Last Judgements

Gospel Text: Matt 25:32-46
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I hate to say it, but this is an example of decent sermon prep that lacked editing and carry-through. At least 1 point two many. About a page and a half too long. And missing a story element. Although I do have to add that I’m amazed I didn’t see more yawns. Probably because I didn’t have it down enough to deliver it and was looking down at my paper too much to see them.

Ok, done beating myself up. At an intellectual and a personal piety level this text is a grenade. What I will say is that the Last Judgment from Matthew confronts and contradicts so many of our doctrinal and de facto pieties that it would be tough not to lapse into homiletic underwear and lecture. On its face the judgment is based on ethical reasons. If all you had was the last judgement from Matthew you’d have to say that Pelagius was the saint and Augustine then heretic. I think I describe the web of texts to evaluate that, to put it into the larger story, but it would be much better to have the bible open in front with the possibility for questions and conversation. Putting that aside, our culture in general has moved beyond that debate of works and grace. The phrase translated eternal punishment just isn’t believed by most people. There are different scriptural ways of addressing it that give due pause to abyss we are staring into, but most of America just doesn’t lend credence to the concept of hell. The way I typically describe it for bible study folks is that my impression is most of America has accepted the gospel without hearing the law. They don’t know what they are doing in other words. They take the cheap grace without pausing to think if it is fool’s gold.

The last part which dominates the sermon and would have been the core point is that we modern Americans just don’t understand monarchy. What lands the goats in fire is not that they are evil to their core. They answer Lord. They wonder when they haven’t been good. Thinking of a human King – arguing from lesser to greater – you can immediately see the times when it is what you didn’t do that got you in trouble. It is what you don’t do that typically brings into question the kind. If the King says – “do the will of my Father” and then you proceed to ignore the law completely…

So, I’m glad we have a lectionary that forces these texts. I’m also glad it only comes up once every three years.

Is Hell endothermic or exothermic?

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If you are an engineering student you’ve heard the joke that goes with that question. I like that joke. I think that joke captures a whole bunch of folk wisdom beyond just being funny.

I probably should just post this and not say much. But I’m dumb that way.

To me, what the Rob Bell Hellgate speaks to is probably less about Hell and more about how we internalize faith, or make faith our own. It is one thing to say scripture alone, but as soon as you say that, you start to realize that the scriptures are not a logical systematic textbook. They are a narrative written over millenia in different cultures and languages. And that narrative is messy. Almost every group of Christians has developed a second book to help in that interpretation. The Book of Concord is the Lutheran one. Lutherans like to use Latin. We call scripture the norma normans which means the norming norm, and the Book of Concord the norma normata which means the normed norm. Irenaeus would talk of the regula fidei (more latin) which means rule of faith. The scriptures were read with the rule of faith which we today call the Nicene Creed. A Reformed Christian would read the bible with the Westminster Catechism. A Roman Catholic Christian reads the Bible with the Papal encyclicals and canon law. I like to think of those books as guideposts. They are watersheds of wisdom that capture what a large group of Christians at a given time heard in the Biblical story. It can be real dangerous to faith to go outside of them. In the case of the Creed I’d go farther. (But even there there are two splits – the Coptic/Syrian church doesn’t accept it, the Greek church doesn’t accept the procession of the Spirit from the Son, and then there is the western church in all its forms.) Ultimately these are normed norms. Occasionally you need to test them. Occasionally the church needs to remind itself that we follow the living Christ and not a new law in whatever its form. God is his own interpreter as the Hymnwriter Cowper would put it.

What Rob Bell is doing is questioning some of the planks of those secondary books. Many would, but I don’t think he’s gone outside of the Nicene Creed. But to be honest, I’m biased. What he’s prodded at in my mind is the Reformation consensus – in something minor to a Lutheran and in something core to a Reformed Christian. He’s said the story of a forever hell doesn’t make sense with the Biblical picture of God. When the culture is cohering, nobody questions the culture’s interpretation key. It is only when things get scary, when the culture is breaking apart, that the interpretation key get looked at. And that just makes things scarier. But we shouldn’t be scared. Because we are in the Father’s hands. Compared to the Reformation itself – these are very minor questions.

Missing the Obvious

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Texts: Luke 16:19-31 and Amos 6:1-7

Many heirs of the reformation can get tangled in a web of worry about legalism and works righteousness. But it is not works righteousness to encourage Kingdom values. And that is what Jesus is warning about. Decisions we make today solidify in eternity. Nobody sets out for hell, but we can end there anyway.

We all have a Lazarus at our gates wanting mercy. Can we see him? Can we discern who or what he is? If you can’t maybe its time to listen to Moses and the prophets.

One the one hand there are two big tempting fallacies: 1) history is one long decline, the past was more righteous and 2) to let the law overwhelm the gospel. They both reinforce the other. We never live up to the law. And if we become too disappointed in that, everything looks bad in comparison to the heroic saints who have gone on to their reward. I walked the line here. I’m sure some would say I walked over the line and then some. But this parable is the end of Jesus’ two chapters of parables of how the kingdom works and his great warning for those who don’t get with the program. It is the law in service to the gospel. The law is suppose to show us our sin, and chase us to the Word for grace.

From a very this worldly practical standpoint, we become what we practice. We are creatures of habit. If we practice virtue, it becomes easier. (Never easy, its a fallen world.) If we practice telling ourselves and our kids that the Word of God is meaningless, then we quickly find that we can’t hear it at all. And when you can’t hear the Word, you miss the Lazarus sitting at your gate. Luke 15-16 is a very this worldly section. Its about how the Kingdom works right now. What you choose hardens. Gates become chasms. We are all being forced into the Kingdom, the question is which side of the gate/chasm?

After lives…

This is from a review of a new book called after lives…

Augustine won out in his battle against two early Christian thinkers, Origen and Pelagius, who were declared heretics for suggesting that moral self-help could co-exist with divine grace as a means of gaining salvation. Mr. Casey notes an irony: The Vatican has never formally repudiated predestination, but the church “now in practice allows the faithful to be as cheerfully and unconsciously Pelagian as everyone else.” And “everyone else” is just about right when it comes to the U.S. A recent Gallup survey reported that 71% of Americans believe in heaven and that 93% of them think they have an excellent, good or fair chance of getting there.

I’m not sure if there is a better definition of what is wrong with religion and specifically Christianity in America. Last week we read Jesus in the Gospel of mark telling the disciples “how hard it is to enter the reign of God” (Mark 10:24) and that it is only possible with God (Mark 10:27). 93% of America has accepted the cheery notion of an easy heaven. They have accepted the Gospel without feeling the weight of the law. Matt 7:21 might be instructive to those thinking of a warm-fuzzy Jesus.

And you get the quip that we are all Pelagians now, which goes hand in hand with the above. If you think you can save yourself thorugh moral improvement, the natural consquence is a watering down of the the level of moral improvement needed until the general notion of I’m a good person, after all I’m not Charles Manson, is the required bar. What I’d really like to know is why those 7% didn’t think they had a good chance at heaven. Probably the 3.5% hard core atheists who object to the question and the 3.5% that have read the gospels.