2 Important Questions

detail from Caravaggio's "Conversion of St Paul" 1600

detail from Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St Paul” 1600

 

Questions are vital for living and growing faith.  We need to understand truth.  We need to wrestle with mystery.  We need to be able to confess what we believe.  For all that asking questions are necessary.

Oftentimes, however, our questions about faith , God, the Bible, etc. become means by which we avoid answers and with them the commitments they require.  To ask God something costs us nothing.   To embrace an answer may cost us everything.

While every question can be valid and most can be beneficial, there are two questions which I have always found to be the most profound.  Perhaps they are the two most important questions we can ever ask.  They certainly are the most costly.

They’re contained in a re-telling of one of the Bible’s greatest stories (certainly one of the most impacting for me).  It is the story of Paul’s conversion from enemy of Christianity to disciple of Jesus.  It’s a story so important it’s told three times in Scripture.

In the second recounting, Paul is speaking a large crowd, presumably full of their own objections to the message of the Gospel.  He tells of how he was struck down by the blinding light, saw the risen Jesus, and was forever changed.  It’s response here that is most compelling, namely, the two questions he asks.

Who are you, Lord?  He needs to make sense of what is happening to him.  He is seeing Jesus for the first time accurately.  The identity of Jesus of Nazareth is a question of the highest importance.  It isn’t of some marginal interest.  If Jesus is the Christ, God in the flesh, the Savior of the world then who He is will be the most important thing you’ll ever learn.  Many people never ask this question.  They never read His words for themselves or seek to understand His claims.  They often assume that He is like _____, or must be ______, and so project on Him their own desires or ideals.  But Jesus is His own man and He is who He is.  To find out who He really is one of the most explosive truths we can ever hope to grasp.  And it is costly because it leads to a further question…

What shall I do, Lord?  Remember that moments ago, Paul (then Saul) was one of early Christianity greatest opponents.  When he realized the identity of Jesus, he knew that if it were true, he must give his entire life to Him and His purposes.  To know the Lord is to seek to serve Him.  Jesus of Nazareth gave up His life and died to save those who will believe.  Salvation is a  free gift but paradoxically it costs us.  If Jesus paid the price for us than there is nothing that He can not ask of us.  What do you want me to do?  That in essence is Paul’s first response to learning who Jesus is.  It is the most appropriate response.  

Who are you, Lord?  What shall I do, Lord?  These are arguable the most important questions that can ever be asked.  Answering them honestly is the gateway to discipleship.

 

The Ministry of the Word

"St Peter Preaching the Gospel in the Catacombs"  by Jan Styka, 1902

“St Peter Preaching the Gospel in the Catacombs” by Jan Styka, 1902

The ministry of the Word looks laughably weak in comparison to all the armies, nuclear weapons stockpiles, and financial markets of the world.  Yet their combined powers cannot change the human heart.  

Kevin Vanhoozer (KJV), Remythologizing Theology

A God Too Big to Hold

There’s a fallacy afoot that says ‘if I can’t understand it, than it can not be true’.  Many objections and much questioning of the Christian faith find their basis here.  Even those who are Christian sometimes make their own ability to grasp something the measure of it’s value or truthfulness.

How can God be both One and Three?

How can Jesus be both God and Man (not half and half)?

How can a good God allow, permit, ordain suffering and evil?

How can what Adam did way back when have consequences for human nature now?

These are all valid questions but the truth of the answers to them is not dependant on whether we can grasp the immensity.  (They’re also not dependant on whether we like the answers)  But we’re not called first to exhaustively understand but to believe and confess. The truth is that God is too big to hold.  We need lots of words and thought to try and understand but even in our best and most faithful efforts we must find Him as He is.  And the true God is too immense for our knowledge.  This should free us from the “if I can’t get it, it can’t be true” position.  Or using Cornelius Van Til’s analogy “if my net can’t catch it, it must not be fish.”  The truth is that some fish are far too big for our nets.  What we can know of God is immense and so we must be confident to speak of Him in clear ways.  But even then the nets are bursting. fish in net

Horror of the “Same Old Thing”

screwtapeThe real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’. You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing . . .

-Screwtape (C S Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, letter 25)

ISIS, Martyrdom, Fear, and the Hope of Christ

Screen grab from Al-Jazeera television.

Screen grab from Al-Jazeera television.

Yesterday, ahead of the weekly sermon, I said a few words about recent events where 21 Egyptians were beheaded on a beach in Libya.  The executioners were ISIS affiliates.  The victims were self-identified Christians.  It is important that we face and at least try to address some current issues from the viewpoint of those who embrace the Gospel.  Here is a paraphrase of what I shared on Sunday:

 

We are trying, in addition to preaching, to make some brief pastoral commentary on issues that are current in our world.  This week, on a beach in Libya, 21 Egyptians were beheaded by ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State.  Many of us will have known of this through the news.  This is not new or the only such event but because of the imagery it serves as emblematic of such violence happening these days.  So for a few minutes, I’d like to just comment on that.

ISIS – I’d like to say a few words about ISIS.  They are a group that is motivated by their religious ideology and they believe that they are brining history to its conclusion.  They are not just a bunch of “wackos” but are acting upon a very coherent view of the world and of their own actions.  I’ll post (Graeme Wood, The Atlantic) probably the best article I’ve found on their background and beliefs.  It’s not a politically driven article, neither is it from a polarizing magazine.  If you’re interested you should read it.  It is difficult in our culture, being couched in comfort and secularism as we all are, to believe in such things.  But as Christians, we have a basis and foundation for belief in real evil – even religious evil.  ISIS is without doubt an example of a deeply religious evil.

*  Of course, it needs to be said that most Muslims in Canada are our friends and neighbours.  Also, most Muslims in the world can live in peace with us.  Most victims of ISIS are Muslims.  We need to remember our friends and neighbours both locally and globally and to pray for their prosperity, peace, and safety.

 

VICTIMS – A few words now about the victims of this event.  They were Egyptian Coptic Christians who practice a very different version of Christianity than us.  But they were killed because of their association with Christ – they died because they would not renounce Him.  This  makes them martyrs and martyrdom is not new.  If we’ve forgotten the call to follow Christ often involves this than we must allow a rebuke to fall upon us.  We have too much comfort, too much secular influence.

US –  So what about us?  When we watch or read of such events, I think we either go numb or feel shaken.  Neither of those is good.  I’m going to pray for us in moment – to be strengthened – to be faithful.  ISIS deliberately wants us to feel they are in charge of history.  This is their religious motivation.  Our own secularized culture wants us to understand this as something else; merely political or some other social phenomena.  We must not go numb and we must not be shaken or give in to fear.  So I will say one more thing that will correct us, comfort us, anchor us.

THE LORD – Our confession is that it is the Lord, the Triune God, who is in charge of history.  And Jesus is the Lord, the King of world, the Lord of all the Earth.  His way is justice, peace, love.  His way only looks weak, but in fact He is strong.  There is a conclusion to history and He will bring it – no other.  ISIS is not in charge of history, Jesus is.  As Christians we confess Him and while we can not predict how or when the conclusion to history will come, we must have hope in our confession.  We can have real hope.  The last book of our Bible was written to give us hope and to show us that Christ is the Master of History.  There are many interpretations to that last book but if we read Revelation and don’t find hope and confidence – we’re reading it wrong.  The Lord is in charge – no other.

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So we must have confidence in our confession and we must pray.

We must pray for mercy for our enemies.  This is what Jesus commanded and taught us to do.

We must also pray for God’s justice to come.  This is equally part of New Testament teaching.  (O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood…)  

We must pray for all our neighbours (in mind here are Muslims locally and globally) for peace and safety for them.

We must pray for all those who suffer for the sake of association with Jesus.  Their suffering and even death teaches and sometimes rebukes us.  We must pray for strength and faith for them.  We can also pray for their safety and peace.

