Thursday, May 2, 2019

Is Christ an Avenger?

With all the buzz about the latest Marvel Avengers film about, I recently noticed a meme in my social media feed that portrayed Jesus as an avenger.  It even had him dressed in a superhero costume. I'm sure this is all just some good clean fun!   However, until archaeologists dig up said costume, I will assume Jesus didn't really have one.  The verse quoted in the meme is:

 that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things,1 Thessalonians 4:6 (NRSV)

This is the only time that Paul or any other New Testament writer calls Christ an avenger.  Jesus never speaks of himself using this term.

An a avenger is one who brings vengeance, and the Bible has much to say on this topic. For example St. Paul writes:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12:19-21 (NRSV)

So vengeance is the province of God and does not belong to us.  So one can speak of God and Jesus as avengers only in the sense that ultimate justice is determined by God.  Looking at some of the other ways we describe Christ might help us see why the term may not really explain who Christ really is. 

The first confession of the early followers of Christ was to call him "Lord". This was the confession that Christ is sovereign and one with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.   Avengers are reactive. They are responding to the actions of others.  When we confess Jesus as Lord, we are confessing that God is in control.   The outcome is assured. God is acting first for the salvation of all and we are the one's responding to events initiated by God.  In superhero movies like the Avengers series, they are never in control of events they are reacting and surviving.

The followers of Christ, shortly after his resurrection began to call Jesus "Savior." Jesus doesn't merely avenge,  Christ saves. Salvation looks very different than vengeance.  Vengeance is temporary and cyclical, it only lasts until the next slight.   Salvation is permanent and eternal; it breaks the cycle of sin and retribution.  Vengeance is about hurting the perpetrator back and causing wounds as payback.  Salvation is healing and making whole.  Vengeance is filled with anxiety while salvation is peace in every sense of the word. Vengeance kills, but salvation gives life.

So the central witness of Scripture shows that Christ is God's Son who is sovereign and wills that all who believe will be saved.   God jealously holds on to vengeance because of its destructiveness, while Christ offers salvation freely because it renews, redeems and restores people and things.  Scripture teaches us that God is Justice and God determines what Justice is.   While vengeance may be a tool in bringing about Justice, it is rough and incomplete one.   It can only get one so far.

This is clearly seen in the only instance I could find where God was called an avenger in the Old Testament.  The verse is in Psalm 99.

O Lord our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,but an avenger of their wrongdoings. Psalms 99:8 (NRSV)

The psalmist is describing God as the King who loves and is committed to Justice.  In this psalm the avenger is also the forgiver.   God drives out the evil but restores the relationship with the evil doer.  The psalmist then advocates that our appropriate response to this is worship.   This theme is picked up in the last book of the Bible, the Revelation of St.John.   In your Bible you may notice that Christ is called that "Almighty'.   This is the English translation of the Greek term ὁ παντοκράτωρ which really means ruler of all.  The Bible concludes with a picture of God's promised salvation in the new heaven and earth that requires no sequel.

So, is Christ an avenger? Well, yes he is, but He is so much more. I pray that you may nurture your faith by seeking out God through your interaction with Scripture.   This way your picture of God will be defined by the Word of God Himself and not merely the culture.  For we have a Lord and we have a Savior for whom a costume is not necessary.

Be blessed

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Worship: Are you Experienced?

I noticed that lots of churches today are calling their Sunday gatherings an “experience” rather than a “service”. Changing the names of doing things Christians have done for centuries is a peculiar characteristic of the American Protestant branch of Christianity.  It is one thing that unites both liberal and conservative Christians in this country. It probably has to do with the fact that the United States religious landscape is characterized by competition and we are all trying to get an edge to help our congregations grow.  I understand that changing the descriptor of worship from service to experience is usually done for evangelistic reasons.  The idea of having an experience may seem less threatening than performing a service to people who have demands on their time coming from all directions.

However, worship is the primary action of the Christian community, so we should really take a step back and ask ourselves, is this a good thing?  Does the word experience communicate what we are seeking have happen in our worship?  We should also ask the same question of service.  I would start by taking a looking at our sources and see what they say about what our worship should be. 

St. Paul gave a quick model for worship in his dialog with the Christians in Corinth: What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. 1 Corinthians 14:26 (NRSV)  So, is this experience, service or something different?

To the Christians in Rome Paul would describe worship in the following way: I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Romans 12:1 (NRSV) This one seems move us in the direction of service.   One doesn’t just attend worship but presents oneself as a sacrifice.  But still I think there is more than service going on.

In John 4, Jesus has a dialog about worship with a woman at well in Samaria: But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”  John 4:23-24 (NRSV) Do the words experience or service capture what Jesus is trying to communicate to this woman who was need of acceptance and healing?

