Is Christianity a Foolish Religion?

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:18

Christianity has never been without its skeptics. For those who believe wisdom is acquired only through science and reason, Christianity is foolish.

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Paul in Athens, Raphael

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church (1:18-25) he sees 2 groups that are skeptical of the Gospel: cultured Greeks and devout Jews.

The Jewish leaders demanded a sign (1:22; John 6:30). They expected God to meet their criteria for wisdom by providing irrefutable and tangible proof. They envisioned the Messiah as one who would demonstrate power and majesty, so a crucified Messiah was a contradiction in terms.

They pointed to their own law which said, “anyone hung on a pole is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23).

Cultured Greeks sought wisdom through reasoning and argument. They were enthralled with sophisticated words. In an unsuccessful mission trip to Athens, the author of Acts observed that those “who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas” (Acts 17:21). To them a Christian preacher with a blunt message was a crude and uncultured person. He was to be ridiculed, rather than to be listened to and respected (Acts 17:32).

The Christian message has always disappointed those requiring tangible evidence or airtight logic. To them, Christianity is foolish. However rational and meaningful the message of the cross is to us, we cannot respond to the arguments of worldly wisdom only with words.

God has made himself unknowable by human wisdom. He has made himself known in a crucified Messiah, which is offensive to some and irrational to others. God’s answer to the wisdom of the world is to act in power: His power to save and to change men and women is the most persuasive response to skeptics (1 Corinthians 1:18).

This wisdom may seem both foolish and weak, but it is far wiser and stronger than anything worldly wisdom can offer (1 Corinthians 1:25).

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Did I Skip Bible Verses Yesterday?

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…” (2 Timothy 3:16)

A few months ago I opened the sports section of the Washington Post and they did not supply the final score of the National’s game. The caption on the picture read something like, “the game was incomplete at the time of printing.” I knew that wasn’t end of the game.

In yesterday’s sermon, I read Mark 16:8 and commented that this was the last verse in Mark’s Gospel. Yet if you look at Mark 16 in your Bible, there are 12 more verses. Did I leave out some verses for the sake of the sermon?

biblical-manuscripts

Old and New Testament Greek manuscript from the mid 4th century

Yes, verses 9-20 describes Jesus’ appearances after his resurrection, his rebuke of this disciples and some final instructions. In verses 17-18 there are strange references to picking up snakes and drinking poison. And yet near the beginning of yesterday’s sermon, I insisted that verse 8 was the last verse in Mark.

Unless you have the King James Version, you will see a footnote after verse 8 that says something like this:

Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9–20.

Bible translators have the hard job of deciding what words best reflect the original writings. This means examining hand written documents. When 2 or more manuscripts are different, they must choose which one is the most reliable. When translating Mark’s Gospel into English, the translators noticed that earlier manuscripts did not include Mark 16:9-20. Which means the verses were probably added years later and by a different author.

That doesn’t mean these events didn’t happen or that God can’t speak through Mark 16:9-20. It does mean that when Mark finished his Gospel, he wrote the only ending he could: the women saw the empty tomb, and were afraid to tell anyone about it. The story was incomplete at the time of printing.

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Pontius Pilate: Ruthless or Indecisive Governor?

When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a [c]tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this [d]just Person. You see to it.” Matthew 27:24

The Gospel writers give their account of Christ’s passion, they were not trying to give a biography of Pontius Pilate. Without historical context, It is easy for us to see Pilate as a weak and indecisive governor. He is afraid of an angry mob, so he gives in to the Jewish aristocracy and has Jesus crucified.

But history and other New Testament passages describe a Pontius Pilate who could be ruthless and willing to keep the peace at all costs.

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, when Pilate brought images of Caesar on Roman shields and standards into Jerusalem, protesters gathered. He threatened to ”cut them in pieces, and gave intimation to the soldiers to draw their swords.” The Jewish protestors refused to budge, and Pilate eventually relented.

Josephus also tells us that Pilate built an aqueduct using temple treasury money. When protestors gathered, he had soldiers dress like common men, “gave the signal from his tribunal, and many of the Jews were so sadly beaten, that many of them perished by the stripes they received.”

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Behold the Man (Ecce Homo) – James Tissot

Philo, a Jewish philosopher, described Pilate’s “…corruption, his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned.”

Luke mentions the “Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices” (13:1).

According to John, a detachment (speira) of soldiers accompanied Judas and temple officials at Jesus’ arrest  (18:12). The Greek word speira is a cohort of 600 Roman soldiers, who would have been under Pilate’s command.

Pilate normally would not hesitate to crucify a political threat or slaughter an angry mob. Why does he hesitate on Good Friday?

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Binge Watching While Sheltering

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. Jeremiah 29:11-13

The shelter in place has forced us to entered our Holy Weekend in an unprecedented way. We practice social distancing, while we learn new ways to connect with one another.

As we continue in our much-needed social distancing, I challenge us all to practice distancing from distractions. With so many postponed sporting events, movie releases and concerts, it’s easy to seek other forms of entertainment. We turn to television, computers, social media, tablets and phones to pass the time. A shelter in place provides opportunities to lose ourselves in front of a screen.

By the Waters of Babylon, Gebhard Fugel

After a long day of telecommuting or making sure our kids are doing their distance learning, we feel mentally stretched out. After another day of isolation from our friends, children and parents we feel depressed. After another day of economic uncertainty, we feel anxious. Electronic media can become an outlet.

Let’s resist these temptations, dwell in God’s Word and pray for things that are far better:

We need to experience God’s Love (Isaiah 54:10; Jeremiah 31:3; 1 John 4:9).

We need God to increase our knowledge of God and His kingdom (Proverbs 1:7; Proverbs 2:6).

We need God to give us strength when we are at our weakest (Psalm 46:1-3; Isaiah 41:10).

We need God to give us hope and endurance (James 1:12; Romans 12:21). 

This Holy Weekend let’s turn away from our distractions and look at the cross where God demonstrated His love. Power down the devices and experience the power that raised Christ from the dead.

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Be Concerned, but Don’t Live in Fear

“When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.” ~ Psalm 94:19

The global spread of COVID-19 has caused us to rethink how we go about our daily lives. The pandemic has caused churches to consider new ways to be the body of Christ in the world. The world is rapidly changing, but Hebrews 13:8 reminds us that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

The concerns are real. As your pastor, I urge you to use wisdom, and stay in touch with what is happening and being recommended in Calvert County. Err on the side of good health practices. We want to be wise in what we do to protect ourselves, our families and our communities. I am concerned about the coronavirus but I do not want to live in fear. I am concerned for the elderly, the homeless and those with health concerns who are the most at risk. I am concerned for health care workers and other essential workers. I am concerned about overcrowded hospitals. I am concerned for the homeless and disenfranchised, who have nowhere to go. I am concerned for our economy, for those who could lose their jobs.

Christ walking on the sea, by Amédée Varint

My biggest concern is that fear can control us. People stockpile supplies they do not need, while those who do need them cannot access them. We can become reactionary and take a self- centered approach. We become less generous. As a church we can forget who we are and to whom we belong.

It appears that COVID-19 is not ending soon. Chances are it will hit even closer to home. Be careful. Be cautious. Be wise and practical, but do not live in fear. We have a golden opportunity. Together we can approach this challenge in faith. We can model faith for our families and our neighbors. Care for those who are isolated. Make phone calls and check in with one another. Gather in virtual groups for prayer, studying the Word of God and encourage one another. Make face masks for local hospitals. Find new ways to be generous with our time, talents and our treasure.

As we witness the effects of the pandemic, I encourage those who are in a position to do so, continue giving generously to the ministry of the Lord. I encourage those whose personal finances are damaged by the pandemic: do not be afraid. Remember that God is in control, and will continue to provide for all of our needs.

Philippians 4:6-7 offers a powerful message to us all. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”

 

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What Can We Do?

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of COVID-19. There are boundaries on where we go, who we see and how we interact with people. Businesses are closing their doors, the economy is suffering and people are losing their livelihood.  Many watch events unfold, brace themselves for what might be coming,  and hope these things will pass. We even question God’s involvement in all of this.

