Posts tagged ‘Reconciliation’

A Very Good Blessing for Esau…and Us

“Esau and Jacob” by Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari / Wikipedia

In the story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob famously steals his brother’s blessing from his father, Isaac. Jacob, who dresses up like his brother to dupe his near-blind dad, receives this blessing from Isaac:

Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed. May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness – an abundance of grain and new wine. May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed. (Genesis 27:27-29)

In this blessing, Isaac promises Jacob four things. First, he promises Jacob material blessing – he will be blessed with much food and drink. Second, he promises Jacob political power – that nations and people will bow down to him. Third, he promises Jacob familial patronage – he will be the patriarch and guardian for his whole family. Fourth, he promises Jacob a spiritual legacy. Isaac’s words “may those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed” echo God’s words to Jacob’s grandfather Abraham (cf. Genesis 12:3). Jacob, rather than his older brother Esau, will be the one to carry the spiritual mantle of Abraham forward in the family – and for the world.

This is quite a blessing. And unsurprisingly, when Esau finds out that his brother Jacob has received such a stellar blessing, which his dad intended to be his, he is furious – and desperate. He pleads to his father, “Haven’t you reserved any blessing for me” (Genesis 27:36)? What his father musters for him sounds quite meager:

Your dwelling will be away from the earth’s richness, away from the dew of heaven above. You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck. (Genesis 27:39-40)

This seems more like a curse than a blessing! Isolation from others and subordination to a scorned sibling hardly sound enticing. And yet, embedded in this “blessing” is a glimmer of hope: “But when you grow restless, you will throw off his yoke from your neck.” When Esau first hears these words, he immediately interprets them as a license for violence. In the very next verse, we find Esau looking forward to his father’s imminent death and saying to himself: “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob” (Genesis 27:41). Murder is how Esau believes that he will throw off the yoke of his brother’s betrayal.

But things don’t turn out the way Esau plots them.

Instead, Jacob, learning of his brother’s secret plot, flees. Over five decades pass before they see each other again. But when they finally do, the scene is moving:

Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. (Genesis 33:4)

At first, Esau believed that he would be able to throw off the yoke of his brother’s betrayal by exacting vengeance from him. But, it turns out, he was only able to throw off the yoke of his brother’s betrayal by forgiving him.

As the holidays approach, many of us have family members – or others – by whom we may feel betrayed. Perhaps this is the time of year to trade a weak hope for vengeance for a better blessing of forgiveness. This is the only way the yoke of the betrayal someone has committed against you can truly be removed from you. This is what Esau learned, and this is the way Jesus shows.

It turns out Esau received a pretty good blessing after all.

November 9, 2020 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Killing Racism: When Self-Preservation Meets Self-Sacrifice

Charlottesville Violence

Credit:  Getty Images

When James Alex Fields killed one person and injured nineteen others by purposely plowing his Dodge Challenger into a group of counter-protesters at an event called “Unite the Right” in Charlottesville, Virginia, which itself was protesting a decision by the city to remove a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, racial animosity once again bubbled to the top of our national headlines and discussion.

President Trump, in the least controversial of his three statements on this tragedy, declared:

Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal. We are equal in the eyes of our Creator. We are equal under the law. And we are equal under our Constitution. Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.

As Christians, we can agree that “racism is evil.”  But it is evil not just because, as the president noted, it is an affront to the dignity that is inherently ours by virtue of the fact that we are created by Almighty God; it is evil also because it is fundamentally antithetical to the Christian gospel.   One of the hallmarks of the gospel of Christ is its power to reconcile us not only to God in spite of our sin, but with each other in spite of our differences.  The apostle Paul explains:

Remember that formerly you who are Gentiles…were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility … Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of His household. (Ephesians 2:11-14, 19)

Paul here identifies two groups of people – Jews and Gentiles – and says that, in Christ, the things that once separated them have now been destroyed.  The faith they share trumps any racial and cultural differences they might have.

This theme of different groups being brought together in Christ is not unique to Paul.  This is the centerpiece of the day of Pentecost where “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) all hear the gospel declared to them in their own languages.  This is also the centerpiece of eternity itself, as people “from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Revelation 7:9) come together in worship of the Lamb of God.  It turns out that it is awfully hard to have a Christian view of and hope for heaven while espousing racism, for, in eternity, all people of all races will be glorified as precious and redeemed in God’s sight.  Heaven has no room for racial divisions.

