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Posts Tagged ‘Reformation Theology’

Bleeding on the Altar of Self-sacrifice

Humanity’s relationship with the divine has always been a miserable one.  In the Judeo-Christian system of belief, the fault is laid at the feet of the first couple, Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden.  The shattering of an idyllic relationship with humankind’s Creator and surrounding creation was the result of their disobedience and rebellion.  Their offspring, right down to us who are alive today, still refers to that episode as “The Fall.”  A clear indication that something was lost.

Efforts by humanity to regain that privileged position with their Creator and with creation has resulted in a myriad of convoluted religious beliefs systems.  Of course, in the modern era, the idea that one can completely opt out of any and all religious belief systems is now an option.  Thus, atheism has become a religion and religious expression all its own.  However, for the majority of the world, some type of belief in a deity(ies) still exists.  It affects how life is conducted on every level of human existence.

One thing they seem to bear in common is some sort of system for sacrifice to appease their god(s) or spiritual beings (if they are animists).  There appears to be a human universal need to “pay for one’s sins” to gain approval from these divines.  A predominant idea throughout all religious systems is that reality involves more than just what can be seen.  There is a larger reality in the unseen world that affects what is going on in the seen world.

Where the Christian faith diverges from these other world religions is the view that a sacrifice is no longer needed (at least in the Protestant stream).  It begins with God’s revelation to the children of Israel, the Jews.  God, by his revelation through the ancient patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – then later Moses and then reaffirmed through the Prophets, set up a better sacrificial system.  More important, meaning and explanation accompanied the revelation for the sacrificial system that pointed to a time when sacrifices would no longer be needed.

The sacrifices of grains and animals really do not change the heart of humanity.  They only bear witness to the cost of our continued rebellion and disobedience to our Maker.  Thus, in God’s timing, He sent His son, Yeshua = Joshua/Jesus.  According to His divine plan, this God-man who lived a perfect life became a sacrifice for all of humanity and all of human sin.  Ironically, we killed him.

Our Jewish and Gentile fore-bearers unrighteously judged him, unjustly condemned him and then put him to death in a cruel fashion by crucifixion.  Nevertheless, because of the Son’s willing obedience to take all of humanity’s punishment, God raised him from the dead and restored him to his heavenly place of rule and authority.  A few hundred people testified to seeing him after dying and being buried.  We have their testimonies written down for us to digest, accept and believe or disbelieve.

One would think that this would be the end of the story – at least in the Christian realm.  But, no.  The story continues to unfold in human history.  There are many who reject the idea that one person, no matter how perfect, could die for another and that it would be enough to satisfy God’s demand for justice and judgment against human sin.  Still, there are many others who believe the story and accept the sacrifice of God’s son for their own sin.  They continually remind themselves of this by partaking in the Eucharist or Holy Communion.

Nevertheless, even among those who accept the story witnessed to by so many, believe upon it and choose to live their lives by it, there is a creeping attitude or idea that something more must be required.  So, Christians create their own altars for their own sacrifices hoping to add to what Christ already did upon the cross, in the grave and through the resurrection.  Even those who are children of the Protestant Reformation and think of themselves as holding to “evangelical” beliefs struggle with this issue.

This struggle is more particularly acute when Christians go through troubling times and hardships.  A whole “Christian” nation can take on this attitude in turbulent times.  We want to find a reason for our suffering – or bad turn of luck.  We too quickly turn back to a pagan view of God that determines we must have done something – sinned – to anger the deity and now he is poised against us.  So, we search for ways to satisfy the deity’s anger, appease it and regain its approval and blessing – or at least neutrality so as not to oppose us in our plans and desires for a peaceful and happy existence.

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010

Pink Rhododendrun Flowers, Spring 2010 Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I was reminded of this troubling trend in our Christian history when I came across how many responded to the Black Death Plague – also called the Bubonic Plague – in Europe during the middle ages.  I have just finished reading John Man‘s book, “Gutenberg: How One Man Remade the World with Words.  He highlights in one chapter the actions of “the flagellants.”

