Inviting the Needy

Just a few weeks ago we gathered with family and/or friends for Christmas and perhaps New Years. Such times are usually full of joy in the light of our Lord Jesus. However, we might be ignoring our Lord’s instruction on whom we should include at our dinner gatherings.

Jesus was a guest at a Sabbath dinner held by a ruler of the Pharisees. A man with dropsy entered the dinner and went to Jesus for healing. Of course, Jesus healed him but the Pharisees did not care for that needy man. They were more interested in finding an honorable place at the table, enjoying a dinner with friends of the upper crust, and looking forward to inviting these friends to their homes. It was clear to Jesus that these men were proud of their place in Jewish society and looked down upon the financially poor and physically broken. Poor and handicapped people were just not their kind, and not worth their time at a dinner.

Our Lord spoke to these haughty men and instructed them to have feasts that include people whom they knew were poor or handicapped in some way. These words are for us, and are worth meditating on.

Surely our Lord is not forbidding us to have wonderful holiday dinners with family and friends. But He is telling us that forgetting to invite needy people to our homes is wrong. Except by the grace of our Lord, we could be poor or greatly afflicted. Just as our Lord has been gracious to us, He calls us to be gracious to those who are struggling in some way. Our homes are places of love and care for those who suffer in some way.

So, let us invite to our homes fellow Christians who are poor or struggling with bodily afflictions. Also, let us invite neighbors and others we rub shoulders with, who are not only broken physically but are also broken spiritually. Such care for needy people takes place with these two attitudes: being humble before all people and being content with not receiving return gifts from needy people.

When all is said and done, our Lord promises to bless us at the resurrection and eternally provide for us in the New Heavens and New Earth. When we feast there, we may well see some of those needy people whom we invited to our homes. After all, we are all needy people whom Jesus invited to His table.

{ You can read this story in Luke 14.1-24. }

Darkness and Light, Part 1: Everyone Lives in One of Two Spiritual Places

Do you put people into categories of two? For instance, do you label a devout Christian as a “believer” and one who is not a Christian as an “unbeliever.” Also, do you sometimes describe a person who believes in God as “spiritual”, then describe a person who doesn’t believe in God as “secular.” If you do, and this is your spiritual view of someone, then you are left saying that the wickedness around you is due to people being unbelievers with a secular outlook on life. While such double categories can be helpful in some ways, they don’t give us a deep spiritual understanding of people, or our selves. Only our Lord Jesus can open our eyes to see what is really going on in peoples’ hearts.

Jesus deepens our understanding with his words recorded in John 12.46: I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. Our Lord knew that there were Jews abiding in spiritual darkness. He came as a spiritual light to bring them out of their darkness. The Apostle Paul realized that he and many Gentiles had been brought out from spiritual darkness into the light of Christ’s kingdom. Paul explained this to the new Christians at Colosse: He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son… Colossians 1.13

When we put together John 12.46 and Colossians 1.13, we realize that our Lord brings people who are in darkness into His kingdom which is full of light. This helps us understand that there is no such thing as spiritual neutrality. Every human being lives in one of these two spiritual places: the kingdom of darkness ruled by the devil or the kingdom of light ruled by our Lord Jesus.

The great tragedy of our day is that many people in America are in the kingdom of darkness. No wonder our nation is in chaos!

{ The next post will be: What Living in Darkness Means }

Chesterton’s Tribute to Mothers

G. K. Chesterton can create a whole world in a paragraph.  In this excerpt from his 1910 book What’s Wrong with the World, this great mind gave us his vision of a mother at home.  It is not a common vision in our young century.  But perhaps his hundred-year-old words will help us see some things we can do to get this world on track.  Here is what he saw, and wrote.

To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets, cakes and books; to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute. I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.

NO EXPERTS IN THE GOSPEL

(Revised version of a sermon preached on November 2, 2014.)

