Oct 09

Reformation at 500: Grace Alone, Faith Alone



What we would like to have is a guarantee: something in writing, preferably, with full assurances. A baseline, a foundation we can build on because we know it will never go away. Something set in stone. What we would like to have is the full knowledge that things could not be different, that there is no other possibility than the reality we have right now. And if we don’t see that foundation, if we have trouble finding it, or if someone points it out to us and things look a little wobbly, we start to build that foundation for ourselves. If God won’t give us the foundation we think we need, the sure footing we want for our salvation, then we will make our own, by the works of our hands. Yet at the heart of the gospel, at the heart of our salvation, lies this precious word: grace. And grace means that things could have been different, that the way things are right now is not the way things must be. Grace means that the guarantees, the foundations we want, need to be thrown out the window. Continue reading

Oct 01

Reformation at 500: Scripture Alone



What happens when we read Scripture? What do we expect to happen when we read Scripture? In Nehemiah, our Old Testament lesson for this morning, Ezra reads from the scroll of the law of Moses. We don’t know what, exactly, he read, either what part or how much. Maybe he read from Exodus, or maybe he read all of Deuteronomy. What is clear is that this kind of reading hadn’t happened in a while, maybe in a generation or more. Imagine, decades without hearing Scripture read, interpreted, or proclaimed. Not just for one or two individuals, but for the whole people of Israel. Continue reading

Sep 10

Real Church Life



Two weeks ago, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Houston megachurch pastor Joel Osteen brought on himself the kind of attention nobody wants. His church, Lakewood Bible Church, was slow to open its doors to offer its neighbors shelter. Osteen himself was a little clueless, if not insensitive, in his answers about why it took so long for one of the largest churches in the country to help out after such a bad storm. I can’t stand Osteen, and I think in general he does more harm than good, but I don’t bring up this unfortunate situation to beat up on him. I’m more interested in the reactions from people both inside and outside the church.

Almost everyone I heard said something like, “This is a church. Don’t they know how they’re supposed to act? Don’t they get it? How could they let something like this happen? Don’t they know that they’re a church?!” And on the one hand, I support that response. We Christians ought to hold ourselves to a high standard, and we shouldn’t be upset when others hold us to a high standard, too. But on the other, I think that attitude is dangerous. It makes the church an ideal, a fantasy society that gets everything right all the time. But the church, in this world, is not filled with ideal people. The church is a hospital for sinners, a place where we are healed from sin so that we can live according to the new life given in Jesus Christ. But a hospital is not a place where everyone is well. And the church is not a place where no one sins anymore. The “ideal” church is a lie. And when we believe the lie, or let others believe it, we set ourselves up for disillusionment and even for falling away from the church when things go wrong. Continue reading

Sep 03

Pushing For a Better Hope



He just couldn’t stop there, could he? Why couldn’t he be satisfied with what had been said already? Wasn’t that enough? Wasn’t that what the Father had revealed to Simon Peter? He’s the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Why does Jesus have to keep pushing?

Just before this passage, in the story we read last week from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus asks his disciples two questions: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say that I am?” To the first question, the disciples answer that people think Jesus is a prophet. To the second question, Simon Peter responds with a confession of faith, a gift from the Father: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus praises Peter, promises to build his church on Peter the rock, and gives to Peter and the church the keys to the kingdom of heaven. It is a glorious moment—but Jesus just won’t stop there. He keeps going. His work is not done. His teaching is not complete. Matthew tells us that “From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” Jesus does not rest content, not even after praising Peter. Continue reading

Aug 27

Jesus Christ: The Messiah



There’s a great spiritual you might have heard at Christmastime over the years. Each of the verses talks about some aspect or another of the Christmas story, but the heart of the spiritual is the refrain: (sing twice) “Everywhere I go; everywhere, I go, my Lord; everywhere I go, somebody’s talkin’ ’bout Jesus.” I know it’s August, and I know we have long left Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story in the dust, but this spiritual, this refrain, we need them today, now. Everywhere I go, somebody’s talkin’ ’bout Jesus.

Who do people say that the Son of Man is? That’s Jesus’s first question to the disciples. I have on my office bookshelves across the lawn some three hundred books. Back at home, at the parsonage, I probably have another thousand or so—all of them, or nearly all of them, are either talking about Jesus or talking about people who like to talk about Jesus. I teach sometimes at a seminary in Baltimore and another one down in D.C. Each of these has libraries with another hundred thousand or so books, mostly about Jesus or about people who like to talk about Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus: you could go down each page and count up how often his name appears, but it would take you a lifetime. Continue reading