Archive for March, 2018

Celebrating the Resurrection

Tomorrow we celebrate—and that most certainly is the best word to use—the Resurrection. Nothing like it appeared in history before that tremendous event and nothing like it followed afterward.

It is the central event in all of history, never to be topped by anything else.

The Nativity, which we call Christmas, was essential only because it was to lead to this event. The Second Coming of Christ and the Judgment to follow would be the most awful occurrence for everyone if not for the Resurrection, which showed God’s triumph over death, Satan, and hell.

As a result of Christ’s death and resurrection, millions now have access to the very throne room of God.

C. S. Lewis calls the Resurrection “the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts.” He reminds us that when we talk about the gospel, we are focusing on the Resurrection.

What we call the “gospels,” the narratives of Our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for the benefit of those who had already accepted the gospel. They were in no sense the basis of Christianity: they were written for those already converted.

The miracle of the Resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it.

Lewis mustn’t be misunderstood as in any way denigrating the four gospels; he’s simply stating a fact: the whole reason for the writing of the gospels later was the stunning truth of the Resurrection.

Nothing could be more unhistorical than to pick out selected sayings of Christ from the gospels and to regard those as the datum and the rest of the New Testament as a construction upon it. The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection.

The reality of the Resurrection should be just as much the central feature of our lives as it was for the first Christians. When Don Giovanni Calabria, one of Lewis’s regular correspondents, shared with him his concerns for the world’s troubles, Lewis, responding to him the day before Easter, replied,

Tomorrow we shall celebrate the glorious Resurrection of Christ. I shall be remembering you in the Holy Communion. Away with tears and fears and troubles! United in wedlock with the eternal Godhead Itself, our nature ascends into the Heaven of Heavens.

So it would be impious to call ourselves “miserable.” On the contrary, Man is a creature whom the Angels—were they capable of envy—would envy. Let us lift up our hearts! “At some future time perhaps even these things it will be a joy to recall.”

I know how the weight of the world can get one down. Yet when we compare these temporary weights to the glory that awaits because of the Resurrection, we get the proper perspective. As the Apostle Paul said,

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Rom. 8:18

And in one of my favorite passages, Paul expounds that theme further:

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Those who have committed their lives to the Lordship of Christ can rest and rejoice simultaneously. Through Him, we have overcome the world and will share in the glory of the Resurrection.

It Is Finished

Today I’m participating in a Good Friday service that focuses on the seven statements of Jesus as He hung on the cross. The statement I was asked to speak on is “It is finished.” Here’s an excerpt from my homily. I hope it ministers to you.

What does that short declaration, “It is finished,” really mean? What’s behind that statement?

Philippians, chapter 2, contains one of the most astounding and wonderful passages in the entire Bible. In it, we glimpse the heart and attitude of Jesus in his voluntariness to lay aside all the privileges of His Godhood to take on human form. “And being found in appearance as a man,” we’re told, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross.”

That passage deserves extended meditation. He didn’t have to do this. He chose to do it, despite what He would have to endure. He was looking to the end, to the finished task.

At the start of His earthly ministry, he went into the desert. He had nothing to eat for 40 days. Satan came to Him and offered him food, then power, then tempted Him to show off by throwing Himself down from the highest point of the temple and letting angels rescue Him. He resisted all those temptations by quoting the truths of Scripture.

The book of Hebrews informs us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet He did not sin.”

Jesus knew that He had to complete the ministry of reconciliation—the weakness of His human body didn’t keep Him from fulfilling His purpose.

The Garden of Gethsemane—the last opportunity to change His mind. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,” He told His disciples. Then He prayed, “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from Me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.”

The ultimate submission. He was close now to the end. He would see it through.

The scourging—the crown of thorns—the beatings—the carrying of the cross—the spikes through His hands and feet—the slow suffocation.

The Father turned His face away, leaving Jesus to go through the worst agony of all—a separation from the One with whom He had been united throughout all eternity. That separation meant that He now suffered what each human being would suffer if cast away from the presence of God. He literally experienced what hell would be like.

And then the words—“It is finished.”

Jesus had done all He could do to heal the breach between God and man. He successfully completed the task. Nothing more was needed on His end. God’s part in offering us salvation was done, but the work is not truly finished until we respond to what He did for us.

It’s not finished until we see the awfulness of our sins and understand that we, through our rebellion, put Jesus on that cross.

It’s not finished until we come to Him in abject repentance, sorrowful over our selfish, unloving ways.

It’s not finished until we receive by faith what He has accomplished on that cross. When we do all of these things, forgiveness from the heart of a loving God then flows into our lives.

That’s when it will truly be finished.

