The Use of Sacraments / Ritual

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S (Scripture): Romans 4

7 

Happy are those whose actions outside the Law are forgiven,

        and whose sins are covered.

Happy are those whose sin isn’t counted against them by the Lord.

9 Is this state of happiness only for the circumcised or is it also for those who aren’t circumcised? We say, “Faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 So how was it credited? When he was circumcised, or when he wasn’t circumcised? In fact, it was credited while he still wasn’t circumcised, not after he was circumcised. 11 He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that comes from the faith he had while he still wasn’t circumcised. It happened this way so that Abraham could be the ancestor of all those people who aren’t circumcised, who have faith in God, and so are counted as righteous. 12 He could also be the ancestor of those circumcised people, who aren’t only circumcised but who also walk in the path of faith, like our ancestor Abraham did while he wasn’t circumcised.

O (Observation): Paul dissects the point at which their spiritual father (Abraham) became righteous. Was it before or after he was circumcised.

Yes, Paul is still ranting about circumcision. Why? This issue was just the most prominent of MANY issues that divided Christians that were formerly Jewish from those Christians who had no Jewish background.

Paul points out that Abraham’s faith was reckoned to him as righteousness BEFORE he became circumcised. In this way those who are circumcised AND those who are not have Abraham as their spiritual ancestor.

In making this point, Paul makes something else even more clear: our external responses (like circumcision) do not dictate whether or not a person can have faith in God.

Persons of faith need not throw away customs, nor do they have to adopt them, in order to respond in faith to God’s grace given to all people who wish to receive that grace.

A (Application): As Christians, we have certain external markers that declare grace to us: namely, Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. I’m big fans of both. HUGE fans of both : )

These “means of grace” (as we call them in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) remind us of God’s gracious Spirit being poured out into our very beings. This Spirit joins us to the body of Christ, and gives us grace and forgiveness to live out our lives in hope.

These means of grace, however, remain external signs. Sort of like what circumcision meant for Abraham. Not exactly, but close.

Baptism remains our way of joining to Christ’s body. In baptism we are marked with the promised Holy Spirit. I wonder, though, what the non-Christian journeys through when they look at the Church? Are we using Baptism as a means of pushing others away? Or are we inviting them to consider – first – becoming a part of our community. Then, after a time of deliberation, continue to encourage these persons to consider being baptized…to show that on a particular day and time, in a faith community willing to love and support one another, that the Spirit has joined them to the body of Christ.

Personally, I see everything to gain in Baptism and Holy Communion. The old self being washed away for the new life in Christ to come forth. Yet our journeys are not all the same.

More can be said regarding Communion, but I digress.

Let us not use the Means of Grace as a means to divide us into classes (the Baptized OVER the non-Baptized; those who attend worship or commune weekly OVER those who attend worship and commune once or twice per month). Let us, instead, focus on the joy that comes from these means of grace, such that those who do not yet know of these gifts might be inspired by the Spirit to receive them gratefully. And if not, that we not disparage them, but instead, meet them where they are in their faith journey.

P (Prayer): Lord, give us grace, that we might share it bountifully with others. Amen.

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Pushing Others Down

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S (Scripture): Romans 2:28 It isn’t the Jew who maintains outward appearances who will receive praise from God, and it isn’t people who are outwardly circumcised on their bodies. 29 Instead, it is the person who is a Jew inside, who is circumcised in spirit, not literally. That person’s praise doesn’t come from people but from God.

O (Observation): Most of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome was about reconciling the differences between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. His beef with the Jewish Christians was that they were acting arrogant. They believed that with their outward customs, they were better than Gentiles who became Christian. Or that somehow Gentile Christians should adopt the outward custom of circumcision to be on equal ground with Jewish Christians.

The problem that Paul points out is that nothing is gained from the outward practice. He says that the real change God seeks is one of the heart (or spirit). If someone comes to believe in Christ as Lord and Savior, the change doesn’t come from the outside in. The outside marker is just an indication of the internal change that God enacts in someone’s being.

So do the Jews have an advantage? If they do, it’s only because God established a covenant with them first, and revealed the Law and Scriptures to the Jews first…but this gift has always been available to all people.

A (Application): “They’re not Christian.” Quite often I hear people say things like this about other people. The ones making the accusations go to church (or at least say they do) and act all prim and proper. But when it comes to living like Jesus and acting out of grace, they come up way short. I do, too.

