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Daniel Foster, MD

  • Scripture: Luke 12:1-12

    Point one: Hypocrisy is a serious sin in Jesus’ view.  And, He also thinks it is dangerous, as evidenced by His beginning with a “beware.” “When so many thousands of the multitude had gathered together that they trod upon one another, He began to say to His disciples, ‘Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy.’”  The word “leaven” here is used to indicate “spreading,” as putting leaven into dough would make it swell up.  They were spreading hypocrisy, in essence causing other people to become hypocrites and Jesus said that was a very bad thing.  A formal definition of hypocrisy is, “a pretense of having a virtuous character or virtuous life, and morality or religious beliefs that one does not possess” - a fake, in other words.  A simple description is that the inner life does not conform to the outward life.  There is a discrepancy there and that is a dangerous thing.  A person comes to church every single service, and runs a business that is stealing from stockholders.  A person comes to church every Sunday and does not put money or time into the efforts of the church.  The drive to hypocrisy is the desire for public praise or trust or reward.  One of the reasons Jesus was probably angry about hypocrisy was another characteristic of hypocrisy – hypocrites tend to be continually judging others negatively.  The reason for that is, when they judge others negatively, it makes their righteousness look better.  Jesus was into truth.  He said that the truth would make you free.  But, hypocrisy enslaves.  He really thought hypocrisy was a terrible thing.

       I want to differentiate deliberate hypocrisy from functional hypocrisy.  The one is malignant and the other is entirely benign.  What I mean by functional hypocrisy is that all of us, on the journey to faith, are less where we are than where we want to be.  If we assess our lives in terms of mature sanctified Christianity, we recognize we are not there.  So if we look at ourselves truthfully and honestly, we say, “You know, the fact is I am a hypocrite.  I’m not as kind or as good or as giving as I want to be.”  That is a functional hypocrisy – it is not deliberate, it is not chosen.  In fact, one is very disappointed in it.  And that is benign, completely innocent.  In fact, one is not doing well on the journey if one is not aware of the fact that there are things that need to continue to grow in our lives. God uses that as an instrument.  It is the process, really, of sanctification.  Every one of us could say there are some things we need to work on.  But, what the Bible makes clear is that God is patient.  It is o.k. to be who we are, where we are, while God is changing us into what we can become.  So there is a big difference between deliberate hypocrisy and functional hypocrisy.  We need to clearly understand that in this Bible verse, God is talking about chosen, deliberate, play-acted virtues that have nothing to do with reality.  

    Point two:  All our secrets are known to God.  In verses two and three Jesus says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed; or hidden that will not be known.  Therefore, whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light; and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the house-tops.”  In the eschaton all secrets will be known.  Here Jesus is talking about words, about what one says.  But the same issue has to do with deeds.  What one has done in the dark will be revealed in the light. Basically what Jesus is saying is that the God of the Universe is omniscient and knows every single thing about the world and also about our souls.  Our darkness is already known to Him.  We may think it is hidden.  We may hide it from somebody else, but not from God.  If you are aware of that, it’s scary.  But when you think through it, there is a positive side to this that I want to emphasize.  It is both a threat and a tremendous comfort that He knows.  What I mean by that, since He is omniscient, He also knows our secret good, our secret kindnesses, our secret mercies that we are too modest to talk about.  We don’t want to brag on self when we have done something kind or good.  (Even though there are times when, if it can be done sensitively and modestly, it is good to share things we have done in order to illustrate, to make a witness, make a testimony in order to spread the Gospel.)   But God knows our secret good as well as our secret darkness.  Jacques Maritain, the existentialist Catholic theologian, wrote about this very beautifully in his book, Existence and the Existent, 

         “The idea that we are known to Him who scrutinizes the loins and heart dissolves

         us at first in fear and trembling because of the evil that is within us.  But on deeper 

         reflection, how can we keep from thinking that God, who knows us in our nakedness, 

         our wounds, our secret evil, but also knows the secret beauty of the nature He has 

         bestowed upon us – the slightest sparks of good and liberty we give forth, all the 

         impulses of good that we drag from the womb to the grave, the recesses of goodness, 

         of which we ourselves have no notion.  The exhaustive knowledge of God is a loving 

         knowledge.  He knows our goodness as well as our sin.”  