A Stunning “Paul, Apostle of Christ”

The apostle Paul has come alive to me now in a way he never did before. Yesterday, I saw the new film Paul, Apostle of Christ, and left the theater stunned at the power of cinema when used for God’s glory.

How do I begin to describe what I witnessed? I’ve seen many powerful films with messages from the heart of God, but none I’ve ever seen made me consider so deeply what it was really like for Christians facing intense persecution and the testing of their faith unto death.

Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, takes on the role of Luke, companion of Paul, who risks his own life to visit him in prison as he awaits execution. The Emperor Nero, to cover his own sin of setting fire to Rome, has accused the Christians of the act, and fingered Paul as the chief instigator.

James Faulkner, an actor I thought I’d never seen before, but have since discovered appeared in such dramas as Downton Abbey, is absolutely gripping as Paul. From now on, whenever I’m reading one of Paul’s letters, I will have the image of the Paul offered in this movie.

At the end, as Paul was beheaded and then awoke in eternal life to see all those he had persecuted before his salvation come to greet him, I couldn’t hold back tears. There are no over-the-top performances throughout this film; all are real and genuine.

Combined with an excellent supporting cast, superb cinematography, the truth of key Biblical passages, and a clear explanation of the Gospel, this film is of the highest quality.

Paul, Apostle of Christ, in an earlier time in American history, would be a candidate for many awards. Sadly, I believe the era of Ben Hur and Chariots of Fire may now be ended. Hollywood won’t want to reward, or even acknowledge, this positive portrayal of genuine Christianity.

But that’s okay. I’m convinced that Paul, Apostle of Christ, will be used by God for the ultimate reward—that of leading many people into relationship with Him. Helping sinners recognize their sin, showing them the meaning of repentance, and how the love of God has overcome the breach between God and man is a far greater accomplishment.

While a Best Film Oscar would be nice, faithfully proclaiming God’s truth is the ultimate reward.

No Swamp Draining Here

At the end of last week, the Congress and the president gave us an “omnibus spending package,” not a true budget, because we don’t do those anymore. They’re apparently too hard to negotiate. The tab on this “package” was $1.3 trillion.

We are supposed to be happy that this happened because it avoided a government shutdown. But let’s be honest: the government never really shuts down even when a shutdown is declared.

Republicans promised, if given control of both the executive and legislative branches (which they now have), that they would restore fiscal sanity. Democrats have no concept of fiscal sanity, but Republicans ought to. Talk, though, is cheap. It’s easy during a campaign to make promises. Much too easy.

It’s not just the spending itself that’s so bad, but also the sad truth that organizations like Planned Parenthood are continuing to receive taxpayer funding, despite all the pledges that they would be cut out from government support.

I know as well as anyone that you rarely get everything you want in a bill and that compromise is the name of the game, but why does every compromise seem to be so one-sided?

Planned Parenthood, by the way, was one of the sponsors (along with a number of other garden variety progressive and anti-Christian organizations) of the weekend’s so-called March for Our Lives protest.

“Planned Parenthood” and “respect for the sanctity of life” should never co-exist in the same sentence. Concern for the children? Really? After being responsible for more than 300,000 abortions per year?

Back to the spending package.

Yes, the Republican leadership in Congress deserves no small amount of disdain on this issue. There were standout negative votes in the Senate—Ted Cruz (whom I supported for the Republican nomination for president), Mike Lee, and Rand Paul among them. But, as usual, they were in the minority.

I’ve heard a lot of criticism of Congress on this from the most ardent Trump supporters, but no bill becomes law without the presidential signature. First, Trump supported it; then he tweeted he might veto it; a few hours later he signed it, citing the increase in military spending as apparently the most important feature.

If you are disgusted over the passage of this bill, and if you want to be a credible critic, you must be willing to acknowledge that Trump was just as much a part of this particular area of the “Swamp” as anyone else. Some, however, will go to almost any lengths not to admit that.

I never bought into the Trump rhetoric about “Draining the Swamp” because I knew he has spent his entire life in his own personal swamps, both in business and in his personal life. I knew it was merely campaign talk, not intended to be transferred over to actual governing.

So his decision to go along with this doesn’t surprise me at all. I think it’s time, though, for those who were surprised and/or disappointed to wake up and face reality: the Swamp will never be drained with either Trump or the current Republican leaders setting the agenda.

A Holy Week Meditation

We’re about to enter into what the Christian church throughout the centuries has called Holy Week. Now, of course, if we really understand the faith, we realize every week is Holy Week, every day Holy Day, and every minute Holy Minute.

Yet we use this designation for the upcoming week because it makes us pay attention to the events approximately two thousand years ago that have made possible the Great Restoration, the Great Redemption of our souls.

