378) On Forgiveness (part one of two)

By C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 1975 edition, pages 121-125

     We say a great many things in church (and out of church too) without thinking of what we are saying.  For instance, we say in the Creed “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”  I had been saying it for several years before I asked myself why it was in the Creed.  At first sight it seems hardly worth putting in.  “If one is a Christian,” I thought, “of course one believes in the forgiveness of sins.  It goes without saying.”  But the people who compiled the Creed apparently thought that this was a part of our belief which we needed to be reminded of every time we went to church.  And I have begun to see that they were right.  To believe in the forgiveness of sins is not so easy as I thought.  Real belief in it is the sort of thing that easily slips away if we don’t keep on polishing it up.

     We believe that God forgives us our sins; but also that He will not do so unless we forgive other people their sins against us.  There is no doubt about the second part of this statement.  It is in the Lord’s Prayer, it was emphatically stated by our Lord.  If you don’t forgive you will not be forgiven…  He doesn’t say that we are to forgive other people’s sins provided they are not too frightful, or provided there are extenuating circumstances, or anything of that sort.  We are to forgive them all, however spiteful, however mean, however often they are repeated.  If we don’t, we shall be forgiven none of our own.  

     Now it seems to me that we often make a mistake both about God’s forgiveness of our sins and about the forgiveness we are told to offer to other people’s sins.  Take it first about God’s forgiveness.  I find that when I think I am asking God to forgive me I am often in reality (unless I watch myself very carefully) asking Him to do something quite different.  I am asking him not to forgive me but to excuse me.  But there is all the difference in the world between forgiving and excusing.  Forgiveness says, “Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.”  But excusing says, “I see that you couldn’t help it or didn’t mean it; you weren’t really to blame.”  If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive.  In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites.

     Of course, in dozens of cases, either between God and man, or between one man and another, there may be a mixture of the two.  Part of what at first seemed to be the sins turns out to be really nobody’s fault and is excused; the bit that is left over is forgiven.  If you had a perfect excuse, you would not need forgiveness; if the whole of your actions needs forgiveness, then there was no excuse for it.  But the trouble is that what we call “asking God’s forgiveness” very often really consists in asking God to accept our excuses.  What leads us into this mistake is the fact that there usually is some amount of excuse, some “extenuating circumstances.”  We are so very anxious to point these things out to God (and to ourselves) that we are apt to forget the very important thing; that is, the bit left over, the bit which excuses don’t cover, the bit which is inexcusable but not, thank God, unforgivable.  And if we forget this, we shall go away imagining that we have repented and been forgiven when all that has really happened is that we have satisfied ourselves without own excuses.  They may be very bad excuses; we are all too easily satisfied about ourselves.

     There are two remedies for this danger.  One is to remember that God knows all the real excuses very much better than we do.  If there are real “extenuating circumstances” there is no fear that He will overlook them.  Often He must know many excuses that we have never even thought of, and therefore humble souls will, after death, have the delightful surprise of discovering that on certain occasions they sinned much less than they thought.  All the real excusing He will do.  What we have got to take to Him is the inexcusable bit, the sin.  We are only wasting our time talking about all the parts which can (we think) be excused.  When you go to a doctor you show him the bit of you that is wrong– say, a broken arm.  It would be a mere waste of time to keep on explaining that your legs and throat and eyes are all right.  You may be mistaken in thinking so, and anyway, if they are really right, the doctor will know that.  (continued…)

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Matthew 6:12  –  (Jesus said), “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Matthew 6:14-15 — (Jesus said), “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you:  But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”

Colossians 3:12-14  –  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

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We pray, Lord, that you would not regard our sins nor because of them deny our prayers, for we neither merit nor are worthy of those things for which we pray.  By your mercy, we pray that you grant us all things through grace, even though we sin daily and deserve nothing but punishment.  And certainly we, on our part, will heartily forgive, and gladly do good to those who may sin against us. Amen.
–Prayer based on Martin Luther’s explanation to the 5th petition of the Lord’s Prayer in the Small Catechism

377) Are You ‘Good at Religion’? (part two of two)

     (…continued)  There are those who are like John, ready and willing to believe, and have believed all their life.  And there are those more like Thomas, hesitant, doubting, needing more information, and always questioning.  It seems that God welcomes both kinds of people, both those who would score high and those who would score low on a Spiritual Quotient test.

     C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) had many doubts about Christianity, and for many years was an atheist.  Then he started looking into it, examining the evidence, and thinking it through, like Thomas.  He found what he was looking for, and at age 32 Lewis became a Christian.  With his powerful intellect now satisfied, he began to write articles and books describing his reasons for believing.  His writings have explained the Christian faith to millions of doubters and searchers.  He became the most popular defender of the Christian faith in the 20th century and now, over 50 years after his death, his books are still best sellers.