The problem with lifting up one’s self over another usually comes because we are insecure about our own faith. We recognize we don’t do the Law, and so we try to make ourselves feel better than others by pushing them down, rather than asking God to lift us all up.

We do this by class, race, sexual orientation, and other ways. We simply are insecure. And that scares us. And thus, we get defensive.

We don’t do The Law. It is a guide, and it is meant to show us our shortcomings. And in the wake of that realization, God hears our cries and welcomes us back with the Gospel.

What would it look like if instead of hiding the ways we break The Law, we face the music and let God redeem us. Then, maybe, we can do less judging of others and more inviting into relationships so that we can share this Gospel message with others. We can speak from our own brokenness and let God come to others.

P (Prayer): Lord, redeem us and make us whole, as only you can. Amen.

Do We Get a Cheat Sheet?

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S (Scripture): Acts 15:6 The apostles and the elders gathered to consider this matter [of circumcision]. 7 After much debate, Peter stood and addressed them, “Fellow believers, you know that, early on, God chose me from among you as the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the word of the gospel and come to believe. 8 God, who knows people’s deepest thoughts and desires, confirmed this by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us. 9 He made no distinction between us and them, but purified their deepest thoughts and desires through faith. 10 Why then are you now challenging God by placing a burden on the shoulders of these disciples that neither we nor our ancestors could bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we and they are saved in the same way, by the grace of the Lord Jesus.”

12 The entire assembly fell quiet as they listened to Barnabas and Paul describe all the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles through their activity. 13 When Barnabas and Paul also fell silent, James responded, “Fellow believers, listen to me. 14 Simon reported how, in his kindness, God came to the Gentiles in the first place, to raise up from them a people of God. 15 The prophets’ words agree with this; as it is written,

16 

After this I will return,

        and I will rebuild David’s fallen tent;

        I will rebuild what has been torn down.

            I will restore it

17 

            so that the rest of humanity will seek the Lord,

                even all the Gentiles who belong to me.

O (Observation): The leadership of the Church fathers in Jerusalem for what becomes known as The Jerusalem Council. At the council, circumcision is discussed.Is it necessary – or not – for one to be circumcised before one can become a Christian?

For those who never ventured out to foreign lands nor turned their attention to any wisdom other than their own teachings, OF COURSE one must be circumcised FIRST!

Yet to folks like Peter and Paul and Barnabbas, who remained open to God’s movement and actually paid attention to the Gentile population, they witnessed God inviting ALL people into the fold. So for the disciples and Paul, of course we welcome in all who accept Jesus Christ without the need for circumcision.

What matters are two things: 1.) in the quote from Amos we see above, God has already, from time immemorial, welcomed who all seek to call on God’s name – Jew and Gentile; and, 2.) as Peter claims, we are saved by grace and no work from the Law of Moses.

A (Application): Where do we spend our time? Is it looking only at our own teachings and customs? Or do we spend time in places we aren’t comfortable and learning about religions and customs other than our own?

Seems to me that this text is really, really challenging us to open our eyes to the new thing God has done, is doing, and will do.

When do we ever stop thinking and just get a list of rules to live by as Christians? The answer is: never.

So, we must be ready to listen. How do we do that? With practice.

We listen and share what God has spoken to us. We share with other Christians to confer with other disciples and we move forward in grace.

Most of all, we remember how we got to where we are as Christians: through grace.

P (Prayer): Lord, remind us of our humble nature as Christians. Help us to listen to your voice. Amen.

Taking Grace for Granted


S (Scripture): Romans 4:9 Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision? For we say, “faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited to him? Was he circumcised at the time, or not? No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised! 11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised, so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised, that they too could have righteousness credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised.

O (Observation):  In chapter 4, Paul opens up a diatribe directed towards the Jews.  He makes references to Abraham and David, important figures to Jews, but who mean nothing to the Gentiles.  

Now, a big deal for the Jews was the outward sign of the covenant between God and God’s people.  God declared to Abraham that God would make out of Abraham a great people, and kings would come from his line of descendants.  The people of Abraham, in return, would then circumcise their male children as a sign that they are God’s people.  After all, God commanded that the people circumcise their male children as a sign of faithfulness on the people’s part.  

Over time, circumcision was seen as the work of the people to show their dedication to God.  But also, circumcision became this sort of entry into God’s covenant without any real impact on the life of God’s people.  They basically started taking God’s grace for granted.   They began to think that if one was circumcised, one basically had a free ticket to Abraham’s lineage and that one who was circumcised could do no wrong.   

