Rend Your Hearts – Ash Wednesday reflections

“’Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.” (Joel 2:12-13) 

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures in particular, one encounters some reference to people tearing their garments. The context is typically regret, remorse, sadness, conviction, repentance. They have sinned against God and neighbor, have been led to a convicting realization of their transgression, and the outward sign of their inward state is tearing of clothes.

Having outward actions that represent our inward state is not unique to these passages in the bible by any means, of course. We greet friends and family with a hug, kiss, or handshake as a demonstration of the affection we feel for them. It is an outward expression that points to an inward reality. These gestures embody our feelings, connecting our inside with our outside.

Authenticity is Key

The key to all of this, however, is authenticity. Is our outward communication through these actions and gestures faithful or fake? Are we revealing or concealing what is in our hearts?

That is the crux of the issue in the scripture text above. God hammers home the absolute necessity that heart and body be on the same page.

Sometimes the disconnect is due to deliberate concealment. We do not want our insides revealed, so we wear a mask. We perform the outward actions but they are just that—a performance. Maybe it is because of guilt or shame, perhaps even mischief or malevolence. Whatever the reason, we conceal rather than reveal.

Sometimes the disconnect can be attributed to inattention. We grow accustomed to the actions. The words and patterns are familiar to us. This is good because they are a part of us. But the shadow side to this benefit is that we can perform them without full engagement. We say the creed, present our offering, say our prayers, sing our songs, read our scriptures, and check the boxes of religious practice. But through inattention they become wallpaper in our lives, present without standing out. They lose their connection to what is going on inside.

Renovation Work

That we are a temple, a dwelling place for the glory of God, has solid grounding in biblical theology. When Solomon dedicated the temple, he prayed for it to be a place where God’s glory and presence dwelt in a unique way. In the New Testament, we see Jesus presented as a new temple, in which God’s glory and presence dwells like no place else. And we find that part of salvation’s large project is for us—“our hearts” is the way we give language to this—to be a temple in which God’s glory and presence dwell in a special way too.

Perhaps we can think of it this way then. If we have placed our faith and trust in Christ for salvation and have therefore been reconciled to God the Father through Jesus Christ, then God is moving in. But he finds that to make this heart a place in which he is fully at home some renovation work is needed. The counter-tops are smudged with the grime of greed. The pipes are clogged with unforgiveness. The walls are weak with the deteriorating effects of pride.

Rend Your Hearts

Lent is a holy season that teaches us about the whole of our Christian journey. The call to repentance reminds us that renovation work is yet needed as Christ makes himself at home in us. And this renovation work requires that the outward expressions of faith match the inward desire of our hearts. And why rend our hearts? To show we’re ready—really ready—for the renovation work of the Spirit.

There’s a wonderful truth about the character of God laying at the foundation of this warning and call: “for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.”

Sermon on the Mount 3 – Blessed are those who mourn, part 1

Bonhoeffer quote_bearing sorrow

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (5:4)

Bonhoeffer and Wesley have both unique perspectives on this beatitude and insights that overlap, so in this post I will highlight their unique perspectives and in the next post* I will discuss their convergence.

Wesley

Wesley begins by stating that those who mourn includes those who have “tasted and seen” that the Lord is good, but who are troubled by an experience of the absence of God. Perhaps this is something like a “dark night of the soul” of which St. John of the Cross speaks. But it may also be due to sins that cloud the disciple’s access to the God they have come to know through Christ. Though Wesley believes in the possibility of God’s grace as powerful enough to produce real holiness in Christian believers, he acknowledges here that seeing temptation and sin still present in one’s life can be disheartening. So, the disciple mourns. They mourn for the nearness to God and access to God that they experienced in their conversion and in powerful experiences of grace.

This mourning serves a purpose because it is accompanied by the promise, “for they will be comforted.” Experiencing the absence of God heightens the disciple’s joy when the Spirit comforts them.

They shall be comforted by the consolations of his Spirit; by a fresh manifestation of his love; by such a witness of his accepting them in the Beloved, as shall never more be taken away from them. …it suffices them to say, by the power now resting upon them, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?”

