Faith

This Caravaggio painting of doubting Thomas has become well-known thanks to the Internet, and I do like its graphic, realistic portrayal of the Lord’s submission to Thomas’s probing finger. However, a visually less realistic portrayal by de’ Rossi may be more true to our text for this week, John 20:19-31. Though Jesus invites him, it does not say that Thomas actually touched the holy wounds. And the apostle’s kneeling poster reflects the spirit of the words we are told he did say, “My Lord and my God!”

As I’ve thought about the text this week, I’ve reflected not just about what it teaches regarding the role of doubt in the lives of active believers, but about what it may have to say to Christian communities about the way we treat doubters among us. Before Jesus even appeared to Thomas, the rest of the apostolic fellowship, the whole church at that time, made a place for him to be with them and among them. In other words, Thomas was not ostracized or excluded because his faith did not quite measure up to that of the rest of the community.

I think there is something to learn here as we respond to doubts among us, especially from our young people, who seem to be struggling with faith in increasing numbers. There is also something to learn from Jesus’ own willingness to provide Thomas a satisfying answer and from Thomas’s reaction, which was a deep and life-transforming affirmation of Jesus as Lord and God.

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No End, No Fear

This painting used to hang over our couch, a fitting piece for a couple of philosophers to display. It when was there many years ago when our oldest daughter was 3 years old. She looked up on it and asked, “Daddy, is your beard like that?” I guessed that she was noting the difference between my trim reddish brown beard and the old philosopher’s shaggy white beard, so I said, “Maybe someday when I’m old I’ll have a beard like that.” Susan replied, “Daddy, don’t get old!”

Well, here I am nearly three decades later, and though my beard is still fairly trim, it’s just as white as the one in the painting. As the T. S. Eliot poem says, “I grow old, I grow old.”

From my perspective now, I would say I am “only” 61, but that is old enough that I think I can catch a glimpse of the end of my life now and then. Both my wife and I have buried our parents and before that went through the messy business of working with our siblings to clean out their homes and help both our mothers find “retirement” accommodations. Now when I look at all the boxes in our garage I occasionally joke that it will be up to our daughters to clean it all out someday. The end, as they say, is in sight, at least a little bit.

That end in sight can make me a little afraid sometimes. There’s much I had hoped to do that hasn’t happened, and at least a few things I’d still like to do someday, like visit Greece again or see some grandchildren. Occasionally I worry that time is running out.

This coming Sunday, Easter, addresses that fear and worry. In Matthew 28:1-10, the women who come to Jesus’ tomb are told, not once but twice, “Do not be afraid.” They had thought they had come for the end of things, to prepare Jesus’ body for its final rest. Surely they must have feared the future without Him, without the direction He had given them. But suddenly they find that He is not there, but risen, and what had appeared to be the end was actually the beginning. And it all meant they did not have to be afraid.

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Empty

Poking around for a catchy image for this post, I came across what you see here, the banner for a satirical comic book critiquing faith in a deity. It’s the perfect illustration of what our faith in Jesus Christ is not about. Our Lord is the God-man, but He did not come to us as an all-powerful deity, wearing His divinity on His sleeve. Instead, as our text for this Sunday, Philippians 2:5-11, states in verse 6, He “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

Since last fall I’ve been reading in Exploring Kenotic Christology, edited by C. Stephen Evans. The essays consider the theological idea that in becoming human the second person of the Trinity actually “emptied Himself” of at least some divine attributes, like omniscience and omnipotence. Thus Jesus, though the God-man, by His own choice was not all-powerful or all-knowing during His life on earth. Instead, the works of power and knowledge which He exhibits were all the work of the other two persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Spirit. So Jesus did miracles in the way that is possible for other faith-filled human beings, by praying for them or by being the vehicle through which the Spirit operated. His own divine power was voluntarily laid aside.

