Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Moving Over to "Journeys Home"

Because of increased upcoming work in college and seminary course preparation, and a grant proposal that I plan to write for an early fall deadline, I'm going to stop posting at this blog for the time being. But I still continue to post regularly at my "Journeys Home" blog, accessible here. Posts at that blog will include short Bible studies and meditations, as I've already been posting at both sites. Feel free to continue browsing my posts at this site and the essays at my "Love of Bible Study site, accessible here.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Staying Strong in Faith

Have you ever noticed the New Testament disciple Demas (Δημᾶς, pronounced day-MAS)? Possibly not, since he only appears three times, at the end of letters.

My mom used to own a collection of Harry Emerson Fosdick's sermons, and in one sermon he made a hypothetical case about the stages of Demas' loss of faith (or, at least, Demas' commitment to Paul's difficult ministry).

Fosdick noted that, in Philemon 23-24, Paul lists him ahead of Luke. Here is the NRSV:

Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow-workers.

Then in Colossians 4:14, among his greetings and acknowledgments, Paul (assuming Pauline authorship of this letter) mentions Luke first, and then Demas:

Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you. 

In 2 Timothy 4:9-11, Paul writes:

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry.

Fosdick suggested a regression of Demas' devotion: first he is listed ahead of Luke (implying his importance to Paul), and then he is listed after Luke, implying a drop in importance. In the third verse, Paul regrets that Demas has abandoned him because he loved the world more than the Gospel. (I read that the name is used by John Bunyan for a deceiver in The Pilgrim's Progress.)

Perhaps that isn’t fair. It's not hard to imagine that Paul wasn’t easy to get along with! Paul, like many preachers following him, was singleminded in his efforts. I remember a pastor whom I met casually years ago. He made the comment to someone that Satan had been sending him the wrong persons to assist in his ministry. I thought that was a rather arrogant thing to say. He should have been more humble and said that his assistants had so far been incompatible with his own personality, style, and goals, which does happen in workplaces.

But one’s religious faith and devotion can certainly flag. That's not hard to imagine, either. Many times my faith has become tired and discouraged, especially in the face of difficulties outside my control and times of distress. Tired of feeling worried about certain things, I'm currently seeking God's help to grow in my trust in the Lord.

Thus, in Paul's letters as well as Hebrews and also the Gospels, that we should seek to stay strong in our faith and not to lose heart.  Just two passages that come to mind: 2 Cor. 4:16-18 and Gal. 6:9. Can you think of others?

One hopes that Demas found other chances to be a disciple, just as we all hope that God continues to work in our lives when we are weary, or when we drift or stumble.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Jesus Has Compassion

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Pentecost.... My parents are both gone now. My mother died this past September and my father died back in 1999.  Like everyone else, I struggle to have a growing faith and to have a peaceful, trusting heart in the face of life’s difficulties, which definitely isn’t always easy. Grief from a family loss is a very major thing to face. I have to say, though, that all the biblical promises of eternal life and heaven helped me tremendously as I contemplated the fulfillment of those promises for my mother, who was 93 and had been ill and infirm for many years.

I like to think of Christ's death and resurrection as bringing about a kind of reality, which is forceful and real for us today. Our sins and wrongdoings and failures (and our smallness in the universe) have no more force to separate us from God, because we’re protected in that resurrection reality.

Eternal life is like being kept in a protective and secure place, out of reach of danger. Obviously, we still face difficult and dangerous, painful situations. But if we have a relationship with Christ, then Christ keeps us out of reach of the full powers of death and evil. Our very lives are tucked away and protected, because we’re already sharing in the divine life of Christ. We have a new identity for the remainder of our physical existence, characterized and empowered by God’s tremendous and infinite love.

Nothing we do in this life can separate us from God’s great love, because we have already died and been buried, so to speak, because the physical death we will eventually----awful as death is---has been rendered impotent as far as our eternal life is concern.   Now, we continue to live our physical lives, which are temporary and ephemeral, but our true, new life, which is in God, is “hidden with Christ.”  Baptism is a sign of this safekeeping, our “burial” with Christ, so that as Christ is buried we are buried with him, and as he has risen from death so too will we be raised to eternal life.

These two stories, from 1 Kings and Luke’s gospel, are traditionally paired together. If you study them side by side, they parallel one another. Scholars think that Luke must have written the story in order for it to parallel the Elijah story, since structurally and thematically they’re very similar.

Elijah and Jesus both approached the gate of the town, they both immediately met a widow whose son had died. Both Elijah and Jesus had compassion, with Elijah’s expressed as a cry to the Lord and Jesus’ by the time he took to address the situation. Also, Elijah’s compassion was expressed in the way he reached out to a Gentile woman, while Jesus reached out to someone who was simply passing by while he was doing something else. In both stories, the son is given back to the mother, and also in both stories, Elijah and Jesus are both recognized as persons from God.

When I took an introduction to religion course during my freshman year of college, I learned my first “cool” biblical word, and it happens to be used in Luke’s story. The Greek work is splagchnizomai, which is translated “to have compassion,” but it is euphemism because the literal meaning is “to feel yearning in the bowels”---or, as we might say, “to feel it in the gut,” a gut feeling.  In other words, Jesus felt compassion in his deepest inner being.

This is an important thing to remember in this story, as Jesus was moving along with a large crowd following him and the disciples. He noticed another large crowd---dueling crowds, so to speak, but this second crowd was following the widow and her dead son. One of my commentaries quotes the epistle from James, that true religion is “to care for orphans and widows in their distress” (1:27). Obviously Jesus had power to help the widow and raise up the Son, but hypothetically he could have going on his way without discovering what the other crowd was about.

Jesus’ reaction, though, was compassion.

I’d like for us to think about that for a minute. One day my mother made an offhand comment that she wondered if she was good enough to go to Heaven.  I kind of hit the ceiling---because she was a lifelong churchgoer and I wished she had a more confident understanding of the gospel. But as we chatted, I did wonder if we do a good enough job communicating to people that salvation is a free gift.
Being with God in our life and after our death is completely a gift from God.  Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms, I go to prepare a place for you.” Jesus didn’t say, “I go to prepare a place for you but only if provide good drywall and do the wiring.” It is completely Christ’s work that gets us a room in Heaven.

But I think, how sad it would be if you were a person in a hard situation, many very scared and the thing you needed most was a message of God’s great love and God’s free gift of salvation. But you feel like you should've volunteered more at church, you should have done this or that, you didn't resolve this or that conflict.  Sunday, the pastor might be preaching sermon about how you need to step up and volunteer more. You end up climbing to the notion that you have to earn God’s grace and work hard to get to Heaven.

But our scriprtures this morning teach us that Jesus responds with compassion to our weaknesses and our struggles.  When we’re at the end of our lives, he isn’t checking his notes to see if we’ve passed muster with him, like a fussy boss----he has already surrounded us with more love than we can realize.

That might be just a good all-around phrase to memorize and recite to ourselves when we’re in a bad way, and in particularly if we’re facing our own mortality: “Jesus has compassion....”