnic pride, success, or your righteousness…
Instead, be glad because I really am concerned about you – I am yours and you are mine and I desire that you would know true joy and peace in true justice, true mercy and abundant life.
Be invigorated because I want you to be holy as I am holy! Through the pardon and power I give you in the blood of my Son, Jesus, I am separating you out – making you distinct!
You will not, like the nations, sacrifice your infants, partake in ritualized temple prostitution or disregard the elderly and the poor…
You will live as people who live according to and by my word — because I love you even as you continue to have sin…
Instead, come out and be separate! Be holy, and not unclean!
As the old hymn “My Song is Love Unknown” says:
“Love to the loveless (i.e. because of the leprosy of sin, the uncleanness of sin) shown that they might lovely be”…
I hope that is some helpful background to what now seems to us like a very foreign and confusing topic…
And let us wrestle with this just a bit more, go on a bit more[!]… to help us get at the multi-layered meaning that we can see here when we look at the Scriptures as a whole….
With Christ’s coming in the New Testament, God rescinds some of these ceremonial practices – things like the sacrifices, circumcision, special holy days and laws of cleanliness and purification – that he Himself had instituted in order to set His people apart from the other nations…[iii]
Now in the times of the Old Testament, the Gentiles… or heathen… or “non-Jews” were certainly invited to find hope in Israel’s God (think of the books of Ruth and Jonah, for example!), and yet these ceremonies also tended to divide the Jews from everyone else…
In fact, many have noted that it was these ceremonial practices themselves that appear to have enabled Israel to resist a loss of identity – and therefore the Messiah really could come from a clearly identifiable people even if one not rich in earthly power – the Jews.
So, by bringing all of these ceremonies to fulfillment in Himself, these were the “dividing wall” Christ came to abolish…
Nevertheless, God is of course still interested in matters of identity – that is why we are now no longer circumcised, but instead baptized into His family!
And of course in preserving a faithful people for Himself He now brings the Jew and the Gentile, the formerly “clean” and the “unclean”, together in Himself!
That said – and this is where we may begin to feel a bit rankled – even as He has done and is doing this, He also continues to talk about those who do not believe, those who do not receive Him, as being “unclean”.
And, in some sense, He continues to advocate separation! As Paul says II Corinthians 6, echoing the Old Testament again:
“Therefore come out from among them
and be separate, says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
“I will be a Father to you,
and you will be My sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”
Now, with this background, I think we are finally ready to jump into our passage from Jude again!
The passage from II Cor. 6 as well as our chosen text this morning from the book of Jude gives Christians guidance on how to interact with those among them who are turning away from the faith, who are growing distant from the congregation… veering towards “goat-status” or uncleanness…
Interestingly, if we look at our context today, our world today, we increasingly see these formations of separate groups… the phenomenon of people “coming apart”, as one sociologist put it…
Whether it has to with party politics, or generational differences, different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, diverging views within political parties, concerns about carrying things like the coronavirus, or simply “living in different worlds,” as we say today, the separations and polarizations grow deeper and more profound.[iv]
Interestingly, I don’t detect this so much on the part of Christians… Even if Christians are exhorted by the Apostle Paul to “come out from among them and be separate” in 2 Corinthians 6 (which we just heard), devout Christians hardly ever seem to be the ones who desire to withdraw… at least to the point of cutting of ties… There is a real hesitation here…
If someone is homeschooling for example, taking their kids out of the public schools… it is often because they feel that it is something they need to do so that Christian faith is preserved… even as they hope to continue to engage in the wider society…
With our current world, one might wonder how much more a society can take… as we continue to lose our center, our moorings, as things “come apart” more and more and love and trust fracture into a million pieces…
2 Timothy 3:5 says:
“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power…”
Paul then adds: “Avoid such people….”
The 4th century Christian monk St. Anthony, renowned for his wisdom, talked about the full-blown hostility that the disintegrating world would eventually produce:
“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.”
Now, if you are like me, you don’t desire for this to happen! For us to become ever more separated from our non-Christian friends and neighbors, such that they no longer even feel any closeness to us!
Nevertheless, we need perspective. When I was fifteen years old, I attended a “youth gathering” of young men and women of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod in Denver, Colorado. I remember singing with some 18,000 other youth (and it was powerful enough for me that part of me wants to sing this!):
“Lord, teach us how to proclaim
all your goodness, your love and your name!
Lord, teach us how to forgive, and in love, teach us Lord, how to live.
Raising our voices in song, help us tell all the world we belong.”[v]
But do we really belong?
How great a worry for us should this be as we seek to “love not the world”… to be in it but not of it?
And here is something else to think about. In mild-mannered Lutheran seminary professor Dr. John Stephenson’s recent essay: “A Quickening of the Apocalyptic Pulse?” he states:
“As I sense that the dramatic developments of the past two years constitute a dramatic intensification of the signs of the Lord’s coming, I would ask whether it is fanciful to suppose that electronically-monitored vaccine passports are at the least a dress rehearsal for the worldwide imposition of of the mark of the Beast that has puzzled interpreters ever since the writing of Revelation 13:16ff. While some detect a marked rise of the mercury in the eschatological thermometer, much of visible Christendom appears sunk in apathy, with leading churchmen preferring to encourage ‘“climate” hysteria and other suchlike chic concerns.”[vi]
Whether or not you agree with Stephenson… whether or not you think the twigs are tender… the leaves are out and summer near…[vii]
…you must know this: If you do not know the Bible you will be in a heap of trouble…
Folks, I am not saying that we should all become Amish…
…but there are undoubtedly at least a few things we could learn from them…
Again, if you do not know the Bible you will be in a heap of trouble.
This is especially true today – as in the Christian church we have many false teachers just like there were in the days of Jude… those who are powerfully attached to their sin do not fear him (Jude 12).
Going back to what we just heard from the Apostle Paul as well, do we need to be concerned about those who are “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power…” today?
Perhaps one is a popular mainstream media personality who has recently written a new book to help guide Christians and others in our fracturing world…
I took some time to listen to this person, who we’ll call Kristen. Kristen, like all of us, is loathe to see the continual disintegration of our world, the incessant “coming apart”
For example, she reports:
“It would be hard to overstate just how much some Americans have come to despise each other, at least in the abstract. In a January 2019 paper, ‘Lethal Mass Partisanship,’ researchers asked Republicans and Democrats if they believed that members of the opposing party were ‘just worse for politics’ or ‘downright evil.’ More than 40 percent in each party chose ‘downright evil.’ Twenty percent of Democrats and more than 15 percent of Republicans agreed with the statement ‘We’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died.’”
Ouch. And I’d add that even if people don’t have such hate in their hearts, a constant stream of fear – along with the felt need to avoid most all risks – is nevertheless influencing many people’s actions today.
For example, I heard the other day about how in one survey of 2,000 vaccinated Americans, 60% of them said that their unvaccinated relatives will not be welcome to join them for Christmas this year! I won’t get started here, but feel free to ask me what I think about that…
In any case, Kristen thinks that she has come up with an answer for some of our harshest divides.
Her answer – which came to her just a couple of years ago – was that she was guilty of an over-reliance on black-and-white thinking, or “binary thinking,” or “dualistic thinking”, and that she had to overcome this. She had to just stop seeing people in black and white terms, as good or evil….
In one sense, of course, this is right: when the great Russian author and political prisoner Alexander Solzhenitsyn said that “[t]he line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts…” he was imperfectly giving voice to something Christians, in their hearts, are deeply aware of.
Even the Christian, who is a new creature in Christ, still contends with his fallen human nature, with original sin… with the “old Adam” that loves evil and remains in part until death…
At the same time, what Kristen does is simply create a new kind of dualism.Redefining the meaning of the biblical term grace, she says “If there is one practical idea that encapsulates grace, it’s the belief that people are doing the best they can with what they have.”
Is that what grace is?
This not only makes grace contingent on what one does, but into something that we, not God, defines…[viii]
Kristen is wrong on several counts here. First of all, if the third chapter of the book of Romans tells us anything, it is that people do not strive to love God with all their heart, soul, strength and mind….
Nor do they even tend to wrestle with the fact that this is the primary think they should be doing….
Writing of societies that were purportedly Christian G. K. Chesterton quipped, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult, and left untried…”
If Kristen really believes that grace means “people are doing the best they can with what they have,” what will she and those she identifies with do when the going gets really tough and she no longer feels she can say this about someone?
Don’t get me wrong. It is a good thing to believe that our views of good and evil should be intelligent and even nuanced to some degree – even if ultimately, it is only those covered with Christ’s robe of righteousness that God will call “good”.
In like fashion, it is not a bad thing to believe, as one said, “that everyone is fighting a hard battle” and to let such a though spur one on to compassion…
At the same time, we dare not forget that the love of God is otherworldly.
It is, again, “love to the [absolutely] loveless shown, that they might lovely be…”
Jesus came not for the healthy – that is, those who are doing their best – He came for the sick…. For the loveless sinners.[ix]
Do you know what you believe and why you believe it?
Can you give a reason for the hope that is within you?
My dear Christians – you better believe this is important!
Be exhorted by Luther:
“Truly, you cannot read Scripture too much; and what you read, you cannot understand too well; and what you understand, you cannot teach too well; and what you can teach, you cannot live too well.”
First, here, God calls out to you: “Come out and be separate!” Be with me. Spend time with me…
I know we ultimately want to be appreciated by the people around us. We do not want to be ashamed…Socially shamed.
But, above all, we should be more concerned about bringing shame upon our God, and dishonoring Him…
Because He – in spite of the fact that even we who believe just do not understand Him very well! – is the Source of all the love, light, and life that we have ever known and delighted in….[x]
“Help us tell all the world we belong?”
“My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place…”
Let’s look take a closer look at this passage from Jude:
“… show mercy with fear—hating even the clothing, or garment, stained by corrupted flesh.”
Here both garment and flesh are figurative in this context, evoking memories of the symbolic actions, items, and realities of Old and New Testaments we have already discussed….
Martin Franzmann also points out that even today though there is relevance: “[t]he garment spotted by the flesh is a strong expression to indicate that even the slightest contact [with these], even an apparently external contact, is to be avoided.”
We need to be honest. Many in the world look at Christianity and find this to be the case with it.Christianity is “stained” itself, or as they say today “toxic”…[xi]
They hate that the Scriptures say:
“….Your statutes, Lord, stand firm; holiness adorns your house for endless days…”
Yes, the message of the cross certainly confuses and offends the world! At the same time, with its persistent insistence on things natural law, orders of creation, hierarchy, and natural marriage and family. Christianity today is seen as the modern equivalent of “unclean”!
And yet, it is in fact the Christian faith that ultimately helps us escape the toxic… unclean world!
That, in fact, is what Jude is talking about here: deliverance from the world, the flesh, and the devil. Deliverance from these things in fact and deliverance from their influence, power….
As Christians, we should certainly know that all of us are sinners. And at the same time, we need to also remember what Paul wrote to Timothy:
“…everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived.”
The external is important… What is happening around us is important. You should not only be concerned about your own fallen flesh, your own sinful nature… but also remember that the Scriptures also teach that bad company corrupts good character….
In other words, while we are all sinners, we can also get caught up in sinful currents more and more, and really go from bad to worse. Men can grow more and more evil – where they, for example, assert that there is no God ; or call evil good and good evil ; or are not even able to detect their sin…
Quite honestly I feel like many of the theologians of the church have evidently become far less concerned – or even aware – of these important truths…
And so he first of all calls out to us in our reading today to “Be merciful to those who doubt” and to “save others by snatching them from the fire”
I am not sure if we can say Jude gives us some sort of definitive taxonomy for dealing with those mired in unbelief (two or three categories!), but I do think that we can see at least three important stages here that we should be aware of…
And these first two groups are composed of members of the church who are filled with doubts or worse. The former are to be gently persuaded while more forceful action might be required for the latter, pulling them back from the rim of the volcano, so to speak, as they “play with fire…”[xiii]
And then he speaks of a third group, saying: “to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.”
This category of people seems to be more confrontational, antagonistic, and bellicose… These folks seem to be the libertine heretics Jude spoke of in verse 8 of his letter. They “defile flesh” as their influence on the congregation corrupts…
Again, it likely includes the false teachers described earlier in the book. And yet, Jude speaks of quarantine the contaminating deeds of those so polluted while also showing them mercy…[xiv] The Africa Bible Commentary puts it well:
“As we engage in the rescue operation, we must be vigilant not to be corrupted by the flesh. Cases about where sincere counsellors have been carried away by their concern for those they counsel, and have ended up forfeiting their faith and sinking with them. Jude says: Don’t compromise! We should have contact without contamination.”[xv]
Again, Jesus came not for the healthy – that is, those who are doing their best – He came for the sick…. For the sinners.
So remember your rescue operation.
So when it says….
“Look, he is coming with the clouds,”[b]
and “every eye will see him,
even those who pierced him”;
and all peoples on earth “will mourn because of him.”
So shall it be! Amen.”
We know that some will mourn because of their loss, because the great delusion they were under will be revealed to them…
But our mourning – not only because of our realization of how little we loved Him on earth as could have… but for the loss of all those who turned away from Jesus…
…Will be turned into dancing!
As we experience the new heavens and the new earth! No eye has seen, no ear has heard, what the Lord has prepared for those who love Him!
To say the least, as the baptized[xvi] stand with their King, the negative chaos, death, disorder, deformity, and uncleanness will give way to the positive, God, life, order, normality and cleanness, in the ultimate sense!
Because of the blood of the Lamb of God which definitively deals with all of our uncleanness!
Covering us with the pure and white robes won for us in His death and resurrection!
So brothers and sisters, come out and be separate…
[i] November 2021 sermon, last Sunday of the church year: (used Isaiah, Jude, Mark readings)
[ii] The passage is summed up by saying: “These are the regulations concerning defiling molds in woolen or linen clothing, woven or knitted material, or any leather article, for pronouncing them clean or unclean….”
[iii] We need to see that the Apostle Paul makes a distinction between what has been called the “ceremonial law” or “ceremonial practices” (Eph. 2:14-15, Acts 10:9-16, Col. 2:16-17) and what has been called the “moral law” (Rom. 13:8-10, James 2:8, Rom. 2:15, Matt. 5:17-19).