Wesley sees this experience as having been foreshadowed in the relationship between Jesus and his disciples on the night of his passion. In John’s Gospel, the disciples are anxious when Jesus announces that he will be leaving them, so he assures them that though they will mourn him, he will return and they will be reunited.

Bonhoeffer 

Bonhoeffer sees something different in this beatitude. He finds meaning in Luther’s translation that translates the original Greek word with a German word that means “sorrow-bearing.” Rather than being disconnected by their calling to be set apart for Christ, “The disciple-community does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willingly bears it. And in this way they show how close are the bonds which bind them to the rest of humanity.”

They do not look for suffering. But as it comes their way naturally, they bear it “as they try to follow Jesus Christ, and bear it for his sake” (emphasis original). This becomes a way of growing closer in fellowship to their Savior and Lord, “for they bear their sorrow in the strength of him who bears them up, who bore the whole suffering of the world upon the cross.”

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*Due to a glitch in either saving, posting, or editing a couple weeks ago, this post did not publish at the expected or scheduled time and a draft was no longer available. For this reason, I have rewritten it, though it is now out of order. Hopefully no such glitches will occur in the future.

Sermon on the Mount 4 – Blessed are those who mourn, part 2

Bonhoeffer quote_love and mourning

In my previous post, I shared insights on the meaning of this beatitude that were unique to John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Now I would like to share an insight that is common to both.

Both Wesley and Bonhoeffer view mourning as including what we might describe as a “missional” or “evangelistic” dimension. Disciples will mourn for the world.

Bonhoeffer: “Such [disciples] mourn for the world, for its guilt, its fate and its fortune.”

Wesley: “…yet is there another, an a blessed mourning it is, which abides in the the children of God. They still mourn for the sins and miseries of mankind: they ‘weep with them that weep.'”

Here we find an insight that speaks to the deep need we have for an inside-out transformation of the heart. Another Englishman, G.K. Chesterton once remarked that Original Sin was the only Christian dogma that did not require faith, just newspapers. Who can take the frustration, anger, and disdain understandably directed at ample evidence of sin and injustice in the world but those whose hearts the Spirit of Christ has convicted, humbled, comforted, and transformed?

Justice demands that we mourn (and are appropriately angry too) for the one who has been harmed. But this teaching reminds us that the one who harms has, while harming another person, harmed their own soul as well. And for what is done to every soul—without losing track of who is victim—disciples will mourn.

In this, we imitate our Lord who looked upon Jerusalem and mourned, as recorded in Luke 13:34:

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

Sharing in Christ’s mourning for the sin, guilt, and rebellion of the world, we share also in receiving the comfort he alone can provide and pointing others to our comfort in him.

Because of this capacity to join the heart of Christ in mourning missionally and evangelistically, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “Nobody loves his fellow-men better than a disciple, nobody understands his fellow-men better than the Christian fellowship, and that very love impels them to stand aside and mourn.”

Sermon on the Mount 2 – Poor in Spirit

Mt5.3textpic3

“The foundation of all is poverty of spirit,” according to John Wesley. This is the first step to living in God’s kingdom.

Bonhoeffer seems to see it, if not as a first step, as a sort of first reality. It is the first way to describe the new reality into which Jesus’ band of disciples have entered. Here, it seems to me, emerges one of the ways in which the historical context of the expositor of the text influences their commentary on the scriptural text. Both Bonhoeffer and Wesley seem to envision a dual audience for the Sermon–the original one composed of disciples and crowds in Matthew’s gospel, and the one they picture reading or hearing their words in their own day. For Bonhoeffer, this undoubtedly includes young pastors in his underground seminary, men who have left safety and security behind to pursue a calling to live an authentic Christian life and proclaim the gospel of Christ in the midst of an overtly hostile society.

So, while Wesley’s explanation of “poor in spirit” is clearly that of an evangelist calling people to conviction and conversion, Bonhoeffer reflects with solemnity on the weightiness of the calling to which the disciples have answered, “yes.” Both of these interpretations yield important insights.

