Sunday, March 27, 2005

Sermon on John 20:1-18

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The sermon text for this Easter Sunday is the Gospel reading.

Dark was that first Easter morn when Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb. A chill of fear and disillusionment hung over the hearts of Mary and the disciples. Tears tried to express what words could not, as they struggled to understand how God could take away the One whom they had loved so much. How could God take Him away when Jesus was in the flower of youth? He still had so much to accomplish, so many to teach. What now were they to think of Jesus’ promises of giving eternal life by faith in Him? It was in this despair and uncertainty that Mary and the others came to the tomb that Easter morning.

But when Peter and John had gone away, and Mary was left weeping by the tomb, two angels appeared within the tomb and said to her, “Woman, why are you crying?” She answered, “They have taking my Lord away, and I don’t know where they have put him.” She, as well as the disciples, was looking for a dead body. She was crying because she wanted to care for His dead body. And then, “she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, (alive!) but did not realize that it was Jesus. ‘Woman’ he said, ‘Why are you crying? Who do you seek?’ Thinking He was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have put Him, and I will take Him up.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’ She turned toward Him and cried out in Aramaic, ‘Rabboni!’ (which means Teacher).”

The question that rings in my ears is Jesus’ question, “Who do you seek?” Mary and the disciples were believers in Jesus, but they did not yet understand whom they were seeking. They were looking among the dead, for the Living One. They were looking for a corpse, for they didn’t yet understand from the Scripture that it was necessary for Jesus to rise from the dead. You believers gathered here today, “Who do you seek?” We, thankfully, have the benefit of 2,000 years of hindsight, so we should have a clear idea of whom we seek. We do not seek a dead Jesus, but a living One! We are here this Easter Sunday because we seek the One Man who can give US a resurrection because He did it first and for us. But there are probably some of us here, who don’t even know whom they seek, or why. You may not have even come seeking anything. But Jesus knows. In fact, it was Jesus who sought each one of us.

Mary was seeking Jesus, but she didn’t know what she was looking for. But Jesus knew. When He asked her, “Who do you seek?” It wasn’t because He didn’t know. It was because He was seeking her. And with one Word, He called her by name, ‘Mary.’ He sought her, and found her, and suddenly her eyes were open, and the fear and doubt was shattered. Joy filled her heart and all she could say was ‘Rabboni! Teacher!’ Her eyes were opened and she saw her Lord for who He truly was, the Risen Son of God. And so also it is with each of us. He sought us. He came looking for each one of us, and called us by name—Joshua, (fill in a few names from congregation). And for those who weren’t seeking anything, or don’t know what or who they seek, Jesus is here calling. Calling your name, because He is always seeking lost sheep to bring into His kingdom. Seeking us all, because He knows our needs and well provides them.

How often do we find ourselves living in uncertainty and fear, like the disciples? How often do we live or act as if we don’t know where Jesus has gone? Jesus had told His disciples over and over, that He must die and in three days be raised again. But they didn’t listen or understand. The reason they were so worried and fearful was because they didn’t believe His promises. And they weren’t looking for Him where He promised to be found. They should have known where to find Him, 3 days after His death. Not in His tomb, but as He said, “After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Matt. 26:32). But they forgot His words and lived in fear as if they didn’t know where Jesus had gone.

Isn’t that the way it is today? We fall so easily into fear and self-pity and doubt, wondering where Jesus has gone, as if He has abandoned us. Sometimes we live as if we don’t know where He has gone. As if we didn’t hear or believe His promise, “I am with you always to the end of the age.” We easily forget to look for Him where He has promised to be found. He has promised to be with us through His Word and His Spirit who teaches His Word. He has promised to be bodily present for us and for our forgiveness of sins in His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. He has promised to claim each baptized child or adult as God’s own child, washed clean by baptism into the name of the Trinity. But all to often that’s not where we look. It’s not that we’re looking for a dead Jesus, but what sort of Jesus is it that we are looking for, and where? Here He is in our midst, in His church, where He promised to be. And where are we looking? If we look where He promised to be, we will find Him. Because He has found us and called us.

When Mary answered Jesus, she said the most remarkable words. She said, “Tell me where you have put Him, and I will take Him up.” Mary showed remarkable love, in that she thought she was going to take up His dead body and care for it. She spoke in love, but in misunderstanding. She thought she would take up His body and care for it. But what she did not realize was that HE would be the One to take her up and out one day, from her tomb, and care for her. But in a radically different way than what she had in mind. It was our sin, and her sin that put Jesus into that tomb, because it was for our sin that He suffered and died on the cross. And it’s our sin that will put us in our tombs one day. But Jesus will take us up and out to heavenly places, and care for us eternally by giving us eternal life! Mary wanted to care for Him in death, but He wants to care for her and for all of us in eternal life! The empty tomb is OUR FUTURE! Our future is to have an empty tomb as well, because in our Baptism we have been united with Jesus’ death and resurrection!

But as Christians, we aren’t in denial about death, as some might claim. Rather, Mary and the disciples experienced very real sorrow over the death of Jesus. It was painfully real to see their dearest loved one die. Some of them even watched the nails being hammered into His hands and feet, and watched Him hang on the cross, suffering the anguish of our sin. They were there for the deathwatch of their Lord and Savior. How could anyone think that they were in denial about death? Neither do we deny death today. Or at least we shouldn’t. Among our own congregation we know of people close to us who are dying or have died recently, and we do not hide from death or deny it, but we suffer and mourn and pray with the dying. But the reality is that it’s not just those who are visibly dying, but in fact all of us are dying. We cannot be in denial about our true condition. Every one of us from the day we are conceived till our last breath, are terminally ill with the cancer of sin. But we are here today, and we gather as Christians every week, because we are gathered around the Cure. We know who to seek for our Cure, because Jesus is the Great Physician who came and sought us before we even knew Him.