While the whole of the law has been fulfilled on our behalf in Christ (Rom. 10:4) – that it may now be fulfilled in the Christian’s own body (Rom. 8:4) – when Paul talks about the law being abolished, in Ephesians 2:14-15 for example, he is referring to these “shadows” we have been speaking of…
[vi] Robert F. Kennedy Jr. recently speaking at a “Green Pass” protest in Italy said: “It’s clearly an instrument for controlling the money supply, controlling individual movements, controlling our kind of new digitalized economy, that gives these totalitarian elements the capacity to control every aspect, every feature of our lives, and the green pass is the emblem of that.”
[vii] From our Gospel reading: “28 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it[b] is near, right at the door. 30 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”
[viii] Therefore she writes: “Maya Angelou said, ‘You did . . . what you knew how to do, and when you knew better, you did better[,]’” [and so, Powers goes on to say “]Grace tills the ground so that peace, wholeness, and completeness can take root in our burdened bodies, relationships, and the world.[“]
She writes elsewhere: “True grace is otherworldly. It goes against every instinct we have to seek revenge for wrongs or to shame and humiliate people who have acted immorally or unethically. It is what the theologian Dorothee Sölle, who grew up in Nazi Germany, called “borrow[ing] the eyes of God.” It enables us to see the divinity in every person, no matter what they’ve done, what they believe, or who they voted for. Grace is giving other people space to not be you.”
[ix] So you too can see all as someone God dearly loves – as one who was bought by the blood of Christ…
Using your “Christ glasses,” you too can see them as one loved by God and who God means for them to be… who they can be in Him…
[x] I came across this recently, in a review of Eric Metaxas’ new book:
“Eric Metaxas reminds us that despairing atheists have another option than suicide. That option is only foreclosed to those who have closed their minds and hearts. At a time when so many are succumbing to despair, Metaxas reminds us that hope remains in Jesus:
You get to be a part of giving others genuine hope in the genuine God who is the author of life and hope and goodness and truth and beauty. It is what you were created to do, but perhaps until now you didn’t understand this as you do now. That only means that you can now live as the one who made you made you to live. You can begin now. And this is not merely a poetic or a nice idea; it is true. The God of the universe wants you to spread goodness and truth and beauty wherever you go, to his glory. There are people whose lives you will touch, whether you know it or not. So now you know. Have we missed anything? (p.397)”
[xii] To be sure, Jude, with his relentless focus on “the ungodly and their works of darkness” (Concordia Self-Study Bible), comes off as a bit of a downer to many modern Christians.
Now, it is true, right at the beginning and also at the end of the book, we hear some very beautiful and encouraging stuff, but other than that, Jude might strike us as an angry scold of sorts, just eager to pile on words of condemnation for awful unbelievers.
The Lutheran Study Bible, however, help us better understand the seriousness of the issue and helps us to see the practicality of the book even for us today…
“Jude warns his fellow Christians that false teachers behave ‘like unreasoning animals’ (v 10). They are instinctively driven to what is wrong and destructive. Jude uses numerous examples from the OT, Jewish literature, and the prophecies of the apostles to illustrate his warning. He admonishes his readers to rescue those entrapped by the ungodly (vv 22-23).” (Lutheran Study Bible, 2187)
Do you see yourself as trying to help the ungodly escape the snares of the devil?
Jude says, you should… And he is right.
So, knowing this firmly, “knowing the One whom we have believed,” (see Barfield, Newbigin, often….) be built up in our most holy faith and consider this excerpt from the writing of our Lord Jesus’ dear brother, Jude….
[xiii] Those described here would be people who have possibly even lost their faith but still continue to identify with it in some way. Perhaps they still attend the congregation externally even as they deny Christ in word and deed…
Curtis Giese: “…this describes a forceful act of rescue… where the person who is being rescued from the fire might be reluctant or even hostile to the rescuers….”
Perhaps we can think of this person as being like Lot, from the story of Sodom where God destroys that city because of their sins (see Jude 7).
The fire from which we are to snatch them is “the fire of God’s judgment that is threatening to destroy them.” (Franzmann)
From a Biblehub.com commentary: “Pulling them out of the fire.—Better, snatching them out of the fire. We have here another reminiscence of Zechariah 3:1-3 : we had one in Jude 1:9. (Comp. Amos 4:11.) The fire of the judgment to come is probably not meant; rather the imminent danger (as of one who is asleep in a burning house) in which the fire of their sins keeps them. This is the second class: those who can still be rescued, but by strong measures….”
Barnes Notes on the Bible, from Biblehub.com: “Pulling them out of the fire – As you would snatch persons out of the fire; or as you would seize on a person that was walking into a volcano. Then, a man would not use the mild and gentle language of persuasion, but by word and gesture show that he was deeply in earnest….”
Clement of Alexandria understood “the fire” here to have to do with sexual passion and indulgence.
On the brink, people who are right on the edge and need to be snatched back before fall into it… (see Matt 18:15-17; Luke 17:3; Gal 6:1,2; 2 Thess 3:15; I Tim 5:20; Titus 3:10; Jas 5:19-20)
[xiv] Barnes Notes on the Bible, Biblehub.com, adds this helpful comment:
“Hating even the garment spotted by the flesh – The allusion here is not quite certain, though the idea which the apostle meant to convey is not difficult to be understood. By “the garment spotted by the flesh” there may be an allusion to a garment worn by one who had had the plague, or some offensive disease which might be communicated to others by touching even the clothing which they had worn. Or there may be an allusion to the ceremonial law of Moses, by which all those who came in contact with dead bodies were regarded as unclean, Leviticus 21:11; Numbers 6:6; Numbers 9:6; Numbers 19:11. Or there may be an allusion to the case mentioned in Leviticus 15:4, Leviticus 15:10, Leviticus 15:17; or perhaps to a case of leprosy. In all such instances, there would be the idea that the thing referred to by which the garment had been spotted was polluting, contagious, or loathsome, and that it was proper not even to touch such a garment, or to come in contact with it in any way.
To something of this kind the apostle compares the sins of the persons here referred to. While the utmost effort was to be made to save them, they were in no way to partake of their sins; their conduct was to be regarded as loathsome and contagious; and those who attempted to save them were to take every precaution to preserve their own purity. There is much wisdom in this counsel. While we endeavor to save the “sinner,” we cannot too deeply loathe his “sins;” and in approaching some classes of sinners there is need of as much care to avoid being defiled by them, as there would be to escape the plague if we had any transaction with one who had it. Not a few have been deeply corrupted in their attempts to reform the polluted. There never could be, for example, too much circumspection and prayer for personal safety from pollution, in attempting to reform licentious and abandoned females. ]”
What else is going on with these clothes? Zechariah 3:1-5 helps:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan[a] standing at his right side to accuse him. The Lord said to Satan, “The Lord rebuke you, Satan! The Lord, who has chosen Jerusalem, rebuke you! Is not this man a burning stick snatched from the fire?”
Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.”
Then he said to Joshua, “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put fine garments on you.”
Then I said, “Put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him, while the angel of the Lord stood by….
This above passage gives us hope for their salvation, even if it seems unlikely….
The garment here is called a tunic, that is an undergarment, and so it is the first item to become discolored and filthy from the sinful flesh or nature… It is to be despised… (see Leviticus 13:47-59 and Leviticus 15)
Note also Isaiah 64:5, Amos 4:11-12, Num. 16:1-35; Ps. 106:17-18
[xv] Giese: “Even in the case of severe and contagious defilement, Jude still encourages the beloved to seek to bring such polluting people back to the communion of saints,” yet with extreme caution.
“Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever.
— John 8:34b, 35
The question that Jesus confronts us here is really whose slave will you be?
Or better: Who will be your Master?
When I read this passage, the word “slave” really sticks out to me.
I think about the weight and significance of that word.
Maybe you do too.
What do you know about slavery?
Perhaps over the years you have learned a good deal about the topic as it existed on our own shores here in America…
Maybe you learned a bit about this topic in school, or you saw the movie Roots many years ago… or the movie 12 Years a Slave more recently, and perhaps these acclaimed films made an impression on you.
And I recall watching the 1997 movie Amistad years ago when I was teaching over in Slovakia. I remember being horrified at one point in the film where “with food running low on the ship, the weaker captives are chained together and thrown over the side to drown so that more food will be left for the rest…”[i]
Shocked as I was then at the scene, at this point in my life I would hardly be surprised if it really was based on true events…
And even though it was not like the American form of slavery which was race-based, slavery in ancient Rome, for example, was nevertheless brutal in its own way, enslaving conquered peoples and the poor and the weak with little if any discrimination.
And did you know it is estimated that up to ⅓ of the Roman population may have been slaves, with many slaves, in fact, being owned by other slaves?
But things get crazier still. In the ancient world cruelty was everywhere. Large-scale massacres or genocides, for example, were not really a moral issue, at least in the sense that any conqueror felt he should defend his behavior rather than celebrate it!
It is not surprise then that harsh forms of slavery were literally everywhere also.
Even in “civilized” Rome the father of the “pater-familias”, exercising his patria postestas, could ultimately control whether his own wife or children died
…and so you can be sure the same held true for his slaves…[ii]
Now… maybe you wonder about all the times the Bible talks about slavery…
Why did the Apostle Paul, and evidently God himself, permit it?
Have you seen how Paul writes his letters, addressing both masters and slaves? And urging the former to treat his slaves well, and for the latter to submit?
Many professing Christians have vigorously defended slavery without any real sensitivity to nuance over the years – and not just European men, by the way[iii] – not seeing it as that significant, for example, that the Apostle Paul really does seem to want Philemon to free his slave Onesimus.
They also seem to have not thought it was that important that the early Christians were well-known for buying slaves and freeing them.
So, what should we say if someone asks us the following?:
“Why does Scripture… repeatedly command slaves to obey their masters if… slavery is morally impermissible?”
I’d say this: “Perhaps because Scripture advocates radical but not [politically] revolutionary activities?”
And then I’d say this:
We are taught by Jesus to do unto others what we would want them to do us. We are told by Paul to not make ourselves slaves to men, and even to gain our freedom if we can (see I Cor. 7:21,23). Would you at least agree that most everyone today values political freedom such that they would not want to be slaves of men, and if they were, they’d rather be bought and then freed?”
I think about all of those things and more when I think of the word slavery…
Also, especially, I think about how God certainly never saw slavery as something desirable for his own people Israel, saying in Leviticus 25: 39-42:
“‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves” (see also Exodus 21:2).
This, we are told by the Bible historian William Barclay, became “a fundamental article of [the Jew’s] creed of life.”
The Jews knew that they might end up being slaves in their bodies for a short time – but they would not be in their spirits, and would keep fighting against those who would keep them down!
The Jewish historian Josephus, living in Jesus’ time, supports this analysis, and often wrote of his countrymen and their numerous insurrections and rebellions.
He said, for instance: “They have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and they say that God is to be their only ruler and Lord” (Antiquities of the Jews, 18: I.6, in Barclay, Daily Study Bible, John, v. 2, 26).
So the Jews in our Gospel text today might well be asserting that they, fundamentally, have not lost their identity!
They have not become one with the pagans around them; without their God and without hope!
They are the seed of Abraham!
For, as Barclay puts it, “even to suggest to a Jew that he might be regarded as a slave was a deadly insult.” (Barclay, 27)
And today we, like the Jews of Jesus’ day, recoil at being made a slave.
It doesn’t matter to us that the reality of slavery has been with us since the earliest of days! That there are few exceptions to this rule throughout human history…
Being in such a state is not to be countenanced! Never.
I’ll tell you about another kind of slavery though that we are not nearly as concerned about….
I am a relatively frequent email correspondent with an American man who, after being a blue-collar worker for many years, achieved his goal of becoming an accomplished academic librarian, and he recently retired after serving as the director of an academic library in Rome.
We were talking about money and economics a bit recently, and he said something I’ll never forget…
Before I tell you what he told me however, listen to what a man named Dale Martin writes in his book “Slavery as Salvation The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity”
“[I] wonder if any slave who was advancing in ancient society would seriously have entertained [the question as to whether a slave was ‘really’ a person or was a piece of property] since access to wealth and power was the name of the game in antiquity, and legal self-sale could quickly bring both to a slave in the form of a huge cash payment (read ‘working capital’) and access to the kind of managerial duties that the new owner would require of such slaves in his household. It was always possible that, if affairs went well, self-sold slaves could buy themselves back from slavery before too long.”]
Maybe when we hear about slaves in Rome being considered non-persons – and the abject lack of rights that came along with this designation – we have a really hard time understanding that in some cases, selling one’s self as a slave to a wealthy and decent master was also a means of social mobility: again, a way to come into cash, wealth, and power, which again, we are told was “the “name of the game in antiquity”…
Now, the promised quote from my friend in modern Rome:
“For the last few weeks a part from an online interview that took place not long after 9/11 has been in my thoughts. I haven’t been able to find it but it was an interview with one of those high-powered stock traders. He worked, I think, in Chicago, or maybe he was in New York City but he was not close to the Twin Towers. He said that he, and the other traders he worked with, watched the Twin Towers go down on TV (or out the window, I cannot remember) and he asked: “What do you think went through my head at that moment?” And he answered, “I was thinking: How is this going to affect the markets? What will be the best ways to take advantage of all of this?” He discovered that all of the other traders were thinking exactly the same thing at the time of that terrible destruction and death.
He was appalled at his own behavior, and said that it was a kind of sickness that had taken over the entire financial sector.”
So do you want to talk about slavery?
Well, what kind of slavery is this? That people’s desires could become so warped, so twisted, horrifies not only Christians, I am sure, but even many an unbeliever the world over.
Things were similar in Luther’s day. The concern for worldly wealth was driving large parts of the Church’s leadership. You probably remember that there was an indulgence preacher – Johann Tetzel – who had come near Luther’s town saying things like “When the coin in the coffer rings/the soul from purgatory springs.”