For ourselves we must pray against fear and complacency.  And pray for confidence in our confession that Jesus is the Master of History and the Lord of all the Earth.

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For more on this issue:

What ISIS Really Wants – Graeme Wood, The Atlantic.  Wood writes a very lengthy analysis into the beliefs of ISIS and how they differ from other forms of Islam.  This article is vital if one wants to understand the headlines.

The Briefing from February 18, 2015 – Dr Al Mohler (audio).  Al Mohler is a Baptist theologian who addresses the recent beheadings on his daily podcast.  His commentary is helpful.

A Biblical Meditation on the ISIS execution of 21 Christians – Tom Schreiner.  Schreiner gives some Scriptural reflections on the recent events.

Misguided Compassion, the “Right” to Die, and the Christian Response

Heart Rate

This past Sunday, I took a few moments to make some commentary on the recent decision by our Supreme Court to strike down the ban on physician assisted suicide.  Here is a rough paraphrase of what I touched upon.

 

We have been trying to make some brief commentaries about current issues during our gatherings.  And so before I begin my sermon I’d like to make a few comments about the recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in which they struck down the ban on assisted suicide.

Maybe you didn’t know about it, maybe you didn’t care, maybe you were troubled by it, maybe you’re wondering why it’s a big deal.

It needs to be said that this decision, and the public support behind it, is motivated by compassion.  There are many people suffering in our country and it is right and compassionate to want to end suffering.  Compassion is good but in this issue the compassion is seriously misguided.

We must all seek to diminish suffering.  The classic Christian moral tradition, which we inherit, has always asserted that we must never eliminate suffering by eliminating the sufferer.  This is because every life is precious, worthy of protection, not because of conditions or circumstances but just because it is a human life.

We should be concerned for several reasons:

1)  That this “right” will soon become an obligation.  Sufferers may soon face pressure to make what some will consider the “brave choice”.  Likewise, those who choose to continue living may be increasingly seen as being a burden.

2)  Christianity has always looked out for the most vulnerable of our society.  For us, these are namely the aged, the mentally ill, the marginalized, and the disabled.  We are promised safeguards for physician assisted suicide but the terms are vague, subjective, and do not inspire confidence.  The most vulnerable among us may well be placed in a precarious situation.

3)  When the door to this kind of death is opened, we have no way to stop where it may go.  This concern is often dismissed as a ‘slippery slope argument’ but we need only look to some places in Europe – Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark – to see what abuses are already occurring.

4)  Finally, we should be concerned that other avenues for alleviating suffering such as investment in hospice care and palliative research will be diminished.  These have only just begun to be explored.

We also have a different resource than some of our neighbours for resisting this false compassion.  We have a framework into which we can place the virtue of compassion.  We believe and follow God, the Author of all life.  We believe in the Gospel – the Good News of Jesus which makes us His people.  This Gospel message gives us every resource we need to live in times such as these.  It may be that in the years to come, those who stand for a culture of life will sound increasingly like a voice crying in the wilderness.  But we ought not to be troubled, we have been appointed to live in times like these.  The age we live in, with all its confusion and troubles, is a gift to us.  It gives us a chance to live like saints in the midst of society.  So let’s be firm, not be troubled, and hear the call to live like saints in our world and in our neighbourhoods.  And let us always stand for life.

For more commentary:

Why Assisted Suicide Will Put Canada’s Most Vulnerable At Risk – Steve Swan (yours truly), CBC

Our Euthanasia Point of No Return – Father Raymond J. de Souza

A Very Dangerous Euthanasia Ruling – Alex Schadenberg

Crossing the Rubicon, Supreme Court seems eerily complacent about ramifications of assisted suicide ruling – Andrew Coyne

Bruce Clemenger on 100 Huntley Street (video) – Bruce Clemenger of the EFC

 

 

The True Opiate of the Masses

Religion, opium for the people. To those suffering pain, humiliation, illness, and serfdom, it promised a reward in an afterlife. And now we are witnessing a transformation. A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death—the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murders we are not going to be judged.
-Czeslaw Milosz