October 18, 2017- Double Standards- Matthew 23:1-4

Double Standard

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” Matthew 23:1-4 (NRSV)

We all remember double standards as we were growing up. Kids had to be in bed by 8:30, but Mom and Dad could stay up as late as they wanted. (Now we know that Mom and Dad would have rather been in bed by 8:30 themselves, but there’s too much work to be done to go to bed that early!)  Kids had to sit at the kids’ table with all the other screaming rugrats to eat holiday meals, and kids had to wait to be excused to get up from the table no matter how annoying, obnoxious and loud the other kids were.  Adults got to sit at the civilized adult table, and got to get up from the table when they were done eating.

More than once I heard, “Do what I say, not what I do,” from my parents and grandparents. We know what we should do, but actually doing it is quite another thing. Nobody likes being on the short end of a double standard.  Double standards offend our sense of justice.

I am sure that the people listening to Jesus that day as He was telling them to do what the scribes and Pharisees teach them to do probably were rolling their eyes. There were probably people who were thinking in the back of their heads, “Why should I listen to so-and-so about this or that rule when so-and-so doesn’t follow it himself?”

Jesus had some of his most harsh critique for the religious authorities- the scribes and Pharisees. In many instances he spoke more highly and with more compassion toward tax collectors and prostitutes than he did of those who should be living by the rules.  It’s easy to tell other people what to do and what standards are expected of them.  It’s not so easy to apply those standards to ourselves first.

God put His rules in place for us for our own protection, to set boundaries around our behavior so that we don’t cause harm to ourselves or others. Rules were not meant to be oppressive or punitive, but protective.

Every human being alive today is a sinner and a hypocrite, including those in leadership in the church, and in secular government. However, it is important that those who are in leadership pay special attention to the standards they wish to impose upon others.  Leaders are called to be good examples and should strive to live by the standards they teach and expect of others first.

One of the important concepts of the Reformation was the realization that everyone who follows Jesus should be held to the same standards- not one set of rules for the ruling class, and another set of rules for everyone else.

If we are to look at Jesus’ example and if we are to follow Him, shouldn’t we as His followers make it easier for each other to live in ways that honor Him, rather than piling on the burdens and doing nothing to help each other?

October 17, 2017- Charlatans, Hucksters and Thieves- 2 Timothy 4:2-4

want to hear

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. 2 Timothy 4:2-4 (NRSV) 

Urban legend has it that P.T. Barnum once said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Whether this quote can actually be credited to Barnum or not, sadly it is true that human beings can be gullible.  We like quick fixes and instant gratification. We like to look good and appear to be free of any problems or struggles.

In the early 1500s there was a Franciscan friar named Johann Tetzel who was exceedingly well known for selling indulgences, which were special “get out of purgatory free” notes, to anyone who had the cash to spring their dead relatives out of purgatory, or to purchase their own speed pass to heaven.

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!”- Johann Tetzel

Tetzel worked for the archbishop of Mainz. The archbishop- Tetzel’s boss- had gotten to his position by culling expensive favors from friends in high places. He needed money to repay his debts, as well as money to send to the Pope in Rome for the expensive construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.  What better way to raise money than to appeal to the fears of the masses, who had never heard the real message of the Gospel?  The saddest thing about these shady deals- selling indulgences and saint’s bones and other supposed relics- is that the Pope was all for it.  The Pope was behind the charlatans and hucksters, and the money they brought in.  Keeping the average person ignorant and failing to teach the true Christian message ensured a ready-made clientele for the indulgence and relic trade.

Tetzel and those like him were instrumental in firing up the ire of those who wanted reformation and restoration in the Church- most notably Martin Luther, who detested the sale of indulgences and who was determined to stop the fleecing of the flock.

The sale of indulgences capitalized on the man-made myth of purgatory, which is a concept in which we have to contribute to good works and/or do penance to “clean us up” completely so we can get into heaven. The good news of Scripture is that our salvation and life are in found in the Three Solas- or three “Onlys:”- Christ alone, Faith alone, and Scripture alone- and we can’t earn or deserve our way into heaven. But human beings are stubborn and sometimes we don’t get- or don’t want to believe- the right messages. We have modern equivalents to Johann Tetzel and his fellow religious snake oil salesmen today in televangelists and charlatans who try to sell a prosperity Gospel.  Who hasn’t tuned in to early morning televangelism and heard phrases such as, “Just buy this prayer cloth and God will send you a miracle!” or “Send us ‘seed money’ for your financial breakthrough!”?

