Wednesday, December 12, 2007

“The Future is Open”

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38[1]

I grew up playing the game “Monopoly.” My cousins and I would play it like it was going out of style! In later years, when I actually read the rules of the game (!), I learned that we had “cheated.” You see, the game of monopoly operates in a fixed world with a closed system. There are only so many properties, only so many houses and hotels, and only so much money to go around. Now, of course, my cousins and I didn’t invent new properties on the board. But we didn’t abide by the limitations on cash and improvements. The way we played the game, if a person had the money to buy a house or hotel, they got one. And when we ran out of cash, we just made more. We created $1,000 bills and $5,000 bills and we had double hotels on Boardwalk!

When I found out that we had actually “broken” the rules, I began thinking about the world and how it operates. There are those in our world who operate from the assumption that there’s only so much to go around. What that usually means is that I have to get mine so that I don’t wind up empty-handed! And the assumption is also that it leaves others without enough. When you look at our society in comparison with the rest of the world, it’s easy to conclude that we are hoarding an inordinate amount of the world’s resources.

But there’s also another way of looking at things. When I shared my analogy with a friend who was in finance, he enlightened me regarding the way a market economy works. Other systems of economics operate on the basis of the fact that there’s only so much to go around. But a market economy works on the principle of creating wealth—by starting businesses, by filling a niche that hasn’t yet been filled, by tapping a previously undiscovered source of revenue.

As my friend pointed out, when you look at the world from that point of view, the question of how much there is to go around doesn’t even enter the equation. In fact, it is possible that no one knows how much our economy can generate. Instead of a principle of “hoarding,” this a market economy works on the principle of “investing.” You see a niche, feel a need, or uncover an opportunity. You come up with a business plan. You raise the funds you need. Then you risk the whole thing in a new venture. Will it succeed? You’ll never know until you make the leap!

I think that illustration from the world of economics has application other areas of life. In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus was dealing with a group of people who basically operated within a closed system. The Sadducees, as Luke tells us, did not believe in things like “resurrection.” They operated within a closed system—they believed only what they saw and what the past had taught them. They used the Scriptures as a kind of rule book that strictly prescribed for them what they would and would not believe in. They were the guardians of the past, the protectors of the status quo.

But when all you have to go on is the past, then death and decay reign supreme.[2] In due time, everything and everyone that ever was, is no more. If the system is closed, then everything inevitably deteriorates. But Jesus reminded them that God does not operate within a closed system. God is the God of the living, not of the dead! God is the God of life, not the God of decay!

In God’s system, the world operates based on promises that point toward a future with hope and life.[3] Promises like “I will wipe away every tear,” and “they will all know me, from the greatest to the least,” and “they will beat their swords into ploughshares,” and “I am making everything new.” The Christian faith is at heart the hope that God has begun to do just that through Jesus Christ.[4] The Christian faith is at heart the faith that God is already doing that through the Spirit of Life poured out on all creation.[5]

This congregation has been standing at a crossroads for some time. We can choose to live within a closed system to assume that there’s only so much to go around, to think that our best is back there somewhere in the past—which means it’s dead and gone. Or we can embrace an open future, and operate on the basis of the faith that God is continually at work around and among us to make everything new—which means our future is alive and full of promise because we have no idea what God can or cannot do in this congregation and in this community.

I prefer to embrace an open future. But then, what really matters is the choice you make. I hope you will join me in hoping in the God and Father of our risen Lord Jesus Christ, the God who is making all things new through his Spirit poured out on all creation, the God who is God not of the dead, but of the living.

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm; a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/11/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Jürgen Moltmann, God in Creation, 163; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 93; Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 22-26.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 24-25.

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 26-27, 28, 30, 32-33.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, Church in the Power of the Spirit, 191; he also says that the Spirit “makes enslaved creation live and fills everything with the powers of the new creation.”

“A Vision Remains”

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Luke 19:11-28[1]

There was a time when everyone had fairly the same idea about what “church” is and what “church” is about. I’m afraid those days are gone for good—there just is no generally agreed upon idea in our society about what a church is supposed to be and do. I think if you asked a random person at the mall to define “church,” it would be amazing the variety of answers you would get.

Even in the church there is precious little agreement. If you just look at the churches on television you will find a bewildering assortment that would challenge the most perceptive individual to find anything that holds them in common. You have everything from 70’s style variety shows to people lecturing about Greek and Hebrew words—and everything in between, including people with charts and timelines predicting the end of the world, others apparently trying to drag our society kicking and screaming back to the 1950’s, and even a Catholic nun leading the rosary! With that kind of confusion, it’s no wonder it’s so hard for churches to thrive—do we even know what it is we’re supposed to be doing? For some, this is a crisis of immense proportions, because it represents an end of their vision for the church.

In the days when Babylon was the most powerful nation in the Ancient Near East, Israel was among the nations that faced the threat of conquest. Many of the prophets viewed this impending catastrophe as God’s judgment for Israel’s sinful and unjust ways. Habakkuk, however, had a serious problem with this. In essence, he asked the Lord how it could be “just” to bring judgment upon them using a nation that was more wicked than Israel!