With all this being said, we must now ask ourselves:  how do we fight the racism that continues to plague our society?  Perhaps the best way to fight it is to strike at its root.  And although there is no singular root, I agree with Ben Shapiro when he argues that identity politics is one of the primary causes of many of our modern-day manifestations of racism.  Although identity politics is classically associated with the political left, Shapiro notes that groups like “Unite the Right” engage in “a reactionary, racist, identity-politics…dedicated to the proposition that white people are innate victims of the social-justice class and therefore must regain political power through race-group solidarity.”  In other words, it is the drive for self-preservation that fuels much of the racism we see today.

In order to confront our modern-day manifestations of racism, we must take our tendency toward self-preservation and exchange it for something else – something better – like the beauty of self-sacrifice.  Thankfully, the call to self-sacrifice is one that Christianity is perfectly poised to make, for we follow a Savior who sacrificed Himself for our salvation and who reminds His disciples that “whoever wants to save their life will lose it” (Mark 8:35).  Jesus calls us to lives of self-sacrifice.

What does self-sacrifice look like practically?  The Declaration of Independence famously claims that “all men are created equal.”  But in order to truly adopt this claim as our own, we must clarify what is meant by “all men.”  In many people’s experience, “all men” includes two groups: “us men,” meaning those who are like us and share our background and beliefs, and “those men,” meaning those are unlike us and conflict with our background and beliefs.  Human nature tends to prioritize “us men” over “those men.”  In other words, even if we believe, in principle, that “all men are created equal,” we tend to concern ourselves with those who are like us – “us men” – before we stop to consider the needs of those who are unlike us – “those men.”  Christianity calls us to flip this order and first consider “those men” before we attend to the concerns of “us men.”  The apostle Paul makes this point when he writes, “In humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4).  This, it should be noted, is precisely how Christ lived.  For Him, every man belonged to the category of “those men,” for He alone stood as the God-man.  No one was like Him.  And yet, rather than preserving Himself, He sacrificed Himself for us.  Christ is the very essence of self-sacrifice.

Last week, I came across an article written several years ago by Bradley Birzer, a professor of history who holds the Russell Amos Kirk Chair in American Studies at Hillsdale College.  In his article, Professor Birzer tells the story of a priest named Maximilian Kolbe.  The story is so poignant and compelling that it is worth quoting at length:

St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Roman Catholic priest, had been taken prisoner by the Nazis, as had been vast number of his fellow men, Poles, Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans. The Nazis seemed to avoid discrimination when it came to state sanctioned murder.

On the last day of July 1941, a prisoner had attempted to escape the terror camp. As punishment, the commandant called out ten random names – the names of those to be executed in retribution for the one man trying to escape. One of the names called had belonged (or, rather, had been forced upon) a husband and father. As the man pleaded his case, Father Kolbe came forward and offered his life for the one pleading. The commandant, probably rather shocked, agreed, and Kolbe, with nine others, stripped naked, entered the three-foot high concrete bunker. Deprived of food, water, light, and toilets, the men survived – unbelievably – for two weeks. Madness and cannibalism never overcame them, as the Nazis had hoped. Instead, through Kolbe’s witness as priest and preacher and as an incarnate soul made in the image of Christ, grace pervaded the room. When the commandant had the room searched two weeks later, only to find the men and Father Kolbe alive, he furiously ordered them all to be injected with carbolic acid.

The man who removed Kolbe’s body offered a wondrous testimony under oath. Kolbe, he said, had been in a state of definite ecstasy, his eyes focused on something far beyond the bunker, his arm outstretched, ready to accept the death of the chemicals to be injected in him.

Father Kolbe lived a life of self-sacrifice, even when a life of self-sacrifice meant offering himself unto death.  As he awaited his fate, he preached the gospel, which burnished in his bunker-mates love for each other instead of competition against each other over the meager resources of the Nazis’ concentration camp.  And because of Father Kolbe’s willingness to sacrifice himself, Poles, Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans were able to stand together.

Do you want to confront racism?  Just live like that.  It is difficult to be racist when you put others before yourself, because instead of being suspicious of others, you learn to love others.  And love and racism simply cannot coexist.  In fact, love, when it is embodied in self-sacrifice, not only confronts racism, it kills it.  And it’s much better to kill an evil like racism than to kill a person like in Charlottesville.

August 21, 2017 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Strategy of Love

Credit:  New York Times via The Associated Press

Credit: New York Times via The Associated Press

It was a day law enforcement officials were dreading. On the same day, during the same hours, two groups whose worldviews could not be farther apart planned to hold rallies for their respective causes on the same grounds – the grounds of the South Carolina State Capitol. One group, Black Educators for Justice, which has ties to the Black Panthers, held signs that said “Black Lives Matter” and chanted “black power.” The other group, the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, waved Confederate flags while chanting “white power.”

