Sunday, August 9, 2020

The Simple Gospel Of Jesus and His View Of God #JesusFollowers

We do not find that God has ever enjoined on men the duty of believing without evidence. We do not find that He has ever addressed them otherwise than as rational beings, capable of discerning between truth and falsehood, and expected to do so on their own responsibility.

Revelation, as we think, came not to supersede reason, or to set aside its deductions; but to enlighten its course, to expand its views, to enlarge its field of action, to dispel the earth-born mists that obscured its vision, to give it broader and more solid premises, on which to build its conclusions, and to imp its wings for a higher flight.

It never calls for the subjection of reason - the 'prostration' of understanding, to its dictates. On the contrary, it is itself subjected to the decision of reason; and must abide the test. It must be received or rejected according to the dictates of our sober judgment on the evidence presented.

And as with the evidence on which it rests, so with the doctrines it contains. These too, are subjected to the test of reason. We believe them just in so far as we understand them ; and no farther.

The provinces of faith and reason are not distinct, the one beginning where the other ends. They cover the same ground.

It seems to us a mere identical proposition to state that what is not understood, cannot be believed. In this case no object is presented to the mind for it to receive or reject.

What is not understood is to me no revelation. If a man says that he believes what he does not pretend either to explain or comprehend, he deceives himself. His faith is merely verbal and illusory.

Doubtless there may be many truths both in nature and in scripture, of which we are ignorant. But to us, so long as we remain ignorant of them, they are nothing - they are to us as though they did not exist.

We pretend not to comprehend the nature and perfections of the Divine Being, for example, but in so far as they are displayed, they are perfectly plain and intelligible. And what is not displayed is no concern of ours.

My eye cannot penetrate the deep infinitude of the space that surrounds me; but within the verge of my own horizon I can see clearly, and move freely: with what is beyond I have at present no concern. Let it not be said that we exalt reason at the expense of revelation. We do but assign to each its appropriate sphere.

Reason, we admit, was weak and inefficient by itself. And why? It lacked authority to still the clamor of the passions, that disturbed its operations. It lacked facts to render its conclusions certain. Above all, it wanted sanctions to bind them on the conscience. All this revelation has supplied; and thus completed the system of God's dispensations to man.

For those who rest their hopes on Christianity, there is one fundamental doctrine, and one only. The essentials of our creed may be stated in three words: “Jesus is the Christ; a messenger of truth and mercy from God.”

This simple proposition admitted, with unwavering assent into the mind, the whole business of Christian faith, merely and distinctively, is discharged.

If this single doctrine will not enlighten the conscience, and purify the heart, and regulate the life; if it will not tranquillize the spirit, and enkindle devotion, and awaken hope, and wing the aspirations of the soul to God; if it will not communicate strength to suffer, and a will to serve, then nothing will. We cannot believe that by making our faith more complex we should increase its practical power, even in minds capable of wider and more elaborate views.

(From a Sermon by Martin Luther Hurlbut, 1780-1843)

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Let's Join the Joyful Mission Of Jesus! #JesusFollowers

Jesus started his ministry with extremely clear words outlining his mission:

"The Spirit of Yahweh ("The LORD") is upon me, because He has chosen me to preach good news to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are being bruised." (Luke 4:8)

He said why he was chosen, anointed at baptism, and sent by God to preach - it was what he called the Kingdom:

"I must preach the kingdom of God to the other cities also, for I WAS SENT FOR THIS PURPOSE” (Luke 4:43.)

Jesus' ministry and life's message was entirely focused on this Kingdom of God - the ideal realm of Heaven that Jesus said should be made a reality here, "on earth, as it is in Heaven" (Matt. 6:10.) That this is a spiritual and not a literal, temporal one is also clear from his own words (John 18:36.)

It's a Kingdom in which he called people to be righteous, merciful, and complete ("perfect") just as God is (Matt. 5:20, 5:48, Luke 6:36) and just as Jesus - whom God chose as his spokesman - modeled for us with the example of his selfless life and death (John 13:15; 1 John 2:6.)