And then, eventually, circimcision became the EXCLUSIVE way to God’s grace.   The Hebrew people took circumcision as the “be all, end all” sign of God’s grace.  They began to believe that the only way to God’s grace and inheritance was to be circumcised, to the exclusion of all other ways and people.  The prevailing mindset of the Hebrew people became this:  Gentiles were CERTAINLY not ever going to be a part of God’s family.  

So, when Jesus and Paul started challenging this idea of the exclusive availaiblity of God’s grace, this was a major challenge to the theology and customs of the Hebrew people. 

Paul is making the case that Abraham wasn’t circumcised when he was graced with God’s promises.  The circumcision was simply an outward sign of an inward grace.   Circumcision was the result of receiving God’s grace, not the cause of receiving it.  

Paul was calling on the Jews to humble themselves and to give some thought to the idea that grace and blessing are possible outside of circumcision.  

A (Application):  Churches these days have all kinds of odd customs to make people feel like they are part of the church (or NOT part of it).  Some are new customs, but even ancient rites seem to lose their impact.  

As sacred as it is for me, I wonder if those not of the Christian faith view baptism today just like Gentiles viewed circumcision back in Paul’s day?  I hope not!  But then, I wonder.  

Circumcision back in Paul’s day is not the same thing as baptism, but I can see how it might be viewed this way.  As if baptism was the exclusive way for God’s grace to work.   

I have spoke about this before, how we as Christians can start to use our baptism like Jews used circumcision:  as a tool of exclusion and as something we take for granted!

We practice making people feel welcome in our congregation, even though I’m sure we fall short.  But we really try to help people feel welcome, even if they have not been baptized.  We view becoming a part of our congregation as an exploratory journey towards baptism.  Some will be baptized and receive God’s Spirit in this way, but I have to believe that God can instill faith in other ways, too.   

God continues to surprise us all (as seen in Scripture and in my own personal experiences).    To narrow down God’s avenues of grace is dangerous territory for me (or anyone).

So, should we get rid of baptism?  Certainly not!  Is baptism still a good thing?  Absolutely!

So let us treat all people with respect.   Let us be diligent in not taking baptism for granted.   Let us be forgiving as God forgives and graces us. 

What “hang ups” do you have about the Christian Church these days?

P (Prayer):  Lord, help us to be grateful for your grace.  Amen.  

A Circumcision of the Heart

 

S (Scripture): Jeremiah 9:25 The Lord says, “Watch out! The time is soon coming when I will punish all those who are circumcised only in the flesh. 26 That is, I will punish the Egyptians, the Judeans, the Edomites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, and all the desert people who cut their hair short at the temples. I will do so because none of the people of those nations are really circumcised in the Lord’s sight. Moreover, none of the people of Israel are circumcised when it comes to their hearts.”

O (Observation): Circumcision is a key element in Jewish tradition.  On the eighth day after the son’s birth, the son is circumcised as a sign of the covenant that God made with God’s people.  That mark was tangible evidence that one (in a private way) was part of the covenant promise God made to Abraham: they would be a great people, great in number and great in stature, since great kings would come from that line.

Yet, in Jeremiah’s time, God is calling the people to account for their wayward actions.   Yes, they have been physically circumcised, but what real impact has that had on the people?  They seem to take for granted that they are part of the covenant.  Their lives are not bearing the fruit expected: they are worshipping other gods, for goodness’ sake!

And what of females?   How are they included in the covenant?  At the time, a woman was joined to a man for social status, and perhaps to be included in the covenant promises God made.

But now God makes a leap that brings the sign of the covenant more directly to ALL individuals:  a circumcision of the heart.

Moreover, none of the people of Israel are circumcised when it comes to their hearts. – Jer 9:26

God declares that a physical cut is not the key.  The key is what that circumcision indicates:   That you are claimed by God, that you are God’s very own, and that you are to bear fruit worthy of the calling to which you have been called.  Obedience will flow from your Identity.

Also, males and females have a bit more equality in understanding of how one can be connected to God: directly, rather than relying on someone else for your entry into the covenant.

A (Application):  This text brings 2 things to the forefront for me.

  1. Women and men have equal access to God.
  2. The circumcision tradition (through Abraham) is more than just a physical ceremony.