The real problem for Habakkuk, I think, was that the destruction of Israel represented the end of a vision—his vision of what God was doing in the world through his covenant people. But the message Habakkuk received for the Lord was that “a vision remains,” and he was to proclaim it so that his fellow Israelites might not give up. The vision was this—no matter what happens, God will remain faithful to his own.

In spite of the fact that it may seem that we are coming to the end of a vision—a vision for what the church is and does in our world—I think the Scriptures remind us all that “a vision remains.” It is the vision that God is working in this world at no less than “making everything new” (Revelation 21:5).[2] It is the vision that we don’t have to wait for some remote future on a timeline, because “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21); God’s saving reign is now presently working among humankind.

It’s the vision of Jesus that we’ve been studying in his parables on Wednesday evenings—a vision that consisted of promoting the Kingdom of God. As we have found, the parables of Jesus are stories that illustrate various dimensions of God’s “secret”: the Kingdom of God is already working to make all things new.[3] And as the Parable of the Pounds demonstrates, that adds urgency to what we do with our lives now.

In the NT, the apostles translated Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God into a vision for the church. They articulated a vision that can be called “The Church in the Power of the Spirit,” giving ourselves away in service, and compassion, and community with others (Galatians 5:13; 1 Peter 4:10). It is the vision of the church as a kind of “sacrament” of God’s presence, God’s life, God’s grace in this world.[4] What that means is that the church becomes the place where and the people among whom a hurting world can find “the experience of the life-affirming, life-giving love of God.”[5] It is a vision of a church that serves no matter what the cost, a church that embraces all, even the unlovable, even the “enemy.”[6] It is the vision of a church that bears witness to new life in every sphere of life.[7]

Does this biblical vision offer something that can motivate and inspire us to be the church in this community? Last January our session formulated a vision in terms of the slogan that we print on our bulletin each week: “We are an open family of Christians.” We say that means that we represent a diversity of beliefs and styles of faith, that we seek to be inclusive and to embrace individuals from all walks of life, that we are a caring community, and that we seek to be disciples of Jesus the Christ, to follow him in promoting the Kingdom of God and its justice in our community and in our world.

I think that means that this is a church were you can ask any question that’s on your mind without fear of being looked down upon or chastised as a heretic. I think it means that this is a church where anyone can show up at the door and be welcomed and embraced as a part of the family. That’s my vision for this church, at any rate. If it’s something that interests you, I hope you will join me in seeking to follow Christ and to serve those around us.

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm; a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/4/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2]Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 85, 88; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 256; Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 91, 294-95; Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 66, 84, 146; Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 149, 155, 158, 161, 163, 164.

[3] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 76-85; 98-99; 190-91; cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 220, 252-54.

[4] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 205.

[5] Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life, 279.

[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 342

[7] See The Book of Order G-1.200; G-3.0200-0300; cf The Book of Confessions, Confession of 1967, 9.31; cf.also Moltmann, Church in the Power, 295, 299, 316, 332, 334, 340.

“Always Reforming”

Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; Lk.18:9-14[1]

The heart of the Reformed faith is the phrase, “reformed and always reforming according to the word of God.”[2] We who hold to the “Reformed” faith often speak of “the Reformation,” but in fact there have been a number of “reformations” throughout history. And in most cases they were driven by a reassessment of certain notions about God.

For example, in the days of ancient Israel, one of the significant “reformations” in their view of God was that, unlike the deities worshipped by the other nations, God is not restricted to a certain place or nation. Another major reformation was the recognition that God wants obedience, not animal sacrifices; God seeks the heart, not the blood and flesh of our livestock!

In Martin Luther’s day, the reformation concerned how one can be right with God. For centuries the teaching of the church had made it clear that one must work diligently to obey God’s commands, to avoid sin, and to remain true to the faith in order to be found right with God at the final judgment. Luther, like several lesser known “reformers” before him, emphasized Paul’s view that we are made right with God by God’s grace alone through faith in Jesus the Christ. There is nothing we can or need do in order to earn it. And it’s something we can be confident of now, not a verdict that will be rendered only after we finish our course.

In our day, I think we still have some “reforming” to do in our ideas about God. For all of the great Reformers’ influence—from Luther to Calvin to Knox—I think we still don’t quite accept the idea that God, out of God’s own grace and mercy and love, set us right with himself, and that there is nothing we have to do to make God love us any more than God already does.

I think the other side of that coin also needs some attention also— there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any less! No matter what we do, God continues to love us, continues to seek us, continues to be gracious and merciful toward us. The truth of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is that God loves the wayward, and wants to heal and restore them, not to punish them.[3] That’s the secret of God’s kingdom that Jesus teaches us in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. In fact, the NT teaches us Jesus was willing to give up his divine privileges (Philippians 2:6), willing to be tortured to death (Philippians 2:8; cf. Isaiah 53:5,), willing to literally go to hell for us in order to heal and restore us all (1 Peter 3:19; Romans 10:6-7; cf. Isaiah 53:8-9).

