Sunday, February 24, 2013

Economics 101 and Christianity 101

The economic challenges facing my country continued to trigger robust debate across the nation. Should we be allow the IMF policies to contract our economy, or should there be a stimulus package, a la what took place in the USA in the early days of their economic meltdown a few years ago? It there any alternative, and shouldn't the " bitter pill" have been swallowed a long time ago?  How are we going to grow our way out of this financial quagmire? These are some of the questions flying around as we seek to grapple with reality of a contracting economy and growing expectations of a better lifestyle - as promised during the campaign. And then just tonight, " the tax man cometh" is the message being sent, as we seek to establish a system where all adults will be required to declare their taxes, similar to what obtains up north in Uncle Sam's country. All of this as we try to get back to basics, to economics 10, as one well known columnist describes it,  in a take off from a well known book, which purports to make all things simple to understand.

Elsewhere in the world, sports fans in particular ,and many others, continue to follow with deep interest, the Oscar Pistoriussaga, with his shooting to death his beautiful young female companion, whether by design or by accident, a tragedy of enormous proportions. How could that ever have happened? What was he doing? What went so horribly wrong. How will her parents and family members ever recover from the shock? How will he live with himself after this? There are even reports that his coach wants him to get to training quickly! Seriously!

in the midst of that I was invited to give a talk at my church, at the start of a series shared during Lent on a Thursday, on " The Cost of Discipleship". The invitation came shortly after I had decided to read some of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's books for my Lenten Discipline, and so I took it as a cue from the Lord to share Bonhoeffer's thoughts on the matter as I understood them. I hoe it proved beneficial to those who attended. More importantly though, the preparation and continued reflection helped me to arrive at a deeper understanding of my Christian faith, my purpose in life as a sojourner on this earth, and  how I should live during the time the Lord allows me to live here. In pretty much the same way that as a people we need to understand economics 101, even more we need to understand Christianity 101. And so after the presentation, whilst playing Kalooki, last night - clearly I lost - I began to compose a letter to myself, which i finished tonight, and which  I will share with you all. in the hope that all us who are called by Christ to serve Him, may better understand what means to be " set apart" for God.

First the presentation in note form, but it should be easy to follow.



True story - decided to read books by Dietrich Bonhoeffer for my Lenten Discipline; took down Meditation on the Cross, Ethics, and The Cost of Discipleship. Then Father Tony called.

FIRST POINT:  It may be a good idea to read a book or books as part of your discipline for Lent....vs giving up or in addition to the fasting, prayers and giving of alms

I read the material that Father Tony sent, and noted the Bible references but spent most of the preparation reading and reflecting on the first of five parts of Bonhoeffer's book. The chapters in this first segment entitled " GRACE AND DISCIPLESHIP"  were , Costly Grace; The Call to Discipleship: Single-Minded Obedience; Discipleship and the Cross; Discipleship and the Individual

SECOND POINT: This presentation then is inspired by someone who paid the ultimate price for his discipleship in a  time  which has been described as one of the darkest times in the history of mankind. A time when  as Bonhoeffer understood it,  "National Socialism was a brutal attempt to made history without God and to found it  upon the strength of man alone". We are of course referring to Hitler's Nazi regime which apart from being responsible for the genocide of millions of Jews, was also  responsible for murdering many Germans who opposed them, including Bonhoeffer. A  man who was a priest, theologian and  one of the leaders of the Confessional church at that time. So we are not here dealing with a theoretical approach to a subject whichundergirds the Christian experience, but one which draws on the experience of one who struggled valiantly against evil . I wish to underscore this point, less we leave here with a better understanding of the foundation of Christian life, discipleship, but an insufficient appreciation  of the context in which it is to be applied.

Bonhoeffer begins his book in this very dramatic fashion: " Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the our Church. We are today fighting for costly grace". We are talking here about the period 1940-1945
Then he goes on to give many examples of what he means by cheap grace and costly grace. Let us listen carefully as he introduces the issue of discipleship. Listen carefully also as we locate ourselves in the mix.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness ( of sin)  without requiring repentance; baptism without church discipline; Communion without confession; absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of which a man will gladly go and sell all he has.  It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It cost God the life of his Son " Ye were bought at a price",  and what has cost  much cannot be cheap for us.

