Weekly Worship Thought – Why did Jesus have to die?

(The beauty of a blog is that I can write about whatever I want. Sometimes I offer personal updates and sometimes I recycle seminary assignments. Today’s post is the latter.)

Did Jesus have to die in order to forgive the sins of the world? Consider this:

First, a few ideas about sin. Consider the creation and fall narrative from Genesis. Adam is perhaps best understood not as a historical person, but as a metaphorical character based on the people of Israel. Adam was created in the dust (Egypt), brought into the garden (promised land), given regulations (Torah), and was removed from the garden for breaking them (exile). The point I make is that the story of Adam is less about how sin entered the picture, and more about the wisdom of how God works amidst the people of Israel. In fact, sin is not mentioned as a punishment for Adam’s mistake. Death is the consequence of Adam’s trespass (Genesis 2:17). God’s response to the disobedience is the curse of labor (both in childbearing and cultivation, Genesis 3:16-19). The idea that sin entered the world through a historical couple is not found in the Old Testament, but is a theological development that occurs much later. (Check out this podcast from Pete Enns, from whom I borrowed this idea: https://www.peteenns.com/5-things-jesus-wants-know-adam-story/)

Second, I think death is the real issue being addressed in Jesus’ own dying. God comes to us (the whole world) in human form to live and die that death might be defeated. Jesus goes face-to-face with death in his own dying, so that the decay, sorrow, brokenness, and all the other messed up stuff in our world can be undone. Jesus dies to defeat death and bring new life. Why are things not perfect after Jesus death then? Because of the already-but-not-yet-ness of God’s kingdom and the new creation. We see slivers and peeks now.

Third, I feel that substitutionary atonement is less favorable when trying to explain all this. The Christus Victor motif, in my feeling, helps us understand this defeat of death in Christ’s dying. It helps us understand the shift from things decaying to things being in an everlasting state. It is in Christ’s weakest state that the true power of God is displayed. I would spin this as the triumph of life over death. Jesus’ death destroys our image of a wrathful God. God, “refuses to be wrath for us. He refuses to be the wrath that is resident in all our conditionalism” (Forde, p. 30). Left to our own theological deplorability, we make God out to be like us: vengeful, bean-counting, and insecure. Jesus came to take that notion of God to the grave and replace it with love. Jesus takes the mantle of a wrathful God and buries it down in the grave, rising to a new life where God is love.

Fourth, I think it is significant that the gospel writers tell us that Jesus quoted Psalm 22 from the cross. Was Jesus claiming forsakenness? Or was Jesus defaulting to the ingrained liturgical patterns of his Jewish heritage by speaking/singing David’s words? Or was Jesus starting to quote Psalm 22 with the intent of making it to the end and fulfilling the words, “To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it” (vs. 29-31)?

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Weekly Worship Thought – Was Jesus Political in His Day?

The degree to which Jesus Christ was knowingly involved in the politics of his time is a widely debated subject. Truthfully, we cannot say for certain. As much as we think we know the mind of Jesus, and as many books and sermons that have been written to give us insight, we still do not know whether his life and ministry were purposefully plotted for political reasons.

We do know King Herod, the political leader of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth, was terrified at the prospect of a newborn child that would threaten his power (Matthew 2:1-12). We also know that Jesus lived in a time and region that was politically charged. The Roman Empire was the latest in a line of regimes to claim control of the Palestine territory. There were several factions of Jewish people that presented ideologies for how they should be in relationship with Rome. Jesus didn’t completely align with any of them. John the baptizer influenced Jesus (Mark 1:4-11). It is thought that John was part of the Essenes, whose solution to the political question was to withdraw completely and not participate. Jesus caught the attention of the Pharisees when he ate with the wrong people. The Pharisees’ political agenda was to maintain purity through strict observance of Jewish laws (Mark 2:15-17).

In the end, Jesus was executed by the Roman state, at the request of the Jewish people, for sedition (Matthew 27:1-66). Jesus’ death was certainly for political reasons.

Weekly Worship Thought – Changing God’s Mind

Next Sunday (Sept. 24) I will have the opportunity to preach at church. This is something I have done before, although not very often. As a seminary student working toward being a pastor, these are opportunities that I really look forward to. Preaching a sermon is like exploring an undiscovered territory. There is so much to learn, try, and experience.

