Saturday, July 18, 2015

The "Full" Gospel

  Last week, I started a series in Ephesians dealing with the teaching regarding Salvation in that particular New Testament book. As I shared with you, I have some concerns about the typical version of the gospel: if you believe like me, if you act like me, if you become a part of my church, then you'll be saved. If not, you're out of luck. Doesn't sound much like "good news" to me.
  And in my sermon last week I addressed the idea that the reach of the gospel goes much farther than just people "like me" to include the whole human family. But that can still keep the framework for God's saving work in the realm of redeeming individuals. And, in my opinion, that is "too small" a Gospel. One of my favorite theologians says it's a "truncated" view of Salvation.
  What would a "full" version of the Gospel look like? Well, it includes not only all people but all of creation. And I use the word all in an all-inclusive manner: the whole cosmos. That is the message of Ephesians--that the saving power of God poured into this created order through Jesus' death and resurrection is enough to transform all that is. It is not just a matter of rescuing a few individuals, or even all individuals. It is a matter of "making the whole of creation new" (Rev. 21:5, New Jerusalem Bible). 
  This week, we will look at how that affects our relationships. St. Paul particularly addresses the hostility that has plagued the human family from the beginning. He says that Christ's act of redemption has enough power to reconcile the whole human family--not only to God but also to each other.
  Although our world continues to be divided and plagued by hostility, as we saw again so painfully this week, I believe that Christ's death and resurrection introduced enough saving power to accomplish this. We will not see that full accomplishment of this "peace" that he has made for us until the final day, but in the meanwhile, with our faith and hope and love we can sow seeds of this gospel peace in our world that so sorely needs it.

God's Delight

God’s Delight
Ephesians 1:3-14[1]
It seems to me that we have a rather ambiguous attitude toward the freedom to choose. When that freedom belongs to us, we’re all for it. In fact, if anybody even hints at somehow restricting our freedom to make our own choices, we can get pretty bent out of shape. We hold on to our right to choose for dear life. But when the freedom to choose belongs to someone else, it can be a completely different matter. We don’t necessarily mind others having the freedom to choose, but we don’t want their choices to affect us adversely. In fact, we can get just as bent out of shape if somebody else makes a choice that somehow leaves us feeling short-changed or left out. I’d say we’re definitely ambiguous about the freedom to choose.
So it comes as no surprise when we come to a Scripture lesson that talks about God choosing people, we may not feel entirely comfortable about it. In fact, the whole idea of “predestination” is one of the most confusing elements of our reformed heritage. In fact, I had a conversation about this with my future daughter-in-law Jaime a few months ago. Like many people, she assumed that as Presbyterians we follow Calvin, and therefore we believe that God has chosen to bless a select group, and he has chosen to condemn the vast majority of humanity.[2] Knowing me, she was understandably confused. I think a lot of people get confused about what we as Presbyterians believe about this—not least because there are some Presbyterians who endorse it wholeheartedly![3]
I think part of the problem is that we get lost in the whole logic of choosing. If we choose one thing, it logically means that we’re rejecting something else. And there are some biblical passages that seem to imply that’s how God operates. It begins with God choosing to bless Abram and all his descendants. The Scripture says “I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse” (Gen. 12:3). That doesn’t sound very inclusive. In fact there is a lot of language surrounding the fact that Israel was the “chosen people” that sounds pretty exclusive. It sounds like God chooses a few and rejects the rest. But even in that initial blessing upon Abram and his descendants, there is a tension. While the first part of the verse sounds pretty exclusive, the rest of the verse reads, “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3)
I would say there’s definitely a development in the way the Bible treats this issue. For many centuries, the faith of Israel as expressed in the Hebrew Bible reflected the idea that their being “chosen” by God was a privilege that made them special in God’s sight. The whole language of speaking about non-Jewish people as “pagans” or “heathen” reflects this bias. But already in the Hebrew Bible, especially with the book of Isaiah, there were some hints that the idea of God going to all the trouble just to save only one branch of the human family was “too small a thing.” Rather, God commissions the prophet to serve as “a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isa. 49:6).
And so when Jesus came and offered salvation to Gentiles on equal footing with the “chosen” people, he caused quite a stir. But he also made it clear that God delights in the salvation of the whole human family, not just one small part of it. I think that’s the idea behind our Scripture lesson for today. I like the way the New Living Translation puts it: “Long ago, even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ …. His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. And this gave him great pleasure” (Eph. 1:4-5). It seems to me that God has always taken delight in our salvation.[4]
What a very different image that suggests than a God who chooses a few and rejects all the rest. It’s true that this Scripture uses the language of “us,” referring to believers. That obviously opens the door for some to read this text from that same old “we’re in and you’re out” point of view. But the way the Scripture goes on to frame it changes the perspective: it says, “God’s secret plan has now been revealed to us; it is a plan centered on Christ, designed long ago according to his good pleasure. And this is his plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ -- everything in heaven and on earth” (Eph. 1:9-10, NLT).[5] That doesn't sound like it leaves out anyone or anything. I like a phrase from The Message translation, where it says that God took “such delight” in making this plan for the salvation of everyone and all things.
Some of you may be scratching your heads at this point.[6] We’ve heard the “good news” that those of us who believe in Jesus will be saved while those who don’t will be “left behind” for so long that when we are confronted with this aspect of biblical teaching it seems too good to be true. But that is the “full” gospel—not just that God intends to save a chosen few, but rather that God’s plan is to redeem every one of his beloved children and every inch of his precious creation.[7] It’s a message that begins with Abraham, and runs through the whole Bible. And so in the New Testament the Apostles looked forward to the day when “every knee” would bow in worship and acknowledge Christ as Lord (Phil. 2:10-11). The plan behind all of this is that God is in the process of “making all things new” (Rev. 21:5, NJB). How that will happen I don’t profess to understand completely.[8] But it is a breathtaking message; a message that truly is “good news”: God’s plan is that through Christ he is going to redeem all people and all things. And as the Scripture says, God takes “great delight” in seeing to it that this plan will be fulfilled