     English philosopher Antony Flew (1923-2010) spent most of his life and his considerable intellectual ability opposing belief in God, finding it unreasonable and indefensible.  In fact, many years ago, Antony Flew debated C. S. Lewis on the existence of God.  Antony Flew would probably have rated very high on the IQ test, but very low on the SQ test.  He, like Thomas, would not have been convinced even his ten best friends were telling him they saw a man back from the dead.  Antony Flew, like Thomas, would have to see for himself.

Antony flew.jpg

Antony Flew

    A few years before he died, Antony Flew startled everyone by announcing that he had changed his mind.  One of the best known atheists of the 20th century became a firm believer in the existence of God.  Unfortunately, I don’t think Flew ever became a Christian, but he listened to the arguments of the Intelligent Design scientists, and came to agree with them.  He said that this universe gives all the evidence of being created by a greater being, an ‘outside the realm of nature’ force or intelligence more commonly known as God.  Antony Flew decided he could no longer believe that everything came into being by itself and develop into the complexity we now see all around us.  Antony Flew would probably like Thomas.  He would feel a real kinship with another one for whom belief in God did not come easy.

     Dr. James Burtness was a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul for many years.  Regarding his own aptitude for spiritual feelings he once said:

I don’t believe I have a spiritual bone in my body.  I don’t ever feel like praying and I don’t ever feel like going to church.  I do pray every day, and I do go to worship every week, but I do that because I have come to believe in the truth of Jesus Christ and I believe that he has commanded me to pray and to worship, and so I will obey.  That is reason enough to pray and to worship.  I don’t know why anyone should think they have to ‘feel like’ going.  What do feelings have to do with it?  This is the truth.  Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.  That is reason enough to take the time to pay attention to him whether or not you ‘feel like it.’

 Now you might infer from that that James Burtness would have scored very low on the spiritual quotient test.  You might say he doesn’t have much of a knack for religion, but I learned as much about being a Christian from James Burtness as I learned from anyone.

     There are many different paths to faith and many different ways to become a Christian.  Thomas demanded proof, and Jesus gave it to him, but then Jesus added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  Some believe in Jesus from the time they learn to sing “Jesus Love Me” in Sunday School, and are never troubled by doubt.  Others, like C. S. Lewis come to faith only after a long intellectual struggle.  Some, like St. Francis may readily admit to not knowing much theology, but have a heartfelt faith that after 800 years continues to inspire.  Others, like James Burtness, may not have much at all in the line of spiritual feelings, but for them faith is a matter of intellectual assent and consistent obedience.

     Jesus comes to each of us, like he came to Thomas, offering us what we need, and inviting us to himself, so that we, like Thomas, might say to him, “My Lord, and my God.”

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John 3:16-17  –  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

John 20:28  –  Thomas said to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”

John 20:29  –  Then Jesus told Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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Almighty God, heavenly Father, who desires not the death of a sinner, look down with mercy upon me, depraved with vain imaginations, and entangled in long habits of sin.  Grant me that grace without which I can neither will nor do what is acceptable to thee.  Pardon my sins and remove the impediments that hinder my obedience.  Enable me to shake off sloth, and to redeem the time misspent in idleness and sin by a diligent application of the days yet remaining to the duties which thy providence shall alot me.  O God, grant me thy Holy Spirit that I may repent and amend my life, grant me contrition, grant me resolution for the sake of Jesus Christ.  For his sake have mercy on me, O God, pardon and receive me.  Amen.  –Samuel Johnson, 1757

376) Are You ‘Good at Religion’? (part one of two)

     There IQ tests to measure your intelligence quotient, which is how you compare to others in the ability to think and comprehend and figure things out.  There is also something called an EQ test to measure your emotional quotient, which is how you compare to others in a wide range of emotional responses such as compassion, contentment, love, envy, and anger.  A while back I read about a psychiatrist who is working on a test to measure your spiritual quotient (SQ).  His idea is that some people are ‘better’ at religion and spiritual matters than other people.  Just as some people seem to have a knack for music, this psychiatrist believes some people have a knack for religion.  On his test he asks questions like, “How often do you pray?  Do you feel like praying or do you have to discipline yourself to do so?  How often do you find yourself thinking about God?  Do you think about God when you are in trouble or when you have to make an important decision?”

     I think there are all kinds of problems with that approach, but the idea does raise some interesting questions.  How would you score on such a test?