In spite of the fact that the NT assures us over and over again that this is indeed the gospel truth, we have a hard time grasping that kind of love. It’s the kind of love that sets the stage for the 1998 Robin Williams film, What Dreams May Come. The story is about a couple, Chris and Annie, whose love is subjected to the worst possible tests. After the tragic loss of their two children in an accident, Annie also loses her husband and soul-mate Chris. She is so overcome with despair that she kills herself and goes to hell—not because God is punishing her for killing herself or for unbelief or anything like that, but because she is punishing herself. Chris goes to a very unusual version of “heaven”—one that has very little in common with the Christian notion of eternal life, by the way.

But their love is such that even in death Chris and Annie have an unusually strong connection. So strong, in fact, that when Annie takes her life, Chris knows that something has gone wrong. Against all odds, Chris decides to search for Annie in hell. When he finally finds her in an upside-down and ramshackle version of their home, Chris enters the nightmare into which Annie has plunged herself. Despite the fact that he can consciously feel himself slipping into the madness of Annie’s “hell,” Chris has decided to stay with her. His act of sacrificial love in the highest degree breaks through Annie’s despondency and restores her so she can go back with him to “heaven.” What makes the difference is that Chris loves her so much that he is not just willing to die for her, but willing to stay with her even if it means spending all eternity with her in her self-made “hell.”

I think this story presents a parable of the love that God has for us. We have too long believed that sin and death and hell are somehow more powerful than God’s love and grace. We have too long believed that God will stop loving us if at the end of our lives our good deeds don’t outweigh our sins. We have too long believed that God will reject us if at the end of our lives we haven’t endorsed the right theological opinions. We have too long believed that if we aren’t “good enough” God will give us up to an eternal condemnation without the slightest hint of compassion.

But the good news of the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ is that God loves us with an everlasting love, a love that will not let us go, no matter what. God’s love is more powerful than sin, or death, or even hell itself.[4] In fact, according to the NT the only thing that is ultimately and finally condemned in the end is hell itself![5] The good news is that God always seeks to heal and restore the wayward, whether their wanderings have led them to the brokenness of a dishonest tax collector, or the desperation of a prodigal son so hungry he’s willing to eat pig fodder, or even to the very depths of hell.

On this Reformation Sunday, I hope we can embrace the good news that there’s nothing you can do to make God love you any more than God already does, and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you any less.

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm; a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/28/2007 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] See, for example The Book of Order 2007-08, G-2.0200; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 355.

[3] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 87, 88, 91, 94.

[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39-40: “our hope is for the day when all things will be restored and gathered in a new, eternal order.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145. See further Hans Küng, Eternal Life, 212, where he grants that salvation for all is not guaranteed, but nevertheless affirms that “Not even in ‘hell’ are there any limits set to the grace of God”; cf. similarly, Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 190: “Death can set no limits to the unconditional and hence universal love of God.”

[5] Moltmann, In the End—the Beginning, 145: “What will be annihilated is Nothingness, what will be slain is death, what will be dissolved is the power of evil, what will be separated from all created beings is separation from God, sin.”

“Doing Our Best”

2 Timothy 2:8-15[1]

I grew up pledging “on my honor” to do my best. The Scout oath and the Scout law were so ingrained into me that I can still repeat them both to this day! But promising to do my best was more than just an oath that I repeated every week at Scout meetings. It was a way of life that my family taught me.

I believe most of us would like to think that we are doing our best. These days, however, doing our best is a bit more complicated. “Doing our best” these days is something that has to be tied to measurable results. Everyone from business to teaching to the United Way is looking for “measurable results.” Our “results-oriented” mania has made “doing our best” a lot more complicated.

I’m afraid, however, that for all our measuring, we’re not doing better, but worse. Now, instead of focusing on doing our best, we’re focusing on measuring everything. Take the public school system, for example. In 1991, the State of Texas in its infinite wisdom introduced the TAAS test. The point was to make sure that our children were getting a good education. But what happened was that the test wasn’t coordinated with the curriculum, so teachers began teaching the TAAS instead of their subject. In 2003, the TAKS test replaced it, and it was supposed to correct the problems caused by the TAAS. But while the test itself may be more closely aligned with the curriculum, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that standardized testing has not improved education in Texas, but rather diminished it. Of course, there’s no question that some under-performing teachers are probably doing their job more consistently. But in the process, the TAAS/TAKS test has stripped the excellent teachers of the freedom to give full expression to their creativity! Instead of approaching their subject with imagination and enthusiasm, they too have to teach the TAKS.

Think of college recruiters, out there looking for candidates for the teacher education program at a local university. Do they pitch the ideal of teaching or the reality? They could say something like, “If you become a teacher you will have the opportunity to mold young minds and shape young lives”—that’s the ideal of teaching. But if they want to be more honest, they would have to say something like, “If you become a teacher you will be chained to a system that teaches to the lowest common denominator and rigidly ties your chances for promotion to ‘measurable results’ in the classroom.” Which do you think will produce more teacher candidates?

