Wednesday, October 30, 2013

All Things Work For Good

Wednesday: 30 October, 2013 –– 30th Week in Ordinary Time
Romans 8: 26–30
All Things Work For Good

All things work for good. That is one of the more popular biblical verses that people quote, although I wouldn’t be surprised if many think it comes from Poor Richard’s Almanac or some such source. Whether or not the true source is known, what is usually quoted is not by itself true.

“Things” are not animate so that they are able to “work for good.” And in no way are all things good––there are horrible and evil events and circumstances. What is St Paul saying?

First, a better translation of the verse would be, In all things God works for good.... The focus here is on God, not on our circumstances. Second, it is crucial to recognize the qualifiers. For whom does God work in all things for good? It is in the lives of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

What is God’s purpose? It is not what is idolized and pursued by our culture. We live in a society in which the ultimate concern is being happy. God’s purpose for us is to be holy––conformed to the image of his Son....

How can we hope that in our lives all things work for good? We need to love God, and we love God by loving what God loves and desires. The fullness of God is shown to us in Jesus Christ. When we truly want to be like Jesus, then God does indeed make all things work for good.

A great picture of this is shown in the life of the Old Testament Joseph. His brothers hated him and sold him into slavery. After long and terrible years in Egypt, Joseph was eventually elevated to a position second only to Pharaoh. It was then that Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt seeking relief from famine, and Joseph was in charge of all the food. When the brothers realized who Joseph was, they were afraid. Then Joseph modeled what it means to love God and to know this makes all things work for good. He told his brothers, “You meant it for evil, but God used it for good.”

Yes, St Paul invites us to know that all things work for good. But even more he wants us to know that this hope is for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Is the desire of our heart to be happy.... or to be holy? It is when we want to be holy that all things work for good.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Suffering Unto Salvation

Tuesday: 29 October, 2013 –– 30th Week in Ordinary Time
Romans 8: 18–25
Suffering Unto Salvation

Do you know what suffering does in a Christian?  It drives a Christian to prayer.  When we are pulled into the heart of the reality that something is wrong in this world — when the wrongs of this world touch us so that we hurt so deeply that it seems all we can do is groan — we find that God is there. The word “groan” appears three times here in short succession (and only six other times in the New Testament).  Sin is so bad and so pervasive that creation groans (8:22).  On top of that, Christians groan (we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly (8:23). But we do not groan alone: the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express (8:26).

There is a popular stereotype that the ministry of the Holy Spirit always produces joy and victory in Christians.  Or the Holy Spirit always makes worship alive and thrilling.  Both of those things are partly true, but that is not entirely. The Holy Spirit also meets us in the depths of our despair. 

It is in those times that we come to a deeper understanding of God. We get drawn into what he has already done; that is why we have hope and that is why we pray. We also become aware of what God has yet promised to do. He has promised full salvation, but it is not yet full reality: hope that is seen is no hope at all — who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (8:24b,25).  Waiting patiently is so hard.  I am terrible at it.  Do you know one reason we can be patient?  God is working his Spirit into those who belong to him.

But in the meantime....  And that is where we are right now, “in the meantime” — living in two worlds:  this seen world that is passing away, but also in an unseen world that promised (yet already here to those who have faith).  If we have this faith it is because the Father is working his Spirit into our life. Can you see this in what Paul says as reading begins? I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (8:18). God is working his Spirit into all who belong to him.... even in the midst of this world and all its suffering.  And God’s Spirit is life.... a salvation that is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Prayer God Honors

October 27, 2013 –– Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Luke 18:9–14
The Prayer God Honors

No matter where we are in our relationship with God, the first prayer of our heart needs to be Lord, have mercy. “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” is the one prayer God always honors when it is prayed in sincerity.

If we are not aware of our need for God’s mercy––if our attitude is “I’m pretty good”––then we are too far from God for our soul’s good. No matter what our accomplishments, we need the mercy of God.

Let’s live each day with the honesty to say, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Measure Of True Christian Faith

October 20, 2013 –– Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Timothy 3:14–4:2
The Measure Of True Christian Faith

How do we know what it really means to be a Christian? Who are we to trust and follow? Is the smooth-talking “good-life” preacher on TV telling the truth? Do all religious paths take us to a god who, in the end, accepts any and everything? What is the measure of true Christian Faith? This is the focus of Paul’s letter to his young son-in-the-faith Timothy. And now, almost 2000 years later, this question is just as important. What is the measure of true Christian Faith? The Epistle today emphasizes Scripture.

I have been blessed to be part of a heritage that believes the Scriptures to be everything as described in this passage. And yet, the Bible by itself is no guarantee of Christian truth. Christian history is full of people who choose their own “interpretation” of Scripture and become false teachers. Even as Paul gives this special exaltation of the Scriptures, he commends them to Timothy in the context of a believing community that lives the Faith. This is to say there is no Scripture apart from the Church, and no Church apart from Scripture. It is a mystery and a paradox similar to the Incarnation.

Scripture was written by human beings, but it was inspired―God-breathed―by the Holy Spirit. The Bible was written by many authors and yet by one Author. It is a paradox. Because Scripture is the Word of God it is always read in corporate worship. This is a practice that goes back through Church history and into the Old Testament. When we hear Scripture, we are hearing the voice of God. It is not the person doing the reading that is the focus; in the Liturgy of the Word the reader becomes the physical voice of God.

The Epistle reading begins with the context of understanding: remain faithful to what you have learned and believed, because you know from whom you learned it... (3:14). This is the importance of the faith community––the corporate nature of the Church. This is where Paul finds wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (3:15).

