Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Absurdity of War

     The absurdity of war is not that a man goes into battle to kill another intelligent creature.  For what is intelligence, and how is it significant, and what does it matter in the end?  Intelligence is born and it dies, and that is the way of life.

     The absurdity of war is not that a man goes into battle to kill another emotional creature.  For what matters about what we feel in the long run?  Emotion is born and it dies, and that is the way of life.

     The absurdity of war is not that a man goes into battle to die.  For all men die in one way or another, and it makes little difference whether they die by sickness or by old age or by a bullet.  A man is born and he dies, and that is the way of life.

     The absurdity of war is that a man goes into battle to kill another man who could be his friend.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

What's in a Name?

               Among believers with "progressive" views on theology and social issues, there seems to be a growing trend involving the eschewing of the label "Christian" in favor of "Christ-follower" or another similar title.  This, of course, is old news, but it continues to be relevant as the zeitgeist gallops along at a rapid pace, carrying many Christian youth along with it who have become drawn to modernized forms of the faith that they perceive as more tolerant or reasonable.  The fact of the matter is that some believers - and they are a minority, but a vocal one - do not want to call themselves Christians anymore.  The term "Christian," they claim, carries far too much baggage for them to apply it to themselves, for nonbelievers associate the word "Christian" not with following Christ but with the negative qualities of evangelicalism: homophobia, science-denial, judgment, fear, and the like.  These people simply do not think that the word "Christian," as it is understood by the world today, applies to them anymore.
               This seems reasonable at first; while some of us probably do not agree with this assessment of the faults of evangelicalism, it's hard to deny that many have come to view Christianity as synonymous with American evangelicalism, and it makes complete sense that non-evangelical believers would not want that to be perceived as their identity.  After all, there is no command in Scripture detailing what believers must call themselves, whether "Christian," "Jesus Follower," "Jesus Freak," or any other name; what matters is faith, through which we grasp the promise of salvation and become a part of God's family.
               But I would push back against this notion somewhat.  Of course Scripture gives no command that "all believers in Christ must term themselves 'Christians,'" but words and names matter, both because of their literal meaning and because of their meaning in a cultural context.
               I would argue that the label "Jesus follower" is by nature individualistic, and demeans the value of the church. Think about it.  If someone calls himself a Jesus-follower, the literal meaning of that name is that he - the individual - is following Jesus.  Certainly, most who claim this title would insist that one cannot follow Jesus in a vacuum.  However, the problem persists all the same.  You can speak of "Jesus-followers" in the plural, or of "a community of Jesus-followers," but the term cannot convey the wholeness of the church in the same way that "Christian" can.  A Christian is not merely one of many Christians but a part of Christianity, of Christendom, of the whole Church, which, despite its various denominational indicators, has gone by the name of "Christian" for centuries.
               The real problem is not that calling oneself a Jesus-follower instead of a Christian (I of course have no problem with using both terms) divorces one from other believers - for one can have fellowship with other Jesus-followers - but that it divorces one from the one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church; from the body of Christ with all its diseases and pains, from Christendom in all its glory and all its agony.  Certainly, all Christians are Jesus-followers, but it means little to be a Jesus-follower if one is not also a Christian, a member for better or for worse of the everlasting Bride of Christ.  Is the Church full of hypocrisy, of heterodoxy, of harm?  Yes indeed, but she is Christ's, and Christ has redeemed her and will perfect her.  Is the Church a whore?  Yes indeed, but she has been wed by the Lord, who loves her not because she is pure but loves her and purifies her because she is His.  And if the Church is His, then we must be of the Church to also be His, as Cyprian writes, "he cannot have God for His Father who does not have the Church for his mother," and Augustine, "the Church is a whore, but she is my mother."
               Many people, unfortunately, do not realize that American evangelicalism is but one part of the Church.  But the solution to that problem is not to eschew the label "Christian" and thus separate ourselves from the Church, but to educate the public about Christianity and thus open their eyes to its fullness.  Certainly, the Church has done much worthy of shame.  But Christ has taken her shame away.
               If we are honest with ourselves, we all will realize that we should be ashamed to call ourselves Christians, but not because of what the Church has done; rather, because of what we have done.  When we truly look inside of ourselves, we see that we do not deserve to be called Christians; we are "sick with self-love" and full of pride, covetousness, and self-righteousness.  Our thoughts, words, and deeds are far from the example Christ has set for us.  But Jesus has died to redeem us from our sins.  He has washed away our guilt in the blood of His cross, and takes away our shame, that we might be His, and live with Him eternally.  Therefore, let us boldly call ourselves by His name and the name of the Church, knowing that, both individually and communally, we are redeemed, justified, and washed clean of all our sin by Christ, and let us proclaim this truth to the world, that all may know that Christians and Christendom are not defined by how righteous they are but by the righteousness of Christ that covers them.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Prophecy and Typology in 1 Kings 19: Part 1

