Saturday, January 28, 2017

Mercy Not Sacrifice

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch tears away from the garment, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins. If it is, the skins burst and the wine is spilled and the skins are destroyed. But new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:14-17)

This passage should be looked at within the context of Matthew 9:13, which reads, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.'"  That verse itself is in the context of salvation.  Only those who know they are sinners in need of a savior desire Jesus and call out to him.  Everyone is a sinner, but many think they are good, because they compare themselves to other people and not God himself.  They refuse Jesus, because they don't need him.  They are not sick.  They do not need the doctor.  The sinner does.  God only saves bad people.  Everyone is bad, but most think they are good.  People who know they are bad cry out to him for salvation.  He is ready and willing to save everyone who calls out to him.  Faith is that true belief that you are a bad person who needs salvation from a good God.

So what does all this have to do with fasting and wineskins and patches on clothes?  Well, when Christ says, "I desire mercy, and not sacrifice," he is saying that he desires a sinner to cry out to him for mercy, like I wrote above, and not someone who goes through some outward ceremony to garner God's appreciation.  God is a saving God, not a pagan deity that needs to be appeased with offerings.  Fasting is one such ceremony.

Does this mean we are not to fast?  By no means, but like all sacrificial/ceremonial actions--baptism, communion, fasting, even coming to church--they are performed by the born-again Christian out of gratitude for his or her salvation.  This takes time to build up, and is only done as the Spirit inspires one.  I think this is crucial to understand, because this is something that is done in the church today.  You're a Christian now?  Here are all the duties that come with the title, here you go!  And then all of this crushing sacrificial/ceremonial stuff is laid upon the new believer as new burden.  But Christ said his yoke is easy an his burden is light.  When one becomes a Christian, the Spirit is working within him and brings forth the desire for sacrifice.  Sacrifice in no way leads to salvation, but God showing mercy does, and sacrifice only comes after salvation as an urge within the Christian to please God for saving him.  So in Acts 8, Philip brings the Ethiopian Eunuch to Christ and then this happens:

And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. (Acts 8:36-37)

Upon being converted, the desire to be baptized is built up inside by the Holy Spirit.  The desire to congregate with other Christians begins to arise, too, as well as to partake in communion.  Now, fasting is an act of repentance, and that may build up more and more as the Christian wrestles with sin.  However, a new Christian, someone who has just come to Christ, does not usually have the desire to fast, and Jesus knows this, hence our passage (Matthew 9:14-17).

The disciples of John fasted, and indeed John's was a baptism of repentance, of preparation for Christ, essentially of the Old Covenant.  It is still at heart a ceremonial conversion, and faith in Christ is still needed--the only thing that saves.  John himself says this to his disciples in John 3. I'll reprint the whole thing here:

Now a discussion arose between some of John's disciples and a Jew over purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (John 3:25-36)

John is telling his disciples, in short, the ceremonial/sacrificial practices of the Old Covenant are meaningless without faith in the one the ceremonies point to.  Now that Christ is here, we all need to put our faith in him.  Remember, the Old Testament salvation was by faith, too, but it was faith in Christ to come.  We showed we had faith by ceremonies and sacrifices, but now that Christ is come, our faith is in the Christ of the Bible, explained in the pages of scripture.  He himself has performed the ceremonies and sacrifices, and so all we need is faith without ceremony.  Now, the Holy Spirit will compel us gradually to offer insufficient sacrifices out of gratitude, but they are not the same as Old Testament sacrifices.  As John says above, all that matters is faith.  "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life."  Now, what comes after salvation is obedience out of gratitude, as the Spirit compels us.

Back to our Matthew passage, Jesus is saying the same thing.  Now that Jesus has come, repentance is not a precondition of salvation.  This is a big sticking point in the church today, and books like the Marrow of Modern Divinity have been written to point out the distinction (and have been condemned by legalists as a result). Now that the bridegroom is here, Jesus says, faith alone saves you.  There is no precondition to salvation.  Now, once you are saved, the Spirit will compel you to repent, and sometimes fast, but that is not a precondition to salvation. What Jesus is speaking out against are the people who are applying preconditions to salvation.  In Galatians, Paul is writing to a church that was saved through faith, but then Judaizers came afterward and told this church that faith was not enough and that they needed to add ceremony--not as the Spirit compelled them but as a precondition to true salvation. Your faith wasn't enough, they told the Galatian church.  Paul had to set them straight with the gospel again.

So, Jesus uses a couple of comparisons to show that when Old Covenant ceremony is yoked onto a new believer, it will quench the Spirit and crush their faith away, likewise if people of the Old Covenant say that new believers are now part of their covenant.  No, the Old Covenant people need to be converted to the New Covenant now, not the other way around!  The New Covenant is that of faith alone in Christ alone.

