Saturday Night Theologian
6 April 2008

Acts 2:14a, 36-41 (first published 10 April 2005)

A friend of ours experienced a terrible tragedy this week, when her father was killed in a traffic accident. As the family tries its best to cope with the devastating loss, they must also be dealing with some of life's deepest concerns. Does life have meaning? Why would God allow something like this to happen? Where can we find the strength to go on? There are no simple answers to these questions, but there are answers. Yes, life has meaning, but it's not always easy to figure out exactly what it means. After all, we all look at life from different perspectives--our own, unique perspectives. Life is like a prism: no two people see exactly the same light rays as the prism separates white light into brilliant rainbows of color, and neither do any two people see the meaning of life's events in exactly the same way. I don't know why God allows tragedies to occur, but I do know two things about such events. First, God does not inflict such tremendous suffering on people in order to punish them, or even to get their attention, though of course many people do turn to God in times of loss. Second, death is part of life, and God is with us every step of the way, from birth to death and beyond; furthermore, God is present with those who are left behind, comforting them through friends and family. We find the strength to go on within ourselves, for that is where God is, in the hidden recesses of our very beings. God is not some being "out there" who occasionally deigns to look in on us and pat our hands to comfort us. No, God is within us, and we are within God. In God we live and move and have our being, for God is the ground of all being. The strength to live, or, as Paul Tillich describes it, the courage to be, ultimately comes from God, whether we recognize it or not. The disciples faced a tragedy of their own after Jesus was horribly crucified in Jerusalem one Friday afternoon, but in the aftermath of the tragedy, they found a miraculous new source of strength in the resurrected Christ. Jesus' death and resurrection transformed the lives of Jesus' followers, and they understood for the first time the true meaning of Jesus' life. Jesus had called all humanity to repentance, and he invited everyone to participate in the joy and hope that God offers. On the day of Pentecost about 3,000 people were added to the followers of Christ at one time. They saw beyond the horrors of death to the hope of resurrection and the meaning of new life. What are we doing to share that hope with people today?

Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 (first published 10 April 2005)

"O God, if you'll just let me pass this test, I promise I'll study harder from now on!" "O God, if you'll just let me get this job, I promise I'll give you twenty percent of all my income!" "O God, if you'll just heal my loved one from this terrible disease, I promise I'll serve you forever!" We've all made promises to God at one time or another in our lives. When we feel a sense of desperation, none of us is above begging God for special mercy and help. When God does answer our prayer, how often do we follow through completely with our vow? Are we like Burt Reynold's character in the 1978 movie The End? When he finds out he has a terminal illness, he tries unsuccessfully to kill himself in a variety of ways, many with the help of an escaped mental patient, played by Dom Deluise. Finally, he decides to swim out as far as he can into the ocean and drown himself. The problem is, once he's far away from shore, he decides he wants to live. He promises God, "God, if you'll let me make it back to shore, I'll give you everything I have!" As he gets a little closer to shore, he says, "God, if you'll let me make it back, I'll give you 50% of everything I have!" A little closer, then "20%, God, 20%!" "I'll give you 10%!" As he drags himself up on the beach, exhausted, he tells God, "What do you need my money for anyway, God? You've got all you need!" Psalm 116 is a psalm of thanksgiving for deliverance from illness. The psalmist describes his former dilemma in very general terms in the first four verses, then he tells how God has delivered him from his illness. The remainder of the psalm focuses on the worshiper's response to God's salvation. Thanksgiving psalms were generally used in the context of offering a thanksgiving sacrifice to God. This psalm speaks specifically of a vow that the psalmist is now fulfilling. How does the worshiper propose to repay God? In verse 13, he says, "I will lift up the cup of salvation," probably a drink offering to be poured out before the altar. "I will pay my vows," perhaps a set amount of money given to the temple or a set number of sacrifices (cf. Hannah's vow to give God her firstborn in 1 Samuel 1). "I will offer you a thanksgiving sacrifice," an offering that accompanies whatever other payments the worshiper brings to God. When God blesses us, do we remember to give thanks? Do we take the next step and give something tangible of our resources or time or effort? Responding with gratitude for God's many blessings is always appropriate.