As Martin Luther said, “Christians do not deny death; they defy death!” And that is why we are here to celebrate this Easter Sunday, it’s our Lord Jesus’ Resurrection! He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Though death is a painful reality of this sin-filled life, we do not deny it, we defy it! We boldly face our death with confidence, because we know that death is a conquered foe. It has no sting, it has no victory over us, because Christ has conquered death, hell, and Satan! Because Christ is for us, who can be against us?! Death is now but a passing into life eternal for Christians. Our future is an empty tomb! With that knowledge we can confidently face death whenever it comes. We know whom we seek, and that is Jesus Christ, the Living One, who first sought us. And He sought us and He bought us by His precious blood, and He rose from the dead to unite us in His death and resurrection by baptism, so that we will be united to His Life. He will take us up one day from our tombs and gather us to our Heavenly Father’s side. Alleluia, He is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Amen.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

A ‘Eucatastrophe’ of Biblical Proportions

Life is regularly marked by catastrophes; sudden calamities or disasters that are marked by a sudden change of events from good to very bad. An earthquake or hurricane or other natural disaster is an example where peace and tranquility are suddenly interrupted and turned toward chaos and confusion. J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of the popular “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, made the suggestion that the English language was lacking for a word to describe the opposite of ‘catastrophe.’ Like many other antonym word-pairs—friendly and unfriendly, difficult and easy, clean and dirty—Tolkien believed there should be a word for the opposite of ‘catastrophe.’ If catastrophe describes the sudden turn of events from good to evil, then what word describes a sudden turn of events from evil to good? So Tolkien proposed the word ‘eucatastrophe,’ adding the prefix ‘eu’ which means ‘good’ in Greek, to ‘kata’ which means ‘down or against’, and ‘strephein’ which means ‘to turn’. So why did Tolkien think we needed such a word?

In his trilogy the “Lord of the Rings”, the final book contained just such an event—a sudden turn from evil to good. The moment when Frodo stood at Mount Doom, ready to destroy the Ring that had brought so much evil upon the land, things looked to be at their very worst. Great armies of evil marched against the beleaguered band of men and the creature Gollum seemed to have gotten back his ‘Precious’ (the Ring) just at the moment when it was to be destroyed. All hope appeared to be lost. Evil appeared to have taken the upper hand, and soon would overthrow the last remnants of good. Tyranny was just a step away. But in this moment of despair, what Tolkien termed a ‘eucatastrophe’ took place. A sudden and dramatic turning of events from evil to good, as Frodo won out over Gollum and the Ring was finally destroyed, marking the end of Sauron and his evil forces. Victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat, and the good had prevailed! Peace and tranquility would be restored, and life was again free from the threat of imminent evil.

The moviemakers of the recent film tell us that what shaped Tolkien’s whole notion of ‘eucatastrophe’ was what he considered to be the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ of all human history: the crucifixion of Jesus. There at the cross 2,000 years ago was the epitome of what Tolkien envisioned as a ‘eucatastrophe’. What greater example could be given of a sudden turn of events from evil to good? One might describe it as a ‘eucatastrophe’ of Biblical proportions. Things looked to be at their very worst, as the events unfolded that Good Friday. Jesus, truly a Righteous and Innocent man, was brutally beaten and whipped, with crowds of mockers gathered to scorn Him and cry accusations and clamoring for His death. A fearful Pontius Pilate was unwilling to uphold justice, and the bloodlust of the angry mobs could only be sated by Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus’ frightened followers despaired to understand the meaning of all this, as the Messiah whom God had promised, and who had shown Himself to be God’s own Son, was now given a death sentence. The torturous death by crucifixion seemed to be the worst turn of events imaginable. All hope appeared to be lost. Evil appeared to have taken the upper hand, and soon would overthrow the last remnants of good. And beneath the visible events lay the deeper horror of the sin that Christ bore. Satan must have been gleefully dancing around, thinking that he had finally made an end of Jesus.

But in this very moment of despair and evil came about the most remarkable and sudden turn of events from evil to good. Though not immediately apparent to the observers of Jesus death, a ‘eucatastrophe’ was taking place. By his death Jesus destroyed the oppressive evil of sin, death, and the devil, and suddenly shock and awe fell upon Satan and his demons. They had been fooled! The death of Jesus was not their victory, but God’s victory! By Christ’s death on the cross He delivered the fatal blow to Satan’s evil empire, by striking at the very heart of Satan’s power. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8b). And when the Victorious Christ descended into hell to declare His victory, He was untouchable, immune from any harm by the defeated Satan. And this whole remarkable turn of events from evil to good finally began to be apparent to Jesus’ followers when He was Resurrected from the dead on the Third Day! In Jesus Life had truly conquered Death. “The strife is o’er, the battle done; Now is the Victor’s triumph won! Now be the song of praise begun. Alleluia!” (LBW 135). We live our lives in joy at this triumphal Easter News: Christ has arisen!