Then Paul tells Timothy that Scripture is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.... (3:16). This means that what we believe is based on Scripture––what God has said. This is the standard for our teaching. This means that when something is wrong in our lives, we should not be surprised that Scripture uncovers it and convicts us; it has an authority to rebuke errant belief and behavior. If Scripture and sermons sometime seem “negative” perhaps it is an indication that something in our life is more important to us than being holy. Faith responds to rebuke with repentance―a “turning around.” When Scripture points to something in us that needs changing, we are to obey; this is the “correction” that the Lord does in his people. This is training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work (3:17).

Early in my Christian commitment I wrote this quote on the fly-leaf of my Bible: Either this Book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this Book. It is a devilish temptation to believe there is no use to read the Scriptures when we do not enjoy them. It's like thinking there is no use to pray when we do not feel like it. The truth is, in order to enjoy Scripture we need to continue to read it, just as the way to obtain a spirit of prayer is to continue praying. The less we read Scripture the less we desire to read it (and the less we pray the less we desire to pray). Each time the Scriptures are read and proclaimed a window is being opened to the light of heaven. In our world of sensational videos and flashy sound-bites, we need to slow down and listen to the Word of God.

In our complex world, what is the measure of true Christian Faith? Paul told Timothy: remain faithful to what you have learned and believed. When we hear the Scriptures week after week in the community of the Church, we can have confidence that we are being given wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

How To Grow In Faith

October 6, 2013 –– 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Habakkuk 1:2–3, 2:2–4 / Luke 17:5-10
How To Grow In Faith

The kingdom of Judah was in big trouble. Babylon was invading and even Jerusalem was feeling the effect. Everywhere people looked there was threat and disintegration. When things get bad, people start praying. But this only caused more consternation. Habakkuk’s prophecy expresses a common attitude about prayer: I cry for help, but you do not listen! I cry out to you, “Violence,” but you do not intervene. Why....? Violence and destruction, ruin and misery.... it’s part of a long cycle: we cry out to God and seem to get no answers.

Yet God does give the prophet an answer: The vision still has its time –– in other words, “the answer is coming.” If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late –– in other words, “God moves in his way and time.” We often think God is “late” but faith knows that God is always on time. That is the climax of the Habakkuk reading: the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

This verse is quoted three times in the New Testament (Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38). Faith makes a difference. Faith is what opens us to the reality of God––and his salvation. Faith enables us to “see” differently. People of faith see things people without faith dismiss or even ridicule. Faith is the foundation for living distinctively in the world for Jesus’ sake.

In the Gospel reading we find the disciples saying to Jesus: Increase our faith. (This comes right after a very sobering lesson about forgiveness that evidently caused the disciples to say, “Whoa, you’ve got to help us with this one!” –– which came out as, Increase our faith.) Jesus’ response is the point here. Is the issue really how much faith we have? Jesus says the smallest amount of real faith can do amazing things. So, what is the issue here?

We can be like the disciples. They felt that if they could have more faith, they could be better disciples. We often think like this, too. We look at our life and maybe we are not pleased at what we see. We know that we could be doing better. We wish our prayers were answered more to our desires. So, we say to ourselves, "If only I had more faith. Then I could be a better Christian." Maybe we pray the same thing the disciples said: Increase my faith!

Jesus told the disciples: If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you. This was not the answer the disciples were looking for. It seems that Jesus would have commended their desire or even laid hands on them so their faith would suddenly swell like a balloon, but Jesus’ answer implies something else: "You do have faith. And even if it is small, you can still do great things!" –– in other words, "You already have faith.... you just aren't using it!"

The disciples didn't need to ask to increase their faith; they needed to increase their faithfulness. There is a big difference. Faith is a gift from God. He gives us each the faith we need and it is sufficient because it is the gift of God. Faithfulness, on the other hand, is our response to the gift of faith. It's what we do with our faith, and that is up to us. Faith is like a muscle –– use it or lose it! The one way to “increase” faith is to exercise it! We “exercise” our faith by being faithful.

Think of the gyms and fitness centers that have grown in such number over recent years. What if the popularity of physical fitness was matched by a passion for spiritual development? We would have saints all over the place!

When we have faith, we know that God is there. We may not understand. We may wonder “how long?” when we are hurting or things around us are falling apart. We may be tempted to think that what is asked of us is ridiculous. But when we know God is there (that’s faith), then when God says, "Okay, here's what I want you to do...." we need to do it. Then it's not a matter of faith; it's a matter of faithfulness.

There is not one person in this world who is not troubled by something. There is not one of us in the Church who has no worries, no pains, no threats looming on the horizon. Finances, health, relationships, responsibilities.... all these things hover over us, and sometimes rush at us faster than we know what to do. Faith knows that God is here.... but faithfulness has to exercise what we are going to do about it. Are we going to trust? Are we willing to wait? Are we ready to obey?  Trusting.... waiting.... obeying.... these can be some of the hardest things in the world. Faith is always a risk. Scripture tells us that faith is acting on what cannot be proven; our hope in God is to take priority over what is right before our eyes (hope that is seen is not hope....for who hopes for what he sees? –Romans 8:24). An unbelieving world tells us we’re crazy. But when we trust and wait and obey, we exercise our faith.

When we as Christians get the feeling that something is not quite right in our walk with God, it's not that something is wrong with the faith we have been given. The Holy Spirit dwells within us to give us faith. We are to let faith do its work. When hard things threaten.... when it seems our world is falling apart.... when doing the right thing is not easy.... we learn to be faithful. God’s presence invites us to exercise the risk of trusting, waiting and obeying. Then our faith will increase.

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