I want to offer you some thoughts during this pandemic, because we are NOT powerless.

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Job and His Friends, IIya Repin

We do not suffer alone. God was with Israel during their slavery, the prophets when they were beaten and Paul when he was imprisoned. Most importantly, God identified with our suffering in the person of Jesus Christ.  When suffering doesn’t make sense, look to the cross where God suffered with us.

Grow closer to God through confusion. The very fact we question and even express anger towards God, means we are moving towards God, and not away from Him. Consider the questions and anger to be authentic forms of prayer. To quote C.S. Lewis “We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”

Prayer is necessary, but not enough. Pray for scientists to develop a cure, communities to pull together and that assistance will arrive. Pray that each person affected would come to know the love and strength of God. Do this fervently, but often we are God’s answer to prayer.

We are God’s activity. God found us, not the other way around. Be like God and find the needs. Organizations identify needs for us, so be generous with your time and money. But people do fall through the cracks. Who can’t pick up food because of their work schedule? Who is isolated and needs things brought to them? Who is afraid, and needs to hear that God hasn’t forgotten them. We are the hands, feet, eyes and ears of God (Isaiah 52:7).

We can worship without explanations. Job lost most everything – his wealth and his children to tragedy. Job had no explanation, but he said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). Those who worship God during these difficult times are especially blessed.

Worship with Huntingtown UMC this Sunday at 10:30am. Our doors will be locked and Celebration Hall will be empty during this pandemic. But we will worship God and we will do it together. Just go to our Facebook page and have a seat: https://www.facebook.com/huntingtownunitedmethodistchurch

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Should We Act Against Our Conscience?

But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.  Romans 14:23

The proposed separation in the United Methodist Church has created concerns, one of them being stated in the title of this post.  If changes are made in the UMC, will congregations and clergy who stay with the UMC be pressured to accept beliefs and practices they believe are wrong? Will they be pressured to act against their consciences?

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Suovetaurilia (sacrifice of a pig, sheep and a bull) to the god Mars. Marble, Roman artwork, 1st century CE.

As will all questions and concerns, it’s important to remember that we only have a proposal, and it could be revised or rejected. We don’t know what, if any changes are coming.

That being said, the question of acting against our conscience is important to all disciples at all times. The answer transcends all denominational decisions, congregational votes, and theological labels. It’s about how we follow Jesus every day.

My conscience can be misinformed, distorted, and self centered. When that happens, do I want to follow my conscience into sin? There have been times when my conscience has led me down the wrong path. I must take this seriously, and through prayer, biblical reflection and Godly counsel make sure my conscience is aligned with God’s plan for my life.

However, if I act against my conscience, I can also be guilty of sin. For example, I was taught and once believed that a man having long hair was a sin (1 Corinthians 11:14). Now I understand Scripture differently, and I do not believe long hair is sin. Here the biblical principle of Romans 14:23 comes into play.

Paul has been asked by the Roman church whether or not it was a sin to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. He responds:

“…nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.  (Romans 14:14)

For Paul, there was nothing in Scripture that said eating meat that had been offered to idols was a sin. Meat was meat. However, it WOULD be a sin if the person eating that meat was acting their conscience. Had I allowed my hair to grow long 20 years ago, I would have committed an act that I believed to be wrong. My sin would not have been in the length of my hair, but in acting against what I believed to be a command of God. I would be acting against my conscience.

Back to the UMC dilemma: Should the protocol pass, could United Methodist congregations be pressured to act against their consciences? l can’t answer that definitively. Our denominational leaders are far from perfect, but in the past few years they have tried to maintain unity while recognizing that pressuring congregations and pastors to act against their conscience is destructive for Christians and their churches.

Huntingtown United Methodist Church can’t control what happens at General Conference in May. We can listen carefully to the Holy Spirit and align our collective consciences with God’s mission in the world. This will not alway lead to agreement, as the argument over homosexuality has shown us. However, our collective consciences should still be telling us all that Jesus is worthy of worship. Our consciences should be opening our eyes to the poor. Our consciences should be telling us we all need a Savior. We should never act against our consciences.

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