And through Jesus death and resurrection, that phenomenal ‘eucatastrophe’, we now share in the benefits of His victory. Forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are ours by faith. And though in Adam we shall all die, so also in Christ we shall all live! (1 Cor. 15:22). As St. Paul says, “But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:23-26). So each in our order, we will one day join Christ in eternal life. But in the mean time, Jesus continues to fight on our behalf, warring against the spiritual powers and authorities until at the Last Day, death will finally be destroyed for good, and we will join Jesus in the eternal Kingdom of Glory.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

The Ethics of Refusing Treatment (Part 2)

Ok, if you haven't read my first post, "Ethics and the Value of Life (Part 1)" please read that first. Here I'm going to pick up on the question of, "Ok, we don't get to determine the value of life; but how then do we make the difficult end-of-life decisions such as when to refuse medical treatment? And how do we do so without devaluing life?" As I was struggling with these questions, in light of the Terri Schiavo fight, I read a short chapter from a book titled, "Bioethics: A Primer for Christians" by Gilbert Meilander. He directly addressed these issues in a very helpful way in Ch. 7 "Refusing Treatment." I'm going to basically summarize and comment on his advice for Christians who want to face these issues with a proper Christian ethic.

First, to give us a framework for considering this, he names two opposite extremes to avoid in caring for the dying. Meilander says, "On the one hand, we ought not choose death or aim at death. But on the other hand, neither should we act as if continued life is the only, or even the highest, good. It is not a god, but a gift of God. Thus we should neither aim at death nor continue to struggle against it when its time has come. 'Allowing to die' is permitted; killing is not. Within these limits lies the sphere of our freedom." (p.69) Ok, so that gives us something to start with, that in making end-of-life decisions we shouldn't be deliberately aiming at death; but on the other hand we shouldn't deny death when it comes, as if we must live on at all costs.

Now secondly, there arises the need for some clarification. What is the difference between committing suicide and refusing medical treatment, if they both end in death? Or for that matter, a soldier going into a battle where he faces almost certain death? Here Meilander points out the difference between the intention/aim of an action, and its result. A person refusing medical treatment and a soldier going into a battle could both do so with the explicit aim of ending their life--in which case it would be suicide. But it would not be suicide in all circumstances. A person may under certain circumstances refuse treatment and a soldier can go into battle without 'aiming' at their own death, even if that is the almost certain result of their action. Meilander again, "This distinction between an act's aim and its result is crucial to bear in mind when we consider decisions to refuse or withdraw treatment. The result of such decisions may be that death comes more quickly than it might have. Nevertheless, the fact that we ought not to aim at death for ourselves or another does not mean that we must always do everything possible to oppose it. Life is not our god, but a gift of God; death is a great evil, but not the ultimate evil. There may come a time, then, when it is proper to acknowledge death and cease to oppose it. Our aim in such circumstances is to care for the dying person as best we can--which now, we judge, means withdrawing rather than imposing treatment." (p.71)

Ok, now to the meat of the issue. What are the practical guidelines for ethically determining when to refuse treatment? Meilander starts by pointing out the ambiguity of the traditional categories of ordinary and extraordinary/heroic care. The difficulty of this terminology has apparently increased with the changes and advancements in medical care, and also the fact that these terms are not a 'moral' distinction. So for an example of their ambiguity, is Terri's feeding tube 'ordinary' or 'extraordinary' care? This is certainly a debated point, and you can see that the categories don't provide any moral guidelines. Food and water can hardly be considered anything but ordinary, but is the method by which they introduced extraordinary? Yet many otherwise healthy individuals often depend on feedings tubes. So Meilander discards these categories in favor of a more precise and helpful solution.

The first criteria he gives for determining whether medical treatment should be refused is "if it is useless. Usefulness is, of course, relative to the patient's condition. Many treatments may be helpful, even lifesaving, for some patients but of little use to others. Moreover, a treatment once helpful might cease to be when the patient's disease has progressed to a new stage." (p.72) So for a person who is 'irretrievably dying,' certain medical care will be useless. Some may even impose greater burdens on the patient, which I will discuss later. He also points out the difference between someone who is 'irretrievably dying' and 'terminally ill.' A terminally ill patient has a certain death approaching, but it may be months or even years away, and there may be treatments that are useful to them in their condition. If we apply this first criteria to Terri Schiavo, we can unequivocally say that food and water are useful to her in her condition, as she requires no other medical treatment, and her body can digest the food just like any healthy individual. Furthermore, we also must point out that she is NOT dying. Her 'quality of life' may not be what some desire (see previous post), but she is not in pain or in the stages of dying. Other than obtaining nutrition via a feeding tube, she is a healthy, but disabled woman.

Before moving on from this point, it is necessary to treat the manner in which the first guideline might be abused, according to Meilander. He provides an example of a child born with Down's syndrome, having an obstruction in their esophagus. For the child to survive and be able to be fed, a surgery must be performed, a surgery that would never be denied an otherwise 'normal' infant. "Yet there have been cases in which parents--upheld by courts--have refused treatment for such an infant. Has that child simply been 'allowed to die'? Or have those responsible for its care taken aim at its life?" (p. 73) He says that the most accurate description of the parents action in this scenario is that they have refused surgery so that the child will die, rather than allowing it to die. Obviously the surgery is 'useful' to the child. Perhaps the parents thought that the child's life was 'useless' because of its handicap. This is one example of how the criteria can be abused. Meilander makes an excellent point here: "The language of 'personhood' has encouraged such self-deception. It has encouraged us to think that we do no wrong when we deliberately 'let die' (that is, refuse treatment in order to aim at the death of) those human beings who lack some of the distinctively human cognitive capacities." (p. 73) The question that needs to be asked in evaluating medical options is whether it will benefit the life that the patient has. The question that is characteristic of abusing this criteria is to ask 'Is this patient's life a beneficial one, a life worth living?' The latter takes aim not at treatment, but a person's life. That is not 'allowing to die'.