The popular idea then, much as it is now, is that the God of the Bible promised not only salvation in the next life but also constant support in this one.  However, in the face of the troubling Black Death (Bubonic Plague) epidemic He seemed impotent, if not hostile towards humanity through the disease.  The explanation?  God must be angry and was clearly out to punish all of Europe and the Church – either actively or by neglect and indifference.  So, God must be somehow mollified.  This took many forms, of course, but one of the radical forms were the crazed devotees who marched from city to city through Europe lashing themselves with iron-tipped whips while crying out for God’s mercy.  Fellow devotees would then follow them moaning and dabbing themselves with the blood of the flagellants.

Another radical form was to find blame in someone else and make them pay the price.  While today the Church likes to look outside itself and blame homosexuals, pornography, gambling, liquor, liberal politicians and other spiritual “enemies”, the Church then chose to blame the Jews.  Already labeled as Christ-torturers and child-murders, all across Germany the rumor spread that they were also “well-poisoners.”  Thus, one series of many Jewish persecutions took place all across Europe.

Jews were burned on a wooden scaffold in the churchyard in Strasbourg.  This was replicated in almost all of the cities along the Rhine river.  In Antwerp and Brussels, entire Jewish communities were slain.  In Erfurt, 3,000 perished as sacrifices for the cause of the Black Plague.  In Worms and Frankfurt, instead of facing the same fate, the Jews chose to go out in Masada-like fashion and committed mass suicide.  In Mainz, Germany, 100 were burned outside of St. Quentin’s Church on St. Bartholomew’s day.  All were ultimately sacrifices to attempt to appease “God’s” anger and restore deserved blessing and peace to Europe.

While reading about these sad episodes in human history, I could not help but think that we really have not come that far in the Christian faith.  There is still a propensity to want to “pay back” God for our sin.  When bad things happen, Christian too often look for a cause-and-effect.  We want an explanation; preferably an understandable one.  The fact remains that there often is not one.  God remains God and does not need to explain his actions or non-actions to us.  His goodness comes to those who deserve it and those who do not.  Likewise, bad things visit humanity indiscriminately – to good people and bad people.

Christians often think that their faith in God somehow gives them a “Club Membership” to a trouble-free life.  So, when disease, tragedy, disaster or unexpected death visit us, we think that our “Membership Dues” must not be paid up.  We think we must “sacrifice” something to get back in to the “Club” of God’s favor.  How wrong!

As a spiritual leader in churches, I have witnessed good Christian people go through all kinds of agony trying to find an explanation for why bad things happen to them.  Early on in my spiritual journey, I always thought that I owed them and explanation.  After all, I am the one who went to Bible School and Seminary.  I should have the answers, right?  What a relief to finally come to the conclusion that I do not.  And I do not have to have “the answer(s).”  The fact is that most of the time, there is no answer.

And perhaps that is just the point.  When God remains distant and in the shadows of human tragedy and suffering, it may be that He is there to witness our faith in action when it is needed most.  After all, no one really knows what they truly believe until they are put under the stress of a trial or spiritual test.  It is then that what we truly believe in our hearts – our souls – really comes out and is evident to us and all those around us.  It is then that we discover the real bankruptcy of our “faith” or when we realize how very vibrant and real our faith truly is for us.

At any rate, faith in what God accomplished through the Messiah should be sufficient for us.  There is nothing more that we can add to his sacrificial death or resurrection.  We cannot create another altar and offer our own sacrifices upon it.  There is no other altar, no other sacrifice and no other payment necessary to appease God’s wrath.  He only accepts his son, Jesus the Messiah.  No other.  Only those who come to him through what his son did are received by him.  There is no other way.

So, the next time you feel the tug to “offer a sacrifice” to please God, remember that He has already made one for you.  There is nothing more that you can offer.  There is no trophy, no price, no sacrifice anyone can offer to God where they will be able to say to Him, “Look what I have offered to you!  Are you not pleased with me?  Don’t you owe it to me to bless me and always keep me happy now?”  Such an approach is a bankrupt one.  It fails to recognize the cost of His son’s sacrifice and is an affront to Him.