Of course, the mania for numbers and figures and “measurable results” has always been a temptation for the church. One of the clichés in church is the story about pastors gathering for coffee every week and exaggerating their attendance and giving figures in order to impress each other! This cliché, however, reveals one of the great challenges in church life and work: just what is the measure of “doing one’s best” in the church? If it’s numbers, then only a small fraction of churches in the world have ever been “successful.” The vast majority of churches of all stripes in this country are just like ours—under 100 members.[2]

If we look to our New Testament lesson for today, Paul urges Timothy to “do his best,” to strive to fulfill his calling, to make every effort to follow Christ and to serve others faithfully. It seems to me that what Paul was trying to do was to encourage and inspire Timothy to be faithful to his calling and to his work. In the Christian life, the measure of success can rarely be reduced to numbers. It has to do with life! We’re in the business of changing hearts! And I don’t think we can rely simply on church attendance or giving figures as a measure of changing hearts and lives. That’s the challenge that faces us all—you can never really know when or where or how far you’re making a difference.

That’s why Paul told Timothy to stick to the plan, to hold onto the vision, to keep working diligently. “Success” in ministry is about perseverance. What makes a church thrive is to keep our focus on following Christ and serving others.[3] Objective goals and measurable results won’t do it. Churches die when they become preoccupied with those things. Churches thrive when they follow Christ and serve those around them. It’s that simple.

So are we being faithful in this congregation? Are we doing our best? I think the answer is a resounding “Yes!” For some “doing our best” means that they are going way beyond the call of duty. To them I say, “Bless you, bless you, bless you!” For some “doing our best” means they would like to do more, but they are doing as much as they possibly can. And to them I say, “Bless you, bless you, bless you!” For some, “doing our best” means that they are only able to show up for worship as the occasion permits. And to them I say, “Bless you, bless you, bless you!”

As Mother Teresa puts it, “God does not demand that I be successful. God demands that I be faithful. When facing God, results are not important. Faithfulness is what is important.”[4]

[1] © 2007 Alan Brehm; a sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/14/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] John Dart, A ‘census’ of congregations - Faith Communities Today survey results,” in The Christian Century (March 21, 2001); cf.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, in The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 306-7, identifies the “essentials” as kerygma [proclaiming the gospel], koinonia [fellowship], and diakonia [service]; cf. also 361: “The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is the church of Jesus Christ. Fellowship with Christ is its secret. The Church of Jesus Christ is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Unity in freedom, holiness in poverty, catholicity in partisan support for the weak, and apostolate in suffering are the marks by which it is known in the world.”

[4] See Jose Luis Gonzalez-Balado, In My Own Words (The Words of Mother Teresa), accessed at

Friday, November 23, 2007

“The Church in the Power of the Spirit”

2 Timothy 1:1-14; Lk. 17:5-10[1]

Most of you know that my favorite reformed theologian is a man named Jürgen Moltmann. You may or may not know that my favorite book by Prof. Moltmann is called The Church in the Power of the Spirit. I first read it over 20 years ago for a class in Seminary, but I began to really use it when I started preaching again more regularly about 10 years ago. It is well-used by now; in fact, it has become like a second “bible” to me, in a manner of speaking.

The title “The Church in the Power of the Spirit” might seem strange to you. “Power” is not something we associate with either church or spirit. “Power” is what the high and mighty wield to make themselves “higher” and “mightier.” We tend to associate “power” with the “movers and shakers”; it’s what they use to increase their wealth and extend their influence. “Power” is something we are suspicious of—as in “all power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[2]

It’s certainly not something we would expect an old Jewish preacher named Paul to talk about at the end of a career that he himself described as “the dregs of all things” (1 Corinthians 4:13)! Yet there he was, sitting in chains, inviting Timothy to join in his work “relying on the power of God” (2 Timothy 1:8)! From the outside looking in, it doesn’t seem that the “power of God” had done Paul much good! Why would anyone think that an obscure Jewish Christian evangelist like Paul would know anything about power?

The answer is that the kind of power Paul spoke of is different from what we call power. The kind of power Paul was talking about is the power of faith, and hope, and love.[3] The kind of power Paul was talking about is the power of a promise that opens the door to new life—the promise of Jesus, his gospel, his death, and his resurrection. It is the power of hope, joy, and enthusiasm that comes from the vision, “I am making everything new” (Rev. 21:5).[4] It is the freedom and power of knowing that we are loved, and giving ourselves away in service, and compassion, and community with others. It is, simply put, the power of the Spirit.

I think Paul knew something of this kind of power—the power of the Spirit. He himself was a personal witness to the power of new life through the resurrection of the crucified Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (Philippians 3:7-10; 2 Corinthians 5:17). Paul himself had seen new life springing up over and over again through all his hardships, humiliations, and sacrificial service on behalf of others (2 Corinthians 4:7-12).