Jesus said we should seek to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit those in prison, and comfort the widow and orphan. (Matt. 25)

And he made it clear that we should spread this Kingdom far and wide:

"Go therefore, and teach all nations...Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." (Mt 28:19,20)

"If you love me," he said, "you will keep my commandments." (John 14:15)

It's abundantly obvious why we don't hear much of this Gospel of Jesus from pulpits. It's because it is hard, it calls us to perform Good Works, and it calls us to deny ourselves and serve others. In short, it challenges us to get up out of the pews and ACT in the world. Few want to hear that message on a lazy Sunday morning.

But if we read his words, and take them seriously (and if we wish to claim him as our Master, whom we say we love) we must admit that Jesus makes demands on those who say they follow him. And we're called to act on his commandments.

He calls us to ACTIVELY deny ourselves, pick up our crosses and to follow his teachings, daily in the service of others. (Luke 9:23) 

This Gospel of Jesus - this "Good News" - is shocking to our ears because we are used to things being FREE, and EASY.

But our God knows the human heart, and commissioned Jesus at his baptism to be our Examplar and Guide in all things. (Luke 3:22)

God knows that we are capable of doing what he wants us to do, and He knows that the effort will bring us joy.

Jesus models for us the perfect man, the man in whom God said was "well pleased." And Jesus tells us we are capable of all that God asks of us, through Jesus' teachings and life lessons.

He tells us that we must be "perfect, as our Father in Heaven is perfect," (Matt. 5:48) meaning that we can attain a degree of the moral perfection of God. Likewise, he tells us we must be "merciful, as your Father in Heaven is merciful." (Luke 6:36)

In short, he tells us that the Gospel is a challenge - a challenge to become the human beings that God created us to be, and knows that we can become.

God knows that we respond well to challenge and adversity, and that we can overcome it. He says sin may be crouching at the door, but we MUST overcome it. (Gen. 4:7) God says the Moral Law of Moses is "not too hard for you," and that it is "is in your mouth and in your heart, SO THAT YOU CAN DO IT." (Deut. 30:11, 14)

Isaiah says God has no doubt that human beings can, "cease to do evil, and learn to do good." (1:16)

James, the brother of Jesus, notes that adversity perfects us. "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you face trials of various kinds, because you know the testing of your faith produces endurance." (James 1:17)

Jesus promises that, "The one who perseveres to the end will be saved.' (Matt. 10:22) and "by your patient endurance, you will gain your souls." (Luke 21:19)

"If you know these things (his teachings)" says Jesus, "Blessed are you if you do them." (John 13:17)

This God-given human ability is often never revealed by preachers because there is a lot riding on the idea that we are incapable of doing what God asks. But if we aren't, then God asks the impossible.

But again, God knows our heart, and knows that we become like Jesus when we act on his commands. And we spread the joy of Jesus and the Kingdom when we serve others. 

Jesus said he "came not to be served, but to serve." (Matt. 20:28.) And he calls us, like the Good Samaritan who served the stranger, to "Go, and do likewise." (Luke 10:37)

Jesus' words ring true today because they speak to longings of the human heart. He understood that when we treat others as we wish to be treated, our spirits become fuller and more complete and the needs of others are fulfilled as well. We lay up treasure in Heaven when we do Good for others. (Matt. 6:19-21)

It's also doing the work of spreading God's Kingdom, and that's the mission to which he calls us to joyfully join. Are we ready to take his words and mission seriously?

Sunday, July 26, 2020

A Few Notes On Free Will #JesusFollowers

"When God created man in the beginning, He left him free to make his own decisions. If you wish, you can keep the commandments and it is in your power to remain faithful." (Ecclesiasticus, 15)

Whenever I have to speak on the subject of moral instruction and the conduct of a holy life, it is my practice first to demonstrate the power and quality of human nature and to show what is capable of achieving, and then to go on to encourage the mind of my listener to consider the idea of different kinds of virtues, in case it may be of little or no profit to him to be summoned to pursue ends which he has perhaps assumed up till now to be beyond his reach

For we can never enter upon the path of virtue unless we have hope as our guide and companion and if every effort expended in seeking something is nullified in effect by despair of ever finding it.

Moreover, the God of Justice wished us to be free to act and not under compulsion; it was for this reason that “He left him free to make his own decisions” and set before him life and death, good and evil, and he shall be given whatever pleases him.

