A Post-Resurrection Meditation

Two events are juxtaposed in my current experience. We just celebrated the resurrection of Jesus from the dead—the one cataclysmic event that validates both His and our claims about what is collectively called the Christian Faith. And now, this coming Saturday, we will pause to celebrate the life of one of our friends and Christian brothers. The brother passed from this life a couple of weeks ago, and his memorial service is two days away.

Resurrection and death. We can’t really have one without the other. This struck me afresh a few years ago as I was re-reading John 11. I can hardly make it through a memorial service without reading Jesus’ stirring words to the sister of a friend that had just died. He said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26a, NIV). What a dramatic and powerful statement in the house of mourning! When I read that statement afresh, it struck me as if for the first time, there is no resurrection without death. For Jesus Himself to be “the resurrection,” then He must first experience death. The writer to the Hebrews says, “… He suffered death, so that by the grace of God He might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9, NIV, my emphasis).

“Taste death for everyone.” What a phrase! Just a paragraph or so later, that same writer says this: “He too [meaning Jesus] shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery to their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15, NIV). So, Jesus has taken death into Himself so that through His resurrection He might conquer the power of death over God’s children once and for all.

As I see it, that changes everything for this coming Saturday! My friend confirmed his personal faith in the grace of God expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ just a couple of years ago, at the age of 80. It was a great pleasure to baptize him to declare the renewal of his faith in Jesus. So this Saturday, we are not just looking back to remember a life that is now over. Rather, we are not only looking back with gratitude, but even more, we are looking forward with hope to a life that is just now beginning.

For the followers of Jesus, Death has been transformed from the Executioner to the Escort. He is no longer tasked simply to cut short this mortal life, but now he is called to guide Jesus’ people to the door of the fullness of eternal life. Death and resurrection. This changes everything for every day, doesn’t it? The question Jesus asked Martha after His resounding and audacious claim to be “the resurrection and the life” was challenging: “Do you believe this?” Good question for us, too.

Smiley Mudd

 

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For Christians the Cross of Jesus Is Empty.

There is a rather sad conversation I read about some years ago now that illustrates a fundamental ignorance of what lies at the heart of Christian belief. A woman was shopping for a necklace in a jewelry store, and the man behind the counter was eager to cater to her needs. She said that she was interested in a cross pendant, and he said, “Oh, yes, we have some nice cross necklaces. Would you like a plain one, or would you rather have one with a little man on it?”

“A little man on it”? Really? Why not ask a Muslim why so many Muslims have Muhammad in their names. As far as jewelry goes, the cross should be a sobering reminder of the focus of Christian faith. Those who have come to follow Jesus confess that he “died for our sins according to the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3, NET). Whether cross-jewelry depicts Jesus on the cross or whether it is plain is not that big of a deal, on the merely aesthetic level. As a university professor of mine used to say, “Pay your money and take your choice.”

However, as a matter of conviction, I argue for what the late Michael Green of Regent College, Vancouver, B. C., called “the empty cross of Jesus.” In a book by that title, he made a good case from the New Testament of the Bible that Christians have always considered the death of Christ as a necessary element of Christian teaching, but only one of two essential elements. The next phrases of that sentence from 1 Corinthians continue the thought: “… and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day according to the scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:4-5, NET).

In short, Christians believe in the death of Jesus for the sins of the world, and they believe that He was raised to life again by the power of God the Father. This two-sided affirmation of truth is the center of what Christians call the gospel, or “good news.” Everything else in Christian thought and life rest on these twin confessions about the death and the resurrection of Jesus. The cross is a sobering reminder that forgiveness from God comes as a result of His sacrificial love. “God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NET). Because He died for us, we can now be reconciled to God through our faith in Jesus (cf. Romans 5:9-10). But that is not the whole story. The death of Jesus makes possible reconciliation with God, and the life of Jesus makes that salvation complete (cf. Romans 5:10-11).

Many churches depict the cross prominently in their places of worship because it is a standing reminder of the love of God shown to the world through the death of Jesus. As we would affirm, He died that we might live. But that cross is empty, because it was not the end of the story. As Jesus Himself said to all His followers, “Because I live, you will live too” (John 14:19b, NET). In His resurrection, Jesus not only confirmed the truth of His claims, He also assured those who believe those claims that death has been made powerless over them. The contemporary of William Shakespeare, John Donne, captured this in one of his holy sonnets. Here is how that poem begins and ends:

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so.

Why? For a variety of reasons, but especially …

One short sleep past, we wake eternally,

And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.