God isn’t a vending machine. He answers prayer in His own way and time, and buying prayer cloths or giving money to a fly by night televangelist isn’t going to influence God in the least. There is only one way to salvation, life and peace, which is the way of the Cross. The way that Jesus took for us, the way that only Jesus was qualified to take.

The real message of the Gospel is radical. It brings us to the Cross. It takes us to the heart of Jesus. It leaves no room for profiteering or personal graft.  We give to God and others in response to all that God has already freely given us, and we trust that He provides for our every need.

October 16, 2017- The Priesthood of Believers, Called to Be “Little Christs”- 1 Peter 2:9, Matthew 16:18-19

priesthood of believers.jpg

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,  in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 1 Peter 2:9 (NRSV)

(Jesus said): “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:18-19 (NRSV)

In the Matthew passage, Jesus was addressing His disciples (plural) who were gathered with Simon Peter.  The name Peter means “rock.”  Even though Jesus called Simon by the name Peter, in this passage He wasn’t just addressing Simon Peter, or referring to him alone as the “rock,” but he included all the disciples as well.  The slight misinterpretation of taking the “you” of this passage to be singular rather than plural led to the establishment of the Roman Catholic papacy and of a concept called apostolic succession.

The difference between the priesthood of believers, in which every member of the Body of Christ is intended to be and invited to be the rock upon which Jesus builds His church, and apostolic succession (authority and leadership is concentrated in the hands of One Guy) is a very important distinction.

In human history it never fails that when power is concentrated in the hands of one person (dictatorship) or held by a small group of select people who share a like mind (oligarchy) that power will be misused. Absolute power, as the expression goes, corrupts absolutely.  Human beings are by our very nature, fallible (prone to error) and in need of correction.  We need community. We need to act as checks and balances on each other.  The “Great Experiment” of American government (still fallible, but in many ways self-righting) is based on the concept of government by consent of the governed, and on the premise that all people have a role in government and in the community.

In the Roman Catholic teaching of apostolic succession, the declaration to the disciples  regarding both the establishment of the Church and the authority to bind and loose (known as the office of the keys) is taken to mean a singular rather than plural “you,” and was interpreted to mean Jesus was only addressing the apostle Simon Peter and not the other disciples.  So in Catholicism, the Pope is considered to be a direct spiritual descendant of the apostle Peter, as Peter is considered to be the first Pope.  This keeps the line of authority firmly in the hands of One Guy- the Pope.

The Pope was considered to be the “Vicar of Christ.” A rule was set down making him a sort of “substitute Jesus” here on earth. The Pope was considered to be infallible, meaning he was not capable of being wrong or of making an error. Unfortunately the only person who ever lived who could claim to be infallible is Jesus Himself.

Throughout the history of the Church, (and to this day, we as Lutherans share common history and many, but not all, doctrines with the Roman Catholic Church) the doctrines of papal infallibility and apostolic succession have proved time and time again to be rather damaging. Many Popes in early Church history were thoroughly corrupt and more concerned with secular politics and building their own wealth than with being Jesus followers here on earth.

Under the government of the Popes – with One Guy in charge rather than all believers contributing to the growth and development of the Church- the Gospel got lost in a lot of man-made rules and silly superstitions. The average person couldn’t read the Bible in his or her own language.  The knowledge of Scripture was reserved for the priests and monks- who could interpret it in any way they pleased, or not interpret it properly at all.   The Church claimed authority over granting absolution (forgiveness of sins) rather than acknowledging the truth that Jesus had already paid the price for our sins, and that our forgiveness is entirely a free gift from Him.

By the time the sixteenth century rolled around, the Church was full of profiteers and others who had completely gotten out of touch with the original message of the Gospel. The small misinterpretations of the doctrines of the priesthood of believers (the call to be the Body of Christ, and to embrace Jesus as our Savior is for ALL Jesus followers, and is not determined on the authority just one human, fallible guy) and the office of the keys (the authority to bind and loose, aka: make rules for the Church) led to countless abuses of power and severely weakened the Church and its mission in the world.

