The Depths of Christian Liberty

“I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burden of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.  I will take you as My people, and I will be your God.”  Exodus 6:6-7

In the Jewish Passover Haggadah, four cups of wine are shared in the course of the meal to recall the four great works of redemption that the Lord wrought on behalf of His people as expressed in Exodus 6:6-7.  The Jewish service is structured so that each generation reminds the next of the great salvation which is their heritage, lest it be forgotten and lost somehow.  Indeed we might venture to say that this salvation is what truly makes them the people of God.  It is not necessarily their ancestry, or their race, but rather the express choice of God and the outpouring of His liberty upon them in full measure that makes them His.  There is something instructive in these verses for us, the Church, as well.  They speak clearly to us of the depths of God’s liberty and our Christian freedom.

I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians…Who of us has not been burdened by the weight of a sin-bruised conscience, or been smeared with the defilement of a guilt whose filth we could in no wise wash away, or felt the intense shame of wrongdoing?  Sin is a terrible burden.  The shoulders of a man or woman were never meant to bear such weight, and they are stooped over and cruelly bent by its magnitude.  And when it seems we can bear no more, the words of Jesus ring out in Matthew 11:28-29, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me…and you shall find rest for your souls.”  In His forgiveness, the burdens are lifted from our shoulders and we straighten up with our created dignity again.

I will rescue you from their bondage…Forgiveness is a balm to the sin-weary soul, but it is not a curative that goes deep enough to the very root of the cancer that eats at our nature from within.  A man forgiven a debt may breathe free for one moment, but if he has no means of support, it is not long before he finds himself in debt again.  Furthermore, habits of vice are hard to quickly lay aside.  It is as if we entered a sodden pigpen, washed clean the sow within it, and left with the command for her to remain clean.  Neither the nature of the sow nor the environment she is in is conducive to fulfilling that command.  So it is with the corrupted human nature set in a perverse world.  It is to such a state as that that Jesus declares “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor, He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives…and to set at liberty those that are oppressed” (Luke 4:18).  To his forgiveness is added deliverance, and the enemies of our soul are put to rout.

And I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments…The law of sin and death is a hard taskmaster.  The man who stands accused by its statues must forfeit his life, for justice demands that the full penalty be paid.  Mercy would sweep away all indebtedness, but cannot do so without doing harm to the divine dictates of justice.  And our accuser ever rails against us, not with twisted lies about our life, but with the truth of our faithlessness recounted as if read from an open book.  In the face of such iniquity, who can stand?  “I see another law…bringing me into captivity to the law of sin…O wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Romans 7:23-24)  Where shall we look for our deliverance?  The answer resounds from the heavens, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord…There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 7:25 to 8:1).  To the washing of forgiveness and the wonder of deliverance is added redemption entered into by the outstretched arm of God shaking the very powers of the air, and with great and final judgment upon sin and death.  But it is not judgment without cost, for its justice claimed the innocent blood of the Lamb of God Himself.  The bloodguiltiness of our sin, both original and actual, was satisfied in His blood, and it is paid for by His death.  And in that redemption we are, as it were, legally free of any claim which the law could ever lay to our account.

I will take you as My people, and I will be your God…Forgiveness, deliverance, redemption; all that we need to live in relative freedom upon this earth is graciously given to us.  But wait!  Behold the further depth of God’s love.  “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom (Luke 12:32).  It is not enough that we are no longer slaves, but now we are made sons and daughters.  Such is the unsearchable depth of God’s freedom.  As forgiveness, deliverance, and redemption forms the body of His liberty, so adoption informs its heart and very soul.  By it we are made sons and daughters of God, heirs to the kingdom, and fellow heirs with Jesus.  Freedom in this life is given in full measure and in the life to come, eternal life.

Four cups of wine are laid before us by the hand of God and we are invited to drink our fill of forgiveness, deliverance, redemption, and adoption.  Just when we thought we knew all that there was about the love and liberty of God, we are reminded that they have dimensions that we have not yet experienced.  “Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not.  They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness, O God.” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  May we ever be reminded of the length and breadth and depth and height of the love of God, and, in that, glimpse the true extent of our Christian liberty in Him.

