Monday, August 17, 2015

The Good Works Uncertainty Principle

I have a minor interest in physics, and read dumbed-down popular science books and articles aimed at "the layman".

One of the fascinating developments in physics in the last century or so is a greater understanding of "quantum physics", in which scientists are beginning to understand how things work on the smallest of scales.  And what they have found is that on those very small scales, things get quite strange.

There's the famous experiment with the "double slit".  This video explains it.  One of the spookiest discoveries is that when light is not being measured or observed directly, it acts like a wave, but then when it is being observed, it appears as a particle.  It's as if the particle "knows" it's being watched and changes its behavior accordingly.

I've found that quantum mechanics provides some helpful analogies to our life of good works as Christians.  

We know that all Christians have faith, and that faith always produces good works.  But we humans like to measure things, especially our own good works.   And here's where things start to get strange.  Here I think about the double-slit experiment. Our good works are like that photon in this way - when we observe them, things change!  When we start looking at our good works and measuring them, especially against the perfect and holy standard of God's Law, they begin to look not-so-good after all.  They are tainted and corrupted by sin, pride, false motivations, impure motives, etc.  This is the "lex semper accusat", always accusing aspect of the law at work. When we look at our works, they appear as filthy rags - especially the closer we look.

So when the sheep and the goats are separated (Matthew 25), the sheep are quite surprised to hear of their good works.  For they weren't busy looking at them.  "When did we feed you, Lord?  When did we clothe you, visit you?"

Scripture assures us that our faith DOES produce works.  But it would not have us sit around admiring them.  Rather, our focus should be on the cross of Christ (keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith) and on the needs of our neighbor.  

To the extent that we do good works, thanks be to God who gets the credit for them anyway.  To the extent that we do good works, however weak and failingly, thanks be to God who accepts them through Christ nonetheless.

In Christ, we see perfect works - no matter how much of a magnification we put on the scope.  In Christ, there is no uncertainty, but always blessed assurance that what he has done is enough, and is good enough.  The resurrection proves the sufficiency of his life and death for us.

Then there's the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which "any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known simultaneously."  

In other words, there's always stuff we not only don't know, but there's stuff we can't know.

But Christ is the certainty principle of God.  He sends his Spirit, who creates faith in us, and that "faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction (certainty) of things unseen".  Hebrews 11:1  Christ's promises to us about forgiveness today and resurrection on "that day" are surer than any observation.  For though even our eyes may fail us, he never will.  And though what we see may or may not be, he assures us, "before Abraham was, I am".  

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Sermon - John 6:35-51 - Pentecost 11

John 6:35-51
Pentecost 11
August 9th, 2015
“The Bread of Life that Comes to Us”

Today we continue hearing from Jesus in John chapter 6, this great “bread of life” discourse. In John's Gospel there are 8 great “I AM” statements:

I am the bread of life
I am the light of the world
Before Abraham was, I am
I am the door
I am the good shepherd
I am the resurrection and the life
I am the way, the truth, and the life
I am the true vine

This is the first of those statements, and the one that Jesus spends the most time in the Gospel unpacking. These grand statements are far more than simple metaphors, though there are points of comparison to note.

When Jesus uses the image of bread – it's quite intentional. Bread is the staff of life. It is the most basic form of food and sustenance we humans know. We pray for daily bread in the Lord's prayer, meaning, all that we need to support this body and life. We work to put bread on the table, that is, to earn money and pay for all our family's needs.

When Jesus claims for himself the title, “Bread of Life”, he's doing far more than making a simple comparison. In a way, Jesus is more bread than bread itself. He is more universal. He is more basic and necessary. He is more of what we need to be sustained than any earthly bread. Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. And Jesus Christ, the Bread from Heaven is the Word of God made flesh.

And there is contrast here, too. Earthly bread must be earned, but the Bread of Life from Heaven is a gift. Earthly bread may spoil, but this bread endures. Earthly bread may leave you hungry again soon. But the Bread of Life promises – you'll never hunger or thirst again. Earthly bread – you can eat it, and die the next day. But the bread of life – you eat that and you'll live forever, be raised on the last day.

In our Old Testament reading, Elijah was facing death. He was under threat of death from the wicked queen Jezebel. She called for his death, and fast, for he had beaten the false prophets of her false gods at Mt. Carmel. When their sacrifice was ignored, but Elijah's sacrifice to the true God was consumed in fire from heaven – and Elijah had those 450 false prophets put to death. Queen Jezebel would have her revenge, and put the word out that Elijah was at the top of her list. So he ran into the wilderness. And found his refuge under a broom tree. And he was so exhausted from all this that he prayed to die. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

But the Angel of the Lord appeared and fed him. He provided him with a simple meal, not once but twice, to strengthen and sustain Elijah, whose work was not quite done yet. Nothing fancy, mind you. No army appeared for Elijah to lead into battle with Jezebel. No magical thunderbolt to zap his enemies to smithereens. No more fire from heaven. Just a simple meal. And Elijah was strengthened for his journey.

