Thursday, December 22, 2011

Does it Matter at All?

A few months ago I stumbled onto a weekly blog that one of my former professors writes.  Peter Berger is a well-known church sociologist, which really means that he looks at church with an unusually objective view.  I vividly remember sitting in a small class with him talking about the practices of the church in a way that really opens yours eyes to begin to ask why we do things the way we do.  Last week Berger wrote a blog post entitled, "Do The Three Abrahamic Faiths Worship the Same God?"  It's actually a very well written blog looking at whether or not Christianity, Islam and Judaism have the same roots.  Berger takes time looking at the reasons people agree and disagree with this statement.  His strongest statement, "There is no reason why Jew, Muslim, and Christian should not be able to work and live in harmony together."  I agree, when it comes to causes of humanity, certainly those of education, caring for children and elderly, and basic human rights there is no reason individuals of any faith (or no faith) cannot work together to serve others.  The article begs the question though - is Islam, Judaism, Christianity, and maybe even other faiths just different paths to the same destination?

As I read this I couldn't help to think about our beliefs in/about Jesus.  While there is certainly historical common ground when it comes to Jesus there is something fundamentally different about what we believe - mostly we don't pursue God, God finds us.  There is fundamentally a difference between living to earn God's favor and living out God's favor.

A great witness to this comes in the book of Hebrews.  Here we see how faith, a forward, outward looking faith that anticipates the work of God.

First, in Hebrews 10 we read about the work of the priests to sanctify (purify/cleanse) God's people.  Of course for the priests this was first a work of earning the forgiveness of their own sins and then later for others.  In Hebrews 10:11-14 we read about how Jesus has come and eliminated this need for serial purification because he has done what could not be accomplished through the law.
And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.

Hebrews then goes in Chapter 11 to discuss the "heroes of the faith", those who lived in prior generations yet demonstrated a faith that is completed through the work of Christ.  I believe what is implied here is that even before the birth of Christ there were those who longed for what they new God intended for humanity yet was beyond their grasp.  So Hebrews writes, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval."  (Heb 11:1-2)

Jesus completes the longing of those who have gone before; those who longed for God's presence and reconciliation with God but knew it was beyond their power to achieve.  They were faithful to walk forward to what God called them to.  Even though what had been promised made no sense (a child in old age, the sacrifice of an only son, delivery from Egypt, a virgin birth) they trusted and walked forward in faith.

Jesus completes what we cannot do on our own and did so for each of them.  In Jesus we experience God's forgiveness, God's presence in our life and we become a new creation.  Jesus does complete God's promises and begins the recreation of our world.

Why does it matter and why is it any different?  It's because it's not our job to seek God.  It's not our job to earn God's salvation.  Being a follower of Jesus isn't about following Jesus hoping to find or experience him.  Being a follower of Jesus is a transformed and restored relationship with God so that all we do is not out of obligation but instead in response to the love and joy we experience as God enters the world and our lives.  It's knowing the truth that our greatest longing is already fulfilled and our greatest joy, hope, peace and love comes to us simply in a manger.  Unexpected, unmerited, unwarranted and irrational, true.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Gift of Love

Advent is nearly done, it is merely days until we celebrate the birth of our Savior on Christmas.  As we do so, we should be mindful of the gift that we find in Jesus and how we celebrate this gift in our lives.

In the manger we experience God's love fully poured out for the entire world to see and experience.  It is love enacted.  It is a full giving of self, a selfless giving, a gift given that simply cannot be repaid or even fully understood.  It is a gift that forever changes the world.

Without doubt for me this gift is most completely described in Paul's writing to the Philippians 2:5-8.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. - NRSV

I love this passage of scripture because of the incredible depth of how it describes the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus so densely.  As we read this and reflect specifically on the birth of Jesus and the gift of love, we see two key elements about how this love is enacted.  First, it is done humbly.  This means that Jesus literally gets down onto our playing field so that we can experience God's love in our own lives.  I like to think of how I play with my children.  My body and mind are capable of way more than building a Lego tower, yet it is in building a Lego tower with my children that they experience the love I have for them.  It isn't by knowing what we do to feed them, to keep a roof over their heads, or to plan for their future.  It is what we do with them in simple ways, on their level, physically, mentally and emotionally.  So God comes into our world, at a specific time, in a specific way, at a specific place because that is how we experience God's love.  We don't understand what happens "behind the scenes."  We do understand that God humbled himself, was born in a feeding trough into a broken world.  That's a love we experience.

God's love is sacrificial.  It isn't just show, but it is truly giving something up to give something to us.   God doesn't just "like" the cause of salvation, Jesus's life isn't just about giving out of abundance as a token gift to humanity.  No, Jesus gives everything for us.  So Jesus emptied himself and humbled himself in a love enacted through service and sacrifice.

So as we celebrate Christmas this year, are there small ways we can begin to give this same gift of love to those around us?  How can you take time to meet someone where they are as an act of love?  If someone is distant, how can you go to them?  If someone is suffering, how can you suffer with them?  Can we be bold enough to give a gift of love that even requires giving part of ourselves?  Can we love through service and sacrifice?