Sunday, August 28, 2016

What is Moral and Right? #JesusFollowers

Morality always supposes rational, intelligent and free beings. In order for any actions to be morally good or evil, they must be capable of being known, and also capable of being chosen or refused.

We perceive in ourselves the powers of thinking, understanding, reasoning, choosing, or refusing. And the Scripture always recognizes these powers within us. 

God says to sinful men through his Prophets: "Repent and turn yourselves from all transgressions, so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby you have transgressed, and make in you a new heart, and a new spirit." (Ezek. 18:30-31)

God speaks to Cain, telling him, “Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen. 4:7)

The word 'morality' is used in two senses: the one more restrained, the other comprehensive. In the restrained sense are included sobriety, justice, equity, goodness and mercy, or the duties more respecting ourselves, others, and our neighbors. In the more enlarged and comprehensive meaning of the word are included not only these duties, but also the duties owed to God.

This comprehensive sense of these terms are morality, virtue, moral righteousness, include all the necessary duties of a rational being, and is the more proper sense of the terms as they are generally used.

The things said to be morally good are reasonable in themselves, according to the case and circumstances which are beings are in, and the relations we have with others. To mention some instances, it's reasonable that a rational and intelligent being should preserve and use his rational powers and not lose the ability to govern himself by being intemperate or by any passions and affections excited by external things, whether good or evil.

It is also worthy of a rational creature that they should, according to their abilities, praise and adore the Author of their being, acknowledging the power, wisdom and goodness of which they see proofs and traces in themselves, and in all things around them; and that they should be thankful to Him for all His benefits and fear and reference Him.

Intelligent beings should also bear good will and kind affection to one another, since they all share in the same powers and benefits and are all exposed to the same weaknesses and wants and are dependent upon one another.

Thus, then, virtue, or moral righteousness, is and appears to be in itself fit and reasonable, and has a tendency to promote the happiness of particular beings and of societies.

This reasonableness of things is itself an obligation, and lays an obligation on every rational being by whom it is perceived. For whatever is fit, reasonable and equitable must be right, and the contrary, wrong.

Virtue, morality, or moral righteousness are therefore things of great importance, encompassing everything that is in itself reasonable: our duty to God and to each other, the duties of every relation, and due regulation of our thoughts and affections, as well as our outward actions.

Even in the more ordinary sense of the expression, it takes in everything that is reasonable, and includes honorable sentiments as well as outward worship and referential expressions about the Deity. It requires also kind affection, as well as good relations with others.

It consists of not only strict justice, but goodness, and mercy, and equity, and even forgiveness of injuries and offenses. For this also is reasonable in a world of creatures that are weak and fallible, who often offend against each other through mistakes or passions.

This law of nature, or reason, teaches repentance to all those who offend, for since virtue is right, whoever has transgressed and has done what's wrong must turn from that course and change it. It's the only way to become good, and become accepted in the sight of the holy, wise and impartial judge of all: God.

The duties of morality, or moral righteousness, are taught also by revelation.

One who has just sentiments of God and a serious regard to moral obligations is in a great measure fit and prepared for revelation, because we must be disposed to pay a regard to one who speaks in the name of God and teaches a doctrine of real holiness.

Jesus says, "If anyone desires to do his will, he will know about the teaching, whether it is from God, or if I am speaking from myself." (John 7:17) And when one acknowledged that there is one God and that "to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbor as himself is more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices." Jesus said that he was "not far from the Kingdom of God." (Mark 12:33.)

Though we don't find the words virtue and vice, moral good and evil in Scripture, it often speaks of good and evil as a truly and intrinsically so, by which the characters of men are distinguished, and not by observing any ritual ordinances.

"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices, says Yahweh... Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me... Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.” (Isaiah 1:11, 13, 17)

Says the Psalmist: "A little that a righteous man has, is better than the riches of the many wicked." (38:16) and "the righteous God loves righteousness, his face sees the upright." (11:7)

Micah writes: “He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does Yahweh require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”(6:8)

These texts speak of justice, mercy and piety as GOOD; intrinsically good, in a superior degree to all sacrifices and oblations.

The righteous - those who practice virtue and true holiness – are seeking to fulfill the will of God. The righteous, the virtuous are acting rightly and with sincerity in their state of trial. They have attained some resemblance of the divine nature and some preparedness for the heavenly state, of which others are lacking.

Those who despise, or speak lightly, of morality should consider that morality, its proper meaning, isn't merely honesty in the ways of this world. Nor is it only outward action. But virtue, or morality, in its comprehensive meaning, takes in the love of God and our neighbor, and everything that is reasonable. Its laws and precepts regulate thoughts, as well as outward actions.

It is true holiness. It is the image of God in man, and it is a worthiness for the rewards and happiness of the next life.