This Angel of the Lord that appeared to him, appears to be a bit more than a mere created angel. But throughout the Old Testament this particular messenger of God is identified with God himself – and appears to be a pre-incarnate Second Person of the Trinity. The Angel of the Lord who appeared to Moses and Abraham and Hagar and Gideon and so many others. The same Person who in some 800 years would take on human flesh and be born of a virgin. The same one who would proclaim himself the Bread of Life.

The Bread of Life – we need this bread, for we too face death all day long. We try to push death out of the picture, relegate it to hospitals and nursing homes, dress it up with softer words like “passed away”. Or we make a game and joke of death, turn it into a cartoon. You can go on the internet, plug in a few personal details, and the “death clock” will give you an approximation of how long it thinks you have on this earth. This is how we face our enemy?

Or better yet, just live in denial that each of us will one day face our last day. Plod through life like nothing's wrong, everything is puppies and daffodils, and everyone is and will be just fine. Well this just lets death sneak up on you, and smack you while you're not looking. And sooner or later, it will happen. No one is immune.

No, none of these methods deal with death. They only seek to hide from it or make it less terrible. But make no mistake. Death and sin walk hand in hand. No matter what fig leaf we try to use to cover up the wages of our sin. We can't do it. It's too much for us.

We may not have a wicked Jezebel out for our head, but we have a more wicked enemy who would take our life if he could. The devil's schemes are never-ending, his temptations do not let up. Moreover, we have our own sinful nature to contend with – a nature that would eagerly dance to the devil's tune. And the world – if you don't believe the world has embraced a culture of death look no further than the latest weekly video and see the gruesomeness of the violence done to the least of these among us.

Sometimes the journey seems too great for us. This life exhausts us and overwhelms us and even if we sometimes live in denial of death, other days we like Elijah, “Lord, it is enough. Take me now.” And it seems like the only thing to do with death is to give in.

But the same Lord who fed Elijah for his journey is the same Lord who sends the Bread of Life from heaven. And just as Elijah's simple meal was nothing outwardly spectacular, but just what he needed – so does the Bread of Life feed us. He gives his flesh, his body, for the life of the world.

Elijah found his rest under a broom tree. But you and I find our rest under a different tree- the tree of the cross. There, at the cross, Jesus sweeps away all our sin and even death itself.

It is from the cross that Jesus feeds the world just what it needs. Not a savior who brings armies or magic wands, no fireworks or winning lottery tickets. But in the lowly, the humble, the suffering – his power is made perfect in weakness. He sheds his blood, suffers the wrath of God for sin, and gives up his Spirit – thus fulfilling the will of his Father, thus completing his mission from heaven, and winning for you – eternal life.
This is how he, the Bread of Heaven feeds us with the gifts of the Father. This is how he, the Bread of life, brings us eternal life.

And it is from the altar, that he feeds you today. It may not seem like much. You have all these sins and troubles and fears and then there's death... and Jesus says take and eat, this little, simple wafer of bread. Take and drink, just a sip of wine – and nothing fancy at that. But in this Holy Sacrament of his body and blood, he feeds you the fruits of his cross – and sustains you with the Bread of Life. And it is enough for the journey. He feeds you and sustains you with exactly what you need. He gives you himself, and that's always enough.

So come and eat and drink. Come bearing your sins. Come with whatever weariness life in a fallen world has laid on you. Come even though your enemies would have your life. Come with your hurts, your hungers, your yearning to do better. Come to Jesus, for he has come from heaven, from the Father, for you. And whoever comes to Jesus, the Father will not cast out. Whoever believes will have eternal life. In Jesus' Name. Amen.

Monday, August 03, 2015

Sermon - Pentecost 10 - John 6:22-35

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 2nd, 2015
John 6:22-35
“Work that Is Not Work for Bread that Is Not Bread.”

Maybe somewhere in your life you've seen someone who has fallen on hard times, maybe at a busy intersection or by a Walmart parking lot – holding a sign.  And scrawled on that cardboard sign with magic marker is the phrase, “Will work for food”.  I suppose it's meant to indicate that this person isn't simply looking for a handout.  There might be some pride involved, that even though I'm in a tough spot, I'm not looking for something for free.  I'll earn my keep.  I'll work for my food.

St. Paul told the Thessalonian church that work was important.  And that even though they were expecting Christ to return soon, they should still go about their business, and not stop working. “For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.”  2 Thess. 3:10  Paul upholds the value of work, and would not have able-bodied Christians act like freeloaders, needlessly living off of the kindness of others, when they, too, can do their part.  God gives us the ability to work for a reason.  And it is good to work for your bread.

But today Jesus says some rather puzzling things about work and food.   “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you” and “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

Jesus had just miraculously fed the 5000+ who were attentive to his teaching. And in a day and age when one's next meal was often in question, someone who could provide bread for the crowds would certainly get some attention.

Like a flock of hungry birds, feed them once, and they ravenously follow you for more.  But were they hungry for the right things?  What should they have been looking for from Jesus?  What did he really come to give them?

“Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you”

So a contrast is set between food that perishes, and food that endures to eternal life.

