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Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

Dec. 3, 2016

From our sins and fears release us

Many of us are having a difficult Advent season this year, coming as it does close on the heels of the election and the now daily harbingers of what is to come. I am finding it a season of sadness, fear and uncertainty. Advent is intended as a time to take stock of what the world is like, and to announce that Christ’s coming brings hope to those who will follow him. This year I am having no problem taking stock of the world situation, but I am struggling to get to the anticipation and hope part.

Silent times with God help to keep me sane. In the first week of Advent, I came across Charles Wesley’s masterful hymm, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” In the very first lines, I was met with something I’d glossed over throughout my life: that the meaning of Jesus' coming includes being set free from fears.

Come thou long expected Jesus
Born to set thy people free
From our sins and fears release us
Let us find our rest in thee

So often the church places the emphasis of Jesus' birth, life and death squarely on saving us from our sins, as if that were the only point of the Good News. This is especially true of the American evangelical church, whose deficiencies in teaching and emphasis have both heightened and become more transparent in recent years.

So much of the American church message through the decades has been on only one aspect of Christ's coming: salvation from a person’s individual sins. What is preached and what is evangelized is personal sin, personal salvation.

Emphasizing this message tempts the preacher to further reduce this personal sin to sins of the flesh. Thus, the many hours of preaching that focus on sex, substance abuse, cheating, stealing, and conventional violence. Thousands of words are spent on condemning practices that church members see as the sins of others. Sins that they, being righteous, don’t participate in and against which they must fight.

Of course there are many types of personal sin that don’t get much mention. Sins of attitude and their associated actions are downplayed or not mentioned at all: lying, misdirection, selfishness, greed, gossip, thinking one and one's group is better than another person or category of people. Scapegoating, oppression, unfairness, preying upon others, keeping others from having better lives, turning our faces away from those who are suffering, taking away people's voices, diminishing their humanity.

In this way, God's representatives have decided which sins are concerning and need to be addressed, and which either are not sins or are the kind that should slide and not be mentioned. Perhaps they do this knowingly. Perhaps they have been so conditioned by their traditions to be blind to it themselves.

In any event, this is what people hear, and this is what they then believe---about themselves and about Jesus. So the church condemns certain, individual, visible and easily identifiable kinds of sin, while, with its silence---and too often complicity or active participation---condones or even encourages other sin. Not surprisingly, the categories are pretty much the same as they were with the Pharisees in Jesus' day, whom Jesus repeatedly called out for leading the people astray. The similarities with how organized Christianity operates today are striking and sad.

Matthew 23, anyone?

This usual way the Gospel is presented diminishes the Incarnation and really doesn't make the News sound Good at all. Now as then, it seems like it is just placing more burdens on the common person while systems and powers continue to have their way, unchallenged.

Lost in all this, and what Wesley wrote about in his hymm, was a whole side of the Good News that gets very little attention. "Let us find our rest in Thee," he wrote. Jesus also came to release us from our fears. This is hugely important and if brought more to the foreground, could bring comfort and peace to many.

The gospels are not short on Jesus' assurances to bring us peace and rest. This is an essential part of his coming and goes hand in hand with his mission to release us from sin. This assurance, this hope, is every bit as important a reason for his coming as the "take away our bent to sinning" part.
For example:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
—Matthew 11:28–30

Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear… Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?.... do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ ….. your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. —Matthew 6:25–34

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going. —John 14:1–4

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. —John 14:27

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.—John 11:25

Jesus’ coming releases us from our fears. Fear about finances, living conditions, sickness, aging, death, burdens of caring for people, situations of friends and loved ones, of world conditions, annihilation. We can rest in Jesus.

Brennan Manning once wrote: "God is saying in Jesus that in the end everything will be alright. Nothing can harm you permanently, no suffering is irrevocable, no loss is lasting, no defeat is more than transitory, no disappointment is conclusive. Jesus did not deny the reality of suffering, discouragement, disappointment, frustration and death; he simply stated that the Kingdom of God would conquer all of these horrors, that the Father's love is so prodigal that no evil could possibly resist it."

Many churches emphasize Jesus' death and dwell on individual people with their individual sins "nailing him to the cross." There is a perpetual mirror being held up to people on how they fall short in God's eyes. Somehow, even when they accept Christ's work, the mirror does not go away. The church still holds it, keeping people in a perpetual state of feeling terrible about themselves. We church people say "we are a forgiven people," but do we really feel that way?

But many churches also give short shrift to the Resurrection and what it means for us. There is not a lot of hope being taught or preached. Where do people go when life inevitably turns bad? When there's not enough to eat, or war threatens, or persecution looms? When you are in the middle of cancer or caring for your disabled child? When your brother goes to prison? When you lose your job? When you live in a rough neighborhood or you are tired of facing everyday prejudice? Life is tough. Death looms and eventually comes for everyone.

The Good News includes the Resurrection! The Good News includes the message that what God has done for Jesus in restoring his life, God will also do for us. It says that death is not the end, that suffering does, finally cease, that God does care.

Jesus is the solution to sin and the grounds of our hope. This part of the Good News should lead us to repentance---changing how we live, not just constantly feeling bad about it. It should lead to us noticing the ways we cause others to suffer and altering our actions. It should help us slow the barrage of worry for the present and future that can consume us, and give us confidence that we are loved by Someone who sees, understands, comforts, and in the end will do something about it.

We humans have two root problems: our tendency towards sinning, with all its consequences; and our understanding we are beings with limited lifespans who will decline, wither and die.
Jesus came to address and provide a solution to both these problems. Let us give thanks for and embrace, and lean on both of them.

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
—Matthew 11:28