The theology is complex and a number of Christians can’t see how Jesus could be God if He were not fully in possession of all the divine attributes. But the notion that Jesus’ “emptying” was a very deep and drastic self-limitation captures my heart and imagination. It explains how Jesus can say that He does not know the day or hour of His return and how His temptations and suffering were a genuine human experience such that Hebrews 4:15 is true, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses…”

Whatever the correct interpretation of “emptied” in our text, Paul clearly holds out to us as an example for our own lives the humility of our Savior who in becoming human submitted to being like a slave. That model of abject humility is to govern our relationships with each other in a way that, if practiced, would utterly transform our interactions with each other.

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Security

Security is a pretty hefty value in today’s world. In America there seems to be a strong sense that we have lost some of the security we enjoyed in the best, whether economic or social or military, and that it needs to be recovered. Anxiety seems high in many directions. I just read a Christianity Today article which says that Hispanic church attendance is down because even documented green card holders are fearful of exposing themselves to immigration officers who might be watching for them entering or leaving worship services.

In such an anxious atmosphere, Jesus words which open our text from Matthew 6:25-34 seem pretty naive and unrealistic, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…” Jesus goes on to focus particularly on matters of food and clothing, so we might be tempted to think He is not talking about other sorts of worries. But it’s good to recognize that many of our security fears, especially about the economy or for immigrants about their status in this country, boil down to concern about being able to feed and clothe ourselves and our families.

Is Jesus asking us to simply put aside our fears and worries, throw caution to the winds, and let the chips fall where they may in regard to the necessities of this life and our future? Is there a place in what He tells us in this text for having a savings account, seeking job security, and planning for retirement? Is there room here for wanting to live in a community that has police and fire protection?

Jesus’ in verses 26-30, inviting us to consider the birds and the lilies of the field as models of non-anxious living, are often felt to be especially comforting. But if His point is more than just a simplistic and often unrealistic assurance that everything is going to turn out O.K. in this life, then the comfort needs more contemplation. The practical application is not simple and seems fraught with questions and ways to go awry.

So let’s think more together about all this and for what it means for us if we want to take these words of Jesus seriously in the world in which we live now. I’d be glad to hear thoughts from others.

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Faith and Money

It’s commonplace to hear preachers and Bible teachers say that Jesus talked about money more than any other single subject. Here’s a quote from an on-line collection of sermon illustrations that tries to address it statistically, without claiming that Jesus’ most frequent subject was money.

“Sixteen of the thirty-eight parables were concerned with how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, an amazing one out of ten verses (288 in all) deal directly with the subject of money. The Bible offers 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions.”

One could easily question this sort of thing (even the number of parables is disputable). Jesus often just mentions money or uses it to illustrate other things, as in His parables about the payment of debts. Those parables are concerned more with grace and forgiveness than with the money that appears in the stories.

However, it is safe to say that Jesus did talk directly about money and did so fairly often. Our text for this coming Sunday, Matthew 6:19-24, is one of those times. However, in this case, when Jesus does in fact speak clearly about what to do with one’s money and possessions, He still isn’t really talking about “handling” them in the sense we usually mean of exercising wise management of such resources. He’s basically just telling us to give money and possessions away and to seek things of greater value, “treasures in heaven.”

There’s another major misconception about that verse 21 specifically, which shows up in the way an awful lot of fund raising, including Christian fund raising takes place. I learned this first from a faithful, generous gift in my first church. Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” but what we often seem to hear is the reverse, “For where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.”

In other words, we typically let our money follow our hearts. So fund raisers work at drumming up compassion or just plain passion for a cause, in the hope that we will send dollars in the direction that our hearts have gone. They show us pictures of starving children or offer moving visions of what the new building will accomplish, all on the principle that our money will follow our hearts.

Jesus’ genuine words are actually much more difficult, but more realistic about the condition of our hearts. We love our treasures, love our money. Jesus just takes that as a given, so He tells us to “store up,” to put, that treasure where we really want our hearts to be. If we want our hearts to be with God in heaven, then we need to send our money in that direction by using it for heavenly purposes. Our hearts will follow along after those treasures like a dog after a bone.