Smiley Mudd

Lent for the Non-Liturgical of Jesus’ People

This year on Wednesday, March, 6, the faithful among Jesus’ followers in liturgical traditions will gather for Ash Wednesday. It is the first day of Lent, a period of 40 days concluding on Holy Saturday, the day before Resurrection Sunday (aka, Easter). It is called Ash Wednesday because ashes are used to write the shape of the cross on the foreheads of the devoted. For Roman Catholics, the ashes are from the palm leaves from the past year’s Palm Sunday. Being from a non-liturgical tradition (Baptist), I have typically not paid that much attention to these details of Lent. In my preaching ministry, however, I often spend several weeks in the build-up to Resurrection Sunday focusing on the cross of Christ, sometimes including a series on the Seven Sayings from the Cross. We also hold a Good Friday service each year during Holy Week, the week before Resurrection Sunday.

Lent is worth a second look for non-liturgical Christians. The Lenten season is an extended period of personal spiritual review, of acts of private devotion, and of a focus on serving others. Since I am looking on this from the outside, I find little to criticize in such spiritual disciplines. Examining our hearts before God, turning aside from our busy and often self-serving lives to spend additional times in prayer and thoughtful reading, and taking time to serve others in Jesus’ name are always beneficial. I suspect that focusing on these for 40 days can have a valuable effect on the next 325 days in the year until the following Ash Wednesday.

Fasting is also practiced during Lent. Nowadays, even liturgical Christians only call for a fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In ancient times, partial fasting lasted three weeks in Rome and up to seven weeks in Eastern churches, eating only one limited meal a day during those weeks. Now, liturgical Christians often “fast” from something they enjoy during the season—maybe pizza, a favorite television program or TV altogether, or chocolate [It doesn’t seem to be all that devoted to me to give up broccoli for Lent]. Again, we non-liturgical Christians might be so afraid of appearing to try to earn our salvation that we miss the spiritual value of self-denial.

As I see it, a scheduled time of intentional focus on the grace and goodness of God in Christ and of my need for what only Christ can do for my human spiritual brokenness is a very good thing. Paul speaks of the training of the athlete as an appropriate comparison for spiritual discipline (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). He says, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:27, ESV). Lent is the spiritual opportunity to “discipline my body and keep it under control” by self-imposed limitations on personal freedom. It is an opportunity to enter a season of preparation, so that we can better “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1, ESV). I am praying about how I might learn from our historical and liturgical family in Christ.

Smiley Mudd

Finding Our Way Back Home

Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.” This is what Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008) heard when he was still a boy from older people in his native Russia. The Soviet experiment in communism (atheist at its core) would eventually be revealed for the horror story it was, largely due to Solzhenitsyn’s prodigious literary output. When he was receiving the Templeton Award in religion in 1983, he said, “If I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened” (from E Ericson and D. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader: New and Essential Writings, 1947-2005, p. 577).

In that same lecture, he concluded that this would identify “the principal trait of the entire twentieth century: ‘Men have forgotten God’” (ibid., his emphasis). Remembering God, and what He has done for all humanity in the Person and Work of Jesus the Christ, is the goal of the Church. We are called to be agents of restoration, to help people recover spiritual vitality, to remember the way Home.

This has happened before. During the latter third of the sixth century before Christ, a strange twist in history occurred. It was foretold by Jeremiah the prophet (see Jeremiah 25:11; 27:22; 29:10). A pagan ruler of the Medo-Persian Empire, Cyrus by name, decreed that the people descended from Israel could return to their land, aided by the financial support of their neighbors, to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem and resume the worship of YHWH, “God of heaven.” The story of this return over the next century is told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The narrative is full of interesting food for thought regarding how God wishes to restore proper worship and the practices of faith for His people in Christ. The parallels are not exact, but they are worth thinking about for life in Christ today. How easy it is for all of us to “forget God,” to go about our lives as though the God who created, redeemed, and sustains us was not really there at all. Some have critiqued modern faith and concluded that it is purely theoretical, without any real impact on the way life is lived. They have observed a “practical atheism.”

As I see it, here is the value of the entire Old Testament storyline. “For everything that was written the past [i.e., the Old Covenant Scriptures] was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4, NIV). Ezra teaches us what finding our way back to our true spiritual home in God’s revelation will involve. There is adventure, risk, opposition, and the clear intervention of the hand of God. This is strikingly parallel to what it means to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. Meditation on Ezra-Nehemiah is a fruitful Christian project.

Smiley Mudd

 

Happy New Year?

