Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Prodigal Son and God's Merciful Justice #JesusFollowers

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus teaches us that we are to rejoice and be accepting of those among us who return after wronging us. The parable also teaches us that God is ready and waiting for those who return to the path of righteousness.

In the parable, a son asks for his inheritance early and goes away, only to squander it on lustful living. He exhausts his money and returns to his father's house, seeking a job as a servant. But the father, even before he reaches his gate, runs out to greet him, and immediately forgiving him, prepares a feast for him.

In this way, Jesus teaches us to endlessly and without hesitation forgive others, in the same way God forgives those who return to him in repentance. When asked how many times we must forgive others, Jesus said "70 times 7 times."

Our repentance for our sins - just as the boy who return to his father - satisfies any Justice God requires for transgressing his moral Law, because God is not a monster, but a loving Parent who wants us to live in peace with Him and with our fellow human beings.

Mercy is given by God to those who ask for forgiveness and accept it. That's the contract; that's the "price" to be paid, just as the price the Prodigal Son paid was returning to his father in humility.

The first and most solemn declaration of God to Moses (Exodus 34:6-7) is that of "God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering - forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin." David constantly prays for the pardon of sin, for God's "mercy's sake," (Psalms 44:26) and finds forgiveness for his sins upon repentance, living thereafter with "clean hands" before God (2 Samuel 22:21.) In the story of Jonah, that God is shown to be merciful to Nineveh if only they repented from their sins (Jonah 4:1.)

But the way Forgiveness, Justice and Mercy are understood by many Christians would force us to radically re-tell the parable, because, like Jonah, some Christians are very angry that God so easily forgives.

Seeking inspiration not from Jesus' teachings, but from angry medieval lawyers and kings, they create a doctrine of God's Justice the enemy of God's Mercy in which God CANNOT simply forgive without a blood sacrifice - someone MUST pay the "price" for a sin. But God's mercy isn't the enemy of God's forgiveness. Both exist in equal measure in the heart of our loving God.

In their telling of the story, the Prodigal Son's vengeful father would have stopped the boy at his gates and then demanded that his eldest son be slaughtered in order to satisfy the sins of the youngest who sinned against his father. Only then, when the elder son's blood was spilled, would the payment be accepted.

This may have been a perfectly reasonable way to achieve justice in the ancient world, but if we put our belief solely in Jesus' teachings, and not in other mens', we know that this is not how God shows Mercy OR Justice.  While we may decide that some people do not deserve God's mercy, and must first "pay a price" for falling short of His high standards, God does not condemn based on our whims or theories about who is "in" and who is "out" of his loving embrace, either now or eternally.

"I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy," God tells Moses. "And I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion." (Exodus 33:19)

In the parable, even when the son "was yet a great way off," the father ran to meet him, and "fell upon his neck and kissed him" (Luke 15:20.) When Jesus calls us to forgive others as God has forgiven us, does that mean we have a duty to exact a blood payment from those whom WE wish to forgive? The opposite is true. We must forgive 70x7 times, joyfully and without hesitation.

God cannot be held to our human standards of how Justice and Mercy should work. And we should be extremely grateful for that.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Consistent Life #JesusFollowers

A life truly worth living is the Christian life, formed humbly after the pattern of the Life of Jesus. Such a life must be one of daily battle, and conquest of self, and of all which keeps us back from holiness, without which no one can see God.

Such a life requires courage, self-denial, and self-sacrifice. The Christian life is essentially a working life, the idle Christian should change his name. Our religion is one of active work, not of dreamy contemplation.

Unfortunately, there are many among us who are playing at religion instead of working at it. There are too many idle Christians around us.

There are plenty of people who are willing to be saved, provided that they have nothing to do in the matter; and quite ready to go to Heaven, if God will carry them there without any effort on their own part. Too many of us wish to profess a religion which costs nothing, no work, no time, no money

The average so-called Christian of today wants their religion made very easy, because they are idle.

If people really believed religion is the one concern of life, and all other things but trifles in comparison, they would find no work for God too hard, no self-denial too severe, no offering to Jesus half sufficient.