It was because God wished to bestow on the rational creature the gift of doing good of his own free will and the capacity to exercise free choice, by implanting in man the possibility of choosing either alternative, that he made it his peculiar right to be what he wanted to be, so that with his capacity for good and evil he could do either quite naturally and then bend his will in the other direction too.

He could not claim to possess the good of his own will, unless he were the kind of creature who could also have possessed evil.

Our most excellent creator wished us to be able to do good, which he also commanded, giving us the capacity to do evil only so that we might do his will by exercising our own.

That being so, this very capacity to do evil is also good - good, because it makes the good part better by making it voluntary and independent, not bound by necessity but free to decide for itself.

We are certainly permitted to choose, oppose, approve, reject, and there is no ground for preferring the rational creature to the others except that, while all the others possess only the good derived from their own circumstances and necessity, it alone possesses the good of free will also.

But most of those who, from lack of faith as much as of knowledge, deplore the status of man, are criticizing God's work and asserting that we ought to have been so made that we could do no evil at all.

And these most shameless of men, while hiding the fact that they are managing quite well with what they have been made, would prefer to have been made otherwise; and so those who are unwilling to correct their own way of life appear to want to correct nature itself instead, the good of which has been so universally established in all that it sometimes reveals itself and brings itself to notice even in pagans who do not worship God.

For how many of the pagan philosophers have we heard and read and even seen for ourselves to be chaste, tolerant, temperate, generous, abstinent and kindly, rejecters of the world's honors as well as its delights, lovers of justice no less than knowledge? Where, I ask you, do these good qualities pleasing to God come to men who are strangers to him? Where can these good qualities come to them, unless it be from the good of their human nature?

If even people without God can show what kind of creatures they were made by God, consider what Christians are able to do, whose nature and life have been instructed for the better by Jesus?

No labor ought to seem too difficult, no time too long to wait, when the prize at stake is nothing less than everlasting glory.

(Adapted from “A Letter to Demetrias” by the monk Pelagius, AD 413)

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Dealing With Anxiety During A Lockdown #JesusFollowers

This is a troubling and anxious time. We're locked down, isolated, lonely, and frequently filled with anxiety about material things and about the future.

Anxiety and people's overall mental well-being are prime concerns for many, as they are home, quarantined, either alone, or with others in close proximity who, frankly, are just as anxious as they are.

But how does our teacher, Jesus, instruct us to handle our anxiety? The question is part of the answer, because we have to see Jesus as a teacher and our master, not as a mere "psychological crutch" or as someone who simply is an "easy fix" for our problems and feelings (as in: "Give it over to Jesus.")

He is just that for many millions - a psychological crutch - which means that other crutches, such as drugs or alcohol, sex, escapism or emotional "highs," are seen as just as easy and sometimes more present substitutes. Of course they aren't, and Jesus shouldn't be filling that role, either.

No, we have to view Jesus as both teacher and master ("lord") in order to find the answers, and we of course do that in his words and teachings, which form the entirety of the Gospel he preached.

Jesus in fact spoke directly about being anxious, saying to his disciples, "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? ... Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all." (Matt. 6:25-31)

Some may say, "That's all well and good, but my life has real problems. Unlike birds, if I don't work, I can't pay bills or put food on the table."

But that misses the point. Jesus often speaks in metaphor, parable, and (in some aspect) exaggeration, such as when he says to pluck out your eye rather than sin by lusting. That's not to say he doesn't mean what he's saying. It means we have to understand what lesson he's teaching, and what methods he's using.

His original call to the disciples was to immediately follow him. They left their jobs to walk with him ... IMMEDIATELY. That doesn't mean Jesus hates working for a living. His father, Joseph, taught him a trade of carpentry, and he likely worked into adulthood in that field, helping to feed his brothers and sisters.

No, Jesus is teaching here that we need to put material things into PERSPECTIVE, and that will relieve our anxiety. The previous verse before this passage was the oft-quoted, "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money." (Matt. 6:24)

As we recently explored, Jesus doesn't hate money, either, he just tells us to put it into perspective, and not idolize it. ("One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions,” he is quoted as saying in the Book of Luke, 12:15)

In the same way, we ought not become overly ANXIOUS about our clothes (are they good enough to impress our neighbors?) our food (are we eating at the 'right' bistro?) or the latest energy drink we're seen drinking. That, as Jesus says, is what the Gentiles (non-followers of Jesus) are doing.

