Sunday, January 31, 2010

Aquinas on Following Jesus

I am behind. This past Thursday was the Memorial day for St Thomas Aquinas. The Office of Readings had the following excerpt from his writings. "Popular" Christianity needs a long reflection on this....

Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us? There was a great need, and it can be considered in a twofold way: in the first place, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.

It is a remedy, for, in the face of all the evils which we incur on account of our sins, we have found relief through the passion of Christ. Yet, it is no less an example, for the passion of Christ completely suffices to fashion our lives. Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.

If you seek the example of love: Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends. Such a man was Christ on the cross. And if he gave his life for us, then it should not be difficult to bear whatever hardships arise for his sake.

If you seek patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid. Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth. Therefore Christ's patience on the cross was great. In patience let us run for the prize set before us, looking upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who, for the joy set before him, bore his cross and despised the shame.

If you seek an example of humility, look upon the crucified one, for God wished to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die.

If you seek an example of obedience, follow him who became obedient to the Father even unto death. For just as by the disobedience of one man, namely, Adam, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man, many were made righteous.

If you seek an example of despising earthly things, follow him who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Upon the cross he was stripped, mocked, spat upon, struck, crowned with thorns, and given only vinegar and gall to drink.

Do not be attached, therefore, to clothing and riches, because they divided my garments among themselves. Nor to honors, for he experienced harsh words and scourgings. Nor to greatness of rank, for weaving a crown of thorns they placed it on my head. Nor to anything delightful, for in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Christians and "Rights"

This is sermon #22 from First Corinthians. This is an issue that does not go away!

1 Corinthians 9:15-27


It's almost everywhere today –– the issue of rights. It's in newspapers, magazines, on television news, talk shows.... It can be civil rights, human rights, women's rights.... Our nation has been shaped by the Bill of Rights, following the Declaration of Independence in which it was stated that everyone has the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Our culture has taken seriously the right to pursue happiness. If pushed to give the ultimate motivation in life, most people will either explicitly say or imply their personal happiness. Why do people do what they do? What motivates us? What is our hope and expectation? The common denominator, I think, would be happiness. We choose the things we think will make us happy. That is the American (and the human) way.

Where does Christian faith and practice fit into that? Do we assume God's first desire for us is that we be happy? And if we assume that, do we automatically buy into the ways the culture around us seeks happiness? Do Christians have this "inalienable right" to pursue happiness?

Think about Jesus –– what motivated him? Is personal happiness the issue we find Jesus seeking and offering in the gospels? John tells a story in his gospel where the disciples had gone to get food while Jesus had a conversation with a Samaritan woman, telling her how to find her true desire. When the disciples returned with the food, Jesus was not hungry. Why? My food, said Jesus, is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work (Jn 4:34). Jesus was motivated by a desire to please the Father.

When we come to the Corinthians, we find that their desire was to keep enjoying life at the heathen temple feasts. And, they rationalized, there was no reason for them not to do so since they knew there was no such thing as other gods.

Paul had told them they should not continue to eat at the temples, but they said they did not have to listen to him –– that a real apostle was supported by the people over whom he had authority, and since Paul was not supported by them he had no authority over them. Paul's response here in chapter nine is two-fold: first he affirms the principle that people who give their lives to the work of the church should be supported by the church, but then tells why he has chosen to refuse that right. It's at this point we see into the heart of a person who understands and follows Jesus.

That is why a letter written by a man named Paul came to be part of the Scriptures. Paul knew God in a way and followed Jesus Christ in such a way that his words communicated something that God wanted all of his people to know. Paul causes us to think of Jesus, and that happens in this situation.

When I read this passage I realize how far I have yet to go in my own conviction and obedience. This is application of the gospel in a way that takes us beyond the elementary stage of the assurance of God's love and sins forgiven. This is a level of commitment that takes understanding. It is an obedience that can be legalistically enforced to some degree externally, but calls for true spirituality if it's real.

There are three things we can see in Paul which help us come face to face with what it means to follow Jesus alongside our human and cultural tendency to contend for our rights. I want you to consider Paul's practice, purpose and perspective as he tells the Corinthians what makes him "tick."

