Sunday, March 31, 2013

Persecuted Church: Coptic Christians being driven out of Egypt

Persecution of Coptic Christians, intensified by the political success of the Muslim Brotherhood, is driving them out of Egypt.

Culture news: Google, Easter and desensitizing a culture

Desensitizing a culture:

"Google is one of the most powerful forces shaping culture and information in this digital age in which we live, read and think.

Google is a portal, a door and a gateway. If the editors at Google decide to shape our world, our reality, into some new form then dang it, it will be shaped into that new form. If the principalities and powers at Google decide that certain forms of information are more worthy, more valuable, more acceptable than others, then that perception will become search-engine reality. It’s kind of like that showdown between Apple’s iTunes overlords and the circle of religious conservatives that produced the Manhattan Declaration.

Anyway, the Google overlords have a tradition of doing cute little graphic frameworks for the word “Google” on major days of interest in the culture, such as “The Holidays,” St. Patrick’s Day, the Super Bowl, Earth Day, the 4th of July, Halloween, etc. They also enjoy doing occasional salutes to major historic figures, often on their birthdays.

Which, of course, brings us to today — which is the most important day of the year in the Western version of the Christian calendar.

In other words, today is Easter for most of the world’s Christians. Those of us who are Orthodox Christians, and follow the older Julian calendar, will celebrate Pascha (Easter) on May 5th.
So what did the Google folks do today? Well, on one level, they decided to mark the 86th birthday of union leader Cesar Chavez. In my opinion, they ended up profoundly insulting this famous Catholic."