This has not been a good season for race relations in America. The latest round of racial tension began with a horrific racially motivated shooting at a Charleston church. This sparked a debate over displaying the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House that became so fierce that a black man named Anthony Hervey who often dressed in Confederate regalia and waved the state flag of Mississippi, which contains the Confederate flag in its design, in an attempt to honor African-Americans who served with the Confederacy during the Civil War was allegedly run off the road by another vehicle full of people angry at his demonstrations. Then there was 43-year-old James Dubose, a black man, who was shot and killed by a white University of Cincinnati police officer after being pulled over for not having a front license plate on his vehicle. The officer is charged with murder. Although authorities do not yet know precisely what precipitated this shooting, the episode has certainly exacerbated race relations in that community.

Now, there are these dueling rallies between two self-identified racially distinctive groups at the State House in South Carolina. The New York Times reports that though there were some scuffles between the groups and some demonstrators were arrested, because the groups were on opposite ends of the State House and their contact with each other was minimal, thankfully, no major fights erupted.

Perhaps the point of contact that was most noteworthy in these demonstrations was not a point of contention between these two groups with each other, but a point of grace that an officer had with a Klan member.

Officer Leroy Smith is the Director of the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. He was at the State House the day of the demonstrations, working crowd control. In the midst of his duties, he spotted an elderly man who was part of the Klan rally, donning a t-shirt emblazoned with a swastika, who looked sickly and weak as he protested in the hot South Carolina sun. What did Officer Smith do?   He took him by the arm and led him up the steps of the State Capitol into the air-conditioned building.

Did I mention Officer Smith was black?

Just days before, Officer Smith had watched as state troopers lowered the Confederate flag from its perch atop the capitol grounds for the final time. The symbolism of the moment sent chills up his spine. But lowering a flag that is widely associated with racial tension cannot kill hatred. It cannot kill suspicion. It cannot kill resentment. It cannot kill self-absorption. Indeed, all of these things were on display the day of the demonstrations. But then one man decided to show love.

The Klan did not volunteer the name of the man Officer Smith helped up the steps of the State House. But it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that this one scene – this one act – is what will be remembered out of an otherwise frightful day in Charleston. This one scene – this one act – is what wound up overshadowing all the expressions of dismay, distrust, and disunity.

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). When we read these words, we can be tempted to relegate them to the realm of nice sentiment rather than practical reality. Enemies, our street smarts tell us, need to be defeated, not loved. But then one man decided to love someone who, by all accounts, was his enemy. And his love devastated the divisive strategies of literally thousands of protesters. Jesus’ strategy of love, it turns out, made a much stronger impression than any human strategy of malcontent.

What will be remembered the most from that day in Charleston is the love of an officer for a man who, morally, holds repugnant views. As Christians, what will be remembered of us? Will we be remembered for loving those who others – and, if we’re honest, we ourselves – would find it far easier to hate? If our lives are marked by anything other than Jesus’ strategy of love, it’s time to change our strategies.  After all, Jesus’ strategy is better. And His strategy really does work. In fact, more than that, His strategy really can transform prejudices and people.  Just ask Officer Smith.

August 3, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

On Michael Brown and Darren Wilson

Credit: Reuters

Credit: Reuters

They are the protests that just won’t stop. The cries of activists in Ferguson, Missouri are loud and only seem to be getting louder. One cry in particular caught my attention. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes was reporting from Ferguson when protestors began to throw rocks at him. Some of them yelled, “Tell the true story!” But one man shouted what I think is perhaps the most profound insight into this whole, sordid affair I have heard to date. “This isn’t about Mike Brown no more,” he said. “It’s a civil rights movement. It’s about all people.”

I agree with the protestor. Though they are often conflated, what’s happening in Ferguson today can and should be distinguished from what happened in Ferguson on August 9. This is not about Michael Brown anymore. This is about – be they real or perceived – civil rights grievances.

On the one hand, this is not all bad. This tragedy has ignited some important national conversations. On the other hand, in these conversations, we have taken the very real pain of two very real families – the Brown family and the family of the officer who shot him, the Wilson family – and turned it into an expedient talking point for rallies, protests, and cable news brawls. But their pain deserves more than our marginal mentions. We need to do more. We need to go deeper. We need to take some time to empathize with these families.

Empathy is when you take the human experience and personalize it. In other words, you use what you know from the human experience in general to try to understand one human’s experience in particular. What has happened in this case is the exact opposite. We have taken the personal experiences of two families and de-personalized them, hoisting their pain on our petard.