     I sometimes meet people who say things like, “I’m not very religious, and I’m not active in any church, but I do consider myself very spiritual.”  What they probably mean is that though their life is devoid of religious disciplines and practices, and though they are not committed to any particular church institution, they do have an interest in spiritual matters, a fascination with things of the Spirit, and an openness to God and faith.

     On the other hand, there are those who for some reason have a connection to a church, but don’t, as the psychiatrist would say, have much of ‘a knack for religion.’  For example, I knew of a woman who had a daughter whose participation in the church youth group had been a positive influence in her life.  Out of gratitude this mother did volunteer work with the church food shelf.  She spent many hours serving in that way, but she never once went to Sunday morning worship.  When the pastor asked her about this, she replied, “Oh, I’m just not very good at that sort of thing.  I can’t see the point of it.  Other people seem to enjoy the music, and the sermons, and all the rest, but I confess that I just don’t get it.  I’m not good at religion.”  What?  Not good at religion?  This is the kind of woman that psychiatrist would want for his test.  She would probably have a very low SQ, just as he would expect.

     But this is not how I am used to approaching the question.  I never think of religion as something I have to ‘get’ or ‘be good at.’  Religion, or as Christians would rather say, faith, is a gift of God who loves us freely.  But perhaps it is easier for some people to receive faith than others.

     Take Thomas, for example, ‘Doubting Thomas’ as he has come to be known– the disciple whose story is told in John 20:24-29.  Faith wasn’t easy for him.  The other disciples had seen the risen Lord Jesus, back from the dead, but Thomas had missed it.  And even with his ten best friends telling him that Jesus was alive, he would not believe it unless he saw him for myself, he said, and ‘see the nail marks on his hands and feet and put my hand on his wounds.’  Earlier in that same chapter, John had believed without seeing.  He had heard from the women that the tomb was empty, so he went to see for himself.  Jesus was not there, and even though John had not yet seen Jesus, he did see that the tomb was empty, and that was enough for him.  Verse eight says he saw and believed.  It must have been easy for him, because at that point, there were still other possible explanations– somebody may have just moved the body.  Peter also saw the empty tomb, and he seemed to take a more cautious approach.  It does not say that he believed yet, like John, but neither did he say like Thomas, ‘I will not believe.’  Peter, says the text, ‘wondered about it.’  But John saw only an empty tomb and believed.  Easy for him, but not easy for Thomas.  Thomas would have scored low on that psychiatrist’s spiritual quotient test.

     Yet, Thomas did come to faith.  Jesus soon appeared to him also, and gave him the proof he needed.  In verse 27 Jesus said to him, ‘See my hands?  Reach out your hand and put it in my side.  Stop doubting and believe.’  Thomas did believe, and according to early accounts, Thomas went farther out to the ends of the earth than any of the disciples, going all the way to the Southern tip of India with the message that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.  The old doubter, once convinced, must have become very persuasive himself, because the Christian community he is credited with establishing in South India is still going strong today. (…continued…)

Doubting Thomas, Caravaggio (1571-1610)

The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulcher on the Morning of the Resurrection

Eugene Burnand (1850-1921)

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John 20:24-29  –  Now Thomas (called Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe it.”  A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them.  Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side.  Stop doubting and believe.”  Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”  Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

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Lord Jesus, you have said, “Ask and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”  In accordance with this promise, we therefore ask that you give us not silver or gold, but a strong and firm faith.  As we seek, let us find not the lusts and pleasures of this world, but comfort and peace in your healing Word.  As we knock, may the door be opened unto us.  Grant us your Holy Spirit to enlighten our hearts, and, to comfort and strengthen us in our cares and trials.  Keep us in the one true faith so that we may trust in your grace until the end.  Amen.  –Martin Luther

375) Watergate and the Resurrection

By Charles Colson (assembled and edited from several sources).  Colson served as Special Counsel to President Richard Nixon from 1969-1973.  In 1974 he was convicted for his involvement in the Watergate cover-up.  He was the first member of the Nixon administration to be incarcerated for Watergate-related charges, and served seven months in a federal prison.  Colson became a Christian in 1973, and after his release from prison founded the non-profit ministry Prison Fellowship.  For the next 38 years he was a respected evangelical Christian author and leader. 

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      I have been challenged many times on my belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  My answer is always that the disciples and five hundred others gave eyewitness accounts of seeing Jesus, risen from the tomb.  But then I’m asked, “How do you know they were telling the truth?  Maybe they were perpetrating a hoax.”

     My answer to that comes from an unlikely source:  the Watergate scandal in which I was very much involved.

