Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Friday, May 25, 2018
What is Mere Christianity? Mere Christianity is Christianity at its most basic, and therefore unifying form. Most well-read Christians will know the term from the famous author C. S. Lewis. However the idea of clarifying Christianity’s core predates Lewis’ landmark radio talks and subsequent book by a large margin. The early church wrestled with this as the faith was under siege by any number of heresies and heterodoxies. What is Christianity? Their answer was to formulate creeds. The first and most widely known of these we call the Apostle’s Creed, though none of the original apostles were involved in its writing.
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
It is a seminal statement about basic Christianity. Relatively shortly afterwards, as Christianity was challenged by more heresies, a council of church leaders formulated the Nicene Creed (ad 325), a fuller statement of the essentials than its predecessor. Other important creeds followed as the church faced various theological challenges.
These creeds were never meant to be an exhaustive statement of Christianity. God is inexhaustible, and the depths of theological study of Him are also. Theological books will be written about the faith until Christ returns. But we can define the skeletal structure of the faith. We can clarify mere Christianity.
Dwelling on eternity is the best reminder of mere Christianity. To say something is core to Christianity is to say it is essential for salvation. Those who share this core, however widely we may disagree on any number of other issues, will be fellow citizens in a heavenly city. Whatever else we may think of our differences, our placement in eternity will be the final unifying factor. God doesn’t decide our destiny based on our opinions on secondary and tertiary issues, however beneficial or detrimental they may be for this life and for the great commission. It is the core that reveals whether we believe in the real Jesus. In the end there are only sheep and goats.
Mere Christianity, our faith at its core, is what unites Christians around the world and throughout the ages. It would be wise for us to make much of this unity.
Sunday, May 6, 2018
Wednesday, December 20, 2017
Jesus seldom spent much time in one city. He was constantly travelling from town to town, meeting all kinds of people. On his travels he and his disciples came across a leper. The Koine Greek word for leprosy can refer to any number of different skin diseases.
A leper was ostracized from the life of the community. The Old Testament commands that when people come in contact with a leper, the leper is to identify himself by covering his upper lip and yelling out “Unclean, unclean.” Lepers had to stand fifty paces away from everyone. To touch a leper was to become unclean yourself. If they entered a house, the house became unclean. If they walked under a tree, the tree would become unclean. One commentator writes, leprosy was not so much an illness as it was a sentence. Imagine not knowing, for years perhaps, the touch of another human being: a hug, a handshake, even a pat on the back. To feel so utterly alone, different and broken. Josephus the historian writes, there is no difference between a leper and a corpse.
The message of Jesus reached this particular leper’s ears, and now he sees him walking. This is his chance.What does he have to lose? Hoping against hope, somehow this leper has courage to approach Jesus, “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Notice the humility in his words.He makes no demand, puts no imperative to him, and just asks as one who can offer nothing in return. He doesn’t question Jesus’ ability, only his willingness. The Gospel-writer Mark tells us Jesus was indignant, not at the leper, but more likely at the wretchedness of sickness and the pain it caused this human being. Then Jesus doesn’t just heal him, he reaches out his hand and touches him.He touches a leper! Jesus specialized in breaking taboos: claiming Deity, breaking Sabbath rules, and touching lepers.
He touched a perpetually unclean man. Doesn’t that make Jesus unclean? Never. Nothing makes Jesus unclean. He makes what he touches clean! And the man’s leprosy is gone. Now that is power. That is the the type of power kings and queens only dream about.
He Still Touches Lepers. Ever hear someone say: Jesus wants nothing to do with me. He doesn’t know the types of things I’ve done. He doesn’t know the sins I’ve committed, the choices I've made, the uncleanness I’ve let in. He wouldn’t accept me. Try him and see what happens. Let me introduce you to the real Jesus, the one who touches lepers.
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
Martin Luther swore himself into a monastic life in a moment of dread during a fierce lightning storm. His prayer ironically was offered to St. Anne, inaugurating a journey that would lead him down the road to reformation that would include, among other things, denouncing the intercession of saints.
This month commemorates the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. The story of its conception has had a share of the kindle that sparked a world-wide reform of Christian faith. It is an account in which many, among them pastors like me, can refresh our fretful consciences.
It was during Martin's time as a monk that he became overwhelmed with guilt over his depravity. He went to confession, again and again, seeking absolution for his sins, “He confessed frequently, often daily, and for as long as six hours on a single occasion.” Johann von Staupitz, Luther’s spiritual adviser, of whom he said, “if it had not been for Dr. Staupitz, I would have sunk in hell,” grew tired of hearing Luther’s endless account of transgressions. He advised Martin, with an apparent sense of humor, “Look here, if you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive—patricide, blasphemy, adultery—instead of all these peccadilloes.”