Every Christian admits that the life of Christ is the model of the life which they should try to live; and that the teachings of the Gospel should be the rule of their conduct. And yet how utterly different is the life of the average professing Christian from that laid down in the Gospel!

There we read of a life dedicated to God's service, where His will is the rule and mainspring of all our actions, where the best of our time, our work, our thought, is given to doing what God would have us to do. Such is the Christian life as shown in the Gospels.

We are asked to demonstrate our faith not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to God's service, and by walking before Him in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life. And yet what do most of us give up for Him?

So much of our so-called religion is not religion at all, but merely a sort of fashion. People want to have their religious duties made easy for them, although they profess to belong to the same Church as Jesus and the first apostles. 

We can scarcely imagine Saint Peter staying away from God's House because it rained. We can scarcely picture the holy women, whose praise is in the Gospel, refusing to attend a service because their clothes were not good enough, or because the service interfered with their dinner hour.

But, some may say, times are so different now, habits and customs have so changed. Yes, but the Gospel has not. Men and women change, fashions alter, but Christ does not change, nor does His Gospel alter.

If the Gospel was right in the first century, it is right in the twenty-first century. Either we believe what our Lord says in his Gospel, or not; if we do believe, how can we reconcile the life of the average Christian with that teaching?

People will read about Christ, talk about Christ, sing about Christ, preach about Christ, anything but live like Christ.

The one object of a true life is to follow the example of Jesus every day, and everywhere, in our work, in our words, in our dealings with our fellow human beings. We should look on the example of Jesus as living, and as set forth not in a dead letter, but in a living Gospel.

You can choose the Gospel according to selfishness, or the gospel according to pride, or according to money, but it will not be the Gospel according to God, and it will not show you the way to Heaven.

Try to make your life in keeping with the teaching of Jesus' Gospel. Let your work be such that you can pray about it without blasphemy. Let it be of such a sort that you need not fear to know that it is noted in God's book. 

Let us be honest, and say either, “This Gospel is not for us, I cannot live the life laid down by it, and I do not wish to live it,” or let us resolve, by God's help, to lead a more consistent life, to make the Will of God, as revealed by His Son, the guide of our every act, so that we may say with truth, "Master, I will follow You, wherever you go.”

(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. H.J. Wilmot Buxton, 1882)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

33 #ThingsJesusNeverSaid [#JesusFollowers]

Recently, the hashtag #ThingsJesusNeverSaid trended on Twitter. Its original intent was politically motivated, to "prove" that Jesus took this or that political stand against some of today's Christians.

Of course that ironically spoke volumes about what Jesus REALLY never said, what he actually said, and what his ministry was all about.

Some preachers today don’t spend much time on the actual words and teachings of Jesus, relying instead on later theologians and others who never met or walked with him to come up with their beliefs.

From this, they have developed often complicated doctrines that we are told we MUST accept to be “saved” both here and in the afterlife, and to live eternally with God. But Jesus taught a far simpler Gospel – one of love service to others and love of God, rejecting the empty doctrines of his day.

So in the spirit of Jesus’ teachings, let’s take a look at 33 #ThingsJesusNeverSaid, and as you read them, ask yourself, “Am I hearing these in MY church?” And if you are, WHY are you hearing things that are often DIRECTLY opposed to that what Jesus actually taught?

Feel free to cut/paste these and re-tweet these, and if you think Jesus actually DID say one of these, please post the chapter and verse so we can correct it!