Here is a good summary of why that is happening:
“The occasion for [Tetzel’s] preaching of indulgences near Wittenberg was Pope Leo X’s commissioning of their sale for Albrecht of Mainz. Albrecht was already bishop of the diocese of Magdeburg, but sought a second see in Mainz. In order to pay the fines levied for his pluralism (occupation of a second bishopric), Albrecht obtained a sizeable loan from the Fugger bankers in Augsburg. Leo X authorized the sale of indulgences to repay the loan to the Fuggers and help subsidize the rebuilding of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome. The pope published a 1515 bull commissioning the sale and Tetzel—prior in Leipzig since 1509—was conscripted to preach it…”[iv]
Two of the reasons that people say they avoid church these days is that the church is full of hypocrites and is always asking for money…
In Luther’s commentary on John chapter 8, our text for today, we also see similar concerns.
Luther says that when the Jews feel insulted by Jesus here and say “We are not slaves; we are free, for we are Abraham’s seed….” they were essentially saying “….Abraham’s seed has the promise of God to be the head, yes, not the tail but the head (Deut. 28:13), which is to soar above the world and not cower on the ground…” (397, LW 23)
In other words, the Jews, he says, were abusing and misusing God’s promises, making them all about temporal things. They were not concerned about having eternal life with God: how to have their sins forgiven, and how to be free from them.
Rather, it was all about the identity they had apart from Jesus’ interference! They were who they were by birth and what they did, and God would bless them with the high status they deserved….
Luther goes on to compare them to the pope and his bishops of his day who, “whenever they do something good… are motivated by a selfish ambition for honor, money, and goods… Their one concern is honor and wealth…might, and pleasures…” (402)
In other words, Luther was saying that in Jesus’ day as in his people were using Christianity to be successful in the world, gaining worldly treasures.
And yet, if the Christian faith is not focused on delivering these things but rather deliverance from sin, death, and the devil – and it is – will those who believe that it is about worldly success and pleasures want to hold on to it – particularly when suffering and/or persecution comes at them fast and furiously?
Or will the Christian faith be left behind, where not even any of the desirable “external trappings” of the church are wanted, but other external things become all we care about?
While all of life’s riches and pleasures are not necessarily sinful in themselves, we nevertheless sinfully misuse them and can be led even deeper into sin, complacency, and a fatal lack of poverty of spirit….
And for this, judgement comes…
Looking at Revelation 18:13, a few chapters after learning about how by gaining the “Mark of the Beast” men and women will be able to buy and sell… to participate in the economic activity of the world… the Apostle John combines our dual issues of slavery and wealth here, saying the following about the “one great hour” where all Babylon’s riches will “come to nothing”:
“The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over [fallen Babylon] because no one buys their cargoes anymore— cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves….”
Or, as the King James Version puts it more accurately to the Greek: “…and slaves, and souls of men….”
In the worst conditions, this meant being “sold at auction as human livestock for domestic service, prostitution, and gladiatorial amusements…” (Orthodox Study Bible, 624).
Talk about illicit economic activity you don’t want to support…. Did you know that often the same kind of thing happens today as well?
In poor countries, many parents are desperate enough to sell their children, and these children often end up in brothels, serving as prostitutes or sex slaves…
Perhaps closer to home, many of our smart phones we use and the chocolate we eat, for example, are produced in no small part through the use of slave labor.
As my friend from Rome put it “If people claim to be against slavery, why do they focus on what happened a couple of hundred years ago and not what is happening right under their noses?”
Even if we don’t really see ourselves as complicit in such a system – not seeing many possible alternatives before us (we all need smart phones don’t we?) – can we at least admit it would be good thing if there was a better way?
One wonders: just like the women who sees her baby via the ultrasound and begins to think she should keep it, might we, upon seeing and knowing one of these workers, think twice about our own more distant involvement with them?
In any case, we have spoken here about two pictures… two kinds of slavery.
One is the common picture of slavery: the one which has often been imposed on others throughout world history but sometimes has also been entered into “voluntarily”… yet also out of a sense of economic necessity… like in the contemporary Netflix special Squid Game…
The other is this new picture we have now introduced, where men and women enslaved to their own passions for money, wealth, status… their own personal comfort and even luxury, are willing to make Mammon their God and to make men and women their slaves, formally or informally, in the process….
Maybe even to create even new “black” and “white” categories, “in” and “out” groups, in order to aid them in their goals….
The world will treat you like a mere number, dispose of you, or at the very least make it clear to you where you stand vis a vis their social circles…
Perhaps in the coming world of social credit systems and passport systems, as you arrive at this or that destination, for example, Big Data will let you know that “Your recent Amazon purchases, Facebook score, church attendance, and location history make you 23.5% welcome here…” and you won’t make the cut-off.
You will be left behind to fend for yourself…
Perhaps your family, if you are blessed, and a few friends, if you are blessed, will fight for you.
Even many clear-eyed unbelievers – at least those who perhaps know world history better than your average bear and doggedly don’t forget it even if surrounded by pressure to do so – can see this…
Everything we have talked about so far tells us a lot about human nature and how fallen we are….
The real slavery, however is far worse than even this….The thing is, we have just touched the surface: there is an even worse kind of slavery that Jesus is getting at here…
You might wonder about this – how does “coveting,” that is, the desire to take what does not belong to you – rate when compared with things like murder, adultery, stealing, and slandering, for example?
Why is it in the 10 commandments?
In fact, based on the way that the Lutherans and Roman Catholics number the 10 “words” that appear unnumbered in Exodus 20, there are not just one but two commandments against coveting: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house,” that is, his property, and “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass (that is, your neighbor’s relationships, with other people and animals!), nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.”
What is really interesting about coveting is that it has to do with the second half of the 10 commandments, the second table of the commandments that deal with how we are to treat our neighbor. And yet, the other commandments here are external actions. How does coveting really hurt my neighbor? What is the harm?
Well, here we remember what Jesus says about murder and adultery. Even hating your neighbor, or even lusting for one who is not your wife, is a violation of God’s law. The heart matters as well. Not just external actions but what is stirring inside internally as well…
And this does make some sense even to non-Christians, right — even if Jesus might seem like He is being overly harsh… After all, certainly, before I steal my neighbor’s property I have coveted it… before I commit adultery I have coveted the woman who is not my wife….
But the rubber really hits the road when we hear what the Apostle Paul has to say about the matter in Col. 3:5: “Covetousness is idolatry….”
What this means is that the last commandments of the 10 commandments and the first ones as well both have to do with idolatry, one from the aspect of our relationship with God — the first commandment — and one from the aspect of our relationship with our neighbor — the last two commandments.
In other words, the 10 commandments come full circle! There is quite the symmetry here! It is like the 10 commandments — which yes, largely deal with external actions — are bookended by the ones that deal with the internal realities…
But how is coveting idolatry? The Christian commentator Gene Veith, whose own pastor taught him about this topic in a sermon, says
“To sinfully desire what your neighbor has is to be discontented with what God has given you. It is thus a failure to ‘fear, love and trust in God above all things,’ in the words of the Catechism, which is also what it means to violate the first commandment! Both have to do with the lack of faith.”
In other words, coveting is simply unbelief.
This diagnoses the sinful condition of man like nothing else!
If we simply kept the first commandment and had no other gods but the God of the Bible, everything else would take care of itself. As Luther’s Large Catechism puts it: “where the heart is rightly disposed towards God, and this first commandment is observed, all the others follow….”[v]
And yet, this is the condition of sin… sinful man cannot keep these commandments…
Mankind is truly in bondage here, and we cannot free ourselves.
Here, our own strength, our own powers, our own choices, our own decision, our own reason…. are of no avail!
As Romans 3 puts it: the law condemns each and every man and woman on earth, and shuts us all up before God.
Be silent before the only One who is Good!
So, what are all people, what are all those who were born of a woman, born into sin… the whole world over… to do?
As Paul puts it, speaking even for Christians who will always continue to struggle… who will save us from this body of death?!
Who will protect us from one another and even our own selves?
Who will save us not only from corrupt economic and political powers who trade in our souls, but from the Deeper and more profound enemy of the devil – who is the Prince of this World – and our own sin, and the “fruit” of death that it brings?
This is why we are Lutherans this Reformation Day, because we ask this question the Apostle Paul asked, even as every one claiming the name Christian should ask this question, and recite his answer:
Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death…
Through Christ’s death on the cross and glorious resurrection God forgives us both our external and internal sins.
We are therefore no longer slaves to our passions, but His children who inherit His Spirit…
….and therefore in our renewed minds we gladly see the wisdom of, and uphold, His law — even being willing to say we are slaves to it! — as He gives us the pardon and power that we need!
“[A] slave has no permanent place in the family,” and I think that we can all get a sense of just how true this is…
“…but a son belongs to it forever….”
The Lifelong Loyalty and Hope that we are all looking for, the freedom from all earthly slavery, can only be found in the Lord Jesus Christ!
We often forget this, don’t we?
“Father forgive [us], for we know not what [we] do…”
I’ll leave the final word today with Luther, from a sermon he gave on this same text:
“The Jews want to do the same thing [as the Pope and his bishops are doing] here. They say [to Christ]: “You carpenter’s apprentice, You beggar, You poor simpleton! You want to make us free? You claim that your words eclipse all our good works and our laws, making them to no effect. Therefore kill Him, kill Him! Burn Him, and crucify Him!” So it goes.
[It is a sublime sermon that we are saved only by faith in Christ]. The Holy Spirit presents and submits it to the children and to the simple-minded. Old fools like me learn this with great difficulty. Little children learn it best. Others learn this wisdom too well, assuming that when they have heard it once, they know it all. I, however, feel that I cannot understand it. St. Paul has the same complaint, saying that he would like to believe and accept this as the Word of God, but that in his flesh there is someone who wars against it and will not accept it (Rom. 7:18-19). Therefore, the central fact of this freedom [we have in Christ] must be proclaimed daily. Then the other freedom will surely follow. But if you want to begin with, and treat of, physical freedom, you will become so muddled and confused that you will lose both freedoms. You must bear this in mind. “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” Both hell and death are his masters. He cannot escape them. How, then, can I become free? Men answer: “[I do good works!] I will erect a chapel, endow an eternal Mass, go on pilgrimages, fast, become a monk, etc.” But Christ says: “…No, let Him who is called the Son of God deliver you from sin; then you will be free. If you give yourself to Him and let Him set you free, all is well. Otherwise everything will be vain and futile, no matter what else you do.”
The thing that stands out to me the most in that video is the lack of respect for the offspring of slaves in the ancient world (around 6 minutes and up), as the children of slave women took on the legal status of their mothers (see here too; and more excruciatingly painful detail can also be found in this old book:https://archive.org/details/dayinoldromepict00davi/page/n11/mode/2up)
The Christian theologian and historian John G. Nordling fills us in a bit on what things were like in the Ancient Rome in the days of Jesus and His Apostles. His 2004 commentary on Philemon in the Concordia Commentary series is also very shocking in this regard. In it, he writes about what we can really know about slavery in the Greco-Roman world, and it is not pretty (that 10 minute video shows just a bit of this). You can tell he did a lot of research on his topic (see 39-139 in the commentary). You can also listen to his 2009 Issues ETC interview where it is clear both he and Wilken get a bit uncomfortable talking about the topic (note that at the end, he almost seems like he might nevertheless wholly endorse the northern abolitionists and all their efforts, which I found very interesting given the information covered in the commentary).
Nordling See, esp. 52-56, 67 (fn 152)
“…none of the slaves [of the ancient world]… had any ‘personhood’ whatsoever…
However, we may wonder whether the subordinates were ever much bothered by such modern scruples. We would be quite mistaken, for example, if we were to think that Roman fathers routinely put their children to death just because they had the power to do so!”
It is true that for some at least, slavery was a means of “upward mobility” (in various ways) in the ancient world. Bradly, author of Slavery and Society in Rome even states that “no occupation in Roman society was closed to slaves,” except something like military service (quoted in Nordling, 130). Nevertheless, legally these were non-persons. On page 63 of Nordling’s commentary we read:
“…Gal 2:26. Already at this point in his argument, Paul anticipated Gal 4:1-7, wherein he would elaborate on how a son in Greco-Roman society under patria potestas was as much a [legal] ‘non-person’ in the sight of the law as were slaves and other disenfranchised members of the household.”
“Those subject to [patria potestas, ‘the father’s authority’] could have no property of their own, and their lives were almost wholly controlled by their pater-familias” (Crook, Law and Life of Rome, 107, quoted in Nordling, 63, fn 135.
Yes, we know that slavery in Rome was not race-based (at least explicitly so…) and that again, it also seems to have had – at least for some – real opportunities for upward mobility and even freedom for those who sold themselves into slavery.
Still it is difficult for many of us to fathom a world like this, where one human being can in fact essentially be the absolute property of another. Not only this, but if the master gave one of his slaves a wife, then their children, also, became the master’s property.
“[You will] receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” – Mark 10:30
Just like the story about the rich young ruler, which occurs right before this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus challenges us greatly here.
First and foremost, let us recognize this:
Even as God knew the rich young ruler loved his riches more than God – and reveals this to us for our sakes[i] — those who are rich can indeed enter the Kingdom of God.
With our Lord Jesus Christ, the camel can pass through the eye of the needle.
Flesh and blood – and worldly wealth – cannot inherit the kingdom of God, but the Holy Spirit can give birth to the truly spiritual… that which will live and reign forever.
For what is impossible with man, is possible with God.
In fact, it is by the amazing grace of God that not only are the rich saved but any of us!
And also, it is by the grace of God than any man possesses any wealth whatsoever!
For example, it is ultimately by the grace of God, the unearned goodness of God, that a man is able to, as the author of Proverbs says, be the kind of good person that leaves an inheritance not only for his children, but his children’s children, while we hear that the “sinner’s wealth is stored up for the righteous…” (Proverbs 13:22).
And, to emphasize this, we also saw in the Ecclesiastes reading this morning that Solomon likewise laments over the “grievous evil”[!] of children not inheriting their parent’s wealth…[ii]
So, the rich can enter heaven… And property, wealth for one and one’s children’s children…
With some of that potential confusion out of the way, what else to say?
Well there is indeed more to say, for nothing on earth is more precarious to us than earthly riches!
You might recall the story in Luke chapter 12, where a man in the crowd says to Jesus:
“Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
But Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed Me judge or executor between you?”