In a couple of different conversations lately, friends have said, “I just hope the new year is not like last year.” I really get that. A lot of bad experience can be compressed into 365 days: job loss, the breakdown of close relationships, the death of friends or family members, the diagnosis of a serious illness. The list of Bad Experiences can extend ad nauseum. We want to say, “Happy New Year!” and then really hope that something that at least reminds us of happiness is really included in the coming 52 weeks.

I remember a mild shock a few years ago when I was looking closely at the book of Psalms for a potential series of messages to present to our fellowship of Jesus’ followers. I was planning to present one message each week through the year. So, I was looking for about 50 psalms to study and then to expound for our congregation over the coming 12 months. I wanted to select psalms that represented the variety and power of the whole book. It was a spiritually beneficial process.

And so, I came to Psalm 78. This “Maskil of Asaph” as the Hebrew heading reports, begins with a standard Old Covenant theme. That theme is that every generation is called to receive the truth that God has revealed and then pass it on to the next generation. That plan is mapped out in vv. 1-7, but then, the beginning of verse 8 really caught me: “and that they should not be like their fathers,/ a stubborn and rebellious generation,/ a generation whose heart was not steadfast,/ whose spirit was not faithful to God” (v. 8, ESV, my emphasis).

As a New Year statement, Asaph was essentially saying, “Happy New Year! Now don’t follow the example of the past (years), but rather, get it right this time!” The rest of this historical psalm recounts all the ways in which God acted on behalf of His people and how each time they managed to mess it all up. Negative example. “Do not be like that!” The net result of reading through that recap of history is that, as Asaph notes, no matter how bad the human example had been, God was still faithful. Asaph expressed great hopes for the future under the rule of King David (see vv. 67-72), but we know from the rest of the story that even David didn’t get it all right, either.

As I see it, this is the value of a New Year. We are looking ahead to another 365 days in which we can learn to believe in and to trust in and to serve the living God. He has now revealed Himself even more fully through His very Son. “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19, ESV). Even if the past is full of bad examples and hard experience, we still trust in God, Who has demonstrated to us a quality of love that does not require either our perfect faithfulness or that of others (see Romans 5:8). In fact, He is in the business of salvaging life from the wrecking yard of Bad Experience. With that in mind, may God bless this new year before us.

Smiley Mudd

What Jesus’ Birth Means to Me

Christmas was a special holiday in my home growing up. One year, after my brother and I went to bed, my mother and father tied clues to the Christmas Tree with strings attached. Each of us had to follow our string all over the house reading new clues stashed here and there until it led us both back into the living room behind the couch. There we found a special gift that my brother and I still cherish. Inevitably, we could barely wait for the wrapping paper that was on yard-long cardboard cylinders to run out. Then, we would have sword fights with the cardboard cylinders. I think we were the kind of young kids that were almost more interested in the boxes in which toys were packaged than in the toys themselves.

Also, when my family gathered for Christmas Dinner, my father, who was also a pastor, took out his well-worn Bible and read part of the Christmas story—from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, if memory serves. You could sum up Christmas in my home in two words: family and faith.

I have since become painfully aware that in many homes, the Christmas season does not evoke fond memories. For many, it recalls scenes of pain and sorrow, including abuse and neglect, even abandonment or death. It may call to mind the awkward attempts to try to relate to parents who are separated by divorce, having Christmas in two places, all the while wondering why things can’t be more like they were, or more as they imagine other families are.

Now as an older adult, I appreciate even more the impact of the story: God comes down into the muck and mire of broken humanity. He humbles Himself to enter the world as a helpless infant. He is born to ordinary parents. His human life is threatened almost immediately by the human powers that could hardly celebrate the rumored birth of a “king.” And all of this is announced to the people least likely to receive a royal announcement to anything, the shepherds.

In Jesus’ time, shepherds had a bad reputation. They were usually unable to leave the flocks to maintain the Hebrew ceremonial law. They were suspected of stealing as they moved about the land. The Jewish Talmud (collection of oral traditions and interpretations) decreed that their testimony was inadmissible in court because they were unreliable. Yet, these particular shepherds were chosen by God to receive the announcement of Jesus’ birth. As the angel said to them: “I announce as good news to you a great joy which will be for all the people, because today a Savior, who is Christ the Lord, has been born for you in the city of David. And this will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12, my translation and emphasis). I think these guys really got the point: “I announce … to you a great joy which will be for all the people ….”

So, Christmas is a bold statement that the coming of Jesus is meant for “all the people” of God’s world. That means I must both take it very personally, and that also I must not keep it only to myself. It is equally meant for “all the people.”