Four-hundred and ninety-nine years ago this Saturday, Martin Luther nailed his disputation on the castle door in Wittenburg.  What was it all about?  It was about the plain truth that just as saints still struggle with sin, the Church still struggles to rightly preach and practice the gospel.  Luther’s efforts to restore the gospel to the Roman Catholic Church arose when he saw the Church’s failure to rightly preach and practice the gospel.

It is important to remember that Luther had first-hand experience with the Church’s confusion over the gospel. He had tried to practice what the church preached about forgiveness of sin, and found no peace with God.  After his discovery of salvation by grace through faith, he confronted the Church with its failure to rightly preach and practice the gospel.

Here’s how that came about.  Albert of Brandenburg, was a son of one of the noble families in Germany and an elector of the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He also served in the Church as bishop of Magdeburg.  In those days the pope would raise money for his enterprises by charging fees to noblemen who wanted a church office.  Albert was offered a chance to be bishop of Mainz, and he wanted that office.  So he negotiated with Pope Leo X who settled with him on the price of 10,000 ducats.  Albert had to borrow the money for this fee and related expenses.  Pope Leo agreed to a plan to help Albert pay this debt through the sale of indulgences in Albert’s territory.  For 8 years.  Half of the proceeds would go to Albert to pay off his debt, and the other half to Pope Leo to help finance his work on the basilica of St Peter’s.

Albert was Luther’s own bishop.  Luther probably didn’t know the details of the arrangement, but probably knew that half the indulgence income would go to Albert.  It wasn’t just the financial aspect that troubled Luther. Indulgences were originally imposed to spur the penitent to be truly contrite.  But the Church redefined them as payment for temporal penalties, and a means of acquiring merit.  This led to the popular idea that they were good works that removed punishment for sin, even without true contrition.  This is what scandalized Luther.  Luther saw that these falsehoods would give the people false hope of salvation for themselves and their loved ones.  This would lead to spiritual complacency and worse, damnation.

He wrote this:

Those who believe that, through letters of pardon, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers. (Theses 32)

A false gospel had arisen!  We should wonder: how could the Church of Jesus Christ get so confused about the nature of the gospel?  How could the Church of Jesus Christ be so disordered in its practice of the gospel?

Luther understood at least part of the reason.  He wrote a disputation on his concerns, asking for scholarly dialogue.  We call it “The 95 Theses.”  On the eve of All Saints’ Day, 1517, he posted his disputation on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg.  He also sent a copy to Albert, his bishop, with a letter pleading that Albert correct these abuses.

Luther realized how the church had reached this condition: church leaders were sinning even as they preached and practiced the gospel.  Listen to what he wrote in theses 62, 63 and 64:

62: The true treasure of the Church is the Holy Gospel of the glory and grace of God.

63: This treasure, however, is deservedly most hateful, because it makes the first to be last.

64: While the treasure of indulgences is deservedly most acceptable, because it makes the last to be first.

Luther saw that the Church is tempted to gratify the flesh even as it preaches and practices the gospel of Jesus Christ.  He was doing something similar to what the apostle Paul did for the churches of Galatia: he was clarifying the gospel…and teaching them how to preach it and practice it.

The gospel deals with overwhelming realities: a holy God…sin…grace…forgiveness. We do not readily understand or even accept these realities. We find them uncomfortable.  And…the Devil always aims his barbs at us: trying to deflect our understanding and practice of the gospel. When we are preaching and practicing the gospel, it is not as if we are automatically put into some sin-free zone.  We ourselves will face numerous temptations, temptations that arise from our own flesh.  Paul, in Galatians, identifies some of the temptations we must watch for.

Temptations to Misrepresent the Gospel  (Galatians 2:11-14)

Peter was the first apostle to really understand the fact that the gospel of Christ was for Gentiles, as well as Jews, bringing Gentiles into the Church.  He had a depth understanding of the gospel, but he hadn’t worked out its implications in all of his life…and when the brethren from James came from Jerusalem…he wouldn’t eat with them.  He knew the truth, but in a difficult situation, he failed to practice it.  He was still growing.  He needed a brother like Paul to rebuke his compromise of the gospel.

