Monday, August 29, 2016

Raised Up

Jeremiah 2:1-13
Hebrews 13:1-16
Luke 14:7-14

“In the multitude of my anxieties within me, Your comforts delight my soul”.  Psalm 94:19

In the early days of the English Reformation when the Roman Church lost its place of authority and influence, religious disputes did not end.  Though the king had been declared the head of the Church in England, there was still a distinctly “catholic” element to theology, worship, and liturgy. 

There was over time, however, a significant Puritan (Calvinist) influence that found its way into some of the “articles of religion” defining or redefining the constantly evolving doctrine of the Anglican Church.  What is most revealing about the Calvinist (Puritan) influence was the “opposition to good works apart from a proper faith in Christ” (Heitzenrater, R.P., “Wesley and the people called Methodists”, 2nd ed, pg 6).

“Works-righteousness” became the enemy of the Reformation.

What strikes me odd, however, is the Puritan Calvinist opposition to “good works apart from a proper faith”.  How can a “proper” faith be determined if not by some measure of “works”?  Not to earn it, but to live it?  This is not a new dispute, however.  Think of how St. Paul used Abraham as the example of the power to “believe” (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6). 

Yet St. James maintained that the genuine power of Abraham’s faith could not help but to manifest itself in “works” of faithful response (James 2:23); not seeking to earn Divine Favor but living fully into the Promise which was before him.  It was part of James’ encouragement that faith which does not produce good works in faithful response to Divine Mercy is no faith at all.  

And not many appreciate what Paul actually wrote to the Romans in spite of all he seemed to have against the Law of The Lord.  He wrote, “It is not the hearers of the Law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the Law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13).  This, of course, is consistent with James’ own words: “Be doers of the Word and not merely hearers” (James 1:22).

So what exactly is “proper” faith?  What constitutes “good” works, and what are (were) those “works” considered by Puritans to be a religious waste of time to do or even to talk about when it comes to “saving” faith?  How do we figure on what The Lord is addressing through Jeremiah?  This is quite an indictment against The Lord’s own people, but can it be reduced only to a measure of “proper” faith?  Or the lack thereof?      

The Lord is recalling a “honeymoon” period when His “bride” Israel was wholly devoted to The Lord and was willing to follow Him to a land “not sown”; the “wilderness” in which there was no safety and no security apart from what The Lord would provide.  They followed faithfully in the beginning, but it may be questionable as to whether they were running away from something (slavery in Egypt) or moving purposefully toward something (the Promised Land).

Then something went wrong, as The Lord had so judged: “What wrong did your ancestors find in Me that they went far from Me and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (Jeremiah 2:5).  What went “wrong” was that the Journey itself – even in the Promised Land - became difficult and challenging.  “Proper faith” was put to the test, and the test was failed due to a lack of mercy and justice in the heart of The Lord’s own people.

The indictment against Israel grew even stronger against the priests who “handle the Law [but] did not know me”; the rulers and even the prophets turned to Baal “and went after things that do not profit” (vs 8).  Strictly self-serving pleasures, every man for himself.  It may seem, then, that when we consider what it is that constitutes “proper” faith, we must also consider the things in our lives we pursue that “do not profit” – that is, discerning between that which “profits” only ourselves but does nothing to “profit” our neighbors and the Kingdom.

That shallow prosperity gospel (which, incidentally, is not new or unique to the 21st-century church!) actually teaches that personal “profit” is precisely what The Lord offers to those who truly believe.  Material wealth is, according to these false prophets, a sign of Divine Favor; that The Lord wants us to be happy and healthy and wealthy.  All true, of course, except if our personal happiness or health or wealth by whatever measure is not devoted entirely to The Lord and to the building up of His Church, His people, then we are not only failing to discern what is truly “profitable” but we are also failing in what is “proper faith”.