Nevertheless, Luther was crippled by his sin and his view of God as a just, wrathful deity who could not be appeased by anything Luther could do. Staupitz, a mystic, tried to convince Luther that he was needlessly complicating the Christian faith, that he should embrace the simple call to love God. This was impotent in mending Luther’s festering conscience. He retorted, “I was myself more than once driven to the very abyss of despair so that I wished I had never been created. Love God? I hated him!”
No penance, sacrament or indulgen
ce could set him free. Even the accouterments of the monastery could not cover his sullied heart, though try he did. Luther testified, "If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I."
Staupitz concocted a cure for his student’s ails, one which would have consequences for the church he could not have conceived. He sent him to the Scriptures. He was to pursue his doctorate of theology, preach to a congregation, and become the chair of Bible at university. It was there in Wittenberg while studying and preaching through Psalms, Romans and Galatians, that Luther encountered the gospel of grace. The doors of paradise opened his soul's gloomy dungeon of despair:
“I greatly longed to understand Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and nothing stood in the way but that one expression, ‘the justice of God,’ because I took it to mean that justice whereby God is just and deals justly in punishing the unjust. My situation was that, although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner troubled in conscience, and I had no confidence that my merit would assuage him…Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justified us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven.”
On October 31, 1517, Luther posted his 95 theses against a corrupt medieval church and its notorious papacy on the door at Wittenberg Castle Church. Others rapidly translated them and they spread like fire. The rest, as they say, is church history.
The inception of the Reformation reminds us, as it once did a young German monk, that our guilty standing and uneasy consciences are set free by a gracious gospel that comes to us by faith alone in the satisfactory work of a perfect Christ. Pastor and parishioner alike can celebrate half a millennium of its rediscovery!
Friday, October 6, 2017
Trust, faith and belief are synonyms. Trust is a powerful thing. When we say we trust someone or something, it affords it the character of being trustworthy. This is true of living beings as well as inanimate objects. If I trust a bridge, I am putting my faith in a structure to hold the weight of whatever I put upon it. I trust it enough to walk over, to drive a vehicle on top of it, or to be undaunted that traffic transverses it daily. I have faith in that bridge.
When we say we have faith in God, or we believe in Jesus, what we are saying is that we are confident he is fully capable to do what we trust him for, namely to save us. Like a bridge, faith in Jesus is to trust he will support us to cross over to the other side.
Trust is usually not given, but earned. We don't altogether trust strangers (for good reason) and we certainly don't trust those who have demonstrated themselves to be untrustworthy (for even better reason). I would not hand a newborn baby to a complete stranger nor would you entrust your kids to a lady with a pattern of abuse of children. You wouldn't pass your house keys to a man you just met, nor would I to a convicted house burglar. Their trust has not been earned.
With God, we have one who has shown himself to be trustworthy not just to us, but to all his people throughout history. That is one reason, among many, we still look to the Hebrew Scriptures and God's covenant faithfulness to ancient Israel. It demonstrates to us the character of the God we trust with our lives. Two millennia of church history are replete with evidences of the trustworthiness of God. Christians throughout Christendom have trusted him with their lives, even unto death, and have found satisfiction in that faith. God's faithfulness, like a story's throughline, can be seen in history's pages, chapter after chapter.
When we say we believe in God, that is not a statement of mere philosophical conjecture. It is not the simple antonym of atheism. It is a dynamic statement of trust. We have faith in Jesus as Redeemer, we trust his sacrifice on the cross and power in the resurrection will be sufficient to save us from judgment. We trust him as King, he reigns over our future as well as our past. We trust him as the bridge we know will uphold us towards life.
Monday, September 25, 2017
Friday, September 15, 2017
Thursday, September 14, 2017
New England in the fall is perhaps the most iconic setting in America. It's easy for us to miss it. Sometimes you can be so close to something that you have difficulty seeing it. For example, we typically don't take the time to appreciate oxygen. It's ubiquitous and transparent; we assume its presence, utilizing it every four seconds. But talk to an astronaut about the importance and value of oxygen and we may gain a new appreciation. Oxygen is not assumed anywhere outside our terrestrial atmosphere.
For most of us, New England in the fall is simply the air we breathe. Haverhill, MA has been my home since Kindergarten. Let's take the time this year to step back and enjoy the idyllic New England autumn. Let's enjoy the beautiful changing colors of the leaves. Nowhere else in this land, from California to the New York island, do we find such a breakdown of chlorophyll highlighting the trees. The surreal oranges, the majestic purples, the subtle yellows and the fiery red leaves should take our breath away. This land was made for you and me.
On top of that, we have our history and heritage. The Plymouth pilgrims and the Native Wamponoags survived together, preparing for the cold snowy winter. Thanksgiving in San Diego or Chicago just doesn't have the same feel as a turkey feast in New England. Gratitude is one of life's most important and surprising gifts. With it we are able to enjoy not only what we are given anew, but what we've had all along.