Ok, finally to the second criteria for refusing treatment. Even if a treatment is "useful and perhaps even lifesaving [it] may sometimes be excessively burdensome. Because life is not our god, we need not accept all burdens--no matter how great--in order to stay alive." (p.74) In other words, this means that "we might rightly refuse even useful treatment that would prolong our life for a significant period of time if that treatment really does carry with it significant burdens. To reject or withdraw treatment because of its burdens is still a refusal of treatment, not of life. From among the various lives still available to a suffering patient--some longer than others; some filled with more burdens than others--we choose one life in particular. Just as the soldier going on a suicidal mission chooses not to die but to live in a certain way, recognizing that to live in this way may mean not to live as long, so also the patient refusing an excessively burdensome treatment still chooses life--one particular life from among the several still available. " (p.74) One could perhaps think (my example, if it fits :) of a terminal cancer patient refusing treatments that might help destroy the cancer growth, but otherwise ravish the body with severe side effects. Perhaps the excessive burden of additional suffering caused by the useful treatments is not worth it to the patient in the long run.

In discussing the possible abuse of this second criteria, Meilander provides the scenario of Karen Quinlan and Nancy Cruzan, both young women who were in a "persistent vegetative state and were fed through a tube to sustain their life. Both had suffered irreversible loss of the higher brain functions that make consciousness and self-awareness possible. We might easily be tempted to think that their lives were useless, that it was a burden even to have such a life. That is an understandable thought, for none of us would choose such a life for ourselves if given alternatives. But if we act on such a thought and withdraw the feeding tube, the burden at which we are taking aim is not treatment but life itself." (p.74) He adds that rejecting treatment because 'the life itself is a burden' constitutes not only rejecting treatment, but also rejecting life. Then we have "ceased to care for that person as best we can in the time and place he has been given." (p.75) At this point it is necessary to point out some similarities and differences between Schiavo's case and Quinlan & Cruzan. All three suffered severe brain damage, and it appears that in Schiavo's case as well, it may be largely irreversible. And of course all three were on feeding tubes. But, a key difference is that Schiavo is conscious, and there is significant evidence to contest her diagnosis of being in a 'persistent vegetative state (PVS)'. And even if her life is considered 'burdensome' by some, Terri Schiavo's parents and siblings are willing to assume that 'burden' of care. Regardless, the question of refusing treatment should not be based on the 'burden' of a person's life, but on the excessive burden of their treatment. Neither can it be shown in Schiavo's case that the simple treatment of a feeding tube is 'excessively burdensome.'

So now we have some working definitions that can help guide us in end-of-life decision making, especially regarding when to refuse medical treatment. We must ask ourselves, "Is the treatment useless or useful to the patient?" If it is useless, it can ethically be refused. But under certain circumstances a useful treatment may be refused, if the treatment, not their life itself is 'excessively burdensome'. If either criteria is satisfied, we may refuse medical treatment without the fear that we are entering the realm of suicide or euthanasia. To evaluate our decision in this regard, we should also ask the question, "Is my choice aiming at ending life?" If the choice is aimed at a life rather than just a treatment, I would posit that we are trying to assume God's role in determining when we die. Also, are we trying to determine the value of their life based on their 'quality of life?' If so, we are again overstepping our bounds. Now certainly I don't pretend to believe that these decisions are easy or even always black and white. But these guidelines can help us use Christian ethics regarding the value of life, to make difficult decisions while avoiding certain obvious unethical avenues. My next post will deal with some potential implications of the outcome of the Terri Schiavo case, and other miscellaneous thoughts.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Ethics and the Value of Life (part 1)

Ok, I've been meaning to add to my blog for awhile now, but have been a little 'lazy.' So here goes...

In the light of the recent turmoil over the Terri Schindler-Schiavo case in Florida, (see an excellent article here)
There seems to be one particularly troublesome theme that arises again and again from those who support Michael Schiavo's decision to have her feeding tube removed. That theme, put simply, is that she has "no quality of life." The implicit assertion in this statement, is that because she, or any person has "no quality of life," the value of their life is somehow less. My question is this: can the subjective criteria of "quality of life" EVER be used to determine the value of any person's life?

Now, certainly one might (and they have) argue that a severely brain-damaged individual can hardly enjoy a 'quality of life' that any person 'deserves, because she is no more than a 'vegetable'. It seems they might (and they have) argued that certain unborn children face a future with no 'quality of life', because their mother is a poor, single, drug-addict. Or because the child may have birth defects or any number of problems with their health, mental condition, or similar to the just-given example--an 'unfriendly environment' to be born into. Now, as healthy individuals with sound minds and bodies, who may very well fear that some similar state of being could come upon us or perhaps our children, we might look upon any person in such truly difficult situations as having such a poor quality of life, that it is truly not worth living. We see ourselves in the same circumstance, and unable to bear the thought of what we have deemed to be such an unacceptable quality of life, that we would rather die first. I don't blame anyone for fearing such an existence. It could hardly be claimed that it would be easy.

