Time for this week’s Church Write-Up about last Sunday’s services.
A. At the LCMS church, the pastor’s sermon was about the beatitudes in Matthew 5. He was offering a spiritualized, grace-oriented interpretation of them. Those who come to God with nothing in their hands, mourning over their sins and hungering and thirsting for righteousness will be redeemed. He said that the word for “blessed” in the beatitudes should be understood as redeemed.
The pastor said where he got the “redeemed” interpretation of makarios last Wednesday, at the adult Bible study, but I forget what he said. Looking at the lexica on my BibleWorks and at the LSJ, I do not see “redeemed” as a definition of makarios, but I do see “blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged recipient of divine favor.” Some of that may fit with what the pastor is talking about.
I understand elements of the sermon, but not entirely what the pastor was getting at. Was he saying that the Sermon on the Mount is about how to get saved? Is it about how the redeemed live in God’s Kingdom? Last Wednesday, he was saying that the sermon is about discipleship, since Jesus is teaching his disciples, who were already saved.
Another point that the pastor made last Wednesday is that the Sermon on the Mount is not about what Christians have to do, but what they get to be as participants in God’s Kingdom. They get to be complete in their righteousness. Perhaps he would also say that they get to be pure in heart, as God purifies them.
Questions persist in my mind. Why the emphasis on Gehenna in the sermon? Are redeemed believers still supposed to worry about hell? Are being merciful, being pure in heart, and being persecuted for righteousness’ sake also required for salvation, as being poor in spirit, mourning over sin, and hungering and thirsting for righteousness are? Some of that may work in the pastor’s scenario. A person comes to God as a beggar in need of mercy, and that person is likely to show mercy to somebody else. A person is pure in heart, not in the sense of being perfect, but in intent, as he or she approaching God in humility.
I was reading some commentaries. The Hermeneia one on Matthew 1-7 had a spiritualized interpretation of the beatitudes, as the pastor did. The Word Biblical Commentary, by contrast, had a more physical interpretation. The poor in spirit are also economically poor, mourning at their own plight and the plight of others. They hunger and thirst for God’s justice.
B. The LCMS church started a new Sunday school class. It will last through the month of November. The person teaching it is the professor who taught about patristic interpretations of John from January to March. The subject of this class is the Trinity and the incarnation. How did the early Christians, monotheistic Jews, come to conclude that Jesus was God?
The teacher talked about Pliny the Younger. As a Roman governor of Bithynia, which is by the Black Sea, Pliny is writing to Emperor Trajan about Christians, since Pliny recently executed some of them for refusing to worship the Roman gods; the Romans worshiped many gods to hedge their bets and did not want to offend any of them. This occurs in the early 110s CE. The teacher said this is the first time that we see an outside observer differentiating Christians from Jews. Pliny says that the Christians meet on a fixed day before dawn, and the teacher said this was Sunday, and that they pray to Christ as to a god. See here for Pliny’s letter and Trajan’s response.
Someone asked if Pliny was a scholar, and the teacher replied that most Roman governors were well-read. The teacher also noted that Pliny’s uncle was Pliny the Elder, a scholar. As an admiral, Pliny the Elder rode a boat to Pompeii to rescue the Roman fleet and was killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Another student questioned the wisdom of trying to figure out the Trinity and the incarnation. She quoted Deuteronomy 29:29: ” The secret things belong unto the LORD our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (KJV). If God could be understood, she said, then God is no better than we are.
The teacher replied that a lot of revelation took place after the time of Deuteronomy: God became incarnate, after all. While we will never fully understand God, perhaps we can make progress in understanding more about God.
The teacher also touched on the marginalization of the Spirit in the New Testament and early Christianity. Often, the Father and the Son are mentioned, while the Holy Spirit is not. After Nicea, there was a greater attempt to understand the Holy Spirit, but, before then, Christians spent their energy on trying to understand the Son. The Armstrongite answer is that early Christianity was binitarian, not Trinitarian. The teacher said that the reason Jesus was addressed first was that Jesus was considered the concrete revelation of God, whereas the Spirit was seen as more ephemeral. The teacher also noted that there are still Trinitarian formulas in the New Testament, such as baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19).
C. At the “Word of Faith” church, the pastor spoke about Acts 10, the story of the centurion Cornelius and the inclusion of the Gentiles into the church. In Acts 10:4, an angel tells Cornelius, “Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God” (KJV). The pastor denied that God was impressed by Cornelius’ righteousness, saying that we are all sinners and God shows us grace. According to the pastor, God was responding to Cornelius’ search for God, under the influence of God’s Spirit. Cornelius’ devotion was incomplete. He could worship the God of Israel as his patron deity, yet his absolute allegiance, as a Roman centurion, was to the emperor. After becoming a Christian, he could still protect the emperor, but his ultimate allegiance was to Christ.