Michael Brown and Darren Wilson have become emblems. Michael Brown has become an emblem of racial tensions that have plagued Ferguson for decades. Darren Wilson has become an emblem of mistreated law enforcement officials. But these men are much more than impersonal emblems. Michael Brown was a son with college aspirations. Darren Wilson is a man with a family at home.

In an effort at empathy, I’ve been pondering what questions these families must be asking themselves as they watch all this unfold. I’ve been thinking about the questions I would be asking if was in their situation.

As I’ve been thinking about Michael Brown’s parents, I’ve wondered if they’ve asked themselves:

  • Did Officer Wilson really have to use deadly force to subdue our son? He has lots of ways to subdue suspects.
  • It was broad daylight! How in the world did the officer not know our son was not pointing a weapon at him?
  • Did Officer Wilson overreact because he was scared of a black man?
  • What is a jury going to say about all this? Is justice going to be served?

As I’ve been thinking about Officer Wilson and his family, I’ve wondered if they’ve asked themselves:

  • Why can’t people understand how difficult it is to make snap decisions as a police officer?
  • Why do people always assume officers have the worst of intentions?
  • Don’t the protestors realize that their threats scare our whole family?
  • What is a jury going to say about all this? Is justice going to be served?

Of course, I don’t know for sure what questions they’re asking. And I would never claim to understand how these families are feeling. But empathy is not about claiming to know how somebody feels. It’s about caring how somebody feels. And we should care about and for these families.

To this end, I would ask you to pray for these families – both of these families – and for peace to be restored in Ferguson. Try to empathize with them – their pain, their fear, their confusion – and then pray that God would give them strength, comfort, and hope during this difficult time. Remember, these families are more than causes, they’re people. We cannot forget that.

Allow me to add one final note. Just because I seek to uphold the value of empathizing with the Brown and Wilson families doesn’t mean I don’t believe larger discussions around race are unimportant. But I pray we don’t have these conversations like it’s 1963. I pray we’ve grown since then. I pray our discussions are more civil, our thinking is more compassionate, and our hearts are more, well, empathetic toward those who have different experiences and perspectives. But for now, my prayers are with the Brown and Wilson families. I hope yours are too.

August 21, 2014 at 3:21 pm 1 comment

ABC Extra – Atonement: Universal or Limited?

This weekend in worship and ABC, we continued our “Credo!” series with a study of the doctrine of the atonement.  As I mentioned in ABC, the word “atonement” comes to us via the sixteenth century, literally meaning, “at-one-ment.”  That is, the doctrine of the atonement teaches that whereas sin separates us from God, God makes us “at-one” with Him through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ.  The apostle Paul explains it well:

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

With these words, Paul offers a simple, yet eloquent, definition of the doctrine of the atonement.  The atonement is God’s reconciliation of the world to Himself through Christ.  Yet, this definition has caused more than a little debate over the years.

Two opposite and equal errors have been made with regard to the doctrine of the atonement.  The first error is that of “universal atonement.”  “Universal atonement” teaches that, because God has reconciled the world to himself through Christ, ultimately, no one will stand condemned.  Everyone will be saved.  Indeed, this what the great church father Origen taught:

So then, when the end has been restored to the beginning…so that when all feeling of wickedness has been removed, and the individual has been purified and cleansed, He who alone is the one good God becomes to him “all,” and that not in the case of a few individuals, or of a considerable number, but He Himself is “all in all.” (Origen, De Prinicipiis, 3.6.3).

Origen’s borrows the phrase “all in all” from 1 Corinthians 15:28 to assert that God will not just save “a few individuals, or a considerable number,” but all people!  Everyone will be saved!  This is the doctrine of universal atonement.  And it is a false doctrine.  Not all people will be saved.

The second error that has crept into the doctrine of atonement is that of “limited atonement.”  “Limited atonement” notes that, even though Paul writes “that God was reconciling the world to Himself in Christ,” not all are saved.   Some are cast into hell (cf. Revelation 20:15).  Thus, “limited atonement” teaches that God did not reconcile the whole world to Himself in Christ; rather, He reconciled only the world of the elect, or those He has chosen for salvation, to Himself.  Indeed, this is the teaching of many modern day Calvinists, although it is debatable as to whether or not Calvin himself taught this.

