Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Spiritual Dementia

            Last week I spent a few days in my native Iowa visiting my elderly Mom.  She has dementia.  Dementia is a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.  I have watched her faculties slowly erode and decline over the past few years.  My Mom is now at a point where she rarely remembers my name, only knows me once in a while, and never recalls the conversation we just had thirty seconds ago.  It is difficult to watch and to experience, this woman who once cared for me.  Now my siblings and I care for her in ways that were unthinkable to us five years ago.

            As I made the drive home from my visit I spent the hours reflecting on how much church ministry needs to be a memory unit experience because Christians are continually forgetting their identity and what they are supposed to be doing.  This is not a new issue that is endemic to the contemporary church; this is a problem as old as sin itself.  There is even a book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, completely given to memory issues.  The constant refrain of the author of Deuteronomy is to “remember.”  Since the ancient Israelites were in danger of forgetting and having a kind of spiritual dementia, Moses reiterated the covenant and the law for the people before they entered the land.  It was a fresh re-hashing, nothing really new, of what God had already communicated to them.  God’s people were to continually remember that they were once slaves in Egypt and that God had delivered them and brought them out to be a people for his name.  They were to remember that they had provoked the Lord in the desert and that an entire generation of people had been wiped out because they had, well, forgotten what God told them.

            The New Testament is no different.  Jesus miraculously fed a great crowd of people not once, but twice.  The second time he called his disciples to remember what had happened the first time in order to understand the second.  In the Epistles, Paul kept reminding the Jews in the churches that they should remember the ancient covenant, and called the Gentiles to remember that they were once estranged from that very same covenant.  Both Jews and Gentiles together needed to collectively remember the death of Christ that united them into a new covenant community.  Like them, we are to “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David” (2 Timothy 2:8).

            We, as the church of Jesus, are to remember who we are and what we are to be about:  we are blood-bought people of God, belonging to Christ, and given a mission to make disciples and participate with God in the redemption of all creation through remembering the poor, seeking justice, and being peacemakers in the church and the world.  Maybe the ancient words in the book of Revelation to the church at Ephesus ring true for us today:  “Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:5).

            There is a difference between my Mom and the church – my Mom will never recover but will only worsen, yet the church can recover its collective memory by listening again to the ancient Word of God and being constantly refreshed with the promises and covenant of God.  We must neither rely on pragmatism nor simply by doing things the way we always have done them without any understanding of why we do it. 

            Why does your church exist?  How does the Word of God inform and influence your identity as a church?  Does the mission and practice of your church intentionally remember the risen and ascended Christ?  Are disciples being formed around collective remembering of God’s covenant and promises?  Are ministries and policies being established based on Christ and his commission, or on something else?  Let’s reverse the trend of spiritual dementia and give our memories to Christ.  Amen.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Trinity Sunday

At its heart, the Great Commission is a call and invitation by Jesus to participate in the life of the triune God through making disciples (Matthew 28:16-20).  The reason many Christians intentionally give focus to and celebrate the Trinity on a designated Sunday is because the God we worship exists as One God in three persons:  Father, Son, and Spirit.  This doctrine of the Trinity was articulated by early worshiping and serving Christians, who, under the stress and in the face of questions and challenges, took pains to say with clarity just who God is and why he is important.

            Christ’s Great Commission is still in force for us today.  What is more, the way to fulfill this command of Jesus is to participate in the life of the Trinitarian God.  Sometimes we need an outside perspective to understand our own situation and how we are to live into these important words of Jesus.  Missionary and author Nik Ripken (which is not his real name because he ministers in countries that are not open to the gospel and missionary activity) writes that he once met with a group of Chinese house church leaders and was marveling to them about the explosion of new converts and believers to Christ – many estimates discern at least 100 million Christians now in China.  What Nik Ripken heard from those leaders in response is not what he expected to hear.  This is what they said concerning his estimates of the numbers of Christians in China:  “Probably two-thirds of the people you mentioned regularly attend a house church.  Most of those people have been baptized.  Most of those people contribute financially to the work of a house church.  But we do not consider church members to be true followers of Jesus until they have led other people to Christ and until they have helped plant more house churches; only then do they truly know God.”

            I would suggest that one of the chief reasons the Chinese church has exploded in numbers is because they have taken up the mantle of Christ’s mission of making disciples to such a degree that leading others to Jesus and developing disciples into the life of the Trinity and forming churches is “normal.”  One of the obstacles for us as Western believers is that we look at what the Chinese are doing not as normal but as “radical.”  But what if what we consider as radical is really supposed to be the normal Christian life and experience of all believers in Jesus?  Please understand I do not make this point in order to guilt us, but rather to let our Chinese brothers and sisters lead us into godly sorrow that results in new life and inspire us in this wonderful privilege of making disciples.