     Watergate involved a conspiracy to cover up the truth.  It was perpetuated by the closest aids to the President of the United States, the most powerful men in America, men who were intensely loyal to their president.  Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Mitchell, myself and the rest believed passionately in the President.  We had at our fingertips every imaginable power and privilege.  I could phone an aide’s office and have a jet waiting at Andrews Air Force Base.  I could order Cabinet members or generals around.  I could influence the United States budget.  Yet even at the prospect of jeopardizing the President, and even with all the privileges of the most powerful office in the world, the instinct for self-preservation was so overwhelming that one by one, those involved deserted their leader to save their own skin.

     The first of us, John Dean, testified against Nixon only two weeks after informing the president about what was really going on– two weeks!  The real cover-up, the lie, could only be held together for two weeks.  Soon after, everybody else began to jump ship in order to save themselves.  The fact is that the only thing those around the President were facing was embarrassment, or perhaps a little time in prison.  Nobody’s life was at stake.  But in a situation like that, as I saw up close, the desire to save oneself has a way of overriding loyalty or any idealism.

     What does this have to do with the resurrection?  Simply this: if Jesus Christ did not rise from the dead on that first Easter Sunday, then the proclamation of that central Christian truth had to involve a massive cover-up.  The disciples would have had to cover up the fact that Jesus was really still dead, and in the face of the  fiercest opposition, lie to everyone, all the time, from then on; and say that Jesus was still alive and that the whole world should believe in him as Lord and Savior and God.

     Think about the situation that Christ’s disciples were in after He left them.  Here was a group of peasants, powerless, up against the most powerful empire in the world.  Possible prison time was the very least of their worries.  They knew that torture and execution could be in their future if they refused to stop preaching the name of Jesus Christ.  But they couldn’t stop, and every single one of the disciples insisted, to their dying breaths, that they had physically seen Jesus bodily raised from the dead.  To a man, they kept talking about Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to anyone who would listen.  None of them would deny or retract their story.  Eventually, just as the authorities had threatened, most of them were executed for it.  But still, all of them maintained to the very end that Jesus had risen from the dead, and that they had seen Him, touched Him, and talked with Him.

     Don’t you think that if those disciples were attempting to cover up the truth that Jesus was really still dead, that at least one of them would have cracked before being beheaded or stoned– that one of them would have made a deal with the authorities?  Only an encounter with the living God could have kept those men steadfast. Otherwise, the apostle Peter would have been just like John Dean, running to the prosecutors to save his own skin.  He had already denied Jesus three times (before the crucifixion).  But Peter did not ever deny Jesus again, and neither did any of the other disciples.  And no one can ever make me believe that eleven ordinary human beings would for forty years endure persecution, beatings, prison, and death, without ever once renouncing that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead.

     You see, men will give their lives for something they believe to be true, but they will never give their lives for something they know to be false.

     The Watergate cover-up reveals the true nature of humanity.  Even political zealots at the pinnacle of power will, in the crunch, save their own necks, even at the expense of the ones they profess to serve so loyally.  But the apostles could not deny Jesus because they had seen Him face to face, and they knew He had risen from the dead.  This gives us one of the strongest proofs we have for the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

     You can take it from an expert in cover-ups– I lived through Watergate– that nothing less than a resurrected Christ could have caused those men to maintain to their dying whispers that Jesus is alive and is Lord.  Two thousand years later, nothing less than the power of the risen Christ could inspire Christians around the world to remain faithful– despite prison, torture, and death.

     Jesus is Lord:  That’s the thrilling message of Easter.  And it’s an historic fact, one convincingly established by the evidence, and one you can bet your life upon.  

     Christ has risen!  He has risen indeed!

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“I prefer to believe those writers who get their throats cut for what they write.”

–Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), French inventor, mathematician, physicist, philosopher, and adult convert to Christianity

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1 Corinthians 15:3-8  –  For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.

Acts 5:27-33  –  The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest.  “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said.  “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

     Peter and the other apostles replied:  “We must obey God rather than human beings!  The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross.  God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins.  We are witnesses of these things,and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”  When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.

2 Peter 1:16  –  For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 

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Christ is Risen: The world below lies desolate
Christ is Risen: The spirits of evil are fallen
Christ is Risen: The angels of God are rejoicing
Christ is Risen: The tombs of the dead are empty
Christ is Risen indeed from the dead, the first of the sleepers,
Glory and power are his forever and ever.  Amen.

St. Hippolytus of Rome (AD 190-236)

 

374) The Easter Triumph– Now and Not Yet

From Let Me Tell You a Story, by Tony Campolo, copyright 2000
    There are those who say that evil is so overpowering that our efforts to combat it are futile.  There are pessimists who contend that there is no way we can drive back the forces that seem to dominate our society.  I disagree!  During World War II, a group of heroic men and women in France formed an underground movement that struggled against the domination of the Nazi powers.  If you had been able to talk to them, you might have questioned the seeming futility of their efforts.  You might have said, “How do you think you can overthrow the Nazis?  Together, you are nothing but a ragtag army, poorly equipped and overwhelmingly outnumbered.  You don’t stand a chance against the tyrannical forces that control your nation.”
 