The first practice, and the one that is most evident, is his refusal to be supported by the Corinthians. Why wouldn't he take their support? It's because of his understanding of his call. Paul is serious when he refers to himself as a "servant" of Jesus Christ; he means that he is Jesus' slave. A slave, Paul reasons, is not paid for his service. A slave doesn't have rights.

Preaching is not an option for Paul. He admits to being under a compulsion (v16). This is not a preacher's itch; it is his divine destiny. God had taken hold of him for that purpose. I know something of a compulsion to preach, but I do not know in my experience anything like Paul's Damascus Road encounter with Jesus. Paul never got over that.

Paul was also concerned that the way he gave the gospel illustrated it. In offering a "free" gospel (i.e., without taking support) his ministry is a living model of the gospel itself (v18). He refuses to do anything that may hinder the gospel's acceptance. On top of that, without taking support Paul is free of the manipulations his supporters might put on him. In v.19 he is clear that he belongs to no one. If rights become too important to Christians, they find themselves entangled in things that can stifle allegiance to Jesus.

I have been in churches where a person who made large contributions used that as a power play for the very purpose of manipulation. In one case a man expected his sins to be overlooked because of his financial gifts –– sometimes personally to the pastor. In another situation, a man expected the pastor to support the decisions and directions that he wanted –– and would give accordingly. Paul wanted to be free of any such possibility.

There were other ways Paul practiced freedom. He was actually a rather inconsistent person, at least viewed one way. Paul had just told them not to eat at the temples, yet later he will argue that it can be alright to eat meat that comes from the heathen temples. In one situation Paul would observe Jewish laws and in another situation he would ignore them. In things like circumcision and special days he would sometimes observe them and other times he would not. Religious people with an eye for consistent detail would look on and find that Paul drove them crazy. What was Paul's purpose for such a practice of what he called "freedom?"

In can be very easy for a person to exercise Christian freedom (one's rights) for personal convenience –– happiness. Why would Paul eat at the Jewish deli one time and the Gentile grill the other? Was it because one day a bagel was just the thing to make him happy, while on another day he happened to be in the mood for pork barbeque?

In vv19-23 we find the reason –– purpose –– for the things Paul does. There are six purpose (Greek: henna) clauses here, and five of them say the same thing in principle. Paul does the things he does "in order to win" people. For Jewish people, he is willing to be kosher. For non-Jews, he doesn't worry about the Mosaic laws. For people with weak consciences, he lives as though his own conscience is weak. Paul enters in with people who live outside God's law, though not in a way that violates the ethics of Christ's kingdom. And all of it is to lead them to Jesus.

In the larger context of the letter, he chooses to not have a wife (though he could) so he can be devoted only to the Lord's concerns. He will not accept support (he could) so his very ministry is a picture of the free gospel and beyond the manipulation of any supporters. His ministry is not merely his profession. Paul is consumed with only one thing: how he can introduce other people to the Lord and Love of his life. No "right" is more important than that.

In all honesty, how often do we approach our rights as Paul did? It is so much easier to be like the Corinthians and do something on the basis of our personal happiness and convenience, and so much the better if we can justify it by a "right" that everyone recognizes.

Paul had discovered that true freedom is the freedom to let one's rights go if it means an opportunity to show Jesus. What better way is there to show Jesus than to lay aside personal convenience? Isn't that what he did? How convenient was it for him to leave the glories of heaven to come here to die on a cross? Where would we be if Jesus had made his decisions based on his own happiness?

Paul had been seized in his life with that perspective. This was the compulsion that propelled him in everything he did. People who follow Jesus will come to the place of both understanding and commitment where they choose to do the hard thing instead of the easy thing if that's what witnesses to Jesus. Personal happiness and rights fade into insignificance when we see who Jesus really is and what he has done.

The final verses in this chapter capture that spirit with a great earthly illustration. It is something we can identify with in our sports-addicted world. In Paul's day it was Olympic and Isthmian Games –– racing, wrestling, jumping, boxing, the javelin and the discus.