This was the primary and the most radical premise of the Reformation- that ALL people are invited into the Body of Christ, and to BE the Church. It’s all about Jesus, and not about one, human, fallible guy being in control.

ALL believers have the power to interpret and live out their calling as the Holy Spirit leads them.

Jesus died on the Cross to save us from sins.  At His death the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple was torn in two- (Matthew 27:50-52) and the Holy Spirit was set loose over all the earth. We no longer needed a priest as a mediator, because Jesus became our Mediator. We are free to go directly to Him with anything, any time, all the time.

ALL believers have the authority to be as Martin Luther put it, “Little Christs,” doing Jesus’ work here on earth- forgiving, healing, restoring, and letting the Holy Spirit work in and through us.

October 13, 2017 -Surrender Our Burdens, His Yoke is Easy, Come to the Table- Matthew 11:27-29

burdened.jpg

(Jesus said): “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Matthew 11:27-29 (NRSV)

The Sacrament gives us life-giving healing, comfort and rest. Like manna given from heaven to the Israelites in the desert, Jesus gives us sustenance and life and renewal for this journey on earth when we come together as a community to share His Body and Blood.

We all carry the burden of our sins, our sorrows, our trials and the weariness of living life on this earth. When we come to the table we are given a precious gift- Jesus in the flesh- taking our burdens and carrying them along with us.  The illustration of taking on a yoke implies that it is far easier to pull a load with two or more oxen rather than by only one.  When Jesus is walking with us, and we are (figuratively) yoked to Him, our burdens may not disappear, but they will be lighter and more bearable.  He gets us through our struggles and delivers us from the ones that would destroy us.  In the Sacrament of the Altar He comes to us in the most intimate way- His Body and Blood literally become part of us, body and soul.

While we should examine our hearts and minds before we come to the table and we should acknowledge and confess our sins, we need to come to the table to be nourished- and often, precisely because we cannot live up to God’s perfect standards.

We also come to the table in faith. Even though we really don’t understand the whole mystery of how Jesus comes to us in the Sacrament, we take him at His word. When He says, “this IS My Body, given for you,” and “this IS My Blood, shed for you,” Jesus means what He says.

For here He offers to us the entire treasure which He has brought for us from heaven, and to which He invites us also in other places with the greatest kindness, as when He says in St. Matthew 11, 28: Come unto Me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…– from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Luther’s Large Catechism

For if you would wait until you are rid of such burdens, that you might come to the Sacrament pure and worthy, you must forever stay away. For in that case He pronounces sentence and says: If you are pure and godly, you have no need of Me, and I, in turn, none of thee. Therefore those alone are called unworthy who neither feel their infirmities nor wish to be considered sinners. – from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Luther’s Large Catechism

October 11, 2017 – The Command and the Promise- 1 Corinthians 11:23-25, Leviticus 17:11

holy-communion_image

“For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 1 Corinthians 11:23-25 (NRSV)

Therefore such people must learn that it is the highest art to know that our Sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness. For we are not baptized because we are worthy and holy, nor do we go to confession because we are pure and without sin, but the contrary because we are poor miserable men and just because we are unworthy; unless it be someone who desires no grace and absolution nor intends to reform.

But whoever would gladly obtain grace and consolation should impel himself, and allow no one to frighten him away, but say: I, indeed, would like to be worthy, but I come, not upon any worthiness, but upon Thy Word, because Thou hast commanded it, as one who would gladly be Thy disciple, no matter what becomes of my worthiness. But this is difficult; for we always have this obstacle and hindrance to encounter, that we look more upon ourselves than upon the Word and lips of Christ. For nature desires so to act that it can stand and rest firmly on itself, otherwise it refuses to make the approach. Let this suffice concerning the first point.

In the second place, there is besides this command also a promise, as we heard above, which ought most strongly to incite and encourage us. For here stand the kind and precious words: This is My body, given for you. This is My blood, shed for you, for the remission of sins. These words, I have said, are not preached to wood and stone, but to me and you; else He might just as well be silent and not institute a Sacrament. Therefore consider, and put yourself into this YOU, that He may not speak to you in vain. – from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Martin Luther’s Large Catechism

The Sacrament of the Altar holds both a commandDo this in remembrance of Me – and a promiseThis cup is the new covenant in My Blood.

