Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Foundation of Forgiveness

On what basis can God forgive our sin? According to the New Testament, God can do this only on the basis of the shed blood of his Son. We saw this earlier in our study of The Apostles' Creed when we talked about Jesus' crucifixion under Pontius Pilate. Hebrews 9:22 makes this crystal clear: "Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." Forgiveness is free to you and me, but it cost Jesus everything.

It is said that during the Middle Ages, sometimes a very wealthy man would hire someone to go into battle for him. Once the military obligation was made to the king by some commoner in behalf of a nobleman, that obligation was believed to be fulfilled.

However, on one occasion, a nobleman was taken to court after the man he hired to fight for him was killed in battle during the first day of his service. The prosecution stated that the nobleman had not really gone into battle. He had not in reality taken the death arrow. Therefore, according to the prosecution, the nobleman should be required to enter battle.

But the court ruled that the nobleman was not required to go into battle because the man he hired had done it for him and been killed in his stead. When the substitute died, the nobleman, legally, died.

Now, I certainly believe there is much more to Christ's atonement for sins than the mere idea of substitution. But the idea of substitution is certainly part of it. Jesus went into cosmic battle for us on the cross.

Even someone like C. S. Lewis, who struggled with the idea of substitutionary atonement presented just such a picture in his Narnia stories where the Christ figure, the great lion Aslan, dies in a traitor's stead. Lewis had this to say about the matter, in his book, The Problem of Pain....
We have a strange illusion that mere time cancels sin. I have heard others, and I have heard myself, recounting cruelties and falsehoods committed in boyhood as if they were no concern of the present speaker's, and even with laughter. But mere time does nothing either to the fact or to the guilt of a sin. The guilt is washed out not by time but by repentance and the blood of Christ: if we have repented these early sins we should remember the price of our forgiveness and be humble.
Then Lewis goes on to say, later in the book...
But forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: and a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.
How much more then should we come humbly to the cross, confessing our sin, so that we can receive God's abundant forgiveness and love? One way to do that is by using the time-tested words of the General Confession in The Book of Common Prayer....
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou those who are penitent; According to thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of thy holy Name. Amen.
This wonderful promise belongs to all those who confess their sins....
If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift! 


Interior of Church of St. Margaret of Antioch, Binsey, Oxfordshire

As I have mentioned before on this blog, the minute village of Binsey, Oxfordshire, with its even more minuscule parish church of St. Margaret's, is one of my favorite places in the world. I am so glad I will get to visit there again. I will be going on a scouting trip in April and May to plan for a future C. S. Lewis Tour of Ireland and England. 

I first learned of Binsey through reading Sheldon Vanauken's book, A Severe Mercy. I imagine that many people throughout the world have come to love Binsey because of that book, not the least of whom is Fr. Dwight Longenecker. He has written this lovely poem published in his book, A Sudden Certainty....

The Pilgrimage
St. Margaret's, Binsey, Oxford

You have to pass through
the distressing
part of this mostly golden 
town to get there. You
past Jericho and on

through the desert
of crowded shops,
mean streets and gardens
filled with factory dirt
until the city stops
where, like a guardian

the gate to the meadow
stands. Beyond the gate
it is like Eden--
the river seems to flow
like life, and the late
slanting sun goldens

everything in sight--
the swans' wings flapping
with no resistance
in the air, and the white
horses galloping
in the distance.

Past the far meadow
where the herd gathers
and feeds, past the village
the road starts to narrow
and becomes smoother,
as if the next stage

should be easier;
yet this is the longest
part of the journey
and it is darker
too, than the rest
or so it seems to me.

There is no release
of warmth at the end
of the tunnel-like
avenue of trees
which follow. Nothing sends
tremors of light to strike

the mind or heart.
There is only a small
church among ancient trees
and wild flowers,
and in a dis-used part
of the yard, there is
a legendary well
with healing powers.