Church leaders can misunderstand the implications of the gospel.  When new circumstances arise, we can become disoriented and fumble the ball.  Satan attacks the heart of the Church: the gospel. He attacks God’s Word; that is his standard operating procedure.

Temptation to Harshness  (Galatians 6:1)

There is another temptation we must always be aware of: temptation to treat sinners harshly. Suppose someone admits a sin to us out of great sorrow for that sin, and they are mindful of the seriousness of their offense to God and mindful of its effects on his people.  We aren’t to respond with some rebuke designed to run them through a the wringer of conviction.  The Holy Spirit’s work of convincing them of their sin has already begun.  Our part is to gently lead them on the way of full repentance, and to strengthen them in their walk with Christ.

Sometimes we want a person to know just how bad their sin is, and how much it has hurt us.  They need to know these things at some point, to some degree.  But when a bro or sis is already aware of the basic reality of their sin…it may be later before they can confront more fully its how bad it is, and its impact on others.  We must not jump the gun here.

In fact, we need to be careful of trying to show someone how bad their sin is.  God himself never makes any sinner know just how bad their sin is.  There have been moments when great men were given a deep sense of their sin and the sins of others.  Remember Isaiah.  It leads people to despair…but God quickly intervenes.

Let us be careful.  A sinner needs to have some real sense of their sin: its violation of God’s law, its profanation of his name, its destructive effects on family and the church, and its destructive effects on the sinner himself.

But when the Holy Spirit has begun this work of conviction in earnest, our job is to step in gently & be used by the Spirit to continue the process of spiritual renewal.  We are called to gently guide repentant sinners as they go forward with their lives.  They need all the prayers and support we can give as they go on to face what is ahead of them.

There is something else we must watch for:

The Temptation to Pride   (Galatians 6:3-5)

At the root, this involves putting oneself in another category from the sinner.   “I…wouldn’t have done that!”  This is pride, because it is comparing oneself with the other, claiming to be above such a sin.  This is very dangerous.  It shows a lack of awareness of our own frailty.  There is no understanding of the sinner’s plight, of their frailty, of their obvious need for help.  There is no gospel…only law!

We are tempted to pride in another way.  We can be proud of our Reformation heritage, glad we understand salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus Christ alone, to the glory of God alone!  We feel confident dealing with sin.  We understand the gospel, and we understand how to apply the gospel.  This is dangerous thinking!

We may have a wonderful doctrinal framework for the gospel.  But that doesn’t mean that we have a solid, deep understanding of all of those realities.  A Christian might think that since he’s got Matthew 18 memorized, he knows all he needs to deal with an offending brother.  Foolishness! It’s one thing to know the procedure that Jesus gives; but to use Matthew 18 well takes a lot of prayer, other biblical knowledge, wisdom, and a deep love of God and love for the sinner. The gospel is the power of God at work.  Following a Matthew 18 method is not enough.

We never become experts at the gospel.  Jesus Christ is the expert.  We are His servants.  We will spend our whole lives learning the depths of God’s holiness, our sin, its various effects on us, our loved ones and the world.  Our focus must always be on the gospel as the power of God: it is his sovereign, gracious working by the HS that is key, not our knowledge or maturity.  Let us be humble before every, single matter of sin and forgiveness.  Because without the power of the HS at work, our best thoughts and actions are nothing, and accomplish nothing!

The amazing thing is that by grace, the Holy Spirit does work, even through our shallow grasp of these things.  When we acknowledge our limitations and trust in God’s grace and power alone, He works and we grow in grace.  And people are renewed!

Christ teaches us the deep things of the gospel as we learn to speak and practice the gospel together. He teaches us more and more about the holiness of God, the appalling wickedness of sin, listening to a sinner and loving them, the intricacies of the human heart,  and the powerful and wonderful grace of God.

But Christ doesn’t just teach us with words; he teaches us by his actions.  And He gives us bread and wine, to remind us that we will never be experts at dealing with our sin.  He alone is the expert.  Only He can help us love a brother or sister who has sinned.

He knows the evil of our sins more than we will ever know.  And He died and lives to teach us to how to speak and practice the gospel ~ with each other, and with the sinners who are all around us.