    They might have responded:  “You don’t understand!  While we struggle against the forces of evil that now dominate our nation, there is a huge invasion force being assembled across the English Channel.  No one knows the day or the hour when the signal will be given.  But one of these days, it will be given!  Then, a huge armada of ships will come across the channel and invade our country.  We will join with them and they will carry us to victory!”     (page 197)
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     Oscar Cullman, a Swiss-German theologian who lived through World War II, gave us a clarifying analogy for the Second Coming.  He pointed out that in every war there is a decisive battle that determines the outcome of the war.  After this battle, there is no question as to what the future holds.  That battle establishes defeat or victory.  Gettysburg was such a battle in the Civil War.   Waterloo was such a battle.  And in World War II it was the battle on the beaches of Normandy.
 
     After Normandy, there was never any question as to what the outcome of the war would be.  Once the Allies had established a beachhead allowing troops and arms to pour onto the continent, the fate of the Nazi armies was sealed.  Nevertheless, it should be noted that more Americans died following that victory than died in battle prior to it.  That victory, which was so decisive, did not immediately end dying among the Allied forces or suffering among the European people.  The decisive battle had been fought and won on D-Day.  But it wasn’t until V-Day (the day of the final victory when the German army surrendered)– which was a long way off– that the end of suffering and death would come.
     In his analogy Cullman makes the point that the death and the resurrection of Jesus was the decisive victory that wiped away all doubts about how history would end.  After the resurrection, Christians could shout, “Christus Victor!”  Christ was triumphant!  The forces of darkness were defeated.  Satan was overcome.  But between God’s D-Day on Easter Morning and that point in history when Christ returns, which will be God’s V-Day, there will be suffering and pain and death.  The struggle goes on!  But even as we continue the struggle, we do so as people of hope.   Knowing that the decisive battle has been won, we struggle against the forces of darkness with the full awareness that victory is inevitable.  We wait for that victory!  We wait for that hour!  God’s D-Day assures us of God’s V-Day!  (pages 198-199)
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I Corinthians 15:51-52  –   Listen, I tell you a mystery:  We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed– in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 
 
I Corinthians 15:56-58  –  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.   
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    EASTER PRAYER, 1766, by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784):  Almighty and most merciful Father, before whom I now appear laden with the sins of another year, suffer me yet again to call upon Thee for pardon and peace.  O God! grant me repentance, grant me reformation.  Grant that I may be no longer distracted with doubts, and harassed with vain terrors.  Grant that I may no longer linger in perplexity, nor waste in idleness that life which Thou hast given and preserved.  Grant that I may serve thee in firm faith and diligent endeavor, and that I may discharge the duties of my calling with tranquility and constancy.  Take not, O God, Thy Holy Spirit from me; but grant that I may so direct my life by thy holy laws, as that, when Thou shalt call me hence, I may pass by a holy and happy death to a life of everlasting and unchangeable joy.  Amen.

373) Putting God on Trial

     

     Gunter Rutenborn  (1912-1976)

     Following the horror of World War II the nation of Germany faced a tremendous burden of guilt.  What went wrong with our nation?, they wondered.  Who is to blame for these terrible things that Germany unleashed on the world:  unprovoked aggression on weak and innocent neighbors, a world war, the slaughter of a whole generation of their young men who died as soldiers along with countless civilians, and the attempted extermination of the entire Jewish population of Europe?  Who was to blame for this terrible agony brought to the whole world?

     One interesting response to this question came out already in 1945 in the form of a play written by a Lutheran pastor, Gunter Rutenborn.  The play was called The Sign of Jonah, and it begins with a group of refugees on stage, milling around and asking who is to blame?  Several answers are spoken by people from the crowd.

     Some said the obvious, that Hitler was to blame, who else?  Others said, “No, it was the ammunition manufacturers who financed him.”  Another said, “It was the apathy and blind obedience of all the German people that allowed it.”  Someone else said it was the diplomats of other nations who, in their weakness, attempted to appease Hitler by letting him have this nation and then that nation, believing all his false promises that war could be avoided.

     Suddenly a man comes out of the crowd and says, “I will tell you who is to blame for all this suffering– it is God, God who created this world of pain and allows these things to happen.”  Soon the whole crowd is agreeing and saying with one voice, “God is to blame, God is to blame, God is to blame.”