            The Trinity is mentioned in the Great Commission because God himself is a missionary God.  The content of our discipleship and teaching is to be in orienting believers into the life of God as Trinity.  After Christ’s resurrection, the original disciples went to a specific mountain – maybe the mountain where Jesus began by teaching about righteousness with the Sermon on the Mount.  This would give the disciples a connection with understanding Christ’s authority.  They needed to grasp Christ’s authority because when they saw him some worshiped and some doubted.  The text does not tell us why some doubted.  I would suggest that based on the gospel accounts of the disciples having not figured-out that Jesus was bringing in a spiritual kingdom where people are transformed and follow Christ’s teachings, that they doubted what the real mission was all about and may have doubted their ability to engage in that mission even if they understood it.  Therefore, Jesus made the clear call and invitation that what he wants done (since he has the authority) is for the church is to be about the business of making disciples.

            The term “make disciples” is perhaps so overused to the point of losing its punch and meaning.  Here are some other faithful ways of understanding this verb to make disciples:  “spiritually form followers;” “develop interns in the faith;” “build committed believers in Jesus;” and “apprentice others in the ways of Jesus.”  The idea that Jesus is conveying here is one of investing deeply into mentoring-type relationships that will result in faithful Christians who will, in turn, invest in others.  The Apostle Paul would say later to his apprentice Timothy:  “The things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Timothy 2:2).  In other words, we need to be mentored in the faith and to then turn around and mentor others in the faith. 

            We reflect the image of our triune God when we take up the mantle of being, as the Nicene Creed puts it, one holy catholic and apostolic church.  That is, just as God is not three gods but one God, so the church is to be one; just as God is holy, we are to be holy in all we do; just as God gathers people from every nation, so the church is to gather all kinds of people for worship and discipleship; and, just as God is a missionary God who sends himself to reach the nations, so we are to be apostolic (which means those that are sent), not only gathered together but sent out to make disciples, to mentor others in the faith.

            We all long to see this world a better place and to see our culture and society come into greater conformity with Christian morality.  For that to happen, we can learn from our Chinese brothers and sisters that making disciples will need to be a normal every day attitude and action.  It is my sincere desire that every one of us who has been mentored, apprenticed, and oriented in the faith in such a way that has impacted our lives will put that same ministry into others.  We all need three levels of relationships:  a spiritual mentor; someone who is a fellow friend on the journey to fellowship with; and, another for whom we are calling and inviting to participate with us in the life of the triune God. 

The Father sent the Son to this earth.  While he was here he poured his life into some disciples.  Then, when he died, those disciples were filled with grief.  But they later understood that he had to die so that others who hungered could live.  “Take eat, this is my body given for you.”  What the Trinity means for us is that our missionary God has reached us and is using us to reach others.  Through the situations of our lives we learn the ways of Jesus.  We learn compassion.  We learn humility.  We learn how be at peace.  And we are made disciples, united to Christ and participating in the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Christian Year

            You might often notice that I refer to events or significant Sundays on “The Church Calendar.”  The Christian Calendar or Christian Year refers to a yearlong calendar that marks time according to God’s activities rather than ours.  It is to live life in a rhythm with Christ at the center of our worship.

            Time is referenced in the Bible as both chronological and seasonal.  The Christian Year is a co-mingling of both of these kinds of time.  We as Christians celebrate events in which God acted in history for the benefit of his people.  In order to remember those moments, dates have been assigned on the Christian Calendar so that we will not forget these significant events and praise God for what he has done.

            So, then, to observe the Christian Year helps us as God’s people to recall and retell the story of God, especially the redemptive events of Jesus.  In doing so, it provides a guide for our spiritual growth.  The Christian Calendar is arranged in such a way as to proclaim the gospel over the course of a year.  One of the ways that helps us to remember particular seasons is through the liturgical colors:  purple signifies a time for preparation and penitence; white represents celebration, joy, and victory; green lets us know it is time to focus on spiritual growth and mission; and, red helps us recall the Passion of Christ and the fire of the Holy Spirit.

The Christian Year is organized and arranged with these seasons: 

Advent – The Christian Year begins not on January 1, but four Sundays before Christmas Day and up to Christmas Eve.  The purpose of Advent is to anticipate the incarnation and prepare us to celebrate the coming of Jesus.  We are also reminded that Jesus will return again at the end of the age.

Christmas – Yes, Christmas is more than just a day on the church calendar and encompasses the twelve days from December 25 to January 5 (you may recognize the 12 Days of Christmas).  Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ.

Epiphany – Epiphany follows Christmas from January 6 to the day before Ash Wednesday.  The term Epiphany means “manifestation.”  This is a celebration of God’s revelation, his manifestation to the entire world, not just the Jews, but the Gentiles, as well.  Epiphany emphasizes Christ’s earthly ministry of teaching, healing, and preaching.

Lent – There are forty days in the season of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday.  Lent is a time to recall Christ’s temptation, conflict, suffering, and death.  It is a season to contemplate our discipleship in light of Christ’s Passion, engage in repentance, and put deliberate focus on spiritual disciplines.

Easter – As with Christmas, Easter is not only one Sunday; it is a season of fifty days up to the day of Pentecost.  Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus; helps us recognize our new life in Christ; and, includes celebrating the Ascension of our Lord.