I want to share one other aspect of this part of Bonhoeffer's book  before I make the third point. He draws reference to the life of Peter, one in whom  according to Bonhoeffer's  discernment, grace and discipleship became inseparable. In the sense that at the end,  after  confessing that Christ was the Son of God, then trying to stop Jesus from going to the Cross, denying Him three times, at the end Jesus restored him to full fellowship and invited him to join the supreme fellowship of martyrdom. And so Bonhoeffer concludes, " he had received the grace which costs."
Bonhoeffer then makes the point that as Christianity spread and the Church became more secularized , the realization of the costliness of  grace gradually faded. So grace became the common property of the then Christianized world. I wish to underscore this point by drawing your attention to a quotation from  another book: Rediscovering the church Fathers: Who They were and how they shaped the church - Micheal Haykin.

" What does it mean to be Christian in a " Christian society".? As prior to Constantine becoming the Roman Emperor in 306, the lines between Christianity and the Graeco- Roman society, were sharply drawn. And, as the writer described it  very graphically, " in a certain sense the bodies of the martyrs  were the boundaries of the church". The problem which began with the Constantine era, and  no doubt bedevils the church until now, was that the church became inundated with persons who had no sense of the original purpose of Christianity - to love the Lord Jesus sacrificially even to the point of death, and to love each other as Christ loves us. And many joined up to further their own ends....

THIRD POINT:  Bonhoeffer, using Scriptural  references and drawing from the life of Martin Luther, one of the early church fathers, makes two critical points about discipleship. One that such an attachment to Christ, such a response to the call of Christ, such a deep longing to serve and know Christ, can only come by means of an appreciation that we are no longer our own but have been bought by the Blood of the Lamb - costly grace. The second point is that, is that such an appreciation of  what it means to be a disciple has resonance not only for us as individuals, but for the church in a society hostile to the concept of costly grace. A society intent on purchasing cheap grace from the church. Without naming situations we can all think of prominent issues which fall into that category

The story continues  with a treatise on obedience and discipleship. This then is how Bonhoeffer begins the section on Single-Minded Obedience.

When he was challenged by Jesus to accept a life of voluntary poverty, the rich young man knew he was faced with the simple alternative of obedience or disobedience. When Matthew was called from being a tax collector and Peter from being a fisherman, there was no doubt that Jesus meant business. Both of them were to  leave everything and follow. Again, when Peter was called to walk on the rolling sea, he had to get up and risk his life ....the forces which tried to interpose themselves between the word of Jesus and the response of obedience were as formidable then as they are today......reason and conscience, responsibility and piety all stood in the way......But the call of Jesus made short work of all these barriers, and created obedience. That call was the Word of God himself, and all that it required was single-Minded obedience.

FOURTH POINT:  In case we are wondering who can be totally obedient to Christ, as we are all sinners. Bonhoeffer offers the final response by Jesus to the story of the rich man being unable to enter the kingdom of God. Who then can be saved asks the disciples? And Jesus looking upon them said unto them, With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. So then we delve briefly into another aspect of discipleship - single minded obedience,  a feature of the Christian life, not of our own making but of the grace of God.
And so Bonhoeffer ends this section with the parting words.  Salvation through following Jesus is not something we men can achieve for ourselves - but with God all things are possible.

The story continues: And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again....mark 8:31
This is how Bonhoeffer begins his section on Discipleship and the Cross. And so he continues...." here the call to follow is closely connected with Jesus' prediction of his passion. Jesus must suffer and be rejected. .....To die on the cross means to die despised and rejected of men. Suffering and rejection are laid on Jesus as a divine necessity, and every attempt to prevent it is the work of the devil, especially when it comes to his own disciples......It is Peter, the Rock of the Church, who commits that sin, immediately after he has confessed Jesus as the Messiah ...This shows that the very notion of  a suffering Messiah was a scandal to the Church, even in its earliest days...Peter's protest displays his own unwillingness to suffer, and that means that Satan has gained entry into the Church, and is trying to tear it away from the cross of its Lord. We must ask the same question in Jamaica in there anything in our personal lives or in our church life which is trying to tear us away from the cross and the call to suffering and rejection?
Jesus must therefore make it clear beyond all doubt that the " must" of suffering applies to his disciples no less than to himself. Just as Christ is Christ only in virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord's suffering and rejection and crucifixion. Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.
Very importantly Bonhoeffer makes the point that Jesus sets his disciples free to choose or reject him.....If any man would come after me....And also that to deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ and no more of self, and to see only him who goes before us and no more of the road which is too hard for us....The cross is laid on every we embark upon we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death - we give over our lives to death..when Christ calls a man he bids him comes an die.

