Saturday, April 29, 2017

Life by Grace by Linden Malki

It is very easy, in today's world, or any day's world for that matter, to talk about "love" and "grace" without judgment and responsibility. Paul, in 2 Timothy, lists situations where it is necessary to do things right in order to get the results you need.  It is easy to have good motives, but if your efforts don't accomplish anything useful, you have wasted your time.  The point is not to merely feel bad about your sins, repent and accept grace, and then go back to the same way you were living.  You're still stuck with your old self.

Keeping in mind the background of St Paul's prison letters, we should realize that the world we live in today is more like the world he lived in than perhaps any period before or since.  But in one way it is even more dramatic: the numbers of Christian martyrs was greater in the 20th Century (estimated at about 70 million) than in all the centuries since the first--and that doesn't include war casualties and other deaths not involving religious identity.  This has happened all over the world; the Middle East, China, Russia, and more. We know of the 6 million Jews who disappeared during the Nazi years, but most people don't realize that another 6 million Christians disappeared as well. One of the best-known martyrs in Germany at that time was a young Lutheran pastor named Dietrich Bonhoeffer.   He had come from a prominent family, and was developing a reputation as a preacher, theologian and writer by the age of 24, not only in Germany but in New York and England.  He realized even before Hitler came to power that this was a movement that intended to become a counterfeit god in Europe, and establish an idolatry based on the power of man. He became part of a group of churches that resisted collaboration with the Nazis, and at one point was taken to the US by friends who thought he would be safer outside of Germany, but he realized that his place was back with the German people in what he knew would be a time of trial. He was a pacifist, but decided that it was not enough to avoid the war, but that the spiritual fate of Germany depended upon the defeat of the Nazis, and became part of a movement to destroy the Nazi government. He, his sister and her husband were arrested by the Gestapo in 1943. In prison, he was able to inspire, comfort, and minister to other prisoners, and even some of the guards, who smuggled his writings out of prison. He was hanged by the express command of Himmler, just a few days before the prison he was in was liberated by the Allies.

One of Bonhoeffer's major books is "The Cost of Discipleship", in which he talks about grace as not cheap. "It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life." * He also wrote about obedience: "He who believes is obedient; and only who is obedient believes." * He pointed out that our record of Jesus' call to his disciples was very simple: "Follow me." No begging, no bribes, no threats. "Because Jesus is the Christ, he has the authority to call and demand obedience to his Word. Jesus summons men to follow him not as a teacher or a pattern of the good life, but as Christ, the Son of God." *

One of his most unforgettable statements is "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die." Like St Paul, he believed with his whole being that his call was to follow Jesus, even at the cost of his earthly life.
*The Cost of Discipleship p47. p69, p62

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Frying Pan to Fire--by Linden Malki

Some of St Paul's most life-filled letters were written from prison.  The one we are reading these few weeks, 2 Timothy, is probably his last letter.  What is amazing is that is no indication of frustration or depression; it includes one of the most inspiring verses in all his many letters:  "But I am not ashamed, for I know him in whom I have believed. and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I've committed unto Him against that Day."  There is one disappointment that we do see: how many people who claimed to follow Christ ignored what happened to him.

The prison he is in is Rome, but was Jews who put him there.  It started with his visit to Jerusalem about 57 AD when a mob of Jews  started a riot against him. It took a cohort of Roman soldiers to rescue Paul. (Acts 21+) The final upshot of the situation was that for several years the Romans didn't know what to do with him, and Paul, not wanting to be turned over to the mobs, appealed to Caesar, his right as a Roman citizen, and was sent to Rome. This was about 61-62 AD, and  Jerusalem was approaching disaster. The Jerusalem church saw their leader James thrown off the highest point in the Temple and clubbed to death at the bottom--they recognized Jesus' warning prophecies  and they moved to Pella, on the other side of the Jordan. Paul arrived in Rome probably around 62 AD; the Roman authorities put him under a mild house arrest.  He may have been released  able to make another missionary journey, possibly to Spain?  We do know that he wound up back in a Roman prison, probably about 64 AD.  The problem with appealing to Caesar was that the reigning Caesar was Nero.