Somewhere in all his books, Robert Farrar Capon says that the church’s job in relation to money and giving is not to offer Christians some good cause and then to put those donations to good use. It’s just to urge people to give away their money for almost any half-way decent or even silly Christian reason and thus move their hearts in the right direction toward what really matters.

Capon is always a little extreme, but I think he’s on the right track. It’s in line with a lot of what Jesus said about money, especially in that well-known verse 24, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” It’s not about handling money well or even donating it wisely. It’s about freeing ourselves from it so that we can serve God. Pope Francis’s recent remarks on giving to panhandlers with little concern for how they will use the money are along the same lines.

Maybe we need to quit hyping how much Jesus talked about money and just pay a little more attention to what He actually said about it.

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Stuff We Want

Martin Luther once threw an inkwell at the devil as the tempter disturbed his work translating the Bible into German while he was in what we might call “protective custody” at Wartburg Castle. But that inkwell story is merely a legend (although the custody is historical) created a couple generations after Luther. Tourists may still see the Luther room at the Wartburg, with a desk and chair where he was supposed to have worked. Though the legendary status of the story is acknowledged, it’s still suggested that the famous ink spot once existed in plaster now removed from the wall to the right of the picture here.

Regardless of the status of stories of Luther’s battles with Satan (at least one at the level of middle school boys’ humor), the reality of temptation is without a doubt. Our texts for this Sunday, Genesis 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11 show us the first Adam and the “last” Adam, as Jesus is called in I Corinthians 15:45, responding to that temptation. Only Jesus was completely up to the challenge.

The temptations of the devil play upon our desires. We want stuff. That’s part of our nature. God gave us our desires and they are meant to good guides to survival and happiness. We want food and shelter and love and community, all good things. The problem, as Christian thinkers realized early on, is not that wanting stuff is bad. It’s that our wants and desires get misdirected. We are tempted toward wanting things which are inferior to and different from what we were created by God to want.

Our most basic desire is for communion and fellowship with God. The temptation of Adam and Eve and then the temptations of Jesus show that fundamental good desire for God being subverted by desire for food, for security, for power.

Jesus conquers those subversive temptations by looking constantly toward the ultimate desire of human beings, toward God and His will as expressed in His Word. By overcoming the temptations in this way, and as a human being, our Savior sets humanity back on the path of right desire, removing the misdirection of Adam and Eve’s choice, and focusing us again on what really matters, our relationship with God.

That restored focus and direction is the aim of the season of Lent in the church year. We want to freshly receive into our own lives the new direction Christ gives us. May that be your experience throughout these forty days.

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Fire Proof

A recent alumni e-mail reminded me of one of the nicknames used by those of us who went to Notre Dame (grad school for me), “domers.” That odd appellation comes from our years of school life under the shadow of a large golden dome, topped with a statue of the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary). It’s actual gold leaf which covers that memorable architectural feature at the center of campus.

In this Sunday’s text from I Corinthians 3:10-23, Paul talks in verse 12 about building with materials like “gold, silver and precious stones,” as well as with “wood, hay, and straw.” The issue is what materials will stand up to the coming “Day,” in verse 13, when fire will be the proof of what was built.

It’s all part of Paul’s switch from an agricultural metaphor for the Christian Church in the first part of chapter 3 (watering, planting, growth, “you are God’s field”) to the image signaled at the end of verse 9 last week, “you are God’s building.”

Throughout I Corinthians, Paul draws on various vivid images to stress the unity in diversity which is the Church. The rich picture of the Church as a human body will show up in chapter 12. But this image of a building helps us grasp that we don’t simply just find ourselves in the church, but that we have a part in creating it. The primary Creator/Builder is of course God, as we read last week. But our work matters too.

Verses 16 and 17 highlight the importance of the Church construction, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” What we create together by coming together as the Church is sacred and is made sacred by its being the very place where God lives.

