Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Sunday, September 4, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Awake to Love

This is Labor Day Weekend. 

“Labor Day became a federal holiday in 1894, when, following the deaths of a number of workers at the hands of the U.S. military and Federal Marshals during the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland reconciled with the labor movement. Fearing further conflict, legislation making Labor Day a national holiday was rushed through Congress unanimously and signed into law a mere six days after the end of the strike.  The early September date originally chosen by the Central Labor Union of New York and observed by many of the nation's trade unions was selected rather than the more widespread International Workers' Day because President Cleveland was concerned that observance of International Workers’ Day would stir up negative emotions linked to the 1886 Haymarket Riot, which it had been observed to commemorate.”  -- Wikipedia

In other words, Labor Day was created to placate, and not to celebrate. 

In every arena of life, from government to religion to the family, so many human decisions are made to placate, mollify, satisfy, soothe, conciliate, and appease a people, a deity, or an all-powerful family member.  Call it diplomacy or tact if you like, our actions often boil down to fear of retribution or condemnation and are not nearly so altruistic or large-hearted as we portray them to be. 

Don’t we all have an aging aunt somewhere whose birthday we “celebrate” each year, not because we love her so but rather because we’d never hear the end of it from some other family member who, in turn also observes the day out of fear, and not out of love?  That’s the ugly truth of human nature.   In its most developed form, we finally become insensible to the fear, and the impulse to placate is reduced to the single word, “duty.”

Labor Day, as we “observe it” nearly 120 years after its creation, thankfully is nothing more to most of us than the pause at the end of summer – a collective holiday for those of us with the economic wherewithal to take the day off (it is not observed by those in retail or service sectors of the economy).  It has become part of America’s love affair with three-day weekends we have scattered across the year for the enjoyment of all… well… some of us.  In sequence, we observe Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans Day, Martin Luther King Day, Presidents Day, and Memorial Day with as little thought as most of us invest in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. 

Nearly all of the world’s religions, and certainly all of the religions in the area surrounding ancient Israel, have a sacrificial system somewhere at their core.  The purpose of sacrificing is pure and simple: to make peace with an angry God or gods.  The sacrifices usually involved offering something valuable on an altar.  Mostly it was animal sacrifice.  In some cases the anger of the deity was assumed to be so great that a literal human sacrifice was called for.  In order to satisfy God, someone has to die.  Ironically, that thinking has been at the core of Christian teaching for nearly the whole of the past 2,000 years.  It is ironic because it isn’t what Jesus taught or lived.  When presented with the whole question of the value of temple sacrifices, Jesus said, “if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” (Matthew 12:7)  And The Letter to the Hebrews explains Jesus’ teaching when it says,

            For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
            Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said,
            “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired,
                        but a body have you prepared for me;
            in burnt offerings and sin offerings
                        you have taken no pleasure.
            Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come to do your will, O God,
                        as it is written of me in the scroll of the book.’”  

(Hebrews 10:4-7)

We Christians reinforce and reinforce and reinforce this in our thinking because we focus on the death of Christ in our preaching and teaching far more than we do on the life of Christ.  In liturgical churches where the Eucharist is celebrated at every service – and this is true of the majority of Christian churches, worldwide -- the high point of Christian worship has always been the moment in the liturgy where the priest or minister holds the bread high above his head and says three times, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.”  The association is indelibly made between the sacrifice of a human life and the satisfaction of an angry God.  

But in human terms, Jesus was not put to death to satisfy or placate an angry God, he was put to death to mollify an angry mob.  It is so easy to misunderstand Jesus’ death.  We in the Evangelical Church of the 20th century were fond of saying in our “gospel illustrations,” that Christ paid the penalty for the sin of those who believe.  Someone had to die to satisfy God. 