If you are finding yourself bleeding on the altar of self-sacrifice because you thought you could earn God’s favor, it is time to get off of it and be set free.  No amount of guilt, hand-wringing, praying, fasting, giving, worrying, church attendance or any other spiritual flagellation will earn you any credits in His account book until you learn to accept and live in the forgiveness and grace freely given to you through Christ.  Like so many before me, I too have often “beat myself up” mentally and spiritually thinking that everything that went wrong was my fault and that I must have done something to displease God.  I have learned to recognize that as a subtle spiritual lie of the enemy of my soul, the devil.  He would have me do anything but accept and live freely in what Christ accomplished.

After all, self-sacrifice is just another form of self-worship.  Self-worship is what caused Satan’s downfall in the first place.  By attempting to make our own sacrifices and meet God on our terms, we are only attempting to do what Satan did before His fall from heaven.  Only God dictates the terms for the satisfaction of divine judgment and justice.  Otherwise, He would not be God.  So, He has provided the answer or solution.  He has already established the altar and received the sacrifice.  It is time for us to stop bleeding on the altar of our self-sacrifices and worship at the throne of grace and mercy.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Indulging Religious Relics

The history of the Church prior to and following the Reformation is fascinating. One discovers a world not unlike today.  Change was in the air.  Technology, most notably the printing press, was quickly changing society.  Nationalism was shaping new governments and their alliances.  The big concern politically and religiously was the growing strength of Muslims in the Middle East.

There are a lot of great books to read about this time period. A book I just finished that is particularly excellent is Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words by John Man (MJF Books, 2002).  John Man is an historian who is well-known for his work on Chinese history, particularly his biographies of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.  His book Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World is an excellent study too.  His histories are easy to read and takes the reader along in story-form rather than the academic dry-detailed textbook type of histories so many of us are used to from our school days.

Among other things that have not changed are the uses of indulgences and relics. A Blog I posted on January 29th of this year entitled “Charismatic Indulgences” addressed some of the issues and enamorations with indulgences in the religious world today, particularly among Charismatics and Pentecostals.  The doctrinal heresies and spiritual abuses that wrecked havoc upon the Church 600 years ago are still at work.

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010

John Day Dam, Columbia River, May 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I never considered any corollaries between the use of relics with their accompanying abuses in the Church and what takes place among many evangelicals today until I read John Man’s account of instances of the use of relics in Gutenberg:  How One Man Remade the World with Words.  It seems that even the great-great-great-grandchildren of the Reformation have forgotten the lessons learned!  Though they do not appear in the same forms, and not nearly as ancient, there is the same attempt to manipulate the grace-work of God to our own means.  This reduces the God of the Bible to no more than any other pagan deity and the magic that accompanies it.

Gutenberg, for a time, entered into an enterprise that accompanied the use of indulgences by the church which would make him a lot of money.  The need for money was to finance his printing press enterprise, which was still in the experimental stage.  It is the same motivation that we see so much at work in the Church still today.  Religious items are sold to make money.  To increase their value, the promise of God’s grace for health and wealth accompanies them.  For a few dollars, one can receive all their heart desires.

Gutenberg’s scheme was to join many other craftsman and their guilds in building mirrors to capture the radiant power that was said to stream from the relics.  Sounds far fetched?  Not any more than some of the convoluted ways some Christians still go through today to gain God’s favor for an answer to prayer.  In medieval Christendom, holy relics were thought to be essentially powerful charms.  They were thought to have power to heal hearts, souls and bodies.  It was believed that healing streams issued from them like sun rays.

The Church held the relics and, thus, held the power.  It dictated when and where relics would be made available.  There was a time when people on pilgrimages to sites with holy relics could see and/or touch the holy relics for adoration and prayer.  Doing so guaranteed them access to the relic’s power.  Unfortunately, as the pilgrimages grew more popular, the chance to see or touch them became impossible.  When the relics were shown, often for a price, the thought was that much of their power simply escaped into space uncaptured.