Bonhoeffer

Concerning Jesus’ use of the term “blessed” in these eight sayings, Bonhoeffer says that the self-denial and sacrifices “they have made… are not blessed in themselves. Only the call and the promise, for the sake of which [the disciples] are ready to suffer poverty and renunciation, can justify the beatitudes.” The call to Christ and the promise of God’s kingdom are the only sufficient reason to enter the life described in the beatitudes.

On the first beatitude, regarding poverty of spirit, Bonhoeffer comes across almost as favoring Luke’s rendering (Luke 6:20, “blessed are the poor”). He writes, describing the disciples, “For his sake they have lost all. In following him they lost even their own selves, and everything that could make them rich. Now they are poor… they have no other hope but him who called them.” Connecting this insight into the original disciples’ situation with the particular relevance to the young pastors under Bonhoeffer’s tutelage at the underground seminary at Finkenwalde is no difficult task. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of heaven to a pearl of great value is illustrative here (Matthew 13:45-46). The one who finds the pearl sells everything he has in order to possess it. He impoverishes himself in every other way in order to gain that which he considers most valuable. Disciples of Jesus will do the same, sometimes literally.

JW_poverty of spirit quote

Wesley 

John Wesley, pressing for evangelistic revival, emphasizes the spirit of a person as the location needing a palpable sense of poverty. This is the first step. We cannot understand, engage, or enter God’s kingdom without a deep awareness and conviction that we come before God with nothing to merit acceptance. Wesley insists that we need not pursue material poverty in order to gain poverty of spirit. This could become a pitfall for self-righteousness. Instead, the poor in spirit are the truly humble and the helpless, those who know they fall far short of the glory and will of God and who acknowledge that they are powerless to remedy their situation.

Wesley observes, therefore, “that Christianity begins just where heathen morality ends; poverty of spirit, conviction of sin, the renouncing ourselves, the not having our own righteousness (the very first point in the religion of Jesus Christ), leaving all pagan religion behind.” Other religions teach salvation—life-giving connection to God—through moral performance or religious observance. Christianity teaches receiving salvation when we know we are morally and religiously insufficient before God. Against this backdrop, the amazing love of God in Christ stands in beautiful contrast. This is why poverty of spirit is blessed and the first step to the kingdom of God.

Sermon on the Mount 1 – Introduction

This spring I’m working through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) in the company of John Wesley and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in their works, Thirteen Discourses on the Sermon on the Mount (Wesley, available here) and the middle section of The Cost of Discipleship (Bonhoeffer, available here). I’ll be posting short reflections and collections of insights and quotations here as I go.

Mt5_blog picWesley and Bonhoeffer come from different eras. Wesley, the son of priest in the church of England, lived in eighteenth century England. Bonhoeffer, from a line of prominent intellectuals, lived in Germany in the first half of the twentieth century. Yet there are connections. Both men ministered at odds with the state church. Bonhoeffer led an underground church and seminary that was opposed a morally and spiritually compromised church in Nazi Germany, while Wesley led a revival movement in a spiritually dead church. And both men embraced the call to discipleship in the Christian life. From Bonhoeffer we hear the stern invitation, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And from Wesley, we receive a belief in the powerful love of God to transform and perfect in us “holiness of heart and life.”

Background

Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist in Matthew 3 and tested in the wilderness in Matthew 4. After success against the temptations of the devil, Jesus begins his public ministry, including preaching repentance (4:12-17), early calling of disciples (4:18-22), and healing (4:23-25). In the passage just prior to the Sermon on the Mount, he is attracting large crowds due to his reputation as a healer.

Audience of the Sermon

The audience for the Sermon is a mixture of the crowds and the disciples. At this point in Matthew’s narrative, we are not yet referring to the Twelve with the term, “disciple,” as there are further calling passages in the chapters that follow the Sermon, and the Twelve are not named as such until chapter 10. The number of disciples is so far ambiguous. It is simply a way of distinguishing a difference in character and commitment: the disciples are committed followers/students/apprentices, the crowds are curious and interested. In 5:1-2, Jesus is directly teaching the disciples in the presence of the crowds. By 7:28-29, the crowds have clearly been listening carefully as well.