And He said to [the crowd],
“Watch out! Guard yourselves against every form of greed, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
But what does Jesus know?
He hadn’t directly experienced the 20th century “science” of economics after all… [sarcastically]
And the Jews of Jesus’ day also might have been inclined to question this teacher…
After all, they believed that wealth and riches also were a clear sign of blessing from God and favor with Him.
The focus for them, however, was not really on the grace of God, on how God pours out His gifts among all men in this or that quantity… and how He gives to us the blessings that we have apart from any merit or goodness or power on our part…
Instead, for the Jews, these things showed not only God’s acknowledgement of their eternal salvation, but His acknowledgement of one’s relatively higher goodness, status, and importance on earth…
And, truth be told, how wrong is this really? This is, after all, a pretty common view among people the world over! (and do note Deut. 28:1-14; Job 1:10; 42:10; Ps. 128:1-2; Isa. 3:10, Sir. 11:17; Pro. 10:22).
And we notice this. Because, all of us, after all, want to succeed in the world!
Even if there are bad ways to try this, we have already heard that it is a good thing, for example, to be able to leave your children’s children an inheritance…
And here, generally speaking, we all know something: general morality, character, virtue, and worldly wisdom can help a person to succeed in the world…
Those who don’t seek these things at least pretend they do… to at least some people… for a reason…
Again, don’t relatively wise persons know that when it comes to the human animal, it is not just raw power or brains or wiles but character, part of that being legitimate self-concern,which can create success, thriving, flourishing?[iii]
That said… when we think of these things…. how quickly our minds go to something else!
That money, money, money[!] again!
I mean, money – some kind of liquid currency – sure could help this process, right? [iv]
Well, you have probably heard many a story of the anxieties of those who are rich…
About the miseries of those who have wealth….
About the worries and challenges they face…
Ecclesiastes does indeed raise some good points!
It seems that even if there is a man blessed such that he has both much in the world and is also constantly filled with earthly joy, the temptations that mammon causes – and the spiritual implications of this – are indeed dire.
As the 16th century church reformer Martin Luther put it, “when you have money, you will easily despise the god whom you also have…”
Money hides God from a man… (What Luther Says, 975)
So is it wrong to seek knowledge of these things?
To be aware of the way the world uses money, its relative importance in the world, and to use it?
Not at all.
For a good steward will indeed eagerly learn here.
Proverbs 30 sums up things nicely, speaking of a “sweet spot,” so to speak:
“Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:8,9)
The world, however, is loath to embrace this advice… this moderation… (perhaps many of us Americans feel that “moderation is a foolish French thing!”).
And so it rushes headlong into the pursuit of greater wealth and riches!
As one put it “Riches grip the heart like few other things…”[v]
The truth is that more often than not, riches produce a real kind of slavery…
And this is not the way things are meant to be.
What should happen is that all of us should be given to hospitality, to generosity, to eagerness to share the love of God with one and all…
After all, isn’t that what the Last Day, at the Last Judgment, is supposed to be all about?
What kind of picture do we see before the Judgement seat of God when Christ returns on earth?
Well, regarding the final judgment, Christians will judge the world as Jesus says and Paul echoes.
That said, prior to the final judgment, Christians of course were to judge as God judges: eager to show mercy to all – showing both pity in the form of physical assistance and the forgiveness of God Himself through Christ…
First to the believer and then to many a blessed unbeliever…[vi]
And then we also see in the final judgment how God recognizes this generosity before the eyes of the whole world as all are judged…
And we see that God’s people, like He Himself, are profligate with pity, mercy, and grace….
But like the Proverb about neither having too much nor too little… so that God’s law is broken in neither one way nor the other… this kind of thing often seems far from even us Christians…
…this picture… this image… is not one of the foremost things in our minds….
For our minds are, to a large part, not captive to the Word of God but to great many other things.
And of course money… wealth… is one of those main things….
Even though modern economists will teach that we should not think that there is only so much bounty to go around…
…that we should not think that the pie is limited… that the pie of valuable resources cannot in fact grow…[vii]
…maybe even that it is not so much a lamentable thing that we must teach our children “buyer beware…”
…we nevertheless know that the vivid picture Luther provides us with is one we can all identify with and understand, and in fact condemn….
“For the strongest hog at the trough pushes the others away, as though it wanted to devour everything alone. Just so things go on in the world of today. Everybody goes his way in security and not only gives nothing but takes whatever he can possibly get.” (What Luther Says, 3063)
The third century church father Cyprian put it this way:
“They think that they possess, but they are possessed instead. They are the bond-slaves of their money, not the lords of their money. They are slaves of their profit.” (Dictionary… Early Christian Beliefs…, 543)[viii]
Some of our high-flying elites today even believe that their treasures and riches can fend off death itself!
It was only a few years ago that the artificial intelligence scientist Ray Kurzweil was featured in a Time magazine story whose cover proclaimed his Gospel: “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.”
You see? Man’s wealth, including the psychological capital, the social capital, the cultural capital, and the scientific capital which he can accrue, will conquer death.
Masters of the Universe!
Why not? After all, when Martin Luther, 500 years ago, wrote that “money is a shameful, odious, impotent god who cannot even help one against an ulcer…” he was clearly wrong, at least in some circumstances, wasn’t he?
Clearly, Dr. Luther did not understand how the modern scientific and technological mindset and the free market could bring such blessings, and even lift all the boats in a rising tide!
Perhaps indeed, in some ways, it can. And hence, it has been easy for us to trust in such things!
And so Solomon’s wise warning in Proverbs – where he also teaches us to ask the Lord to give us only what we need – becomes even more important and relevant for the time in which we live…
Again, riches are a most, most precarious thing…
The popular 20th century Lutheran theologian and Bible commentator R.C.H. Lenski put it this way:
“It is only too true that trust in riches is hard to destroy, hard to change into its opposite, trust in God’s saving grace.”
So again, riches are not salvation or synonymous with the same, but one of the greatest barriers of salvation…
As Jesus put it succinctly,
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matt 6:24)
With a focus on gaining the material things of life for ourselves, with a fear, love, and trust in things that are not our God…. we think don’t think of eternity and become ineffective vessels for our God.
If we are not growing spiritually, we are diminishing…
There is no neutral ground.
And if we are ourselves not among those who are completely spiritually dead, the old Adam who remains in all Christians nevertheless keeps fighting back, determined to make us spiritually poor under the guise of being “rich”….
If we say a man is rich, should that be put in scare quotes if he is rich with the world’s wealth – or God’s wealth, rich in the things of God?
If we must choose, surely the former! “Rich”, in quotes, when describing the world’s wealth… Mammon.
So fight on beloved brethren!
Guilty though each and every one of us might be of the sin of covetousness and greed, Christ has died for us, Christ forgives us even now through His blood on the cross, and gives us new life, a life that is truly life!
So say again with the Psalmist as we did earlier:
“I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches[!]”
And do not serve your riches, but put your riches and yourselves in service of Christ and the Gospel (Wicke, 145)!
Otherwise, heed the warning from the ancient Christian text, the Shepherd of Hermas:
“Those who are rich in this world cannot be useful to the Lord unless their riches are cut down…” (Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, 541)
When it comes to money, brothers and sisters, be flexible and fluid.
Our world today, however, wants to be flexible and fluid in a different way, doesn’t it?
This goes well beyond a colleague at work assuring us they are flexible…
Now everything in our world screams for us to get Woke!
“Diversity,” in all things but thought it seems, is the name of the game.
And so let all the walls and borders come down!
Let all the distinctions disappear!
In our nation, “E Pluribus Unum,” out of the many one, takes on new meaning as the ocean is embraced.
“We need to be fluid,” we are told!
Government and business merging!
and religious fluidity…
Not to mention the fluidity of this or that definition which we’ll change on you without making sure you are notified…
On the contrary, the Lord wants some honesty here… and stability with all those things!
The Lord wants us to embrace His created order!
In the ancient world, the sea was feared because sailors knew it was chaotic and frightening. There was no stability there… little sense of any permanence. Men and women knew this in their bones. This is why a great Gospel hymn like “Rock of Ages, Cleft for me…” became so popular only around 150 years ago….
So, what in the world is the appeal of this Brave New World?
Well, perhaps something is even more frightening than the sea….
The fear of rejection, perhaps?
And so here, I submit, in spite of the horrifyingly wrong beliefs, we see the desire for acceptance… for salvation… and the passion to earn it.
But this must fail. For all people must flee the temptation that salvation can be earned by us.
There is no fortune… or family for that matter…. that we can leave to earn God’s salvation.
On the contrary, if anyone could ever “earn salvation” that person must be the Lord Jesus Christ!
He is the One who had no place to lay His head (Luke 9:58) and who left His family (3:21, 31-34; Jn. 7:3-5) – including suffering “the ultimate loss of relationship as He was forsaken by His Father while on the cross” for our sin (Mk 15:34)” (Paavola, 187)!
“Flesh gives birth to flesh…” (John 3) flesh inherits flesh…
Only the Truly Spiritual One can bring life (I Cor. 15:45)….
On earth bonds of blood might be strong bonds of belonging, but the bonds of belonging created in Christ’s people will last into eternity…
Nevertheless bonds of blood are important for us all, they are a foundation of sorts….
And this makes sense, for insofar as it concerns us on earth, the Apostle Paul tells us that “[t]he spiritual [does] not [come] first, but the natural [first], and then the spiritual (I Cor. 15:46).
Jesus says one of the benefits or rewards of being a Christian is gaining a new family, a family that is superior to, but not wholly unlike the natural family we have known…
Again, He means for this realization, this connection, to be normal for us, natural for us – that is, to understand that the fellowship of family is our greatest natural need on earth – and also that we understand the things that naturally make this the case:
-the sexual relations meant to occur within marriage,
-the children that are born within…
-the mothers and fathers produced as that happens…
-the identities of male and female recognized in the process…
All these things which are being continually undermined now!
People need this family. People need this identity. People need this belonging. People need this specific kind of group. Real Family.
It is has always been this way, but now the lack that many know is glaring, and as the Christian sociologist Mary Eberstadt says, there are “primal screams”…
Screams of pain because of the loss. People need family, are desperate for belonging, and Jesus Christ can give it to them, on earth as in heaven.
With the basic understandings of God’s created order being fought against… taught against… will it be easier or harder for the world to understand the Gospel now?
I am concerned that with the natural not coming first in the minds of many – but a false gnostic spirituality instead that eschews the natural – the latter is the likely answer….
Nevertheless, we can offer and give hope to these hurting men and women through the church, providing the riches that they really need, the gifts of Jesus Christ, both on earth and in Heaven….
As Mark Strauss puts it, giving us some insight into Jesus’ words about the new family we know in Him, “any Christian who has experienced the fellowship and hospitality of fellow believers in some remote corner of the world” can begin to understand what Jesus is saying here about the relatives and blessings we gain in following Him (445).
And so let us pray that the lost souls of today will be among the last who will be first!
Yes, we should note… Jesus does indeed end by saying:
“The first will be last and the last will be first.”
Remember, Judas wanted His money.
Remember, the Pharisees wanted the praise of men….
Remember, Caiaphas wanted his position…
Remember also the Apostle’s piercing words “…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs….”[ix]
Be different brothers and sisters!
And be on guard about trying to earn salvation by your deeds, accomplishments, or material gains – in this life and the next!
And especially do not throw in your lot with the World Spirit with its demonic and chaotic ways, but steward your blessings to go against the flow, and enable the throwing out of the life preservers….
Yes, it is true that Jesus confronted the rich young ruler with the demand to leave everything and give it to the poor to reveal to him that no, he had not kept God’s 10 commandments perfectly…
Yes, it is true that we are not all given that command to give up everything Jesus demanded of this man.
At the same time, in Luke 6, His Sermon on the Plain Jesus does encourage all persons more generally:
“Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys….”
Again, when it comes to both our wealth and the grace of God, He desires fluidity.
Understand your “liquid assets’ in just this way!
Oh, that our generosity and giving would flow like a river from us!
That we would hold to nothing so tightly, but that all the goodness that we have and have known would flow from us to the resounding benefit of our brothers and sisters, and all people on earth!
This is the way that things were meant to be from the beginning!
Where the voice of our Master – and He alone! – instills in us the confidence to leave everything!
And where the goodness and love of God, freely given to us as He freely gives us all things, was something that we would all know and be sure of….
To be firm in.
Again, that we would… secure in His care… secure in His good order… thankfully and gladly let that love and care flow through us to all those around us….
The surety of God’s love among us begetting the surety of God’s love to ever greater degrees… both in its scope and in the depths to which it is experienced.
Such a love freely gives…
And such a love freely receives from God’s bountiful and continual goodness, a goodness which is always pleased above all to provide for and delight in its own…
And so we see in our text for today that Jesus tells us that we really do gain more than we lose here.
We see that along with the promise of the wonderful blessing of Christian family fellowship in this world and the next, Jesus also, strangely, talks about how by giving up and following Him we will also gain something else in return: persecution.
This seems very hard and even crazy to us, but it does us well to remember here our Lord’s solid promises:
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Again, the commentator Lenski helps us here: “[P]ersecutions are [in fact] the butter on the bread, for by them we are more strongly assured that we are God’s children than by the other blessings that he sends us.” (448)
A study Bible I looked at also talks about how “paradoxically, fellowship with other believers develops most deeply in persecution…” (NIV Study Bible)
So, there is an intensification of our life in Christ…
More knowledge of our sin.
More knowledge of God’s grace.
More knowledge of His purposes in this world and the blessings to come…
Pray then, that you might be more fully rooted in, found in, at one with, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ….
That His Holy Spirit would so possess us…
…that we would be prepared for these trials and the further refinement that awaits us in them…
And finally, the life to come that has been prepared for us….
Christ has died!
Christ has risen!
Christ will come again!
So be willing to be poor, humble, simple, despised.
And let God’s Holy Spirit, and not worldly wealth, possess you.
[i] We remember our Hebrews reading for today: “12 For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. 13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” See also Romans 3:20-21.
