Feb 26, 2008

Christ for all the nations

Luz Maria with the Sunday school kidsOur Sunday school lesson for the second Sunday in Lent was based on the Gospel of John, chapter 4: The story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. In fact, there are many lessons to be learned from this single story, including:
  • The Gospel is to be preached to every nation and tribe, including racial/ethnic groups that have had centuries of conflict with your own, as in the case of the Jews and Samaritans;
  • The Jews, not the Samaritans, had the full revelation of God's will and followed the moral and ceremonial laws that God had dictated to their forefathers, it was not the keeping of these God-given laws that made them right with God (for all failed to obey God's Law perfectly);
  • Rather, it was faith in the promise of God's Messiah that saved Abraham and other Old Testament believers from God's wrath (Romans 4:1-5, 13-17).
  • The Samaritans,too, kne w of the promised Messiah, although they accepted only part of God's inspired Word and mixed it with their own human traditions. Jesus revealed Himself to the Samaritan woman as the Messiah anticipated by both Jews and Samaritans.
  • The crossing of political, cultural and religious boundaries with the Gospel can be a difficult, even physically demanding task, which is why God ordained an office of the public ministry, men dedicated to preaching the Word and administering the sacraments wherever the Lord might call them;
  • Once the seed is planted, however, the church may grow rapidly through ordinary people, like the Samaritan woman, witnessing to their neighbors;
  • It was by the touching of the Samaritan woman's conscience with God's Law that Jesus penetrated her defenses and brought her the Gospel.
We focused on the last point with the children, emphasizing that God knows all of our faults, but given true repentance and a contrite heart, there is no sin that can keep us from reconciliation with God, for He does not will our destruction, but rather our redemption. Given the nature of the Samaritan woman's sin (she had been married and divorced five time and was living with a man to whom she was not married) Luz María saw a opportunity to talk with them about issues that they would face once they passed puberty – such as HIV/AIDS infection.

Thanks to a 2001 decision by the Supreme Court of Venezuela, every citizen infected with the HIV virus is guaranteed free treatment withantiretroviral drugs, the first ruling of its kind in Latin America.

The cost of this treatment is substantial, about 1,000 U.S. dollars per month. Venezuela imports generic antiretroviral medications from Cuba and India in order to meet the country’s demand. However, because of budget problems and poor planning, not all people living with HIV/AIDS in Venezuela have had access to the treatment. It is believed that hundreds of infected individuals have fled Venezuela for the United States and Canada in search of better treatment.

In addition, Venezuela experienced a dramatic increase in the number of adults (15 to 49 years of age) reported to be infected with the HIV virus from around 62,000 in 2003 to 110,000 in 2004. This 77 percent increase raised Venezuela's ranking among the 100 nations with the highest incidence of HIV/AIDS from 53rd to 49th place. Even more disturbing is the increased number of women infected with the HIV virus. In the early 1990s, women accounted for one out of every 18 people in Venezuela infected with HIV, but today they account for 31,000 of the 110,000 infected with HIV/AIDS, about one out of four. In 2005, deaths attributed to HIV infection totaled 6,100 (technically no one dies of HIV/AIDS; rather the virus destroys the immune system, allowing other infections (that the body would normally be able to resist) to claim a life).

The number of HIV-infected Venezuelans has remained stable at around 110,000 for the last four years, according to estimates by the United Nations AIDS Program. Currently, Venezuelans infected with the HIV virus represent 0.7 percent of the country's population of more than 27.5 million. In comparison, the percentage of U.S. citizens infected with the HIV/AIDS virus is about 0.6 percent of the total U.S. population.

According to a World Bank report, at the end of 2007 there were around 1.6 million people living with HIV in Latin America - more than in the United States, Canada, Japan and the United Kingdom combined. More than half of Latin Americans living with HIV reside in the region’s four largest countries: Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and Argentina.

Brazil is home to 600,000 people living with HIV – more than any other Latin American country – but due to the large size of its population, this equates to a relatively low HIV prevalence of 0.5
percent. The most severe epidemics are found in smaller countries such as Honduras and Belize, where the percentages of the HIV-infected are 1.5 percent and 2.5 percent respectively.

Of course, we did not hit the children with all these facts and figures. Instead, we emphasized that the possibility of HIV/AIDS infection was one reason why sex outside of marriage could have serious consequences for their lives and the lives of others. God designed marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman, and when people try to step outside that design, all kinds of problems result.

Also, Luz María emphasized, one should not make such a commitment based on qualities that may fade with time, but rather seek the kind of person who can maintain a lifelong relationship – and help strengthen you in your relationship with God.

Eduardo Flores continues to add a lot to our program, especially in the area of music. He has been teaching new songs to the Sunday school, preschool and the congregation in Barinas. Eduardo has a deep appreciation of the rich heritage of Christian liturgy and music. Click on the audio player to hear him singing and playing guitar for an arrangement of Luther's hymn, “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast In Thy Word.”

During the third week of Lent, Corpus Christi Lutheran Church celebrated its 13th anniversary at its present location. At a special prayer vigil, 7 p.m. to midnight that Friday, Eduardo, Luz María and I led a three-part study on the history and heritage of the church.

I began with a look at the early church and how the first Christians, all Jews by birth or adult converts to Judaism, considered the Gospel of Christ to be the fulfillment, not the negation of Old Testament teaching. Thus they continued the highly liturgical worship to which they were accustomed in the Temple of Jerusalem and in the synagogues. Like the believers of the Old
Testament and the first-century church, our worship today includes the singing of the Psalms, the reading of the Holy Scriptures and public prayers. However, we do not offer sacrifices for the
propitiation of sins as they did in the Old Testament, for Christ has made the one sacrifice which covers all sins for all time on the Cross. Nevertheless, Christ is present in His body and blood in the sacrament of Holy Communion, and God speaks to us through the preaching of His Word. Our songs, prayers and offerings are sacrifices of thanksgiving for His presence among us.

Eduardo talked about the church during the Reformation and how during times of conflict and persecution, the church actually thrives more than during times of peace and plenty. He also spoke of how Martin Luther as a German belonged to a different culture, but had a side that a Latin American could understand in his love of music and children, and in his personal struggle to know God's love.

Luz María focused on the church today and its responsibility to continue its mission. The Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20 emphasizes baptism and discipling, “teaching them all that I have commanded you.” If the church adopts “evangelism” techniques that bring in more members at the expense of sounddoctrine and instruction, it is not really being true to the mission of proclaiming the Gospel to all nations.

God's blessings to all during this Lenten season as we anticipate the joy of Easter Sunday.

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