“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. “ Paul to the Galatians

It can be hard to know what to make of Paul’s words here. Especially in our day when tribalization of groups and identities is among the highest of cultural virtues. Oneness is about the last thing many of our citizens want. And, sadly, the same can be said for many in the churches. Was Paul deluding himself? Was he some kind of Utopian dreamer, casually sweeping aside those stubborn identity differences as if just asserting oneness will make it somehow happen?

I recently watched a talk given by a fellow who has done a lot of work, internationally, on trying to understand political motivation and affiliation. He came to the undeniable conclusion that the collective emotions that drive affiliation are essentially tribal in character. We see the evidence all around us. The current hyper-polarized political atmosphere puts the lie to any claim that many actually want a united states of America. Millions of us are quite content to mouth such sentiments but our politics betray us. We have increasingly become a nation of tribes, suspicious and even hostile in relation to one another.

And there is little mystery here. For well over half a century our cultural elites have cultivated the art of repudiating our cultural inheritance. The result has been predictable. We are moving from being a national community to becoming bickering, squabbling enclaves of tribes and minority allegiances.

You simply cannot trash cherished and received traditions of culture without trashing the bonds which hold that culture together. And that is what is happening all around us. The growing emphasis on the cults of ethnicity fundamentally redefine the nation away from a polity of individuals to a collection of tribes whose boundaries are impenetrable. As a result, the coherence of the entire culture is at stake.

So, back to St. Paul. No, he was no Utopian dreamer. And he knew full well that speaking of ‘oneness’ in and of itself accomplishes little. He was also quite familiar with what it meant to identify with the tribe. He was from the ultimate tribe, the Jewish people, the people of God. In the wake of meeting Jesus Christ, Paul’s entire ministry was a rejection of lesser loyalties.

The key to grasping Paul’s negation of the prominence of tribal identities is in the little phrase, …”in Christ Jesus.” And this represents a serious challenge, then and now, to Christian people who allow themselves to join the tribal skirmish to the point where those allegiances, all under the law and the temporary governance of this world, are allowed to close our hearts and minds to one another.

Like Paul, I am also no Utopian dreamer. Just by writing these things I do not expect to make much of an impact on the sorry state of affairs we find ourselves in. But I do write in the hope, Christian friends, that we might look to our allegiances in this world and ask ourselves whether or not we have made “Jew of Greek, slave or free, male or female” more defining of our allegiances than the Lord by whose bloody cross and reconciling love we have been made one.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in

Christ Jesus our Lord.”

THROUGH THE DEEP WATERS

Pastor Mark Anderson

In the book Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian and his friend Hopeful see the gate to paradise. But between them and the gate is a very deep river. There is no bridge. To arrive safely at the gate they must go through the deep water, knowing that the water will be as deep or shallow as their trust, faith in the king who lives beyond the gate.

When Christian goes down into the water, the waves come over his head. He fears he won’t get to the other side, to the promised land. Hopeful’s feet touch the bottom of the river, so he encourages Christian with words of faith until Christian finally shouts, “I see Him again!” Christian suddenly feels his feet to be on firm ground. Faith is restored.

What can drive away the clouds of care that make reaching tomorrow so unpromising? Much of life can be spent in the effort to find answers to this question. But the Christian may want to remember something about the cares, burdens and concerns of this life; the water of baptism, among other things, represents our being plunged into the deepest waters of living, even unto death. And it is in these waters that we lose our old selves even as the new person is being brought along in faith.

The Christian life is one of continual dying and rising. The pattern here is not an upward one, from glory to glory. We live in Christ. The shape of His life is the shape of our lives. The resurrection came at the cost of the cross, just as our lives will be set free, as His was, by going through death.

So, dear Christian, if the waves this day seem to high and the crossing too perilous, know this; you are precisely where your baptism has brought you. The waters, which seem so threatening, are not too great a challenge for your Lord. He has made the perilous crossing before you. Even now he remains with you. One day, you will be brought safely to the other side where the tree of life and a crown of gold await you. And on that distant shore and in His greater light, you will join with all God’s children in the everlasting chorus of praise and thanksgiving!

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in

Christ Jesus our Lord.”

THE NEW “CANCEL CULTURE” INQUISITORS

For centuries heresy was no laughing matter. This remains true but today’s inquisitors are not scowling clerics ferreting out the latest departures from theological orthodoxy. The current crop of beetle-browed critics are now found in the cancel culture of woke virtue signalers and social justice warriors, some of whom make Torquemada and the fussy Puritans look tame.