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owners, or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when they have children there is nothing left for them to inherit. Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands. (Ecclesiastes 5:13-15)
[iii] Said to an online friend who finds much to commend in Ayn Rand and says she is often very misunderstood: “I’m saying every relatively wise person knows that when it comes to the human animal it is not just raw power or brains or wiles but character — “the virtue of selfishness”? — which can create success, thriving, flourishing…. “
[iv][Even though we know character is often key to worldly success] even in fallen man’s most noble moments we are tempted to go to money here… We feel that having a decent amount of money (or some other highly valued and liquid material good like gold or whatever) can certainly serve to enhance, exacerbate, turbo-charge this process…
Frankly, I think this is so pervasive, I’m often not even sure why such thoughts are necessarily bad! (can’t God use our money for good and noble reasons, after all? even as the Apostle Paul speaks of being content with food and covering, don’t we all also need some forms of liquid assets to basically live in the world?)
More thoughts, mostly excised from the final sermon (the bracketed ones…), but which I spent a lot of time on:
Now it is true that no one is debating that general morality, character, virtue, and worldly wisdom can’t help a person to succeed in the world as well… not even most atheists will say that this kind of general morality and worldly wisdom can’t really help a person succeed in the world….[iv]
That said… when we think of success…. how quickly our minds go to something else!
That money, money, money[!] again!
I mean, money – some kind of liquid currency – sure can help, right?
[After all, if you come into money – and you are not like the idiot who wins the lottery and blows his winnings on whatever he feels like – you can also start to produce what we call “wealth” as well!
You can purchase possessions and you can gain other perks and powers (like education, investments, connections, increased social mobility…)….
If you have these things, your status will increase (perhaps particularly with this or that group you are interested in being with…)
And if you have status, you have a sense of where you stand in the pecking order, and the influence that affords you…
And… if you know where you stand in the pecking order and can effectively wield that position for influence…. Then you will have the appreciation and admiration and even attraction of others in your immediate circles… and maybe beyond (and you’ll even catch the eye of that really special someone!)
And… if you have the admiration and attraction of those certain others – who might even become our close partners in our success! – all of life’s common pleasures and comforts sought by men and women of every age, and not just the short term ones but the long-term ones as well…. are within your grasp….
You can retire, disengage from society, and relax!
Or you can choose to further engage society and seek to exercise some control over its direction!
Earthly comfort! Earthly rest! Or, for the more ambitious, some real earthly glory and honor!
Don’t call all of this the vice of covetousness or greed… call it good and right and proper ambition!
What harm is there in all this? Yes, we’ve heard about what people say they regret on their death beds. Certainly we want real love and friendship in our lives too – and not just some earthly “trophies” – but why not also all of this as well?…]
[v] Quote from the [Eastern] Orthodox Study Bible.
[vi] Bracketed excerpts excised from sermon: “[For when comes the separating of the sheep and the goats, we will see Christ and His Church showing mercy to those who have been merciful! In other words, to those who have shown themselves to be His children (after all, sons of God act like sons of God and it is right that they should be found with their father and brother).
This means those who have forgiven much – echoing the forgiveness, or reconciliation of God Himself – will be forgiven.
This means that those who opened up the Kingdom of Heaven to others will have the Kingdom of Heaven opened up to them.
Like Christ, they eagerly gave the promise of paradise to those enemies of God dying to the left of them (and to the right, if they would only have it) who had nothing to give, and could pay nothing back.]
God’s people, like God Himself, are profligate with pity, mercy, and grace….”
[vii] Aren’t we now in danger of having a war with China over Taiwan and their valuable microchip industry? Microchips are a resource created and made valuable by man.
[viii] Another man from around that same time talked about the Christians of his day, and put matters in this way:
“But that many of us are called poor, this is not our disgrace, but our glory; for as our mind is relaxed by luxury, so it is strengthened by frugality. And yet who can be poor if he does not want, if he does not crave for the possessions of others, if he is rich towards God? He rather is poor, who, although he has much, desires more.” (DECB, 440)
The second century church father Clement of Alexandria said this: “Delicacies spent on pleasures become a dangerous shipwreck to men….” (Dictionary… Early Christian Beliefs…., 541)
“6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs….”
Just a short while later on, Paul commands his young charge Timothy this way:
17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life…”
Regarding “[a] firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life…”
This does not mean that Christ is not our sure foundation but that our deeds are. When a perhaps self-congratulatory Peter says “but we have left everything to follow you…” maybe he was a bit confused….
He was not recalling they did not choose Jesus but that He had chosen them, that they might receive the grace of eternal salvation and even Apostleship. It was such grace and the resultant thankfulness that had prompted their willingness to leave their own livelihoods (though we note Peter kept his house! : ) )…
This, I believe is why Jesus does not firmly rebuke Peter here as well. Peter has heard Jesus say that a man cannot give anything in exchange for his own soul (Mark 8:37). Peter and the other disciples have real faith in Jesus, but it is weak….
They are simply being inconsistent and need to continually be taught… by the One who is able to empathize with our weaknesses… [See the end of our Hebrews reading: “14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[f] Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need….”]
Proof from a student who says “I am now, as before, not a member of any particular religion, and do not identify informally with any set of religious beliefs either” (shared with the student’s blessing).
More specifically, while this student has always been curious and interested in religion, and had done a good deal of reading on his/her own over the years, he/she did not grow up attending religious services of any kind. To this date the student has never had a personal experience as a member of a congregation (his/her parents grew up going to Lutheran and Catholic churches, but did not continue on as adults).
If you are an unbeliever, please take note of this fantastic example.
Be a more “noble pagan”! Thanks!
Since the life of Jesus Christ over 2000 years ago, the concept of Christianity has developed in many ways. All expressions of Christianity, however, stem from the same source: the words of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. At their roots, Christians share the belief that Jesus, the Son of God, lived on earth, suffered and died for the sins of mankind, and was resurrected and ascended to heaven, therefore saving humans. Looking at the character of God, the character of humanity, the figure of Jesus, the message of the Bible and the basic beliefs of the Church, this paper will summarize the Christianity outlined in the Bible.
God, in creating the universe, does so through speaking (Genesis 1, NIV), showing omnipotence. After each stage of creation, God sees that what has been made is good, until completing the sixth day of creation, whereupon “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31, NIV). This assessment of creation sounds like an understatement, but considering the source, it is approval of the highest order. Looking at a description of God by Moses in Deuteronomy 32:4 clarifies: “He is the rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just.” The universe was created perfectly, and though imperfection has subsequently entered into it, this was not part of God’s creation.
Additional statements about the nature of God, coming directly to Moses from God, are seen in Exodus. On Mount Sinai, God tells Moses: “The lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished;” (Exodus 34: 6-7, NIV).
In the New Testament, there is more revealed about God’s character. The opening lines of the Gospel of John are: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1, NIV). Later, in John 1:14, it states “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth”. These statements hearken back to the opening of Genesis, using the phrase “in the beginning,” as well as establishing the multiple persons of God: the Father, the Holy Spirit, and the Word become flesh, or Jesus.
Some examples from the Epistles provide more information about God. In 1 John 4:7-21, there is discussion of the importance of love in Christianity. In fact, the concept of love and that of God are inseparable: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:8, NIV). John is clear in the direction and source of this love as well, saying “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19, NIV). Paul makes a statement about God’s inerrancy in the introduction to his letter to Titus, saying that the promise of salvation and eternal life was given by God, “who does not lie” (Titus 1:2, NIV).
The story of humanity in the Bible starts within the first chapter, when “God created mankind in his own image,” (Genesis 1:27, NIV) as the final piece of the creative act on the sixth day. As soon as the story of humanity’s creation is detailed, their descent into sin occurs, and in the following books of the Bible, the sinfulness of people is a constant theme, parallel to God’s infinite capacity to forgive.
As seen in the story of Creation, mankind was initially good, in the way of everything created by God. Adam was placed in the Garden of Eden to “work it and take care of it,” (Genesis 2:15, NIV) with Eve as a suitable helper for him (Genesis 2: 21-23, NIV). Though created good, in eating the fruit from the tree they were commanded to leave untasted, they are corrupted, and through this sin, all of humankind is corrupted by sin. Adam and Eve, through disobedience, suffer the spiritual consequence of separation from God, as well as the material consequences of mortality, pain, and the uncertainty of a life of toil.
Looking at David’s story shows an example of the extremes of human capacities. David is capable of both tremendous faith as well as tremendous sin. As a young man, in response to a threatening force of Philistines, David puts himself forward as a volunteer, drawing the comparison of his actions as a shepherd protecting his flock (1 Samuel 17: 34-37, NIV). In confronting Goliath, David declares God his resource: “You have come at me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied” (1 Samuel 17: 45, NIV). Conversely, David shows great failings, both in his adultery and murder in relation to Bathsheba, and his sin of inaction when apprised of the actions of his son Amnon toward his sister Tamar (2 Samuel 11, 13, NIV). In reckoning with his actions, David shows knowledge of his own sin, “Surely I was sinful at birth,” and the disaster of being separated from God “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore me to the joy of your salvation” (Psalm 51, NIV).
The general direction of humanity’s sinfulness is chaotic, since turning away from God is turning away from leadership. Isaiah remarks on this directionless situation, saying in Isaiah 53: 6 “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way”. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the state of humans as well, saying “you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1, NIV).
In Matthew 9:9-13, Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector, a job considered traitorous by the Jewish people under Roman rule (Keener & Walton, 2016, p.1628), to be one of His disciples. This is the cause of speculation among the Pharisees, to which Jesus replies “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:13, NIV). These words reflect the status of humanity—all are sinners, and Jesus has come to save them, though not all realize their sinful state.
The life of Jesus is described in the four Gospel accounts, each distinct from each other, but painting a consistent portrait of Jesus Christ. One of the crucial points about Jesus’ life is His Holy status, as the angel Gabriel describes to Mary “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35, NIV). Another important part of the Gospel telling of Jesus’ life is showing how Jesus fulfills the previous prophecy about the Messiah. This is demonstrated in Herod’s order to kill all infant boys in and around Bethlehem, described in the Gospel of Matthew as fulfilling earlier prophecy by Jeremiah (Matthew 2:17-18, NIV). Another example comes from Isaiah 53:12 (NIV), which predicts the Messiah will be “numbered with the transgressors.”This is reflected in Mark 15:27 (NIV), which describes Jesus crucified between two rebels.
Central to the story of Christianity is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. These events are described in all of the Gospels, with each account capturing perspectives from different witnesses. The suffering Jesus undergoes seems unendurable, and encompasses betrayal by a loved one (Matthew 26:14-16), unfair treatment by civil authorities and public humiliation (Matthew 27: 11-31), abandonment by His friends (Matthew 26:56), and facing death alone (Matthew 27:50), in addition to the physical torment involved. Miraculously, after being buried and sealed in a tomb, Jesus is resurrected on the third day after His death, and appears to His disciples, demonstrating His reality to them and putting everything succinctly for them: “This is what was written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24: 46-47) instructions for what they, and subsequent Christians should do.
Speaking about His own purpose, Jesus refers to His place in the world as predicted by the Old Testament prophets. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Here, Jesus is sharing that His presence has been accounted for already, and necessary for salvation. Discussing His role as Savior for mankind, Jesus describes his presence on Earth, saying “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, NIV). Using bread to describe how He will give life to his followers, Jesus says “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 4:51, NIV). Hearkening back to Isaiah comparing people to sheep wandering without a shepherd, Jesus shows himself to be the guide for humanity, saying “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness” (John 12:46, NIV).
When the whole Bible is considered, it seems to behave similar to a beam of light passing through a prism. The events and words of the Old Testament point toward Jesus, through which the possibility of God’s salvation expands into the full spectrum. The Bible, as God’s words, is a guide showing Christians how to understand God, their relationship to God, and what salvation means. Jesus speaks to the importance of God’s word to humanity, when confronted by the devil in the wilderness “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4, NIV). Providing further guidance for how Christians should regard the Bible, Paul likens it to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17, NIV).
For Christians, the Bible is the foundation for everything. As the words of God, who’s works are perfect and who cannot lie, it is the source that may be relied upon, as opposed to works of human origin, since humans are mired in sin and susceptible to error. As such, the Bible must be the source for information on the nature of faith, forgiveness and salvation, and living as a Christian.
According to the words put forth in the Bible, belief in God through Jesus is the way to salvation, summarized in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” When His disciples express confusion, Jesus clarifies for them, saying “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:6-7, NIV). While following Jesus is the way to God and salvation, it is not a matter of a person deciding to follow Jesus. In John 6:44, Jesus explains: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day.” Faith, then, is extended to Christians from God, and not the other way around.
Similarly, forgiveness is offered on God’s terms to people, though they remain undeserving. As seen in Isaiah 43:25, God’s position is clear: “I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more.” Again, this point is made by Paul, who writes “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so the no one can boast” (Ephesians, 2:8-9, NIV). As with faith, the pathway is clear, extended from God on God’s terms.
Becoming a follower of Christ is a transformative experience for a Christian, as Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” Such a transformation affects the way in which a Christian should regard and interact with the world, and will inform all their decisions. Writing to the Galatians, Paul asks “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10, NIV).
Though the Bible represents a vast array of stories, individuals and experiences, to Christians it represents a unified account of the words God has chosen to impart to humanity. While it is divided into diverse books, including many styles of literature and methods of narrative, the Bible contains a cohesive message to the Christian reader: the omnipotent and omnipresent nature of God, God’s existence in the Trinity, and the pathway to salvation and eternal life through following Jesus Christ.
“Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.” – Mark 9:50
There are just two ways, the early church said.
One leads to death… the other to life…
One might also say one leads to eternal strife… and the other to eternal peace…
Peace. That brings me to our text for this morning. All our texts that we read today are really interesting, I think, and our text from Mark in particular is jam-packed with challenging and important ideas.
And you may have noticed that the Gospel lesson seems to have two bookends of sorts.
It begins by telling the short account about how the disciples were upset with some who were not in their group – not in their circle! – who were driving out demons in Jesus’ Name.
And interestingly, right before this (we didn’t read it today but last week), the disciples had been schooled by Jesus about how instead of arguing about who was the greatest they should rather strive to be the servant of all, welcoming Jesus and His Father by the act of welcoming, of all things, little children!
