SAINTS AND SINNERS

But when the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” When Jesus heard this, he said, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” Then he added, “Now go and learn the meaning of this Scripture: ‘I want you to show mercy, not offer sacrifices.’ For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners.” [Matthew 9:11-13 (NLT)]

The Gospel is good news of mercy to the undeserving. The symbol of the religion of Jesus is the cross, not the scales. [John Stott]

moth mulleinLast week, after posting the second of two devotions mentioning David Bennett, Sr. (who received a pig’s heart in a ground-breaking transplant), I checked news links for an update on his condition. I was surprised to learn that 34 years ago, when Bennett was just 23, he was convicted of stabbing Edward Shumaker seven times, a violent assault that left the 22-year-old paralyzed and in a wheelchair. Bennett was sentenced to 10 years in prison and served 6 of those years before returning to society and moving on with his life. As for Shumaker, after enduring 19 years of staph infections, sepsis, bedsores, a stroke, and moving in and out of nursing homes, he died a week before his 41st birthday.

Understandably, Shumaker’s survivors had difficulty processing the news that the man who caused such heartache and suffering for Edward not only went on to have a normal life complete with children and grands but also received a new lease on that life with his life-saving heart transplant. For Shumaker’s sister, it seems outrageous that someone guilty of such a violent crime could undergo this lifesaving procedure when so many more “deserving” recipients die or become too ill for transplant surgery before a heart becomes available.

Officials at the Baltimore hospital where Bennett received his new heart explained that the decision about Bennett’s transplant eligibility was based solely on his medical records, explaining that they provide, “lifesaving care to every patient who comes through their doors based on their medical needs, not their background or life circumstances.” Arthur Caplan, a bioethics professor at New York University, elaborated, “The key principle in medicine is to treat anyone who is sick, regardless of who they are.…We are not in the business of sorting sinners from saints.”

Caplan’s words made me think of Jesus—the Great Physician who came into this world to heal mankind. There is no record of His assessing the purity or sinfulness of those he restored to determine whether or not they deserved healing. He didn’t evaluate people’s righteousness before making the lame walk, the blind see, or the deaf hear. He didn’t categorize acceptable from unacceptable sins or sort out the honest from the corrupt, the moral from the immoral, or the law-abiding from the criminal before healing leprosy, mental illness, fevers, or hemorrhaging. When He fed the multitude, Jesus didn’t tell the disciples to offer food only to those virtuous people worthy of receiving it and He broke bread with both the respectable and the disreputable. When it comes to God’s healing, mercy, love, provision, or forgiveness, not one of us is more or less deserving than the next; none of us are worthy because we all are sinners!

Just as the medical profession is not in the business of sorting sinners from saints, neither is the Church. Someday, the Lord will separate the sheep from the goats but, until that day comes, let us remember that His Church is a hospital for sinners, not a country club for saints! We don’t scrutinize those who come to us and weed out all of the swearers, liars, ex-cons, crude, self-righteous, alcoholics, doubters, adulterers, divorced, gossipers, or scoundrels before welcoming them through our doors. If we did, both our pews and pulpits would be empty! Our pasts, no matter how soiled or violent, do not bar us from the healing and restoration of the Lord!

Grace is the very opposite of merit… Grace is not only undeserved favor, but it is favor, shown to the one who has deserved the very opposite. [Harry Ironside]

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. [Romans 5:7-8 (NLT)]

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A NEW HEART

pigsAnd I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. [Ezekiel 36:26-27 (NLT)]

Last Friday, doctors in Maryland made history when they transplanted a genetically modified pig’s heart into a human in a last-ditch effort to save the life of David Bennett, Sr. A medical first, Bennett was too ill to qualify for a routine heart transplant or an artificial ventricular assist device. The 57-year-old’s prognosis is uncertain and it will be months before doctors know whether the transplant can be deemed a “success.” As with any organ transplant, the main risk is that of organ rejection and Bennett will need potent immunosuppressing drugs for the remainder of his life.

I remember how astonished the world was back in 1967 when Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first human-to-human heart transplant. The news that a surgeon had cut open someone’s chest, lifted out a diseased heart, and successfully replaced it with a healthy one from a dead donor was astounding. Although that first heart transplant recipient lived only eighteen days, today’s recipients have an 85% chance of living one year and a 69% chance of surviving five. The survival rate continues to decrease through the years with only 50% of heart transplant recipients living ten years and just 15% making 20 years. In spite of the risks, last year over 50,000 transplant candidates worldwide vied for the 5,000 hearts that were available. Sadly, there just aren’t enough hearts to go around.