               A couple of weeks ago, we studied 1 Kings 19:11-21 in Bible Class at my church.  I have some thoughts on the passage, and would like to explore them in a short series of posts.
               The passage begins just after the story of Elijah's contest with the prophets of Baal, whom God proves to be frauds and subsequently executes by the hand of Elijah.  God proceeds to finally send rain upon Israel, bringing an end to the three-year drought He has imposed as a judgment upon the land.  This should be a great victory for Elijah, but his triumph is turned to despair when God's victory produces not repentance, but rather greater evil from the queen Jezebel, who vows to kill the prophet.  Despairing of life, Elijah flees into the wilderness.  This passage begins with God first speaking to Elijah, and then sending many signs: fires and earthquakes and tempests.  But God Himself is not in any of these.  Finally, the still, small voice of God comes to Elijah, saying, "What are you doing here," and the prophet responds,
               "I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts.  For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I onlly, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away."
               God's response is an exhortation to Elijah but also a comforting word of promise that does not merely answer the prophet's situation but also prophecies God's deliverance and provision for believers today.  Let us examine the words of the Lord.
               "Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus."
               God  does not say, "Enter the city," but rather, "Return to the wilderness," a distinction that speaks volumes both to the prophet and to the church today.  For, in speaking to Elijah, God also speaks to us, His church.  We have been saved and delivered from sin, death, and the devil; Christ protects us and will not allow anyone to snatch us out of His hand (John 10:28).  He has won the final victory and in Him we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37).  But we still live in the midst of great trials and afflictions.  Sins still plague us, evil men still oppress us; the world still hates the Gospel and persecutes the church.  As the hymn proclaims, Christ has "brought His Israel [the church]...through the Red Sea waters" out of slavery in Egypt through His death and resurrection, and yet we still must wander in the wilderness before we reach the promised land: the great city, the New Jerusalem, which Christ will found at His return.  We live not in the bondage of slavery nor in the raptures of paradise, but rather in the wilderness journey.  Thus, we should not seek to avoid the realities of this our present life, but should rather traverse boldly through the wilderness in the confidence of salvation and the hope of future glory.
               "And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria.  And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place."
               God does not leave us alone in the wilderness of this world, but rather makes provision for our protection and guidance.  As in the past He anointed kings through His prophets, He now anoints ministers of the Word through His church.  Although this passage foreshadows God's establishment of earthly authorities in our time for the condemnation of evil and the commendation of good (Romans 13: 3-4), it has a higher meaning in that it prophecies the office of the holy ministry, by which Christ comes to us in power through human vessels: pastors who exercise His authority to preach the Word, forgive sins, and administer the sacraments.  In this office, He provides for "apostolic succession," not in the twisted sense taught in the Roman church, but in the sense that each generation, by the grace of God, hands down the faith to the next by the teaching and ministry of pastors and preachers.
               "And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death."
               This apostolic succession will come, not through lineage or institution, but through continuance in the apostles' doctrine (Acts 2:42), that is, through the Word.  For Peter's confession, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" is the rock on which Christ has promised to build His church (Matthew 16:15-17), and the sword with which ministers in the church shall put men to death is "the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God" (Ephesians 6:17).  With the stern proclamation of God's Law, preachers will spiritually put to death rebellious sinners, condemning their sin and warning them of judgment, awakening in their heart the terrors of conscience.
               "Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him."
               But still, as Isaiah proclaims so often in His prophecies, God will leave a remnant of the faithful who remain steadfast in His Word.  For although the sword of the Law kills, the Gospel has power to raise repentant sinners to life.  When the ministers of the Word put their hearers to death with the sword of the Law, many will remain obstinate in their sins and die eternally.  But God preserves a remnant, those who, having been killed by the Law, are risen again to new life when they repent and believe the Gospel.  This remnant is His church, the Body and Bride of Christ, the fellowship of believers, the figurative "7,000" who bow to the Lord and not to Baal, the "144,000" who have not received the mark of the beast but the seal of Christ (Revelation 7:1-4).  The Church is the assembly of God's people in the wilderness of the world, who endure tribulation in the confidence that they are sealed with the salvation won for them by Jesus.
               These words of the Lord are a prophecy of His Kingdom on earth.  The Kingdom comes by the Word, in the church, through the holy ministry.  This Word, this church, this ministry operate in an alien land, a hostile wilderness.  The work of the church is carried out in enemy territory, amidst all kinds of trials and sufferings and weaknesses and persecutions and tribulations.  It is a dangerous and seemingly futile mission, but not without hope, because our suffering here on earth is a partaking in the cross of Christ, by which He gained our salvation.  Therefore, as to Elijah, so Jesus also speaks to us, saying, "Do not despair: I have won; my story will prevail.  I have established my church in the midst of the wilderness, and have anointed ministers to proclaim the Word and administer the Sacraments.  You are not alone, but a member of my church; you are not helpless, for I am all the strength you need.  Therefore, you also continue in the mission and calling which you have been given, as Elijah did, trusting me in the confidence that I will preserve you to the end."

