Sunday, March 29, 2009

Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God: Thank God for Jesus

During the period of Lent in my church, each Thursday is devoted to Lenten devotions, during which someone, usually a priest, makes a presentation on one aspect of a Theme for the year. This year the Theme is; " To Know, To Live, To Share the Faith: My Responsibility.
On Thursday last, I was asked to share my thoughts on one aspect of the Theme - To Live the Faith. And God who is always ahead of us, and knew that I certainly could not stand up in front of the congregation and presume, as one who is constantly battling with my own spiritual deficiencies, to tell people how to live the Christian Faith, provided me with great help. From a book I have been led to read during Lent. ETHICS by Dietrich Bonhoeffer – German Theologian (1906-1945).
I have great admiration for this German pastor. Why? A friend, and member of this Ministry, who is a great cultural icon in my country, assisted me in recalling an old Jamaican proverb.

" If fish go a river bottom and tell you say shark dung dey, believe him".

Which, when properly translated and explained, means that, the views of one who has great familiarity with a given situation ought to be highly regarded. In the sense that this pastor, this theologian, whose faith in Christ led him to return to Germany and oppose the Nazis, when others were leaving, and who was eventually hanged, in my view, his perspective ought to be highly regarded So as I shared with my church family, I now share with my wider Internet Family, most of whom are not members of the Anglican church, and in fact some are not Christians at all. But I pray that through this, and, or, any other medium that God chooses, we who are committed to Christ may be renewed, and that others may come to know and love our Blessed Saviour.

Bonhoeffer's perspective, is greatly influenced by one of the key moments in the Biblical revelation about Creation as told in the book of Genesis.

The man is become as one of us, to know good and evil,” says God. Gen. 3:22
As a result, as we will see, as his argument develops, such knowledge led to DISUNION with God. Ultimately, Bonhoeffer asserts, †RECONCILIATION, with God, the correction of this DISUNION, is only possible in and through JESUS CHRIST

Therefore, in this context, the first point I made was that, in order to live out one's faith, we need to have a clear, and doctrinally accurate, understanding of such a faith. Which then led to the first question and a proposed answer based on Bonhoeffer's arguments ( which in effect are all reminders, taken from the Scriptures, but shared with great clarity and therefore allows for a better appreciation)

Question : What is our understanding of the faith?
Answer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. “ …..Yet not my will but thy will be done”
†Living the faith is essentially to carry out God’s will?

Here Bonhoeffer draws on Jesus' declaration in another garden - Gethsemane - when He faced His greatest temptation, from Satan, to let the cup of sorrow and pain bypass Him, to bypass the Cross of Calvary. And Jesus in the midst of His greatest test, responded with these life changing words, which are part of The Lord's prayer which He Himself, through His disciples, taught all mankind.
So the next question in our search for an answer to the question of how does one live out the Christian faith, according to Bonhoeffer, has to be: †How does one determine God’s will and how do we carry out God’s will?

It is here now that we get an insight into that momentous decision taken by Adam and Eve to listen to Satan and ignore the Word of God, which is what started all the trouble for mankind.
" Did God really say "You must not eat from any tree in the garden"?
And which temptation, Jesus, when faced in the wilderness , each time responded by quoting the Word of God - remember " man shall not live by bread alone...." in response to the temptation to turn stones into bread and satisfy Jesus' hunger.
So they both ate and came to know good and evil.

Bonhoeffer then declares, in a entire chapter devoted to this subject, and which arguments, I have reduced to bullets points that :

Man at his origin knew only one thing: God
It is only in the unity of his knowledge of God that he knows of other men, of things of himself
He knows all things only in God, and God in all things
In knowing good and evil he knows only himself and no longer knows God: for he can know God, only if he knows only God.
The knowledge of Good and Evil is therefore separation from God
Man’s life is now in disunion with God, with men, with things and with himself.