And so now… Jesus meets the disciples’ continual acts of jealousy, worldly ambition, one-up-man-ship and strife-creation by stating plainly:
“Do not stop him… For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”
In other words, when anyone believes in my Name such that they are proclaiming it and even using it to cast out demons, or even if they just give you water in my Name!…
…I want you to be pleased!
Be at peace about this!
I mentioned that this section has bookends. That is one bookend, the first. We see the other bookend at the very end of today’s text, when Jesus says:
“Everyone will be salted with fire.
“Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
Again, we see that peace – or at least a striving for peace – is on Jesus’ mind.
What He is bringing…
When Jesus Christ comes again, and when He brings us the new heavens and new earth, we who are united with Him – God in human flesh – will have this peace with one another forever and ever, amen…
Until that time though, we know that even as Jesus also said that His coming would necessarily bring a sword, or conflict, He still tells us that when we find another man or woman taken outside of your circles that indicates they believe in Jesus’ Name…
…we should understand this person to be with Jesus and not against Him…
…and that we should strive for peace with one another.
Jesus’ prescription for peace among His brethren is what we find between our two bookends in the rest of our reading from Mark today, and that is what we are going to look at…
Before jumping into some pretty concrete specifics, however, let’s talk about that salt Jesus brings up.
What is going on here?
When He talks about being “salted with fire”, what is this all about?
I actually brought up this text several months ago, in a sermon that I called “Two Steps on How to Overcome the World”.
In that message I mentioned how the book of Mark talks about the devil a lot – something we again see in the first part of today’s reading with the disciples trying to stop the unauthorized exorcisms going on – and noted that two of the core elements for the Christian’s fight against the devil’s influence in the world are prayer and saltiness.
I said this about saltiness:
“[In Mark 9] it…ends with these interesting words:
Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”
What does this mean?
Well, there was a well-known ancient saying in Jesus’ day that said “the world cannot survive without salt” (Tractate Sopherim XV.8).
Salt was used for many purposes in that world, including flavoring, preservation, fertilizer, and cleansing (Strauss 415).
In sum though, Jesus is encouraging his followers to not lose the characteristics that bring preservation, life, and real peace to the world.
How so? From the Word of God that comes from the outside and cleanses and purifies us within.
Sometimes this salt of the word of God will burn like fire, the law burning away the dross of our old Adam, and the Gospel bringing healing to us and those who we touch [as God’s servants]…[i]
This is the key. The salt of God’s word first of all gives us peace with God and then makes us into those who treasure and run after peace with others…”[ii]
…even as Satan would bring the world down to hell all around us!
And interestingly, Jesus talking about the excellent salt making us salty here actually builds on what He says in our Gospel reading a bit earlier.
Speaking about our being salted, the well-known Lutheran commentator R.C.H. Lenski, states:
“What Jesus says about salting and salt [here] is intended to explain what he has just said in warning about entrapping others and being entrapped ourselves (v. 42-48). He now indicates the means by which such calamities are to be prevented. His disciples are to be salted.” (410)
So what is Lenski talking about when he mentions this idea of “entrapment”?
He is speaking about the ways that the devil would catch us in his snares – or that he might use us in our sinning… to catch others in his snares – and haul us away from Christ…
So, we now get into the concrete ways to avoid the devil’s faith-destroying and strife-producing plans…
And what does Jesus say should be done to defeat this?
It is a bit shocking, frankly.
The Gospel text for today, in fact, contains some of the more jarring statements from our Lord Jesus Christ.
“If your hand [or foot] causes you to stumble, cut it off…
If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with [one hand or foot or] one eye than to have [these things and be thrown into hell…].
How in the world to understand passages like this? Why is he resorting to such violent and arresting language?
First of all, I think a passage like Proverbs 6:16-19 can help us a lot here:
16 There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, 19 a false witness who pours out lies and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.
This passage from Proverbs helps a little doesn’t it?
Jesus does want you to dismember yourself, making it so that you need to depend on others.
Instead, He is using this kind of violent language in a hyperbolic life to make a very serious point…
Russel Crowe’s character in the movie Gladiator was right, when he tells his men who are getting ready to fight: “What we do in life echoes in eternity”.
And Jesus Christ is making clear to us that sin in our life is a matter to be taken with the utmost of seriousness… Drastic measure are in order….
And again, ultimately – even as we must understand that we must take the threat of Hell very seriously – God wants Christians to take these measures because they know peace with God…
And if we know peace with God… and are to continue to know peace with God…. And if we are to know and experience peace with our brothers and sisters
…we all must keep listening to these violent words of Jesus, to keep listening to these words, and not turn away but say “Amen!”
And, maybe you noticed, but right before these violent and jarring passages, Jesus uses even more savage language today…
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.”
A few things to note here right away…
First of all, in case you are wondering, a millstone looks like a massive stone wheel with a very small hole in the middle and was used with donkeys to grind grain. It is very, very heavy and so, again, we have a very powerful image here of this stone hauling someone to the bottom of the sea in horrible death…..
Second, we see the mention of stumbling again… And this means sinning, a “spiritual downfall” (Strauss)… And we need to see that when Jesus is talking about removing our body parts so we don’t stumble, or sin, He first of all has in mind the sin of causing others to sin by our own actions.
Third, we see that Jesus is concerned that the children not be led into sin. On the one hand this is all of us lowly and needly children of God. On the other hand, I am confident that this has to do with the fact that Jesus admires and loves actual believing children more than we can possibly imagine.
Why? Well, a number of reasons…
First of all, just prior to all of this violent teaching, Jesus had taken a little child into his arms and spoke specifically about the importance of welcoming them…
Second – not only this, but if we also look at the Gospels of Matthew and Luke – which along with Mark are called the “Synoptic Gospels” or the Gospels that “see together,” – we will notice that both of these books not only contain the millstone passage… and that Matthew contains the remarks about removing one’s hand and eye two times – but also that most of these comments are also made immediately after being in the presence of actual children.
The Bible passage from Luke – even though it is the one that does not deal directly with children – can nevertheless also really help us to reflect on the way we treat children specifically…
In Luke 17:2, the millstone passage occurs in a context about being willing to forgive others – up to seventy times seven in fact.
So – as is often the case in the Gospels – the millstone is presented as a dire warning to those who would refuse to forgive their fellow Christians for their sins against them (after first confronting them about them!)
And so: these little ones too – from the youngest age – must be forgiven!
Do not cause them to stumble by treating them harshly for their own little faults you must nevertheless help them see, and by not generously covering over their wrongs with love.
We see this theme of forgiveness, and even an eagerness to forgive (the parable of the lost sheep!) in Matthew chapter 18 as well, where not long before this we also hear about both the millstone and body-part-removing statements.
And immediately before these millstone and body-part-removing statements Jesus calls a little child to stand among his disciples and tells them they must become like little children. And then – if to accentuate a point, immediately after these statements He tells His disciples that they must not “look down” on “these little ones”… for “their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven…”!
One more thing, I think important:
As I mentioned, the passage about removing one’s hand and one’s eye occurs not just once but twice in Matthew.
It also occurs in the context of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, found in chapters 5 of that book where Jesus speaks of adultery and sexual sin.[iii]
And so, to sum things up, in Matthew and Mark and even Luke we see that children must not be abused in any way[iv], but honored.
Do not take advantage of them and use them for your own ends and purposes, particularly for the most base and deplorable of reasons…
Instead for their sake and the sake of all God’s children, pluck it out, cut it off, and have salt!
Jesus Christ means for each and every one of us in the church to be absolutely determined to guard their hearts, especially with little children.
Children are not innocent of sin of course, but they are innocent of the knowledge of particular kinds of sin, and God would have us help them to, in a very real sense, remain ignorant of evil.
But this does not always happen, and, as the prophet Nathan said to David: “You are the man!”
All of us! Even you older children!
But it is easy for us to see the “real sinners” isn’t it?
We can look at those who are clearly selfish or who seem to have a desire for conflict – or, perhaps worse, those who would use their power to abuse those weaker ones under their care – and breathe a sigh of relief, thinking… “Well thank God that I’m not like that!”
The point however, is that none of us are innocent.
In all of Jesus’ statements about removing body parts, what Jesus is really getting at is that all of us are always in dire need of a heart transplant…
And not just at the beginning of our Christian life, but throughout it!
Do not cause the little ones to sin… Take whatever serious measures are necessary to ensure that you do not cause this!
If your pride causes you to sin gauge it out!
If your very life causes you to sin pluck it out!
For God hates “a heart that devises wicked schemes” and states through the prophet Jeremiah that
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
So…if your heart causes you to sin – and it does – cut it out!
Does Jesus wants me dead?
Yes. He wants your old Adam dead.
And through His words here today, He is putting your old Adam to death!
And then, only then, are we the perfect material for God to work with!
So, imitate Jesus as well, and join in the violence, saying “Amen” and going after your old Adam with Him!
For to be where Jesus is is to be without sin!
Bring on the salt and fire!
God’s law and love… God’s law and the love of God… God’s law and God who is love… always go hand in hand and never stop….
So these fiery words are for you.
These salty words are for me.
They are for us…
God says “You too!” You must keep your eyes and hands and feet pure… Sin is a matter to be taken with the utmost of seriousness….
So bring on the salt! Bring on the fire! With Christ being sacrificed for all our sins – with us having been given peace with God — bring on the holy sacrifice for our God! (Rom. 12:1-2)
Make your fight against the sin within you a priority!
Make your fight against this or that actual sin a priority!
Cry out to Him for mercy and help… as it has been said, “Pray to God but row towards shore!”
Perhaps get out of that group, business deal, or personal relationship!
Give some of that stuff you have away! When Jesus comes it’s all going to burn anyways!
Maybe cut back on social media or that screen time…
Install that firewall on your computer!
Actively seek to form positive habits that help you in your fight! How could I be more thoughtful, more careful, in the way I act with family, friends, co-workers?
Form personal rituals, go to certain physical places that help you remember to do certain things if you must!
Plan your schedule in this or that fashion to accentuate certain very beneficial activities over others!
Find people who can encourage you and hold you accountable!
Lord, let me be where you are, so that I might be kept this day without sin![v]
So maybe you are thinking now…this makes some sense, this makes sense that this would be important for peace among Gods’ children – but don’t we believe that we are justified by grace and not works?
Indeed, some purportedly traditional Lutherans would say that when I say that
“God’s law and love… God’s law and the love of God…. God’s law and God who is love… always go hand in hand and never stop….”
…that I’m wrong.
Now I can point out that the Apostle Paul tells Christians that he wants them to “live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God….”
Though they will say:
“These words, like the words about removing body parts are only really meant to break you… to help you see your dead heart. To kill the Old Man.
Once that is done, there’s no real expectation from God that such words will continue to direct and guide us in any way….”
“We are now completely new creatures in the Gospel!
The old has gone and the new has come!
The law is no more! We only live from the Gospel!”
One popular ELCA Lutheran theologian puts it like this:
“…The decisive cosmic battle of God against sin, death, and devil was already waged and won when Christ was raised from the dead to make a new kingdom of people who live with no law, nowhere to go, and nothing to accomplish. They were simply–free.” (italics mine, Paulson, Lutheran Theology, p. 7)
This, however, is mistaken notion of what it means to be free!
May this never be!
To say that truly free people…
…don’t have anything to accomplish…
…anywhere to go…
…or won’t ever need to be directed at all in this life (or heaven for that matter)
We are indeed only given new life from the Gospel, but nevertheless, we live from every word that proceeds from the mouth of God… law and gospel.
Bring on the salt and fire!
So, even if we are saved only through the blood of Jesus Christ…
…even if we are saved by grace through faith and not by works, that no one should boast…
This does not mean that God’s law does not have a place in the life of the Christian…
…but that we understand it’s ongoing importance for us….[viii]
Martin Luther, the 16th century church reformer, gives us some very helpful perspective here in his book, “On the Councils and the Church”. Here, Luther says the following about “the seven principle parts of Christians’ sanctification” or “the seven holy possessions of the church”:
By [using, these seven things: the Scriptures, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Confession and Absolution, Pastors, Prayer and proclamation, and suffering[ix]…] the Holy Spirit effects in us a daily sanctification, and vivification in Christ, [that is setting us apart, renewing us in holiness,] according to the first table of Moses. By [this sanctification] we obey it, albeit never perfectly in Christ. But as we constantly strive to attain the goal, under his redemption or remission of sins, until we too shall one day become perfectly holy and no longer stand in need of forgiveness. Everything is directed toward that goal.”
He goes on a bit later to talk about another sign that helps identify the presence of Christ’s church in the world, love for one’s neighbors, the fulfillment of the second table of the commandments:
“[We see Christ’s church] when we bear no one a grudge, entertain no anger, hatred, envy or vengefulness toward our neighbors, but gladly forgive them, lend to them, help them, and counsel them; when we are not lewd, not drunkards, not proud, arrogant, overbearing, but chaste, self-controlled, sober, friendly, kind, gentle and humble; when we do not steal, rob, are not usurious, greedy, do not overcharge, but are mild, kind, content, charitable; when we are not false, mendacious, perjurers, but truthful, trustworthy, and do whatever else is taught in these commandments – all of which St. Paul teaches abundantly in more than one place. We need the Decalogue not only to apprise us of our lawful obligations, but we also need it to discern how far the Holy Spirit has advanced us in his work of sanctification and by how much we still fall short of the goal, lest we become secure and imagine that we have now done all that is required. Thus we must constantly grow in sanctification and always become new creatures in Christ. This means ‘grow’ and ‘do so more and more’ [II Pet. 3:18]” (LW 41:166)
So pluck it out!
Cut it off!
Love your neighbor, God’s children!
Remove Old Adam’s wicked and prideful heart!
Bring on the salt and fire!
None of this means you are going to go from victory to victory…
Ask my family here. They can tell you of some of my many failures!
You might lose a lot, fighting some sins that you are particularly tempted by a long, long time…
The thing, however is the fight that God’s Spirit leads you in…
Reminding yourself to make “duty a pleasure” and not letting the birds that fly over your head make nests in your hair! (Luther)…
And to really be in the fight, remind yourself that the law of God is fulfilled in love (Rom. 13, Gal. 5) – first in Christ on our behalf, and then in us (Rom. 8:1-4).
Yes, again, all of these violent words this morning are hard, hard words.