    He is saying we don’t realize how much goodness there is in us.  Don’t ever forget that.  He knows the best in us and, in the sanctification process, He wants to diminish residual evil in us and build up the goodness which is there.  So, Jesus said there are no secrets with God; but properly understood, that turns out to be a comfort because, one of the odd things about people who are not in faith is that they tend to diminish any conception of evil in their lives (excluding giant evil).  They don’t worry about not showing mercy or giving.  Christians are the other way around.  They see all their own faults and fail to see their benevolences.  We still have things to work on, but I also don’t want to downplay the sum total of Christian goodness.  If we added up all the goodness that has been done in this one church, “it is such to make the angels sing.”  We need to remember that.

    Point three:  Spiritual death is more dangerous than physical death.  In verses four and five, Jesus says that people who can kill you cannot thrust you into hell.  Who you really ought to fear is God, not religious authorities, not Pharisees.  Eugene Peterson’s contemporary translation catches this, “I’m speaking to you as dear friends.  Don’t be bluffed into silence and insincerity by the threats of religious bullies.  It is true they can kill you, but then what can they do?  There is nothing they can do to your soul, your core being.  Save your fear for God who holds your entire life, body and soul, in His hands.”  Fear God, not Pharisees or Romans.   But, there are in the world true “two-death” people - people that both kill one physically and kill one spiritually.  A classic example of that would be drug dealers.  They incite drug addiction; they induce it in kids.  They get them hooked – all for money.  They die in overdoses all the time and often times, simultaneously, they sink into full spiritual depravity which separates them from God.  They are “two-death” people, soul killers for money.  We need to fear and to fight double death people, not the Pharisees.  They may kill you but they can’t do anything to your soul.  You worry about the one who has the power to cast one into hell.  It is unfortunate the way Jesus’ words might be interpreted here.  He is talking about human killing, but it sounds like He is talking about God – who allows us to die, but doesn’t kill. 

       I’d like to say here a word about Hell.  It is clear from the Gospels that there is damnation in the world for humans.  Jesus used the word “hell;” He talked about damnation and salvation.  It is something we wish didn’t exist, wasn’t necessary; but, I think it is necessary, although we certainly don’t want to be in it ourselves.  Peter Berger says, “There are experiences in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the events, as well as the offender, seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions.  There are certain deeds that cry out to Heaven.”  (An example he uses is the Nazis and the Holocaust.)  “Deeds that cry out to Heaven also cry out for hell.  These are deeds that demand not only condemnation, but damnation in the full religious meaning of the word.  That is, that the doer not only puts himself outside the community of humans, he also separates himself in a final way from a moral order that transcends the human community and that involves a retribution that is more than human.”  He would say that hanging Adolph Eichmann and the Nazis is not enough.  A death penalty is not enough for killing six million humans.  It demands God’s damnation.  The universe would not be fair if there were only Heaven, when we are made free that we can do these monstrous evils.  Hell is not intended for minor things, but for monstrous evils that demand justice, which is God’s damnation.  

    Point four:  We should not fear, because God is our watch-guard from the beginning of life to the end.  When Jesus had been mentioning the fear in the point before, that somebody might be cast into hell, He realized that’s scary, so He immediately moved to take away our fear.  That is characteristic of Jesus - “Well, I’ve just said something that is very scary, so I need to assure you.”  “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies and not one of them is forgotten?  Why, even the hairs of your head are numbered.  Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”  Fear not, you are ultimately safe in the hands of God, the Father.  Part of God’s business is getting rid of fear.  That was known before the Gospels.  A classic example is in the 34th Psalm.  “I will bless Yahweh at all times.  His praise shall be on my lips continually.  My soul glories in Yahweh.  Let the humble hear and rejoice.  Proclaim with me the greatness of Yahweh and together let us extol His name.  I seek Yahweh and He answers me and frees me from all my fears.  Every face turned to Him grows brighter and is never ashamed.”  So Jesus moved from the fear statement to the comfort that Yahweh hears and helps us.  If He is God of the sparrows, Jesus says, He is much more the God of His children.  You are worth a lot more.  