If you want to read my other posts about Binsey, with more photos, just do a search at the top of this page. You can find the church web site with even more photos here: St. Margaret's, Binsey. I hope to put up one post per day during my upcoming trip to Ireland and England, April 22-May 8. So be on the lookout!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Hallelujah Line

The story is told of a man many years ago who used to disturb his Presbyterian preacher by shouting out "Hallelujah!" in the middle of every sermon. After a while, the preacher got rather tired of this so he came up with what he thought was an ingenious idea. He gave the hallelujah man an encyclopedia to read during the worship service. This kept the man quiet for many a Sunday until, during one sermon he once again let out a mighty "Hallelujah!" After the service, the minister asked for an explanation and the man, looking a bit sheepish, said, "Pastor, I could not help it. I was reading in the encyclopedia about the Pacific Ocean and its tremendous depth. I was thinking about this and remembered that the Bible says God has taken our sins and cast them into the depths of the sea. I just had to say "Hallelujah!"

Today we come to examine the hallelujah line of the Apostles' Creed: "I believe in the forgiveness of sins." Over the next few days, I invite you to examine several important questions with me. The first is simply: what is forgiveness?

One possible answer to that question is that forgiveness is a promise. The author of Hebrews 8:12 quotes Jeremiah 31:34 where the Lord says, "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more." When God forgives us he goes on record saying that he will no longer hold our sins against us.

There is a popular saying that "when God forgives, God forgets". But is that really true? How can God forget anything? God is omniscient; he knows everything. God's memory never falters. In the verse just quoted God does not say he will forget our sins, he says: "I will remember their sins no more."

Now, you may be thinking: Aren't "forgetting" and "not remembering" the same thing?" Actually, they are different. Forgetting is passive. It is something frail human beings often do. But forgetting is not something an omniscient God can do. "Not remembering" is different; it is active; it is a promise whereby God says: "I will not bring up your sin, or hold it against you ever again."

The story is told of a poor orphan boy who was adopted. At the time of his adoption he was wearing an old, worn out pair of shoes with holes in them. Once he was adopted, his new parents bought him new shoes and new clothes, but the adoptive parents decided to save the boy's old shoes and so they tucked them away in a closet. During the ensuing years, whenever the boy complained or showed signs of ingratitude toward his adoptive parents, they brought out that old pair of shoes and thereby reminded the boy of all they had done for him. Naturally, each time this happened, the boy would get a shameful look on his face.

Thank God he is not like those adoptive parents. When God forgives us and adopts us as his children, he never brings up our past again. Here's an old saying I do agree with, heartily: "When God buries the ax, he doesn't leave the handle sticking above ground." When God forgives us he goes on record and promises never to hold our sin against us!

But how can God forgive sin? Does he just wink and say in effect, "Boys will be boys"? I do not think so. Scripture teaches us that God is holy as well as merciful. He cannot tolerate sin. So what is the foundation for forgiveness? On what basis can God forgive us? This is the question we will examine tomorrow....

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

C. S. Lewis on The Communion of the Saints

Before we leave the topic of The Communion of the Saints and move on to the article of The Apostles' Creed dealing with the forgiveness of sins, I thought I would share what C. S. Lewis had to say on this topic in his final book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. He begins by commenting on devotions to the saints....
There is clearly a theological defence for it; if you can ask for the prayers of the living, why should you not ask for the prayers of the dead? There is clearly also a great danger. In some popular practice we see it leading off into an infinitely silly picture of Heaven as an earthly court where applicants will be wise to pull the right wires, discover the best "channels," and attach themselves to the most influential pressure groups. But I have nothing to do with all this. I am not thinking of adopting the practice myself; and who am I to judge the practices of others? I only hope there'll be no scheme for canonisations in the Church of England. Can you imagine a better hot-bed for yet more divisions between us? 
The consoling thing is that while Christendom is divided about the rationality, and even the lawfulness, of praying to the saints, we are all agreed about praying with them. "With angels and archangels and all the company of heaven." Will you believe it? It is only quite recently I made that quotation a part of my private prayers--I festoon it round "hallowed be Thy name." This, by the way, illustrates what I was saying last week about the uses of ready-made forms. They remind one. And I have found this quotation a great enrichment. One always accepted this with theoretically. But it is quite different when one brings it into consciousness at an appropriate moment and wills the association of one's own little twitter with the voice of the great saints and (we hope) of our own dear dead. They may drown some of its uglier qualities and set off any tiny value it has. 
You may say that the distinction between the communion of the saints as I find it in that act and full-fledged prayer to saints is not, after all, very great. All the better if so. I sometimes have a bright dream of re-union engulfing us unawares, like a great wave from behind our backs, perhaps at the very moment when our official representatives are still pronouncing it impossible. Discussions usually separate us; actions sometimes unite us. (Letter III)