     God is then brought down to the stage and is put on trial for the crime of creating the world and all its suffering.  To make a long story short, the trial is carried out and completed, and God is found guilty.  The judge then pronounces this sentence: “The crime is so severe that this is going to be the worst of all sentences.  I hereby sentence God to have to live on this earth that he created, and to suffer as a human being.”  Three top angels are then given the task of carrying out the sentence.

     The first angel then walks out on stage and says:  “I am going to see to it that when God serves his sentence He finds out what it is like to be obscure and to be poor.  He will be born in the middle of nowhere in a weak nation with a peasant girl for his mother.  There will even be a suspicion of shame about his birth, and he will have to live as a Jew in a world that hates Jews.  That will show him what it is like to suffer in this world.”

     The second angel then comes on stage and says:  “I am going to see to it that when God serves his sentence he finds out what it is like to fail and to suffer disappointment in what he does and from his friends.  No one will understand what he is trying to do and everyone will let him down.  Even his closest friends will betray and desert him.  That will show him what it is like to suffer in this world.”

     Then the third angel says:  “I am going to see to it that God finds out what it is like to feel physical pain.  I will see to it that he dies a slow and painful death with plenty of suffering before the end.  That will show him what it is like to suffer in this world.”

     With that, the stage lights go out and the play is over; and everyone is allowed to sit for a while in the darkness with the realization that God has already served that sentence.  

      God was not, of course, sentenced for any crime by some human court.  But God did willingly and freely take on all that pain and suffering in order to forgive the sins committed by humanity against itself, those sins that marred God’s good creation, those sins that caused the needless suffering.  No, God is not guilty, humankind is guilty, but already, God, in Christ, has taken upon himself the punishment that we deserved, and as Isaiah wrote, “by his punishment we are healed.”  The play was written by a Lutheran minister, so he knew all of that, but he put the story of Christ’s passion in the context of that kind of play in order to speak to a generation of people that was asking those questions about guilt and suffering in a particular situation.

      Jesus did, in truth, experience all that he was sentenced to in the play.  He took our sins to the cross, and somehow, in God’s infinite love and wisdom, it is there on that cross that we receive the forgiveness of all our sins, and in his resurrection, we receive the promise of life everlasting, if we believe in Him.  Believe in Him and you will be saved.

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Job 13:3  –   I desire to speak to the Almighty and to argue my case with God.

Isaiah 53:5  –  He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

I Peter 2:24  –  “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”

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A PRAYER FOR GOOD FRIDAY by William Barclay:

O God, our Father, we thank Thee this day that Thou so loved the world that Thou didst give Thine only Son for us and for all mankind.  We give Thee thanks this day for Jesus Christ, our blessed Lord, and for His death upon the cross– that he loved us and gave himself for us, and that he came to seek and to save that which was lost.  Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  Help us this day to remember, and never again to forget, the love of Him who laid down his life for us.  Amen.

372) Jesus and His Mother

PIETA by Michelangelo, 1498, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City

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From a 2011 Good Friday meditation.

     Sometimes when reading the Bible, I am struck by the power and majesty of the Almighty God, so great and so far above us.  Psalm 8 expresses this side of God when it says, “Oh Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth…  When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in their place, what is a mere man that you are even mindful of him, and that you even care for him?”  Why, asks the Psalmist, does this great God even pay any attention at all to a little man like himself, on this little planet earth, a mere speck of dust among all the galaxies and stars of God’s immense universe?

     Then, astonishingly, this great and glorious God makes himself very small, and He becomes a little man, and visits this little world in the person of Jesus Christ.  In the New Testament I can read stories about this Jesus, a person like me, someone with whom I can relate.  For example, John 19:25 says, “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother….”  His mother.  Well, I have a mother.  And my mother cared for me when I was a baby, just like we hear in the Christmas story about Mary caring for the baby Jesus.  Imagine that, this great God of the universe, as a baby in a mother’s arms.  Then, at the foot of the cross, this mother is still caring about her son, only now her son is a young man and he is dying, and she is heart-broken.  I have done many funerals at which the mother of the deceased is present, and these mothers often say the same thing.  They say, “a mother should not have to bury her own child.”  Jesus, Son of God, is right in the midst of one of life’s greatest human tragedies.

     Jesus is concerned about what will happen to his mother now that his life is ending.  “Dear woman,” he says to her, “behold your son;” and then to John he says, “Behold your mother.”  John will now have to see to the care that Jesus had been, or would have been, providing.  I also know how this goes.  My mother will turn 80 this year.  Several years ago she had a stroke and now needs some help.  My Dad is healthy and is the primary care-giver, and my brothers and sister also help; but there are some things that only I do, and only I know how to take care of, such as seeing to the many doctor appointments and keeping the medications straight.  If something were to happen to me, and I had the time to prepare, I would have to turn over that part of the care to someone else– just like Jesus is doing here.