The first lesson for 16 Pentecost A is the end of the book of Jonah (3:10-4:11). Since I’m planning on spending some time there, here are some of my first thoughts on this well-known story:

  • Jonah is a whiny brat. His behavior reminds me of my children when they are at their most unpleasant.
  • Do I think that there was a real person named Jonah who was swallowed by a fish for 3 days? No. This story is more of a prophetic parable. Besides, it doesn’t matter if it really happened or not, because the story contains truth.
  • Everyone knows that Jonah fled from God’s plan. But the truth behind Jonah’s 180° turn is less obvious: he hated the Assyrians. His prejudice against them ran deep. Jonah’s preference would be for the whole city of Nineveh to be damned. And it makes sense. Assyria had invaded and defeated Israel.
  • Jonah fled from God’s plan because he knew that God was too gracious. Jonah knew God’s love was bigger than Israel and he didn’t want Nineveh to know it.
  • I love how the book ends, “and also many animals?” Whereas Jonah’s prejudice against Assyria won’t even allow him to acknowledge they are worthy to receive God’s mercy, God’s concern is so profound that it reaches past the Assyrians all the way down to the animals. It’s that deep.
  • The lesson picks up with God changing God’s mind. It reminds me of another time when God changed God’s mind. Moses was receiving the 10 commandments on the mountain and the people were at the bottom making idols. God, insulted by the idolatry, tears down the mountain after them, ready to teach them a lesson. But Moses stops God, and intercedes for Israel. And it says that God changed God’s mind. Maybe Jonah had that merciful episode in mind when he decided to go the other way?

Weekly Worship Thought – Punishment

I have written about the song “Immanuel” by Stuart Townend before. I love using it during Advent because I think it provides a great narrative arc that compliments the story of the season.

Previously I’ve talked about altering the fourth stanza of text to deal with the “fear of hell.” In Jesus, there is no fear. The idea that God is looking to eternally punish anyone is suspect. “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” (1 John 4:18)

As we sang the song recently, a new lyric jumped out to me. In the third stanza it says, “he was punished for a world’s transgressions.” As I have personally drifted away from a punitive, substitutionary atonement theory, lyrics like these stick out all the more. Violence begets violence. The idea that God violently punished the Son to make things even might be the source of many of our world’s problems.

I found this quote from Rene Girard helpful, I hope you do as well.

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Weekly Worship Thought – Sing a New Church

We sang a text for the first time in worship on Sunday. “Sing a New Church” is written by Delores Dufner, OSB and sung to the tune NETTLETON (Come Thou Fount). I found the comments section on the previously linked page interesting, as well as this post, “Bad Poetry, Bad Theology.” It seems that some Roman Catholics have a problem with the lyrics in this song.

From what I can gather, the problematic text is the refrain,

“Let us bring the gifts that differ,
and in splendid, varied ways,
sing a new Church into being,
one in faith and love and praise.”

I can appreciate the theological hesitation. And I think it is always beneficial and good to discern the texts we sing in worship. It is not a trivial thing to pastorally care for the sung theology of a local church. It seems that the primary hang up is the idea that the church can sing itself into being.

From a Lutheran perspective, I can understand the objection. The Holy Spirit “calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith” (Small Catechism). There is no church, and no church can be sung into existence, unless it is the Holy Spirit singing.

l66co3n4gxu-andy-leePerhaps “new” is the most problematic word. I understand the argument that there is only one church. Perhaps “sing a renewed church into being,” better captures the idea in a less heretical way. A new church is a renewed church, which is another way of saying reformation. And certainly the work of continual reformation in the church is performed by the power of the Holy Spirit. But that is not to say that we, God’s people, don’t have a part in the reformation of the church.

It is the prayerful labors of God’s people, centered in word, meal, and baptism, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that make God’s church renewed. I don’t think the church can enter renewal and reformation through passively willing it. I definitely think that singing has something to do with how the church becomes renewed and reformed.

What do you think? Are the lyrics orthodox or heresy?

Weekly Worship Thought – Counter-Cultural Baptism

river“Baptismal unity will never be that of an “insider” group. Baptism, which constitutes the Church, also calls Christians to identify in solidarity with all people. Its celebration will therefore have certain counter-cultural elements as well. The poor will be baptized with a least as great a dignity as the rich. Women and men, children and adults, and people from all ethnic/class/caste backgrounds will stand here on equal footing, equally in need of God’s mercy, equally gifted with the outpoured Spirit. Baptism, which creates members of the local community, also at the same time creates these people as member of the one universal Body of Christ. Baptism calls us to unity, not to division.” Chicago Statement on Worship and Culture, Lutheran World Federation, 2.3.