Sermon for the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord

                                                                                                            1 Cor 15:1-11

            In the middle of the first century A.D., the apostle Paul went to Athens, Greece.  Athens was one of the great intellectual centers of the ancient world.  It was the center of one of the great schools of learning – and had been for centuries.  And like many university towns, the people there were intellectually smug and full of themselves.  Believe me, I know what that looks like – I grew up in one.
            We are told that Epicurean and Stoic philosophers were talking with him. Some people said, “What does this babbler wish to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection. And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.”
            Paul preached to them in a way that engaged their own religious and intellectual heritage.  But then Paul said, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
Paul’s reference to the resurrection marked the end of the conversation.  While some indicated that they were open to hearing more at a later time, Luke tells us that some mocked.  In truth, based what we know about the Greco-Roman world, we can assume that most mocked.
We have gathered on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And on this day, our epistle lesson is from 1 Corinthians 15 – the great resurrection chapter in Paul’s letter to Corinth.  We have celebrated Easter so many times and heard Paul’s words so many times that it is easy to take the whole thing for granted.  Of course Jesus Christ rose from the dead.  Of course it proves that Jesus completed his saving mission.  Of course it shows that Jesus has defeated death.
            What we fail to realize is that for almost the entire world that the first Christians addressed – the Greco-Roman world that was the setting of every Christian congregation apart from Jewish Palestine – none of this made any sense.  In fact, it was absurd. 
            It was absurd because for them the resurrection of the body was not a good thing.  It was not something to be desired.  It was in fact the last thing anyone would want. It was a punishment, not salvation.
            From the beginnings of Greek philosophy there was a basic assumption that continued on for century after century up to Jesus’ day in the first century A.D.  This assumption was that the spirit was good and that the body – the physical – bad.  The body was a prison in which the spirit had been trapped. And the good thing about death was that it finally set the spirit free.
            This was the worldview of the people to whom Paul was writing in Corinth. It was the worldview of everyone the Church sought to evangelize that wasn’t Jewish.  If you decided to make up a religion in the first century A.D. for which you were going to try to win over the Mediterranean world, placing the resurrection of the body at the center of it was the worst decision that you could possibly make.
            And yet … that’s exactly what the apostles did.  They said that truth of the Christian faith was based on the fact that Jesus Christ had bodily risen from the dead.  And then they doubled down by saying that the resurrection wasn’t only about Jesus.  It was about the future, the salvation that was in store for everyone who believed in him.
            That’s what the apostle Paul says in our text today.  He begins by saying, “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.”  Paul says that when he talks about resurrection, he is talking about the Gospel by which the Corinthians are saved.  If there is no resurrection, then there is no Gospel and there is no salvation.
            Paul lays it out as he says: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.”
            He says that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures.  The Gospel and the resurrection are needed because there is a problem.  The problem is sin.  The problem is that ever since Adam disobeyed God, everyone conceived and born in the normal course of nature is sinful.  We are people who find disobeying God to come naturally.  We are people who find that that hurting those around us by what we say and do comes naturally.  It’s easy.  We don’t have to work at it.  In fact, we are really, really good at it.
            The problem is that all of this sin flies in the face of the holy God and the way he has ordered things. And you know what: forget what our culture says about there not being any  absolute truth – that there is only what is true for you and what is true for me.  The holy and almighty God gets the final word. And his word is clear: the wages of sin is death.  Sin brings death.  That’s what apart from the return of Christ, every single one of you is going to do. 
And God will speak the final word.  On the Last Day he will pronounce judgment and sinners will be cast out of his presence in eternal damnation – what Jesus Christ describes as the weeping and gnashing of teeth.  As Paul told the Romans, “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.”
            Sin is the reason God acted to give us forgiveness and salvation.  God had revealed in the Old Testament that he would do this.  As we heard in our Old Testament lesson on Good Friday, God said about his Servant, the Christ -            “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.” Through Jesus’ death on the cross, God has given you forgiveness.
            Yet that is not all he has done.  He has also given you life.  God didn’t just punish sin in Christ on the cross.  He also acted in his Son to bring life – full blown bodily resurrection life.  You see, God says that things work very differently than the way the Greco-Roman world viewed things.
            When God had finished making his creation, we learn from Genesis chapter one, “And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” When he created Adam, he formed his body out of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and Adam became a living being.  God created human beings as the unity of body and soul.
            In the first Adam, sin had entered into the world and brought death.  In the second Adam, Jesus Christ, God worked to restore the life that we were meant to have.  He restored the life of fellowship with God by taking away our sins and giving us forgiveness.  And he began the restoration of human bodily life as God created it to be.
            Yet it’s not just the Greco-Roman world that had no use for the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It’s our world too.  If you read around in what so many so called “Christian” scholars and theologians have to say; if you hear their pathetic dribble at places like the History Channel, you will find that it is just as common to deny the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If they don’t use the tired rationalist explanations that have been around since the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century, the you will be told that Christ has a “spiritual resurrection.”  Define this in whatever way you want, it always ends up meaning that on Easter morning, the actual body of Jesus Christ was still in the tomb.
            And there is nothing that could be more stupid.  For anyone who lived in the Jewish setting knew what resurrection was – it was what happened on the Last Day when God gave the physical bodies of his people triumph over death and raised them to live as God had intended life to be.  And Paul new exactly what the stakes were.  Just after our text he said: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”
            If Christ did not rise from the dead, then you are still in your sins.  If Christ did not rise from the dead, then no one who has died will ever live again.  If Christ did not rise from the dead, then everything Christianity is a lie – and worse than that, it is a false witness about God. And if Christ did not rise from the dead – if the only hope of the Christian belongs to this life – then we are most to be pitied because the suffering, sacrifice and service of the Christian is meaningless.
            But on Easter Sunday when the women went to the tomb, it was empty. The announcement by the angel was, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”  Jesus Christ did rise to the dead.  In his resurrection he did begin the resurrection of the Last Day.  He is the first fruits, the beginning of the resurrection that we too will share in when he returns in glory.
            And the resurrection of our Lord was something that was not only experienced in a brief and confused manner on the morning of Easter Sunday.  It was not something that was experienced just the day of Easter Sunday.  It was experienced during the course of forty days. It was experienced in Jerusalem.  It was experienced on a mountain in northern Israel in Galilee and at the Sea of Galilee.  And it was not experienced by some small and confused group of people.  As Paul declares to us this morning, the risen Lord was seen and heard by Peter and the other apostless, by James, by more than five hundred Christians as one time; and finally by Paul himself.
This is the witness of the Gospel.  Jesus Christ died for your sins, according to the Scriptures.  He rose from the dead, according to the Scriptures. He appeared to many different people in many different place over the course of more than a month.  And because this happened your sins are forgiven. Because this happened you will rise from the dead to share in Jesus’ own resurrection on the Last Day.  Jesus Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Mark's thoughts: Easter - The Beginning of the Future