1. "Don't bother going about doing Good Works.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

2. "Your pretty words and lengthy confessions alone will save you." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

3. "God wants you to be RICH, so pursue earthly treasures!" #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

4. "Ignore the hungry, the poor, the ill-housed and ill-clothed." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

5. “You’re allowed to hate people.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

6. "Following me will always be easy." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

7. “I want you to turn everything I say into a political issue.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

8. "God doesn't care how you live your lives." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

9. "I will build my MegaChurch." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

10. "Pray loudly in church, so you can be seen by others." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

11. "A 'Jesus Prayer' will get you into Heaven. Immediately." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

12. "You won't be judged according to your works." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

13. "You must have a strong, contemporary music program." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

14. “If you follow me, you’re guaranteed to never get sick or have health problems.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

15. "I'm returning again to rule as a worldwide dictator in about 2,000 years." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

16. "Rely on Grace and Faith Alone." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

17. “Surround yourself with people who can help your career and are always positive.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

18. “God isn’t allowed to forgive your sins unless he kills me first.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

19. “Following me means never being persecuted or treated badly.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

20. "Follow me, and you can remain just as you are." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

21. “Don’t bother obeying my words, they weren’t meant for you in modern times.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

22. “If you didn’t have an emotional experience, you didn’t REALLY worship God.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

23. “When someone insults you, it’s okay to hit them back!” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

24. “God loves you based on how much you donate to the church.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

25. "A 'canned food drive' once a year should cover all the poor's needs." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

26. "Sinning is a hereditary condition, causing you to be unable to obey God.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

27. “Ignore my teachings, just believe things ABOUT me that will be taught by others.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

28. "Repentance is not necessary to please God." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

29. "The arrogant and prideful will inherit the earth." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

30. "God is composed of three distinct Persons – and I’m one of them.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

31. “Feel free to quote my words to score political points.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

32. “The Ten Commandments were for the old days. You don’t have to follow them.” #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

33. "Going to church is not about God, it’s a social event designed for your entertainment." #ThingsJesusNeverSaid

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Can Our "Yes" Mean "Yes"? #JesusFollowers

We can all cite many examples of those who do not follow through on their promises.

Spouses lie and cheat and marriages fall apart at the first sign of discomfort because we feel our promises aren't important. Business partners or co-workers break their word. Politicians frequently don't live up to their oaths of office; and neighbors and friends break their word and fail to arrive when they say they will, or do not back us up when we need them.

Jesus frequently elaborated on the Laws of Moses, telling those who would hear him that while most of them were following the LETTER of the Law, they were ignoring the SPIRIT of them. One such case was when Jesus spoke of oath-taking.

He said: "Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.' But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything more than this comes from evil." (Matt. 5:33-5:37.)

Arguably one of the most important things to Jesus was truth. "The Truth shall set you free," (John 8:32) wasn't just a throw-away line. He is repeatedly saying, "Truly, truly I say to you."

In the Parable of the Sower, it's the one who heard the word with an honest heart that brought forth good fruit with perseverance (Luke 8:15.) His disciples at one point said to him, "Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully" (Matt. 22:16)

So if we believe this along with the disciples, we must believe that telling the truth was very important to Jesus. Simply swearing with one's mouth wasn't enough for him. It's easy to swear and then break your word. It's better, he said, to keep one's word without needing oath at all. And this makes sense. After all, who would force someone to take an oath if they had a reputation for always the truth?

This must have shocked some of those who heard Jesus. He had a way of saying things that were at first shocking and challenging. Some of his parables were not quickly understood. His call to be more righteous than the Pharisees wasn't a condemnation of evil people but a call to live more honestly than they had done (remember that he also said people should do as they say, but not as they do.)

But we can't fail to have high standards just because most people don't always uphold them. 

If we look around we can see many who are seeking to be honest - those who keep their word, even when it hurts them to do so (Psalms 15:4.) Parents who teach their children to be honest and to never steal; shop owners who treat their customers and employees fairly, juries and judges who are truly impartial, business people who honor their commitments when it would be easy not to.

There are many who commit to keeping their "Yes" meaning "Yes" even without being forced to take oaths. THIS is the spirit Jesus wants us to have towards honesty!

And we can't doubt that such a strong commitment to honestly as Jesus holds up to us is possible, because Jesus has said God wishes us to live that way, and we have promised to follow our Master.

The Good News is that Jesus, himself lived this way sets for us an example - an example we know we can follow because he did it first. Let us hold his words, life and example as our high standard for honesty!