Nero had become Emperor in 57 AD, but was not a nice person. He believed himself to be a talented singer and harp player.  In April of 64, there was a major fire in the city of Rome; raged for days and demolished
or damaged a good part of the city. Nero was out of town when it started, but returned quickly.  There were rumors that he had been seen on a place overlooking the fire, singing a ballad about the destruction of Troy in ancient Greece. ("Fiddles" were still in the future.) He did provide aid to fire victims, but cleared most of the area to build an enormous palace The rumor began to spread through the city that Nero had been behind the fire for his own plans. He countered by scapegoating a small cult with no political clout, the "Christians"; this was the first official persecution of Christians outside of Judea. Church tradition is that both Peter and Paul were executed during this time; Peter by crucifixion and Paul by beheading.  I think this is a very probable dating; the obsession with creative ways to kill Christians faded as Nero had other problems.  Judea blew up in 65, and Rome sent troops.  The legions in Germany and Britain revolted; Nero spent much of 65-67 in Greece, was called home and suicided under threat of execution in 68.

There were those in Jerusalem who thought that killing Jesus and Paul would wipe out the threat to their established power; Nero saw this little band of Christians as expendable. Paul and the church were caught between the frying pan of Judea and the fire of Rome; and yet God's people survived, as Paul told Timothy they would.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

SHOW and SUBSTANCE-by Linden Malki

      One of the puzzling incidents in Jesus' ministry was the "cursing of the fig tree" on the day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which had included his driving out the merchants and moneylenders in the Temple courtyards. (Mark 11, Matthew 21). His disciples were surprised that he had expected figs at this time of year, and took what they saw as his disappointment out on the tree.  In his message last Sunday, Dougie pointed out that what Jesus was condemning was not as much this particular tree, but the fruitlessness of people.  Fig trees produce an early crop of smaller fruits, followed by the growth of leaves and then a later main crop, so there is a period in late spring and summer where the trees have leaves but no fruit, so as a species they can be used as a parable of show without substance.

      The religious culture of Jerusalem at that historical time included four major subcultures, all with a commitment to what they saw as God's requirements, but mutually hateful and judgmental.  Jesus had said that they had all lost the point of their heritage, some worse than others, and they were not producing the fruit of God's love that they were called to.  The Temple establishment, including the high priests, were mostly descendants of Zadok, the high priest at the time of David and Solomon.  These Sadducees, as they were known, had as their main concern the Temple worship and sacrifices; they followed the written law from Moses, but didn't believe in the authenticity of the traditions passed down by word of mouth.  They also had a deal with Rome; they guaranteed civil peace in return for Roman support of their religious power; and they were admirers of the Greek & Roman culture.  They also used the sacrificial system to line their own pockets--the only sacrificial animals they would allow to be used in the Temple were the ones they raised and sold to worshippers, and only in Jewish shekels--and they controlled the money-changers.  Their reaction to the public reaction to the raising of Lazarus was that Jesus was a threat to their tightly balanced deal with Rome (John 11), and the incident in the Temple was the last straw.

      The other religious party were mostly ordinary people who were committed to studying and teaching not only the written law, but the Oral Law that they claimed had been transmitted in parallel.  They also had no tolerance for those who did not observe all the laws,  be they pagans or other Jews.  They were known as Pharisees, derived from a Hebrew word for "separate". They produced major scholars, and were the backbone of the synagogues,  communities of Jewish men who met regularly for prayer and study. These communities had grown up in Babylon during the captivity around scholars who worked to preserve the Jewish tradition among the exiles.  We have many stories of Jesus' discussions with the Pharisees; they were concerned with everyday life as an observer of the Laws,  but tended to see the law as an end in itself.  Many of them were totally judgmental of  Jesus and his teaching, but there were those who understood and became Jesus followers.

      The other two parties were the Essenes and related groups who withdrew from the mainstream to observe the law even more strictly, and the Zealots who were political revolutionaries whose aim was to destroy the Roman occupation and all man-made political authority, expecting this to lead to direct government by God.  They are the ones who triggered the insurrection that led to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 65-70 AD. The Sadducees and priests disappeared when the Temple was destroyed; the Pharisees became the core of the rabbinical Judaism that has survived to this day. As the church downplayed legalism, the rabbis developed it even further.