WE, on the other hand, are called by Jesus to tread a higher path  - to channel our anxiety towards positive, Godly outlets. He calls us to put our efforts into serving others, doing good, setting an example of the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus calls us to seek to enter RIGHT NOW, here, among others. We can't do that if we have excess anxiety about material things, or if we're obsessing about our lack of them in our lives.

And our service to others is part of the plan. By treating our neighbors EXACTLY as we would wish to be treated, and by ensuring that they are fed, clothed, housed, and comforted, God is indeed providing, through us, his children.

It is our mission to comfort the anxiety and fears of our neighbors, reassuring them, providing for their needs, and relieving their stresses in this stressful time.

And yes, we need to seek out work, pay the bills, and do what responsible citizens should do, even in these times of quarantine. But we have to realize that if we take Jesus' lessons to heart, and not worry artificially about things that don't matter, all the while seeking to serve others, we will be better off, have far less anxiety, and live in the comfort of the salvation Jesus is unfolding to us through his teachings.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

The Gospel Is Not A "Mystery" (And Never Has Been!) #JesusFollowers

Our Master, Jesus, left us a legacy of hope with his words, his life, his teachings and his death. All remain an example to us of a life lived perfectly for God. In this, Jesus was clear that he was not hiding anything from his disciples. Nor is anything hidden from us, today.

Jesus said: "I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for EVERYTHING that I learned from my Father I have MADE KNOWN to you." (Matt. 15:15)

And Jesus said: "The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven HAS BEEN GIVEN TO YOU." (Matt. 13:11) "Because whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open." (Mark 4:22)

This was not true for some religions of the ancient Roman world in which Jesus lived. For some, faith was built around a "mystery." Priests of these "mystery religions" were charged with revealing the secrets of the gods to those who had been initiated. Only then were these "mysteries" unfolded to the one who had committed to worship the deities that were the focus of those faiths.

But Jesus and HIS Gospel were different.

Jesus revealed ALL THINGS to the world during his lifetime, and did so openly, and to all.

There was nothing that remained hidden, nothing left out. There were no "mysteries" left to unfold or reveal after the ministry of Jesus ended. And certainly nothing that he "forgot" to reveal regarding God and salvation, and how we are to live Godly lives.

Just as he spoke to his disciples, Jesus speaks to us today - through the simple, clear teachings in the Gospels. We follow Jesus and obey God with our eyes wide open, with full understanding, as well as with our hearts and minds.

Jesus calls us to repent of our sins, to seek to live righteously and in a Godly way, to forgive others, to love and pray for our enemies, to do Good Works (in humility) and to love God and serve others in God's name. He says we will be rewarded according to our deeds alone, judged by God alone: we are not to judge ourselves or each other. That, and nothing more, is the Gospel.

The Gospel that Jesus gave us wasn't lacking in anything when his ministry finished with his death on the cross. We need no further explanations, no further revelations, and no interpretations, in order to determine what we must do to please God.

The clarity of Jesus' message is obvious to anyone who reads it. The life, teachings and example of Jesus are a clear window onto the Will of God. There are no dirty windows or "dark," foggy mirrors involved.

Jesus challenges us to do all that God asks of us, and has given us an example we can follow.

He points us to God, calling us to repent of our sinful acts, seek forgiveness, and live the way God wants us to live.

God continues to grant us all the strength, love and support we need to continue growing into Spiritual Completeness and maturity.

We are told by Jesus to "do as I have done" and to "follow my example." We are not to hide our good works under a bushel basket, but to Do Good, and do so in humility, not simply to be seen by others.

And God will be our final judge, not others, and not ourselves.

Accepting this knowledge of God's path which Jesus reveals to us, we are challenged to actively live out this Faith as friends and followers of Jesus.

Let us do so with faith, humility and joyful obedience to God, who sent us Jesus to reveal His will to us!

Sunday, July 5, 2020

How Should We Deal With Money? #JesusFollowers

Money is not evil. The concept of money has existed in every human civilization throughout history. It is useful in Commerce between human beings who trade their skills and products for it.

