Reconciled & Redeemed

When we live contrary to God’s character and the good purposes for which we were created, intentionally or not, we call that sin. These wayward actions and thoughts distance us from God, though not God from us. 

Since God is life (John 5:26), separating ourselves from God brings death. Death is not a punishment imposed by God for our misdeeds, but rather the inevitable consequence of removing ourselves from the One in whom we have our being (Acts 17:28). 

In addition, through sin we align ourselves with Satan’s rebellion against God. We, as the old saying goes, “sell our souls to the devil.” Of course, he is not a benevolent or kind master, but takes us captive so we do as he wills (2 Timothy 2:26). We become slaves to sin itself (John 11:34).

In response to our awful predicament that we have created, God came to us, as one of us, in Jesus the Christ. His coming undoes all the damage and consequences of sin through both reconciling and redeeming us.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 2 Corinthians 5:18-19

Jesus is how God reconciles humanity to himself. Through his life, God reclaims the human condition from sinfulness to righteousness, so much so that Jesus can be called a new Adam (Romans 5:14-15). In the fullness of his life, Jesus brought us back to a seamless fellowship with God. This recreating of the God-mankind relationship on our behalf is reconciliation, and it is God’s loving gift to the entire world.

Redemption is a different aspect of Jesus’ work for us. The word “redeem” refers to paying a price to ransom something or someone from the power of another.  Our sinfulness has caused us to be in debt in several ways.

Some mistakenly think that Jesus’ death pays off our debt, because of sin, to the Father. As we have seen, Jesus is God reconciling us to himself, not redeeming us from God. Our God is the father of the prodigal son, who does not ask for the debt to be repaid when the son returns. Our God is the compassionate king (Matthew 18:27) who simply forgives debts. 

As Paul stated, God is not counting our sins against us. We are told to forgive in exactly the same way (Ephesians 4:32). We do have debts that need to paid, just not to God.

Because the wages of sin is death (Romans 3:23), we owe death its due. Paul is pointing to this when he says that Jesus redeems us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13), that is, a death sentence. Jesus pays death what it demands though it was a debt he did not owe. 

God is not demanding our death; death is demanding our life. Our enemy, death, was defeated by Jesus and we look forward to participating in that already accomplished victory (1 Corinthians 15:26).

Jesus came to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). He redeems (ransoms) us from the devil, the one had enslaved us through our sin. The devil makes his claim on us, using death as his power over us (Hebrews 2:14). 

When Jesus gives himself as a ransom, he frees us forever (John 11:36) from the hands of our enemies – the devil and death. This is redemption. We are redeemed from the consequences of sin and reconciled to the fellowship of God.

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Dynamic Belief

The father of the sick boy who says to Jesus, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), elegantly expresses the dynamic nature of faith. Too easily we think about belief in binary terms, that we either believe or we don’t. However, the complexity of belief can be described as the interdependent relationship between knowledge, understanding, and practice.

To know something is not the same as to really understand or comprehend it. For instance, the Apostles’ Creed begins with “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” I know this phrase as the first of twelve statements of the creed. I know it as a central belief that has been handed down through the church. I may know the statement, but do I understand it? Yes and no!

Yes, I can grasp some sense of what this statement of belief is naming, but, no, I do not fully understand what it means for God to be Father, Almighty, and Creator. I am ever drawn by the creed to contemplate the meaning, implications, and then to actualize this truth in the way I live. This is also true of any scripture I know. I am always in the process of developing understanding and practice.

I truly know and understand any “belief” only to the extent that I perceive how to live according to the truth it conveys. The daily practice of belief is what constitutes the essence of faith. The process of going from knowing to understanding, and then further into practice, brings one to new knowing. Something new is discovered through experience, and so the dynamic interrelationship continues.

Too much confidence in what we know, if held separate from the humbling process of evolving understanding that draws us into culturally and contextually specific practices, fools us into thinking that our beliefs are static. We may not expect our beliefs to be dynamic and therefore distrust any evolving of faith.

Theology is what we call our thinking and speaking about matters related to God. Since nothing exists apart from God, theology involves our discourse and thought about everything. To be a Christian is to endeavor to think theologically, not in an academic way, but in an everyday manner.

