How much of the Torah Law should we live by? It’s a fair question, after all, if we claim to follow the Bible, we can’t just ignore it because it is inconvenient. Of course, this is daunting, there are 613 laws to learn and follow. Some are fairly easy, Lev. 19:13, “Do not defraud or rob your neighbor. Do not hold back the wages of a hired worker overnight.” Those seem pretty to easy to follow, pay those you hire at the expected and agreed to time and don’t steal the neighbors’ tomatoes. Other rules are much harder. We could avoid wearing mixed cloths (Deut. 22:11), but this would mean a careful scrutiny of everything one buys and wears, The same is true with following a Kosher diet. Somethings seem to go against our morals, like forcing childless widows to marry to their deceased husband’s brother (Deut. 25:5) or a rape victims to marry her attacker (Deut. 22:28-29). On top of this, there are tons of rules that no longer seem to apply because of Jesus’s sacrifice and the lack of a Temple.
What was the purpose of the Torah in the first place? First, it was create a society that was more just and fair, a reflection of the God of Justice and Grace. Second, it was meant to set Israel apart, to make them unique from other peoples. Just as the Levites lived in special ways that marked them as the priests for the nation, the nation would live in a special ways that marked them as the priests for all nations. Last, the Law was meant to transform every action into one that was God centered. Whether you were eating, constructing a house, chatting with a friend, or taking a walk, thinking about God should be at the center of your actions.
The Torah is extremely advanced for the time of its creation, it had far more equality and protection for those that were often taken advantage of and/or looked down on. But just as we talked about the other week in the sermon, God knows that we humans cannot make huge leaps, that we do better with incremental changes. So the Torah was an advanced for its time, but draconian in many ways today. I believe that it was meant as a step in the walk towards God, not the end of the path. (Rom. 7)
But the people didn’t advance, they didn’t become more God centered, instead many people had become obsessed with following the letters of the Law and not the spirit. They were using it as an excuse to lead lives centered on greed, pride, and fear. They had failed to advance and when Jesus came and began his ministry he started the process of reforming our approach to the Torah. So when Jesus ascended to Heaven and the disciples began to into Gentiles into the Church, it begged the question, how much of the Torah should they (and we) follow the Torah rules? Thankfully there is actually a pretty easy answer to the question:
“You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality.” (Acts 15:29, NIV)
This is the Council of Jerusalem’s answer for the Gentile Believers. Paul will further refine these by proclaiming it is fine to eat idol meat under certain circumstances (Rom. 13, 1 Cor. 8-10). And, frankly, the strangled meat clause as he opens up the possibility of buying meat that we don’t know how the animal was harvested.
That’s it, right‽ Just avoid eating blood* and sexual immorality and we’re good. We don’t need to worry about the other rules! Not exactly, let us look at the heart of our faith, Jesus’s Way:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt 5:17-20, NRSV)
Does this mean that the we should ignore Paul and the Council? Not exactly, I take it as a reminder that they are not releasing us to do as we wish, but rather they point us to a new understanding of how to live the Law.
Jesus took some of the Torah and advanced it even further during his Sermon on the Mount, such as providing even greater protection for women in divorce (Matt 5:31-32). Each step is meant to take us closer to the heart of the Torah, towards the Greater Commandment, to loving God perfectly as God loves us. All the positive things that mark a God-centered life flow naturally from that point. Why do we love our neighbors? Because by loving God we find ourselves loving our neighbors. Bigotry, greed, fear, sin, they are marks that we haven’t quite centered ourselves on God. That our love for God is not yet perfect.
So long story short: Do you need to follow the Torah? No, but it is fine if you choose to. Should you study the Torah? Yes, it will better help you understand how centering on God will effect every facet of your life. So read your Bible, contemplate on it, write about it, talk about it, and focus upon God.
*As a cook and someone who likes their meat rare to medium, the read that comes out of a less done piece of meat isn’t blood but myoglobin. It is similar to hemoglobin, they both transport oxygen, but it is a part of the muscle tissue and not the blood.