The humorless cancel culture inquisitors are calling before the heresy court every form of expression they deem outside the prevailing ideologies regarding gender, race, economic status, ethnicity and all the other divisive categories we are supposed to receive as normative today. This din of renunciation is framed in the usual socialist rhetoric decrying what has been done simply because it has been done, and calling for radical innovation but without knowledge for there are no alternative, substantial theories of culture offered to support these demands. If there were, they would be open to discussion and debate. But no real alternatives are being offered to the amazingly successful civilization we currently inhabit. Instead, our society is filled with rhetoric fueled by the restless, bitter emotions of unease, resentment, unhappiness and intolerance with the way things are coupled with utopian, ‘aspirational’ dreaming for a future no one can describe.

Unable to call people to the higher ground of substantial ideas, rooted in the great traditions of the west, which can be debated, modified and tempered by reason, the new orthodoxies have found their traction in fueling the raw power of resentment’s collective emotion through a platform built on the unachievable and discredited goals of Marxism, disguised as progressivism.

The great repositories of our shared civilization that have preserved what is worth having – family, culture, art, music, religion, history – are being driven underground by the cancel culture, just as they were in the bloody, catastrophic days of the Chinese and Russian Marxist revolutions. And this is no accident since the current crop of culture haters is using the same playbook.

The new inquisitors, perpetually unhappy and dissatisfied with life as it is, and convinced that they hold all the justice and morality cards, are obsessed with finding someone else to blame for the failure of their longed-for Utopian future to arrive. And if you are wondering who that someone might be, it is anyone who does not share their views.

If they have their way, the most determined of them are committed to imposing upon the rest of us their joyless orthodoxy. The wonderful world that they would bring upon us is one that we will not have chosen and will not be allowed to question. I cannot imagine a more intolerant, incoherent and insidiously evil system in which one could be fated to live. But then I don’t have to imagine. The one hundred million who died during the twentieth century, in the name of communism’s righteous inquisition, leave nothing to the imagination.

ISTANBUL HAS NEARLY 3,000 ISLAMIC SHRINES AND MOSQUES. SO WHY ONE MORE?

NOTE: This article is something of a departure from my usual offerings. I was asked to comment on the transition of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul from a museum to a mosque. So here are some thoughts.

Turkey will once again be using the ancient Christian cathedral of Hagia Sophia as a mosque now that a Turkish court has cleared the way in a rather shaky display of judicial process. Hagia Sophia was the greatest Christian house of worship in the world for nearly a thousand years until brutal Islamic aggression toppled Constantinople and stole the building. It is one of the very few Christian churches they did not destroy in the wake of conquest.

On July 10, Erdogan, the Turkish leader, addressed the Turkish nation and in that address he quoted from the will of Mehmet, the conqueror of Constantinople in 1453 which states that whoever alters the status of the Hagia Sophia “has committed the most grave sin of all” and that “the curse of God, the Prophet, the angels and all rulers and all Muslims shall forever be upon him. May their suffering not lighten, may none look at their face on the day of Hajj.” Lovely.

Some will say that Hagia Sophia is just a building and no big deal. But it is a big deal. The re-opening of this Christian church as a mosque represents the rolling back of years of modernist policies, begun by Kemal Ataturk, who declared the church\mosque a museum in the 1930’s as a gesture of dialog and understanding with the west as he attempted to bring Turkey out of the middle ages. Declaring Hagia Sophia to be a museum, and therefore a neutral space, was a major symbolic step in this direction.

The subsequent modernization and westernization of Turkey has been a source of constant irritation to Islamists who have felt betrayed by the move toward modernity and long for the days when the caliphate ruled and all things were brought under the sway of Sharia. In one sense this is completely understandable. Islam and western values are inherently incompatible. Serious Muslims know and understand this.

The reclaiming of the church as a mosque is an act of unbridled religious nationalism aimed at building up Erdogan’s power and moving Turkey backward along the road to being a thoroughly Islamic state. Erdogan calls this move an assertion of national sovereignty. It is also a bald political concession to the Islamic hard liners in his country.

And the fact that it is causing unease and even anguish among many of the world’s Christians, and other infidels, is just icing on the cake.