FIFTH POINT    BONHOEFFER  in closing this section makes the point  that " discipleship is not limited to what you can comprehend - it must transcend all comprehension, and invites us to plunge deep into waters beyond our comprehension. As this issue of suffering and rejection is beyond the understanding of most if not all of us. But this is what Jesus calls us to do. And further says, Do  not be afraid, trust in God, trust also in me. 

Through the call of Jesus men and women become calling us he has cut us off from all immediacy with the things of this world.  And so Bonhoeffer quotes Luke about,  " if any cometh unto me, and hateth not his own father, and mother, and wife and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea  and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.

He wants to be center, through him alone all things must pass. He stands between us and God and for that very reason he stands between us and other men and things. He is the mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, and between man and reality. He goes on...The call of Jesus teaches us that our relation to the world has been built on a illusion. All the time we thought that we had enjoyed a direct relation with men and things. This is what had hindered us from faith and obedience. Now we learn that in the most intimate relationships of life, in our kinship with father and mother, brothers and sisters, in married love, and in our duty to the community, direct relationships are impossible
Abraham became a stranger and a sojourner in order to gain the promised land. This was his first call. Later on he was called by God to offer his own son Isaac as a sacrifice. Christ had come between the father of faith and the child of promise. This time the direct relationship not only of flesh and blood, but also of the spirit, must be broken. Abraham must learn that the promise does not depend on Isaac, but on God alone.
It is not for us to choose  which way we shall follow. That depends on the will of Christ. But this least is certain: in one way or the other we shall have to leave the immediacy of the world and become individuals, whether secretly or openly.
But the  same Mediator who makes us individuals is also the founder of a new fellowship. He stands in the center between my neighbor and myself. He divides but he also unites. Thus although the direct way to our neighbor is barred, we now find the new and only real way to him - the way which passes through the Mediator

SIXTH AND FINAL POINT - BONHOEFFER  addresses an issue which is near and dear to us. Christ and our family members. Christ and the community. Christ and our political party., I dare say Christ and our favourite denomination. Christ and our nation. To whom do we pledge first allegiance? is not the real question. That's too easy to say and quite often very hard to do. The deeper question is have we realized that we cannot really  truly love wife and husband, child and community, church members and nation, as Christians, unless we first become disciples of Christ

I close with some challenging words, not from the  end of Bonhoeffer's book, but from the introduction
Revival of Church life always brings in its train a richer understanding of the Scriptures.....there arises a more determined quest for him who is the object of it all, for Jesus Christ himself. What did Jesus mean to say to us? What is his will for us today? How can we be good Christians in the modern world.
and some words from another book, the one I quoted about the founding fathers of he church, also words of introduction which place this story by about Bonhoeffer's book into perspective.
The Fathers are not Scripture. They are senior conversation partners about Scripture and its meaning. We listen to them respectfully, but are not afraid to disagree when they err.
I hope that you have listened carefully to my story about one such father of the church who carried his cross even to death in a prison just before the Allied forces arrived in Germany. And who to me was a supreme example of what is means to be a disciple.

The Letter to myself.

I have been pondering on Thursday's Lenten devotion inspired by Bonhoeffer's, " The Cost of Discipleship".

And I now realize that there are only two great issues in life. One to understand that life is all about understanding that we have a renewed relationship with our Father in heaven, only because of the costly grace manifested on the Cross of Calvary. The other is how to ensure that such a costly grace is manifest in every aspect of our lives here on earth, in preparation for eternal life with our Redeemer in heaven, Christ our Savior. And which manifestation cannot happen without suffering and rejection in this world, of one sort or another, according to God's will and purpose, for the sake of righteousness.