Pentecost – This season runs from Eastertide to the Sunday before Advent.  Pentecost celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church, acknowledges our spiritual power, and calls us to rejoice in receiving God’s power.

Ordinary Time – This is the same season as Pentecost.  Ordinary time refers to the ongoing work of the church to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the typical, expected, ordinary work of ministry that Christ’s followers are to do.

            As we are now embarking upon the longest season of the Christian Year, Ordinary Time, we remember and realize that it is our joyful duty to follow Jesus and obey his commands in our normal everyday lives as Christians.  Wherever we go, the gospel of Jesus Christ goes with us.  May we experience together the journey in this ordinary time of seeing others come to Christ and our faith strengthened in the power of the Spirit.  Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Warming Up for Pentecost

The Holy Spirit is the distinguishing mark of the believer in Jesus Christ.  Christians do not earn the right to have the Holy Spirit; they are given the Spirit.  Therefore, our main responsibility as Christians is to receive.  Christianity is distinctive in this sense – it is primarily a religion of receiving.  The reason for this is that the Christian life cannot be lived by one’s own strength; it is lived by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The only function of faith is to receive what grace offers.  We are saved by grace alone through faith.  And it is equally true that the Christian life is lived by grace alone through faith.  God lives in and through us by means of his Spirit.  The miraculous and the supernatural cannot, obviously, be done by any human person.  It can, however, be accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit.

            We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, me included, to be a certain way and to do certain things.  The result is that we are tired.  And every time we catch our breath, someone else needs something else.  But what if Christianity were not mostly about giving, but about receiving?  What if the Christian life were really all about putting ourselves in a position to receive what God has for us through prayer and humility?  You see, the opposite of receiving is not giving but pride. 

            Maybe this kind of talk makes you feel uncomfortable.  I am not talking here about being passive or lazy, but about receiving grace from God by means of the Holy Spirit and allowing God the Spirit to do what he wants to do in and through us for his own purposes and glory.  Jesus said we would do greater works than even he himself with the advent of the Spirit!  The question then becomes:  Will we let God do this?  Will we participate with God, and allow the Spirit to do his work?  Will we, as individuals and churches, petition God and, in essence, write him a blank check so that he can do whatever he wants to do in and through us?

            The Spirit is elsewhere in Scripture described as a gentle presence, an encourager, counselor, and comforter.  But not at Pentecost – the Spirit is portrayed like wind and fire.  Not a gentle breeze, nor a warm campfire but a violent presence.  The Holy Spirit in Acts 2 is not some gentleman caller coming politely into our lives when invited.  Instead, he appears more like a drunken sailor who bursts into the room and causes and big ruckus.  There is nothing subtle about the Spirit at Pentecost.  He is electric and volcanic, causing a huge upheaval.  This is a big God with a big Word looking to expand out into a big world.

            Because of Pentecost, true believers are marked and defined by God’s Spirit living within them and being full of the Spirit.  So, what does God want to do?  He wants to pour out his Spirit on all kinds of people.  He wants to fill people to overflowing so that what comes out of them is “prophecy” (Acts 2:14-21).  By “prophecy” Joel and Peter do not mean predicting the future, but inspired speech and words coming from a spiritual heart full of the Spirit.  Just as an inebriated person says and does things he/she would not typically say or do because they are filled with alcohol, so the person filled with God’s Spirit says things and does things that they would not typically say or do because their inspiration and courage do not come from themselves but is a result of God within them.

            God transformed this little band of people in Acts 2 from learners, to ones sent out with a mission.  Being on a mission from God is not about feeling adequate; it is about being filled and sent.  First time parents may learn and read and find out all they can about parenting before their child is born, but when that little bundle comes into the world and the hospital puts this kid in your arms and sends you out you feel pretty inadequate for the task.  Parenting becomes a kind of supernatural affair where you learn and pray on the fly, finding out that you need something beyond yourself to get anywhere in raising this screaming, pooping, sleeping person who depends completely on you for everything. 

            God has sent us into the world to make disciples and we may feel pretty inadequate for the task.  But this has more to do with receiving the Spirit.  The Spirit comes looking to impact the world not in some small way but with turning the world upside-down with new life in Jesus Christ. 

            In light of Pentecost, God’s agenda for his people is not to simply have nice worship services among nice people so we can live nice lives in the world.  The Spirit came to shake things up and do among God’s people what they could never do on their own.  The church in the New Testament was not formed as a country club for people to simply enjoy the perks of membership.  The church in Acts 2 is more like a place where the people seem drunk because they are all talking with inspired speech from the Holy Spirit. 

            It all begins with receiving.  If our hands are continually making fists and fighting other believers then we are not in a position to receive the Spirit.  But if our hands are open, palms up, then we are ready to have the Spirit come and be the Wild Person he came to be, just like a tornado and a blazing fire.  If there is something the Church needs more than anything else today it is someone:  the Holy Spirit.  Come, Holy Spirit, we need you.