Prof. Moltmann describes it this way: “The Spirit of God makes the impossible possible; he creates faith where there is nothing left to believe in; he creates love where there is nothing lovable; he creates hope where there is nothing to hope for. … He makes enslaved creation live and fills everything with the powers of the new creation.”[5]

Church in the power of the Spirit is the sacrament of God’s presence, God’s life, and God’s grace in this world.[6] It is the one, holy, universal, and apostolic church that is out there every day, striving for the oneness of all humankind, striving for the justice of God that makes all life holy, striving for the universal peace of God that embraces victims and perpetrators in God’s love, striving to proclaim the apostolic truth that sets all creation free from the chains of death.[7]

That is, at least, the ideal of the church in Scripture and in the thinking of my favorite reformed theologian, Jürgen Moltmann. In real life, the church can have a very different look and feel. Personal agendas, personality clashes, tedious meetings, the monotony of continuing to do and say the same things over and over again, when it seems that nobody is listening. In real life, the church can seem more like a relic of an ancient past that lost all power to influence or transform or inspire long ago.

I daresay, however, that when we get stuck in that rut, perhaps we’re thinking about power from the wrong perspective. Jesus reminded the apostles that the role they were called to was a humble one, not a lofty one. I think it would not be unfair to the holy Apostles, the founders of and foundation for the church, to say that they still cherished some faulty notions of “power” when it came to their perspective on the Kingdom of God. But Jesus brought them back “down to earth.” He reminded them that the task he called them to consisted of things like “plowing” and “keeping sheep” and “serving meals”; in other places it consists of “fishing.” None of which qualify for the terms “power” or “prestige.”

In a very real sense, the “Church in the power of the Spirit” is the church that serves no matter what the cost. It is the church that embraces all, even the unlovable, even the “enemy.”[8] It is the church that bears witness to new life in every sphere of life.[9]

And yet, despite the humble character of that kind of life, one of the things that Jesus and the apostles, including Paul, demonstrated so clearly over and over again, is the power that faith, hope, and love hold in store to “make everything new” right here and right now.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/7/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Lord John Dalberg-Acton, Letter to Mandell Creighton (April [3? or 5?], 1887), referring to the declaration by Pope Pius IX of the Roman Catholic dogma of papal infallibility; accessed at

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 307-314; see Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, 115-119.

[4] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 91, 294-95; cf. Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 66, 84, 146.

[5] Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 191; cf. also Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 35, where he discusses Calvin’s view of the Spirit as the fons vitae, or the “wellspring of life.” See further Spirit of Life, 57, 82, 84, 95, 177, 212.

[6] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 205; cf. Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 279: the presence of the Holy Spirit is “the experience of the life-affirming, life-giving love of God.”

[7] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 340-361; see also Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 54, 123, 141, 143, 154, 271-72.

[8] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 342

[9] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 295, 299, 316, 332, 334, 340; cf. Moltmann, Spirit of Life, 143.

“Ready to Share?”

Amos 6:1, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31[1]

I can think of no better illustration of the principle that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10) than the 2002 film “Changing Lanes.” The film depicts a story between two men due in court. Doyle Gipson is a recovering alcoholic who’s working hard to get his life back on track and is on his way to court to try to persuade his ex-wife not to move across the country with their two boys. Gavin Banek is a successful young Wall Street lawyer who is going to court for a probate dispute involving a $100 million foundation that he convinced a confused elderly tycoon to sign over control to the firm, which of course made them millions.

While he is changing lanes, Banek crashes his car into Gipson’s. In his haste, he tries to simply write a check for the damages. He ignores Gipson’s plea that “it is important that we do this right” and drives away shouting, “Better luck next time.” But in his haste, he leaves the crucial document “proving” their claim that the elderly millionaire turned over control of his foundation to them. He also leaves Gipson stranded on the side of the road—which means Gipson misses his court appointment, and fails to persuade his wife to stay. Thus begins the morality play between the two men. As they each try to outdo each other at revenge, their day goes from bad to worse to catastrophic!

Throughout the day, instead of simply owning up to his mistake, Banek keeps trying to cut corners to get what he wants. At one point, as Banek is beginning to have an attack of conscience, his wife (who is the boss’s daughter) asks him to come to lunch. She asks him, “Did you know my father had a mistress for 20 years?” He says no at first, but then adds, “Well, I didn't know it was for 20 years.” Her mother knew all along, she says, “but she decided it would be hypocritical to leave a man for cheating at home, when the expensive life she enjoyed so much was paid for by a man whose job was based on finding ways to cheat.” The point is that she wants Banek to do whatever it takes to maintain their expensive life. Later her father takes over and also tries to get Banek back “on board.” The ultimate justification for his dishonesty is, “At the end of the day I do more good than harm. What other standard have I got?”

Yes, the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil! By his own confession, Banek had left the scene of an accident, paid a computer hacker to bankrupt Gipson, lied to his bosses, had been party to defrauding a charity, and was considering filing a forged document to the court. Dishonesty, embezzlement, infidelity, and so on. It’s all there in “Changing Lanes.” But all of that and more have always been around, haven’t they?