Over the last few months, Grace has become good friends with four other girls who live in our neighborhood. The other day was the first time she was invited to play in a home, so I found myself sitting in the front room of the grandparents of two of the girls, their daughter, and another neighbor. The grandparents have lived there for at least 40-50 years. The grandpa actually grew up on the road four lots down.
Our conversation began with an impending birth, but soon it changed to a minor incident that involved a dog getting loose a day or two before. This brought up another incident, which brought up another incident, and so on and so forth. Eventually we were being told by the grandmother about things that happened years and decades ago. Some of it was quite dark, I won’t go into the details, but suffice to say that there has been more than one death on our little road.
At first it made me question our living here a bit, but as I reflected, I realized that this shouldn’t be surprising. The neighborhood is less than a century old, my home is about 70 years old. But in the life of a neighborhood, that is enough time for hundreds of people to come and go. People who do great things and people who do terrible things. Any place that I go will have similar stories if I just scratch at the surface just hard enough. It isn’t only the places we live, we find surprising stories in our work places, our churches, and even in our family trees. No place is truly untouched. The lawn may look perfect, the hair flawlessly quaffed, but take a moment to inquire and you will find tragedy and malfeasance just beneath the surface.
I am not saying that everyone has a deep dark secret, that we are all covertly evil beings. I am simply stating that the pictures that we are often presented with have a lot more happening just out of frame.
So what shall we do with this knowledge? We have a choice, we can let it rule us or we can over come it. What happened years ago in my neighborhood could spoil my walks, keep me from relaxing under the spreading arms of our trees, or push me to avoid the homes of my neighbors. But what is in the past is in the past, it may shape the land and we can acknowledge that, but we choose how it shapes ourselves. As that history creeps closer to ourselves, it becomes even more problematic. History in our families and our own lives are far impactful. They change how we think about ourselves and those around us.
This can be especially difficult in congregations, where we have the mix of family, friends, traditions, and faith. Yes, even in our congregations, among fellow Christians, we still find painful history. Sometimes it was an unkind word or a conflict that pushed people to take sides. Sometimes it was something far worse. There is no standard answer as every situation requires its own solution. However there are a few things that we can draw from the Bible as guidelines that should lead us to healthier relationships.
Forgive & “Forget” - We are told over and over again to forgive (Matt. 6:14, Eph. 4:32), that we owe to others the grace that we are given by God. This does not mean to actually forget that you were harmed, but rather to treat the offender kindly. In other words, if you forgive them, act like it. Remember, when God forgives us we are treated as if our past actions didn’t happen. (Heb. 8:12, Rom. 8:9)
Be Prudent -Set up boundaries that keep yourself and others safe. God tells us to be aware that we don’t place ourselves into danger. (Pro. 22:3, Matt. 10:16)
Be Vocal - There is a time to be quiet and there is a time to be vocal. Tell your brother or sister if they hurt you. This isn’t always easy, often emotions are high and no one likes to be accused of doing something wrong. Bring a mediator if needed. But to allow a division to exist is good for no one! (Matt. 18:15-17)
Be Proactive - If you realize that your actions may have harmed another, be proactive and seek forgiveness, make amends now and don’t let negativity fester. (Matt. 5:23-24)
Offer Grace - We do not know what lies below the surface in the lives of others. We don’t know their failures or triumphs, nor do we know what scars they carry. Be kind to all you meet, quick to forgive and slow to anger, and open with one another. (Rom. 12:21, Pro. 15:1)
Peace and blessing to all of you, Pastor Andrew
The news coming out of Texas has been heartbreaking. Every shooting is, but one that takes place in an elementary school is especially painful. The story of what happened has continued to change as more information becomes available, but the reactions of people on both sides of the political spectrum hasn’t. We all know their arguments; they have been basically the same ones since the shooting at Columbine H.S. in 1999. We have sadly reached stalemate.
