Martin Luther: What does it mean to have a god?

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People talking today about the 10 commandments often loosely quote* the reformer Martin Luther saying, breaking any of the commandments is always a result of breaking the first – i.e. in other words, idolatry – or trusting in and worshiping someone or something other than the personal God who gave Israel the 10 commandments.

Background to the 10 Commandments

The first time the 10 commandments appear in the Bible is when God gave them to Moses. Israel had just dramatically escaped 400 years of slavery in Egypt. The introduction to the first commandment mentions this, even though it is often left out.

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Leviticus your neighbour

No, it’s not a naughty word, nor is it the title of a film about the life of Nelson Mandela 😉

It’s the 3rd book of the Bible. It’s one of the bits with all the gory sacrifices and (seemingly!) obsolete laws and rituals.

This time of year, many Christians make resolutions and plans to read through the Bible in the coming year. It’s a commendable goal and regular bible reading (& study, in context, history and genre etc) is part of the life of anyone who is serious about knowing, believing in, trusting and living for God. However in an average reading plan, of a few chapters a day (8-15min) many people come unstuck somewhere around the end of January.

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Christians aren’t immune to battling bitterness

REPOSTED from 2008 – A pertinent self-reminder, after also being “ripped off” that there are better options than bitterness. This is the first of 3 posts on the topic of forgiveness.
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Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” Hebrews 12:14-17

Contrasted with the great “cloud of witnesses” mentioned throughout Chapter 11, Esau represents the antithesis of faith. Each person mentioned in Chapter 11 knew to approach God in faith realising that it was otherwise impossible to please God. Esau, rejected God out of anger and bitterness, and result was a life of waste and regret.

It started with a dumb decision prompted by tiredness and exhaustion. In the field at the point of complete exhaustion and hunger he begs his deceitful conniving brother to give him some food. In exchange, Jacob rips him off by stealing his inheritance rights, giving Esau the modern equivalent of a cold Junior Burger. Jacob of course follows through with his coup (with his mother’s help) and deceives Isaac into conferring the full inheritance.

Esau’s reaction: anger towards his brother for deceiving him, anger towards his mother for helping Jacob, anger towards his father for not detecting the rort and ultimately anger towards God for not overriding the result of his mistake and stupidity.

Esau’s response: is to dwell continually on the mistreatment (forgetting it was his own fault that started the chain of events) and he became bitter. Turning to a life of immorality and unholiness he is no different to the teenager who takes to drugs, illicit lifestyle, mutilation or suicide. They engage in destructive behaviour, isolate themselves and spiral into an unrecoverable despair.

Forgiveness is the vaccine to prevent the “root of bitterness”.

First there must be the forgiveness of God through Christ – made possible by Christ dying for our sins and overcoming the ultimate despair and defeat proffered by Satan.

Second there must be the forgiveness of others. Bitterness is better prevented than recovered from as Hebrews 12 indicates – see to it that you don’t fail to obtain the grace of God and become defiled by the root of bitterness.

The grace of God only comes through Christ – thus our final remedy, restoration and redemption is through him. Education and counselling is helpful and can identify the symptoms or perhaps the cause event(s) of bitterness and they can help begin healing – Jesus can inspire and provide complete redemption. This prompts the author of Hebrews to say in Hebrews 12:3 – “Consider Christ”, he who endured the ultimate hostility was able to say from the cross, “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they are doing.”

The truth about trust

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The 1994 Season One finale of X-Files featured the tag line “Trust No One“. It was a warning of the inevitable deceit and betrayal awaiting anyone gullible enough to buy into cover ups perpetuated by authorities about the real causes of unusual and paranormal activities investigated by the show’s characters each week.

As a meme it represents cynicism that eschews personal transparency and vulnerability. It often covers the frustration and pain suffered by those who have experienced betrayal, deceit and abuse first-hand.

A contrasting response promoted by some says that you can and should have faith in people, give them the benefit of the doubt and trust them. This is a well-intentioned attempt to avoid negativity and anti-social cynicism.

In my last post I outlined the simple starting point for an approach Christians follow when addressing one another when they sin. The approach is based on a brief quote by Jesus, mentioned in the book of Matthew, about one of the ways people of the Church represent God. The goal in that quote is forgiveness and restoration of relationships. A similar quote is found in the book of Luke, also stressing the importance of forgiveness.

