NT 19: Atonement and Harmony with God

Paul’s letter to the Romans may very well contain the highest concentration of my favorite scriptures. I love Paul’s imagery and his powerful testimony of the divinity of Jesus Christ. Romans 5 offers a beautiful explanation of Christ’s role in the salvation of the human race. As always, my reading of these scriptures is grounded in revealed, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints doctrine.

Paul’s teachings about Christ’s role in salvation rely on the foundational doctrine of the Fall which explains the necessity of a redeemer. The Fall describes Adam and Eve’s decision to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Their choice to disobey the commandment not to eat that fruit resulted in not just their dismissal from Eden but it brought upon mankind the conditions of physical death and spiritual death (separation from God through sin) (see v. 12). Paul describes sin as an ubiquitous condition of mortality: it is taken as granted that humans will sin (v. 19). A divinely ordained law establishes the shape of sin and, by so doing, necessitates consequences.

The consequences, however, are not insurmountable nor are they eternally damning if we follow Jesus Christ. His law requires the performance of specific ordinances and daily behavior in order to qualify for salvation. He will help us keep the law while providing forgiveness if we fall short of the law’s requirements. He justifies us according to our faith (v. 2) and repentance. One of Paul’s beautiful images relates to his conception of salvation as returning to harmony with God. Where mortality and sin put us into conflict and discord with God, Christ brings us back into harmony with God the Father by providing forgiveness of sins as well as resurrection (v. 1, 10). This is the crux of Christ’s Atonement, that He provides redemption from sin and death, the blessings of salvation which “abound unto many” “through our Lord by whom we have now received the atonement” (v. 15, 11). Christ puts as at-one with God.

Where sin is a given condition of mortality, pervasive, and sure to lead to spiritual death, we can find relief in Christ’s grace which does “much more abound” (v. 20). His grace is more ubiquitous than sin. Personal righteousness (i.e. performance of ordinances, keeping commandments, repentance) will insure that grace reigns “unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord” (v. 21).

NT 18: Building a Temple

Sorry to have been MIA for the last several months! I’m drafting posts of insights I’ve had over that time and will publish them shortly. But in the meantime, let me share something current…from the last 12 hours.

Last night as I read 1 Corinthians 3, I noticed a progression in Paul’s ideas that I hadn’t noticed before. I usually focus on verse 16 and quote it as a stand-alone idea: “Know he not that ye are the temple of God?” as if we (my usual interpretation of “ye” is my physical body) are already temples and merely need to maintain them. Reading verse 16 in context with the previous verses added a new dimension to my understanding.

I began to see in chapter 3 a larger vision of earthly growth and development. Paul establishes the starting point of human existence in verse 3, an initial stage of carnality from which we are meant to pursue the spiritual existence Paul preaches in Romans and Corinthians. Building a Christian character, worthy to inherit eternal life requires a foundation. Paul identifies how he and fellow missionaries helped the members lay a foundation for their lives through baptism. This foundation is Jesus Christ (v. 11). Paul then counsels them to build on that sure foundation.

But how and what the members (us) build on this foundation is critical (v. 10). As I approached verse 16, I began to see that Paul is describing a lifelong process of personal refinement through righteous living (“every man’s work” v. 13-15): honesty, fidelity, integrity, Christian service—much what he also counseled to the Roman church members. The end result of our efforts, Paul suggests, is more than just a spiritual existence (in contrast to the carnal). We become temples. Think about the adjectives you would use to describe a temple: Holy, sacred, consecrated, dedicated, clean, pure, sanctified. What amazing qualities to identify the sum of our lives, character, and bodies––and what an amazing reward (v. 13)!

I wanted to share Paul’s metaphor with my children in a way that they could understand and see the beauty in Paul’s teaching. This morning we sat on the floor together and brought Paul’s metaphor to life with blocks and pom poms.

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We first built our foundation while one child read verse 11: Jesus Christ is the foundation. We discussed how baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost are essential ordinances for building this foundation. I reminded the kids of the good choices Paul encouraged the Romans to make which we had discussed for Family Home Evening on Sunday. As we identified righteous choices (including deeds and behavior) we added blocks.

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As Paul reminded the Roman saints, we “all come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The kids and I talked about bad choices that we all sometimes make (e.g. telling a lie, fighting with each other, judging others) and added pom poms to our structure. We then added more blocks for good choices, watching as our structure fell apart and resisted completion. This was a great opportunity to talk about repentance: asking for God’s forgiveness, stopping the wrong behavior, and making more good choices.