As wonderful and inspirational as the Nativity is, this week announces the essence of Christian faith: the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Son of God that we might become children of God ourselves.

This week is awash in the supernatural, culminating in the Resurrection, without which we would have no hope.

We believe in the God who is above nature—super-natural—and in the miracle of the New Birth.

As C. S. Lewis reminds us in his essay “Christian Apologetics,”

Do not attempt to water Christianity down. There must be no pretence that you can have it with the Supernatural left out. So far as I can see Christianity is precisely the one religion from which the miraculous cannot be separated. You must frankly argue for supernaturalism from the very outset.

So many over the years have stripped the faith of its faith. Follow the moral guidelines, we are told, but reject those silly stories about miracles; some early Christians surely added those in later to augment/falsify the story of Jesus.

We even have a group of scholars—I use the term loosely—called the Jesus Seminar who periodically meet and decide whether certain passages of Scripture are genuine or if they are spurious. Then they make their grand public proclamation about which parts they now consider phony.

Well, that which is phony is found within themselves, not in God’s Revelation.

“The Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle,” Lewis writes in another essay with that exact name: “The Grand Miracle.” He continues,

The Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him.

It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left.

The reality of God becoming man—growing up in a human family, working at a human occupation, walking the dusty roads with humans, suffering for them, dying for them—is the story of the entire reason of Creation.

Then there was Resurrection on the third day.

One of Lewis’s most-often quoted lines—indeed the one emblazoned on his commemorative stone in Poets Corner at Westminster Abbey—is a fitting conclusion to this Holy Week meditation:

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

Psalm 19: Thoughts for This Day

Psalm 19 spoke to me this morning, so I thought I’d share a selection of verses from it for meditation:

The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul.

The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.

The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.

The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.

The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.

The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.

They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.

May the words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.

Thank you this day, Lord, for how Your creation speaks of You. Thank you for Your law that shows us Your ways. Thank you for being my Rock and my Redeemer. Where would I be without You? Where would any of us be?

Amen.

Russia’s New Cold War

Ronald Reagan, with invaluable help from Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, brought the Evil Empire to its knees by the end of the 1980s. He was ridiculed by many when he said that communism and the Soviet version of it would soon be on the ash heap of history.

But he was correct.

The Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The USSR ceased to be officially on January 1, 1992.

For a while, it looked as if it might be a true, long-term change. Then came Vladimir Putin. Many Russians longed for the “strong man” to lead them; he was more than ready to fulfill that wish. He made them look back at an idealized—and false—image of the Soviet Empire. He made them think they could recover those supposed glory days.

While he doesn’t say this is communism that he’s reinvigorating, there are many similarities with the old heresy. Chief among them is the ritual of conducting phony elections. Russia just had another one. The Babylon Bee had a little fun with it:

Unfortunately, though, what’s transpiring in Russia is anything but funny. In my book on Reagan and Whittaker Chambers, I pointed to the danger signs:

Expectations were high that Russia could be transformed into a stable commonwealth. The reality is that Russian nationalism came to the forefront and political leaders such as Vladimir Putin attempted to reestablish Russian power.

The Washington Post’s former correspondents in Moscow authored a book detailing the demise of freedom in Russia. They wrote of the “Putin Project,” which was an attempt to get rid of all challenges to his authority. The Post’s review of the book noted that the authors have provided “a powerful indictment of Putin’s years as president. In his obsessive quest for control and a stronger Russian state, Putin is undermining Russia’s long-term future just as Soviet leaders did in their own repressive days.”

The U.K.’s Daily Mail newspaper told of Russia’s new claim to the North Pole. It spoke of Putin’s “astonishing bid to grab a vast chunk of the Arctic—so he can tap its vast potential oil, gas and mineral wealth.” One British diplomatic source warned, “‘Putin wants a strong Russia, and Western dependence on it for oil and gas supplies is a key part of his strategy. He no longer cares if it upsets the West.’”

Meanwhile, The New Yorker, hardly a bastion of conservative thought, devoted an article to suspicious deaths of some of Putin’s critics. Reagan, of course, could not have foreseen this turnabout; it simply reflects that times change while human nature remains unchanged.

I recall the final debate between Mitt Romney and Obama in the 2012 campaign. Obama made fun of an assertion Romney made in a book, saying sarcastically,

“When you were asked, what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said ‘Russia.’ Not Al-Qaeda; you said Russia. And the 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back, because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

It was a “zinger,” according to the enlightened commentariat, that sealed the coffin on Romney’s candidacy. But Romney was right to call attention to the fact that Russia was reemerging as a worrisome power.

Putin sees himself as a Stalinesque figure, and we need to take the threat seriously. What does he hope to achieve?

That restart may have already occurred.