John Wesley’s Sermon 50 – On the Use of Money

keys of sub-cash register

I recently had the opportunity to read John Wesley’s Sermon 50 on the use of money in which he expounded on Luke 16:9 “Make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness….”  From what I have read of John Wesley he lived frugally and to a very exacting standard when it came to his understanding of stewardship and the use of money.  His only mistake in all of this was placing his calling and standard upon other believers and calling them to a stricter account than I believe that God or His word puts upon us.  With that one caution stated, the sermon contains three useful guiding principles on the use of money that I believe can be instructive for church congregations today as they struggle with the very present practicalities of budgets and congregational giving.

The first principle regarding the use of money is “Gain all you can.”  John Wesley counsels us to meet the world on its own ground and, within limits, to gain all that we have the power to gain in terms of wealth.  He cautions against gaining wealth that costs “too dearly”; for instance, wealth gained at the expense of our life or health, wealth gained at the exhaustion of our minds or souls, or wealth gained at the expense or damage of our neighbor.  The latter includes gaining wealth by preying on the addictions of others (such as selling alcohol) and business practices such as undercutting our neighbor’s prices to drive him out of competition or stealing his customers or workforce.  But where we may do so with the love of God and the love of neighbor foremost in our minds, he counsels us to use the time wisely, investing our time and talents to gain all that we can.  To state it scripturally, “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all of your power” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).

The second principle that pertains to a Christian’s wise use of money is “Save all you can.”  Having exerted your wisdom and strength to gain all that you can, John Wesley counsels us to not throw away or waste any of the gain we have diligently made but to live simply and carefully.  This is what I would call “living below your means,” and what John Wesley refers to as not simply gratifying the desire of our eyes or flesh, or trying to buy the admiration of the world.  This includes not only exercising temperance over our own lifestyles but being careful not to enable our children in the frivolous use of money.  John Wesley states that it is better to withhold a rightful inheritance to our children if we know that the money will only ensnare them and endanger their souls by underwriting their excessive lifestyle by the giving of it.

“Gain all that you can” and “Save all that you can.”  Having stated the two foundational principles, John Wesley adds the third principle that explains and gives purpose to the first two.  In fact, we could say that if you only did the first two principles you would have laid a strong foundation but built nothing lasting upon it.  The third principle is this, “Give all that you can.”  Here also John Wesley has some practical priorities to guide us in this principle.  First, provide those things that are required for your own life such as food, clothing, shelter; avoid excess, and while practicing moderation provide what is necessary for health, well-being, and strength.  Second, provide those same benefits to your spouse, your children, and others who are part of your household whether family or employees.  Third, if there remains a surplus, John Wesley counsels using it to “do good to those that are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10b).  This could find expression in providing for the needy of our congregations, assisting others in the pursuit of their own occupations and callings, or providing opportunities for others to advance and grow.  And finally, if there is still more, John Wesley urges us to complete the scripture in Galatians 6:10a and “as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men…”

Upon these three principals, John Wesley faithfully lived out his life and ministry and passed them onto us in his sermon as a true pastor concerned with the health and state of our souls and all of the temptations and pulls of the world systems and styles.  If we believe the other scriptural truths that all that we possess ultimately comes from God, that He alone is able to give the power to produce wealth, and that some day we must give account for the use we have made of what He has given to us, then John Wesley’s simple principals give us the vision and the framework to render back to God those things that are ultimately God’s while fully accommodating the necessity of providing for the welfare of ourselves, our household, our congregations, and our communities.  The full sermon and others can be found at the website Wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/the-sermons-of-john-wesley-1872-edition

“From Dust”, A Lenten Reflection

We live in a world that highly values power, the power to dominate, the power to control, the power to change.  But often, when we consider our own circumstances and our current lifestyle, we feel powerless to do anything to make changes for good.  It is difficult for us to admit this personal weakness, but we have to realize that it is the way that God intended for it to be.  In Genesis it records that God formed man of the dust of the earth.  There must have been a dozen other things that we could have been formed of, but God chose the least impressive of all building materials to form our bodies.  But then, and here is the miracle, He breathed His very spirit into this insignificant dust, and it records that man became a living being.  We remain even so today, dust held together by the very breath of God.  The liturgy of Ash Wednesday reminds us of this created frailty, “Remember O’ man, (or woman), you are dust, and unto dust you shall return.”  Without the power of God to hold us together we are no better than the dust we were made of, without form, without life, without purpose.