This is where new technology came into play.  At about the same time that people began to use spectacles for reading, glass mirrors also became popular though little glass was used but instead clear crystals (beryl).  Soon, someone put forward the idea that a convex mirror, which seemed like a magical technology for its time, could capture and absorb the healing power radiating from holy relics.  Since beryl was expensive, cheaper polished metal ones were made and sold.  Thus, a whole new religious industry developed over night.

With the newly acquired mirror, one no longer had to be near the holy relics.  If a place that offered an uninterrupted view could be acquired, then all one had to do was hold it up to capture rays of holiness – the longer the better, like some kind of ‘third-eye.’  This supposedly turned the tourist trinket into a thing full of radiant energy and power.  The owner of this mirror could then take it wherever he or she wanted and apply it like magic to heal broken limbs and even cure individuals affected by the black plague, which was ravishing much of Europe at the time.

What kind of market was there for these devices? Well, in Aachen, Germany, alone in 1432 there was 10,000 people a day for two weeks.  A later pilgrimage in 1446 noted that 130,000 mirrored “badges” were sold to pilgrims.  Gutenberg was hoping to cash in on the 1439 pilgrimage by making 32,000 mirrors.  He hoped to sell them for half a gulden each, which was very expensive in those days.  So, it all boils down to money and how to make it.  The religious market was a wealth producer then much as it is today with Christian apparel, music, movies and books.

However, it is not the fact that anyone then or today was attempting to make money that has captured my attention.  It is what was then and is now being sold on the religious market.  Listen to any television, radio or internet enterprise that targets Christians and it will not be long before you will hear someone hawking their goods with the promise of the blessing that it will bring; particularly for health and wealth.  We are still hoping to sell or buy God’s grace!  I am sure that Luther, Calvin and other Reformers must be rolling in their graves by what they see developing from the churches that are descendants of the Reformation.

At the same time, while we do not hold up the bones of saints or artifacts from the life of Christ, we in the Evangelical church can still be accused of thinking in terms of relics – holy objects or places that contain God’s power, blessing and grace.  We sometimes worship the furniture in our churches as more worthy of consideration than God.  The latest popular Christian speaker becomes a relic to us when we think that we must attend their meetings and hear them personally in order to really be blessed and have prayer answered.  Whether it is a Christian conference or revival meeting, we have come to think that God’s presence and power is only contained and displayed in only that one place and time.  So, we rush on our own spiritual pilgrimages to get there to be a part of it.

So, it does not surprise me now to hear about Evangelical Christians who are going on pilgrimages to holy sites of the Evangelical stream of Christianity.  The places of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley and pioneer missionaries like Adoniram Judson, Judson Taylor, Robert Moffat, and William Carey among others are now spiritual pilgrimage places for Evangelicals.  Is this necessarily a bad thing?  No, not at all.  However, it should be a flag of caution.  When any movement begins to idolize its past and memorialize it, it is the beginning of the loss of vision for the future.

Scripture makes it pretty clear that God is not contained to a place and time now that the age of the Kingdom of God has arrived.  His blessings flow to everyone.  His Spirit is available to everyone.  The Reformation rejected the idea of relics, indulgences and that a special class of priests held all the power of God in reserve to hand out to the people.  Instead, they embraced the Biblical idea of the priesthood of all believers, the work of God’s grace for everyone and the authority of God’s Word over everything.  Before we go back to selling indulgences and using religious relics, perhaps it would be good to study our Church history.  We seem to have lost something along our way into the 21st century.  Otherwise, an enterprise in making and selling little mirrors may just become my next career.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Rigged Religious Resumes

It is becoming more and more difficult these days to identify the difference between the real and the fake.  Our televisions broadcast “reality” TV programs that are not really reality but staged events made to look like they are living documentaries.  A number of recent authors, who wrote and published personal autobiographies, are found out to have fabricated their stories, fooling their readers, not to mention the red-faced editors, publishers and enthusiastic promoters.