I remember a track and field runner from high school. He told of running daily until his sides screamed in pain. Sometimes he would get the heaves. He did not do that to feel good; he was in training for something more important, and he gave up the right of indulgence. He wouldn't drink, not out of Christian conviction, but because he wanted his body to be under control.

Then I think of people who have chosen to be extra careful with their eating just to stay slim and attractive. They control themselves. There is no law preventing them from a box of chocolates; they have the right –– they choose to lay that right aside.

You can easily think of other things which require discipline in this world, but things to which people commit themselves. They are usually things which will not matter a hundred years from now. That is Paul's perspective in v25 –– They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.

Why do we do what we do? What rights do we choose to exercise? Why? Is it for our temporal happiness, or is it because we choose those things which make us more like Jesus and help his kingdom to grow? The freedom we have to exercise our rights is a wonderful yet dangerous thing. It is wonderful because God has chosen to give us the ability of rational choice. It is dangerous because we can exercise our rights for selfish reasons and be destroyed by the very things we choose.

In Peter's second letter we are reminded, "people are slaves to whatever has mastered them." Have you ever found yourself saying, "I don't have to answer that!" or "There's nothing wrong with that!" or "I'll do it if I want to!" or other such things? The selfish desire to please ourselves and answer only to ourselves is unbelievably strong. Only the power of Jesus through his Spirit is stronger. Paul himself ends by applying this to himself –– “I master myself.... I keep my body under control.... I do not always demand my happiness or my rights." Why? Why, Paul? "So that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified."

Who is in control of your life? Why do you do the things you do? Is there any right or any object that promises happiness more important to you than Jesus and being like him? Paul knew what it meant to follow Jesus and he wrote this so you and I could know it, too. Why do you do the things you do?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Vocational Ministry

This is sermon #21 from First Corinthians. This one needed some editing (it was so contextualized to my congregation at the time), and I tried to add broader perspective.

1 Corinthians 9:1-14


Mention preachers and money together in almost any group of people and you can likely get a good discussion going. It is a tragedy that there is sufficient evidence for criticism of money-grubbing ministers. What is the right way to look at ministers and money? What is the basis of paying someone to do Christian ministry? Christian ministry has come to be viewed by both the church and the world as a profession with certain standards of training –– college and seminary.

There is a danger that turning Christian ministry into professionalism destroys it. If by "professional" we mean someone who has merely made the ministry a ‘job,” then Christian ministry has been destroyed. Jesus made a distinction between a true shepherd and a hireling –– the good shepherd devotes his life to the sheep while the hireling runs at the first sign of great adversity. If we had to choose between integrity and a person who has studied Greek, Hebrew and systematic theology, then let's have integrity. But let us also remember the choice should not have to be "either/or" –– it should be "both/and."

Another way professionalism can destroy Christian ministry is by creating an artificial distinction between the clergy and the laity, as we often call the two. As soon as pastors try to do everything in the church because they are the professionals, then Christian ministry is destroyed. Likewise, if people in the pew say, "we pay the pastor, let him do it all," then Christian ministry is destroyed. That is not what we are after when we try to bring professional standards to ministry.

At the heart of this concern is the realization that ministry is basically the function of every Christian believer. If you are a Christian living in biblical faith, then you are a “minister.” That is why I call this a case for vocational ministry. While every Christian is called to ministry, not every Christian is called to earn their living through ministry (which goes beyond the office of pastor). That is vocational ministry, and it is vocational ministry that needs to chart its course carefully between the two extremes of crass professionalism on the one hand, and untrained voluntary service on the other.

I once hired a youth pastor who had been involved with youth in an unpaid capacity in a prior congregation. Was that not youth ministry? What is different once he is began to be paid? Why are some people paid? Why not pay everyone?

It is an almost unbelievable privilege to be paid to do what one loves.... of being paid to serve the Lord. When I was pastoring I would sometimes facetiously say “I'm paid to have good devotions.”

Why do congregations do that? Why give to the church so that pastors, especially, do not need to work elsewhere.... especially if all Christians are “ministers”?