Two points: Although the assertions are self explanatory, this perspective on the Genesis account of Creation, for me, is one of the most important lessons that all Christians need to appreciate. And even more so for non-Christians. For unless we appreciate this fundamental difference between " Original Sin" which is really separation from God, DISUNION with God - the root, and, "sins" the manifestation - the shoots - of this first act of rebellion, and on which both Christians and more so non-Christians place so much emphasis, we will never understand the extent of God's love in sending His Son ( He Himself taking on human form) Jesus to die for all mankind. For this perspective, this truth, destroys all the myths about people living a " good life" and going to meet with St. Peter and then God in heaven. This truth properly explains, and thereby counters, and hopefully placates the anger of so many, that the Christian faith is exclusive, and even arrogant, in ( its) the claim of our Blessed Saviour that, " No man cometh unto the Father except through me". But as we shall see this truth, properly understood, provides a real basis for loving Jesus, and not for some of the " commercial reasons" that abound, and which kind of love has no power to change a society and provide the " abundant life" promised by Jesus, but on account of what took place on the Cross of Calvary.
Secondly, this perspective, this truth, also offers an explanation for our abuse of the environment, a very current issue; the reason for so many problems with intimate and social relationships -the domestic violence, the rate of divorce, the breakdown in family life, the murder, the rape, the disregard for the poor and the powerless; and, because of, even our lack of understanding of self in the wider scheme of life.

Following Bonhoeffer's train of thought, our next stop in this journey, is, if we were separated from God, in DISUNION with God and have decided to accept Christ's offer of salvation, and become RECONCILED with God and wish to live out our Christian faith by carrying out God's will, the next step is to Prove, and Discern God's and then to do God's Will. And so Bonhoeffer argues, again in an entire section that:

PROVING – not intuition; not the voice of the heart; not obvious; not system of rules. Only on the basis of metamorphosis- an overcoming of the form of fallen man, Adam and conformation with the new man Christ. Proved- because it is new every morning
DOING – Only in doing can there be submission to the will of God.
“ Without me ye can do nothing”.

One of the great challenges that Bonhoeffer issues to the people of God, in essence, is a caution to subject, what we may believe to be a " prophetic" word from God, to the sternest testing. As not every voice one hears in one's head is necessarily the voice of God. And which ( often false ).
belief has , and continues to, cause immeasurable damage to church life, relationships and how others regard the church. Also that this proving of God's will is to be sought anew every day. Thirdly, proving God will, without actually Doing God's will, does not help us to live the faith. Finally, again, without Christ's Spirit transforming us into a " new man", by metamorphosis, and without Christ doing His work through us, we cannot live out the faith.

Which then brings us to the next point - Love. The main attribute of the God who we serve, and whose faith we are intent on living out. And which attribute though immortalized in song as a " many splendored thing", in Spiritual terms, is a most misunderstood thing, with grave consequences for all. As, not just Bonhoeffer, he only reminds us, but the Scriptures declare that : " Without love it profiteth us nothing". So the argument continues:

LOVING – Without love everything falls apart. With love everything is pleasing to God. “ If I have the gift of prophecy….all faith…body to be burned…bestow all my gifts to the poor…and have not love it profiteth me nothing. What is love? Bible –
“God is love” ; only he who knows God knows what love is…..unless God reveals Himself to him….Jesus is the revealed of Love of God. Love is therefore the reconciliation of man with God in Christ. Disunion is at an end

Praise God then, because of love, Disunion is at an end. So love in Christian terms is not just the emotions one feels for those in need, or those in grief, or the sick or our brothers and sisters in Church, but is in fact the revealed love of God acting in and through us by the power of Christ's Spirit. That's what happened on the Cross of Calvary: God's revealed love destroying " Original Sin" - DISUNION and death, and providing the basis for the forgiveness all sins. That's the only kind of love that can fulfill God's command to love not only those who love us, as even the pagans do that, but to love those who persecute us, who revile us and say all kinds of things about us. Only in Christ then, can we truly live our faith.
Finally, perhaps the most important issue of all in this quest to live out our faith. To know our faith is one thing. To prove the faith and be determined to act is another. To understand that we have to do all of of this in love, is still another issue, but how, is the final question. So Bonhoeffer continues, and I continue to offer a precis of these weighty arguments .