However, I am convinced that it is entirely unacceptable for us to place a value on someone's life based on their 'quality of life.' In fact, I don't believe we can ever put a value on a human's life. All human life is intrinsically valuable, and NOT on a sliding scale of value based on our determination of 'quality of life.' Take Job, for example. His quality of life rapidly changed from excellent to horrific, and yet in the face of such suffering, he said in faith, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." (Job 1:21) Job also said, " 'Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not received evil?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips." (Job. 2:10). Now Job certainly grievously lamented his quality of life, even cursing the day of his birth, and he poured out his soul's complaint to God. But through it all, he never saw it as an option to take his own life. Rather he accepted the suffering that had befallen him, and remained faithful to God. Of course we could go on and discuss the 'quality of life' of all sorts of Biblical characters, especially the sick, leprous, and lame whom Jesus healed in the Gospels. But no where do I find the idea that WE can determine the value of our own, or other people's lives.

Ultimately, what this is to say, as a Christian, is that God and not we ourselves, gives value to life. Few things seem as black and white to me now as this: that 'quality of life' is NOT a factor we can use to determine the value of life. And God is the one who gives and takes life away. Now certainly someone will say that this still leaves major ethical decisions undecided, especially regarding end of life matters. For that discussion, see my next post......

Friday, March 11, 2005

Sermon on John 11:47-53

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading, John 11:47-53,

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. "What are we accomplishing?" they asked. "Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation." Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Trouble was brewing in Judea. It was clear that Jesus was becoming a threat. The Pharisees and chief priests were greatly disturbed at Jesus’ teachings and miracles. Who was this man who claimed to be the Son of God; who said He was the true Light; who said that if you believed in Him you would have eternal life? How could a man say such things? And how could He have just raised Lazarus from the dead? All of these miracles that Jesus was performing were gathering quite a following of believers. Healing the blind and the lame, curing the sick, and now raising a man from the dead? They had to put a stop to this. What was it that they feared? They feared that if this kept on going, everyone would believe in Him. They were obviously at cross-purposes with Jesus. He wanted people to believe in Him, promising them forgiveness and eternal life, while they were trying to stop people from believing in Him.

We live in a world today that sees Jesus as a threat. Society and government has become increasingly uncomfortable even with art and symbols associated with Christianity or the Bible, seeing nearly every display of our Christian identity as somehow threatening to the freedom of religion. Of course these things come as no surprise, since Jesus told His followers that if the world hated them, it was only because they hated Him first. But sometimes the reaction against Jesus even comes from within the church. Jesus is seen as a threat to the “success” of the church because of His harsh denunciations of sin and bold claims of heavenly authority. So people try to “tame” Jesus by watering down His teachings, and sometimes even outright denying His claims of divinity. The world’s reactions against Jesus and His follower’s today ranges from outright rejection to acceptance—but only acceptance on their terms. If they accept or tolerate Jesus and Christianity, it is only in a form that is weak enough that they no longer see it as a threat.

The Jews in Jesus time also feared that if Jesus kept getting more popular and gained more followers, that the Romans would take away their temple and their nation. It seems that they thought Jesus was going to cause a political uprising by gathering a large contingent of loyal followers and then declaring Himself King of the Jews. Apparently this is what some of Jesus’ followers thought too, for they had tried to make Him King by force after he had fed the 5,000 with bread (John 6:15). So they feared that if Jesus incited such an uprising against the Romans, the Romans would come in and destroy the Jewish nation and the temple. So the Pharisees thought it was in their best interest to stop this man, and thereby preserve the nation and the temple. But both they and the misguided followers of Jesus were wrong: He wasn’t seeking to establish a political kingdom in Israel, on earth. This much was clear from His conversation with Pilate, where Jesus declared, “My kingdom is not of this world”…and He also said, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth” (John 18:36,37). Neither should Christians today misunderstand what Jesus’ real purpose was. He was not out to set up an earthly kingdom in this world, neither in first century Palestine, nor in the 21st century. We are mistaken if we think that there is going to be some sort of “Christian World Government” established before the Last Day. Christ’s kingdom is being prepared for the New Heavens and Earth, after this world passes away.

Its rather ironic, really, that the Jewish leaders claimed to be worried about Jesus causing an uprising or revolt that would cause the Romans to destroy their nation. Ironic, because the man they asked to have set free instead of Jesus was guilty of those very crimes. Barabbas was a notorious criminal who had been arrested for being part of a rebellion, and had murdered during the revolt. It makes you wonder if their hatred for Jesus really had much if anything to do with their loyalty to Caesar and Rome.

But Caiaphas, the high priest at that time, rebuked his fellow leaders among the chief priests and Pharisees. “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” He had the true solution to this threat. Though he spoke out of hatred for Jesus and His teachings, he unwittingly spoke the very truth about the necessity of Jesus death. But Caiaphas saw the matter only in terms of what was politically expedient—that Jesus be killed instead of a genocide against the nation. This suggestion was very pleasing to the Pharisees and chief priests, for from that day on they began to make plans on how to kill Jesus.