FORGIVENESS OPENS THE FUTURE

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another,

as God in Christ forgave you.”

Ephesians 4:32

The heart of the gospel is the forgiveness of sins. Through the forgiveness that is in Christ Jesus we are reconciled to God and we are held by faith in that reconciled relationship now and through death into life eternal.

Prof. Jim Nestingen gives a good illustration of God’s forgiveness when he speaks of how the Lord follows behind us, sweeping up the debris of our past and doing away with it as if it never was. This image of forgiveness has clear implications for our life together in the here and now.

The current Covid crisis and the close quarters it has imposed on us can result in relational bumps and bruises that require a good dose of forgiveness. Also, we are seeing in our ‘woke’ culture these days how the social\political entanglements of bitterness and resentment, utterly devoid of any spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, are pitting people against one another. So let’s take a look at what forgiveness can mean as we actually practice it with one another.

First, a qualifier: to forgive is not to forget. The scars will often remain and they can be deep. At the same time forgiveness can give the permission necessary to allow the healing of old wounds as new, positive ways of thinking and feeling in our relations with one another begin to emerge. To give and receive forgiveness is to refuse to allow the hurts created by the past to be carried into and define the present. In this respect, forgiveness actually enables a new identity both for the one offering forgiveness and the one receiving it. Forgiveness creates space for healthy self-approval and provides the freedom to integrate both the hurts and joys of life openly and directly, thereby making possible genuine reconciliation, new ways of relating, and an open-ended future. Both forgiver and the forgiven are set free.

The forgiveness that our Lord won for us on the Cross has secured for us an eternal future with God. In the spirit and power of that forgiveness we may dare to offer one other a reconciling word, trusting Him whose grace, mercy and love make all things new.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.” Philippians 3:8

Yesterday I wrote of identity; how it is constituted by relations with others and finds its final fulfillment in Christ. This is why looking to community or family (the matrix of social relationships) for fulfillment is a problem. There is no question that human life is hardly worth living apart from others. And it is a rare person who can say they have too many friends. Normally, it is quite the opposite. But the close bonds of human relationships, no matter how many we may have and how satisfying they may be, do not bring fulfillment. In fact, community and family can actually get in the way of fulfillment, or promise a false fulfillment.

The plain truth is that human relationships at the very deepest level of the person cannot be ultimately fulfilling because even the deepest, most intimate of relationships cannot invade the solitude, the loneliness of the individual.

In recent decades we have seen the erosion of traditional forms of community which for hundreds of years supported and upheld human relations; national identity and institutions, a shared, remembered past, the community of the family, religious life. All these communal expressions are undergoing thorough revision at a frenzied pace. Part of the reason for this has to do with the simple fact that at a some level these expressions have simply not provided the fulfillment people are looking for. And since person hood is a social state of being, people grasp for new forms of community (political, social, racial, etc) in a desperate effort to find the combination that will bring fulfillment. But this will not work. For at its root, all the frenzied seeking is a search for fulfillment that is identical with ourselves…the selves we actually do not know. But we are quite unable to dethrone our assertive, tyrannical and Olympian selves from this effort. We even make our seeking after a God a project of self-fulfillment.

Fulfillment in this life is, finally, not a possibility. That is why we proclaim the good news of a divine redemption that is not synonymous with ourselves; a divine fulfillment that is given to us as a gift and not something we develop from within ourselves, our families and communities. We will not build the lasting structure of ultimate fulfillment on the old foundation of a dying world. This, in part, in a what the Apostle Paul came to see: it is not fulfillment that finally defines life, but loss.

But God has laid the foundation of a new world in Jesus Christ. That foundation is not a new political party, economic system or plan for a green environment. That foundation has been laid through the Cross and resurrection of Jesus, through the preaching of which God expresses His will to have mercy upon us that we might relate to the entire question of meaning and fulfillment in a new way, the way of God’s forgiveness and mercy. When this message reaches the heart, the quest for fulfillment on our shabby terms is put to rest. The living relation of faith, that connects us to the Living God, lifts the eyes of our hearts from the puzzling, annoying and frustrating inward gaze of self-seeking, to care and concern for the cluttered world and our fragmented neighbor; even as we await in all trust and hopefulness the fulfillment that God has promised in Christ.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in

Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:2

As a young man I struggled with the question of who I am, believing that once that question was answered I would know what to do with the rest of life. Now many years have passed and tempered the assumption that the question itself is actually important.