The concept of blood sacrifice seems rather raw and primal in the modern age. We have distanced ourselves as much as we humanly can from the processes of life that are raw, dirty or “icky.”  We keep death itself behind closed hospital doors, and the mourning of the dead to a carefully orchestrated display in a funeral home that often involves the deceased, heavily reconstructed and made over, laid out in an open coffin so that he or she looks to be sleeping.  In American culture, even in death the subliminal message is to deny the reality and finality of death. (For an interesting aside on American funerary practices, The American Way of Death, written by Jessica Mitford is quite an eye opener.)

The slaughter of animals for our food is kept to industrial warehouses behind closed doors where none but the workers who work the line see the death or the gore or the blood. Even in the somewhat recent past, farming families butchered their own cattle, hogs and chickens, so there was some knowledge that our meat- which is sustenance for our own lives- comes from another living creature who had to die.  Today a child would be hard pressed to make the correlation between that tasty plate of chicken nuggets and a live chicken.

So we encounter Jesus’ command and His promise in the Last Supper, especially that creepy sounding business about blood, and we really don’t understand how to process it.

For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement. Leviticus 17:11 (NRSV)

The key to understanding the importance of  blood sacrifice for atonement of sins is in the old sacrificial system of the Jews. The blood is the life.  So when the Jews made sacrifices of animals to atone for their sins, they were foreshadowing the One Sacrifice that would cover our sin once and for all.

We are commanded to come to the table, to take the Body of Christ into our bodies, and to drink the Blood of Christ that was shed for the forgiveness of our sins. We are commanded not because we are worthy, or because we understand how it works, but precisely because we aren’t worthy and can’t make ourselves worthy.  We are able to come to the table to take and eat, and take and drink because Jesus IS worthy, and He IS telling us to.

October 10, 2017- The Passover Lamb, Given for Us, Exodus 12:1-13

passover lamb

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt:  This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.  Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats.  You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the Lord.  For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. Exodus 12:1-13 (NRSV)

 On the first day of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Where do you want us to make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?”  He said, “Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, ‘The Teacher says, My time is near; I will keep the Passover at your house with my disciples.’” So the disciples did as Jesus had directed them, and they prepared the Passover meal. Matthew 26:17-19 (NRSV)

 While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:26-28 (NRSV)

 The Last Supper takes place as Jesus and His disciples are celebrating the Passover. There are many parallels between the Passover and Jesus’ institution of the Sacrament of the Altar, so it was fitting that Jesus instituted this Sacrament as part of the fulfillment of the covenant between God and man.

A lamb without blemish is to be sacrificed. Not a defective lamb that would have been culled anyway, but a perfect lamb is to be offered.  Jesus was the only acceptable sacrifice for God, because He was sinless and without blemish.

When Jesus speaks of His Blood being poured out as the new covenant, it is His Blood poured out for us that takes away our sin- we are no longer subject to the penalty for our sin. We are passed over, just as the Israelites were passed over by the Angel of Death when they put the lamb’s blood on the door frames of their homes.

For the Lord will pass through to strike down the Egyptians; when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over that door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you down. Exodus 12:23 (NRSV)

The beauty of the Sacrament (as it is the fulfillment of the Passover celebration) is that Jesus invites us to the table often. Not just once a year, but as the needs of the people dictate.  In some churches Communion is celebrated monthly, or even at every service. He knows that we need His healing and sustenance on a regular basis, even as we pray, “Give us our daily bread.”

And we have, in the first place, the clear text in the very words of Christ: Do this in remembrance of Me. These are bidding and commanding words by which all who would be Christians are enjoined to partake of this Sacrament. Therefore, whoever would be a disciple of Christ, with whom He here speaks, must also consider and observe this, not from compulsion, as being forced by men, but in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to please Him. However, if you say: But the words are added, As oft as ye do it; there He compels no one, but leaves it to our free choice, answer: That is true, yet it is not written that we should never do so. Yea, just because He speaks the words, As oft as ye do it, it is nevertheless implied that we should do it often; and it is added for the reason that He wishes to have the Sacrament free, not limited to special times, like the Passover of the Jews, which they were obliged to eat only once a year, and that just upon the fourteenth day of the first full moon in the evening, and which they must not vary a day. As if He would say by these words: I institute a Passover or Supper for you which you shall enjoy not only once a year, just upon this evening, but often, when and where you will, according to every one’s opportunity and necessity, bound to no place or appointed time… from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Martin Luther’s Large Catechism

 

 

 

 

October 9, 2017- This IS…My Body, This IS…My Blood, Matthew 26:26-28

bread and wine

While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.”  Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you;  for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Matthew 26:26-28 (NRSV)

One of the smallest words in the English language can be one of the most expansive: the word “is.”