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/12/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.23.1, where he says “since election itself could not stand except as set over against reprobation … those whom God passes over, he condemns.”  Calvin was influenced by Augustine of Hippo, who 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. See 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.
[3] Cf. Hendrikus Berkhof, Christian Faith, 136, where he (as a Reformed theologian) points out that the Reformed tradition with its doctrine of dual predestination “has caused much uncertainty and has robbed many Christians of the joy of the Christian faith.” He also points out that although Luther also created the impression of a schizophrenic God of wrath and love, he at least left a door open for people to “flee from the angry to the gracious God.” On the other hand (p. 137), Scholastic theology, with its doctrinaire embellishment of Calvin’s “eternal double decree of election and reprobation” made it impossible to change one’s fate.
[4] As Desmond Tutu puts it, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more” and “there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.” Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, 32.
[5] Cf. 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.” Cf. also Ralph P. Martin, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon, 17, where he says, “this bold claim marks the completion of New Testament thought which has Christ as the source (Col. 1:16; John 1:3-4; Heb. 1:2-3) and the sustainer (Col. 1:17) of creation. He is now hailed as the destined Lord of all life as the goal toward which the whole creation is moving.” See further, Pheme Perkins “The Letter to the Ephesians,” New Interpreters Bible XI:378: “Various astronomical theories, equations, and observations speculate about the probable fate of the material universe, but Ephesians assures us that God’s plan of salvation does not depend on these calculations and that somehow the universe is ordered so that all things return to God in Christ.”
[6] The idea that a God of grace and mercy loves us unconditionally with a love that will never let us go is is something “so unheard of, so unexpected” that it can only appear to us as something “incomprehensible and meaningless,” as a “vast impossibility.” Cf. Karl Barth, Romans, 38, 108-9.
[7] Karl Barth describes it as God’s great gracious “Yes” to all humankind in Jesus the Christ that changes everything, at least potentially. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.3:622, 649-50, 660-61, 711-12, 789, 798-99. Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 292-93, where he speaks of the Christian community as “the sign, the instrument, and the breaking-in of the new order of all things” and therefore not as “the exclusive community of the saved,” but “the initial and inclusive” expression of “the world freed by the risen Christ.”
[8] Cf. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 223, where he explains it this way: “God creates for himself a partner and allows himself to be limited and resisted by the freedom of that partner. But all of salvation history guarantees that ultimately he will not lose his grip on the world and will not rest until he has—no, not conquered and subjugated but—led his human opponent to the true freedom of the sons of God.”

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Good News?