Smiley Mudd

He nailed it … to the door, that is.

It happened today, October 31, 501 years ago. An Augustinian Monk and university professor named Brother Martin reportedly nailed a list of 95 assertions to the door of the Chapel at the University of Wittenberg in Germany. It is an iconic image: Martin Luther stands there in his brown robe and funky haircut with his 95 Theses as he nails it to the door. In truth, it may not have been quite so dramatic. Academics at that time and place called for debates in the same fashion all the time. Probably, the 95 Theses was delivered to the equivalent of the academic dean’s study.

What Luther wished to debate was the practice called Indulgences. Indulgences were rather like “Get Out of Jail” Monopoly cards with a Catholic Christian application. The person in possession of an Indulgence was assured that the decree listed on that certificate guaranteed pardon from all sins for the named individual, so that the person it was purchased for would be able to pass out of Purgatory into Heaven immediately. This practice was based on the growing belief in the 13th-15th centuries that the Roman Catholic Pope held the absolute power of forgiveness and could grant it to whomever he willed. The Pope was also raising money to build St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Heck-of-a fundraiser, eh? The Pope gets the money needed to build the Basilica and the people’s loved ones get out of Purgatory. Everybody wins!

Such a practice was accepted by the people because they had no way of really questioning it. The Bible of their time and place was in Latin, and there weren’t that many copies around—and the people in Germany and most of Europe didn’t speak or read Latin anymore. In short, they just accepted what their church leaders told them and did the best they could with it.

Enter Martin Luther. The timing of his appointment to the University of Wittenberg to teach Bible and theology seems providential. Right about that time the Renaissance scholar Erasmus had published a new edition of the New Testament in the original Greek language. The newly invented printing press had just been around for about 60 years, and this device made it possible for the Greek New Testament to be distributed far and wide. Luther was a skilled academic, and he had access to this new edition of the New Testament. He began to read and study it, as he taught the book of Romans to his students. Slowly it dawned on him that forgiveness was already completely purchased by the finished work of Jesus Christ in His death and resurrection. And so, the 95 Theses was born to invite other scholars to debate the difference between the teaching of the New Testament and the practices of their contemporary Church.

As I see it, here is what happens when we go back to our Bibles and read them carefully. We are ultimately drawn to Jesus Christ and to His finished work for our salvation. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12 ESV). We realize that we can add nothing to that but our faith and loving obedience. Such a realization can change the world. It did so before.

Smiley Mudd

The dead can still teach us.

“Tradition,” writes G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy, “means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead” (from chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland”).

Every year in October, some branches of the Christian faith celebrate the dawning of the Reformation (even as some other branches ignore or vilify it), marked by the date that Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses for academic debate. He chose October 31, 1517, to do so, a date that he believed had already become encrusted with extra-Biblical and even pagan practices. He never dreamed that his little invitation to academic debate would be lifted from its context at the university, published far and wide, and set off a movement that still rocks the world, Christian and otherwise.

We can learn from those Reformers still and from many others who lived before and after them. What is so refreshing about reading (almost invariably in translation for me) great souls of the past is that they usually address questions that we, too, ask, but they answer them in a different manner and from a different cultural milieu. Even Christian writers from the past who may share our essential convictions often draw attention to ideas and practices that we neglect. Now and then, they hold to viewpoints that we can’t share completely, but they just as often challenge us to think more Christianly about matters we take for granted.

In 1944, C. S. Lewis wrote the preface to a new edition of a classic by Athanasius called On the Incarnation of the Word of God. That little pamphlet was first sent out into the world in the mid-4th century, when professing Christians were hotly debating the very nature of Jesus Christ. Lewis obviously thought reading such books would really be good for us at present. “Every age has its own outlook,” he writes. “It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” He goes on: “The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.” What is so great about this now is that many of these “classics” can be read for free online or with a digital reader. For example, I became interested in G. K. Chesterton a few years ago, and so I checked my Kindle to see what might be available. I found 34 different Chesterton titles for free. So, for the next two hours I felt like Christmas had come as I downloaded all of them.

Learning from great souls from the past is just an extension of what the Apostle Paul observes about the Old Covenant Scriptures: “For as many things as were written beforehand were written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and through the encouragement of the scriptures we might keep on having this hope” (Romans 15:4, my translation). Every time we open our Bibles, we are learning from those long dead who have had profound and eternity shaping experience with God. Their viewpoint is foundational for ours if we are followers of Jesus today. Then, as we read the books of those who have lived since that time, we learn that people continued to have profound and eternity shaping experience with God based on the teaching of Scripture and their own personal walk with God. And that encourages us to persevere, indeed.