54 years ago, the medical journals were wrong when they credited Dr. Bernard with the first heart transplant; God has been replacing hearts for ages! He takes our damaged hearts of stone, hearts unwilling to respond to Him, and replaces them with a new heart and spirit. After accepting His new heart, we have no need for immunosuppressive drugs because the new heart won’t be rejected. Unlike transplant candidates, we don’t have to meet specific criteria or put our names on a waiting list. Everyone qualifies and all we have to do is repent! The best news is that there’s no heart shortage and we don’t have to wait for someone to die; Jesus did that for us 2,000 years ago!

Even with a pig’s heart, Mr. Bennett won’t to want to live in a sty, cool off with a mud bath, snuffle in the soil, or start eating a mix of corn, soybeans, sorghum, and wheat. While his new heart will give him a new lease on life (at least for a short time), it will not change him. He will be the same man with the same favorite activities, world view, media preferences, attitudes, likes and dislikes, morals and principles he had before surgery. On the other hand, the new heart God gives us will make a huge change in us. We will have a new mind, new preferences, new spiritual gifts, new beliefs and morals, a new love for who and what we may have hated, and a new aversion to things we once might have loved. Rather than getting immunosuppressant drugs, we will receive an infusion of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control! Getting a new heart in God’s hospital also yields a far better survival rate—no death, only eternal life!

O Holy Spirit, descend plentifully into my heart. Enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling and scatter there thy cheerful beams. [Augustine]

Repent, and turn from your sins. Don’t let them destroy you! Put all your rebellion behind you, and find yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die, O people of Israel? I don’t want you to die, says the Sovereign Lord. Turn back and live! [Ezekiel 18:30b-32 (NLT)]

I will give them hearts that recognize me as the Lord. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly. [Jeremiah 24:7 (NLT)]

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TAKE ME TO THE WATER

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. [ Ephesians 2:8-9 (NLT)]

Baptism - affusion In immersion baptism, a person is completely submerged in the water and, every time I witness a full immersion baptism done in the Gulf of Mexico, I think of what it must have been like when John baptized Jesus and the Holy Spirit descended on our Lord. Since the Greek word used to describe this event was baptizo, meaning to dip, sink, or submerge, we can safely assume His was a full immersion baptism.

The water of baptism illustrates dying and being buried with Christ and the coming out of the water illustrates Christ’s resurrection. Baptizo is the word Jesus used when telling the disciples to baptize new believers and, in the early church, full immersion was the norm. There is, however, evidence that affusion, the pouring of water over a person, was used for invalids. Although aspersion, or the sprinkling of water for baptism, is the norm in many mainstream churches today, it did not come into practice until around the 13th century. While today’s Christian church agrees on the importance of baptism, it is divided as to the method and conduct of this sacrament.

In determining the amount of water necessary to make a baptism “official,” it would be easy to become as nitpicky as were the Pharisees of Jesus’ day as they quibbled over specifics of the law. For an immersion advocate, would the baptism be invalid if a person’s hand or some of their hair didn’t get wet and how long must they be under water? For the pourers and sprinklers, how much water is too much and how little water is not enough? If there were no water available, would spittle or tears do? I don’t know the answer but I suspect God is more concerned with matters of the heart than ritual. Since I think our commitment to Jesus is far more important than the method of baptism or the amount of water used, I’m staying clear of that controversy!

Along with the dispute among Christian churches over the method of baptism, there is disagreement on whether baptism is absolutely necessary for salvation. On Pentecost, Peter told the crowd they’d receive the Holy Spirit once they repented, turned to God and were baptized, which seems to support the side claiming baptism is required for salvation. On the other hand, while preaching to the household of Cornelius, Peter asked if anyone objected to the family’s baptism since they’d already received the Holy Spirit. This passage seems to support the side that, rather than a condition for salvation, baptism is evidence of salvation. While Scripture makes it clear that belief is a requirement for salvation, it never clearly says that baptism is, so I’ll leave the meaning of the original Greek text to theologians and scholars.

In the meantime, I’ll look to Scripture’s words that clearly tell us we are saved by grace through faith and not through works, effort or the law. A believer can be saved without being baptized because baptism isn’t how we receive forgiveness of our sins—we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus. Nevertheless, a believer will be baptized because Jesus commanded it!