The problem with preoccupation with such a question is that it makes the faulty assumption that the self may be known in isolation, apart from others. But that is exactly wrong, it seems to me. The person, the self, is largely constituted and defined by relationships and not by self-examination or endless hours of navel gazing. The only true knowledge we have of ourselves comes through life as it is lived and shaped in relation to others, for good or for ill.

By almost any measure, putting aside the current surreal atmosphere created by the corona virus, happiness is elusive for most people. Part of the reason for this is because happiness is pursued (however defined) as a pursuit of the individual, the self. The quest for self-realization, personal fulfillment or completed happiness may be nothing more than euphemisms for the quest of the idolatrous self, who, in the end, does not genuinely need other people but only uses other people as vehicles toward self-fulfillment. But, like identity itself, genuine happiness always emerges in the framework of genuine relationships.

Christian faith has taught me something about this question of identity; the less I focus on it, the better. Whatever or whoever else I am, my identity is inextricably bound up with Jesus Christ. If you lose your life, you will find it, or, more to the point, it will find you.

Christ Jesus has no other agenda in His relationship with you other than to be there for you. He is not seeking Himself through you, as most of us tend to do with others in one way or another. He has made us His own in baptism, brought us into a defining relationship that is utterly devoid of any self interest. He is determined to remain in relation with us and for us, until such a time that we put this old, transitory life away and receive our new one in Him.

Therefore, with the writer 1 John we can say that we are not yet what we shall be, but we can be OK with that. We do not need to be in a panic to realize ourselves in this life, as if that were even possible. Christ Jesus has brought you into relationship with Himself. And since he is your God, and your dearest friend, he will make of you what His good, gracious and perfect will desire for you.

Then, you will understand even as you have been fully understood.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus or Lord.”

ONE, SOLITARY NOTE

Pastor Mark Anderson, Lutheran Church of the Master, Corona del Mar, California

It is hard to watch. Statues being pulled down by confused, embittered young people; a section of a prominent American city is overrun by malicious. lawless persons, disguised in a phony righteousness; people are scorned and stigmatized for the color of their white skin, the very definition of racism, and all in the name of anti-racism.

So it goes as the errant, lost world stumbles blindly on its way, chasing its tail, trapped in the endless demands of justice and the law which eludes fulfillment.

The political\social tensions that are so prominently on display these days reminds me of a startling fact about the New Testament books. They were written – all of them – during the first century, as the Roman empire continued to tighten its grip on most of the known world.

Jesus lived during the reigns of Augustus, the first emperor of Rome, and his successor, the corrupt, ruthless Tiberius. Saints Peter and Paul were martyred by the vain and cruel Nero. The end of the first century, when the gospels and Revelation were written, saw the harsh persecutions of the emperor Domitian. Reading through the New Testament, however, you hear no calls for social justice movements or protests against the political establishment. In a time that was rampant with every form of social and political injustice, the New Testament has an entirely different focus. And that focus is nothing more or less than Jesus Christ and His Gospel. And to the world, consumed as it is with the categories of law, equity, race and justice, that just doesn’t seem like much. It never has.

A small town parade was making its way down main street.  Floats provided by various community groups sailed slowly along as the high school marching band stepped lively, accompanying itself with a rousing tune. But the talk of the town, literally, was none of this. For as the parade moved along, the folks gathered on the sidewalks watched as a six year old boy marched ahead of the band. Resolute and determined he kept his own pace, all the while sounding one, solitary out of tune note on his trumpet.

Jesus authorized His Church to go into the world and proclaim the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. That’s the message. Whatever other projects the church may wander into, given its location and circumstances, this is the essential business and what we are to be about. And that Gospel is not concerned with establishing a righteousness based upon the law or justice or gender or any other category that we are supposed to receive as defining today. That Gospel is directed at the hearing of sinners who, trapped in the law, need to be freed from its grip.

So, the next time you’re in some church, whatever else they are parading around and advocating, hope and pray that you hear little ‘Johnny one Note’ playing the scandalous, solitary Word of the Cross, the message concerning the crucified and hidden God who forgives real sinners and promises one day to raise them from the dead. For in that one note of the Cross is contained the fullness of God’s grand symphony of love and grace and divine justice – and it sounds for you.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

‘They Also Ran’

Philippians 2:5-1

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant,  being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

 “They Also Ran” is the title of a book which tells the stories of  the vice presidents of the United States. The author of this book obviously felt the need to push these members of the support cast onto center stage, at least for a moment.  But that is not where they belong. Those who run in this second position must learn to stand in the wings. 