 In the Gospel lesson for Easter Sunday we hear the angel say to the women: “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here, for he has risen as he said.”  On that first Easter, the angels announced the good news that the women and the apostles would soon experience first hand: Jesus Christ had risen from the dead.   

The resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter is a past event.  However for us, it is also the beginning of the future.  Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection of the Last Day has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Paul writes in 15:20, “But now Christ has been raised, the first fruits of those who are asleep.”  Jesus is the first portion of the resurrection that guarantees we will also be raised.  The message of Easter is that the resurrection we will share on the Last Day when Christ returns has already begun.  It is now simply a matter of timing.  As Paul goes on to say in 15:23, “But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at his coming.”

Jesus’ resurrection shows us what our own resurrection will be like.  In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul affirms we will experience a resurrection of the body and asserts that in the resurrection we will receive a “spiritual body” (15:44).  This is not the denial of a physical or material body, but rather as scholarship has demonstrated, it is a body transformed for the future life directed by the Holy Spirit.  Paul indicates that this change will occur for all believers, both the living and the dead when he says “we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed” (15:51).

The physical and material nature of the resurrection is confirmed by Paul’s statement in Philippians 3:21.  There Paul affirms that we are eagerly awaiting Jesus Christ, “who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself.”  Paul tells us that the resurrection of Jesus Christ provides the model for our own resurrection.  When we consider Jesus’ resurrection, we find that our Lord says in Luke 24:39, “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; touch me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”  In the same way, in John 20 he invites Thomas to touch him (John 20:26-27).  Since this is the model for our own resurrection we learn that while there will be transformation and change, it will be a physical and material existence.

There is great comfort in this knowledge.  Many of us now live with bodies that are breaking down.  We live with health issues that make life difficult.  In Jesus’ resurrection on Easter, we see that God has something far better in store for us.  In fact, we see that this answer has already begun in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

We have resurrection hope for our future and at the same time our Lord continues to sustain our confidence in the present through His Means of Grace.  In our baptism we have the assurance that we too will share in the restoration of the resurrection, for as Paul writes in Romans 6:5; “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”  In the Lord’s Supper our bodies receive the very body and blood of the risen Lord, and so we know that we too will be raised up when our Lord returns.  Through these means our risen Lord assures us that He is the first fruits of the resurrection that has already begun, and that we will share in His resurrection on the Last Day when He returns in glory.


Culture news: Middle school dating correlates with negative outcomes in lives of students

I never cease to be amazed at how relationships between boys and girls in middle school have changed.  Dating of couples has become common place.  It comes as no surprise that recent research indicates this is not a healthy thing:

Students who date in middle school have significantly worse study skills, are four times more likely to drop out of school and report twice as much alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use than their single classmates, according to new research from the University of Georgia.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Sermon for Good Friday

Good Friday
                                                                                                                        2 Co 5:14-21