This process of engaging in theology is never completed, for it is concerned with the dynamics of belief. The static aspect of our faith is the locus of our belief – the mystery of God and his nature which is expressed in all things. The dynamics relate to our attempts to live out of the centrality of God’s existence.

Those who have gone before us have given us ways to think and speak of God. They guide our belief through the holy scriptures they passed down, through creeds and explanations of the faith. Still, despite all their gifts, we believe and plead for help with our unbelief.

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Overcoming Evil

People are not evil. Thoughts, attitudes, motives, and actions can certainly  be evil, but not people themselves. We can say evil words and do wicked actions, but we cannot be evil.

If we mistakenly believe others to actually be evil we deny that God created them in his own image. Even if we use such words to describe people, which may not be the most precise way to speak, we ought to remember that we are truly only referring to what they do and not who they actually are.

The goodness of God is the relentless force uniting all things in heaven and earth (Ephesians 1:9-10). Evil is the disintegrating energy that breaks our world, relationships, and tragically, us. When we think evil thoughts, speak and act from evil motives, we are quite literally destroying ourselves in ways that may not yet be apparent. This is the road to destruction – the way of death.

If evil is so destructive, the obvious question is how should we oppose it? Perhaps this is startling, but we must allow evil to “win” on its own terms. Fighting evil in the world with similar actions or attitudes only increases the amount of brokenness in the world. In terms of maliciousness, evil must be allowed to triumph. 

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. Matthew 5:38-39a

Jesus would not have agreed with the saying “fight fire with fire” in how to respond to evil. When he says we should not resist a person who is acting in evil ways, the examples, turning the other cheek, giving the inner garment, and going the second mile, clearly forbid us from responding in kind. 

However, in each case the response he describes does not simply let the evil go unaddressed. Doing what he says exposes the wicked action for what it is. The person can no longer slap, but must punch if they want to hit you again. By offering your inner garment you will be naked, which is the direction in which they were headed when they sued to take your outer clothing. By going further than the prescribed mile suddenly the soldier is doing more than was lawful for him to require. 

This is Jesus’ way of peaceful opposition to evil actions, not reacting in kind while also highlighting what is wrong. The one doing evil is put in a position of having to either escalate and be more obviously doing evil, or relent.

Based on Jesus’ admonition to treat others as we would want to be treated (Luke 6:31), the apostles speak about returning good for evil.

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:21

To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.1 Peter 3:8-9

We can discern a twofold way that good and love overcome evil. Without maliciousness or to cause harm, in humility, good exposes the evil actions, thoughts, and attitudes for what they are. Good also genuinely blesses and continues to make the world whole despite how evil attempts to destroy. 

Good overcomes evil in the same way life overcomes death . . . in resurrection.

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Faith And Idolatry

We know God through having the trusting relationship which we call faith. This way of faith is characteristic of a righteous life.

Behold, as for the proud one,
His soul is not right within him;
But the righteous will live by his faith.
Habakkuk 2:4

Despite the promise of the life lived by faith, the actual nature of faith is very unsettling for us and often dissatisfying. We like to be in control, or at least be certain of who is. But to truly trust God leaves us vulnerable, reliant on One who sometimes does not seem to be controlling much of anything, all while we are frighteningly helpless.

Adding to our discomfort is the fact that we are trusting in One who can neither be encountered directly with our physical senses nor captured in our deepest thoughts. God remains elusive, out of our grasp both physically and intellectually, and we are not adept in using our spirits. We are like the disciples who pleaded with Jesus, “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” (John 14:8). We would like more than God offers us through faith, so faith will be less necessary.

The human response to the inherent uncertainties of faith is always idolatry. We cannot avoid putting trust somewhere, but we always prefer relying on something more tangible than God. Modern attempts are as ridiculous as ancient ones when viewed for what they are.

Half of it he burns in the fire,
on its embers he roasts meat;
he eats the roast and is full.
He warms himself and says, “Ah!
I am warm! I see the flames!”
The rest of it he makes into a god,
an image to worship and adore.
He prays to it and says,
“Help me! You are my god!”
Isaiah 44:16-17

Idolatry is not abandoning faith, but going beyond faith. The idolatrous form of faith is still trust, but not in what is greater than ourselves. We tame and control the idol, creating it in our own image, either physically or intellectually. Uncomfortable with trusting in what we cannot grasp, we shape something more familiar. Think of the Israelites making the golden calf at Sinai when their fearful uncertainty was driving them.