During this Lenten season we need to recognize that these two things are at war within us. The dust that we are made of drags us always down into the earth where we are quickly lost; the breath of God lifts us upward and gives us a vision of a heavenly kingdom where justice reigns.  In the garden of Eden our humanity received two gifts.  From our father Adam we inherited original sin that always seeks to corrupt, to break down, to kill.  From our Father Almighty we received His very image and likeness pressed into our hearts, and it is that divine spark of life that makes us eternally who we are intended to be.  Which of these will we listen to during this season, which of these will we give the control of our lives over to?  Each day is a new choice, to allow ourselves to be dragged down into the earth and return to the dust or to be called up to the throne of God in heaven and become His sons and daughters

I Believe

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles He had chosen.”  Acts 1:1-2

The evangelist Luke explains the purpose of his gospel to Theophilus.  He wanted to accurately record all that Jesus began to do and all that Jesus began to teach.  What Jesus “did” is embodied by the early church in her sacramental worship and ministry.  What Jesus “taught” concerning the Kingdom of God was codified by the early church in her creeds.  The word “creed” comes from a Latin word, credo, and is translated simply, “I believe”.  A creed, in its simplest form, sets forth words for public use that express with a certain authority the things that are necessary to believe for personal salvation and for the wellbeing of the Church.  Creeds are milestones that embody the living faith of generations.

There are several things that we can say about the historic creeds of the church.  First, a creed originates in faith, which like all strong convictions desires to express itself (Romans 10:8-11).  Second, the creeds never precede faith, they presuppose it.  Even if there had never been any doctrinal crisis that required formal creeds, just the presence of faith would have brought them forth.  We see these spontaneous creeds throughout scripture (Matthew 16:15-16, John 1:1-5, or I Timothy 3:16 for example).  Third, a creed is nothing more than Jesus Christ and His work confessed.  Psalm 107:2 commands, “Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, the ones He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy.”  A creed recounts the mighty work of God’s grace in bringing about our deliverance.  And fourth, the creedal confession can be very simple and still be made effectual by the working of God’s power.  In Acts 16:30-31 the Philippian jailer asked, “What must I do to be saved?”  Paul and Silas answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved and your household.”  The historic creeds always begin with Jesus, their truths were proclaimed with power by the apostles, they were developed and explained in the writings of the New Testament, they were faithfully passed down through each generation of believers, and they were recorded in the forms that have survived to our present time.

The most popular creed is the Apostle’s Creed.  It is the simplest summary of the gospel story and has been used throughout the centuries as the confession of faith repeated by those who were to be baptized into the Church.  An early Church tradition holds that it originated directly from the apostles, and up until the middle of the seventeenth century both Roman Catholics and Protestants believed the creed to be composed by the apostles in Jerusalem either on the day of Pentecost, or prior to their scattering as a means to secure unity of teaching.  Each apostle contributed one part.  The story says that Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit began, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”  John continued, “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.”  Andrew went on, “Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”; then James the elder, “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried”; Philip, “He descended into Hades, the third day He rose again from the dead”; Bartholomew, “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty”; Thomas, “from thence He shall come to judge both the living and the dead”; Mathew “I believe in the Holy Spirit”; James, the lesser, “the Holy Catholic Church”; Simon, “the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins”;, Thaddeus, “the resurrection of the body”; and Matthias, “and the life everlasting, Amen.”

Although the notion of direct apostolic authorship is no longer held by most scholars, the tradition is still a reflection of the power, simplicity, and faithfulness to the gospel message that is present in this creed.  Embodied in its words we hear the gospel earnestly spoken and we are moved to speak those words of personal faith, “I believe…”.   A creed’s chief purpose is always to proclaim Jesus Christ and Him crucified, and because of this a creed is not a systematic, logical statement of doctrine, but a profession of living, saving faith in the work of God through His Son Jesus.  It is given so that a child can recite it, not so that a scholar can explain it.

“I believe…”  These are powerful words that break the power of sin, that open the soul to the work of God’s grace, and that change a life eternally in a moment.