About the Prohibition of God’s Gifts

Today is the 80th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition.  Of course, the Temperance Movement in the 19th century led to Prohibition in the 20th.   Here is a little-known story of some Christian men who got on the temperance bandwagon, and whose influence, sad to say, is still with us.

It was the Reverend Eliphalet Nott (1773—1866), a Presbyterian minister, who helped the temperance cause by providing what can only be described as a tortured interpretation of the Bible.  He held that Scripture refers to two kinds of wine: fermented and unfermented.  This was great encouragement to Dr. Thomas Welch, of Vineland, New Jersey, who was communion steward at Vineland Methodist Church.  Welch, a devoted Temperance man, was determined to develop a communion beverage that, in his mind, would be worthy of the Lord’s table.  He found the answer in pasteurization and became, as far as we know, the first man to apply that process to grape juice.  His son, Dr. Charles E. Welch, turned the resulting unfermented beverage into a commercial success.  The rest is history, both sacred and profane.

One odd twist to this story is that Vineland was part of a development that was to be devoted to cultivating grapes, but then had an ordinance forbidding the sale of alcoholic beverages.  Apparently Dr. Welch was not the only person under the influence of the Temperance Movement. 

Now, I take seriously the thoughts of departed saints.  But when Christian brothers expostulate on a matter of Christian living, and miss the boat, I have reason to respond and clarify if I can.  While these good men were no doubt hard pressed to guide their fellow believers during a period of real social change, and while the abuse of alcohol in their day was something they could not ignore, I do insist that the answer was not to accept the realities of the culture and embrace teetotalism.  At the most, that should have been a temporary expedient.  The real answer would have been to embrace a biblical approach to wine, raise their children in a household culture of moderation, and then go on to change the culture at large.

God has always instructed his people to drink wine as part of their worship.  He gave wine as a gift of his creation, gladdening the heart of man.  Our Lord Jesus Christ turned water into wine at a wedding feast, and it was the best wine in the house.  Certainly, the experiences of Noah and Lot should teach us caution in our enjoyment of wine, and the plain warning of the apostle Paul (“be not drunk with wine”) should be obeyed to the letter.  But the way to combat drunkenness is not to avoid wine, but to put it at the center of worship.  As the Holy Spirit enables us to put to death that which is earthly in us, we are able to thank God for the fruit of the vine, fermented as God intended. 

I do not suggest that this is easy.  It is a work of the Lord Jesus Christ in his Church.  But all of God’s good gifts can be abused.  Our job before the Lord is not to hide them in a closet so no one can play with them; our job is to be taught by him to use them rightly and to his glory.

With that in mind, I hope the whimsical spirit of G. K. Chesterton’s poem will be a step in that direction. 

WINE AND WATER                                                                                                               by G. K. Chesterton

OLD Noah he had an ostrich farm and fowls on the largest scale,
He ate his egg with a ladle in an egg-cup big as a pail,
And the soup he took was Elephant Soup and the fish he took was Whale,
But they all were small to the cellar he took when he set out to sail,
And Noah he often said to his wife when he sat down to dine,
“I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”

The cataract of the cliff of heaven fell blinding off the brink
As if it would wash the stars away as suds go down a sink,
The seven heavens came roaring down for the throats of hell to drink,
And Noah he cocked his eye and said, “It looks like rain, I think,
The water has drowned the Matterhorn as deep as a Mendip mine,
But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.”

But Noah he sinned, and we have sinned; on tipsy feet we trod,
Till a great big black teetotaler was sent to us for a rod,
And you can’t get wine at a P.S.A., or chapel, or Eisteddfod,
For the Curse of Water has come again because of the wrath of God,
And water is on the Bishop’s board and the Higher Thinker’s shrine,
But I don’t care where the water goes if it doesn’t get into the wine.

______________________________________________________

Information on Rev. Eliphalet Nott, the Drs. Welch and their involvement in the temperance movement is found in Thomas Pinney’s fine book,  A History of Wine in America  (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).