The prophets of old repeatedly warned against the dangers of wealth. In the Gospels Jesus echoes again and again the warning that wealth has a seductive way of taking over one’s heart.[2] In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus rebuked the Jewish leaders because they “loved money” and “justified” themselves for it (cf. Lk. 16:14–15)[3]—just like Gavin Banek’s father-in-law! The rich man in the parable was not condemned because he was rich. He was condemned because he loved his money so much that he couldn’t be compassionate toward a starving man at his very own gate![4]

The heart and soul of what God wants from us according to the Bible is to practice mercy, compassion, and generosity to others.[5] And here is this rich man, probably a respected “pillar” of his synagogue, who not only doesn’t show compassion, he probably didn’t even notice Lazarus at all! To some extent, one could say his “hell” was self-imposed by the isolation that wealth creates.[6]

It’s so easy to justify being wealthy—and make no mistake about it: in comparison with most of the 6 billion people on this planet we are for the most part wealthy. If you’re not sure about that, just look around at which groups of people do which kinds of work in our communities. And what does that mean for their children’s chances of going to college or for their prospects of retirement? When faced with reality, our justifications sound a bit like addicts coming up with all kinds of rationalizations to reassure ourselves that “It’s not a problem, I’ve got it under control.”[7] But when we say that, you can bet that our possessions have begun to possess us.[8] Although we may joke that we know it’s risky for us to be wealthy but we’d like to give it a try for a while, the stark reality is that the things of this world tend to enslave, destroy, and distort humanity—both ours and others’.[9]

Throughout the history of the church, the saints and heroes of our faith have consistently taught us that the only way to keep ourselves free from the love of money is to give as much of it away as we possibly can! That’s why Paul tells Timothy to instruct the wealthy Christians of their day to be “ready to share” and rich in good deeds. But, of course, that notion can also be a question—are we ready to share? That’s not a question regarding our financial commitment to this church. It’s a question regarding our life! So how about it? Are we ready to share?

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/30/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] R. Schnackenburg, Jesus in the Gospels, 194-95. Among the dangers listed in Luke, he notes greed (12:15; 16:14); self-indulgence (8:14; 12:19; 16:19; 21:34); vanity (14:7-10); neglect of the poor (16:20-21), and arrogance (cf. 14:16-20). See also Richard Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, 40-43; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 196.

[3]D. Bock, “The Rich Man and Lazarus and the Ethics of Jesus,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 40 (Fall, 1997): 70-71.

[4] Cf. 1 John 3:17: “But if anyone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need and refuses to help how can God's love be in that person?” (NLT).

[5] See Isa. 1:17; Mic. 6:8; Jas. 1:26–27. Time and again Israel was commanded to care for the poor and destitute (cf. Exod. 22:22; 23:11; Lev. 25:25; Deut. 14:29; 15:7; 24:12, 17; 26:12) because this emulates God’s care for the poor (cf. Deut. 10:18–19; cf. 1 Sam. 2:8; Ps. 10:14; 12:5; 35:10; 140:12; Eccl. 5:8; Isa. 11:4; 25:4; Jer. 20:13; Lk. 16:22).

[6] Frank G. Honeycutt, “Hellish Indifference” in Journal for Preachers (2005):40-42; cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 175; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 268-69.

[7]Kenneth L. Carder, “The Perils of Riches,” The Christian Century (Sept. 24-Oct. 1, 1997): 831. He says, “Wealth becomes addictive. Luxuries become necessities. ... Yet in terms of the world’s population, such luxuries-turned-necessities are available to only an affluent few. Satisfying our appetite for more has devastating consequences for those who have less.” See also Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, 595; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 172, 186-87.

[8] John Sheila Galligan, “The Tension between Poverty and Possessions in the Gospel of Luke,” Spirituality Today 37 (Spring 1985): 4-12. She warns against “the seductive lure of the power, pleasure, and security that are the by-products of being wealthy.” Cf. also Joel Green, Theology of the Gospel of Luke, 148: “Wealth becomes a master if it is not mastered.”

[9]J. Moltmann, “Political Theology” Theology Today, 21.: “Only the poor really know the oppression of wealth’s exclusiveness. Only the hated know the misery which hate causes. The rich, the oppressor, the hater are always a bit oblivious to the misery they cause, even if they are well-intentioned.” See also J. Moltmann, The Crucified God, 330; Moltmann, Way of Jesus Christ, 268-69; Moltmann, Church in the Power, 175; Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 194; Foster, Freedom of Simplicity, 177-78; Küng, On Being a Christian, 597.

“No Exceptions”

1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 19:1-10[1]

It seems that the church has been divided over the issue of salvation from the very beginning. Not over the question of Jesus as the Savior, but over the question of how far his saving reach embraces.

From the very beginning there have been those who like the Apostle John believed that salvation was only for those who are presently walking in the light and saw anyone who deviated as heretical “antichrists.” And from the beginning there have been those who like Luke the Evangelist believed that salvation extended through Jesus the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham, and the son of Adam, to all humankind.

There were early leaders like Tertullian who declared “extra ecclesiam nulla salus est”—“outside the church there is no salvation”—and insisted it meant that no one finds salvation outside Christian faith.[2] And there were others who like Clement of Alexandria insisted that Jesus Christ as the divine Logos is the one who inspires truth everywhere—whether Jewish scriptures or Greek philosophy.

Our New Testament text for today from Paul’s letter to Timothy has been at the crux of this argument for centuries. Paul says clearly that God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).