Nevertheless, again, we can discern what our Lord meant by speaking them: this is a matter of the utmost seriousness.
On the one hand, yes, they drive us to Christ for forgiveness.
And on the other hand, they also drive us to Him for power as we look to be His holy people in the world…His peacemakers…
So these are words that we must hear and always continue to hear….
Note that this does not mean we live by the law.
Christians do not live by the law, but in it….
To live by the law would be to think that if I do my best to follow God’s commandments He certainly must reward me with eternal life.
The problem with that idea – besides the fact that it is obnoxious to think we creatures can finally demand God be accountable to our judgments (see Job 40:8!) – is that we know from the Scripture that the one who stumbles in one commandment has broken them all.[x]
A Lutheran pastor recently reminded me of this: the Christian faith is about paradoxes… tensions of a sort…
Law and gospel.
Three persons in one God.
Two natures in Christ: 100% God and 100% Man.
Perfectly just and perfectly merciful.
Lord of all and servant of all.
Everything we need we already have.
In reference to the kinds of things that we are talking about this morning, this man said this:
“This is why our concept of tension is so useful. Bread and wine, or body and blood? Yes.
Saint or sinner? Yes.
Called to perfect life or resting in God’s promises of salvation, life, and forgiveness, and the work on the Cross? Yes.”
Don’t give up brothers and sisters…
Remember, this is not about your power… Jesus says to us “I am the living water… and “the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Jesus is the only One who can get us through this… and He has our back….
The Lutheran Study Bible has a great take on these passages this morning… and I think it is a very good thought to leave us all with… :
“…[Jesus uses] such strong and hyperbolic language to emphasize the seriousness of all sin… One need look no further than these words of Jesus to see how much the holy God hates sin. Here, the Law strikes us with all its fury. Who of us can say that our hand or foot or eye has not caused us to sin? We all deserve to be thrown into the hell of fire. Thank God that Jesus’ hands and feet were pierced for our iniquities and that His eyes beheld our sin in order to turn the Father’s face from it. By His wounds and precious death, we enter life.” (1621).
There are just two ways, the early church said.
One leads to death… the other to life…
One might also say one leads to eternal strife…
…and the other to eternal peace.
You – go in peace!
…and live in peace with one another, being the proclaimers and peacemakers God calls you to be.
[i] As we seek to be Christ’s servants to all and His “living sacrifices” (Romans 12) we should see and heed the meaning of Leviticus 2:13 for us: “Season all your grain offerings with salt. Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings.” Numbers 18:19 also speaks about the kind of peace “covenant salt” can bring: “Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present to the Lord I give to you and your sons and daughters as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord for both you and your offspring.” This content found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KRBfKPj2Aog&t=254s Also: “The good salt which should characterize disciples [in v. 50] consists in… or results in… peaceful relationships. While salt as a metaphor for peacefulness is in itself an unusual use, in the OT salt symbolizes a covenant (Lv. 2:13; Nu. 18:19; 2 Ch. 13:5) while in some rabbinic writings salt stands for wisdom or pleasing speech (cf. Col 4:6), which is a sound basis for good relationships” (France, 385) France also has some very helpful comments on v. 49 on pages 383-384. A short clip: “To be ‘salted with fire’ seems then to evoke the imagery of temple sacrifice, but the victims who are ‘salted’ are now the worshippers themselves. Their dedication to the service of their suffering Messiah is like that of a burnt offering, total and irrevocable…[The modern reader thinks[ fire alone would have made the point. But anyone familiar with sacrificial ritual would not find ‘the imagery of salt’ out of place….” McLaren says: “have salt in yourselves; the doctrine of grace, and word of Christ, prudence in talk and conversation, and holiness of heart and life, so as to behave wisely towards them that are without; and have peace one with another; which the God of peace calls unto, the Gospel of peace requires, and the grace of God teaches. Salt is an emblem of firm union, concord, and agreement: hence the covenant of peace is called a covenant of salt, Numbers 18:19, compared with Numbers 25:12. This exhortation, very appropriately follows upon the making mention of salt in different senses; especially, this exhortation was the more necessary to the disciples at this time, since they had been very lately warmly disputing the point among themselves, who should be greatest in the kingdom of the Messiah; and which had occasioned this discourse of Christ’s.”
[ii] This section constructed with much help from R.C.H. Lenski’s excellent comments.
[iii] Here, in chapter five, not millstones but hell-fire alone is brought up, as Jesus talks about taking such drastic measures right after pointing out that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart…”
So, there is a lot going on here to think about…. And quite frankly, given all the things we have heard about over the past 20 years regarding scandals in the Catholic church and Protestant communions as well, it is difficult for me to recall any other passages in the Bible that carry such terrifying weight.
[iv] “Will Deming, noting parallels to Matt 5:27-32 and rabbinic literature, sees sexual euphemisms throughout this section: causing a little child to ‘stumble’ in v. 42 refers to sexual molestation; a hand causing to stumble (v. 43) and a ‘foot’ (a common euphemism for the male sexual organ) that causes stumbling (v. 45) refers to adultery. It is doubtful Mark’s readers would have recognized such subtle euphemisms from rabbinic literature. More often in Scripture the hand stands for ‘the basic corporeal instrument for accomplishing one’s purposes’ (cf. Exod 19:13; Deut 28:12; Eccl 2:11; 9:10; Pss 28:4; 90:17, etc) and ‘the feet are the means of transport to the place where sins are committed’ (cf. Job 31:1-12; 1QS 1:6)” (Strauss, 414).
[v] A: If my goal is to stop sinning I’m doomed, if my goal is to follow Christ however imperfectly I do so I know he has me.
B: I think to strive to do the latter is to strive to do the former as well, isn’t it? (no, it won’t ever happen perfectly here). Anyway, otherwise, I’ve got to stop singing that part in the Te Deum. : )
A: I think we’re striving toward it? But because it’s not something I aim for like, as an object. Also, I don’t see a place where the Te Deum calls for us to be perfect? Because it’s impossible it’s not something I aim for as an object*
B: I get the sentiment. Totally I.D. At same time, if when I think about being without sin I think about being where Jesus is… : )
[vi] Calvin: “[A]s salt and fire possess the same quality of purifying and refining, Christ applied the same term to both.” (Paavola, 174).
[vii] Lutheran theologian Mark Mattes states: “So, if any man claims that preachers/teachers are not to exhort the justified, he is not teaching in accord with Luther, nor obviously with the Holy Scriptures, nor with the wider catholic tradition.”
[viii] Of course we cannot be saved by our good works!
Even so, though we cannot justify ourselves before God by keeping His law…
…even though Jesus Christ is in fact the end of the law for righteousness…
His law is good. So very good…
For God’s law reflects God’s character, and as God asks us to imitate Him, this necessarily means that we are to live not by the law, but that we are to walk in His law….
It is a critical difference, just like it is a big difference to wrongly say good works are necessary for salvation, instead of saying good works are necessary to salvation (Martin Luther’s distinction in the Disputation Concerning Justification).
In other words, to wrongly say that we are justified before God by good works as opposed to for good works.
To live in the law, and not by it, is to recognize that, because of His love, God created all of us in certain ways, to inhabit certain “grooves” so to speak.
Like trains that run on tracks, there are certain paths we are to take that lead to our flourishing and the flourishing of those around us. We serve God by loving our neighbor, and we love our neighbor by following God’s commandments.
We can call this the difference between two kinds of righteousness. One is passive – something that is all about our receiving – and the other is active, which is God’s love working in us for the sake of others.
You can think about this also as a vertical righteousness and a horizontal righteousness…. Both are from God, but we must not confuse the two…
office of keys exercised publicly, although not the office of pope. Includes also private confession as a means of grace.
it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices, that is, to administer, bishops, pastors, and preachers.
prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God, the liturgy
holy possession of the sacred cross, suffering and carrying the cross as followers of Christ.
[x] The threats of hell are for those who would either a) disregard God’s commands ; b) misuse them, attempting to obligate God to save them for their “best” efforts. Both views of God’s law are wholly damnable. “[T]he attitude of the heart is simply this….it wants to deal with God…as though God should humble Himself before us and let us actually oblige Him to grant us grace and help and thus become our debtor and servant.” (Martin Luther, What Luther Says, under “Prayer”)
The title for this blog post comes from Martin Luther’s comments on the Sermon on the Mount, as it found on page 86 of Luther’s Works, volume 21. What Luther means to say, of course, is that all of us who are in Christ should be eager to be known as Christians, and to strive to live as Christians for our neighbor’s sake.
Regarding how the concrete Christian should view God’s law, he gives us some very helpful perspective in his book, “On the Councils and the Church” (download the whole book for free from Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller — see here). Luther says the following about “the seven principle parts of Christians sanctification” or “the seven holy possessions of the church”:
“By [using, these seven things: the Scriptures, Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Confession and Absolution, Pastors, Prayer and proclamation, and suffering[i]…] the Holy Spirit effects in us a daily sanctification and vivification in Christ, according to the first table of Moses. By [this sanctification] we obey it, albeit never perfectly in Christ. But we constantly strive to attain the goal, under his redemption or remission of sins, until we too shall one day become perfectly holy and no longer stand in need of forgiveness. Everything is directed toward that goal.”
He goes on a bit later to talk about how another sign that helps identify the presence of Christ’s church in the world, love for one’s neighbors, the fulfillment of the second table of the commandments:
“[We see Christ’s church] when we bear no one a grudge, entertain no anger, hatred, envy or vengefulness toward our neighbors, but gladly forgive them, lend to them, help them, and counsel them; when we are not lewd, not drunkards, not proud, arrogant, overbearing, but chaste, self-controlled, sober, friendly, kind, gentle and humble; when we do not steal, rob, are not usurious, greedy, do not overcharge, but are mild, kind, content, charitable; when we are not false, mendacious, perjurers, but truthful, trustworthy, and do whatever else is taught in these commandments – all of which St. Paul teaches abundantly in more than one place. We need the Decalogue not only to apprise us of our lawful obligations, but we also need it to discern how far the Holy Spirit has advanced us in his work of sanctification and by how much we still fall short of the goal, lest we become secure and imagine that we have now done all that is required. Thus we must constantly grow in sanctification and always become new creatures in Christ. This means ‘grow’ and ‘do so more and more’ [II Pet. 3:18]” (LW 41:166)
This kind can only come out by prayer. – Mark 9:29
At one point in the book of Mark we are told that Jesus sends out His disciples to preach, to heal, and, yes, to cast out demons (Mark 6:13; see 3:15 and 6:7 as well).
So, looking at our Gospel reading for today (Mark 9: 14-29), this kind of thing was not something the disciples were unfamiliar with!
Their Master had sent them out to do just this, and so maybe they were thinking like this: if we did it before, we can do it again!
But this time the disciples – overly self-confident, perhaps? – could not….
As one commentator rather bitingly put it, “This was a leveling defeat that prevented the familiar competition between them as to which was the greatest…” (Paavola, 165).
The demon they were dealing with in this case was a particularly stubborn and violent one….
And, an ugly scene had been created and now the scribes, always hostile towards them and Jesus, were having it out with the disciples in an argument…
Where is Jesus when you need Him?
And, then, to everyone’s amazement, He indeed shows up right on time, fresh off of His glorious Transfiguration,[i] and…
…seems to rebuke the unbelief of all those present: “How long shall I be with you? How long must I suffer this?”
…and He bolsters the weak faith of the father of the child who is suffering the demonic attack
…dramatically casts out the violent demon forever
… and then later on, privately but firmly, states to his bewildered disciples:
“This kind can only come out by prayer….”
We need prayer.
We were created to be those who pray. Those who walk and talk with our Creator.
Even though we know that it is God who does things, all things in fact…it is not wrong to say, with the proper understanding, that prayer does things as well.[ii]
God chooses to do things through our prayers, by our acting in union with, communion with, Him.
Like “laws of nature” the world runs by Christian prayer.
Our friend Martin Luther, the 16th century church reformer, gives us a great education:
“[Real prayer involves, first,] the urging of God’s commandment, who has strictly required us to pray; second, His promise, in which He declares that He will hear us; third, an examination of our own need and misery, which burden lies so heavily on our shoulders that we have to carry it to God immediately and pour it out before Him, in accordance with His order and commandment; fourth, true faith, based on this Word and promise of God, praying with certainty and confidence that he will help and hear us – and all these things in the name of Christ, through whom our prayer is acceptable to the Father and for whose sake He gives us every grace and every good” (What Luther says, 1075)
Nevertheless, sinful man will – fiercely independent to the bitter end – perpetually evaluates himself to be not so bad on his own.
But the Bible paints a very, very different picture.
The wickedness runs deep.
The disintegration, the decay, the rot… goes deep.
From the beginning, the disease of sin, like a spiritual leprosy, has infected every part of us….
We are a polluted fountain…
We are even called children of wrath (Eph. 2:3).
Man only prays when he feels like it. Often when he wants life’s riches, cares and pleasures. And then, when he prays he prays to gods of his own imagination….
And here, Jesus’ question to the father about his possessed son: “How long has this been happening to him?,” is an appropriate one for us to consider as well.
Well, it has been happening right from the earliest days, from that fateful day our first parents, Adam and Eve, turned aside from the Lord
…and we too, under the sway of the fall into sin and curse they brought, turned our back on Him.
Not being thankful to Him.
Not regarding Him or His works.
Not depending on Him.
Not trusting in Him.
Not praying to Him.
Many people in our nation today… in America today… get uncomfortable when talking about using the death penalty to punish heinous crimes.
At the same time, the Biblical authors in general – and of all people Jesus Christ in particular – speak freely about hell and hellfire as if… given what our sin honestly is… it is the most natural and expected thing there is….
If we go by Martin Luther’s explanation of the first commandment, man deserves such punishment because we do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things, period.He relates this to prayerlessness….