We certainly cannot look to Jesus to condemn the concept of money. In fact, Jesus says that using money to earn a wage and pay taxes is not wrong.

In the Parable of the Talents, he says putting out money to work for us and even gaining interest isn't wrong, either.

When a group of men were given money, one buried it, two others invested it. Those who used their money for good were praised. The one who hid their money and did nothing with it was condemned for not using the gifts he was given. We, too, must use wisely the gifts we are given, including the money that comes into our (temporary) possession.

And when he is challenged about paying taxes, he does not hesitate to say that the government of his time (the Roman Empire, led by Caesar Augustus) should receive the tax dollars that were due to them.

However, when money becomes an object or an idol that we worship above other things, it becomes something that gets between us and God, and between ourselves and others around us.

Jesus puts money in perspective. He teaches that we must actively lay up heavenly treasures, not earthly ones that don’t last (Matthew 5:44–46.) The race for wealth doesn’t last, but our rewards in Heaven do, if we act in a Godly fashion.

The psalmist says, "if riches increase, set not your heart on them." (62:10) and Jesus warns that riches are not the core of our Being, that we "are more than the sum of our possessions." (Luke 12)

And when Jesus says we may ask ANYTHING of God in prayer, we must understand that a love of money and a love of material things should not enter into that prayer, because that is expressing a greed for material possessions, not a pure love and the balanced understanding of "things" that God wishes us to have.

To know that we are to seek from God only spiritual things that don't rot or fade away, is to know we ought ONLY ask in prayer out of a pure Love for others and for THEIR spiritual well-being (and for our own spiritual completeness) rather than for material riches that aren't helpful to the advancement of God's Kingdom. If money enters our prayers, we make God into nothing more than a Heavenly ATM machine.

Similarly, our life's worth cannot not measured by the things we acquire - not in our material wealth - but in the SPIRITUAL wealth we accrue in Heaven and our spiritual abundance that is nurtured and grown by abiding with God and God's chosen one, Jesus, who is our example in all things financial as well as spiritual.

Like the parable Jesus told in which the proud man had just built large barns for his rapidly expanding possessions, only to die the very next day, we are not to revel in our material wealth, which is fleeting.

The words, life, teachings and death of our Master, Jesus, challenge us to do, to act, to follow, to serve, to be better, to do more, to try harder, to be humble, yet Righteous, to serve God, not money, to lose ourselves and gain eternity. Let's be the example to others in the way in which we handle our money that Jesus is to us!

Sunday, June 28, 2020

We Are Given Moral Freedom By God! #JesusFollowers

Jesus, in the establishment of his religion, did not force his followers to accept him. He taught every essential religious truth, made laws for their behavior, and spoke to them with persuasive words.

He then left them to act freely, so the happiness of his disciples might be the reward of obedience, which flows from an enlightened mind and a teachable attitude.

Our Master exhibited the clearest proof of a divine mission. By his life, he displayed the moral worth of his character. He called on his followers to examine his doctrines, to reflect on his works, and to weigh the actions of his life; and for themselves receive his words, obey his commands, and rely on his promises.

Jesus recognized powers in us to judge the evidence on which his religion is founded, and to perceive that his instructions conformed to the unchangeable laws of truth. A number of important inferences may be drawn from this appeal of our Master to the human mind. One is that religion is a rational and voluntary service.

God has given us the attributes of reason and liberty. These make us the subject of a moral government, and make us capable of virtuous action. Take away these abilities, and we cease to be subject to reward or punishment.

To make any course of action good, in a moral sense, an agent must be conscious of duty, and have the ability and power to do it. 

Actions in which the will of the agent have no place have no virtuous properties; and doing those actions cannot be called "moral." The way in which the human mind is used determines our moral character. Our actions create the morality of human conduct.

Having the Reason to distinguish good from evil, and the liberty to choose the one and refuse the other, make us capable of moral conduct and moral self-government. If our freedom and agency is taken away, we are no better than animals, or we become like mere machines.

It is the duty of human beings to enlighten their minds about religion. To act rationally and freely in the important aspects of our faith, we must know its foundation, and learn its essential truths and duties.

We cannot consistently perform the duties of religion, while ignorant of its first principles, any more than we can converse intelligibly in a language with which we are unacquainted.

(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Aaron Bancroft)