Smiley Mudd

“That time of year thou may’st in me behold …”

While recovering from some work at our Upper County Project (moving gravel up a hill and into a new drain field around the foundation), a Christian brother and I were leaning on our vehicles and sharing about our lives. My brother lost his wife to cancer just about 6 months ago. We were considering the impact of her death, not just on him, but on all who knew and loved her.

One of our clearest conclusions was just how quickly life can take a drastic turn that changes everything. I can’t pretend to fully understand the depths of his grief. We certainly share our confident hope in the Resurrection, when all who belong to our Lord Jesus Christ in this life are called into the fullness of eternal life. That is a Reunion worthy of great anticipation. But it lies in the future, at a time set by our Lord.

In the meantime, we can all look into the mirror and see enough mortality to give us pause. I am about to have yet another birthday in a few days (on Labor Day this year, to be exact). What I see in the mirror is all of those accumulated years looking back at me. I have wondered many times about the mystery of God’s providence regarding the duration of our lives.

Not long ago, we were shocked to hear that Christine Grimmie, a 22-year-old Christian singer, was fatally shot at a concert by a crazed person. Blaise Pascal—brilliant mathematician, philosopher, and defender of the Christian faith—lived only to age 39. David Brainerd, early American missionary to native Americans, died at 29. C. S. Lewis died just short of his 65th birthday, on the same day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. JFK was only 46. Some of our good Christian friends lost a daughter at age 10. Others lost a child in arms. John Wesley lived to age 86. Nine of his 18 siblings died in infancy.

What does all this mean? I am at a loss to understand or to explain the mystery of any one lifespan. To pretend to understand it well would be great hubris. I must simply bow my mind before the One Who sees with a much wider angle that we can, and say, “The will of the Lord be done.”

In William Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73, the Bard muses on the uncertainty of the future and the likelihood of checking out of the world in the not-too-distant future. The speaker in the poem sees himself as the fall of the year about to pass into winter, the twilight of the day soon to yield to the night, and a barely glowing fire nearly to burn out. He closes with these lines,

“This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,

To love that well, which thou must leave ‘ere long.

As I see it, this is Christian wisdom. “It is appointed to a person to die once, and after that to face the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). So, we should live fully right now. Do right. Seek truth. Love fully. Trust Jesus. How much time do we really have to do so?

Smiley Mudd

What Faithfulness Looks Like

Just this past Monday, I spent a couple of hours with a pastor friend at the golf course. It is always nice to play golf with other pastors on my day off, because we usually swear in Hebrew, and it provides a good review of important vocabulary. For example, “Ruach!” with that guttural “ch,” just sounds like swearing, but really, it is the Hebrew word for breath, wind, or spirit. It is used in Genesis 2:2 for “the Spirit of God” who was “hovering over the” primeval “waters.” Perhaps uttering this aloud could be considered a kind of praying: “O Spirit of God, why did I just hover my last drive over the waters of the Yakima River! Help me!” Or maybe, “I wish my shot had hovered over the water and not simply splashed right into it. Please help me, Holy Spirit, to maintain my composure and remember this is just a game!” Or simply, “Ruach!”

Aside from important review of Hebrew vocabulary, visiting with my pastor friend this week turned to important conversation regarding health and God’s healing (he is now in remission from prostate cancer), ministry to a changing demographic over the decades, and what it means to be “successful” in ministry. That seems like a lot to talk about on a Monday, now that I mention it.

I rejoiced with him in his “all clear” report from his last PSA. We discussed what it means to minister to and with the adult children of those with whom we have partnered in service to Jesus for over two decades. And, we talked about how success is really a matter of faithfulness to our calling to speak God’s truth to whomever God brings into our realm of influence. In fact, I think we would both agree that faithfulness is success, as far as serving our Lord Jesus is concerned.

At that point in our conversation, we both realized that we had “promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep,” as the poem by Robert Frost goes, and that we couldn’t tarry outside the clubhouse or next to our vehicles any longer. We prayed together—actually on the course (it was a slow day, so we had some time between holes), and after our 9-hole experiment in humility was over, we said, “Say ‘Hi’ to your family!” to each other and went about our lives.

As I see it, faithfulness looks like this: we are becoming more and more like Jesus in the essence of our character and in the practice of our priorities (See Galatians 5:22-23 on “the fruit of the Spirit”). John tells us that Jesus came “full of grace and truth” (See John 1:14, 17). What if our lives became more and more full of grace and truth? We would then be found faithful.

Smiley Mudd