If you asked me which term is more biblical overall, it would be the word “service”.  Forms of the Greek verb λειτουργια are used about 15 times in the New Testament and it can be translated as “to serve” or “offer service” and used on several occasions to describe worship.  The English word “liturgy” which traditional churches use to describe worship, is the loan word derived from this New Testament term.

Words that can translated to the English word experience occur 10 times in the New Revised Standard Version.  The King James only uses them 4 times.  No Bible translation uses the word to describe worship.  So, calling worship “an experience” is obviously a modern innovation.  That need not be deal breaker if we keep to the core of what our worship should be but does it?

My gut reaction to using the word experience to describe worship is a negative one.  The word is too passive.   It has connotations of entertainment and its goal seems selfish and unfulfilling.  It is too much like going to a concert or watching a movie and worship should be more.  Yet, I must admit that as a pastor one of the blessings in my current ministry is “experiencing” the ministry of our worship leader and team he has assembled to lead our congregation in song.  On countless Sundays over the years I have had to drag myself out of bed wondering how I could face the congregation I serve, only to have the worship inspire and encourage me to give. So yeah, part of great worship is the experience.

Even though the word service has a Biblical basis, I think it also is lacking.   Worship is not just about what I can bring to God, it is what God can do with, for, and to me.  If it is only about what we do, then worship can become drudgery.   Unfortunately, I have witnessed this happen when we in the church make too many demands of those who attend.   In summary, I suppose we should be careful about limiting the phenomenon of worship to the words we use to describe it or qualify it.

My choice for the congregation I currently serve is to let the word “worship” stand alone. I no longer use words like traditional or contemporary to qualify it.   Keeping it simple helps preserve the idea of majesty and even mystery.  For worship in Spirit and Truth that Christ describes will always be more majestic than our words.   Worship should be “an experience”, but remember we are saved for a purpose which means it should be a “service” to live out our call.   In all its unfathomable majesty worship should encourage, challenge, stimulate, comfort, heal, and all kinds of other things.   For indeed our best worship is when we meet and come face to face with the unfathomable God.

As we come into the church’s great season of worship, I pray that worship in your congregation may be so wonderful as to be indescribable.

Be blessed,
Pastor Knecht

Friday, March 1, 2019

What’s Up with Lent?

The season of Lent has been a time when Christians have focused on the core principles of their faith.   Early Church historians point out that Lent was at first the time when early Christians began to teach people about the faith in preparation for their baptism.  Many Christians in the first few centuries of the church were baptized during the Easter Vigil Service (a service that starts sometime after sundown on the Saturday before Easter) to accentuate the believer participating in the event at which Jesus Christ saved the world. So basically, the season was a time prepare new disciples of Jesus Christ.  What ended up happening is that rather than segregate these new disciples to work on their faith alone, the church decided it was best if we all work on this together.  Lent has been and is a time to get serious about our faith ever since.

Lent has always included the following elements to help people commit or recommit to a life of discipleship:

1. A call to repentance: we recognize our need for God and our need to be forgiven for the things that we have done or failed to do.   The words “remember you are dust and to dust you shall return” spoken as ashes are imparted in the beginning of Lent, remind us of our limited nature and our inability to save ourselves.   Since Hebrew Bible times ashes communicate the realization of the believer that life is transient and that only by appealing to the Eternal One can he or she have any real hope.

2. A re-commitment to living out the faith daily: sometimes our healthy patterns of practicing the faith can drift away due to the demands of living in a sinful world.   The repentance spoken of above is characterized by the Bible in one of two ways.  Changing one’s mind or changing one’s direction.   So, Lent can be a time recommit to a practice that has been left behind in the chaos of our living in broken world.  Restarting Bible reading or a prayer practice, or attending worship more often are some common examples.

3. The exploration of new ways to live out the faith: changing one’s mind about one’s faith and starting a new direction in the faith can mean picking up a new practice or new way of living the faith that you might lead you to a closer relationship with God. If you haven’t had a regular devotional life before, Lent is a perfect time to start.

4. The denial of those things that obscure our faith: perhaps the idea of “giving something up for Lent” is the most common way people think about Lent.   People fast so they can remember what it is like to be hungry for something.   This opens the heart of the believer for God.   Lent is perfect time to drop a behavior that is leading your life astray.   It is a perfect time to do away with those things which make us unhealthy and weigh on us.  An essential part of a life of discipleship is to care for the life we have been given because that is what those who love us would like us to do, and nobody loves more that God who sent Christ to save us.