So what is the way through these debates?  Is universal atonement or limited atonement correct?  Actually, neither is correct.  Lutherans have long made a distinction between objective justification and subjective justification.  Objective justification states that when Christ died, He did so for the sins of the whole world.  God sought to reconcile the whole world to Himself in Christ.  Subjective justification notes that Christ’s objective work on the cross must be received subjectively, or personally, through faith.  This is what the Lutheran Confessions call “personal faith”: “Personal faith – by which an individual believes that his or her sins are remitted on account of Christ and that God is reconciled and gracious on account of Christ – receives the forgiveness of sins and justifies us” (Apology IV:45).  In other words, the Lutheran confessors teach that Christ’s objective work on the cross does you no good if you don’t trust in it for your forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation!  This is why the Scriptures contain constant calls to personal faith (e.g., Romans 10:9-10).

Both objective and subjective justification are needed.  Subjective justification is needed because it invites us to have faith and reminds us that without faith, we will be damned (cf. Luke 8:12).  Objective justification is important because it reminds us that Christ’s work on the cross is not just for some, but for the whole world.  Indeed, it is for you!  God not only reconciles the world to Himself in Christ, He reconciles you, for He loves you.  This is the true doctrine of the atonement!

Want to learn more on this passage? Go to
www.ConcordiaLutheranChurch.com
and check out audio and video from Pastor Tucker’s
message or Pastor Zach’s ABC!

October 4, 2010 at 5:15 am 3 comments

ABC Extra – Be Reconciled Today

This weekend in worship and ABC, we continued our series “Five Family Fiascos!  Is There Hope For Us?” with a look at the fiasco of familial estrangement.  Certainly the scene is familiar:  one family member betrays, embarrasses, or even inadvertently hurts another family member and retaliation ensues.  But this retaliation does not take the form of a fistfight or of cutting words or of a heated demand for an apology.  No, this retaliation takes the form of a cold shoulder – a refusal to speak to, or sometimes to even acknowledge, the other person.  And the longer this goes on, the further these two family members drift apart.  This is sad story of estrangement.

The story of King David and his son Absalom follows this all too proverbial pattern of estrangement.  As we learned this weekend, after Absalom’s brother Amnon rapes their sister Tamar, Absalom becomes furious at his father for not stepping in and meting out justice against Amnon in the face of such shocking wickedness.  Absalom subsequently becomes estranged from his father.  Indeed, we read, “Absalom lived two years in Jerusalem without seeing the king’s face” (2 Samuel 14:27).  Two men, two years, in the same town – and they never so much as catch a glimpse of each other.

Tragically, it’s not as if they didn’t want to see each other.  We read in 2 Samuel 13:39:  “The spirit of the king longed to go to Absalom.”  But David defies his spirit’s yearning.  He never goes to see his son.  Indeed, he even prevents his son from seeing him.  “He must not see my face,” David says just verses later (2 Samuel 14:24).

Eventually, the estrangement between father and son becomes too much for Absalom to bear.  He rebels by staging a coup against his father.  Battle lines are drawn, strategies are devised, and, in the end, David proves victorious – but only after Absalom is killed.  When David hears the news that his son has been killed and the threat to his throne has been removed, a wave of remorse and regret comes rushing over the king:  “O my son Absalom!  My son, my son Absalom!  If only I had died instead of you – O Absalom, my son, my son” (2 Samuel 18:33).  Interestingly, this is the first time that David calls Absalom, “my son.”  Before this, he referred to him only as, “the young man” (cf. 2 Samuel 14:21, 18:5, 12, 29, 32).  But now he longs for the relationship he could have had.  Now he dotingly calls Absalom, “my son.”  Now he wishes, “If only I had died instead of you.”  But now it’s too late.  Trading his own life for Absalom’s life would do David no good.  Absalom is already gone.

Certainly one of the weighty lessons of this story comes in the utter tragedy of leaving relationships estranged.  Indeed, this story ends on a terribly tragic note – with a wailing monarch riddled by regret.  And yet, through David’s tear-choked words, we hear a distant note of hope.  For though David cannot die in the stead of Absalom and restore their broken relationship, there is someone who can.  And there is someone who has.  For when our sins separated us from God, God traded His Son’s life for our lives so that we would no longer be estranged from Him, but reconciled to Him, even as Paul declares:  “We were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10).  God is in the business of reconciliation.  And His reconciliation is truly the most challenging and most glorious reconciliation of all – for He reconciles imperfect people to His perfect Person.  Will you, as an imperfect person, seek reconciliation with other imperfect people from whom you are estranged?   Remember, the remorse of estrangement will always be heavier than the challenge of reconciliation.  Be reconciled today.

Want to learn more on this passage? Go to
www.ConcordiaLutheranChurch.com
and check out audio and video from Pastor Tucker’s
message or Pastor Zach’s ABC!

April 26, 2010 at 4:45 am Leave a comment


Follow Zach

Enter your email address to subscribe to Pastor Zach's blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,086 other followers


%d bloggers like this: