Thursday, May 21, 2009

Only Jesus

Yesterday was full. Prayer first thing in the morning, some time at church, lunch with my sister Lisa's for her birthday, hospital visits, time at the Luther Seminary Library. In the evening with my daughter Naomi, I attended a live interview with the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships... the WHOFBNP--what a terrible acronymn!

The interview was hosted by National Public Radio's Krista Tippett. The daughter of a southern baptist minister, she interviews people of a variety of religious backgrounds for her radio show Speaking of Faith. Also on stage was someone I hadn't seen since 1981--David Stenshoel, a member of the "world music" group Boiled in Lead.

I enjoy variety, so it was a personally good day, even though some parts of it were troubling. Those I visited in the hospitals are long-term sufferers,* longing for a at least a bit of relief. (Lynda Peterson referred to this on Monday as "the new normal..." she and her husband John are dealing with that--an acceptance of discomfort and limitations while being able to keep moving on with some energy from day to day.)

Then, as I did research at the seminary and as I listened to WHOFBNP director Joshua DuBois I was reminded of how many questions come up around our faith. There are lots of "faiths" in this world. Christian denominations and other religions abound even in Minnesota! So is our faith simply something we "use" because it "works" for us (and another one might work for someone else)--or does it actually connect us with the truth? How confident can we be that God does actually love us, specifically through Jesus Christ, and will actually save us, body and soul, for heaven?

What is there about Christianity that stands above everything else? How can we confidently teach the Bible to our children, believing it is true? It's one thing to teach it in a community where everyone shares the same beliefs, but as we are now living, more and more, in a pluralistic culture--when youth come to me with questions about their Muslim cousins and church members ask more and more questions about other religions--how is it that can keep believing in one set of truths and one true God? Or do we need to admit that one thing is as good as another?

(I heard a preacher recently say that unless we do "signs and wonders" people won't believe. Well, yesterday, we did pray during our hospital visits, and there were reasons to be thankful, but any "signs and wonders" were hidden from my view. What's to say that prayer or anything else connected with Christianity is just effective because we "think" it is?)

I believe there is only one thing that sets Christianity apart. It's not any special effectiveness to our prayers that you can see from the outside. It's not any wealth or power that God gives to believers. It's not even love or kindness or justice or wisdom. You will find these all over the world in many a religious and philosophical guise. Goodness, mercy, and even the gifts of God are found the world over. As Jesus says in Matthew 5:45 and Luke 6:35, God is good to all people everywhere.

The one thing that sets us apart is the cross of Christ--that is, what God has done in Jesus Christ--in his incarnation, sacrificial death and resurrection--all for the good of undeserving sinners like me. Whenever we stray far from that center, and stand up for any one particular Christian tradition, when we drift from the ONCE IN A WORLD blessing given by Jesus, we really don't have much to say. Other than that, we do have an awful lot in common with many, many people around the world. Other than that, we don't have a tremendous amount to add.

Through his "only begotten son" Jesus Christ, our creator God did what was necessary to save sinful sufferers like me and those I visited and heard yesterday. Knowing his love and forgiveness does bring healing, many times--and the only way we can have assurance of being saved is to cling in faith to the cross of Christ--but the work is done by God himself. The work isn't done in what we do for God. It's not even done not even in in having faith--which is always broken and imperfect. We are always weak, always in need, always fleeing to the one who died and rose again.

So, when we pray for those who are ill, we remind them of what Jesus did for them. And when we talk with people whose faith differs, we simply restate the truth that has been passed down to us. As Paul writes in First Corinthians 15...
3 For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4 and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. 9 For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 11 Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe.
Only there do we find solid ground. That is the beginning and the end. And the wonderful thing is Jesus did that for the world! Let's let everyone know about the center of the faith... the rest we can chat about and have our opinions about... but we dare not put to much stock anywhere except in the cross and resurrection of our Lord.

*see my Oct. 2008 post A Community of Sufferers.

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