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As we continued building I had one of the kids read, “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” We discussed the importance of keeping our bodies and spirits clean and pure through righteous choices and behavior. We eventually built a beautiful structure, firm on its foundation.

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NT 17: What Does the Atonement Mean to Me?

Last week in Come, Follow Me we read about the Savior’s suffering in Gethsemane. I was also preparing to speak on Sunday about the Atonement. I reflected frequently on what I know and continue to learn about the Atonement. These are a few of the lessons that came to mind as I read and pondered Matthew 26 and Mark 14.

  1. Even Jesus wanted to give up: “let this cup pass from me” says so much to me about the extremes and agonies of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. One of the miracles of the Atonement is that He wanted to make the suffering stop…but He completed it because He knew that it was necessary to provide the opportunity for repentance and eternal life for all of God’s children.
  2. Weak things become strong: to me, the Atonement provides the opportunity for transformation––not just sinner to saint, or mortal to immortal, but also shy person to enthusiastic ministering sister/brother, or socially awkward to strong friendshipper. In a miraculous way through the Atonement, Christ is able to step into our weaknesses, give us His strength to begin improving, and teach us how to improve.
  3. Will power and energy: on my mission I learned that even when bone tired and without energy, I could keep working if I had the desire/will power.
  4. He really does understand: again, a miracle of the Atonement I don’t fully comprehend, but I know Christ understands each and every person who has ever lived on earth. He knows what we’re going through, and He CAN help.
  5. Being enough: not sure what I meant by this originally but we all need to embrace the fact that Christ loves us––imperfect us––just the way we are. He loves us enough to also see our eternal potential and encourage and facilitate its development.
  6. Joy in misery: this is another transformation topic I ponder…the fact that even in the midst of experiencing tremendous pain, disappointment, or misery, we can experience joy in the Gospel through Jesus Christ.
  7. Just me and God: learning to rely on God without having anyone else physically present on whom I could rely was a fear-inducing but necessary lesson. While studying Come, Follow Me I have reflected on how confident Jesus must have been to teach the way He did, prophesy the things He prophesied, and pursue His path to Atonement, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. God the Father was His bedrock and He needs to be ours as well.

NT 15: Absence and Easter

A few weeks ago I began pondering the idea of absence. Several circumstances gave rise to this train of thought, including musings about how people lose their faith in God. I wondered if they stopped feeling God’s presence for some reason and that opened a void which Satan could fill. What was only a momentary absence somehow becomes convincing proof of God’s non-existence.

In the three years of Jesus’ mortal ministry, He became defined by his irrefutable presence in Israel. He performed miracles with many witnesses, He taught convincingly in small and large group settings, He manifested God’s power on innumerable occasions, He boldly declared His origins and divine Sonship, He walked on water, He calmed storms, He raised the dead. His presence in one village led the people to drive Him away (Matthew 8:28-34, NT) while in many other communities He gained notoriety. His direct impact on the larger community became so marked that local rulers grew restless and began plotting how to make Jesus disappear.

Despite His own prophecies about His short-lived presence on earth, Jesus’ apostles continued to rely heavily on His accessibility and seem to have taken His proximity for granted. When some of the disciples failed to heal a young man on their own, they (sheepishly?) watched Jesus heal him and then asked why they could not succeed. Perhaps out of concern for His disciples to continue His work once He was gone, Jesus lamented, “how long shall I be with you?” (Matthew 17:17, NT.) No one seems to have made contingency plans in the event of Jesus’ permanent absence.

I imagine the apostles’ shock as Jesus was led away from Gethsemane, publicly humiliated and condemned to an infamous death. They weren’t counting on this. Some of the apostles stayed nearby as observers and mourners while Jesus hung on the cross. Many of them gathered together in the aftermath of the Crucifixion and burial, facilitating Mary’s urgent report of the empty tomb and providing the setting for Jesus to appear to them. But even after witnessing the resurrected Lord, some of the apostles simply returned to their previous lives (John 21:2-3, NT). How could they keep a movement alive when its founder was no longer present? Could people believe in someone who is absent?