Augustine, like many since his day, argued that God’s desire for “all people to be saved” only applies to those whom God has predestined to salvation, and excludes all others, even infants who die without being baptized![3] Since that time, what seems to be a simple statement of God’s purpose of universal redemption has been twisted and turned to accommodate a view of salvation that excludes all those who either refuse or dismiss or ignore or simply are unaware of the Christian faith.

Those who adhere to a more exclusive version of salvation say they believe that “God desires all people to be saved,” except “all people” equals all kinds of people, but not all people.[4] Or they say they believe that “God desires all people to be saved” except “all people” equals all those whom God has predestined to salvation! Or they say they believe that “God desires all people to be saved” except “all people” equals all those whom God knows in advance will actually believe if they have the opportunity to hear the Gospel! [5] The conclusion seems unavoidable that what they are really saying is that “God does not desire everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”![6]

I can accept and endorse the fact that there are different interpretations of the Christian faith. There always have been, and there always will be. But I never have and never will embrace a view of God that excludes the vast majority of humanity from the blessings of life and joy and freedom through Christ.[7] I choose to take the Apostle Paul at his word when he says, “God desires all people to be saved”! And I believe it is valid both biblically and theologically to hope for and believe in God’s eventual redemption of all people. No exceptions![8]

But perhaps more importantly, Paul urges us to respond to this marvelous good news by making “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings … for everyone.” Well that might sound rather anticlimactic after centuries of debate! But I think Paul has something more in mind that simply praying, “Lord, save all the heathen.” I think he had something more in mind like the prayer for mission that Charles Henry Brent, Anglican Bishop of the Philippines, wrote:

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.[9]

That kind of praying means that we have to do something about it! And that’s exactly what Brent did. When he was in the Philippines, he organized efforts to stem the flow of Opium. Later he organized the first World Conference on Faith and Order, the forerunner of the World Council of Churches. He not only “prayed” for the salvation of all people, he devoted his life to that end.

When we see the church as “the beginning of liberation for the whole of enslaved creation for its consummation in glory,”[10] we can do nothing other than work for the redemption of all humanity.

[1] A Sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/23/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Others, including Pope Benedict XVI, affirm this principle in terms of the necessity of the church as an instrument of God’s redemptive purpose in the world. See Congregation For The Doctrine Of The Faith, “Responses To Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects Of The Doctrine On The Church,” June 29, 2007; accessed at 20070629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html, which does not state that all non-Catholics go to hell, as was falsely reported!

[3] Augustine, On Rebuke and Grace, 14.44; On the Predestination of the Saints, 18.36; Enchiridion, 27, 103; cf. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition I:321; Johannes Quasten, Patrology IV:443. On infants, see Augustine, On the Soul and its Origin, 4.11.16; cf. Pelikan, Christian Tradition I:297-98.

[4] Augustine, The City of God, 21.13; cf. Pelikan, Christian Tradition V:115; cf. also

[5] Douglas R. Geivett and W. Gary Phillips, in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, ed. by S. Gundry, et. al, actually say it this way: “anyone who dies without hearing the good news is a person who would not have believed had he heard.”

[6] See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.24.15-16 (pp. 983-84).

[7] Cf. H. S. Reimarus, Apology: “My own salvation gets lost amid the piteous cries of millions of souls condemned to unending torture”; cf. Pelikan, Christian Tradition V:114; Cf. also M. Tindal, Christianity as Old as Creation, (1730), 250, where he asks how Christ can be viewed as the “Savior of mankind” if he in actual fact shuts heaven’s gates against all those who never come to Christian faith; cf. Pelikan, V:114. See further John Hick and Clark Pinnock in their respective contributions to Four Views on Salvation.

[8] Many throughout the history of the church have endorsed this view, beginning with Origen of Caesarea. See J. Pelikan, The Christian Tradition, I: 151-52; V:116-17, 224; J. Quasten, Patrology II:87-91, quoting Origen, Contra Celsus 8,72: “stronger than all evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in him; and this healing he applies, according to the will of God, to every man.” Cf. also Gregory of Nyssa, Catechetical Orations, 26, who claimed that even the “inventor of evil” would eventually be healed by God’s grace. See Quasten, Patrology, III:289-90. On this theme in Greek Patristic Theology, see John R. Sachs, S. J., “Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology,” Theological Studies 54 (1993):617-640; See further Julian of Norwich, who received the “revelation” in her visions that “all will be well.” Cf. F. C. Bauerschmidt, “Julian of Norwich—Incorporated,” Modem Theology 13:1 (January 1997):75-100. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, 39-40: “our hope is directed towards that divine future in which God will have all his creatures beside him to all eternity. That is to say, our hope is for the day when all things will be restored and gathered in a new, eternal order.” It is the hope that “God’s radiant glory will illumine everything, and all created being will participate in God’s being and his eternal life” (Jürgen Moltmann, In the End—The Beginning, 145). See further Hans Küng, Eternal Life, 212, where he grants that salvation for all is not guaranteed, but nevertheless affirms that “Not even in ‘hell’ are there any limits set to the grace of God”!