All of this should be encouraging to the new believer, for the good news of Christ is that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone.  Never let anyone tell you that you are "doing it wrong."  If you have an abiding faith in Christ, the Spirit will compel you to make sacrifices at the rate and speed that God knows you can handle.  Don't try to overdo your new life in Christ.  Recenter yourself with the Gospel as given to us in God's Word, and the Spirit will build a Christian life upon your faith. Don't worry! Eventually, you will be undergoing sacrifices, trials, and tribulations--and great blessings--like the rest of us!

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Prayer of Faith

Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins. (James 5:13-20)

This may be one of the most misinterpreted sections of the Bible today.  I say today, because as today's Christianity corrupts into self-worship, this passage becomes almost completely self-focused instead of God-focused.  Historically, this passage has been interpreted in the larger scope of salvation, everlasting life, and being healed from sin (forgiveness), as we will see below, but now the interpretation is very narrow, immediate, and selfish.  Let's break down the passage to glean its true interpretation:

1. When we suffer, we pray to God.
2. When we are happy in life, we praise God.

Both of these are God-directed.  This shouldn't need to be said, but the whole passage here is in the same vein.  We don't suddenly switch from God-focused to self-focused and back again.  This is all God-focused.

3. Here is the big one: if we are sick, we call the elders of the church, or our pastors, our mentors, our ministers to pray over us, and the prayer is to God. The prayer is not suddenly a magical incantation that heals us directly.  The prayer is an appeal to the God who heals.

4. When we anoint someone with oil in the name of the Lord, we are symbolically applying the messiah ("anointed one") to the sick person.  Oil was the primary healing substance in those days, but not for just any ailment.  Applying oil symbolically to encourage faith in the anointed one is applicable in any situation and is more accurate here.

5. The prayer of faith will save the one who is sick.  This is the crucial sentence.  The prayer is to God.  The prayer in this case is that of the sick person.  The prayer is in faith, because, remember our religion is based on faith alone in Christ alone.  So the prayer is of faith on the part of the sick person, and the result is salvation.  The prayer of faith will SAVE the one who is sick.  Here is where we get to the traditional understanding of this passage, and for this we must go to the Book of Common Prayer and the Visitation of the Sick order.

The order was never intended to be a healing order, as in physically healing the sick person, but praying for God's will to be done.  If we read through the order, we see that in the midst of the prayers is a rehearsal of the Articles of Faith, the Apostles Creed, for the sick one to respond to.  This rehearsal is to invoke a prayer of faith on the part of the sick person, not to immediately heal the person from his or her physical ailments but to ensure that the sick one would be saved if the sickness led to death, which it did much more often then than it does now.  In other words, the pastor or elders would visit a sick person, who had a greater chance of death in the end, and make sure that the person was saved by invoking a prayer of faith.  Today, our ailments mainly do not lead to death, and we want immediate recovery from them, so we can get on with living our worldly lives.  See the difference?

The rehearsal is followed by an examination by the minister, who asks questions regarding repentance, charity, forgiveness, making amends, and repaying debts. Finally, the sick one is allowed to pray a heart-felt prayer of repentance to God in the presence of the minister.

6. Along with salvation, we have the promise that the Lord will physically resurrect this person on the last day, based on faith alone.

7. Along with salvation and resurrection, the sick person's sins are forgiven.  We see this in the BCP order when the pastor or elder declares the forgiveness of the sick person's sins, because God has promised to forgive all sinners who truly repent and believe in Christ.

8. Verse 16 is not suddenly shifting to physical healing, either.  James exhorts his hearers to confess their sins to each other so that they may be healed (from sin, which leads to everlasting death).  The physical death of a believer does not lead to everlasting soul death but everlasting life.  Remember, God may heal the sick person physically, but also he may not.  This is why the focus of visitation to the sick is on salvation (big picture) and not necessarily the physical comfort and recovering of the person in this life.  If God wills to do that, he will.  The key is to put Christ first, the anointed one symbolically applied, in order to make sure the sick one's soul is saved alive.

9. The righteous person is not the sick one, nor is it the minister, but Christ himself.  His prayers are the ones that save his flock.  Elijah is a type and shadow of Christ, and so James' description of the prophet is not to exhort us to be like Elijah (which we should try and fail at) but to turn to Christ, who is able to stop the rain and start it up again, because he is God.

10. The final sentence of James' letter restates all of the passage above it.  Because this is not a passage about physically healing people, but instead it is about bringing back into the flock sinners who wander from the truth, are on the road to eternal death, due to the disease of sin, and saving their souls from death.  The passage is so much more than we want it to be today.  It is not about having your best life now but having your sins covered by the blood of Christ--all of your sins--past, present, and future--and gaining everlasting life.  The prayer of faith in Christ is the gospel message here.  Only the anointed one can save you.  When you are sick, reaffirm your faith, repent afresh of your sins, for God has saved your soul from death.  He has brought you back from the precipice over the abyss of darkness and has restored you to everlasting life.  He has truly healed you.