Weekly Worship Thought – Into the World

mutter_teresa_von_kalkuttaRiffing on an idea from Pastor Kerry’s sermon on Sunday: Mother Teresa (canonized as a saint on September 6) offers us a model of how faithful, Christ-centered spirituality does not primarily lead to mountain-top experiences of private “me and God” time. The call to give our lives away for the life of the world begins at our baptism. Jesus’ own baptism is our model. Jesus’ baptism marked his ministry and propelled him deeper into the world, not away from the world. If anything, Jesus’ own baptism wasn’t a cleansing of sin but an identification with the rejected and outcast. Jesus was baptized as a sign of solidarity with the marginalized of the world, even unto death. Our baptism, our continual dying to sin and rising to new life, is our call deeper into the world, not away from it.

If you judge people, you have no time to love them.” ~Mother Teresa

Weekly Worship Thought – Confession

456903_381360738576439_143418169037365_1103943_1194963067_oOne of the elements of worship at The Gathering will change this week. It is the Prayer of Confession that takes place before the presider speaks the words of institution and we share communion. We added this confessional liturgy into The Gathering worship earlier this year and use it every week. I have been writing and compiling these prayers and this week will be our fourth iteration of it. The structure is the same from season to season:
  • Introduction (which might include acknowledgment of God’s attributes, thanksgiving for the offering that was just collected, and a call to confession from the presider)
  • Silence for reflection
  • Communal confession of sin (spoken in unison by the assembly)
  • Words of Forgiveness (which might include a call to the meal, transitioning us to the table and the words of institution)
One of the tricky things about curating this confessional prayer is to not transition into the meal focused on my sin and my forgiveness. Although the words of the confession us “us/we” language, there is a tendency to make confession about personal wrong-doing and personal forgiveness. However, the table is not so narrow. The table is not only concerned about me as an individual. The table is broad enough for the universe, and is the place where I “become what I eat” and am in turn made to be bread for the world. My goal in this prayer of confession is to set our minds and hearts on the cosmic reach of God’s forgiveness at the table, not merely what God has done for me individually.

Eucharistic Prayer of Confession @ The Gathering
Easter Season 2016

P:        Let us pray. God of all creation, we joyfully give back to you what you have given to us in abundance. All you have made is good, and your love endures forever. You give us bread from the earth and fruit from the vine. We do not presume to come to your table trusting in our own righteousness, but in your overflowing mercy. Let us confess our sin in the presence of God and of one another.

Silence is kept for reflection.

P:        God of grace and glory,

All:     you have brought us from death to life in Jesus’ resurrection. Yet our lives are still shadowed by sin. Make us alive in Christ, new creations in you. Rescue us in our time of need, renew us in grace, and restore us to living in your holiness, through Jesus Christ, our risen Lord. Amen.

P:        Brothers and sisters, we have victory in Christ who has defeated the powers of sin and death through his glorious resurrection. Join in the meal of God’s forgiveness. As we eat and drink the body and blood of our risen Lord, may we live in him and he in us, a foretaste of the feast to come.

In the night in which he was betrayed…

Weekly Worship Thought – Food

photo-1448794363755-de84d6a770bcLuke 14:1: “Now it happened that on a Sabbath day he had gone to share a meal in the house of one of the leading Pharisees…” One of the centerpieces of Jesus’ ministry was eating. Over and over again, Jesus shared food with people. Jesus shared food with his friends, the disciples. Jesus shared food with those who opposed him, the Pharisees in this story. Jesus shared food with people that got him in trouble with the Pharisees: the unclean, the prostitutes, and the tax collectors. Jesus shared food with people by way of miracles that fed thousands. On the night before he was crucified he shared a Passover meal with his disciples and gave us a new commandment to love one another. Even after the resurrection, Jesus was still sharing food with people. He cooked breakfast for the disciples when they had returned to fishing. He appeared as a stranger to the two on the road to Emmaus, explaining the meaning of God’s plan of restoration, and then when they sat down at the table, he was revealed to them. The reason why we eat bread and drink wine every Sunday is because Jesus’ life was mostly about eating with people. Jesus still eats with us today.

Weekly Worship Thought – Pentecost

Orans1This Sunday is Pentecost. We hear the fascinating story from Acts 2 where, “each one was bewildered to hear these men speaking his own language.” It is generally accepted that most inhabitants of Jerusalem at the time would be able to speak and understand Greek. Even a diverse group of pilgrims would have knowledge of the Greek language and be able to understand it. So why did the Holy Spirit cause this translation to occur? I would suggest two reasons. One, Pentecost is a reversal/redemption of the curse of Babel. Two, God wants us to worship in our heart language. The pilgrims could have understood the disciples if they had proclaimed the marvels of God in Greek. But God wants to be intimately near us, as someone who speaks in the tongue of our homeland, our mother’s language.