1 Peter 1:17-23 (first published 10 April 2005)

In O. Henry's story "The Ransom of Red Chief," a pair of crooks hatch a plot to kidnap the son of a notable citizen of a small town in Alabama and demand a ransom of $2,000. They grab the boy, who calls himself Red Chief, but he turns out to be more than they can handle. The boy has a particular affection for inflicting pain on one of the kidnappers. He throws a brick and hits him in the eye, he tries to scalp him in his sleep, he knocks him out with a rock thrown from a sling, and he rides him like a horse down the mountain. The boy is having the time of his life. The kidnappers send a ransom demand to the boy's house, though by now they're only asking $1,500, figuring that $2,000 is too much to ask for such a rambunctious boy. The boy's father sends back this note:

Gentlemen: I received your letter to-day by post, in regard to the ransom you ask for the return of my son. I think you are a little high in your demands, and I hereby make you a counter-proposition, which I am inclined to believe you will accept. You bring Johnny home and pay me two hundred and fifty dollars in cash, and I agree to take him off your hands. You had better come at night, for the neighbors believe he is lost, and I couldn't be responsible for what they would do to anybody they saw bringing him back.
Needless the say, the would-be kidnappers return the boy, pay the ransom to the father, and high-tail it for the next county. 1 Peter describes the method by which God rescues humanity from its sin as a ransom, paid not with gold or silver, but with something infinitely more valuable, the precious blood of Christ. The Ransom Theory of the Atonement was a popular way of understanding how the death of Christ accomplished human salvation in the ancient church, beginning in the second century. Origen said that because of the sin of Adam and Eve, Satan had taken control of the world, including its human inhabitants, and God paid Jesus as a ransom to Satan in order to purchase our freedom. Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century elaborated this theory further. He described God as a trickster who used the human Jesus as bait, dangling him in front of Satan like bait before a fish. However, what Satan didn't know was that inside the mortal flesh of Jesus' body was a divine hook, his divine inner nature, that would capture Satan and result in his destruction. Like the kidnappers in O. Henry's story, Satan would be forced not only to lose his ransom but also to lose even what he had to begin with. There are many different theories of the atonement that have been proposed throughout the history of the church, and all can claim some biblical support. However, it is silly to claim that one and only one theory of the atonement is the right one, for every one is nothing more than a verbal picture of one way in which God showed love for us through the life and death of Jesus. Thinking of God as a trickster or imagining that God would need to pay Satan anything to obtain the release of humanity from the demonic clutches may not speak to people today the way it did in times past, but the ransom theory, as exemplified in this passage, continues to present an important element of truth to us today. God's sacrifice, in the blood of God's son Jesus Christ, was indeed a payment of infinite value, and sufficient to overcome any debt incurred by sinful humanity.

Luke 24:13-35

Forty years ago this week a dream died. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN, on April 4, 1968, the day after delivering a speech to striking sanitation workers that is today known as his "Mountaintop" speech. King was a champion of civil rights and nonviolent resistance to injustice, and in his last years he also became an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. When Bobby Kennedy, who would be killed himself two months later, told a crowd gathered for a campaign appearance in Indianapolis about King's death, people shrieked and cried in disbelief and horror. Martin Luther King, who had uplifted so many with his "I Have a Dream" speech five years earlier, was dead, and so, it seemed, was his dream. But that's not the end of the story. In the wake of King's death, other leaders took up the mantle of civil rights and opposition to the war, and they pushed the cause forward. Leaders like Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, Ralph David Abernathy, John Lewis, Coretta Scott King, Howard Zinn, and many others led the charge against injustice in the years ahead. The dream was not dead after all. It just had a change of leadership. Today's reading from Luke begins with a pair of men walking dejectedly along the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus. When a stranger joins them and asks why they are so sad, they explain the circumstances of Jesus' death. They were part of a movement that had died along with their leader. Or had it? As the stranger pointed out, the movement that Jesus started was fully consistent with the teaching of their sacred writings, especially the message of the prophets. If God was behind the Jesus movement, how could a little thing like death stop it? Then the two travelers, who had reached their destination, invited the stranger to supper. Lo and behold, the stranger was Jesus himself, who suddenly vanished from their sight! The two men, no longer tired and dejected, but full of energy and enthusiasm, returned to Jerusalem that very evening to share their experience with the other disciples. Have you ever experienced the death of a dream? Maybe you finally realized that you would never reach a long-standing life goal. Maybe a leader you admired and respected turned out to be flawed like the rest of us. Maybe an opportunity you were counting on didn't materialize. Dreams do sometimes die, but God can replace those dreams with new, even better dreams. And sometimes dreams are only temporarily sidetracked, not dead at all. God calls all of us to live out our dreams, especially those dreams that God plants in our hearts. Martin Luther King was a man who had a dream, but he was also a man who lived out his dream as he advanced the civil rights movement beyond the point of no return. We too have dreams to live, dreams that can succeed because of the power of the resurrected Christ in our lives.