When we as English speakers read the Bible we need to take care that the message in Scripture doesn’t get lost in our translations. Many thoughts expressed in the Hebrew or Greek languages are difficult to pin down in English.  The English word “love” for example, has many shades of meaning depending on the context- “love” as in, “I love this fish sandwich,” or “I love art,” or “I love the human race,” or “I love you and want to marry you,” use different meanings of the same word.  Hopefully nobody wants to marry a fish sandwich- but here is the difficulty of translation.

We must be careful when we read and interpret Scripture, and be mindful of the translations we use, especially if we do not speak or understand the original languages. We need to be sure we understand what the writers meant and that the translations are saying what God was saying through those writers.   The Holy Spirit is ready and willing to guide us if we ask Him for help in rightly interpreting and applying God’s Word.

There isn’t any confusion on the meaning of the word “is” as Jesus used it when He said, “Take and eat, this IS My Body,” and “Take and drink, this IS My Blood.”  The word “is” means exactly what Jesus said.

The Sacrament of the Altar – or Communion- in the Lutheran understanding, takes Jesus at His word. He IS present in, with and through the bread and wine.  When we partake of the Sacrament (the Word combined with the physical elements of bread and wine) we are taking in and taking part in His Body and Blood.

In some traditions Communion is merely taken as symbolism- something you do because Jesus did it at the Last Supper, but for Lutheran Christians the Sacrament of the Altar is much more than just sharing a piece of bread and a shot of wine or grape juice.

Martin Luther wrote extensively on the value of coming to the Communion table, and the importance of remembering that the ability to share in the Body and Blood of Christ is a gift of grace to us. While it is good for us to come to the table understanding why and what benefit it is for us, we can’t really completely “be worthy” or “get it.”  We have to trust that God is at work in and through the elements, and that we are worthy because Jesus said so, because He is the one extending the invitation to “take and eat.”

Now, what is the Sacrament of the Altar!

Answer: It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in and under the bread and wine which we Christians are commanded by the Word of Christ to eat and to drink. And as we have said of Baptism that it is not simple water, so here also we say the Sacrament is bread and wine, but not mere bread and wine, such as are ordinarily served at the table, but bread and wine comprehended in, and connected with, the Word of God.

It is the Word (I say) which makes and distinguishes this Sacrament, so that it is not mere bread and wine, but is, and is called, the body and blood of Christ. For it is said: Accedat verbum ad elementum, et At sacramentum. If the Word be joined to the element it becomes a Sacrament. This saying of St. Augustine is so properly and so well put that he has scarcely said anything better. The Word must make a Sacrament of the element, else it remains a mere element. Now, it is not the word or ordinance of a prince or emperor, but of the sublime Majesty, at whose feet all creatures should fall, and affirm it is as He says, and accept it with all reverence fear, and humility.

With this Word you can strengthen your conscience and say: If a hundred thousand devils, together with all fanatics, should rush forward, crying, How can bread and wine be the body and blood of Christ? etc., I know that all spirits and scholars together are not as wise as is the Divine Majesty in His little finger. Now here stands the Word of Christ: Take, eat; this is My body; Drink ye all of it; this is the new testament in My blood, etc. Here we abide, and would like to see those who will constitute themselves His masters, and make it different from what He has spoken. It is true, indeed, that if you take away the Word or regard it without the words, you have nothing but mere bread and wine. But if the words remain with them as they shall and must, then, in virtue of the same, it is truly the body and blood of Christ. For as the lips of Christ say and speak, so it is, as He can never lie or deceive. – from the explanation of the Sacrament of the Altar, Luther’s Large Catechism

The simple answer to why we take Communion is because Jesus IS present. He is one with the elements that we consume, and He becomes part of us.  In the Sacrament of the Altar, we literally take Him in.