       Showy leaves without fruit are useless; how often do we in today's churches put on a big show of our own in worship and rules without the fruits of love that Jesus preached?

Saturday, April 8, 2017

REAL LIFE--by Linden Malki

We are blessed to having been born into a beautiful world. Not perfect (by our standards), but with the capacity to be breathtakingly gorgeous, and also the capacity for being scary and rotten and downright ugly.  Very often, however, the ugliness has a connection with the something we human beings have done or not done--often with the best of intentions, but unfortunately, intentions have little to do with actual reality. In fact, we do not do reality well. Left to ourselves, our self is the main priority in our life. Unfortunately (again) we tend to think that our "feelings" are a good guide to what is best; even when there are actual facts that we could find if we looked in the right places, that would take all the fun out of how we "feel."

What we don't want to recognize is something actually true that was said a long time ago, but is no less true for that: "He who would save his own life will lose it, and he who gives up his own life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?" (Luke 9:24-25) If we live our lives with what we feel like at the moment, or what we think will make us happy as our guide, it often doesn't work as well as we expect.  How often online to we see a online posting that says something like "Remember this celebrity when they were successful and beautiful, and look what they are now!"  We don't always admit we got off track somehow...and even at best the end of our life may not be what we want.

What does it look like to "give up your life for My sake"?  What makes a difference is who is speaking!  There are a lot of things and people out there who make a promise like this, and most of them are dead ends, because they are not any more than any other human being.  Putting our human selves first, even though we may know that there is a Creator who is more than human, and even try to follow His instructions, doesn't get us where we need to be. It is only when we put what we see as our own self-interest as what St Paul calls a "living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God" as our true spiritual worship, that we live up to what we are created to be. Not that we do it perfectly; in fact, we don't really do a very good job of it--but what we do have is the mercy and grace of God, and spiritual strength available when we have the good sense to ask.

Mexicali mission Nov 2016
OK, what does this reality look like?  Moses said it like this: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength." (Deut 6:4-5) and like this: "You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord." (Leviticus 19:18). Jesus confirned it to a questioning scribe: "So the scribe said to Him, “Well said, Teacher. You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He. And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:32-34)  God has created each of us as an individual. What He will call each of us to do will be our responsibility; our Jerusalem, our Judea, our Samaria, and our world.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Prayer from the heart--by Linden Malki

Nobody has truly understood the traditional Jesus Prayer: "Jesus, Savior, have mercy on  me!" better than a man a thousand years before Jesus walked this earth.  David, who was called a man after God's own heart,  shows that heart as he prays:  Have mercy on me; wash me clean of my guilt. I am aware of my sin, which you have the right to judge. Teach me wisdom, wash me whiter than snow. Only you can create a clean heart in me! Give me a new spirit, that keeps me in Your presence. I bring you the sacrifice of a broken spirit. Renew my joy, be my savior.  I will teach others the Way, and speak your praise to all the earth. *

This was a man who knew that prayer is less about asking and more about listening to God and His prophets. He, like Patrick 1400 years later, spent years as a very young man alone with sheep out on the hills, listening and being molded by God, and as an older man, shaping the destiny of a nation under God. David understood that God has told us how to live the life He intended for us, but also that God as given us freedom, knowing that we will fall short on our own, but He will--if we ask with humility of spirit--give us a clean heart and a fresh start.

As I was writing this, I got a phone call from my son David that his firstborn son arrived this evening, several weeks earlier than expected.  I've watched Dave, over the past few months, beginning to look at life from a different perspective; over the years it's  been interesting watching my kids turn into parents.  By making us partners in the project of raising His children, God transforms us, and gives us a glimpse of how much He loves us and what He wants His family to be. As a church family, we are being blessed by new babies and grandbabies; and as we love them and watch over them 24/7. we need to keep the line open to our Heavenly father, and not just pray occasionally, but learn, in the words of St Paul, to "pray without ceasing."
* Condensed from Psalm 51, Jerusalem Bible