As a justice issue, I’m glad God makes the move more clear to us:  a cardiac circumcision is what is called for, in the end.   In being claimed, one’s heart is changed, metaphorically, so that one’s life lines up with God’s will.

And as for the physical sign of the covenant…that has always bothered me, because I wonder how females feel about this sign.  I get that it was a male-oriented society, but still…I’ve always felt uncomfortable for females and this text.

(Unfortunately, another image that comes to mind is the gruesome disfiguring of females through “female circumcision” that happens in some countries even to this day.   Thanks to folks like the International Justice Mission, these abused women are being saved and brought to safety.)

What are your thoughts on this text?  Does this bring joy? Discomfort? Challenge?   Let me know in the comments section below.

P (Prayer): Lord, you wish for us to be a people full of humility and joy.  Help us to repent and believe in you, so that our lives bear fruit that looks like your will lived out on earth.

When your word challenges us, call us back to you and to one another to discern your will.

Amen.

Listening to God



S (Scripture): Romans  3:1 Therefore what advantage does the Jew have, or what is the value of circumcision? 3:2 Actually, there are many advantages. First of all, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.

O (Observation): Paul has just been arguing that the Jewish sign of the covenant is circumcision.  But really, Paul argues, whether one acts according to the law or not is the truer sign of the covenant.  And Paul argues that both Jews and Gentiles can act according to the Law, and both Jews and Gentiles and wantonly disobey the Law. 

But in the verses above, Paul shows that the status of the Jews is still significant, since God chose to reveal God’s self most fully to the Hebrew people, first. God chose to reveal God’s own words to the Jews, first. 

A (Application): What revelation I receive from God has not been as clear-cut as Scripture being handed down, but that does not deter me from trying to discern what God is saying to me and what God would have me do. 

In the huddle I’m a part of (a discipling group), we struggle with those two questions:  What is God saying to me? And What would God have me do?

I don’t think enough of us struggle with these two questions, in a small group setting, in which support and accountability shape our thoughts and our ways.  

Mostly, we like to go through life as Christians who don’t care for much change in our personal lives.  We like “church” and worship, but anything causing me to change my giving patterns or actions is too much.  

I get that the struggle is real, and I don’t complain.  God has all of this under control.  I just seek God’s will for me and my family to do our part.  That means taking others in and sharing what we think has been revealed to us and share God’s will the best we can.  

Here’s an article that might be helpful in terms of diagnosing some failings within the Church as a whole.  See if you stand convicted:

The Lure of Nondiscipleship Christianity and What We Can Do About It

P (Prayer): Lord, enlighten us.  Make us wise to your ways, that we might be changed and renewed with a passion for listening to you and acting on your callings in our lives. Amen. 

Left Out

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S (Scripture): Acts 10:45 The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles,…11:1 Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles too had accepted the word of God. 11:2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers took issue with him, 11:3 saying, “You went to uncircumcised men and shared a meal with them.”

O (Observation): The circumcised believers (those who we might call Jewish Christians) were those who believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, but also felt that following a lot of the Jewish customs and religious practices was necessary to be a “true” believer.

By default, those customs put them at odds with the Gentile Christians, those who who believed in Jesus Christ, but didn’t find it necessary to follow Jewish customs, such as circumcision, or avoiding “unclean” foods.

A (Application): When I talk about God’s relationship with the Hebrew people of the Old Testament, I remind them that God loving on the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was about God showing the WHOLE WORLD what love looks like. That love happened to be focused on one nation, but God never DIDN’T love the whole world. God used a promise (COVENANT) to Abraham to show what a covenant really looks like. And then, God made good on God’s own promise to be one with the descendants of Abraham.

Uncircumcised basically equated to “not a descendant of Abraham” and therefore, outside of salvation. But through the gift of the Holy Spirit, by God’s direction, all who believe become Abraham’s descendants by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

This also means that females have a direct place alongside men in this inherited covenant with Abraham. I’d be interested in getting a female’s perspective on this matter.

So, what marks exist for a believer? Does one have to live a certain sin-free lifestyle? Does one need a particular exterior mark? How do you measure one’s faith?

These are difficult questions, but hopefully they help us to understand that we do not have the final say in matters of salvation. I hope we also understand that anyone who believes in Jesus Christ is a welcome believer.

P (Prayer): Lord, you direct our days and you gift us with the Holy Spirit. Give us wisdom in sharing your message of hope, joy, and love. Shine your light on us, so that every believer might be a light to nations. Amen.