Using the youth pastor as an illustration, was he any less a minister at the previous congregation without financial compensation than he was on my staff with a salary? The answer is both yes and no. No, he was no less a youth minister previously, at least qualitatively. He did not give less of his heart to the kids. He did not add more integrity in his life once he began to be paid. In both situations his ministry was service to Christ and the church. Yet he did have a greater ministry once he became vocational; he was able to do more quantitatively. Before, he couldn't put all his available time and energy into ministry –– he had to work a job to support himself and the family. With vocational ministry he was free to put all that time and energy into his ministry.

That is one thought behind vocational ministry. It is vocational because all Christians are supposed to be ministers, and the idea of ministry should not be restricted to those who are paid. It is vocational because some people are supported by the church so they can be free to give all their time and energy to ministry instead of part of it.

The next question is, who decides who is vocational and who is not? What separates those who are paid for ministry from those who are not? Some might say a certain kind of education –– a seminary degree. Others can claim it's a person's call from God. To that I would say the education can be important; the call from God is very important, if it's genuine. But neither of those things guarantee vocational ministry. I know people who have seminary degrees and people who claim a call who are not in vocational ministry. The decision is really made by the church. The process of ordination is one way a church validates a person’s calling. Ordination is one particular seal of approval on vocational ministry.

What are some issues for making that decision? One of the most basic is integrity and commitment –– a character that would not belittle Christian ministry. But all Christians should have that, so there is more. A good understanding of the Scriptures and doctrine is important, but any intelligent person can acquire that. What else is needed for the church to set someone apart for vocational ministry? In addition to integrity and orthodoxy, there is the factor of giftedness. Paul told the Ephesians that Jesus gave gifts to all, but to some he gave special gifts –– apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. Vocational ministers are those people who the church has validated by saying, "God has gifted you in such a way that you need to be available to the church without the worry of other work." That is how a person is called to vocational ministry.

Now so far, this has been a rather pragmatic look at how the concept of a paid ministry works in the church. The deeper question is its scriptural basis. This chapter in 1 Corinthians is part of that. Paul is dealing with his own situation here, as you might imagine, and I'll get into that more in the next part of this chapter. But for now I only want to point out a few things the text clearly teaches are legitimate expectations for those who give their whole lives to Christian ministry.

In v4 we see that vocational ministers can expect the basic necessities of life –– do we not have the right to our food and drink?. Another legitimate expectation is a spouse (v5); the Latin rite of Catholicism has placed a restriction here for practical (not dogmatic) reasons; Eastern rite Catholics have married priests, but not married bishops.

A big issue here is financial support. Paul asks a rhetorical (and almost sarcastic) question of three other workers: Who pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard without eating its fruit? Who has a herd and does not drink the milk? (v7)

Then he appeals to the law of Moses, which said, You shall not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain (v9). He then applies that to the church workers' situation (v11): If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? As a capstone, he refers (v14) to Jesus' own words (from Luke 10) those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. One cannot argue with the concept of a vocational (paid) ministry without violating the Scriptures.

Still, all of our questions and concerns are not answered. What should be expected of a vocational minister? Is he a spiritual superman? I hope you know the answer to that is "of course not." Pastors and others who serve the church vocationally have faults and weaknesses. No servant of the church will make anyone happy all the time. Not everyone will be happy at any one time. Some may be unhappy with all the time. The one non-negotiable that Christian ministry needs is integrity.

On the other side of things, what shall the church do for those in full-time service? One thing it does is validate calling and give authority to one’s ministry. There are questions, though, the Bible does not answer. How does the church decide its financial support?

Sometimes a pastor can think about how much he could be making in another field with the same amount of educational investment, but a (true) pastor does not choose his vocation for the money. In fact, it is beyond the pastor’s “choice” –– God chooses in a way that a person can do nothing else.

One last thing, though, is the reminder that all of us are ministers. God has put each of us here to do our respective part, and it is only as we all do it that the work of Christ's body in this place is done –– with remuneration or not. The real Christian pay is out of this world.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Creation Groans

How can one comprehend a catastrophe such as the current crisis in Haiti?