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Communion of Saints

The final description that The Apostles' Creed gives of the Church is that it is a communion of saints. The Church, very simply, is Christians in fellowship with the Lord and with one another.

Paul does not use the word "communion" in 1 Corinthians 1:2 but he does use the word "saints". He says that the Corinthians are called to be holy, or called to be saints, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ--their Lord and ours. There is a togetherness of the people of God, a common union among all the saints, by virtue of our relationship to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Furthermore, there are two aspects to this communion. We have fellowship with saints below and saint above. That is to say, when we become Christians, there is a mystical union, not only between each believer and every other believer on earth, but also with those believers who have already gone on to be with the Lord. The writer to the Hebrews says:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.(Hebrews 12:22-24)
There is, even now, a wonderful fellowship between the saints here on earth and those in heaven. Furthermore, one day that fellowship will be fully actualised when we are all together with the Lord. Nonetheless, as some unknown poet put it: "To dwell above with saints I love, to me that will be glory. To dwell below with saints I know, well that's another story."

Actualising our fellowship here on earth can be a difficult matter. Can we say that we have truly "devoted ourselves to the fellowship" just as the first disciples did in Jerusalem? (See Acts 2:42.) That word for fellowship, koinonia in the Greek, means sharing in common. And look at what those first believers shared in common:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. (Acts 2:44-45)
Why is fellowship with other Christians important? Well, let's think about this. When babies are born we know they will die without human companionship. Even if they have all the nutrients needed to sustain life, babies die without human touch. Or to use another analogy: remove one burning coal from a charcoal grill with other burning coals and soon its light and heat will dissipate. 

Christians are called by the Lord to be together, to share in common, because we need each other. Apart from such fellowship, Christians wither in their discipleship.

But what about "saints," why do we confess belief in the communion of saints? As we have seen already, to be holy means to be set apart for service to the Lord. "Saint" is just a variation on the Greek word for holy. Thus, saints are those set apart to belong to God in Jesus Christ. Just as the elements of bread and wine in Holy Communion remind us of Jesus, so the whole communion of saints is to act as a witness to Christ.

A young child, seeing depictions of famous saints in the stained glass windows at church once gave this marvellous definition: a saint is someone through whom the light shines. How true that is. All believers in Jesus are saints through whom the light of God shines.

Stuart Briscoe has defined sainthood this way: "A saint is a very ordinary person who, recognising his or her sin--overt and gross or covert and respectable--has come to the point of repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus, has sensed His call to belong to Him and to publicly identify with Him, and has become part of the family of believers."

I think that all too often in the past we have had the wrong picture of sainthood. The fifth century Christian, Simeon Stylites, lived for thirty years on a pillar about sixty feet high. That was how he sought to maintain his holiness. Deeply impressed by this example, Anatole of France desired to emulate Simeon. Not being able to secure a pillar, he improvised by placing a chair on the kitchen table in his home. There he arrayed himself in a simple garment, intending to spend the rest of his days in holy contemplation and prayer. The cook and the rest of the family did not see eye to eye with Anatole and altogether missed the sublimity of his intentions. They succeeded in making life so miserable for Anatole that he discontinued his project. He wrote, "I soon perceived that it is a very difficult thing to be a saint while living with your own family! I saw why Simeon Stylites and Brother Jerome went into the desert."