    Point five:  The one unforgivable sin is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  “And I tell you everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God.  But whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.  And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.”  It is interesting.  He says, “You know, if you’re not with me, you’re against me.”  Then He says, “That’s forgivable, but it’s blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that is not forgivable.”  Where you start with the idea of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is with the prologue to John.  There, in the Logos Doctrine, we are told that the word of God enters the life of every human.  The light of the Word is in the life of every single human that has ever been born.  So there is, in each of us, what Aquinas would call “a natural law,” an intuitive understanding of what it means to be human – not fully explained, but there is an intuitive nature, for example, to be kind, to take care of your children, etc.  There is no one who has not had the influence of God (even before Christ appeared.)  As a consequence, this seems to imply that, even in a primitive intuitive state without the written word or church or anything else, you still have to say “yes” or “no.”  And if you say “no” to God, that is unforgivable.  It means to not be open to the possibility of God.  It means to have a hardened heart, that you do not give a possibility to God - and that is an unforgivable thing.  This is not verbal blasphemy.  This is not saying, “Well, I don’t believe in a god.”  This is deed blasphemy.  If you are inhuman to other people, that is blasphemy.  It is God that is calling one to be human and if you refuse to do that, it is blasphemy and unforgivable.  To say “no” to God is deadly in the literal sense.  There is a fate for us that depends on what we say intuitively or to revealed teachings of God - an exclusion in eternity from God - which is the definition of hell.  James Denny, the great Scottish theologian, in describing this exclusion said, 

         “The ideas which seem to me to comprehend all that is of faith on the subject are 

         those of separation and finality.  There is such a thing as being excluded from the

         fellowship with God.  There is such a thing as final exclusion.  It is not for us to say

         on whom this awful sentence falls or whether there are many or few.  We can trust 

         the Father of our lord Jesus Christ that it will not fall on any who do not freely and 

         deliberately pronounce it on themselves.”

     

    They pronounce it on themselves by saying “no” to God.  Exclusion does not come to anyone who has not chosen that fate themselves.  Now, the God and Father of our lord Jesus Christ knows about extenuating circumstances, about poverty, lack of education.  He knows about all these things and exclusion will never be administered unfairly.  A child who never has had a chance to learn about morals and so forth is not judged in the same sense as those of us who have had every chance to learn.  God only excludes from Heaven those people who choose not to be there and who have the capacity to understand the difference.  But, we shouldn’t shy away from the fact, unless you want to shy away from what all the Bible and Jesus Himself says, that there is such a thing as damnation – because there are deeds by humans that cannot get justice without supernatural payment.   

  • Scripture: James 1:17-27

    1.  Every good and perfect gift comes from God. The procreation of Christians comes from the Word of Truth, the Gospel.

    Voice of practice Christianity. Amidst all humanity, God brought into being a subspecies eterna -- by the Word of Truth with a chance to be Christ-like. Called out to be God’s people...Moses and Isaiah...spoke the Word of Truth for early times, a good start. 

    2.  God wants us to be in control of self so that the “first fruit” is not spoiled. The antidote to evil in self is implanted Word.

    Listen, speak less, be slow to anger. Anger is a mark of an uncontrolled life. “Put away all filthiness.” Submit habits, attitudes, emotions and temptations to the control of God. James gives the antidote. Receive with meekness the implanted Word of Truth -- great gift. God wants a spiritually controlled life. James calls it the law of liberty. Surrender means we are freed from self and sin, can live for God and neighbor. Enduring joyful freedom. 