  I served a congregation many years ago in northern Minnesota. One of my members was an unassuming, elderly gentleman named Solon who owned a small business in town. I was always struck by his gentle bearing and unwavering goodwill. I can still see him taking his place on Sunday morning, sitting quietly, head bowed, his hands folded in his lap. It was only years later that I learned of his many accomplishments in business and politics, his wide-spread reputation for integrity, his selfless giving to others. He never spoke of these things.

  Solon could have stood on the platform of his accomplishments, which were many, in the effort to keep himself in the limelight. In the years I knew him those accomplishments were unknown to me. What he did speak of was the greatness of God, and all God had done to accomplish our salvation through Jesus Christ. Solon was content to stand in the wings in order that all the glory might belong to His Lord Jesus Christ.

We were created to be “also rans”, not self-promoters; deliberate support cast in the competitions and busyness of life. The spirit of pride always seeks the limelight. The Christian knows that life is lived in the shadow of God’s grace. We may achieve much in this life, by earthly standards, but when seen in the light of God’s greatness and power our greatest accomplishments are pale reflections of a greater light, at best.

There is One alone who commands center stage. And this is not because He has seized power with the ballot box or marching armies, demanding that all accolades be directed His way. Rather, the Glory of Christ is His suffering and death upon the cross. For in that lonely, dying figure whose life-blood was poured out at the hands of sinful men and women, God revealed that His heart is full of mercy; and His glory is that this same mercy is poured out in love for sinners, like you and me.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in

Christ Jesus our Lord.”

John 9:1-41.

A man born blind prompted a question directed at Jesus; “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Notice the assumption; the man was born blind as a result of sin. That is to say someone, his parents or the man himself, failed under the law. Failure under the law is the assumed reality that is defining of what has happened to him.

We fully understand such thinking. After all is not life the story of human effort toward achievement, self-realization, accomplishment? Is not life the laying down of the pattern of success or failure, however defined? And are we not rewarded or penalized in a thousand ways for our failures or successes?

Jesus responds to the question by giving what is in effect an entirely different understanding of life, of history we might say. His response is this: what is defining of life is not the law ( justice, equality, equity, fairness) but God’s mercy. The story of life is the story of God’s work of mercy in the midst of a world dominated by the law.

Under the law, if Jesus is going to have anything to do with this man, he ought to be pointing him to what he can do to remedy his life. He may not be able to recover his sight, but the man could at least show some sincere sorrow under the law for what he may have done to bring about his blindness. If his blindness was the result of doing something wrong, according to the law, then the remedy should be doing something right, according to the law.

But Jesus bypasses any reference to pursuing a remedy according to the law. He takes dirt, makes mud with his spittle and smears it on the man’s eyes, then tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. Here we see Jesus acting, as we would say, sacramentally. He puts his word of promise in a thing, mud, (just as he puts His promise in bread and wine) and through this action actually makes a difference in the man’s life. Jesus does not give a command waiting to see if the man can fulfill it. He brings the healing and mercy of God in His word, materially, bestowing God’s promise upon the blind man as an act of mercy.

Of course, Jesus stirred up fierce opposition when he did things like this precisely because he was operating apart form, outside the law. It was not that the people were not expecting the Messiah. They were. But they were expecting a Messiah who would come and reinforce and establish God’s righteous rule under the law. This Jesus does not do. The people knew that the Messiah would be greater than Moses. But what they, and many today, fail to recognize is that the greatness of Jesus lies exactly in His coming to place mercy above the demands of the law. That is what we call ‘good news’, the gospel.

In healing his sight, Jesus simultaneously forgave the man’s sin. Up to that time all the blind man got as a word from God, was accusation and the demand for repentance under the law. The word of healing which Jesus gave brought him forgiveness, new life and hope. And Jesus Christ brings this same word for you. In his word of forgiveness, spoken and received in baptism’s water and bread and wine, the announcement of the absolution, Christ restores you, elects you as His own, declaring for you that God’s mercy is greater than His law.

May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in

Christ Jesus our Lord.’