It is a difficult thing to be a saint while living with one's family and going to work everyday, and living a normal, ordinary life. But that is what God calls us to do. Not only that, God promises to give us the power to live out his calling upon our lives right where we are. 

I like this poem written by a simple nineteen year old servant girl who worked many hours everyday at household chores....

Lord of all pots and pans and things
since I've no time to be
a saint by doing lovely deeds
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight
or storming Heaven's gates,
make me a saint by getting meals
and washing up the plates!

Although I may have Martha hands,
I have a Mary mind;
so when I black the boots or shoes,
Thy sandals, Lord, I find!
I think of how they trod the earth
Each time I scrub the floor.

Accept this meditation, Lord;
I haven't time for more.

Warm all the kitchen with Thy love,
And light it with Thy peace.
Forgive me all my worrying
And make all grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food
in room or by the sea,
accept this service that I do,
I do it unto Thee.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

What is the Church anyway?

In the Apostles' Creed we confess that we believe in "the holy catholic church". But what is the Church anyway?

According to the New Testament, the Church is a group of people called out by God. That is what the Greek word "ecclesia" means as it is used in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere.

The Church is the Church of God. It is a Church belonging to the Lord. In fact, we get our English word for "church" from another Greek word, "kuriake," which simply means "belonging to the Lord". If it is true that the Church belongs to the Lord then we need to be careful how we speak about her.

Notice also that the Church is one. We confess belief in the Church, not in churches. The Church is built on one foundation: Jesus Christ.

We also see in 1 Corinthians and elsewhere that the Church is not somewhere we go; rather it is something we are part of, something we, who are believers in Jesus, simply are. The Church is not a building, but a people. The Church is a people called out of the world by the Lord, that is, called to be in the world but not of it. We are a people called to be separate, distinctive, set apart for the purpose of bearing witness to Jesus so that even more people might believe in him. If we are not fulfilling or even seeking to fulfil the Great Commission that Jesus gave to us in Matthew 28, then are we even the Church?

The city of Long Beach, California, looks upon the Queen Mary, docked near the oceanfront, as a floating white elephant. Since 1967, when the city bought the ship from Cunard, sixty-three million dollars or more has been spent on its conversion into a tourist spot with a museum, shops, restaurants, and hotel. Over the years, voices have called for the doughty old Cunarder to be scrapped. One wonders: what purpose does the Queen Mary really serve when it can no longer sail the seven seas?

A similar question can be posed regarding the Church: what purpose does the Church really serve if we are not serving the purpose Jesus originally gave us? Are we destined to become, like the Queen Mary, just a museum, or a hotel for people who have no where better to stay, nothing better to do with their time? I believe that the Church has been called to sail the world and, like Noah's Ark, rescue people from certain destruction.

Someone has drawn the following contrasts between the live church and the dead church:

Live churches are constantly changing.
Dead churches don't have to.
Live churches have lots of noisy kids.
Dead churches are fairly quiet.
Live churches expenses always exceed their income.
Dead churches take in more than they ever dreamed of spending.
Live churches are constantly improving for the future.
Dead churches worship their past.
Live churches move out in faith.
Dead churches operate totally by human sight.
Live churches focus on people.
Dead churches focus on programs.
Live churches dream great dreams of God.
Dead churches relive nightmares.
Live churches don't have "can't" in their dictionary.
Dead churches have nothing but "can't".
Live churches evangelize.
Dead churches fossilize.

I wonder: to which kind of church do we belong? And what can we do to become more of the Church Jesus created us and redeemed us to be?

Friday, March 20, 2015

Do you believe in the Catholic Church?

A second thing we confess about the Church in the Apostles' Creed is that the Church is Catholic. Many Protestants change this word to "Christian" when they confess their faith using the Creed. They do this because they do not want to be associated with the Roman Catholic Church. The problem with this is that the words "Christian" and "Catholic" do not have the same meaning. "Catholic" means universal. When we confess our faith in the Catholic Church we are saying that we believe in the existence of one, universal Church throughout the world that consists of all believers in Jesus.