It’s important to read the footnote to verses 16 and 17 in the NRSV, that in both the word “you” is plural. There’s been much recent unfortunate individualization and secularization of this idea of humans being God’s temple. It’s partly the connection with chapter 6 verse 19, but that verse needs to be read in the light 3:16 and 17 which come before it.

So I regularly hear folks at the gym say something like “My body is a temple,” and then go on to talk about their latest diet or exercise program, which presumably is some sort of worship in that “temple.” But Paul’s idea, the Gospel idea, is that it is all the bodies of God’s people gathered together as the Church which are actually the temple of God. That of course has implications for what each of us does with our own individual bodies, as in chapter 6, but the primary focus is on the larger building of which we each are only a part.

The text ends with yet one more warning against divisiveness in the Church. The problem is feelings of superiority of one faction over another, supposed “wisdom.” The result is division around adopted leaders of those factions.

Yet it is all God’s building through Christ. We all belong to God through Christ, Paul concludes in verse 23. That means that the building we are together needs to be constructed of “materials” which hold together in the fire of judgment.

The golden dome at Notre Dame needs periodic regilding in order to keep shining. But it’s an incredibly beautiful and lasting material. May our life together in Christ make use of similarly precious materials like love and grace and patience, which, while needing to be renewed regularly in this life, will hold us together forever.

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Foolishness

This week’s text, I Corinthians 1:18-31, is difficult for me because of recent political events. It is hard for me to affirm foolishness, even the Lord’s foolishness that is wiser than human wisdom, when it seems like our country is being subjected to the triumph of foolishness over wisdom, the victory of unreason over reason, and ultimately the overcoming of good by evil.

So it takes a bit of subtlety, something for which the current cultural climate has no patience, to grasp that the wisdom under attack in the text is precisely the sort of foolishness which has ensnared our nation. This wisdom-which-is-foolishness is the utilitarian, practical human wisdom which supposes that whatever works is true and good and the best for human welfare. This wisdom which God wants to destroy is the self-aggrandizement of those who imagine they are sophisticates who know how to “make a deal” and thus achieve by human cleverness alone a better world.

Far from an excuse for simple-mindedness or, worse, simple stupidity, the call to accept the “foolishness” of the Cross runs at cross-purposes to all the thoughtless “wisdom” of those in power. Rather than offering a formula for accruing power and advantage to ourselves, the “foolishness” of the Cross calls us to relinquish our own advantage and security for the sake of others.

Contrary to the “wisdom” of making America great and strong again, the “foolishness” of the Cross in verse 27 is meant to shame the wise and shame the strong.

Despite the current populist trend against careful political thought and despite, more painfully, the recurring Christian mistake of supposing that the faithful need to shield themselves from reason and intellect and thoughtful study, the foolishness of the Gospel, of the Cross, of Christ our Lord, demands the deepest thought. For one must understand that what feels natural and even good, like getting the most I can for myself and for those nearest to me, is deeply flawed and mistaken thinking.

One can only justly arrives at the embrace of foolishness when, like Paul, you have brought all the God-given powers of mind and heart to the contemplation of what is true and good. Careful reasoning itself leads to the conclusion that the most reasonable choice is the apparently foolish subjection of oneself to weakness and shame alongside our crucified Lord.

The final verses of the text again challenge the spirit of the age which allows unbridled boasting and self-assertion, even when the assertions are false. Those boasts of wisdom and power come to nothing before the Cross of Christ.

And verse 28 is the great reassurance that things will not stay in this sad state. Arrogance, boasting and the thirst for power and wealth will have their day but ultimately be brought low. “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” If kindness, gentleness, civility, humility and love seem in short supply around us, let us not fear. These precious virtues, which seem to be fading from existence around us and even in ourselves, shall, with our Lord who embodies them all, rise again and put down and bring to nothing all that which opposes them.

So when we hear the boasting of those in power, let us remember with Paul in verse 31, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

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Non-Partisan

I’ve often heard people wish that the present-day Christian Church could be more like the Church was in the first century, right after the time of Christ and during the lifetimes of the apostles. My friend Jeff has the perfect response to the desire to go back and be like the early church. He asks people who say that, “Have you ever read I Corinthians? Why would you want to be like that?”