     One more thing.  It is thought that Jesus died on the cross at the age of 33.  My own son is now 33.  That is really young.  It is not all that long ago he was getting ready to go to the prom at this time of the year, and not long before that I was teaching him to play ball.  Think of the memories going through Mary’s mind as she watched her son die.  Imagine the scene.  Mary looking up at her son, and Jesus looking down on his mother, in their last hours together.  Many of you know what it is like to be spending those last painful hours with a dying loved one.

     ‘Jesus Christ, true God and true man,’ says the catechism.  True God, big enough to create this world and everything in it; and also true man, just like us– with a mother he loved and who loved him, who cared for him, and who now needed him; and with cruel death, interrupting and ending the relationship, as it does all of our relationships.  Jesus, God Almighty; but also our fellowman, our brother, and our friend.  He’s been here, and he knows what this life is like, and he can understand all that we are going through.  I find comfort and assurance in knowing that about Jesus.

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Psalm 8:1, 3, 4  –  O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!  You have set your glory above the heavens…  When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?

John 19:27-29  –  Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.  When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.”  From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

Hebrews 4:14-16  –  Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are– yet was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

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A PRAYER FOR HOLY WEEK, by Samuel Johnson (edited from 1775 & 1777 prayers for Easter):  Almighty God, heavenly Father, whose mercy is over all thy works, look with pity on my miseries and sins…  Relieve, O Lord, as seemeth best unto Thee, the infirmities of my body and the afflictions of my mind.  Fill my thoughts with love of thy Goodness, with just fear of thine Anger, and with humble confidence in thy Mercy…  So help me by thy Holy Spirit, that my heart may be fixed where true joys are to be found, (so) that I may serve thee with pure affection and a cheerful mind.  Have mercy upon me, O God, have mercy upon me!  Years and infirmities oppress me, terror and anxiety beset me.  Have mercy upon me, my Creator and my Judge.  In all dangers protect me, in all perplexities relieve and free me, and so help me by thy Holy Spirit, that I may now so commemorate the death of thy Son our Savior Jesus Christ that when this short and painful life shall have an end, I may for his sake be received to everlasting happiness.  Amen.

371) The Truth About Everything

   The Crucifixion, Veronese, 1580

     In his book Death on a Friday Afternoon, author Richard John Nuehaus made an amazing statement.  He said, “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.”  That is an incredible statement to make, but it is, in fact, what we as Christians believe.  Out of all the days this world has existed, all the days and years and centuries of human history, out of all those days, what happened on Good Friday, when combined with what happened on Easter day, really does contain all the truth about everything– that is, everything of ultimate significance.  Granted, it may not contain the truth about whether or not eggs are good for you, but it does contain all the truth about everything that will still matter to you a hundred years from now.

     First of all, that truth about everything includes the truth about the human condition.  Good Friday tells the story of a death, and death is that most basic and certain aspect of the human condition.  People are born into different times, with different abilities, and with vastly different opportunities.  Some live only a few moments and some will live for more than a hundred years.  But all die, just as Jesus died on that long ago Friday afternoon.

     There is a second fundamental truth about the human condition, and that is, that there is something wrong with us.  The most basic explanation of the meaning of Good Friday is that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins.  Sin– that is what’s wrong with us.  The sin that is within us is acted out in countless ways– meanness, jealousy, greed, hatred, selfishness, ingratitude, theft, gossip, covetousness, rebellion, lust, adultery, slander, anger– the list could go on and on.  And it has been that way from the very beginning; from the first two people created who were cast out of the Garden of Eden for disobeying the one and only command God gave them, to the first child born who became a murderer, and on down to Genesis chapter 6 where we read that God was already regretting his creation of humankind.

     That story of sin continues throughout the Bible until the story of Jesus Christ, God himself who came to earth to do something about that sin.  And what happened to Jesus?  John 1:11 tells us that, “Jesus came to that which was his own, but his own received him NOT.”  These have to be some of the saddest words in the Bible.  In their sinfulness, the opponents of Jesus killed their own Creator and Lord, the One who had come to be their Savior.  What greater evil and wickedness could there be?  ‘His own received him not.’  And on Good Friday we see human sin at its worst.  Judas, friend and disciple of Jesus, betrayed him.  Caiaphas, religious leader of the people, engineered the execution of the Messiah his people had prayed for centuries.  Pilate, the representative of Roman justice, declared Jesus innocent, and then sentenced him to execution.  How about you?  Have you always been faithful and obedient follower of Jesus?