5. The preparation of the heart for the coming joy of Christ’s resurrection: reliving the story of God sending Jesus to the Cross and Resurrection is the best thing one can do with Lent.    We are reminded of our own dignity as well as our brokenness and God’s answer to the dilemma of living in the tension between these two things.   The best part of Lent is about making the story of Jesus real again.  This can kindle hope which strengthens our faith, which in turn can empower us to love others as Christ loves us.

Just as we set time apart for God Sunday of each week, we also set six weeks out of the year to focus on the essentials of our faith.  Lent is a gift to help us not to take the essential elements of our faith for granted.  It enables us to remain grounded in the faith that gives life.  It is this faith that kindles in  us hope for each day and that
hope helps us persevere through all the challenges that we face in life.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Have You Suffered Yet?

Perhaps if I told you of the things that cause me to suffer you would dismiss me, saying by what right do you have to bother us with this?  Perhaps you would point out my race, my class, my gender, my education level, my citizenship and marital status and label me as someone just trying to justify a sense of entitlement.  Indeed, you could point out that I have a variety of privileges, and you would be right.  I am privileged in many ways.  I am able to live with things and do things that others are not able to do.  However, just because I am privileged doesn't mean that I do not suffer, I do.   You can minimize my suffering all you want and I can minimize yours, but it will not change the fact the suffering exists in all of our lives to one degree or another.  For to suffer is to be human.

One of the signposts to Jesus being fully human in traditional Christian thought is the simple fact that Jesus suffered.  One hundred and one years ago the world suffered the Spanish Flu pandemic, it respected no boundaries of gender, race, class, or ethnic affiliation.  If you were infected you suffered or maybe even died.  The existence of suffering in our lives is evidence of our belonging to a single common humanity. The spiritual question of suffering is not so much about whether one suffers or not, but rather what does someone do when they suffer.  In our church we read the following verses from Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians at funerals:

2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NRSV) Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.

There are two things going on in this short passage, which will cause problems for those with simplistic world views.  The first is that suffering represents a spiritual opportunity.   The God of all consolation named by St. Paul consoles us in our suffering.   Suffering is an opportunity to rely on  God.  Many people will stop me here and complain, so what?  The answer to this is that until one suffers, the person doesn't really know who his or her friends are.  Those who stick by you in suffering show their love for you.   If they walk away, they don't love you.   Paul tells the community in Corinth that because of the cross and resurrection we have proof that God sticks with us.  We know that we are loved by God, and that can change things.

The second point that Paul makes is particularly relevant for today.  Paul sees the purpose of one's suffering as opening the heart to the other.  The spiritually mature person is called to use their suffering to direct her or himself toward empathy, compassion and acts of consolation.   Our suffering should be directed to find common ground with others who suffer.  It is a call to transform the bad that happens in our lives to good by connecting with someone who has something bad going on in their life.

This Christ-like attitude of using one's suffering to connect to another person has been used by countless of the faithful to promote the healing and well-being of others.  For example, during his imprisonment by the Gestapo, Dietrich Bonhoeffer befriended, prayed for, and offered spiritual care to his guards.   Additionally, one of the most meaningful books written by acclaimed author Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love was gleaned from his journals while he was hospitalized for depression.   The book had a profound impact on me, and helped me find some healing while going through a difficult time in my own life.  This is exactly the type of thing that Paul was alluding to when he wrote the Corinthians so long ago.

As you are probably aware, this is not always how people respond to suffering.  Some of those suffering may act out of their pain and condemn others because they are envious of people they perceive as having an easier life.  Others may fall into despair and give up life all together.   Some may lash out at those whom they blame rightly or wrongly for their afflictions.   These negative responses to suffering are indeed understandable in some cases, but are never very healthy in the end.   Those who respond with envy end up in prison of bitterness.  Those who respond in despair end up in a prison of meaninglessness.  Those who respond with revenge end up in a prison of violence.

The only way out of these traps is to choose life over death. This is done through the twin spiritual gifts of compassion and forgiveness.   This is the core message contained in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Forgiveness given in love transforms the suffering afflicted upon God's son into love for our world.  God's response to Christ's suffering was resurrection and reconciliation. To forgive frees the sufferer from control of the perpetrator of the suffering.   Compassion transforms what was once a detriment into an asset bring hope and healing to others.

Please understand I am not wishing suffering upon anyone.   Any person who has suffered and has compassion for others could never do that.   What I am saying,
is that if suffering comes your way, we have a God who is more powerful than anything that causes us to suffer.   This God is able to take the evil of our suffering and transform it for good.  This essay is to written to give you strength and encouragement today and in the future.   It is a call to rely on the one who has suffered for us, Jesus Christ Our Lord.

Be blessed
Pastor Knecht