Much like then, today we have enemies of the Gospel who wish they could get rid of this troublesome Jesus. Most often it seems Jesus is a threat to their comfortable way of sinning, and they would like to silence Him. But of course they can’t re-crucify Jesus, so instead they pour ridicule on Him and us His followers. Radical artists try to create offensive and degrading exhibits to mock Christ and His church. Books are written that portray Jesus as having a secret affair with Mary Magdalene. Christians are depicted as narrow-minded, intolerant, and bigoted, with foolish backward notions that are threatening to the free spirit of society. As Christians today, we stand at cross-purposes with the world. They are fighting hard to silence God’s Word and to persecute believers. And we Christians are seeking to bring the message of Christ’s saving Word and forgiveness to more and more people who have not heard the good news. But the world does not want to hear that it is sinful, so it hates the church and opposes it.

But what about Caiaphas and his solution for eliminating Jesus? Caiaphas couldn’t realize the full truth of his words, “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Despite his hatred toward God’s incarnate Son, God used Caiaphas to speak this prophecy; not of Caiaphas’ own intention, but to show that Jesus’ death was going to be not only for the Jews but also for the Gentiles, the scattered children of God around the earth. Through Christ’s death He was going to make the two one, and bring together the Jew and Gentile that had been separated—uniting them in Christ. Caiaphas only thought in terms of the benefit of having Jesus die to keep the Jewish nation safe. But the deeper truth that God was speaking through Him was that it was in fact better for Jesus to die on our behalf for sin, than for all people to perish. It was better for Jesus to die as a substitute for all sinners, both Jew and Gentile, than that we all perish eternally from the wages of our sins. Its ironic that Caiaphas, the high priest, who would have made the sacrifices for the guilt of the whole nation of Israel on the Day of Atonement, was now unwittingly prophesying the death of the True High Priest as a sacrifice for the guilt of the whole nation of Israel, and also the scattered children of God, on the day when all sin was atoned for. Ironic that he, the high priest did not recognize Jesus as the True High Priest, who was the fulfillment of both Caiaphas’ office and his work. Ironic that the High Priest of Israel was at cross-purposes with the True High Priest.

Yes, by all appearances, the Jewish leaders truly appeared to be at cross-purposes with Jesus. He was a threat and they wanted to put Him to death. Jesus, on the other hand, spoke of bringing eternal life. He wanted to make people alive by faith in Him. They wanted death for Him, and He wanted life for them and for all people. But despite the fact that they appeared to be at such odds with each other, these two cross-purposes intersected with each other at the cross. In the cross these cross-purposes were brought together in Jesus’ crucifixion, where they succeeded in killing Jesus—but in another twist of irony, by His very death Jesus destroyed death, and by His resurrection He made us alive. At the cross, the hatred of the world toward Jesus intersected with God’s forgiving love from Jesus. Sin and death intersected with Christ’s righteousness and life. What they did not realize was that in seeking their purpose of putting Jesus to death, they were in fact fulfilling God’s purpose in sending Jesus to die at the cross as a substitute for the Jewish people and also for us, the Gentiles. They had succeeding in putting to death, and Jesus had succeeded in making alive. His death and resurrection became the victory that united Jew and Gentile as one. One children of God, by faith in His name. Through the Word of this good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection; the Word that continues to go out to the world even today, scattered children of God have been gathered from all over the world—Jew and Gentile alike. We are those scattered children of God who have been gathered to His one family. We were scattered and lost in sin, but have been gathered by the Holy Spirit’s gift of faith in the True High Priest, who died as our substitute. Amen.

Now may the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The Law on our Hearts

Jeremiah 31:33-34 reads, "But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, 'Know the Lord,' for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more." (ESV)

Here the Lord speaks of the New Covenant He will make with His people, a covenant different from the Mosaic covenant that they broke. Instead He will put the law on their hearts and forgive them their iniquity and sin. So here's my question for you all: What is the 'law' he is speaking of writing on our hearts? This passage is reference twice in the NT, once in Heb. 10:16-17 where it is quoted directly, and Rom. 2:15 (note also preceding and following verses) where the 'law is written on their hearts' is again referred to. It seems, especially in the Romans text, that this is referring to the 'natural law' that is evident to all mankind apart from specific revelation, by which all mankind is held guilty before God for sin. This text also seems to put no limit on the timeframe in which this law on our hearts exists (i.e. before the New Covenant). However, the Jeremiah text seems to refer to this law written on the hearts that is something that is specifically revealed and within a timeframe (i.e. at the institution of the New Covenant). So again my question is what the 'law written on the hearts' of the New Covenant is. The Hebrews passage seems to deal more directly with the Jeremiah passage, and explicitly connecting the New Covenant to Jesus' one perfect sacrifice. So is the law here 'law' in the broad sense of God's Word as a whole, inclusive of both Law and Gospel? (cf. the Formula of Concord article V explanation of the Scripture's use of law--strictly speaking, and gospel--strictly speaking vs. their broad sense). Or is the law on our hearts (accd. to Jer. 31:33) the law strictly speaking, as God's commandments and precepts? Why then is it speaking of forgiveness? I appreciate your feedback on this question.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Maps and the Bible

During my first year of seminary we studied the hermeneutics textbook by Dr. James Voelz, “What Does This Mean?” This essay borrows what I have found to be a very helpful analogy from Dr. Voelz’s book. I would like to expand and explore it, and use it to help illuminate one of those perplexing questions that many first year students face. That question is, “What is the relationship between our Lutheran Confessions and the Bible?”