Purpose of the Sermon

The Sermon on the Mount is both “kingdom ethics” for disciples and an invitation for the crowds. Christianity is not a secret society, the instruction on how disciples of Jesus are to live is given in public. Because humankind is intended to live in God, the Sermon teaches the true way of living for humankind.

Bonhoeffer

Bonhoeffer points out that the disciples are those who have responded to the call of Christ and obeyed his word, while the crowds (Jewish residents of rural Israel here) are heirs of the promise of God. “Hence the aim of this beatitude is to bring all who hear it to decision and salvation,” says Bonhoeffer.

All are called to be what in reality of God they are already. The disciples are called blessed because they have obeyed the call of Jesus, and the people as a whole because they are heirs of the promise. But will they now claim their heritage by believing in Jesus Christ and his word?

Bonhoeffer presses this question on us personally too: Will we now claim the heritage of God for us “by believing in Jesus Christ and his word” here in the Sermon?

Wesley

Wesley sees the Sermon as instruction for disciples, but also are revelation of God’s will to humankind: “with what amazing love does the Son of God here reveal his Father’s will to man!” Wesley wants us to know that holiness is the way to true, soul-deep, happiness and views the Sermon as an exposition of that reality, if we will recognize and receive it as such.

Happy are the mourners, the meek, those that hunger after righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart. Happy in the end, and in the way; happy in this life, and in life everlasting! As if [Jesus] had said, ‘Who is he that lusts to live, and would fain see good days? Behold, I show you the thing which your soul longs for! See the way you have so long sought in vain; the way of pleasantness; the path to calm, joyous peace, to heaven below and heaven above!’

Wesley might ask us, then, if our eyes are open. Do we see clearly that true happiness is taught here in the Sermon? For those with eyes to see, he trumpets: “Behold, I show you the thing which your soul longs for!”

A Definition of Discipleship 2

In my previous post, I shared that a friend asked me to answer the question, “What is discipleship?” I said there are plenty of good, solid ways to express what God reveals in scripture about discipleship. I shared a definition and some thoughts about the phrases in the first half of my definition.

Here’s the definition I’m working with, followed by some thoughts about the phrases in the second half.

Discipleship is a process of learning beliefs and behaviors from Jesus about living as a son/daughter of God.

From Jesus: While there are many great moral and spiritual teachers in human history—and it’s quite worth reading works like the dialogues of Plato and the Tao Te Ching, if you’re so inclined—Jesus stands head-and-shoulders above them all. Not only that, Jesus is the one human being in history who is not merely a human being, but also the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of all creation. For everyone else, they gain significance because of what they taught. For Jesus, what he teaches holds significance, not just because it is brilliant, but because of who he is.

About living as a son/daughter of God: Forgiveness for sin and transgression of God’s Law is a very real part of our being reconciled to God that we must not overlook or diminish. That said, the image we find again and again in Scripture is of family. A powerful image in the writings of Paul for our salvation is adoption into the family of God. Salvation is not only the freedom of a pardoned prisoner who has been told, “you’re free to go.” Salvation, robustly understood, is the freedom of an adopted child who has been told, “you’re free to come.”

The most famous example of this is of the prodigal son from Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. He alienates himself from his father due to his choices but returns when he realizes the poverty of his chosen path. He offers to become a servant in the household but the father will have none of it. Full restoration is the only option the father will entertain.

Being a child of God is a thing of great comfort and security. Being a child of God involves learning the character, the virtues, the way of life that this family embodies—the beliefs that give rise to the behaviors characteristic of this family. The best person to learn them all from is the Son, Jesus, whose life perfectly demonstrates what a Divine image-bearing life looks like. And, lest we forget, we are not alone. God graciously gives us his Spirit to dwell in us, empower us, and do the restoring work in us.