Prominent businesses and universities have hired individuals because of their stellar résumés, only to find out later degrees and experiences were fabricated to bolster the candidate’s image. Professional athletes who broke national records are discovered afterwards to not have reached those hallmarks on their own terms but with the help of performance enhancement drugs that made them stronger and faster.

The television news from major news organizations is acceptable to the public even when it is “staged news” or even fabricated.  Political candidates stretch and fabricate their past experiences to appeal to the desires of voters who willingly go along with the charade just to defeat the other party.

Is it any wonder that the generation coming after us is so skeptical and cynical towards our world?  Is it any wonder that the number one thing they crave is “authentic relationships”?  Is it any wonder that the next generation is more comfortable in the virtual world than the real world?

Unfortunately, the Church in the United States has not faired much better.  It seems that we have turned out a “plastic” faith.  A new Pew Forum survey on religion revealed that most people in the United States identify themselves as Christians – 78% in fact!  Protestants (51%) are still the majority of those.  If these Pew Forum findings are true of our American culture, then one has to wonder why these “Christians” do not have a more significant impact upon their culture.

One has to wonder how Pew Forum identified those who were “Christian” versus those who were not.  Incidentally, 25% of young adults (18 – 29) identify with no religion.  On the other hand, could it be that identification with Christianity for most religious people is more of an idea than a lifestyle?  We like the idea of being a Christian; we just don’t want it to cramp how we live.  We like how it looks on our “résumé”.

The Lord knows the real from the fake, however.  We know that Jesus, when he returns, will identify those who belong to him and separate them from those who do not (see Matthew 7:18 – 23; 25:31 – 46; Luke 13:24 – 29).  Interestingly, there will be those who claim to identify with him, but he will not lay any claim that they are his.  He will deny knowing them.  Some are even Pentecostals who cast out demons and do many miracles in Jesus’ name!  Still, he says, “Depart from me.  I don’t know you.”

The troublesome problem is how to identify real followers of Christ.  The question for the Church should be, “How do we make genuine, authentic followers of the Lord Jesus Christ?”  Jesus seemed to make it pretty clear in the above parables just what he would be looking for in those he identifies as “true” or “real” disciples.

  • They do “the will of my heavenly Father.”
  • They put into practice Jesus’ teachings and lifestyle.
  • They feed the hungry and thirsty.
  • They clothe the naked.
  • They care for the sick and the prisoner.
  • They “enter the narrow door” by discarding all of life’s baggage to follow Jesus.

This list suddenly makes following Jesus hard!  It is easier for me to say, “I believe in you, Jesus!”  It is much harder to do the work of Jesus here on earth.  Yet, that is how he will identify his own in the last day.  They will be the ones doing his work.  In other words, the Kingdom of God is made up of individuals who do not just believe but who do the work of the Kingdom.

The Protestant Reformation recaptured this idea when it proposed the idea that there is a visible church” and “invisible church.” Simply put, everyone who is a part of the visible church may not be part of the true Church of Christ – the invisible church that only Christ knows.  Not everyone in the visible church hears the Shepherd’s voice and follows it.  However, the true Bride of Christ – the invisible church – hears her Master’s voice and does his work.  In other words, the actually number of true followers of Christ is much smaller than those measured by the Pew Forum or Barna Research.

Turtle River, Turtle River State Park, North Daktoa, Fall 2004

Turtle River, Turtle River State Park, North Dakota, Fall 2004 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Unfortunately, many church people are like the story of a man and his wife who were sitting in their living room watching a drama about a man who lost consciousness and went into a coma.  The husband says to her, “Just so you know, I never want to live in a vegetative state, dependent on some machine.  If that ever happens to me, just pull the plug.”  So, his wife gets up and unplugs the TV!

Jesus set the example for us, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me.  Night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4).  There is a day coming when it will be too late to try to do anything for the Lord so you can be identified as one of his when he returns.  May the heart-cry prayer of the Church become, “Lord, shake us out of “a vegetative state” and awaken us to the work we need to do in this generation!”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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