Thursday, June 26, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: Christ's Second Advent

"And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward" -- Matthew 10:42, NIV.
Doctors bury their mistakes.

Me? I bury my successes.

And no, this shouldn't bother me. Whenever I visit someone who is dying, after all, whatever comfort and peace I bring to that person should be its own reward. I'm not looking for recognition, in other words; I don't need a medal that says, "Voted #1 in Customer Satisfaction by the Terminally Ill."

Perish the thought!

But as a pastor in a retirement community, I spend a lot of time with people who aren't going to be here much longer -- and that means much of the most delicate, demanding, and emotionally-draining work I do here will have little to show for it except a headstone and an obituary.

I'm not alone in my anonymity, of course. The heroes who work in hospice face it all the time. So does anyone who works with the developmentally-disabled -- or even small children, for that matter. And nothing is more unfair than the soldier or civilian whose bravery goes unmarked because it wasn't noticed by anyone who survived.

That is why I take comfort from this week's lesson. It tells me that every kind word and generous act is cherished by the God who inspired them all. And far from being forgotten, He will see to it these things are honored for all eternity.

To be sure, God may be the only one who knows what we've done for Him.

But in the end, He's the only audience we need.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: Christ's priestly ministry

"For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence" -- Hebrews 9:24, NIV.
Ron Howard's been filming a prequel to The Da Vinci Code.

No surprise there -- he made enough money on the first movie, it's only natural he'd want to film another.

But when he asked permission to film part of his movie in a couple of Catholic churches, the Vatican turned him down.

No surprise there -- any film series based on the belief that Catholicism is run by a bunch of bloodthirsty fools, liars, and knaves cannot expect too many favors from church leaders.

What's more, we take it for granted that holy places are not always open to anyone and everyone who might want to go there.
  • No, if you want to make a movie inside a Catholic church, then you're going to need permission from Catholic leaders.
  • If you want to visit an LDS Temple, then you'd better have a temple recommend.
  • If you want to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, then you'd better be prepared to prove you're a Muslim.
Even concerts follow much the same rule -- if you want to see Bruce Springsteen's dressing room, for instance, then you're going to need a backstage pass.

That's why this week's lesson is important -- it's important, because it lays down two principles:
  1. The only holy place worth worrying about is God's temple in heaven.
  2. The only one who controls access to that temple is the same Jesus who loved us so much that he died for us.
Jesus gives us a backstage pass to the only show that's worth seeing, in other words . . .

And if you have his permission, then nothing else really matters.

No surprise there.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

This Week's Sabbath School lesson: the resurrection of Christ

Two thoughts on this week's Sabbath School lesson -- the first from Bishop N. T. Wright, and the second from John Donne.

The first is drawn from Bishop Wright's article, "Kingdom Come: the public meaning of the Gospels," which appeared in the June 17, 2008 issue of The Christian Century.
[Contemporary scholars tend to divide their attention,] focusing either on Jesus' announcement of the kingdom and the powerful deeds -- healing, feastings and so on -- in which it is instantiated, or on his death and resurrection. The Gospels have thus been seen either as a social project with an unfortunate, accidental and meaningless conclusion, or as passion narratives with extended introductions. . . .

The resurrection of Jesus is to be seen not as the proof of Jesus' uniqueness, let alone his divinity -- and certainly not as the proof there is life after death . . . but as the launching within the world of space, time and matter of that God-in-public reality of new creation called God's kingdom . . .
But perhaps John Donne said it best:
RESURRECTION, IMPERFECT.
by John Donne

SLEEP, sleep, old sun, thou canst not have repass'd,
As yet, the wound thou took'st on Friday last ;
Sleep then, and rest ; the world may bear thy stay ;
A better sun rose before thee to-day ;
Who—not content to enlighten all that dwell
On the earth's face, as thou—enlighten'd hell,
And made the dark fires languish in that vale,
As at thy presence here our fires grow pale ;
Whose body, having walk'd on earth, and now
Hasting to heaven, would—that He might allow
Himself unto all stations, and fill all—
For these three days become a mineral.
He was all gold when He lay down, but rose
All tincture, and doth not alone dispose
Leaden and iron wills to good, but is
Of power to make e'en sinful flesh like his.
Had one of those, whose credulous piety
Thought that a soul one might discern and see
Go from a body, at this sepulchre been,
And, issuing from the sheet, this body seen,
He would have justly thought this body a soul,
If not of any man, yet of the whole.

Desunt Caetera

Friday, June 06, 2008

This week's Sabbath School lesson: the meaning of Christ's death

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (I Corinthians 2:1-2, NIV).
This week's topic reminds me of the time I went to my doctor with one of my usual maladies.

"There are several ways we could treat this," he told me.

"That's good," I said.

"No, that's bad," he replied. "If any of them actually worked, there'd only be one way to treat this!"

Likewise, the fact there are two, common ways to explain Christ's death suggests that neither of them really "works."

Keep this in mind as your class settles into its usual argument of:
  • Anselm versus Abelard,
  • objective versus subjective,
  • propitiation versus expiation,
  • Andrews versus Loma Linda,
  • and forensic versus moral influence views of the atonement.
With the expertise that comes from long practice, each side will quickly home in on the other's weakness.
  • And yes, Anselm's forensic view of the atonement can become a form of "heavenly child abuse" -- one in which a God of Wrath is persuaded to forgive us only by killing His own son.
  • Then again, Abelard's moral influence theory all too easily degenerates into what Father Guido Sarducci used to call "Disneyland Thelogy," i.e. the belief that "God ain't a gonna hurt nobody."
In short, both views have weaknesses -- and both have strengths:
  • Anselm's view correctly points out our continuing need for God's mercy; there's no nonsense here about a people who are "safe to be saved."
  • Abelard's view correctly points out God's willingness to save us; there's no nonsense here about Jesus somehow "persuading" God to love us.
That's why you need to help your class understand and appreciate both points of view. Like your fingers and thumb, in other words, neither view is enough in itself; you'll need both to grasp this subject.