The Dilemma of a Right Theology

“For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God”  I Corinthians 1:22-24

We face a dilemma in theology that has been with the Church throughout its history.  It relates to how the Church is to define and practice true religion in this world, and thus express a “right” theology of its spirituality.  The dilemma is this.  Theology seems to exist within the historic Church on two levels as hinted at by the Apostle Paul.  The first is what we might call the Biblical level where the revelation of God is received and lived in as fully as is possible by the human will.  On this level, Biblical truth is most often presented prophetically, God bearing witness in His own words to His Person and will.  The second is what we might call the theological level, where the revelation of God is received and understood as fully as is possible by the human mind.  On this level, theological truth is most often presented catechetically, with the Church bearing witness in its words to the person of God and His truth.  We might liken the former to “heart” religion and the latter to “head” religion.  I know this falls short of portraying either side accurately, but it serves to show where the emphasis of each type of theology usually lies.  It might be more accurate to say that the orthodoxy of Biblically-based religion is judged by what you do, and the orthodoxy of theologically-based religion is judged by what you believe.  The former revolves around the concept of relationship, the latter around the concept of doctrine.

The two strands of our religion are the result of Christianity growing from a predominantly Jewish root planted in an especially fertile Grecian field.  The Jews were a people of the book.  For them the Torah, God’s law, was both the study of a lifetime, and the full expression of the life resulting.  There was little difference for the Jew between life and religion.  The Greeks, on the other hand, were a people of scientific bent, with a mind that worked best in abstracting particular reality into universal ideas.  They felt the need to construct an intellectual working model of the universe into which both life and religion fit; but for them biology and theology remained only differing branches of science formulated to characterize facts and relationships.

The dilemma was aggravated by the fact that the earliest Church was predominantly Jewish in heritage.  This early Christianity was the expression of the fulfillment of the eternal covenant of Yahweh through the sending of His Messiah.  But such concepts as covenant and Messiah were foreign to the Greeks and suffered loss of their true meaning, both by being translated into a new language with inadequate corresponding words, and by being transplanted into a culture that had no context by which to relate to them.  The destruction of the Jewish nation in the late first century A.D. with the dispersal of the Jews throughout the word helped to hasten the eventual Hellenization (Greeking) of Christian thought and developed theology.  Here again, the dilemma strained the Church.  For though its theology was framed by the decisions of the Church councils of Nicaea, Chalcedon, and Constantinople, its liturgy had been established in Jerusalem by the direct command of the Jesus Himself.  And while the theology stress correct belief, the sacraments and worship demanded correct action (“Do this in remembrance of Me”).

How then do we deal with this age-old struggle of tendencies in our own time and setting?  Do we dare to continue thinking “Greek” or western thoughts in our religion and continue to allow our catechisms and systematic theologies to be the precise definition of our spirituality?  Or do we dare to live “Jewish”, rejecting philosophic certainty in argument in favor of the pure word and law of God and thereby allow our life to become the expression of our spirituality? Or is there a compromise lying somewhere in between?  I don’t have a final answer; I only recognize that while Christianity has been shaped by Jewish and Greek influences, it is yet something entirely different from either.  It is that divine good news that can find the scope and breadth of its life in the Hebrew word Emmanuel (God with us), and the preciseness of its witness to the manifestation of that life in the Western word Incarnate; and yet the news that it proclaims is more than the simple consolidation of the two together.

This was the struggle I faced on a more limited scale when I tried to pass on my “religion” to my children.  I tried to be precise enough to guard them from error, but broad enough to show them the fullness of the liberty to live that God alone can give.  Their young minds were not content with a religion based on proof texts or catechism answers; they wanted a religion that could be seen and touched and handled (I John 1:1-4).  It is hard to reduce such religion to convenient or precise words.  How do you express what the Jewish high priest felt when he parted the veil and walked into the Holy of Holies to minister before the presence of God?  How can you chronicle the response in a human heart when it is washed by the blood of the Lamb and the Holy Spirit enters in to sanctify and hallow it?  What needs and fears does a person sense deep within himself as he lies along in his bed at night?  These are the sorts of things the practice of our religion must address if it is to restore to theology the power to save men’s souls.  Somewhere in the Person of Jesus, Who is both the power of God and the wisdom of God, the answer is to be found.  In the end of the matter, that is the only answer worth knowing.

The Historical Works of Mercy

I find that there is often a big difference between what we profess to be true concerning what we believe as followers of Jesus, and how we act on or demonstrate the reality of what we believe.  This is a common biblical theme; there is a difference between knowing what to do and doing it.

What prompted this thought in me was a recent statement someone made to me that the church that I attend was lukewarm.  You know where I am going with this; lukewarm = being spit out of the mouth of Jesus (not the end I had in mind, from Revelation 3:16).   You can understand why I was concerned.  So I asked myself how you could make the judgment that a group of followers of Jesus was lukewarm.  I mean, you need to have some sort of mental checklist  that you work your way down, and if more check marks are on one side than the other you can reach your conclusion, “Yep, lukewarm.”  But how do you develop that checklist?  I suppose that you can go to the bible and pull out the beatitudes of Jesus, the fruits of the spirit in Galatians, the chapter on love in I Corinthians, or maybe the ten commandments and sugar them down into check boxes, but you still have to know how to judge whether love, joy, peace, patience and so on meet the biblical standards, and then you further need to be able to tell that someone may not be ready to murder someone, but might instead harbor deep-seated anger in their hearts against their brother that is as good as murder.  And our judgment can’t just be based on agreement with doctrinal statements, because here too beliefs can be sorted broadly into opinions/preferences and convictions.  Only the latter category affects the way you live your life.  As James 2:18 states:

“someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” 

Said another way, the proof of the evangelical pudding is in the way we live, not in what we profess to believe.

And this is not always easy to judge rightly.  As evangelicals we often appeal to the biblical text and definitions, but more often than not we end up making our judgments whether a person is a real Christian or not based on how often they are in church, whether they faithfully (and generously) give when the collection plate is passed, their willingness to volunteer for church activities and committees, whether they smoke, drink, dance or play cards, or any of a dozen other measuring sticks the church has used in its history.  In the end of the matter, however, we really have no idea of how the Father looks on the hearts of those we have put on the balance scales, and then there is always that nasty plank that seems to obscure our vision.

But let me return to my original question and let me offer a historical perspective on how we can judge whether our church, and specifically ourselves, are on the road to stagnant lukewarmness.  If it is true, as John says in I John 4:20“If you do not love your brother whom you can see, how can you love God whom you cannot see?” then we may have a starting point for measuring our walk as followers of Jesus.  The historic church developed two lists that defined our spiritual duty towards one another and all those outside our church doors, the first is drawn from the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, and the second from the various teachings of the bible.  List one is referred to as the corporal works of mercy, those things that we ought to do that contribute to the physical welfare of those we come in contact with.  The second list are the spiritual works of mercy, those things that we ought to do if we see a person as bearing the imprint of the Father and we desire their eternal good.  In them, I think, we find a handy measure for whether we are followers of Jesus, a congregation of those He has called, or merely going through the motions.

Without further comments, consider these.  The corporal works of mercy are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to welcome in the homeless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, and to bury the dead.  The spiritual works of mercy are to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offences willingly, to comfort those that are afflicted, and to pray for the living and the dead.  In these lists we find a guard against lukewarmness.  In these lists we find an answer to the question “What should I be doing as a follower of Jesus?”  In these lists we find a summary of what our church congregation and committees ought to be investing our time and money towards.  To borrow the words of the Apostle Peter in II Peter 1:10-11 (commenting on his own list of measuring standards):

for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble;  for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.”

Pentecost Sunday

“Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations beginning at Jerusalem.  And you are witnesses of these things.  Behold, I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry at the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.”  Luke 24:46-49

God chooses to work through created means to bring about divine purposes.  This is a mystery to us, but Paul gives us some understanding of why it is in II Corinthians 4:7 “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.”   The divine gifts of grace, repentance and remission of sins in Jesus Christ are divinely powerful to the salvation of the soul.  No mere human philosophy, science, logic, or natural religion can ever bring such salvation about.  That is why Paul clearly states in I Corinthians 2:1, 4-5 “…I did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God….and my speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.”  This power of God of whom he speaks is also the Third Person of the Trinity whom we call the Holy Spirit, and it is His sending into our world that we celebrate on Pentecost.