Believe it or not, what Jesus is teaching in Luke’s Gospel is part of what constitutes “proper” faith; an enduring trust that when we choose others before we worry about ourselves, we are living into what Jesus teaches to be truly “righteous” behavior.  Just as St. Paul maintains that “doers of the Law will be justified”, Jesus affirms that the Law of The Lord always directs our attention to well-being of others. 

This affirmation of faith, this principle of community was upheld and strengthened at Pentecost when the Spirit of the Living God overwhelmed not just the apostles but everyone open to the experience!  And this overwhelming Spirit moved the Church, the congregation, to share all they had so that no one did without.

Sometimes we are so adamant to disassociate ourselves with The Law that we fail to understand everything Jesus taught is a direct reflection of The Law because He is The Word which became flesh and dwelt among His own … but His own did not know Him (John 1:11).  That is, folks did not fail to recognize the physical Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 13:5; Mark 6:3; John 6:42); they clearly knew Jesus, but they failed to recognize The Word itself – especially when The Word required of them not to seek their own but the well-being of others (1 Corinthians 10:24). 

Methodist theology and doctrine testify to the fullness of Divine Mercy as we do understand that being justified (saved) before The Lord is uniquely and exclusively an act of The Lord alone.  It is that grace and the fullness of His Love which reaches out to us and, like Israel, frees us from the chains and the bondage of our past.  This Divine Act not only frees us from the sins of our past, but also – and maybe more importantly – frees us from the guilt we often choose to carry.  Bless our hearts, we cannot let go of a conscience that knows very well we should probably feel guilty for the things we’ve done … and even some things we continue to do!

Yet we must also recognize that if we are truly set free, really pardoned, then carrying that extended guilt into a life that should be “going on to perfection”, what we Methodists understand as “sanctifying grace” is counter-productive – entirely unprofitable to anyone, let alone The Kingdom!  This, too, is a Divine Act, but beyond the singular act of The Lord in freeing us from our past is the partnership we are invited into at and beyond that moment of justification.  It is the beginning of a bona fide relationship with The Lord. 

We deliberately and intentionally pursue an active and engaging and deepening relationship with The Lord through the Living Word which is Christ Jesus.  Ultimately, it comes to be that the more we do, the stronger in faith and genuine love we become.  Conversely, we must understand that the less we do, the less we respond to The Word, the less we live into The Word, the less real is that relationship and, consequently, the more burdensome our guilt and the heavier our chains.

I freely admit to you that I carry a lot of guilt from my past, but I justify that guilt by insisting upon the power of my own conscience to inform me that I should feel guilty.  Can we not see, however, that whenever we allow our guilt to inform our actions and our thoughts, we are no more moving forward than the Israelites who kept insisting on going back to Egypt?   

Can we not see that perhaps we stand under the indictment of Jeremiah when we, through associated guilt from our past, actively pursue “worthless things”, failing to remember The Lord who “brought us up” from the chains of our past – UP being the operative word in the theology of deliverance? 

This is what Jesus is portraying in Luke’s Gospel.  We must not presume our justification, but we must embrace the reality of being continually sanctified by, in, and for The Lord our God!  By His mercy and by His Spirit, we are RAISED UP!  And by our being raised up, we strive to raise up others – it’s a package deal! - not because they may be somehow personally profitable to us later but because that invitation is profitable to The Kingdom of our Eternal Father.

To do nothing is to gain nothing.  In fact, it may be said that our lack of moving forward into the sanctified life is to begin losing ground because our Savior, our Shepherd is taking us somewhere.  It must never be said of any disciple of Christ that being saved in a single moment is “good enough”.  It isn’t because when we decide for ourselves the Journey has ended because we have gotten all we really want, the Journey truly has come to an end – for us!

Therefore … we must continue to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling; for it is The Lord who works in us to will and to act on behalf of His good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13) toward that which is truly profitable to us, to our neighbors, and to The Kingdom of Heaven; which is to be “raised up” not only in this life in the presence of others - but for Life in the World to Come!  Amen.

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