As I write this I hold a state-of-the art laptop computer. I am in a room with my wife, daughter, son and grandchildren. A pellet stove burns, keeping us pleasantly warm. A video about wildlife babies keeps my grandkids (partially) entertained following our evening meal of take-out Chinese. The lights are on, our water is clean and available; a comfortable bathroom is just down the hall.

My wife and I can hardly bear to watch the destruction on the news. Broken bodies and grief-stricken people of all ages go beyond our capacity for genuine empathy. Emotions shut down. What would I do if that broken arm of a six-year-old belonged to my grandson? What if my wife was likely buried in rubble too heavy and deep for anyone to move quickly? What if there was little hope for drinkable water for days?

How can one comprehend a catastrophe such as this crisis in Haiti?

Our attention is (appropriately) captivated when disaster strikes on such an intensive and concentrated scale. Yet we have learned to "deal" with the countless deaths and vast atrocities that happen every day all over our world. There is ongoing, unspeakable poverty among mass populations from Zimbabwe to India to inner-city ghettos in the USA. There are children who go to bed hungry every night. There are people who die from the simple absence of an antibiotic. This is daily reality.

Our world is broken, basically, because of the deep rupture from rejecting God's authority. Still, God's love is working to call us back.

Throughout history the Church has made a difference. Sometimes Christians have "dropped the ball," but when that happens it is a failure of following Jesus. I look at the crucifix on my study wall and am reminded that God chose to enter our world and be subject to the thing we hate and fear the most: death.

I am a Christian because I believe the Apostolic witness: that death could not hold Jesus Christ; he is risen from the dead never to die again. Jesus did that to open the way for us. That is the hope Christians have in a world where horrible things happen. We believe that death does not have the last word, and that God's love will triumph.

And yet, until the time that God brings salvation to full completion, we are sometimes reminded in awful ways that creation groans (Romans 8). St. Paul goes on to say that when the pain is beyond human words, God's Spirit groans within us.

As we groan with and for Haiti – and seek to respond with sacrificial compassion – we can remember that even as we groan, we hope.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

To Live Righteously in Christ

Today is the memorial of St Raymond of Penyafort. The following is from one of his letters, part of Office of Readings in the Liturgy. It’s an excellent meditation as we go into this new year.

The preacher of God’s truth has told us that all who want to live righteously in Christ will suffer persecution. If he spoke the truth and did not lie, the only exception to this general statement is, I think, the person who either neglects, or does not know how, to live temperately, justly and righteously in this world.

May you never be numbered among those whose house is peaceful, quiet and free from care; those on whom the Lord’s chastisement does not descend; those who live out their days in prosperity, and in the twinkling of an eye will go down to hell.

Your purity of life, your devotion, deserve and call for a reward; because you are acceptable and pleasing to God your purity of life must be made purer still, by frequent buffetings, until you attain prefect sincerity of heart. If from time to time you feel the sword falling on you with double or treble force, this also should be seen as sheer joy and the mark of love.

The two-edged sword consists in conflict without, fears within. It falls with double or treble force within, when the cunning spirit troubles the depths of your heart with guile and enticements. You have learned enough already about these kinds of warfare, or you would not have been able to enjoy peace and interior tranquility in all its beauty.

The sword falls with double and treble force externally when, without cause being given, there breaks out from within the Church persecution in spiritual matters, where wounds are more serious, especially when inflicted by friends.

This is that enviable and blessed cross of Christ, which Andrew, that manly saint, received with joyful heart: the cross in which alone we must make our boast, as Paul, God’s chosen instrument, has told us.

Look then on Jesus, the author and preserver of faith: in complete sinlessness he suffered, and at the hands of those who were his own, and was numbered among the wicked. As you drink the cup of the Lord Jesus (how glorious it is!) give thanks to the Lord, the giver of all blessings.

May the God of love and peace set your hearts at rest and speed you on your journey; may he meanwhile shelter you from disturbance by others in the hidden recesses of his love, until he brings you at last into that place of complete plenitude where you will repose for ever in the vision of peace, in the security of trust and in the restful enjoyment of his riches.

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