Jesus said to his disciples: … “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Like the Matthew quote, this is brief and doesn’t cover every possible aspect or scenario. It doesn’t mention what consequences might apply for different types of sins. The context, in Luke, is the magnitude of God’s forgiveness. We can never put God in our debt. A humble follower of God will never consider anyone else in their debt either, whether through wrong-doing or otherwise. The Genesis story of Lamech, a descendent of Cain, comes to mind. Lamech insisted that anyone who injured him would receive seventy-seven times the vengeance. Here Jesus says, “No.” It’s no wonder the apostles with Jesus responded with a plea to increase their faith.

It is one thing to forgive. It was freely received, so ought to be freely given. It is another altogether to trust the forgiven one. Forgiving someone who has done wrong against you does not require that you trust them or freely allow yourself to be harmed by them again.

For example, if I owe a bank $5000 and I can’t afford to repay it. They may choose to forgive the debt and write it off. I will no longer owe the amount. They will not prosecute me for not paying and won’t pursue the payment. However, if I was to come back the next day and try to borrow another $5000, or even just $1000, the bank will not trust me to repay them and won’t lend me the money.

In the same way, if someone has hurt, offended, harassed, bullied, intimidated or abused you. You may, if you choose, forgive them and not seek to prosecute them or have them charged for the offense. You are not required to entrust yourself to them only to risk them repeating the offense. The Apostle Paul wrote of how he evaded capture and attacks. Sometimes the healthiest thing you can to survive and keep going forward in your life is to run away from those trying to hurt you.

This doesn’t mean you’re not forgiving. It means you’re not trusting the person or people to hurt you again. Women and children should never to be told to stay in an abusive relationship or to trust an abuser. The abuser may have said sorry. The abuser may be genuine in their remorse and regret for their action. But while forgiveness is given freely, trust is not.

How do you know if or when the person is trustworthy? Maybe you never will. But you have no reason to feel as though you have failed in some way because someone else has not yet proven trustworthy. Go back to the bank example again. In some cases after failing to meet a loan payment, you will need to wait seven years or longer and then show evidence of positive changes to your saving and payment habits before the bank will talk to you about borrowing. Someone who has “borrowed” your trust in the past and not repaid it isn’t in your debt in the same way you are to a bank. If they can’t show evidence of positive change then you have no obligation to “loan” your trust to them.

You don’t need to be as cynical as Agents Mulder and Scully, but you don’t have to believe everyone either. They are not in your debt, and you are definitely not in theirs. The truth is out there.

Ministry is

saving-friend-battle-of-verdunIn a recent discussion around the formation and shape of Christian ministry there was a reflection exercise. In-part, the reflection considered how, if at all, Biblical patterns informed present day ministry practice. The term, “Ministry” can be quite ambiguous and is not simple to define.

Bible passages that stand out to me, (along with many others you could probably mention) are Aaron’s act as described in Numbers 16:47-48. Paul’s description of himself to the Church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 4:7-12), Jesus summary commission recorded in the fourth gospel (John 20:21) and Paul’s commission from God in Acts 26:17-18.

My “reflection” on these is a free-verse composition.

I love you, he said.
Here is everything I have. It’s yours.
I hate you, I replied.
I don’t want what you have.
I will burn it, despise it and destroy all you are.
My pain is too great. I cannot bear it.
I want to die and end it all.
Let me, take it from you, he said.
But why? I replied
It’s worthless, broken and full of shame.
Let me take it from you and give mine instead.
And then he died.
In brokenness, shame and indignity.
I am still broken.
I am NOT destroyed.
I AM re-made.
I have a treasure now he gave me.
Yet. It’s not for me.
It’s for all the broken people I can see.
I can love them. With his love.
Though they hate me.
Their pain is too great and they cannot bear it too.
I can take it from them.
They can be remade.
Because I can die for them.
Death can work in me and life will work in them.
I stand. Between the living and the dead.
He stood for me.

 What is ministry? It’s not heroic. It’s not taken for granted. It is something to live up to … and then die for.