The miracle of the empty tomb is the absent Christ. Because the tomb was empty on the third day, no grave will permanently keep its dead. Because the tomb was empty, all people can receive forgiveness of sin, healing, comfort, joy. Because the tomb was empty, the resurrected Christ could organize the spread of God’s work on the earth. In the absence of Christ, the apostles began their ministries to teach, heal, baptize, confirm, and testify of the once present Jesus and now resurrected Son of God. He didn’t become less real or stop existing when He was no longer a constant presence. The promise of His Resurrection provides the reality of glorified, eternal existence for all mankind.

This Easter I think of dear friends and dead family members, absent but not gone; separated by distance but not by memory; loved and not forgotten. Sometimes absence dims memory and makes us question the reality of our experienced past. At times I have lost the feeling of God’s presence in my life and it is tempting to question whether He was really ever there in the first place. But in that absence I have found compelling proof of God’s present reality, His mindfulness of me, His awareness of and concern for all His children.

Like the apostles had to learn in the wake of the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension, Christ’s absence from earth did not change His reality. In His absence, the apostles testified boldly of His eternal existence, glory, power, and presence. In His absence, we can continue to believe; we can hold fast to our faith; we can choose to press forward in our devotion and commitment to follow Him. We can, because He lives.

NT 14: Holy Week with Children

img_3201I was looking over the Come, Follow Me material for this week with its helpful day-by-day breakdown of scriptures pertaining to the last week of Christ’s life when an idea came to me to hide one plastic Easter egg each day for my children containing a numbered slip of paper with a scripture, song, and thought questions.

So far we have read about and discussed Palm Sunday, the cleansing of the temple, and the two great commandments. Each day I summarize the story, read the associated scriptures, and check for understanding. We are using the thought questions to bring the events of each day to our children’s level. For Palm Sunday, “the people laid their clothing and palm fronds on the ground in front of Jesus. How do we show Jesus our respect today?” For the cleansing of the temple, “how do we maintain the sacred nature of temples and chapels through our behavior?”

  1. Sunday, Triumphal entry into Jerusalem––Matthew 21:6-11; “Hosanna” (CS 66)
  2. Monday, Cleansing of the temple––Matthew 21:12-16; “I Love to See the Temple” (CS 95)
  3. Tuesday, Teaching in Jerusalem––I chose Matthew 22:12-16; “Love One Another” (CS 136)
  4. Wednesday, Teaching in Jerusalem––Matthew 25:35-40 (building on Tuesday’s scripture); “I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus” (CS 78)
  5. Thursday, Passover and Gethsemane––Matthew 26:26-28; “The Sacrament” (CS 72)
  6. Friday, Trial and crucifixion––Matthew 27:27-31, 57-60; “O Savior Thou Who Wearest a Crown” (Hymn 197)
  7. Saturday, Preaching in the spirit world––Doctrine & Covenants 138; “Families Can Be Together Forever” (Hymn 300)
  8. Sunday, Resurrection morning––John 20:1, 11-16; “Jesus Has Risen” (CS 70)

On Easter Sunday every year we hide jelly beans and have a religious egg hunt. The eggs are numbered and each contains a symbol of an event from the last week of Christ’s life, with a heavy emphasis on the Atonement. There are lots of different lists online for this type of egg hunt. The number of eggs ranges anywhere from six to twelve or more. Here is the list I decided on several years ago and have used since:

  1. Palm Sunday: Green leaf
  2. Mary washing Jesus’ feet: Small vial of perfume
  3. Last Supper: Bread and sacrament cup
  4. Gethsemane: Olive
  5. Judas’ betrayal: Three dimes
  6. Crown of thorns: Rose stem
  7. Jesus’ robe: Purple/red fabric swatch
  8. Cross: Piece of wood
  9. Crucifixion: Nail
  10. Preparing Jesus’ body for burial: Whole cloves
  11. Stone rolled in front of the tomb: Small rock
  12. Resurrection: Empty egg

I have done this egg hunt with the kids each year for four years and they enjoy it every time. My narrative is a work in progress but I have used art and brief scripture passages to relate the events, as well as reading pertinent passages from My First Story of the First Easter by Deanna Draper Buck. (I even used The Berenstein Bears and the Easter Story one year.) It’s important that you work out your own best method of sharing the stories of Holy Week and the Atonement along with your testimony of Jesus Christ. Easter captures the central message of life in the most succinct way: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22, NT). To help children discover the events of Easter in an interactive way can lay the foundation for their personal testimony of Jesus Christ.