            Around 60 A.D, the Roman Empire had been in Great Britain for 17 years. The Emperor Claudius had invaded in 43 AD and had set in motion the process by which Rome tried to make Britain into a functioning province of the empire. As they always did, they sought to use local rulers in positions of power who were willing to cooperate with them.
            However, not everyone was willing to go along with this plan.  And as so often happened, after the initial shock of Roman military success in the invasion began to wear off, there was a revolt.  This revolt, however, was unusual because it was led by a woman. The queen of the Iceni, Boudica led an uprising which began by attacking the Roman center of Colchester.  They sacked this Roman colony where there was temple to the emperor Claudius.  When the Roman ninth legion tried to relieve Colchester, Boudica and her forces routed them in battle.
            Boudica had launched the revolt while the Roman governor Suetonius was conducting a military campaign on the island of Anglesey off the coast of Wales. Suetonius rushed back to what is today London.  He realized that he didn’t have sufficient forces to hold the town, so he abandoned it and withdrew.  Boudica’s army then took London and destroyed it.
            The Romans’ position was precarious. Suetonius scraped together all the forces he could, but he was vastly outnumbered.  However in a great tactical decision, he engaged Boudica in battle at a place where there was only a narrow clearing in the woods.  At the Battle of Watling Street Boudica was prevented by the landscape from bringing all of her forces to bear at once against the Romans. And as a result, the superior discipline of the Roman legions was able to win a great victory.
            We don’t know exactly what happened to Boudica, but apparently she was not captured and instead poisoned herself.  Thousands of her followers were not so fortunate.  The Romans did to them what they did to all rebels.  They crucified them. And in this case the Romans did it along a road for mile and after mile.  Tormented individuals, one after another, were left hanging on crosses as they endured a slow and painful death. When they had died their bodies were left on the crosses for birds to come and eat.  One can imagine the flocks of birds that descended upon the thousands of dead in order to feed upon them.  The macabre scene was left there as a reminder about what would happen to anyone else who chose to revolt against Rome.
            I tell the story of Boudica and her revolt not because it was unusual. Instead it was typical in the way it took place.  It was typical in that the Romans defeated the revolt – there was only one group that ever successfully threw off Roman rule and those were the German tribes on the east side of the  Rhine River.  And it was typical in that the result for those not killed in battle was crucifixion.
            By outward appearances, Jesus Christ hanging on the cross on Good Friday was no different than those miles of crucified British rebels.  After all, that is how the Jewish leaders presented him to Pontius Pilate – as a rebel.  In Luke’s Gospel they bring him to Pilate and say, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”  They were trying to say all the right things.  For if there were two things you did not do under Roman rule they were, one, interfere with their reception of taxes and two, claim some kind of independent political power.
            In all of the Gospel accounts of our Lord’s passion it becomes clear that Pilate knows this is not the real story. But Pilate too is man caught up in the workings of Roman imperial rule.  He’s a second class ruler in a second class province. He serves at the whim of the emperor and he can’t afford any serious public disorder – especially not at the time of the Passover.  The Jewish religious leaders know this and they push his buttons.  They cry out in our Gospel lesson, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”  And so Pilate acquiesces and sends Jesus to be crucified.
            From outward appearances – if, as Paul says in our text, we regard Jesus according to the flesh – he is just one more rebel crushed under the might of the Roman empire.  He is just one more tortured, pathetic figure dying on a Roman cross.
            But the apostle tells us in our epistle lesson that we no longer look at him this way.  We no longer look at him this way because we have heard the Gospel – we have heard the word of reconciliation that comes from God.
            Paul tells us in our text tonight that Jesus Christ was not hanging on the cross because he was a rebel.  Instead, he hung there because you are.  You have followed in the footsteps of your father Adam instead of your heavenly Father.  You have trespassed his command to have no other gods before him.  You have not given him thanks. You have taken his Means of Grace for granted – if you weren’t here last night, what were you doing?  You have despised the authorities placed over you or you have failed to carry out the responsibility God has given to you.  You have hated. You have lusted.  You have coveted.  You are the one who has rebelled against God.
            And in spite of this, in his love God wanted to reconcile you to himself.  He wanted to reconcile you the rebel who had trespassed and sinned against him.  He wanted to reconcile you, and yet he remains the holy and just God who punishes and destroys rebels who sin.  So God the Father sent the Son into the world in the incarnation as the Word became flesh.  He became flesh so that God could be in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
            Our Lord Jesus was not a rebel.  Instead he was the perfectly obedient Son who had walked the way from his baptism to the cross.  He was without sin – he was the righteous One.  And yet Paul tells us that in order to punish our sin and reconcile us: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
            Stop and ponder that statement for a moment: God made Christ to be sin.  That’s what happened on the cross.  The sinless One became sin because he took the place of sinners.  God the Father poured out his just wrath and punishment against sin – and he did it against his own Son in our place.  Jesus Christ called out, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” as he experienced God’s damnation in our stead.  
God did this to reconcile the world to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.  As Paul says at the beginning of our text, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died.”  Jesus Christ became sin for you.  He died on the cross for you.  He died for you.  You haven be joined to him through baptism and therefore you have died.  The punishment against your sin has been accomplished in Christ.  And because he did this on Good Friday you now have peace with God; you have been reconciled to God.
Because God has joined you to Christ through the work of the Spirit, everything has changed. Paul says in our text, “For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”  Paul tells us that Jesus died for you, so that now you can live for him.  Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection everything has changed. The apostle tells us, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
Through baptism God has made you a new creation in Christ.  The saving benefits of the cross have become yours.  The Spirit made you one for whom Christ died so that you may live. And now you no longer are to live for yourself, but instead you live for Christ who loved you and gave himself up for you.  No longer are you to regard things according to the flesh – from outward appearances.
On Good Friday we focus upon the sacrifice of Christ as he gave himself into death for us. And this should lead us to recognize that living for Christ will involve sacrifice for others.  It will mean regarding sacrifice for others as a good thing because it is a Christ-like thing. 
This makes no sense apart from Christ and what he did for us.  It will never make sense to the world.  For all the world saw on Good Friday was a rebel crushed by the Roman empire. All it saw was pathetic weakness, suffering and death.
But as Paul tells us in our text tonight, “Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.”  We have heard the Gospel, and so we know that the One on the cross has changed everything.  We know that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. We know that for our sake God made Christ to be sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. We know that Christ has died for all, therefore all have died; and that he died for us so that we who live might no longer live for ourselves but for him who for our sake died and was raised.





