The Gospel According to Solomon

In the real life version of Draughting Theology, we’ve spent the last five months (minus a break for Lent) studying the three epistles of John.  It has been a striking study in the dichotomy of the life of faith in the early Church between the overwhelming awareness of the deep love of God and the struggle (and at times, battle) to figure out the bounds of orthodoxy in this new religion.  This back and forth in the letters of John make for some interesting juxtapositions between “love your neighbor” and “the Antichrists.”

Last week, we finally arrived at what Raymond Brown says might be “the most famous saying in the NT,” 1 John 4:8b, “God is love.”  As Brown prophesied in his commentary on the Johannine letters, these three words took us down a path of conversation in which we wondered about the nature of God as God has revealed himself in Scripture.  The natural tendency seems to be to read the Old Testament as being all about a God of vengeance and the New Testament as being all about “God is love.”  Brown has this to say: “This outlook both misunderstands the biblical concept of justice as primarily punitive, and ignores OT passages that make hesed, ‘covenant love and mercy,’ characteristic of God” (p. 550).

hesed

This is all still very fresh in my mind as I read the Track 2 Old Testament Lesson for this week and the great prayer of dedication that King Solomon prays over the Temple that he has built for God.  In the sight of all Israel, with his arms lifted heavenward, Solomon approaches God with these words, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart” (1 Kings 8:23).

Solomon is a wise man.  His words are spoken with intentionality, and so it is telling that he chooses to highlight the steadfast love of God (hesed) in this great moment of national, personal, and religious pride.  The Gospel according to Solomon, about as Old Testament a King as there ever was, is that God’s very nature is love.

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John 3:16

We’ve all seen the guy.  Whether it was on the Simpsons, in the stands at the Super Bowl, or any number of impersonators over the years, we all know the John 3:16 guy or at least we know his sign.

         

It is, of course, the perfect verse for a sign.  You don’t have to write it, just the scripture reference will take a person to the Gospel message par excellence.  I’ve written in the past about how I wish his sign added “& 17,” but seven years later, I guess I’ve softened some.  As I’ve read and re-read John 3:16 this week, I’m starting to think that perhaps it is enough.  Well, so long as we translate it properly and don’t use it for a weapon, which are both not insignificant caveats.

“God loves the world thusly, he gave his only Son, in order that whoever puts their trust in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

That’s how I think it should be translated (with a lot of help from the Rev. Dr. Sarah Henrich from Luther Seminary).  Note three changes.  First, God loves the world still.  It is active and ongoing; the aorist tense in Greek.  Second, he loved the world thusly, that’s what “so” really means.  Finally, the call to faith is not about intellectual assent, which we often associate with belief these days, but trust.  Those who follow Jesus might struggle with the intricacies of the Church’s Christological teachings, but what makes us disciples, what makes us Christians, is that we’ve turned our lives over to Christ.  We’ve placed our trust in Jesus and in him alone.

Translated this way, the most famous text in all of scripture loses its ability to be weaponized.  Instead, it is a statement about the grace of God.  God loves the world he created so much that when push came to shove, God chose to save us from ourselves through the saving grace of his Son.  That’s the Gospel in a nutshell.

                                                               Like I said.

Perhaps that’s enough for the preacher to tackle this Sunday.

Meriam Ibrahim has testified to the hope within her – a homily

Meriam is a 27 year-old mother of two.  She was raised by her single-mother after her father disappeared when she was only six years-old.  She was raised in the church, learning about God’s love for her; about his Son, Jesus, who died that she might have abundant and eternal life; about the Holy Spirit who lives within her and sustains her even in the most difficult of circumstances.  Life isn’t easy for Meriam.  She is married to her husband, Daniel, who is confined to a wheelchair and “depends on her for all the details of his life.”[1] Her oldest child, a boy, is 20 months old and she just gave birth to her second child, a girl, on Monday.  Having three people so utterly dependent on her can’t be easy, but Meriam has learned that no matter what, God would love her.

Did I mention that Meriam Yehya Ibrahim lives in the Sudan?  And that she is in prison, facing 100 lashes and the death penalty for marrying a Christian man and failing to recant her Christian faith?  And that she has stood firm in her commitment to the Good News of Jesus Christ even in the face of imprisonment, torture, and death by hanging?

The First Letter of Peter was written to Christians who knew hardship not unlike what Meriam Ibrahim is living.  Tensions were high in the eastern edges of the Roman Empire in the latter half of the first century.  The Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed as a result of a Jewish uprising, and Christianity, despised by the Romans as a subset of Judaism was on the rise.  The Churches in Asia Minor, to which the letter was written, were being slandered, facing persecution, and had already suffered greatly.  In the midst of all of this, the author of One Peter encourages the Christians there to “always be ready to give an account of the hope that is in you,” but to do it “with gentleness and reverence.”  Even in the face of some of the worst that humankind can do, the message of One Peter is to meet violence with love, to always to what is right, and to share the Good News of Jesus with gentleness.