    3.  Hearing the Word is not enough. It must be lived, done.

    Hearing is not enough, implanted Word must be done. Blessed for doing. Soren Kirkegaard, “Only a lived word is echoed in eternity.” On the journey we become antidote-bearers to fight evil in the world. We must use the Word of God freely and without apology. James ends with, “visit widows and orphans in affliction and keep oneself unstained from world.”

     

     

  • What Awaits Us at Death?

    We begin with a statement acknowledged by atheists as well as by people of faith.  Death is the one certainty of life and it is an issue with which we shall all have to deal.  

    1. The nature of life and death in biochemical terms.

    Biological life derives from the capacity to generate high-energy phosphate bonds, the key molecule being adenosine triphosphate or ATP.  There is a property of matter that is called entropy.  In plain terms, the natural history of both the universe and individuals is that everything is running down.  We see entropy in action all the time: buildings crumble and fall into ruin, fruit rots, we age and die.  Death is defined as the state caused by the inability to generate ATP so that everything runs down.

    This can occur by multiple mechanisms.  While the electron transport chain can be poisoned by drugs, most often the terminal event is an inability to deliver oxygen to the tissues secondary to failure of the heart or lungs or the controlling centers for these systems in the brain.  Less often hemorrhage or infection can cause shock, a disastrous fall in blood pressure, that even a sound heart cannot overcome thereby producing the oxygen deficit.  Operationally death is declared when the physician finds no pulse or  respiration.  For those on life support, absence of brain waves by EEG represents clinical death.

    2. The nature of humans and the concept of spirit or soul.

       There is not much mystery at the gross level about the human body.  We know almost everything about how it works and what can go wrong with it.  The real problem comes in understanding the essence of life.  What is it that gives life to the body?  Philosophers and theologians have called the unknown life force the soul or spirit or some similar term.

       In one sense there is no mystery in death.  Its sign are clear: no heart beat, no respiration, no brain waves.  But there is mystery in the event of passage from life to death.  From many years of observing death first hand, let me describe the act of dying.  Death is usually peaceful when it does not occur from violence.  That is because in moments of injury or in disease with impending death the brain releases wonderful molecules called endorphins - opiate-like signal transducers that act to minimize pain and fear.  One does not have to fear the act of dying.  Sometimes eyes are closed but often they are open in the final hours.  They usually rove up toward the ceiling and around the room.  It is as though the one dying sees something we can’t see, that they are searching for something.  It is like they are seeing or searching for God at the threshold of death.  Then death comes.  One moment life is there and the next it is gone.  What has left?  The organs still work. They can be transplanted and last for years.  But life has gone.  What is “it?” The only answer I know to give is that the soul has gone.

    3.  The negative fears and positive hopes of death.

       There are, fundamentally, two subset serious questions that comprehend the larger question before us, what awaits us at death?  The first is: When I die, do I cease to be?  The second is: If I do not cease to be, is there judgment in the universe?  And if so will I be found wanting, guilty of an insufficient mortal life?  In the first lecture, “Does God Exist?” heavy weight was given on the positive side to the fact that humans generically have always worshiped a higher being.  It is likely that thoughts of God are intrinsic to human hood, induced by the God who wishes His creatures to find Him.

       The same is true about actions presupposing life after death and judgment in the universe.  We now know that Neanderthal man (70,000-50,000 B.C.) already believed in the continuation of life after death.  A classic later expression of belief in the afterlife coupled with judgment is seen in the Egyptian Book of the Dead around 1,500 B.C.  According to the book, after the soul entered the afterworld and recited shortcomings during life, the heart was weighed against “the feather of truth” to determine worthiness to enter the company of Osiris, the chief deity of the dead.  From earliest history in India the theory of reincarnation was operative, with future life based on the consequences of actions in earlier life.  