Culture news: When lust perverts language

In a beautifully written piece that looks at the sad results produced by the "sexual revolution," Anthony Esolen says:

It’s rather like desiring to live in a place never known to man, a half-a-jungle, or a jungle on even-numbered days and a Victorian drawing room on odd-numbered days. It cannot be. And make no mistake, a jungle it is, because lust by its very nature is cruel. The promoters of the sexual revolution thought that good will between the sexes was immutable; we could alter the conditions of their dealings with one another, and they would adjust accordingly, and they might even treat one another more honestly and humanely, once the starched-collar “rules” were dispensed with.

We should have known better. It’s never easy for men and women to admire and love, not just one exceptional member of the other sex, but the other sex generally. The triumph of undirected eros—old brute lust—has made that situation worse, and wrought a new sadness in the world. Men and women now have almost nothing kind to say about the other sex. It’s not that they don’t love one another. They don’t even like one another. The girls, I’m told, see the boys as threats—the creatures who will hurt them, drug them, and have their way with them, cajole them into bed and then dispense with them; and the boys see the girls as manipulative, hot-and-cold, quick to accuse and blame, and, frankly, emotional roller-coasters after the high winds have struck and left the soul a looped and tangled mess.

He concludes:

 For lust longs for the innocent mindlessness of the beast; and, to grasp that mindlessness, will pervert language itself, calling sex “safe” or “protected,” and cohabitation “honest,” and relationships “mutual,” which are nothing but forays into a jungle, where the strongest and most cunning survive. There is no way to make such a place habitable. The only choice is to leave it, and return to a land of love, humility, gratitude for the excellence of the other sex, and marriage.