The analogy which I have found so helpful compares the Lutheran Confessions (as they are contained in the Book of Concord) to a “collection of maps gathered into an atlas” (Voelz 350). Envision with me that the Bible, that is, the Holy Scriptures, is represented by the physical land of America. As varied and rich as the topography and geography of America is, so we can picture the Scriptures. The Bible is a giant landscape full of colorful and varied landforms expressing different Biblical themes—and yes, they are not all beautiful—there are dark and shadowy places in the Biblical landscape. Just as America has its deserts, polluted waters, and ghettoes, so also the Biblical landscape has features that portray the ugliness of sin and its effect on mankind and the world.(1) But these are contrasted by the pure sparkling rivers and verdant meadows and soaring mountaintops of the glorious Gospel in Jesus Christ.

Now we can better grasp how the Lutheran Confessions function as a map to the Scriptures. To use Voelz’s words, “They map out the doctrinal content of the Scriptures” (Voelz 350). So what they do is to mark out the teaching contained in the landscape of Scripture. Very importantly, they distinguish the boundaries between what is Biblically true and false on many issues, much like the borders on a map. Voelz clarifies their function again;
"Maps are not intended to replace or avoid taking the trip through the country they survey. They are made in order to provide a guide for taking the trip. The one taking the trip will use it confidently, and only if something does not agree with it does a question concerning the map itself arise. On the other hand, to take a trip without a map heightens the odds of getting lost."

This addresses several issues for us. First of all, have you ever heard someone claim that Lutherans hold up the Confessions as being equal to Scripture, or an equivalent authority to Scripture? Or that we substitute them for the Bible? This is just as illogical as saying that the map replaces the geographical reality that it represents. Or likewise, that the map has its own authority apart from the geography. Both are ridiculous. The Lutheran Confessions are formed and shaped by the Scriptures, just as a map is shaped by the land it represents. The Confessions have authority only because they accurately reflect the Scriptural landscape. Take away the Scriptures and the Confessions have no authority or meaning.

And as Voelz points out, they do not have the purpose of preventing you from entering the Scriptural countryside, but to help guide you into and through it. One can certainly walk through the Bible without a map, but as Voelz remarks, it increases the odds of getting lost. In theology and in daily Christian living, it is possible, and even common to “lose the forest for the trees”. In this way, we can become so focused on certain landforms or points of doctrine, that we lose sight of the greater picture, i.e. the Gospel. So the Lutheran Confessions map out the lay of the land, and above all they draw attention to the central and uniting theme of the Biblical geography: Salvation for Sinful Mankind is Found in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

There is another significant point that is illustrated well by this analogy. In your systematics courses the professors will talk to you about the difference between a quia and a quatenus subscription to the Lutheran Confessions. When, God-willing, a seminarian is called and ordained as a pastor, he is required to confess his belief in the canonical books of the Old and New Testament, the three Ecumenical Creeds, and that the Lutheran Confessions are a true exposition of Scripture and are in agreement with the one Scriptural faith (LW Agenda, 211-12). The Latin word quatenus refers to subscribing to the Confessions “insofar” as they agree with Scripture. The Latin word quia refers to subscribing to the Confessions “because” they agree with Scripture. As your professors will tell you, a quatenus—insofar subscription is really no subscription at all. The map analogy helps to illustrate the difference between an “insofar” and a “because” subscription. For a person wandering across the Biblical countryside, of what use is a map that is correct only insofar as it represents the geography? You might have a map for the completely wrong place, but maybe a small portion corresponds in a crude way to the roads and cities of the Biblical countryside. The map matches insofar as some small portion of it coincidentally overlaps with some part of the reality, but for the traveler, the map is useless. It doesn’t truly represent the land, and worst of all, it is misleading. Or similarly, you may have a crude and poorly drafted map that is only correct in some areas. On the other hand, a true map is only useful quia—because it correctly represents the reality. In this way the Lutheran Confessions are true because they correctly restate and summarize the Scripture. We can and do test this out as we study here at the seminary. As we daily live and walk through the Scriptures, we should test the map of the Lutheran Confessions against the Bible and see if it is true.

In summary, the relationship between the Lutheran Confessions and Scripture has been shown to be like a map is to the geography and topography of America. The Confessions outline and summarize the centrality of Christ and His teachings. They do not replace the Bible, but lead us into and help guide us through Scriptures. They are helpful and true because they correctly set forth what the Bible teaches.

1 In referring to ‘dark and shadowy places in the Biblical landscape’ in the previous sentence, I meant precisely this and nothing else: that the Bible portays sin in its full ugliness and depravity. I am NOT using this metaphorical picture of how the Bible depicts sin to in any way suggest that the Scripture contains errors or passages for which we should be ashamed. Nor am I suggesting a Gospel-reductionistic view of Scripture. I fully maintain the inspiration and inerrancy of the entire Scriptures, as given by the Holy Spirit.

“Do you think that they were worse sinners because they suffered in this way?”

The other day, when I was traveling home from my visit to Audi, my new fiancĂ©e, I overheard part of a conversation next to me in the airport that caught my attention. A man was commenting on the recent tsunamis and earthquakes in Southeast Asia. Describing himself as a Christian, he went on to explain to the person that he was talking to, that if you looked at the natural disaster there in Southeast Asia “Biblically,” you would have to conclude that those people must really have p****d someone off for God to punish them with this tsunami (I assume by ‘someone’ he was probably implying God). He assumed, I suppose, that since the Bible does forecast great disasters at the end of times, then these people were getting their due punishment for their sins. I couldn’t help but think to myself that he had a serious misunderstanding of what the Bible teaches about such things, and also that his comment put forward a very poor representation of Christianity.