    4. The Christian answer to what awaits us at death.

       The answer of Christianity to the subset questions is straightforward.  In death we do not cease to be and there is judgment in the Universe after death.  The God of the Bible is a transcendent God who stands outside humanity and makes moral demands on our lives.  His ultimate demand is that we love Him exclusively.  Failure in morals or failure in divine love brings judgment.  Judgment is present from beginning to end in the Bible.  Only mercy is of equal or greater importance.

       The history of life after death in the Bible was slower in development.  For more than a thousand years doctrine of Israel was that death was followed by entry into Sheol, a space beneath the earth, dark and silent, a place of oblivion, not joy.  Hints of resurrection or life after death began to be found in the Psalms: (139th) “When I awake I am still with thee.”  The New Testament is unequivocal in teaching that there is life after death.  At the death of Lazarus, Jesus says:  “I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”  In the farewell discourse He says: “Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me.  In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?  And when I go and prepare a place for you I will come again and will take you to myself that where I am you may be also.”

       What awaits us then at death?  First, we cannot know precisely because much of the language is symbolic.  Moreover, there are inconsistencies.  Some of the scriptures suggest deep sleep until resurrection on the last day of the world.  On the other hand, Jesus tells the thief on the cross that he will be in paradise that very day.  Here is what awaits us in our individual death or the end of the world, as extracted from the New Testament scripture:

       First, we will come into the unmasked presence of God.  The mysteries of the invisible God in temporal life will become clear and answered.  Corinthians 13: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.  Now I know in part, then I shall understand fully even as I have been fully understood.”

       Second, we will be faced with judgment on our lives.  As John wrote in the Apocalypse: 

    “…another book was opened, which is the book of life.  And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done.”  A word about judgment, which is a great fear.  That is because it may be negative.  The soul is either accepted (Heaven) or excluded from eternity (Hell).  Paul Tillich noted that God’s justice is that He lets one choose hell through self-destructive choices in life.  His reconciling love offers mercy and forgiveness in the Christ event.  One of the gifts for which Christians are most grateful is that they have already received forgiveness in life and therefore know minimal fear of judgment after life.

       The third thing that awaits us at death is a beatific life.  Whatever eternal life turns out to be, in the Kingdom of God the negatives of finitude are no more: no pain, no tears, no sorrow, and no death.

       The fourth thing that awaits us is reunion with deceased loved ones and communication with all the saints.  That this is likely is clearly understood from the great vision of transfiguration recorded in Matthew 17.  Jesus speaks on the mountain top with Moses and Elijah and they are recognizable essences, not anonymous ghosts.

       How do you get ready for your own death?  I would say you live in the lively hope of Christ and in anticipation of the beatific life that begins with our death.  C.S. Lewis once wrote that Christians never say goodbye, just so long, see you later.  That is the hope of hopes.  That is what the gift of this faith brings - that you can have a glorious death, provided you have had a long walk with Christ.

        I close with two quotations.  Both have to do with the sometimes difficulty of faith and belief.  Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, the writer, came back to faith after a long absence and wrote these words: “Can I prove that what I love exists?  Of course not.  Proof is the work of grace.  But if my belief in the immortality of the soul, the inevitability of judgment and the hope of resurrection is a lie, it is a lovely delusion - a necessary delusion.  I make no claim to living a good life.  I know I would live a worse life without Him.  And I would always be lonely.”  The Methodist theologian, Fred Craddock, said the same thing more succinctly.  “For those who will not to believe, no proof is enough.  For those who will to believe, final proof is not necessary.”

     

     

    Daniel Foster, M. D.

    Brown Lecture #6     1999       www.openringclass.org/

     

  • Who Is the Christ?

    The scholarly and theological literature about this question is enormous – not hundreds, but thousands of paper and books speak to it.

    The first person to ask the question was Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus said to the disciples: “Who do the people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27)  Even John the Baptizer asked from his prison cell, “Are you He who is to come or shall we look for another?”  Who is he: non-historical myth?  The greatest of teachers?  Prophet?  Messiah/Savior?  King of Kings?  Great man? Hero?  Fool?