Our text for today, I Corinthians 1:10-17, addresses division and partisanship in a local church, but it rings frighteningly true for the evil spirit which has seized America in the past year. Of course divisions by political party and by social class and by race have differences from the spiritual divisions which plagued the church in Corinth, but I think any honest believer will admit that much the same sort of human sin can do its ugly work in both secular and church politics.

My friend Mark Alfano has written an article on what he calls “communities of trust.” He examines the structure and dynamics of small communities of people in which reciprocal relationships of trust play a large role. The benefits of such communities include mutual care and protection as well as other practical benefits.. But the paper concludes with the worry that the drawbacks of such small communities may be unavoidable. Alfano says, “They can become insular and walled-off from the surrounding community, leading to distrust of the out-group.” That sounds like an incredibly apt description both of the divisions in the ancient church at Corinth and in contemporary American society.

In verse 10, Paul simply tells the Corinthians to cease their divisions and seek a unity of mind and purpose. As anyone who has experienced a church “fight” or recent political debate can tell you, that is much, much easier said than done. My friend is rightly skeptical of whether it is even possible.

The only possible answer I see to the ubiquitous and obvious divisions between human beings is to find unity of mind and purpose in an allegiance higher than and superseding any merely pragmatic social arrangement for mutual benefit. That is, if I am part of a “community of trust,” whether a church or a club or some other social unity, only because I find it helpful to myself in some way, then I will inevitably place my own interests and the interests of my immediate small community above those of others outside the group, leading to isolation, distrust, etc.

Paul’s answer goes back to what we see in our Gospel lesson for Sunday, from Matthew 4:12-23. Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John to follow Him. Jesus Himself is the center of that small community of trust we typically call the “disciples.” But the text makes plain that, while Jesus asks these people to follow Him, His concern is much larger than the immediate group gathered around Him. He dubs them “fishers of people” and, in the closing verses of the text, they join Him in a ministry of sharing good news and healing people in a wide area which crossed several political and social boundaries.

At the center of Christian faith and Christian community is a person unlike many public leaders who utilize for their own political ends the natural human inclination to divided and insular community. Jesus constantly points His followers beyond their own interests and immediate concerns to the needs of others, including those outside one’s own community. The Spirit of Jesus is the only source of true non-partisanship in our world, the only hope of any larger unity.

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Big Secret

Many years ago, my wife’s fervent opposition to fashions in Christian theology and life which tended toward the ancient heresy of gnosticism won her the title “Gnostic Buster” from some on-line friends. At its heart, one of the key characteristics of gnosticism is its contention that behind the surface of Christianity is an esoteric gnosis, a secret knowledge known only to a few who have superior wisdom and insight. It’s a heresy because Christian belief does not include any secrets.

Our text for this Sunday on which we will celebrate Epiphany (actually January 6), Ephesians 3:1-12, might cause one to think I’m wrong about Christianity and secrets. Here is Paul talking about God’s secret plan kept hidden for generations. But the thing to realize is that Paul mentions that hidden plan only to say that it has now been revealed. It’s a mystery, but it is no longer secret.

And the mystery is nothing particularly esoteric, nor is it difficult to understand. It’s the simple truth which is the burden of almost all Paul’s letters, that, through the grace of Jesus Christ, Gentiles have been included alongside Jews among God’s people. Through Christ, anyone can join the family of God.

It’s the same message intimated by the Gospel lesson for this Sunday, Matthew 2:1-12, where we see definitely Gentile visitors, likely from Persia, coming to kneel and worship the infant Jesus. There is a place in the circle around our Lord for anyone who wishes to come and adore Him.

In this time of resurgent prejudice, exclusion and discrimination, we need to remember our big Christian secret that is not secret at all. There is no room for racism in our faith, because there is room for everyone in our faith. May we leak that secret to the whole world.

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