What is the solution? Should we tightly monitor and/or limit access to guns? Should we harden our public spaces into ones that quickly eliminate threats? Or is it because Christianity is a diminishing presence in our society, and our young folk need more religion in our public programs? I am sure that even in our small community that we would disagree about the source of the problem, and the solution. We can, however, all agree that it needs to end. As Christians, we can also agree that our faith should inform, if not dictate, our conversations and decisions.
What does the Bible say? Well that depends on how you read it. Many Americans like to picture our nation as a reincarnation of ancient Israel. They proactively encourage a state religion that will create and enforce laws that are based upon a version of the Torah, and take up arms to create and defend this new theocracy. (This is called Christian Nationalism.) Many who followed or feared Jesus thought that this was the Kingdom of Heaven that he was going to create.
Another way to read the Bible is to look at how Jesus reacts to these expectations. In Luke 22:35-38, Jesus tells his disciples to sell their belongings to buy swords. “Surely,” the disciples probably thought, “Now we are beginning our fight against the Romans and their collaborators.” Someone reports that they have two swords among the group (12-70+ people in total). Jesus responds, “That’s enough!” Two swords, of course, would be woefully inadequate.
Jesus is being subversive, not only to those who opposed him, but to those that were his closest followers. His Way would not win through violence, whether it is the sword of an uprising or of a ruler. Paul furthers teaching in 1 Corinthians 5:12, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” It is a call for Christians to not become obsessed with fixing the splinters in the eyes of non-Christians, but instead be careful that we are living Christ’s path. The Christian way is a rejection of violence and power.
So if Jesus wouldn’t be embracing either the Right or the Left’s approach, how would he react to the problem of gun-violence? Perhaps we need to set back and look at what we know about gun violence in the U.S. (Sourcing below)
Jesus always seeks to make broken people whole and he calls on us to do the same. Jesus lays out expectations for those who call themselves his followers. They must: feed the hungry, quench the thirsty, invite in the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned. (Matt. 25:31-46) Or to write it in a slightly different way: care for those who lack the basic necessities for life, those who are suffering in body and heart, and those who are held at arms length by others. Imagine if every Christian in our land embraced this teaching fully!
I know this letter won’t end these violent outbreaks, but I urge you to embrace Jesus’s way. For every person who embraces Jesus’s teachings, we are another step closer to the Kingdom of Heaven. Your way of living may help another person live Jesus’s way too, or you may make one person hope again in a better life.
Brothers & Sisters, wash feet!
The rules state: 1) Keep It Simple, 2) Use Meaningful Symbolism, 3) Use 2 to 3 Basic Colors, 4) No Lettering or Seals, 5) Be Distinctive or Be Related.
According to the rules of vexillology enthusiast Roman Mars, the Akron’s flag isn’t great. It's basically a seal, has too many letters on it, and no child can easily draw it (mainly because of the lettering). I actually love the 1965 flag, just get rid of the words.
Why am I talking about flags? Because they are important to us! Flags hanging prominently from homes, tell us about the residents’ politics, heritage, and social groups. Flags are treated with care, with special rules about proper flying, folding, and disposing. To mistreat a flag is to invite others’ anger. They are the quintessential symbolic object, serving no other purpose than to state an opinion and point to the values for which they stand.
There are many objects in our world that are purely symbolic, many more that also serve practical purposes. Perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol today is the cross. We see them everywhere! Combined with other common Christian symbols, their absence in a home speaks louder than their presence. So, why did our Anabaptist ancestors avoid the usage of symbols, even the cross?
Visit a traditional Brethren meeting house and you’ll notice there is no cross, pictures, or high communion table (altar). Just wooden pews surroundings a single long wooden table and a stove for cooking and heating. Of course it is also symbolic, an open rejection of the ornate, worldly styles of other sanctuaries.