(Adapted from a sermon by Rev. Nathaniel Lardner)

Sunday, August 21, 2016

THE SERMON OF SERMONS - God-Blessed: The Beatitudes #JesusFollowers

This world isn't perfect, by any stretch of the imagination. Sometimes, it’s the opposite of Good. Often, it’s frustratingly bad. When everyone is seemingly coloring outside the lines, swerving into your lane, and making up their own rules as they go along (often hurting us in the process) we have to wonder whether there’s a way we can model Goodness for the world – for our own sakes as well as that of others.

The good news is that we have just such a thing: the teachings of Jesus; namely, the Sermon on the Mount.

If we had nothing of Jesus’ teachings in existence today other than the Sermon of the Mount, we would have almost all we would ever need to live our lives in a way pleasing to God and as an example for others.

These three chapters in the book of Matthew are the very core of Jesus’ message to us. And if we believe that Jesus is the man whom God chose, anointed, and sent out to us to preach how God wishes us to live and love, then these are very important chapters indeed.

The opening lines of the Sermon, the "Beatitudes," are among the best known verses in the Bible.
Many of these we remember from our youth:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matt. 5:2-12)

Some Bible versions translate the word “Blessed” as “Happy” (the Latin word for “happy” actually is “beatitudus,” though of course Jesus didn't call them Beatitudes because he didn't speak Latin.)

But "Happy" really isn't a strong enough word in English to convey what’s meant here. "God-Blessed" may be closer, because Jesus is conveying something important about God and what God does for us.

God blesses those who are weak, who have a broken spirit, who are thirsting for righteousness, yearning for mercy, and who are being reviled, persecuted and abused.

But these statements weren't meant to be passive, cold assurance that ONE DAY our needs would be met by God and God alone. Jesus meant for us to adopt them into our own character, and to guide our actions. Further, they are the basis for the Kingdom of God, which Jesus inaugurated when he began preaching.

These teachings of Jesus are not far-off ideals, or commands we cannot keep. They are clear, bold challenges that God, through His chosen Spokesman, Jesus, tells us we can achieve.

Later in the Sermon, Jesus will tell us we must be perfect (as in perfectly complete and mature) JUST AS God is perfect. (Matt. 5:48) And, in similar language, says, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you DO them.” (John 13:17)

Jesus assures us that while we won’t be immediately morally complete, that isn’t the expectation of God. He assures us that God forgives us when we forgive others for falling short. (Matt. 6:14-15)

And this hints and the second half of each Beatitude, mirroring the pain, suffering, heartache and troubles we suffer with the comfort and love God gives to us, if we only ask Him for it.

Jesus does not allow us to make God the sole comforter, love-giver, and mercy-bestower. We have work to do, as well. Just as we must forgive others to be forgiven, we are to serve others to be served. 

Following the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us that we are to be the salt and light to the world, and that we must  let our light shine before others, so that they will see our good works, and praise our Father in Heaven. (Matt. 5:13-16)

We are clearly called, therefore, to be the hands of Jesus here on earth, bringing in the Kingdom of God here and now. We must do as Jesus did, and even greater things! (John 14:12)

We may draw hope from these teachings of Jesus, and they are living water for us that we can share with others in our daily lives, being the salt and light our world yearns to see.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

THE SERMON OF SERMONS: What Did Jesus Mean? #JesusFollowers

Is religion practical? Does it make sense? Is it supposed to? Did Jesus teach things he meant for us to follow? Or was he teaching for some other reason?

These are important questions when looking at those "red letters" in the Gospel books - the words Jesus spoke to his disciples and the crowds who heard his teachings.

It's important to know, because we need to understand what Jesus meant if we want to understand who he is, his role in history, and what he means to us in our individual lives.

The book of Matthew (chapters 5 through 7) records Jesus’ words in a famous series of chapters known as the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus went up on a small hill and began preaching, and what he said amazed those who heard it. It amazes us, still.

Jesus' teachings were both shocking and clear to those who heard them; startling statements that challenged those who heard him speak.

He started by teaching about the character that God wishes us to have. In these “beatitudes,” Jesus assures us that God sends blessings of comfort, hope, healing, love, and strength, and that God expects us to seek to have that same character by sharing these blessings.

He says we must become both salt and light – spiritually enriching the world by being great moral examples to it - and that we do this by humbly performing righteous works.

He gives us practical teachings on Law, challenging us not to follow the mere letters in God’s Moral Law, but the spirit these Laws seek to regulate within us. Our attitudes towards oaths, marriage and even our dealings with our enemies, he says, ought to be guided by extremely high ideals, not by shallow obedience alone.

We are to do to others what we want done to us, seek spiritual treasures rather than earthly ones, and in our religious life and in our judgment of others, we ought always be humble. 

But just because this challenging sermon seems so challenging, scholars and churchmen throughout history have questioned whether it REALLY should be taken seriously at all.

For example, some have claimed that Jesus' teachings in this sermon were not meant to be followed by those who heard these words, but instead, Jesus simply meant to show us what we COULD NEVER accomplish, because they believe human beings are too evil and misguided to grasp and obey his teachings.