But if you listen carefully to the words, the work, the intensity of what Jesus said and did, you begin to understand that when Jesus said as he hung on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” this was not a declaration of a theological truth, it was Jesus expressing the very deep human emotion of an innocent who is searching for the reason why he is suffering so.  Read Psalm 22, which Jesus was quoting at that moment, and you’ll get it.  If God was truly forsaking his son at that moment; if Jesus really suffered an eternity in hell on our behalf during the three days his body was in the grave, how is it that Jesus’ final word was, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit?”  When he said, “Tetelestai!  It is finished!”  we are led to understand that what was finished was the completion of a sinless life lived wholly in the presence of a loving Father, even in the face of a death at the hands of an  unrighteous and angry mob. 

There is no appeasement of God in the death of Jesus.  The idea that Christ died simply to conciliate with God requires no thought.  It is in fact the easy way out.   To boil the gospel down to five points and say, “You and I have sinned.  Someone has to pay the penalty for sin.  Christ paid the penalty.  You and I must receive Christ in order to be saved from the wrath of God.  Those who receive Christ have assurance of salvation.”  To boil the gospel down to that requires no more real thought or investment on our part than going down to the Temple once a year with a pair of doves or a pigeon or a lamb and dropping it off to be sacrificed. 

Those who fall back on the sacrificial system for their understanding of the faith are largely asleep, and have merely been roused for a moment from their slumber in order to answer the one question.  If we “believe” at that level only, we are doing nothing more than sending a birthday card to our aunt because we believe that if we don’t, we’ll never hear the end of it.

Now, with that the foundation, turn to Romans 13:8 again.  Remember: we’re not coming to God this morning because we owe him or because of some duty.  If we have understood God on this point, a whole world of understanding can begin to open up.  Look at what Paul says at verse 8:

8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.

Suddenly, we’re not placating God.  We’re loving him.  Suddenly the faith is not about sacrifice, it is about relationship.  Suddenly we see everything about the faith differently.   And Paul goes right to the core of Christian teaching to prove it.  He quotes the Ten Commandments in verse 9 and says, 

9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

As long as we see the commandments as a list of rules that, if obeyed, will satisfy the deity, we’ve missed the point of them.   As long as we read them as LAW they will forever be for us something to be avoided at all costs because they are hard and we cannot do them.  And I don’t know about you, but when I’m presented with something that is hard that I’m afraid I can’t accomplish I tend to retreat to one place every time.  I go to sleep.  It is so easy to get away from the thing I don’t want to face.  All I have to do is curl up on my bed or in a corner somewhere and doze off.

But look at what Paul says at verse 11:

“11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. “

If we would be awake to what the Ten Commandments actually are, we would see that they are not what we must pour out in order to placate an angry God; they are what God wants to pour IN to our souls to equip us to handle life and especially to equip us for life with him.  Paul is trying to wake us up when he illustrates his point by using the four most controversial commandments, the ones that deal with faithfulness in marriage, faithfulness to human life, faithfulness to society, and faithfulness to our own hearts, and says that the purpose, the summation of all of them is the love at the core, and not duty. 

The deeds of darkness that he mentions in verse 13 require no thought, no effort.   The easiest thing in the world is get a little drunk and have a party.  The easiest thing in the world is to get in bed with whoever strikes your fancy.  All of these things, carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy are so easy they are things you can do in your sleep.  

But God wants us to be Awake to Love, and that is hard.  That requires effort on our part.  No, the work of salvation has already been done.  Jesus made that clear.  You are not adding anything to the finished work of Christ when you love.  We love because he first loved us, 1 John says.  But when Paul uses a military illustration, putting on armor to describe what it takes to love, he is giving us a very potent picture.  Have you ever seen a suit of chain mail?  Have you ever seen what troops have to wear today to go into battle?   Getting dressed for battle requires effort – carries weight, resolve, and determination just to do.  You have to be fully awake to get dressed for battle.   And the armor we are being called to dress in is the armor of light.   The armor we are being called to put on is Jesus himself. 

You can recite a liturgy by rote.  You can sacrifice while you slumber.  You can do a law in your sleep.  But you have to be fully awake to love. 

The Lord’s Supper:
            For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
            Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged.

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