The mystery, and the joy which is present even amidst the suffering, is that this is the way that God has ordained that the world will be rescued. We therefore have to manifest this costly grace, with love,  to all with whom we come in contact, on the one hand. And be in deep and constant intercession for the souls of even those we have not met, on the other hand. No one is to be ignored or cast away or rejected, not even the vilest sinner, as costly grace is for them too.

Finally, for those of us in a leadership position, it must be our life's quest to help all our brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus to understand the profound importance of costly grace.
For all of which we give thanks to our Lord and Savior, in whom and through whom, this grace has not only been manifested, but through whom the Spirit of truth and power to obey has come.

It is in this context then that we love, care for and work with, those who God in His mercy and wisdom has blessed us with to enjoy special relations - wife, husband, children, grandchildren and other family members; close friends; colleagues at work; neighbours in a community; church family; and those with whom we interact in a nation and across nations. But all our relationships are to be  worked out in the context of our being " bought at the price of the  Blood of Christ", are therefore we are not to fall into the trap of setting up " idols" before God. A challenge for anyone living in this modern, materialistic and highly individualistic age. For in the final analysis, as Abraham found out, " God is our ( only )  shield, and our
 ( only) very great reward. Genesis 15:1 NIV

In this context then of being " bought by the Blood of the Lamb", do we  put the Kingdom of God first on our priority list, and all things will come after. " For the kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved my men. And so we work with the rest of the community, within and across nations, to reduce, if not eliminate violence in the homes, violence against women, violence against children, violence against all those made in the image and likeness of the God who rescued us, and redeemed us with the Blood of only Son. And in like measure we work with others to eradicate poverty, to fight injustice wherever and whenever it raises its ugly head, because we too , like the children of Israel who once slaves in Egypt and were rescued by God, we too were slaves to our own lusts and passions, are were " rescued " by the shed Blood of the Lamb of God. In this respect the opening words of Ephesians chapter 2 are very graphic and essential to our understanding of the issue of costly grace:
" As for, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit which is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the the cravings of our sinful nature, and following its desires and thoughts. like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. but because of his great love for us, God who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions - it is by grace you have been saved." Ephesians 1: 1-5 NIV

It is in this context then that we enjoy the best of what God has provided for us in music - last night we were listening to the ballads Cynthia Schloss on KLASFM89, a far cry from Tommie Lee and his demons which " run things" in the dancehall now, and a far cry from the slackness which purports to Soca music on the streets today - and enjoy the best of what God has given us in Literature and film, in Sports and in theater.
It is in this context of , " For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power", the kind of power that God exhibited on the first Easter, when He raised Jesus from the dead, and  which we have been given in and through the Holy Spirit, that we fight valiantly against all evil, and against every power that sets up itself against the will of God. And so we pray without ceasing and work will our might to rescue our people and our loved ones from temptations of sexual immorality, of greed, of anger, of malice, of ignorance about the things of God, of the desire to vilify the church, to misrepresent the teachings of the church, to persecute the church and to ignore the living God, if that were at all possible.
Finally it is in this context, of being " set apart by Christ" that we love all we meet, without being influenced by status or physical attributes or colour or creed or denominational or party preference, and pray that they too will accept God's costly grace, and " seek to enter by the narrow door", before the "owner of the house closes the door". So that they may not hear those terrible words, when they plead for the door to be opened, because they were so taken up, and distracted by  joys of the flesh and the very many offerings of this world, "  I don't know you or where you come from". Luke 14: 24-25 NIV

I pray God, that He who gives freely, the power to obey Him, and to remain in Christ our Savior when we ask, and knock and seek, will respond to the longings of the hearts of those to whom Jesus promised " theirs is the kingdom of heaven", because they were poor in spirit - understood their poverty before God, and ultimately the the joy of costly grace. And which topic, the Beatitudes, is the subject of another segment in Bonhoeffer's book. So we shall see how God continues with Christianity 101.

Praise God.
There is really nothing else to ponder in life.
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device from LIME.