“You are to look closely at this command and stress it that you do not consider prayer an optional work and act as if it were no sin for you not to pray and as it were enough that others pray. You should know that praying is earnestly enjoined, with the threat of God’s supreme displeasure and punishment if it is neglected. It is enjoined just as well as the command that you should have no other gods and should not blaspheme and abuse God’s name but should confess and preach, laud and praise it. He who does not do this should know that he is no Christian and does not belong to the kingdom of God. If, then, you believe that God is justly angry with the idolatrous, the blasphemers, and the despisers of His Word, with murderers and thieves, and that terrible punishments come upon the world because of such sins, why do you not fear God’s wrath when you despise this command and live on in security as if you were not obliged to pray?” (What Luther Says, 3432)
Luther’s words here are meant, first of all, to wake up those who might be in a church physically, but who don’t really believe.
By this fearsome preaching of God’s commands, he means to make sure that all those who hear would be awakened, and grasp the Gospel. As he explains it elsewhere:
“According to form and substance… we are unrighteous and condemned sinners because there is certainly nothing in man’s entire nature which could [stand up] against God’s judgment. [Nevertheless,] [w]herever this poor and damned nature seizes Christ the Propitiator and Mediator by faith, there sin itself, which is still in the flesh, not only is not condemned, not considered as sin, but is also forgiven for Christ’s sake and is like nothing” (Solus Decalogus, 142).
Even then, once a person comes to Jesus Christ, that person will undergo great temptations.
Among other things, the devil will tell them that they are unworthy to pray….
And, of course, in one sense, that is exactly right!
We need to always remember that it is the sense of unworthiness – God’s bringing us here! — that makes us Christians in the first place!
God’s law, like a mirror, shows us our sin and makes us realize that we are in fact unworthy to stand before Him, in His Presence… He is good and we are not!
And then, when we come to this realization, He gives us the Gospel of Jesus Christ that we are finally ready to receive!
In a sense then, the worthy are those who realize they are unworthy!
Let’s hear from Martin Luther again on this, as he unmasks the devil’s attempts to trick us into thinking that we are unworthy to pray.
“The devil knows well how powerful one man’s truly believing prayer is, how it hurts him and benefits all men. Therefore he does not like prayer. Here man must indeed be wise and not doubt that he and his prayer are unworthy before such infinite Majesty; in no wise dare he trust in his worthiness or grow faint because of his unworthiness. But he must heed God’s command and face Him with it and hold it before the devil and say: Because of my worthiness I have begun nothing; because of my unworthiness I cease from nothing. I pray and work only because God out of His pure goodness has promised to hear and to be gracious to all who are unworthy, and has not only promised it but has also most sternly, with the threat of his everlasting displeasure and wrath, commanded us to pray, to trust, and to receive. If it has not been too much for the sublime Majesty so solemnly and highly to obligate His unworthy works to pray, to trust, and to receive from Him, how can it be too much for me to take this commandment on myself with all joy, however worthy or unworthy I may be? Thus we must drive out the devil’s suggestion with God’s command. Then he will stop; otherwise never” (What Luther Says, 3450)
He also bluntly says this:
[The devil] pretends that you are not worthy to pray. A subterfuge such as this means nothing: I am also unfit to believe God’s Word and to hear it, to love my neighbor, etc. For this reason the commandment of God [to pray] is to mean nothing? The question is not whether you are worthy or unworthy, but whether you owe God obedience. I am not worthy either to be baptized and to be called a Christian; nay, I am not worthy of the daily bread which I eat. Should I, therefore, deny my Christ or never let myself be baptized or neither eat nor drink?” (What Luther Says, 3432)
Finally, I absolutely love this quotation from Luther, lovely in its truth and fierceness!
Going along with feeling unworthy to pray, he might also try to get us to think that our faith is not strong enough to pray!
To disbelieve William Cowper, who said:
“And Satan trembles when he sees
The weakest saint upon his knees.”
Another early Lutheran though, Martin Chemnitz, quickly dispenses of this lie though, by reminding us that…:
“[w]e are justified by faith, not because it is so firm, robust, and perfect a virtue, but because the object on which it lays hold, namely Christ, who is the Mediator of the promise of grace” (Chemnitz 8:932, in Paavola, 164)
It is always the object of faith, Jesus Christ, who makes us Christians.
And it is always the object of faith, Jesus Christ, who makes us successful and invincible…
We in America are apt to think to put the focus on the one exercising the faith though….
On the one hand, this is not entirely wrong: being concerned to have a strong faith is a very good thing!
That said, the problem with a lot of American Christianity though is that the focus is often on us, on the power and strength of our faith… on even “having faith in our faith,” “believing in ourselves,” it seems.
The focus is on something within us, a power within us, some kind of an internal “divine spark” that we must choose or decide to exercise… that we might perhaps even “fan into flames” through the proper use of powerful worship music or things like this!
There is also an inordinate focus on a stronger faith being able to attain earthly blessings, and not necessarily those things God considers earthly blessings – like knowing the love of our own flesh and blood – a good and strong family – but rather the kinds of materialistic blessings that our peers in the world see as indicating success.
Nevertheless, we should desire to have a stronger faith, rightly understood… This means we should desire to be in the habit of grasping and clinging to the object of our faith more and not less firmly.
When one holds a pencil, one should do so with a firm grip. In like fashion, we are made to be those who take a firm hold of Christ’s hand….
At the same time though, we must also remember that there is an important sense in which the strength of our faith does not matter.
I think that a lot of you are probably familiar with trucks being driven out on to frozen lakes and so I hope the following illustration helps…
[If my faith is strong the ice will hold up my truck and I drive out on the ice and it falls through, the strength of my faith did not matter. If I am nervous and crawl out on the lake with weak faith that does not matter if the strength of the object is enough. Jesus is both good and strong enough to save us.]
I hope that makes some good sense to you!
So while we are indeed made to be those who take a firm – and not weak – hold of Jesus Christ’s hand, the primary message for us –and the message that we continually need to be reminded of and to hold on to – is that our hand, is firmly in His grasp.
Like the hand of a little child held by his strong father…. As the Bible says, when we are faithless, He is faithful…
So from the goodness and power of our Heavenly Father and our Good Brother Jesus Christ, the strength of our own faith will grow rightly – with the focus always off of ourselves and on Him!
So enough of our worry!
Remember that it is God Himself – the Maker of all things and the One who would also become weak and die on a cross to pay for our sins – is the very One who commands us to pray and is trustworthy!
At this point we are ready to address Jesus’ words about how this kind can only come out by prayer…
Well, if you will recall, last time I was with you I preached on Ephesians 6:12 which speaks not about hierarches of flesh and blood, but “the rulers… the authorities… the powers of this dark world and… the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
“In His reply to [the disciples’] question our Lord impresses upon them a twofold lesson: (i) The omnipotence of a perfect faith (see Matthew 17:20-21); (ii) that, as there is order and gradation in the hierarchy of blessed spirits, so is it with the spirits of evil (see Ephesians 6:12).”
So, there are evidently “degrees of spiritual and moral wickedness” that are particularly “intense and malignant…”
Now, the chances are that most of us are not going to become those who cast out demons and know the various types… Nor that we will even be calling upon those who specialize in exorcism!
And when it comes to the kind of overt demonic activity we see in our text here, as I have noted before, Satan, in our “Western” context, seems to prefer these days to keep a lower profile (even if, yes, the official “church of Satan” really did come out in opposition to the new abortion laws passed in Texas last week…)[v]
Nevertheless, there are a good number of people in the world and even in the church who are extremely skeptical of the devil’s existence….
Many believe, for instance, that this story from our Gospel reading today only records an episode of epilepsy, and not demonic possession.
“People back then were more primitive,” the wrong-headed thinking goes – they didn’t know what we know now.[vi]
At the same time, even in as godless a paper as the Washington Post, an article sub-titled “How a scientist learned to work with exorcists” appeared a few years ago (2016).
In it, we hear from Richard Gallagher, a board-certified psychiatrist and professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College. He shares that at one point in his life, “the most experienced exorcist in the country at the time, a priest and an “erudite and sensible man,” had sought him – one of the world’s most respected and educated psychiatrists – out regarding his opinion on a particularly troubling case….
“So began an unlikely partnership. For the past two-and-a-halfdecades and over several hundred consultations, I’ve helped clergy from multiple denominations and faiths to filter episodes of mental illness — which represent the overwhelming majority of cases — from, literally, the devil’s work. It’s an unlikely role for an academic physician, but I don’t see these two aspects of my career in conflict. The same habits that shape what I do as a professor and psychiatrist — open-mindedness, respect for evidence and compassion for suffering people — led me to aid in the work of discerning attacks by what I believe are evil spirits and, just as critically, differentiating these extremely rare events from medical conditions…careful observation of the evidence presented to me in my career has led me to believe that certain extremely uncommon cases can be explained no other way.”[vii]
None of this would surprise my friend Pastor Harold Ristau, who in his book “My First Exorcism” writes the following:
“When reading the New Testament, one gets the impression that the demon-possessed were always clearly so: tied up in chains, banished into the desert, etc. But in my experience, demons can remain hidden for extensive periods of time in their host, influencing their behaviour, haunting their thoughts, playing with their souls, and only periodically manifesting their presence publicly. One of the demoniacs with whom I worked could summon her demon at will. Because demons like to hide, some of them need to be coaxed or goaded out through lengthy prayers and precise commands. Evidently, there are various degrees of demonic activity. Each cause demands a unique pastoral response” (10).
“Of course, it is never our prayers, but those of our valiant champion that pulverize these hostile enemy forces…”
Do you believe?
Nevertheless, again, Pastor Ristau also points out this important thing to remember….
“I believe that I have engaged in battles with the devil through demonically oppressed and possessed individuals. But the most nefarious manifestations of evil are not encountered in demoniacs. Rather, we meet them every day in the cultures from which we are bred, the messages to which we are exposed, and even the ideas and passions to which we are committed…” (155)
Do you believe this?
Are you in agreement that there are important influences in our lives outside of the church… and hence, our interpretations of God and His world, our views of God and His world, are not all that they can and should be?
Do you believe that prayer addressing such things is most necessary?!
This, again, is why God bids us to pray “Deliver us from evil!”
Can you at least say “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief?”
The man in our Gospel reading today, at the end of his rope and desperate to help his child confesses, in tears, just this…. There is no hope of success here except through the almighty power of God! (Expositor’s Greek Testament)
And, as Daniel Paavola puts it “[i]n contrast to the departing shriek of the demon, Jesus brings life…
…with a quiet word and gentle touch.
The strong Carpenter’s hands restore the broken child with a silent grace…” (164)
Jesus is both good enough and strong enough to do something – for this boy, for this father, and for all of us here today….
Again, the actions we see here, driven by His holy love for mankind, are the same kinds of actions we see throughout His life leading up to His death on the cross that He might be a ransom for many, to pay for all our sins and bring us back to God….
With the faith of a mustard seed you can move mountains, because that faith is in the Good and Sovereign Lord of the Universe (Strauss, 399).
So, let the power and love of Christ flow through you indeed!
Let power and love, the power of God’s love, have their day in you (Paavola, 163).
Not to be saved, but precisely because you are saved by, because you are being saved by, the blood of Jesus Christ, strive!
Strive to know better who God is, and who you are, by spending time in His presence, spending time with His people, and taking the time to listen to His life-giving word both publicly and privately![viii]
It might do us all well to remember here what Paul said to the Thessalonians:
“…And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.”
God is at work in us through His word.
So don’t focus on taking control, achieving spiritual successes and new heights for yourself, but look to simply be faithful, to depend on Him in all things, to know more and more that His Word reigns supreme and has all the power we need.
…be not confident in your own abilities, but fix your eyes on Jesus![ix]
And so, finally, when Jesus commands you to pray, to pray without ceasing… be not condemned, but comforted and confident!
If a King tells you to ask for a castle that he might give it to you, this is something to not so much tremble about – though you dare not dishonor him by not doing so! – but to rejoice in!
Be confident in!
Pray, children of God.
Your Father is the very One who, through the love of Jesus Christ, puts that strong and fervent desire there.
And He always invites: “Ask, seek, knock, find…”
He is eager to hear from us together… and from each one of us alone as well.
[i] Lutheran Study Bible: “Jesus descends from the transfiguration and meets a defiant demon, an anxious father, and astonished crowd, and despairing disciples. Despair threatens to overwhelm our faith too by pointing out how we fail to change or improve, suggesting that god neither cares for us nor has power to help. However, Jesus does not linger in the glory of the transfiguration, but graciously descends to a world of despair and doubt so that he might deliver us.”
[iii] One more. In the large catechism, as he talked about the seventh petition of the Lord’s prayer, “Deliver us from evil,” Martin Luther wrote the following:
“But there is nevertheless also included whatever evil may happen to us under the devil’s kingdom-poverty, shame, death, and, in short, all the agonizing misery and heartache of which there is such an unnumbered multitude on the earth. For since the devil is not only a liar, but also a murderer, he constantly seeks our life, and wreaks his anger whenever he can afflict our bodies with misfortune and harm. Hence it comes that he often breaks men’s necks or drives them to insanity, drowns some, and incites many to commit suicide, and to many other terrible calamities.
Therefore there is nothing for us to do upon earth but to pray against this arch-enemy without ceasing. For unless God preserved us, we would not be safe from him even for an hour.”
29. This kind] In His reply to their question our Lord impresses upon them a twofold lesson: (i) The omnipotence of a perfect faith (see Matthew 17:20-21); (ii) that, as there is order and gradation in the hierarchy of blessed spirits, so is it with the spirits of evil (see Ephesians 6:12). There are degrees of spiritual and moral wickedness so intense and malignant that they can be exorcised by nothing save by prayer and fasting, and the austerest rules of rigour and self-denial. These last words and fasting are wanting in the Sinaitic MS. and some Versions.
[viii] As one pastor (Matt Richards) recently put it: “You do not live apart from Christ. That is not how things work. You do not live independently from His gifts. Just as you need air to breathe, water to live, and food to give you energy, you must always return to Christ for forgiveness, life, and salvation. This Christian life is circular because we are always returning to the fountainhead of grace and truth. We do not return just once at the beginning or the end, but we return constantly.”
[ix] I was not fully comfortable with the italicized portion of Strauss’ comments here (Mark, 401): “When our faith wavers, it is not because we are not striving hard enough to succeed or are not confident enough in our own abilities. It is because we have gotten our eyes off Jesus.” Therefore, I framed things as I did. We are encouraged to strive in the Bible, for peace with all men, for holiness, etc.