  The "back story" behind this week's sermon is the version of the "good news" that most of us have heard all our lives. If you believe in Jesus and commit your life to him, you will have eternal life. If you don't, you will spend eternity in Hell. 
  It's that last part that's always bugged me. If the "news" about Jesus is really "good," why is it that the vast majority of the human race winds up being tormented for all eternity. And yet, for years I continued to read the Bible through the lens of this version of the Gospel.
  But as I continued reading the Bible, I began noticing verses and phrases that didn't seem to fit that view of what God is up to in the world. For example, when God calls Abram to be the "father of many nations," he also says that "in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). 
  The first time I really let that set in, I was astounded. Right from the beginning of God's work in this world to restore what had been marred by the Fall of Humankind, he announces that what he's doing is for everyone!
  I also began noticing verses in the Psalms that looked forward to the day when "all flesh" would acknowledge God as their true and rightful master. And then there were the passages in the prophets, especially in the Book of Isaiah, that pointed to a bigger plan than just the benefit of one tribe, or a select few. In fact, God commissions the prophet in this way:"It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth" (Isaiah 49:6).
  Of course, all of this comes to a critical point when Jesus comes and offers the blessings of the Kingdom of God to those whom the religious establishment had deemed unworthy of salvation. In this light, the New Testament Apostles looked for the day when "every knee shall bow ... and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord" (Philippians 2:10-11). And at the end of the Bible, one my favorite verses expresses God's purposes for this world in this way: "I am making all things new" (Revelation 21:5).
  It doesn't sound like the traditional "good news" is consistent with those aspects of biblical teaching. In fact, it seems very clear from these and many other Scriptures that God's purpose through Christ is to redeem everyone and everything in all of creation!
  I must confess, I'm not quite sure how all that will work out. The Bible is also very clear that we must respond in faith to receive the wonderful gift of new life. And yet, there they are, those verses that insist that God has already chosen all people; that God intends to save all people, and more than that, to renew all creation! While we may not understand how all that will work out, I think we have to respect the idea that if the Scriptures state so definitively that this is God's plan, then that's what we should expect to happen! 
  At the end of the day, I think some of us may have to broaden our understanding of the "Good News" so that it's truly "good" for us all!