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Canine Theology

               I have a dog.  Her name is Dozer, and she is a pain in the rear end, but I love her anyway, and that's all that matters.
               Ten years ago, my parents, siblings, and I chose Dozer to be a part of our family.  She had no choice in the matter.  We took her home with us and made her part of our family, and she grew to trust us and to depend upon us for everything she needed: food, water, a place to sleep and play, and most of all, love.  You see, Dozer knows that she cannot obtain the things she needs on her own.  When she is hungry or thirsty, she barks at us.  When she wants attention, she lies on her belly and waits for us to rub her.  When she needs to go outside, she waits at the door.  She does nothing to feed herself, pet herself, or take herself out, but instead calls upon us, and we answer her.
               But, despite being absolutely dependent upon us, Dozer is still a rebel.  When she was little, she would sometimes get out and run around the neighborhood, and we, the owners, would have to leave our home to find the lost and straying dog.  When we tell her "no," as is the daily occurrence when she inevitably asks for far more food than she needs, she barks and complains as if we were doing her harm.  Sometimes, when we do things like try to clean her paws, take something dangerous from her, or take her to the vet, she even lashes out at us and bites.
               Dozer also frequently fails to love her neighbor.  She can be very aggressive, especially in her territory, and has been known to lunge at anyone who comes through our door.  We can't take her to public places because she might become violent, and we can't let anyone in the house without locking her up.
               Yes, Dozer is a very bad dog.  But we love her anyway.  She is part of our family, and that is never going to change.  We constantly make sacrifices for her, handling her craziness, cleaning up her messes, and accommodating her needs.  We chastise her when she does something wrong, but we never forsake her.  Sometimes we have to do things to her that she hates, but it is always for her own good.  Yes, Dozer is a bad dog.  But she is our dog.
               Over the years, Dozer has improved her behavior.  Through our patience and training, she has learned to obey more and to rebel less.  She has become mellower and less volatile in her behavior toward strangers.  She is still a very naughty dog.  She still has problems, and that is not going to change.  But we have nurtured her and guided her for ten years now, and have helped her along the path to improve her behavior. 
               You see, each one of us is Dozer.  Dozer has been saved by grace, through faith, for we chose her and made her our own, and she trusts us and depends upon us.  She did nothing to deserve her "redemption" at our hands, but rather has done many things undeserving of it.  Even her faith in us is not a work on her part, but an act of necessity, for where else can she go, and what can she do for herself?  Even this faith is tainted with rebellion, both in her conduct toward us and toward other people.  But we do not hold this against Dozer.  We do not condemn her for her bad behavior.  Rather, we continue to love her unconditionally, and to give her everything that she needs.  We even stoop down to her level and help her to overcome her fear, her anxiety, and her violent ways.
               If a human family can thus love a dog; if we can redeem, forgive, renew, care for, and sanctify this big bundle of fur who we once received by grace into our home, then how much more will our heavenly Father, Love Himself, save us by His grace, not marking our iniquities but forgiving us, sending His own Son to die for our sins?  We are all like sheep who have gone astray; we are all like dogs who ungratefully bite the hand that feeds them.  But God is the One with the hand that feeds the bite.  We can only damn ourselves by our works, but God rescues us by His grace, receiving us into His family and loving us with the unconditional love of which all human love is but a mere image.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Children of God

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
                                                                                                  Galatians 4:4-5
               And yet it is with no mere humanly defined adoption that God receives us into his family, for He has not only taken us and declared us members of His household - although He certainly has done that - but has made us in body and soul one with Him, not merely as adoptees, but as "biological" children.  For in His Son, who became one of us, He is making us like Him.  And because we are being made like the Son, becoming the brother of the only Begotten of the Father, we are also being made into children of the Father.  For Christ has bound himself forever to us in the incarnation by taking upon Himself our nature, and in His crucifixion has become our blood brother.  We are the Church and thus His own body.  His blood, given to us to drink in the Lord's Supper, flows through our very veins; we are submerged through our Baptism in the water that flows from His side; He sends His Holy Spirit to make His dwelling in our hearts.  We are thus like Him and are being made like Him, the only begotten Son of the Father, that we also might become true sons and daughters of God in every way.