This whole question of why God allows such awful things to happen is an important theological question that touches every person’s life at one point or another. The 9/11 attacks and now this tsunami disaster bring this question all the more to the forefront, as the reality of death is magnified so greatly by the sudden loss of so many lives. It’s not as if suffering and death aren’t already a daily reality on a much smaller scale for the sick, the dying, the murdered, suicides, accidental deaths, etc. But most of the time we can try to avoid facing this reality of death. However, when these tsunamis struck, the reality of death was thrust in our faces again, and we could not ignore it. So it is important that we Christians know how to look at death and disaster “Biblically”; but we must do so in a correct way.

The man in the airport was not wrong in pointing out that the Bible prophesies great natural disasters for the end times. Here are some passages that say as much: “And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25-28). Jesus also said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matt. 24:7-8). Also in Revelation, the parallel visions of the seven seals, seven trumpets, and seven bowls each give accounts of the destruction that will come in the end times.

So we know that these disasters are in fact in keeping with what the Bible prophesies about the end times. But a very important point to notice is that the End Times began when Christ ascended and continue till He returns. They didn’t just begin now; the Christians in the first century A.D. had the same prophecies and warnings, and witnessed similar disasters in their lifetimes as they waited in expectation for Christ’s return.

But now to address the error in this man at the airport’s thinking. Is it right for us as Christians to assume that those people in Southeast Asia were worse sinners because they suffered in this way? Was God dealing out a specific punishment on those people in response to some certain sins? The first place I remembered to look in my Bible when considering this question, was Luke 13:1-5. There two tragic events were discussed that could easily be paralleled to the 9/11 attacks and the tsunami disaster. Here’s the text, “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

The murder of the Galileans by Pilate is similar to the 9/11 murders, and the accidental collapse of the tower of Siloam is much like the disaster that killed well over 150,000 unsuspecting people. The point is not the scale of the disasters, but the question Jesus asks, “Do you think they were worse sinners?” Were those in the towers at 9/11, or the people of Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, etc, worse sinners than all the others in this world? “No,” Jesus answers, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” No, they were not worse sinners, and no they weren’t punished—as the man at the airport supposed—because they had really p****d somebody off.

This man had made one of the most common mistakes that believers have made throughout the ages: to make a one-to-one correlation between suffering or disaster with God dealing out punishment for some specific sin. And the accompanying mistake is to believe that if you are a good person and a good Christian, therefore you shouldn’t encounter such suffering or disaster. There were indeed times when God did punish sin directly, such as the Flood, but in those instances God clearly announced beforehand a warning of the disaster to come. However, by and large throughout all history, God has not dealt with us in that way. Rather, good and evil things seem to come upon believers and unbelievers alike, regardless. (cf. Matt 5:45)

The book of Job is a prime example of this, where Job is a righteous believer who suffers the enormous loss of his possessions, his children, and his health. Yet amid this suffering he still had faith in his Redeemer, and showed remarkable humility in saying, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10). Job’s friends, like the man in the airport, tried to explain Job’s suffering by saying that he had committed some specific sin that God was punishing him for; but in the end, God rebuked those ‘friends’ of Job, saying to them “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, and my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). They were wrong to entirely equate good fortune here on earth with God’s favor and ill fortune with God’s punishment. Suffering came on Job to test his faith, not as a punishment for sin. Likewise believers today are told by Jesus to expect sufferings and trials and persecutions for their faith. It is certainly not true that bad things only happen to bad people.

So what should we learn then, from the tsunamis and other disasters, or even the day-to-day death and suffering that may touch us at different times? We learn what Jesus said in the passage I quoted above, that they were not worse sinners, “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5). They were sinners, just like us—not worse. But these disasters, like the Tower of Siloam in Luke 13, and like the death that is a daily reality for humankind all around, these are warnings for us to repent, lest we perish in our sins. God does not desire to lose anyone to their sins, because He sent His only Son Jesus to die for the sins of the whole world. After paying so much, He longs passionately for every lost sinner. That is why He has delayed Christ’s return for so long, because “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). God does not desire to lose anyone, so don’t think that He doesn’t mourn the loss of every sinner who died without knowing their Savior. God has mourned the death of men from disasters and wars and famines that have happened throughout history, that we never even knew. God says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Ezekiel 18:23).

The correct Biblical view of such death, of all death, is that God wants us to realize the shortness of our existence on earth, and how sudden death can be. Therefore He wants us to repent of our sins and believe in Jesus for our salvation, so that when death takes us from this vale of sorrows that Christ would carry us to eternal life. And He has given us His Word that we might also share this warning with others, and point them to the One True God Jesus Christ, who has taken away the sting of death.

Enter the Blogger

Well, I'm finally on the blog-wagon. I initially held back from blogging mainly because I'm so often overwhelmed by the Information Proliferation that is my life. :) Too many books, articles, magazines, and blogs to read--too little time. But I finally I've caved in, deciding that if I'm ever going to jump on the blog-wagon, it might as well be now, before the cumulative weight of the rapidly increasing number of bloggers grinds this wagon to a screeching halt. No, really, in all seriousness, I enjoy honest and open discussion and debate, and have enjoyed the discussions I've seen on other blogs. So here goes!