    The importance of the question

    First, what is meant by the word Christian?  Two different items are essential to anyone calling himself a Christian: (1) you must believe in God and immortality; then (2) you must have some kind of belief about Christ – at the lowest the belief that Christ was, if not divine, at least the best and wisest of men. 

    You have to answer the question.  His claims (about himself) will not allow otherwise.

    Our very life is defined by how we answer.  The negative critics say Christ is in question and humanity is the answer.  People of faith say humanity is in question and Christ is the answer.

     

    A brief history of Christology

    Christian theology was not delivered all wrapped up in a complete, consistent package.  Jesus lived only a little more than 30 years and wrote nothing down.  The church began with only the oral remembrances of the eyewitnesses.  Even the canonical scriptures did not give a finished theology, a uniform Christology.  

    What we have are clear clues to what Jesus thought of himself.  He made astonishing claims like:  “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:28); “No one comes to the Father except by me” (John 14:6); “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).

    It took 451 years for the church to come to its formal answer to the question of “who is the Christ?”  And what it said was: He is the Son of God, consubstantial with God and consubstantial with humans.  He at once reveals the essence of the mystery of God – he reveals Being itself – and in his incarnate life and human death he is the Savior of the world, making possible reconciliation of humans with God their creator.

     

    Negative views of Jesus as the Christ

    For 1,800 years Christianity took for granted that the Gospel portrayal of Jesus was a literally factual account of Jesus’ lifetime.  This changed with the 18th century “Enlightenment” movement that exalted human reason and empirical scientific investigation.  What followed was an approach called “the quest for the historical Jesus” which concluded that the gospel stories had been so embellished by the faith of the church that the picture of Jesus was not historical, but fundamentally myth.

    The latest manifestation of the historical questioners is the Jesus Seminar, consisting of less than 100 scholars who vote on decisions about what the historical Jesus authentically said.  They concluded that only 20 percent of the sayings are authentic or might be authentic.

     

    A counterview to the negative historical critics

    Reynolds Price, in his book Three Gospels, comments “The effort to recover the historical Jesus is at once legitimate and laughable.  Its fallacy is that it presumes it can know from many centuries away more about the life of Jesus than the gospel writers and early theologians of the church.”

    A modern Christian can accept solid scholarship and recognize that past phrasings of faith may be time conditioned.  This does not require an assumption that the historical critics are correct or that the gospel sources are suspect.  Rather, one may assume that God guided the unfolding of salvific history in Jesus Christ from the oral traditions based on the accounts of eye witnesses through the early sources to the final canonical New Testament.  This means that the unseen hand of divine revelation raised up writers and editors who produced a document that is a reliable and valid foundation for faith.  One accepts that it has inconsistencies, contradictions, and errors that are revealed by scholarship, but that the final record may reliably be called the Word of God.

    How does one then believe in Jesus the Christ?

    Even with intact faith it is a constant challenge how to explain and share the Good News of Christ to a world that doesn’t believe.  For ourselves and for others, the first thing we have to acknowledge is that it is a very strange story.

    Three critical steps to belief:

      First, it rarely happens seriously in the absence of an awareness of emptiness, guilt and

      despair about the pain and evil in the world.  It requires a longing for a better world for

      self and others.  

      Second, one must listen to valid and reliable witnesses in history and in the present

      time.  Study of the scripture is necessary.

      The third step in wanting to believe in Christ and follow Him is to live the life He

      taught. It is to love God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love neighbor as

      self.  It is, then, to practice an agape life in an imitation of Christ whether one yet

      believes or not. There is an old saying that one becomes what one beholds. 

    Which brings me to the answer to the initial question from the lips of Jesus.  To the question who do you say that I am?  Peter answered: “Thou art the Christ, the son of the Living God.”  Whereupon Jesus said: “Blessed are you Simon bar Jona!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”  In the end it is an affirmation from the Holy Spirit speaking to the desperate and hoping and partially believing heart that brings us to the answer.

    Who is the Christ?  

    I join my voice with voices of all the saints:  He is the Son of God and the Savior of the world.