Jesus spends a lot of time reminding us about the dangers of becoming sidetracked in this world. He chided the rich for their trust in material, the Pharisees and Sadducees who held the Law above all else, and his disciples for believing in a nation conquering messiah. They had lost their way, instead of worshipping and trusting in God, they put their faith in wealth, religion, and power. They created idols. We don’t use the word idolatry a lot today, but we are as guilty of putting our faith in worldly things as the ancients.
Our Anabaptist forerunners not only saw the ornate, symbolic decor of churches as counter to the simple life of Jesus’s Way, but as idolatry, or as a gateway into the sin. Though today our worship spaces aren’t as simple, we still tend to be plainer than our neighbors.
My musings on symbolism began because this is Lent and we are approaching the cross, our most common symbol. It points us towards Jesus, towards the Kingdom. But the forerunners remind us that it is still just two pieces of wood and its purpose is only to point to the Messiah who conquered it. We need to be careful to not get lost in worldly things and put symbolic actions above compassionate ones. That our eyes should alway be focussed beyond to Jesus. So as we journey towards the Easter, let’s not worry about signaling our faith the Christ through symbols and symbolic actions. Instead, let’s show His Way through our meaningful actions and relationships. Jesus calls us to move forward with complete faith in God, living as members of the Kingdom of Heaven in a world that hasn’t called caught up yet. Perhaps, by living the way we are called more purely, we can get the world a little closer yet.
Kohlstedt, Kurt. “Vexillology Revisited: Fixing the Worst Civic Flag Designs in America.” 99 Percent Invisible. Feb. 2, 2016. https://99percentinvisible.org/article/vexillology-revisited-fixing-worst-civic-flag-designs-america/
Wyatt, Rick. “Akron, OH.” Flags of the World. July 27, 2018. https://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/us-oh-ak.html
Blog: From the Pastor’s Desk
I am writing this letter on Election Day, a day of excitement and fear. Politics and I have a strained relationship. On one hand, I am an avid listener and reader of what is going on in our national and state capitals. (I do avoid 24-hour news on TV though.) While living in Lancaster, I was even involved in some of the politics happening in the city, I saw how choices of our governments were impacting my neighbors for better and worse. But at the same time, our politics here in the United States are so polarized. I came across a video put out recently by our cousins, The Brethren Church. Jason Barnhart, the Director of Brethren Research and Resourcing, was discussing the struggle many of us are having. He spoke specifically about abortion and immigration/refugee protections. Issues we Christians care about, but the political parties force us to choose one or the other. Or, they blast away all the complex nuances of the issues, turning good ideas into short pithy planks of their platforms. Things that don’t work or cause horrendous side effects because of their lack of their sledgehammer approach.
Sometimes I become so disgusted with the system, I consider returning to the roots of our denomination and separating myself from the process of voting. The early Brethren and Anabaptist understood that taking part in government was a type of sinning. Because the government wields the sword, taking part in its function is to also dip our hands into the blood. Therefore, while the believers may obey the government for the most part, they should not be too closely connected with it. However, they lived in a different time, one that was much more authoritarian and violent than our own. We live in a time when our opinions can actually change how our government works. Not only that, we are given the chance to help our brothers and sisters by raising our voices.
We won’t be able to vote in the Kingdom of Heaven, politics are human and therefore prone to error. But we can try to make this nation a better place. 244 years ago, we have began as a nation with chattel slavery, where most women couldn’t have their own bank account let alone act as an independent person, and where children of Native Americans and immigrants could be taken away so their culture could be washed away. Now we are a nation without slavery, with legal equality of the sexes, and where unique cultures are not just tolerated, but often celebrated. We can’t vote in the Kingdom of Heaven, but we can vote to make it more like it. Even more importantly, we can work together everyday of the year to achieve the goals that Jesus set out for us. As Andrew of the past, I pray that you who are reading this note are doing well with what has happened in the last few days and that you are looking forward to being a better citizen of God’s Kingdom.