This seems to make Jesus into a mean-spirited and rather cynical teacher - if one could call someone like that a "teacher" at all. And indeed, most who believe this way don't see him as much of a teacher at all, but as someone who’s just teasing (or "convicting") us with high ideals.

This kind of teacher would seem mean and sadistic in a classroom, and insane standing on a hill claiming to be a religious Teacher from God. A teacher who would teach what we cannot follow (and then teach that we'd be punished by God if we didn't!) would be the worst of teachers.

Of course, Jesus never said his teachings were impossible to follow, so we can reject this view when we hear it.

Others claimed these teachings were a list of Laws for a future Kingdom of God – one we haven’t yet seen, even in the Twenty-first Century. But this, too, is wrong, because Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom was present and active during his First Century ministry. It was then and there, and is here and now, for us to make real on THIS earth, by our actions.

Still others go in the other direction, saying his teachings only applied to the Judeans of Jesus' time, and not to ours (so-called "dispensationalism.") Again, this seems very dismissive of someone who claimed to be God’s spokesman, and said that his words would live forever.

So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with a Teacher who taught us some rather clear, basic principles we were meant to take seriously. Challenging? Yes. Startling? In some cases, yes. All of these teachings require thought, prayer and study on the part of those who seek to know and follow Jesus.

But the one thing we cannot do with Jesus' teachings is to discount them, degrade them, or to explain them away as irrelevant or unimportant.

At the end of his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said if we built our faith on the rock of his teachings, and actually put them into practice in our lives, our faith would remain solid when storms came. It would be wise to take his word on this, if we seek to call him our Teacher and Master.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Simple Faith #Jesus Taught! #JesusFollowers

To promote real morality and true piety, we can conceive nothing so well fitted as the simplicity of Jesus - the plain, unequivocal, uninvolved requirement of love to God, tested by love to men and active usefulness in life. 

How utterly simple and plain, how free from all subtlety and dogmatic obscurity, is the teaching of Jesus.

His Sermon on the Mount is indisputable, practical, simple, having no abstruse, remote, or novel concepts. It proclaims no ideas that amaze or confuse, nor does it call for careful consideration on account of its novelty. It is a solemn, searching declaration of the universal religion of humanity. 

In it, he proclaims that God is holy, wise, good; blessed are you if you are pure, meek, hungering for righteousness, and living from the heart pure, useful, holy lives. This is all the doctrine there is in it ; not a word about the nature of the Godhead, the fall of man, the need of the atonement, the deity of Christ, the necessity of baptism and the saving sacrament of the  communion.  

Jesus was no scholar. He spoke the language and the truth and the religion of a simple, deep-thinking representative of universal humanity - true always, everywhere, and for all. There is nothing to add, nothing to take away, nothing to excuse or to explain away in his clear teachings. 

His teachings do not need any changes for the times, or the nation, or the circumstances, to account for them. It is because they give voice to what humanity knows and feels to be deepest and holiest, that they hold the allegiance of the Twenty-first, just as they will for those living of the Thirty-first Century. 

We cannot conceive of anything pertaining to our religious wants or our religious faith that do not already exist in the precepts, spirit, and example of Jesus.

We can very easily make the clear, simple, moral fact precisely what we choose to have it by enough twisted reasoning. And as we consider our consciences, so we are apt to consider our religion. God has pronounced it simple, plain, unmistakable. Jesus has taught and illustrated it in ways a child can understand. But it is so plain that it becomes severe; so simple that it looks cold and hard, like a marble statue.

We often hear the simplicity of Jesus as it reveals itself in the Sermon on the Mount compared disparagingly with the complicated faith of the Nicene Creed. But what can we call “the Christian religion” except that which really adds nothing to the old Jewish and the older natural religion of love to God and love to man, except the example and spirit of Jesus! 

What becomes of the Fall, and the Curse, and the Atonement, and the Sacraments, and the Trinity, and the Deity of Christ, and all the rest of the dogmatic paraphernalia of religion? They become invisible, like candles in the presence of the sun. 

It is the keeping of these great commandments that discloses their richness and fullness. They are simple, few, and concise. But live by them, and you will find that all the bodies of divinity in the world could not contain their lessons, or describe the glorious richness of their contents.

Do not allow yourselves to fall under the dominion of these high-sounding subtleties, these dark dogmas, these involved metaphysical puzzles, which pass for religion and Christianity. They will unsettle your common sense, and fog up your conscience, and finally make you think religion not the plainest thing in the world - a highway, in which the wayfaring man, though a fool, need not err, —but an enigma and a riddle, a sphinx which you must helplessly bow before and adore, though she will answer no question you put to her.

It is not the unknown we can profit by, but the known. It is not the obscure, but the plain, that should have our attention. It takes no learning, no scholarship, no formal logic, no fine-spun reasoning, to know God so far as we need to know Him, as a moral governor and Father of our spirits; to know Jesus as a holy, gentle, and wise master and guide of character; to know our duty well enough to live chastely, truthfully, honestly, with mercy and sympathy.

(Adapted from a sermon by Dr. Henry W. Bellows)