You and I are not only earthy, physical creatures, but we are too often fixated on the things of this earth.  We set our mind on things below, not above.  We think we can live by bread alone.  We are just like our parents, who found the forbidden fruit enticing, and they ate.  So we are drawn to all sorts of fruits of this world.  Whether forbidden pleasures of an earthly nature, or permitted daily bread which we then make into an idol.  We're not much different than the hungry mob following Jesus all around the sea of Galilee.

Nor are we unlike the grumbling, ungrateful Israelite rabble who griped and groaned about their food in the wilderness.  God had miraculously, spectacularly freed them from slavery in Egypt.  He performed 10 plagues, each one worse than the last.  He parted the Red Sea with perfect timing for their escape.  He led them in a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night.  He couldn't have done more for them.  Yet still, they grumbled against Moses, and against God.

“At least in Egypt we had meat to eat!”  Pining for the good old days of slavery, and despising the good gifts of God who brought them out of it.

Repentance is in order, friends.  Repentance for every ungrateful, unthankful moment in which we take for granted God's gifts of daily bread.  Repentance for coveting the daily bread of the next guy, whose bread seems so much fresher, and whose loaf smells so much better.  Repentance for misusing and abusing the good gifts he gives us.  Repentance for thinking we deserve these things, like God owes us this, and even more!  Repentance for thinking we could do better if we were the one sitting up on that throne, that we know better what our needs are – better than even the one who designed and made us and gives us life.  The audacity of humans.  It's never enough.  It's never good enough.  Our appetites always grumbling for more and more and better and better.

Jesus sets the crowd straight, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you”

He's urging them toward the Gospel.  The food that endures to eternal life.  The food that he, himself will give to them.  The food that is, in fact, himself – the very Bread of Life as he will reveal shortly.
There's something strange here already, though.  He's telling them to work for something that he will give.  He's shifting from an earning mentality to a gift mentality.  He's moving from the law-minded, earthbound thinking of the typical human experience, where we must work for our bread and nothing comes for free.  And he's moving them toward the grace of God, the undeserved, the free gift of bread that he himself will give.  But they don't quite see it yet.

They're still stuck on work.  “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Don't you get it people?  You didn't work all day when he fed you and the 5000.  You simply sat and heard his teaching.  You were a recipient of the heavenly bread, and then he gave you earthly bread for good measure.  You didn't deserve it.  You didn't earn it.  The disciples wanted to send you away to go buy your own meal.  But the giver of all good things gave you good things, and still gives good things to sinners who don't earn them.

Christians, what do you think you must do to be doing the works of God?  Do you think you're earning your bread from God by random acts of kindness?  Do you suppose you are working for God by serving on church boards and committees?  Do you think your money in the plate is the thing?  Or that you're actually keeping the 10 commandments, or at least good enough to earn some consideration from the Almighty?  Maybe coming to church today is the real sacrifice you think you're making to show God how much you really do deserve the goods... whatever the bread may be.
Jesus turns all this on its head, too.  None of that is the work of God.  The work of God is this. Believe in him whom he has sent.
And even this, is a gift.

So what we have is work that is not work, for bread that is not bread.

The work of God is simply to trust in Christ who gives salvation freely.  And the Bread of Life that he gives, is no mere bread, but his own self, his own body, broken for you on the cross.
The cross.  That's where the true work of God was accomplished.  There, where Jesus did the only work that ever earned salvation for any sinner.  God accepted this work, and showed his seal of approval by raising Jesus from the dead.

Your part, dear Christian, is to believe it.  And even this faith itself, he has worked in you, and works to sustain by his Spirit.  So you don't even get credit for your own faith as a good work, thanks be to God!  It is his work in you.  You don't get the pride of saying you'll work for food.  He gives it to you for free.  He works it in you, by his grace.  And he who began a good work in you will one day bring it to completion...

In the meantime, that faith does produce works.  This is a great mystery, for when we begin to measure our works they seem to evaporate before us into filthy rags.  But faith doesn't look at our works, it looks to Christ, and it looks to the needs of the neighbor.  How can I, who have received such good bread, serve my neighbor, and maybe even share my bread?  I do it not to earn a thing, for the giver of the Bread of Life feeds me richly and freely.

The Israelites ate manna in the desert.  And as miraculous and heavenly a food as it was, they ate it and still died anyway.  But here is a bread that one may eat and live forever.  Here is a meal that sustains us for eternity.  It is the true body and blood of Christ, the holy sacrament of his altar, in which he gives himself for our forgiveness, life and salvation.  The work of God is to believe... and to believe his words concerning his provision in this meal.  This is my body and blood.  Take and eat.  Take and drink.  And never hunger and thirst again.

We'll spend the next two Sundays in this same chapter, John 6.  And we'll continue to hear from the Bread of Life who gave himself and still gives himself for us.  Thanks be to God for his provision of bread, rained down from heaven on us, in the person of Jesus Christ, his Son our Lord.
So be about the work of God.  That is, receive him.  Believe in him.  And live.   In Jesus' Name.  Amen.