Pentecost derives its name from the Greek word which means the “fiftieth day”.  In Hebrew times it was called the feast of weeks (Shavuot, Deuteronomy 16:9-10) and was counted from the feast of the firstfruits when the barley harvest began (Exodus 23:16).  Leviticus 23:15-16 says “and you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath…seven Sabbaths shall be completed.  Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath…”  This marked the beginning of the grain harvest.  The Rabbis further taught that this day commemorated the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai fifty days after the children of Israel were led out of Egypt (Exodus 19:1), the event that was foundational in forming the nation as the people of God.  In the New Testament the day of Pentecost comes fifty days after the Resurrection of the Lord (I Corinthians 15:20 says He is the first fruits of those risen to new life), and ten days after He ascended to the right hand of power.  From that position He sends forth the Holy Spirit even as He promised (John 14:16-17, 16:7-15).

The sending of the Holy Spirit is an empowerment of each individual believer to fully live the Christian life, and more importantly, the empowerment of the Church to proclaim the testimony of Jesus Christ with power and authority.  It is the formation of the Church as the people of God.  We must not lose sight of the divine truth that the Holy Spirit was sent upon the Church as a whole, with each member receiving Him in particular.  The modern stress on individual expressions of the Holy Spirit as a personal, rather than corporate gift, finds no place in the text of the New Testament.  As the Apostle Paul says so clearly in I Corinthians 12:7, “the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all.”

The sanctuary color for Pentecost Sunday is red, the symbol for divine fire, and the lectionary readings remind us that the Holy Spirit is the promise of the Father now poured forth to bring about the New Covenant inaugurated by the shedding of the blood of His Son Jesus.  It marked the transition from the gospel ministry of Jesus to the Acts of the Apostles according to the promises of Jesus in John 14:12 “the one who believes on Me, greater works than these shall he do because I go to my Father.”, and Acts 1:8 “you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit is come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses…unto the uttermost parts of the earth.”  Pentecost is the beginning of the work of God within each of our hearts to make a people chosen for His purpose and sent out to proclaim His salvation in every corner of our world.

Ascension Day, May 14, 2015

“When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive and He gave gifts to me.  He…ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”  Ephesians 4:8-10

In Acts 1:1-3 it records that for the forty days between Resurrection Sunday and Ascension Thursday, Jesus Christ presented Himself alive with many infallible proofs, spent the time instructing His disciples concerning the Kingdom of God, and gave them final commands.  Of the day of Ascension, the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts offer the following details.  Matthew records that Jesus met His disciples on a mountain.  There He declared that all authority had been given to Him in heaven and on earth, and He commissioned them to go to all nations, baptizing and making disciples in His name.  He left them with the promise that He would be with them until the end of the age.  Mark declares that after He spoke, He was received up into heaen and sat down at the right hand of God, and that the apostles went about preaching the word in power with the Lord confirming their words with signs and wonders.  Luke indicates that He led them out as far as Bethany and He lifted up His hands and blessed them.  In Acts he adds that Jesus promised the Holy Spirit would come upon the apostles in Jerusalem and that it would be the power that they required to be His witnesses.  As He was received up into the clouds, angels appeared to the apostles with the promise that just as Jesus had ascended into heaven, so He would return to the earth in the same manner.

This is an important day within the Paschal cycle.  When the Lord took upon Himself human flesh and ultimately went to His death on the cross, He humbled Himself as it says in Philippians 2:6-8, “although He existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in the appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross.”  Philippians 2:9 continues, “Therefore God also highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the Name that is above every other name…”  This supreme glorification of Christ took place in part when He ascended and sat down at the right hand of the Father in glory.  Daniel 7:13-14 may give us a glimpse of that moment.  “I was looking in the night visions, and behold with the clouds of heaven, One like the Son of Man was coming.  And He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him, and to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom.”