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Pride's Conceit

Pride’s Conceit
Psalm 123[1]
Another of the fundamental problems I see in our society today is pride. I don’t mean the healthy sense of satisfaction we all have with a job well done. I’m talking about the arrogance by which some people think they have the right to look down on others. That kind of pride is an indication that something has gone wrong with our fundamental outlook on life. Instead of humbly recognizing that we are dependent on God for every aspect of our lives, those who fall to the temptation of pride seem to think that they don’t have to depend on anyone for anything. That is pride’s conceit. And it is a radical character flaw that leads to the deadly sin known by its Latin name, hubris.[2]
I think we see all kinds of signs of this kind of pride in our day and time. Corporate CEO’s make 100 times or more what their employees earn to scrape out a living. Politicians consistently pass legislation that benefits their wealthy campaign contributors instead of doing what’s right for the American people. “Talking heads” in our society take an “I’m right and you’re stupid” approach to the events of our day. And yes, even in religion, pride has a way of raising its ugly head. Many religious leaders seem more anxious to get their names in the paper or their faces on the news than caring about the welfare of the people they serve.
Our Psalm for today addresses this problem as it impacts those who seek to live faithfully in a time when arrogance seems to prevail. In fact, it’s easy to get the impression that perhaps the Psalmist had it even worse! While we can’t be sure of the setting, it would seem that this Psalm came out of the Jewish Dispersion, the scattering of the Jewish people throughout the world after the Babylonians destroyed their homeland.[3] In ancient times, as today, there were Jewish communities scattered throughout the civilized world. While some of them inevitably compromised their faith in response to the pressures they faced, many made every effort to remain true to the God who had carried them for centuries.[4] And for that, it’s not hard to imagine that they had to endure “the contempt of the proud” (Ps. 123:4).
After all, there they were, living in a foreign land. In that time, people still believed that “gods” were tied to a certain territory. From that perspective, it would stand to reason that the Jewish people had obviously been forsaken and forgotten by their God, left to make their own way in the lands of other gods. The fact that they continued to worship the God of their ancestors must have seemed humiliating to the peoples among whom they lived. Worse than that, many of them saw it as laughable, and they didn’t hesitate to taunt the Jewish people, asking them constantly, “Where is your God?”[5]
And yet the Jewish people clung tenaciously to the God of their ancestors—praying consistently for God to be gracious to them, as the Psalmist does here. Most translations render the appeal as “have mercy upon us, O Lord” (Ps. 123:3), which might suggest that the people are seeking forgiveness for some kind of wrongdoing. However, most scholars render this cry as “be gracious to us, O Lord” (NASB), which implies something more like a cry for deliverance from those who were mocking them.[6] The rest of the verse seems to back up this perspective: “for we have had more than enough of contempt”!
Perhaps more importantly, the Psalm also called the Jewish people to take a very different stance toward life than their arrogant neighbors. They were to see themselves as “servants” of God, as those who were ultimately dependent upon God for everything, including their very lives.[7] And so instead of looking down their noses at the people who heaped scorn on them, they they were called to look in a very different direction. They looked humbly to God for everything—from the basics like their livelihood to the ability to cope with living in a situation that demanded every ounce of faith they could muster. They were called to turn away from pride’s conceit to the humility of faith.[8]
That’s not always an easy thing in our world. “Dependence” is not necessarily a positive word to us. We like to think of ourselves as independent, as able to stand on our own two feet, and standing on equal footing with anyone we meet. Humility may not come easily to us. Sometimes we’d rather have our teeth pulled out than have to admit that we’ve made a mistake. And yet, the Psalmist reminds us that we are not the self-made, self-sufficient individuals we’d like to think we are. We are all “servants” of God. We are all ultimately dependent upon God for all of life, even life itself.
It seems to me that we live in a world where we have all kinds of reminders of pride’s conceit. There’s simply no disputing the fact that, with few notable exceptions, the wealthiest segment of our society doesn’t hesitate to use their power to control everything from the markets to the government to the media, ensuring that they get exactly what they want no matter what the cost. I think we could say with the Psalmist that we’ve had “too much of the scorn of the indolent rich” (Psalm 123:4). But instead of fighting fire with fire, the Psalmist calls us to a different approach. Rather than looking down our noses at those who think nothing of trampling on us, the Psalmist calls us to look in a different direction—to the God upon whom we depend for all of life. Instead of indulging in pride’s conceit, the Scripture calls us to look humbly to the God who will always keep us in his grace and love and mercy.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/5/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church.
[2] See H. Berkhof, Christian Faith, 194-197, for a brief overview of the theological discussion of sin as pride; see also Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology II:49-51.
[3] Cf. H. –J. Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 437: “Ridicule and mockery, disgrace and shame weigh heavily on the community …The people of God live in the Dispersion and are mocked because their God fails to provide proofs of his goodness and power in historical life.” It may have also come from the time immediately after the exile, when the Jewish refugees returned to their homeland to find it a shambles. Cf. J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters Bible IV:1187, where he cites several links between the contempt and scorn of the Psalm and the situation described in the book of Nehemiah. In that situation, they were in constant danger from tribal chiefs who had taken control of the land. They also bore the brunt of constant ridicule for even attempting to rebuild their lives. 
[4] Many believe the “Psalms of Ascent” were originally written for the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the high and holy feast days. Cf. McCann, “The Book of Psalms,” NIV IV:1176. The very fact that they would continue to use these Psalms in exile or even after their return to Jerusalem, when they faced the total devastation of their land, is a testament to the Jewish people’s efforts to be faithful.
[5] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 395: “the scorn was a challenge to their faith that had the form of the taunt, ‘Where is your God?’”
[6] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV:1187. The petition to “have mercy”  “is a frequent one in the psalms, often translated ‘be gracious’ … . While it may imply the specific need and desire for forgiveness, it more general is an indication that the psalmist or the people depend on God for life itself.”
[7] Cf. McCann, “Book of Psalms,” NIB IV: 1187. The image of the psalmist as a “servant” and the emphasis on the “eyes” both “clearly portray the humble dependence that characterizes the psalmist’s approach to God.” Cf. also Kraus, Psalms 60-150, 437.
[8] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 395: “The pilgrims look from a world that questions their god to the God who rules the world.”

Saturday, July 04, 2015

More than Enough of Contempt

In the sermon for this week, we will look at the Psalmist's reflections in Psalm 123. We find there a lament that "we have had more than enough of contempt" (Ps. 123:3). It becomes clear from the context that the source of the contempt are the rich and powerful who are arrogant enough to believe that just because they have the power to do something, they can.
The "back story" to my perspective on this passage relates to my experiences as a professor at a Southern Baptist seminary during the years when a particular group of pastors were working to take over the institutions of the denomination. Since it was at the time the largest Protestant denomination in the U. S., we're talking about assets in the tens of millions of dollars. Plus the power that goes with having control over a 14 million-member church. 
As you can imagine, that kind of power went to the heads of the individuals who were spearheading the effort that did eventually succeed in taking control of the denomination. They wreaked havoc in the lives of people who had served faithfully for years, if not decades, simply because they could. I don't think I was the only one who felt like I'd had more than enough of that kind of arrogant contempt.
Now, as I look at our society as a whole, it seems that same mindset has taken over in the public square. If some party had a 51 per cent majority, they don't seem to give it a second thought about cramming their "victory" down the throats of their opponents. The powerful in our society, with a few notable exceptions, seem to have no conscience about using their power to benefit themselves, no matter whom they have to hurt in the process. I would think there are a lot of people who have had more than enough of the contempt of the powerful who are arrogant enough to think they can do whatever they want just because they can.