Granted, I have a distinctly Protestant view of baptism and you are free to disagree. What we can agree on is that, regardless of the method used, it’s never too late to be baptized! Of all the baptisms I’ve witnessed, my favorite is when one of our church family made her declaration of faith at the age of 95.  Too frail for full immersion in the Gulf, while flanked by the pastor and her son, she was baptized (by affusion) in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit! Praise be to God!

Indeed, baptism is a vow, a sacred vow of the believer to follow Christ. Just as a wedding celebrates the fusion of two hearts, baptism celebrates the union of sinner with Savior. [Max Lucado]

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” [Matthew 28 (18-20 (NLT)]

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NOT WHAT?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” [Matthew 5:43-45 (ESV)]

Have you forgotten what we are to say to ourselves every morning? “Today I shall meet cruel men, cowards and liars, the envious and the drunken. They will be like that because they do not know what is good from what is bad. This is an evil which has fallen upon them not me. They are to be pitied, not….” [From “Till We Have Faces” by C.S. Lewis]

“They are to be pitied, not….” Not what? Author C.S. Lewis did not complete the sentence and I don’t think the omission was by accident. When I read the above passage, I thought of the words I (as a Christian) should use to replace the ellipsis; they are not to be reviled, hated, judged, condemned, berated, scorned, abused, or despised. Regretfully, my initial reaction upon running across the scum of the earth—the rapists, molesters, traffickers, exploiters, extorters, attackers, murderers, deceivers, hate-spewers, and tyrants that seem to populate our world—is more likely to be the exact opposite. Rather than a feeling of pity, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, or love, it’s one of outrage, loathing, and disgust.

Whether we’ve met them first-hand, they’ve have touched the lives of those we love, or they’re merely names and faces we know from the news, what is our reaction when we encounter those who are cruel, cowardly, devious, depraved, corrupt, or hate-filled? What is our response when we encounter those who don’t seem to know good from bad or right from wrong? What of those who treat us or others poorly, who betray people’s trust, whose mouths spew venom and deceit? Do we ever think to pray for them or their families or do we limit our prayers to the victims of their evil?

When Jesus was giving what’s known as the Sermon on the Mount, He referred to the Old Testament law (found in Leviticus 19:18) that we are to love our neighbor. While it is easy to infer from this law that we can do the opposite with our enemy, there is no Old Testament law authorizing hatred of our enemies. While Jesus’ listeners may have “heard” that, it never was the written law! He clarified the matter by clearly saying that we are to love our enemy. Since God loves His people indiscriminately, so must we!

Father, we know that people who seem devoid of anything good will cross our paths daily. Keep us from allowing their hate and evil to spill onto our behavior. Never forgetting that they are your children too, may we always recall your command that we are to love friend and foe alike. Help us find a way to forgive the unforgiveable and love the unlovable. Give us a soul of compassion and a heart filled with prayer for all of your children.

A man should not allow himself to hate even his enemies; because if you indulge this passion on some occasions, it will rise of itself in others; if you hate your enemies, you will contract such a vicious habit of mind as by degrees will break out upon those who are your friends, or those who are indifferent to you. [Plutarch]

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [Matthew 5: 46-48 (ESV)]

Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. 32 Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. [Ephesians 4:31-32 (ESV)]

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MAY WE NEVER FORGET

Let all that I am praise the Lord; with my whole heart, I will praise his holy name. Let all that I am praise the Lord; may I never forget the good things he does for me. … Praise the Lord, everything he has created, everything in all his kingdom. Let all that I am praise the Lord. [Psalm 103:1-2,22 (NLT)]

little blue heronThe Bible is filled with evidence of God’s goodness and the great (and miraculous) things He’s done for His people. Daniel emerges unscathed from a lion’s den, David defeats Goliath and the shepherd boy becomes a king, wisdom and riches are given to Solomon, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t even scorched from a fire. Water is parted more than once, the walls of Jericho collapse, jail doors miraculously open, and storms cease at a word. Armies are led to victory, manna falls from heaven, fish and bread multiply, the barren give birth, the sick and lame are healed, and the dead rise. The Bible is full of marvelous accounts of miracles, majesty, and triumphs.

While probably less noteworthy, God’s hand has been as present in our lives as it was for David, Moses, the Apostles and everyone else in the Bible’s Hall of Faith. Although it wasn’t the Red Sea or the Jordan River, He’s kept us from drowning in the deep waters of life and, while it wasn’t a fortified city like Jericho, walls that blocked our way have tumbled down more than once. It may not have been 135,000 Midianites against only 300 of us as it was for Gideon, but He’s given us victory over foes just as formidable when the odds were just as bad. Instead of a fiery furnace, He’s gotten us out of hot water many times and, while it probably wasn’t lions or an invading army, He’s saved us from plenty of perilous situations. We may not have the enormous wealth or wisdom of Solomon, but God has given us more than enough of both.