It is fashionable for politicians in America today to claim that Christianity is under attack.  The rise of same-sex marriage, the growing number of stores that wish you Happy Holidays, the lack of prayer in school are all pointed to as examples of violence against Christians, but the fact of the matter is that no one in this country will face the awful situation that the 1st century churches in Asia Minor faced.  None of us will find ourselves in prison WITH our twenty month-old son and three day-old daughter like Meriam Ibrahim is.  None of us really knows what persecution is like, which I think is why so many American Christians are also in no way prepared to share the hope that is within us.  The type of sharing that the author of first Peter was talking about wasn’t evangelism, but rather martyrdom.  Christians were to be witnesses of the Gospel even if it cost them their lives.

On the contrary, our faith is comfortable, even easy, and so we hear the call of 1 Peter 3:15 as an optional part of our faith, but even as it is now less about martyrdom and more a call to evangelism, the fact remains that each of us should be ready to give an account of the source of our hope, our joy, our faith.  One of my favorite parts of being associated with the Acts 8 Moment is the goal of making evangelism practical, available, and as unscary as possible.  Our goal, in light of the relative ease of being a Christian in 21st century America is to challenge our church to be ready to give an account.

That’s all evangelism really is; being able to answer the question, “What makes you different?” or “Why do you get up early on Sunday to go to church?” or “How can you believe in evolution and still read the Bible?” or “What difference does Jesus really make anyway?”  1 Peter 3:15a evangelism assumes a relationship.  People are rarely going to, out of the blue, ask you about the hope that is within you.  Rather, over time, as relationships develop, the Christian hope for the restoration of all things in the Kingdom of God should, ideally, shine through everything you do, especially showing forth in how you handle the difficult moments in life.  And when, eventually, someone notices, and when, eventually, they get up the gumption to ask, then all you have to do is share your story, explain your hope, and describe your relationship with God through his Son by the power of the Holy Spirit.

We should earnestly pray for Meriam Ibrahim and the millions of others who find themselves at odds with their government for their faith in Jesus Christ.  At the same time, we need to realize that we do these great witnesses a disservice be being unwilling or unable to share how the Good News of God has changed our lives.  Always be ready, my friends, for you never know when the love of God shining through you might cause someone to ask, “how are you so full of love?”

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/27/world/africa/sudan-christian-woman-apostasy/index.html?hpt=wo_c2

The Cultural Significance of Ash Wednesday #ashtag

I grew up in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where the Tuesday that falls 47 days before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox is celebrated as Fasnacht Day.  I can remember school lunches featuring something akin to “fasnachts” (German donuts) that were covered in powdered sugar.  Beyond the fact that having donuts at school was a rare treat, most of us gave little thought to why this was a day to eat such things.  Certainly, none of us was aware that fasnacht is German for “fast night,” not as in a speedy night, but the night which begins our fast of Lent.

As I grew older, and began to become aware of certain traditions in life, the annual Shrove Tuesday pancake supper at Saint Thomas Episcopal Church.  The Pankeys and the Logans would take up a whole table and gorge ourselves on pancakes, sausage and apple sauce.  I looked forward to the annual feast every year, but hadn’t a clue that to be properly shriven one must confess and seek absolution for their sins.

Now that I live in Mardi Gras country, the annual celebration of the days leading up to 46 days before the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox has grown to include parades, moon pies, beads, balls, and booze lasting weeks on end, and my guess is that the vast majority of Mardi Gras revelers have no idea what the Wednesday after Mardi Gras is about, other than hangover cures, of course.

If my life is any indication of broader society, it would seem that Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent have little, if any cultural impact, but there are two things that I’ve noticed this year that lead me to believe otherwise.  The first is the growing success of Ashes To Go programs sponsored by Episcopal congregations around the country.  In big cities and small towns, faithful clergy and lay leaders are helping the harried and the hurried to stop for a moment and remember that they “are dust and to dust they shall return.”  I’ve struggled with this idea of Ashes to Go for several years now, and this isn’t the place for that debate, but what I’ve come to realize is that there is a hungry world out there, filled with people who are starved of the message of God’s love for them.  The picture of a long line waiting for ashes on 43rd St. in NYC is a reminder to me that the Gospel is never insignificant.

Perhaps more telling of the ongoing cultural significance of Ash Wednesday comes from our locally owned and operated radio station, 92ZEW.  92ZEW is based in Mobile, Alabama, a decidedly Roman Catholic city, and 92ZEW loves them some Mardi Gras.  As I listened to part of a live broadcast from The Garage, I heard the typical sounds of the season: loud music, shouts for shots, and people celebrating.  What I didn’t expect to hear came in the midst of a conversation about how cold it was yesterday when one of the radio personalities said, “Can we petition the Church Fathers to permanently move Easter to June?”  I actually found myself excited to hear, on the air, that in the midst of all the excess of Fat Tuesday, somebody knew that it was tied to Easter Day, which is a moveable feast celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox.  I was even more surprised this morning as I drove to Saint Paul’s for our 7am Liturgy for Ash Wednesday to hear Tim Camp of the TLC Morning Show dropping knowledge on the 40 days of Lent and how the six Sundays don’t count as days of fasting because Sunday is a day of resurrection.  It was probably the best Ash Wednesday moment I’ve ever had, as I came to realize that in a world that is hell bent on turning every holiday into an excuse to get trashed and make poor decisions, maybe there is still a thirst for the living water that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.

Lent is upon us, dear friends, and as I will do three times standing before a congregation of the faithful today, “I invite you, in the name of Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”  And I pray, for you dear reader just as I do for my parish family, that God might “grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that hose things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”