When the people saw that Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for that man Moses who brought us out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.” Exodus 32:1

The simplest sense of faith is that we trust in whoever God is. We admit that God may not be as we imagine or believe God to be. Still, we trust that God is merciful, loving, and good. We do have indications of his loving nature, and the witness of others, especially Jesus, who have said the same, but in the dark of night we are calling to the God who is more than we can grasp.

Our idolatry today is often less obvious than statues of wood or metal. However, we may find ourselves anxiously wrestling with the unknowns of faith, and wanting to go beyond faith to create something more reassuring than a God who reveals himself on a cross.

Faith calls us to humbly trust in God, but idolatry gives us the opportunity to shape the god we want to trust. The result of the latter is a god who bears our image and likeness.

We must let God be God, even though it requires letting go of knowing God on our terms so we may trust God on his. Every indication is that God is much more beautiful and loving than my understanding of God anyway, so to not hold too rigidly my idea of God is to allow myself to be shown the Father continually . . . to my perpetual amazement.

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Knowing God

Being a parent is essentially the experience of the relationship you have with your child. The only way to know what it is to be a parent is to have a child. Knowing that a parent is a person who has a child is information about being a parent, but that is not actually knowing anything about parenthood.

If you are an only child, you do not know what sibling relationships are. You may know about sibling relationships, that these relationships can include rivalry, closeness, and be affected by birth order, for instance. But you cannot know the relationship unless you have siblings.

Because the only way to truly know a particular relationship is to be in it and experience it, these examples can help us understand why we say that one can only know God by faith.

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:31-32

To those who had begun to trust (believe in) Jesus, he promised that they would know truth. Of course, in John’s thinking Jesus is the truth (John 14:6) and he is God (John 1:1-2).To know Jesus as the Word and Truth they had to be in relationship with him, and that relationship was initiated by their trust. True knowledge of God only comes through being in relationship with God.

Many misunderstand the statement that God can only be known by faith. To them it sounds like Mark Twain’s quip, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” To the skeptical, Christians, when confronted by the inability to prove God’s existence, fell back on poor circular reasoning by saying “you just have to believe.” 

Knowing God by faith is not speaking about believing in the bare existence of God through an act of choice, but the impossibility of knowing a relationship apart from being in it. This is a very reasonable, rather than unreasonable, claim.

God is the relationship that exists within Father, Son, and Spirit. God is Relationship, which is what we mean by using the term “Trinity”. The only way to know God is to participate in that Relationship, just as the only way to know the reality of parenthood is to be in a parenting relationship.

Through faith, which is trust and reliance on God, we discover the reality of God in a “personal” way. By personal I do not mean individualistic, but rather as one person to another person, rather than as a person to a thing. I cannot have a personal relationship with a brick! A relationship exists only between subjects, not a subject and an object.

 

God cannot be simply observed without engagement. We must experience God, to trust and participate in the love of God, since the very nature of God is relational.

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. 1 John 4:7-8

While faith is where we start to relate to, and therefore know, God, deeply knowing God comes through participation in God’s fundamental nature, divine love. This is why John can say that everyone who loves knows God because through love they are in relationship with Love.

We cannot, nor should we try, to “prove” God because only objects can be proven objectively, and subjects are known through relationship. We can demonstrate the reasonableness of how we speak of God and our faith, which is what I am doing now. We could say it like this: God is pure subject, who took on the objective quality of humanity in Jesus (he could be seen and touched) in order to bring us into relationship with God. 

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The Body Discerned

The central act of our coming together on a Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection, is to celebrate the Eucharist (thanksgiving), also called Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper. We share in the Lord, his living and dying, his body and blood, so that we will be united with the One on whom we depend for grace and the life given by God.

In more ways than I can mention now, this meal is both temporal and eternal, physical and spiritual, and a heavenly feast on earth which renews us in the awareness that God took on flesh, and is still doing so. We know that the physical is not uninhabitable by God, but that God delights in this union, the mystery of Christ and his church.