Let us never forget that God didn’t stop working in people’s lives when the last words in Revelation were penned. Our stories may not be as exciting and astonishing as those in the Bible, nevertheless, they are every bit as wonderful and worthy of thanks and praise. We’ve emerged unharmed when we should have been hurt, been nourished when hungry, been loved and comforted in our anguish, and been helped when we lost all hope. Jesus freed us from the chains of sin and the prison of despair and gave us a new life and the Holy Spirit! Indeed, God is good!

The Psalmist tells us never to forget all the good things God has done and yet, considering these past two years, it’s easy to do just that. As we face what promises to be an equally trying 2022 and the various challenges of a continuing pandemic, flight cancellations and delays, a still broken supply chain, and extremes in weather (along with countless other troubles), let us remember the many blessings of the past and appreciate the little blessings of each day.

Praise the Lord, oh my soul; let all that I am praise the Lord!

Count your blessings instead of your crosses.
Count your gains instead of your losses.
Count your joys instead of your woes.
Count your friends instead of your foes.
Count your smiles instead of your tears.
Count your courage instead of your fears.
Count your full years instead of your lean.
Count your kind deeds instead of your mean.
Count your health instead of your wealth.
Count on God instead of yourself. [Author unknown]

Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done. Sing to him; yes, sing his praises. Tell everyone about his wonderful deeds. Exult in his holy name; rejoice, you who worship the Lord. Search for the Lord and for his strength; continually seek him. Remember the wonders he has performed, his miracles, and the rulings he has given. [Psalm 105:1-5 (NLT)]

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LIGHT AND TEMPORARY

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. [2 Corinthians 4:16-18 (ESV)]

monarch butterflyNo matter what translation is used for the above verses, I find it difficult to picture something that is described as suffering, trouble, affliction, or tribulation as being small, little, or light. Moreover, while I’d like afflictions to be so, they rarely seem to be temporary or momentary. Perhaps, I’m splitting hairs but what exactly is “momentary” and “light” when it comes to suffering and affliction?

While Paul was writing about his persecution as a follower of Christ, what of other hardships and woes? Does “light and momentary” describe the twelve years of constant bleeding and painful treatments endured by the woman with the “issue of blood,” the thirty-eight years the man lying by the pool at Bethesda had been an invalid, or Job’s grief at the loss of his family and the agony of his illness? Is “temporary” the sixteen years Anthony Broadwater spent in prison after being wrongfully convicted of rape or the thirty years Michael J. Fox has suffered from Parkinsons? Is “momentary, light distress” the three hours Jesus suffered on the cross, the nine months during which Elizabeth Smart experienced being raped by her kidnapper, or the six years John McCain was tortured as a prisoner of war? Does “passing trouble” describe the mental anguish of my bipolar uncle who spent the last twelve years of his life in a mental hospital? Could the twenty years my brother-in-law struggled with Parkinson’s or the thirty my sister dealt with MS be described as “short-lived”? What of the nearly fifty-five years Joni Eareckson Tada has spent as a quadriplegic and the chronic stabbing pain, COVID complications, and two cancer diagnoses she’s endured? Is her suffering merely “momentary, light distress”? When we’re the ones hurting, even if only from an abscessed tooth or a pinched nerve, nothing about it seems light or momentary!

Paul knew what he was talking about; he’d been whipped, beaten, stoned, imprisoned, and shipwrecked and his life was in continual jeopardy because of his ministry. He knew struggle, hunger, betrayal, hardship, persecution, pain, and affliction first-hand. Nevertheless, he also knew that every trial, no matter how he suffered, was just a prelude to the resurrection power of Jesus!

Regardless of its length or severity, for a believer, our suffering here on earth is light and momentary, especially in light of the many blessings we receive in the midst of our afflictions or the adversities suffered by others. Our suffering is small and momentary when compared to what we actually deserve or to what Jesus did for us. Most of all, whatever our afflictions may be, they are “but for a moment” in the light of eternity. No matter how long we live or how difficult our lives are, our years here are a mere dot on God’s eternal timeline. Though our afflictions may last a lifetime, they will not have the last word! What waits for us is eternal not temporary and, rather than light, it is heavy because it is the entire weight of God’s glory!

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. [Romans 8:18 (ESV)]

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. [2 Corinthians 5:1 (ESV)

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