Christ is the only giver of forms.
†It is not achieved by “ dint of effort” to become like Jesus
†It is not Christian men who shape the world with their ideas, but it is Christ who shapes men in conformity with Himself
†“ During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers… the one who could save him from death…..reverent submission

†….though he was a son he learned obedience from what he suffered”. Heb.5:7-8
†The church is not a religious community of worshippers of Christ but is Christ Himself.
†What matters in the Church is not religion but the form of Christ and its taking its form among a band of men and women
†It is a mystery for which there is no explanation that only a part of mankind recognize their Redeemer

A couple of points as we contemplate this final issue of " the form of Christ". The essence of the Christian faith can be summed up in a famous passage in the book of Galatians: " I have been crucified in Christ, nevertheless I live. Yet not I but Christ who lives in me".
In order for us to live out the faith we have to come to this understanding, and ask in deep and constant prayer, in the same way that Jesus - in his days on earth prayed, with loud cries and tears - that the Spirit of Christ may be formed in us. For if our Blessed Lord prayed so fervently, that His life - as one who was fully man, yet was without sin - may be one with His Father - and therefore not be given over to death, which is the fate of all mankind who continue to live in the flesh, in the original state of Disunion, then how much more should, we sinful mankind, be fervent in our prayers that the Spirit of Christ may live in us. I pause in the journey, almost at the end now, to reflect, in this context, on a passage from Romans, which is very germane to this issue of living by the flesh, and which I have been led to reflect on time and time again this week.

" Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of the sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life, and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.
You, however are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. But if the Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit id alive because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you." Romans 8:5-11 NIV

Also, what is true for the individual, is equally so for the collective church - that the church being the body of Christ, the Spirit of Jesus now lives and acts through a believing and obedient church. A fact, a truth which has profound possibilities for the renewal of a society in which the church really exists, regardless of the numbers. Just this week I read a meditation in which John Wesley, whose team of men famously transformed English society so profoundly in his time, declared that :
" Give me a hundred men who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I will shake the world.".
And a similar declaration by God to Abraham came into my mind : " If I find fifty righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.......For the sake of ten I will not destroy it". Gen. 26&32. NIV
Finally, one of the great mysteries in the world is why we who are in the church, recognize our Redeemer - Jesus Christ - and why others, for whom He is equally their Redeemer too ( " For God so loved the world.....) have failed to acknowledge Him. Regardless of this sad mystery, what is not in dispute is our mandate to tell, all who live in this world, about the good news of the gospel of Christ, wrought on the Cross of Calvary. That in Him , everybody has been reconciled to God - murderer, thief, the corrupt, the greedy, the profane, the wicked, the drunkard, the atheist, the adulterers, the persecutor of Christians, the Jews, the Muslims, all. All they need to do is to acknowledge their sinfulness before God and accept His gift ( not free, as someone died) of salvation.

So in living out our faith let us:

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of our faith……Hebrews 12:2 NIV
†Without me, ye can do nothing John 15:5
†It is God who works in you to will and act according to his good purpose. Phil. 2:13

Let us follow the hymn writer who wrote these words from " The Old Rugged Cross" and declare that:

Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to thy cross I cling.
Naked: come to you for dress.
Helpless: look to you for grace.
Foul: I to the fountain fly.
Wash me Saviour lest I die

And finally declare that we love Jesus because:

My God I love thee, not because
I hope for heaven thereby
Nor yet because who love thee not
Are lost eternally

Thou, O my Jesus, thou didst me
Upon the Cross embrace;
For me didst bear the nails and the spear,
And manifold disgrace

And griefs and torments numberless,
And sweat of agony;
Yea, death itself –and all for me
Who was thine enemy

Then why, O blessed Jesu Christ,
Should I not love thee well?
Not for the sake of winning heaven
Nor of escaping hell

Not for the sake of gaining aught
Nor seeking a reward;
But as thyself has loved me,
O ever-living Lord

So I would love thee, dearest Lord
And in thy praise will sing;
Solely because thou art my God
And my most loving King

Then we will be truly be able with power to live out the faith.

In summary:

†In the beginning Man knew only God, and all things through Him
†In direct disobedience to God’s Word, Man came to know good and evil
†Such knowledge led to separation and disunion.
†Disunion can only be corrected by reconciliation in and through Christ

†To be in Christ means to die to the old self and to undergo metanoia by the power of the Holy Spirit and to have the Spirit of Christ formed in us – new every day.
†Only then can we prove and carry out God’s will
†Only then can we claim confidently to be Living the Faith, as Christ lives in us to carry out His Father’s will – to Love God and neighbour as we love ourselves