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 1 Corinthians 11:27-28

Because Eucharist is so central to our lives in Christ, Paul warned the Corinthians about the unworthy way they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper. The first remedy he gives is the practice of self-examination.

Many mistakenly surmise this means that if they have made mistakes, have sinned in some way, then they should not partake. Nothing could be more incorrect! Holy Communion is for sinners who desire forgiveness and want the new life of Christ. Self-examination is not to determine if we are good enough, but to admit our failures and come accepting forgiveness in the joy of our salvation.

Unconfessed sin, when we refuse to repent, would be a problem. This is why in the liturgy we are often led through an examination of conscience and encouraged to make confession. We ought to come to the table humbly admitting our sins and thankful that we are forgiven!

But there was another way in which the Corinthians were partaking in a poor manner.

For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 1 Corinthians 11:29-31

These Christians were not discerning the body of Christ, which involves discerning themselves. To understand Paul’s meaning we need to remember what was occurring within the Corinthian church. 

They were separated from each other over which leader they liked best (1 Cor. 1:12-13). They were suing each other (1 Cor. 6:7), and even in their fellowship meals, during which they received the bread and cup of Holy Communion, some were over-indulging while others went hungry (1 Cor. 11:20-21).

Paul reminds them that they are the body of Christ (1 Cor 6:15, 10:16, 12:27). The central liturgical act of being the body of Christ is receiving his flesh and blood in the bread and cup. Think of the contradiction of sharing in a meal of mysterious union with God and with all who are members of Christ’s body, while blatantly neglecting and not honoring that same body by mistreating the members of it!

St. John Chrysostom, in speaking about what constitutes the unworthiness to which St. Paul refers, says,

For how can it be other than unworthily when it is he who neglects the hungry? . . . You have tasted the Blood of the Lord, and not even thereupon do you acknowledge your brother . . . He having been deemed worthy to partake of it and you not judging him worthy of your meat. St. John Chrysostom (349-407)

The Corinthians were contradicting the meaning of Holy Communion in their treatment of one another. I cannot love God and hate my brother (1 John 4:20) any more than feast with the Lord while despising his body. 

To share in the Eucharist in a worthy manner is to do so with confession and a penitent heart, and in the unity of love for each other. We are honoring the presence of Christ not only in the bread and cup, but in one another . . . for we are his body.

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Legalism

The term ‘legalism’ is used frequently in religious discussions, but do we really have a good understanding of what it means? Sometimes being careful to do what is right gets labeled as legalism. That is obedience, not legalism, and should be commended and encouraged. Obedience should not come out of horrible fear as if God is a tyrant, but obedience itself is always good. We should strive to do what is right and godly in all matters, both great and small.

Unlike obedience, legalism is depending on what we do right as the basis for our relationship with God. What we depend on is what we trust or have faith in. Legalism is faith in my own good actions, which has turned those actions, which may be truly good, into an idol that now replaces God!

Hopefully, none of us feel particularly convicted by this definition of legalism, having been taught to trust in Jesus and not our own righteousness to bring us into relationship with God.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. Ephesians 2:8

However, a subtle trait of legalism may still show up in many of us who would never think of trusting in our own good deeds as the basis of our salvation or righteousness.

If, while striving to be obedient, we think of ourselves as better than those who are blatantly disobedient, we are seriously infected with a legalistic spirit. Considering ourselves better than others on the basis of obedience means that we are putting more confidence in our own good actions than we should.

I might say those deeds do not “save” me, but do I see them as making me better than others? Legalism begets spiritual pride. Always. Where there is spiritual arrogance, underneath you will find a legalistic attitude toward the deeds we do, even if that arrogance stops short of claiming good deeds save.

To depend thoroughly on the mercy of God is to consider all human efforts and accomplishments as nothing (Philippians 3:4-8). We know the importance of good works are a way to glorify God and also be transformed. We do not want to see them as something in which we may take pride. Obedience neither saves us nor makes us better than others.

What is the solution to a legalistic spirit? Put quite simply, we need to grow in humility. A legalistic attitude is one that undervalues grace and puts confidence in the flesh. To solemnly contemplate grace will increase our humility . . . along with a few serious failures. If we obediently confess our sins to one another, as instructed (James 5:16), the legalistic spirit will disappear.

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