[9] The Book of Common Prayer, 101; cf. a similar sentiment by Cyril of Jerusalem in the 4th Century: “On the cross, God stretched out his hands to embrace the ends of the earth.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 207.

[10] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 83.


1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10[1]

The Apostle Paul was a man of contrasts. By his own confession, he had been a zealous Pharisee, devoted to obeying every rule in Judaism in every possible application. As a result, when confronted with the gospel, Paul’s initial response was violent hatred. He tells us in the book of Acts that he was relentless in his pursuit of Christians, dragging them before the Jewish authorities, compelling them to recant their faith, even taking part in their execution. Yes, Paul helped execute Christians.

What makes a person who professes such devotion to God turn into a hateful murderer? The “new Atheists” would say that it’s built into the nature of faith itself. At least that’s what Richard Dawkins, professor of Biology at Oxford University, claims in his TV show entitled “Religion is the Root of All Evil”! As Will Durant, the famed historian of civilization, puts it, “certainty is murderous.”[2] When we’re absolutely certain that we’re right and our enemies are wrong, we’re much more likely to kill in God’s name.

Though religion’s newly famous critics have touched on some grains of truth, I’m afraid they’re guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water! Another Oxford professor, Keith Ward, says that while religion can be turned to evil (like any other facet of human culture), the roots of this problem are in the capacity for hatred and self-deception within us![3] If you doubt that we all have the capacity for hatred, just take a look around the next time you’re trying to find a parking place in a busy parking lot!

There is a very real sense in which religion can turn into neurosis: what a person has repressed—self-hatred, excessive pride, unbridled desires—becomes what they see around them in others. Of course, however, this is all an elaborate if unconscious ploy to avoid having to face the ugly truth within themselves![4] This repression one’s own guilt inevitably leads to a rigid set of rules and authoritarian beliefs that are considered absolute precisely because they protect the guilty from having to face their own shame.[5] Anyone or anything that opposes, challenges, questions, or simply departs from their self-made “idol” becomes the target of vicious hatred and violent attacks, whether verbal or actual.

But the truth is that their “faith” is not motivated by the gospel, or by grace, or by love, but by hatred. It’s no wonder such a “faith” is toxic, violent, and vicious![6] When you start with that kind of hatred, it’s no wonder that people kill others in the name of God, just like Paul did.

Jesus proclaimed a gospel that turned the obsessive Phariseeism of a man like Paul upside down. Instead of calling for strict obedience to rules and promising rewards only to those who succeed while threatening punishment for those who don’t, Jesus offered grace and mercy to those who had failed to keep all the rules. Jesus’ whole life, from birth to death, from the manger to the cross, was one of a shepherd searching the hills for the lost sheep, bringing “liberating grace to those who were cursed” according to the religion of the day.[7] His gospel was that “the outcasts are accepted, the unrighteous are made righteous, and justice is secured for those without rights” who had been denied justice by repressive religion.[8]

What made Jesus’ gospel an outrageous blasphemy to someone like Paul was the fact that it implied a completely different view of God. Instead of the stern and impassive judge who doles out rewards and punishment in strict conformity to obedience and sin, Jesus’ gospel presents a God who loves everyone so much that he goes out searching for those who have lost their way![9] That was an intolerable upheaval in faith and in the image of God for Jewish zealots like Paul. It was outright blasphemy!

But something happened to Paul. He came face-to-face with the risen and exalted Christ, who loved Paul enough to die for him, who gave his life for Paul that Paul might have peace with God, freedom from the burden of guilt, and new life of grace and mercy and love. In First Timothy, Paul says that the reason he experienced such mercy was to show that there is no one who is beyond the grace and mercy and love of God. If he, one who blasphemed God and viciously attacked Christians, could receive mercy, there was no one in Paul’s mind who could not. This was such a revolution in Paul’s life that he came to the conclusion that it was not the Christians who were guilty of blasphemy, but it was his hate-filled attack in the name of his faith that was the real blasphemy!

What an ironical twist—to say that a “religious” person like Paul who obsessively follows a set of rigid rules and authoritative beliefs is actually lost in his own guilt and self-hatred (see Romans 7!). But more than that, when people project their self-hatred onto God and create a religion of condemnation, they actually blaspheme the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ just like Paul did! In the face of the gospel of grace and mercy and love and life, any religion that claims to represent God’s purposes through violence or hatred must be seen for what it is—an absolute contradiction of the truth that God is love.

The only appropriate response for those who have been found by the shepherd of grace and mercy is to give their lives to others out of that grace and mercy, instead of living out of guilt and hatred.

[1] A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/16/07 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.

[2] Will Durant, The Age of Faith, 784; cf. Sam Harris, The End of Faith, 85.

[3] Keith Ward, Is Religion Dangerous?, 25-41.

[4] Cf. Paul Tillich, “The Yoke of Religion,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 93-103; Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, 258-273; Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 236.

[5] Jürgen Moltman, The Crucified God, 300-302.

[6] Moltmann, The Crucified God, 296-297.

[7] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 82, 87; cf. Moltmann, Crucified God, 129, 131, 176.

[8] Moltmann, Church in the Power, 88.

[9] Moltmann, Crucified God, 142.