Four major things were accomplished at the Ascension of Jesus.  First, Jesus entered into the glory that was rightfully His from all eternity (John 17:4-5 and Psalm 110:1-2).  Second, from heaven He sent forth the promise of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-15).  Third, as the Great High Priest He entered into the Holy of Holies not made with hands to make intercession for us (Hebrews 8:1-2; 9:11-15, 24-28; and 10:19-22).  And lastly, He went into heaven to prepare a place for us (John 14:1-4).  We commemorate Ascension Day by looking to the skies as the apostles did on that day and recalling His promises.  The day is intended to remind us, as Paul says in Ephesians 1:20-23; 2:4-7, that Jesus is head over all things to His church, and that we, with him, have been seated in the heavenlies awaiting the culmination of the age and the inauguration of the everlasting Kingdom.  As we look to the heavens may our prayer always be, “Amen!  Come Lord Jesus Christ” (Revelation 22:20).

Good Friday and Holy Saturday

“Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross.  And the writing was: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews….and it was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.”   John 19:19, 20b

The chronology of these days is gleaned from the scriptures.  The gospel of Luke tells us that as soon as it was day (the Jewish day watch begins at 6:00 am), the Sanhedrin rose up after their trial of Jesus in the night, and led Him to Pilate for judgment.  The gospels record Pilate’s deliberations and Matthew tells us that finally he washed his hands of the whole matter and handed over this innocent man (his words) to the crowd to crucify.  Mark further records that they crucified Jesus at the place of the Skull at the 3rd hour (in the day watch this would be 9:00 a.m.).  And Luke tells us that from the 6th hour (12:00 noon) until the 9th hour (3:00 p.m.) darkness was over the land.  It was in this final hour that Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And then, bearing the full weight of sin upon himself, He said “It is finished”; “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.” Hanging His head, Jesus yielded up His spirit to the awful judgment of God upon sin.

Since it was the day of preparation for the Passover (which began at 6:00 p.m. on Good Friday), the body of Jesus was hastily taken down from the cross, washed and prepared for burial, wrapped in burial cloths as was the custom, and laid in the borrowed tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.   And what of His closest disciples?  Matthew 26:56 records that at His betrayal, “all the disciples forsook Him and fled.”   Matthew 25:75b says that after Peter denied the Lord three times, “he went out and wept bitterly.”   John 20:19 says that on Resurrection day, “…the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews…”  And even after the reports of the women at the empty tomb, Luke 24:11 says that the women’s words “seemed to them like idle tales and they did not believe them.”  Separated from Jesus Christ for the first time in three years, faced with the improbability of His death, the followers of the Lord faced what St. John of the Cross calls “the dark night of the soul.”

We mark these days in prayer and waiting.  The hours between 12:00 noon and 3:00 p.m. on Good Friday, the hours of darkness upon the cross, are traditionally set aside as a holy time marked by silent contemplation, prayer, and true contrition of heart.  This is the most solemn day of our Atonement.  In it we should recall our own forgiveness and redemption, the blood that Jesus Christ shed for our sin.  We should remember what we would be without him and weep bitterly in our hearts at the thought.  The prophet says that all our righteousness is as filthy rags.  It is only this day that enables us to know peace, love, joy, and hope as we are restored to right relationship with our Father.  In the recognition of our own unworthiness to merit any favor from God, we should glory is the immeasurable worth of Jesus and His death.  He is that supreme gift of God’s mercy and grace.  Many Christians will do the Stations of the Cross during this period of time to aid them in a full contemplation of the events of the day.

Holy Saturday has two moods.  The first is the keeping of vigil with its longing and waiting for the breaking of the new day.  It is a day in which no candles or fire  are kindled for the light of the world lies in the tomb.  It is a day without music and singing, for sorrow chastens and sobers us for a time.  Often our churches have their altars covered with black cloth.    Proverbs 13:12 summarizes well the two-fold emotion of this night, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”  The second theme is, therefore,  the joyful anticipation of tomorrow.  Though we sorrow in the moment, we remember Jesus’ promise that He will rise again in victory.  It is traditional to keep vigil through the night of Holy Saturday reading through twelve Old Testament readings that foreshadow the deliverance found in Jesus Christ.  At sunrise on Resurrection morning, we kindle the new fire and greet the sunrise with the ancient prayer, “The Exulstet”.   We rejoice to know that death could not hold Jesus Christ in its power.  As darkness gives way to light, we receive the daily parable that it must ever be this way in the Kingdom.  “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.”  Psalm 126:5   “Most assuredly I say to you, that you will weep and lament…and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy…now you have sorrow, but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you..”  John 16:20,22  “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”  Psalm 30:5