Notice that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians not only to the Church of God in Corinth, but also to "all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ--their Lord and ours." The Church is Catholic because it embraces Christians everywhere whether they be Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or whatever shade of Protestant.

Many people today say they believe in the universal Church, but they often do so without identifying themselves with a particular local congregation. However, I think there is a problem with this. Notice again that Paul wrote to the Church of God at Corinth. When people became Jesus followers in the first century they became part of an identifiable body of believers in a particular place. They joined together with other believers for worship Sunday by Sunday. That is what we see throughout the book of Acts. The same should be true about Christians today. The moment we put our faith in Jesus we become part of a body, part of a family. Trying to live the Christian life while cutting oneself off from the body, from the family, is to make one's Christianity virtually impossible to live. Cutting off a finger, a toe, an arm, or a leg, gouging out an eye, slicing off an ear: these are not usually the methods we use to make a body healthier. We need all parts of the Body of Christ functioning together in order for that Body to be healthy. That is why the writer to the Hebrews urges us, "Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching." (Hebrews 10:25)

This is not to day that identifying oneself with a local congregation does not present difficulties. Here is what C. S. Lewis had to say about this through the mouth of the devil, Screwtape....
One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans. All your patient sees is the half-finished, sham Gothic erection on the new building estate.... When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided.... Work hard, then, on the disappointment or anticlimax which is certainly coming to the patient during his first few weeks as a churchman.
Then in another one of his letters to his young tempter nephew Wormwood, Screwtape says:
If a man can't be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that "suits" him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.
Committing oneself to membership and active participation in a local church is difficult at times. Yes, the church is full of hypocrites, and at times I have been one of them. But here's the thing: the Church is kind of like Noah's Ark. I believe that dealing with the stench inside is far better than drowning in the flood outside.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Church--Holy?

Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to a group of people whom he had led to faith in Christ. He calls them "the ones having been sanctified in Christ Jesus." The Church--holy? How can this be? It seems like plenty of people have been hurt by the Church, hurt by Christians. It has been said that the Church is the only group that shoots their own wounded people. I can certainly understand that perspective. So how can the Church be called, in any real or meaningful sense, holy?

Obviously, the Church is not holy in the sense of already being perfect. To be holy actually means "to be set apart," in this case, to be set apart for God's purposes. The Church in this world is capable of grievous sin. One does not have to live very long, or read very far in 1 Corinthians, to see this. Paul was not writing to perfect people. He was writing to a group of people who had divisions among themselves, who were undisciplined, people bringing law-suits against one another, persons who were living lives of sexual immorality, and people who were prideful. Yet, Paul calls these same people holy because, in spite of their sin, the Lord had chosen them and set them apart for his purpose. The Church is not holy in and of herself; she is holy only because she has a holy Lord, Jesus Christ, who has called her and set her apart.

What is that purpose for which the Lord has called and set apart his Church? In 1 Peter 2:9 we read Peter's words to the Church:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
The purpose of the Church is exactly what Peter has described here. C. S. Lewis sums up that purpose this way:
The Church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ, to make them little Christs. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simply a waste of time. God became Man for no other purpose. It is even doubtful, you know, whether the whole universe was created for any other purpose. (Mere Christianity)
Obviously, Jesus has not yet fully achieved his purpose in the Church. The good news is: he will accomplish it. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus says, "I will build my church and the gates of hell will not overcome it."

The Church was persecuted perhaps more in her early life than at any other time. Yet, she survived. Tertullian, one of the early church fathers, directed these words towards the persecutors of the Church:
Proceed in your career of cruelty, but do not suppose that you will thus accomplish your purpose of extinguishing the hated sect. We are like the grass which grows the more luxuriantly the more often it is mowed.
Perhaps these are words we especially need to remember at this time when it seems that persecution of Christians is once again on the rise.