     Good Friday not only tells us the truth about ourselves, it also tells us the truth about God, God who ‘so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believes in him will not perish.’  Perishing would be all any of us would have to look forward to in our long range future, if it were not for Jesus.  Good Friday first of all teaches us that there is something wrong with us and the world, and then it tells us that if anything is to be done about it, it will have to be done by God.  We cannot save ourselves.  It has to be up to God to find a way to forgive us of our sins, and to one day again make us into the kind of people he had created us to be.  Forgiveness, and a new heart, and a new life, all won for us by God, first of all on the cross, and then in the resurrection on Easter morning.

     “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything,” said Nuehaus.  Life and death, the sinfulness of men and the goodness of the Savior, the power of evil defeated by the power of God, Christ in the tomb and then Christ risen for all eternity, the helplessness of man and the salvation of God– it is all there on Good Friday and the Easter Sunday that followed.  The truth about everything, a truth to live for, and a truth to give us hope and confidence even in death.

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Luke 23:33  –  When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals– one on his right, the other on his left.

Luke 23:44-46  –  It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining.  And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.  Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  When he had said this, he breathed his last.

Mark 15:39  –  When the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

II Corinthians 5:17-19  –  Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!  All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation:  that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them.

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Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace:   So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name.  Amen.  

Book of Common Prayer

370) The Vicar of Baghdad

By John Stonestreet at http://www.breakpoint.org , March 4, 2014

     For Reverend Canon Andrew White, an Anglican priest from Great Britain, ministry is anything but routine at his parish—St. George’s Church in Baghdad.  His work involves distributing food and medical care to both Christians and Muslims.  And he also tries to bring together Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders in a land rife with religiously motivated violence.

     The statistics are almost unbelievable—I say “almost” because Canon White lives them every single day.  Iraq is spiraling downward into more and more sectarian violence.  On a recent Wednesday morning, just to cite one example, three bombs exploded in Baghdad, killing 20 people and injuring dozens more.

     White says that 1,096 of his parishioners at St. George’s have been killed in just the past five years.  Canon White told Christianity Today, “So many of our brothers and sisters here in Baghdad have been killed, kidnapped, or tortured…  Many of my staff have also been killed.”

     A major target of the violence is the quite old Christian presence.  The number of Christians in this mostly Muslim land has fallen from 1.5 million in 2003 to just 250,000 today, and many of the few who remain are under threat and in deep need.

     Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom notes, “Iraq’s Christian presence is critically important to its peace, democracy, and prosperity.  The Christians are a segment of that population that is politically moderate, educated, skilled and well represented in the professions.”

     For this reason and others, Canon White has chosen to stay and encourage his fellow Christians and work for peace in an increasingly bloody and dangerous milieu.  “We provide for our neighbors because that is the work of our Lord,” White told Christianity Today.  “Everyone who receives help sees the love of the church, and thus the love of God.  Many non-Christians come to our church, and they know that our Lord loves them.”

A six minute interview with Rev. White:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mb6wkLOBEL4

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Hebrews 13:3  –  Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

2 Corinthians 4:8-10  –  We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned;struck down, but not destroyed.  We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

Matthew 5:9-12  –  (Jesus said),   “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.  Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

I Corinthians 4:12, 13a  –  We work hard with our own hands.  When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly…

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Almighty God, who has taught us through your Son Jesus Christ that those who follow Him may be persecuted; strengthen, comfort and encourage all those who suffer harassment, violence, imprisonment and even death for being followers of Jesus.  We pray for those who persecute your people; may their hearts be turned towards you through the faithful witness of those they persecute.  Protect those who are persecuted and bless their ministries.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

369) C. S. Lewis on Happiness

     What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could “be like gods;” that they could set up on their own as if they had created themselves, they could be their own masters, and they could invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God.  And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—greed, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.

     God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.  There is no such thing.

–From Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

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Genesis 3:1-5  –  The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild animals the Lord God had made.  One day he asked the woman, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?”

“Of course we may eat fruit from the trees in the garden,” the woman replied. “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat.  God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die.’”

“You won’t die!” the serpent replied to the woman.  “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil.”

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Exodus 20:3  –  You shall have no other gods before me.  (the first commandment)

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Matthew 22:34-38  –  Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together.  One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment. 

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Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ

For all the benefits Thou hast given me,
For all the pains and insults Thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother,
May I know Thee more clearly,
Love Thee more dearly,
Follow Thee more nearly.

–Richard, Bishop of Chichester  (1197-1253)

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That prayer adapted for the Broadway musical Godspell (1971) by Stephen Schwartz:

Day by day,
Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray:
To see thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
Follow thee more nearly,
Day by Day

Day by Day performed here at a recent recording:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JW_RpWbnJXQ