NT 11: A Centurion, A Servant, and Humility

Ever since reading the story of the centurion in Matthew 8:5-13 last week I have reflected on it over and over again. The centurion’s initial request for help (in person, according to Matthew’s account) precedes what struck me initially as a statement of ego: “For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me: and I say to this man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it” (Matthew 8:9).

Was it really necessary for him to tell Jesus how influential and powerful he is in his sphere? Certainly Jesus understood that the centurion occupied a higher social status. But on the heels of the centurion’s self-identification “Jesus…marvelled, and said to them that followed, Verily I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel” (Matthew 8:10). What about the centurion’s statement expressed such great faith?

Upon rereading the passage I couldn’t help but equally marvel at what I discovered. First, the centurion seems to have been working out his expression of faith, describing that he believes Jesus can just speak and perform a miracle because that is how the centurion operates in his own life. He recognized in Jesus something of a peer, a powerful man whose order would be immediately obeyed, just like him in his own household. The centurion understood the mechanics of directive and obedience, and therefore could believe in the application of the system to his request for help.

Second, I began to recognize in the centurion’s statement a profound humility. The centurion, in describing how he is obeyed in his household, was expressing his willingness to abase himself and become like one of his servants, ready to obey Jesus’ command, do whatever Jesus instructed in order to save his servant.

If only we would voluntarily give up status and accomplishments, the trappings of social position with which we pad our identities, and place them at the feet of the Savior, as readily as the centurion. What miracles could God work in our lives if we in faith expressed our willingness to obey God’s directions with the alacrity of the centurion’s servants?

Last year when my husband didn’t get the job we had been anticipating for six years, we had no backup plan. My husband applied to other academic jobs and began following leads from friends. As the weeks dragged on with no immediate prospects, we began praying to know what commandment we could keep more perfectly in order to qualify for our desired miracle. We focused on spiritual improvement within our family, expressing our willingness in prayer to do whatever God required of us. Within three months my husband had received and accepted an offer for an amazing job.

This lesson came full circle for me this week as another New Testament reading led me to Psalm 55: “As for me, I will call upon God; and the Lord shall save me. Evening, morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice” (v. 16-17, OT). When we can make such unequivocal statements as “the Lord shall save me” and “he shall hear my voice,” we express our firm belief that doing God’s will results in miracles. Just like the centurion we can acknowledge God’s power, cast aside illusions of personal greatness, willingly perform God’s instructions, and receive the miracles and blessings He waits to bestow.

NT 10: Finding a Way Back

I’ve been absent for a couple of weeks, feeling like I had lost my way in scripture study and the blog. But I’m recommitting to daily study and weekly posting! My family needs this spiritual boost every day, and I need it to stay sane, be a halfway decent parent, and keep myself focused on spiritual things. Sometimes we lose our way and think that’s it, there’s no going back. But the Gospel teaches us that every day––every moment of every day––we can start fresh. Seeking forgiveness and help through the Savior’s Atonement allows us to find our way back to God and the path He wants us to walk.

Last week I intended to post some ideas for teaching children specific principles from the Sermon on the Mount. Here they are:

  1. Matthew 6:6, 17-18     One central idea I took from these verses was the need to not seek recognition for good things we do. We don’t need praise to justify good deeds or righteous choices…we just do/make them. Secret service can be a lot of fun for families to do together. Select one or more individuals or families and identify one way your family could serve each. Perform the service secretly and/or anonymously.
  2. Matthew 6:22-23      “[I]f therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” Make two large eyes, one from dark (opaque) construction paper, one from vellum or another translucent but sturdy paper. On the opaque eye with the help of your children write a list of bad choices within the realm of their understanding. Hold a light behind the opaque eye. Can you see any light? Can that light illuminate anything through the eye? Make a similar list on the translucent eye but of good choices (e.g. praying daily, sharing, attending church as a family). Repeat the exercise with the light. Read the scripture and discuss.
  3. Matthew 7:7    “Ask, and it shall be given you.” Have a child stand on one side of a door and you on the other. Tell your child the goal is to reenter the room where you are but without pushing the door/turning the knob. Once s/he has figured out knocking and asking, invite her/him into the room and share the scripture. My girls did the object lesson at the same time and worked through the dilemma together. I testified that God hears their prayers and will answer them. Understanding that God does hear our prayers and questions, and will provide answers establishes an important foundation for additional Gospel understanding. For example, today we revisited Matthew 7:7 while talking about Joseph Smith and the First Vision.

Best of luck this week as you work on Matthew 8-9 and Mark 2-5!