Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Enlightenment Hangover



            The Enlightenment project, begun centuries ago and coming to full flower in the 17th with the primacy of reason and the scientific method, still exerts a potent hangover effect even in these post-Enlightenment or postmodern times.  Without going into a complete history lesson (which I will tackle another time) we can say that the church bought into much of this project in the 19th century.  We are still experiencing its effects today.  Just as the factory system with its focus on efficiency and specialization was the fruit of applying certainty and objective principles to manufacturing, so the church has this continuing and nasty tendency to operate as though people ought to move through the teaching and ministry of the church and come out the other end as products ready for shipping to heaven.  Whenever we focus on certainty in process, confidence in a particular project, and the expectation of people’s production as the highest of goals in the church then we are allowing Enlightenment philosophy and not biblical Christianity to shape our lives.

The essence of biblical Christianity revolves completely around the person and work of Jesus Christ.  The most profound theological and practical statement I could make is that God the Father loves us through God the Son by means of the presence of the Holy Spirit.  The work of Jesus has made deliverance from sin real, the restoration of the world possible, and it is the Spirit’s work to apply Christ’s redemption to us.

            Ideally, therefore, church ministry teaches us this good news of Jesus, and everything is done in order to worship and exalt the Son and bless the world.  But a warning must be given here because Christianity may be perverted into a form of Enlightenment-type idolatry through substituting the Church, the Bible, Christian service, spiritual experiences, or a list of do’s and don’ts for the person of Jesus Christ.

            The Church is an idol when we miss the truth that Jesus is the Head of Church (Ephesians 1:22).  The Bible is an idol when we neglect the truth that Jesus is the Living Word (John 1:14).  Our Christian ministry and service is an idol when do not acknowledge the truth that Jesus is Lord of all, including the harvest (Matthew 9:38).  Pursuing a spiritual experience or certain emotions are idols when we pass over the truth that Jesus is our sanctification, the one who sets us apart as holy (1 Corinthians 1:30).  Living ethically and morally is an idol when we avoid the truth that Jesus is Messiah who has delivered us from the power of sin (Luke 6:46).

            All of these ways put the onus on process and production, thus eroding the true foundation of Christianity, which is the person and work of Jesus.  The source, content, authority, and provision in Christianity are all found in the Holy Trinity, made available to us through the work of Christ and revealed to us in the Word of God.

            So, any church ministry that is worth its salt is continually seeking, submitting, and obeying the Word of God and responding to God with faith, hope, and love.  It is to be a dynamic relationship and not a spiritual factory making expected people products.  Sometimes we might get so discouraged over the lack of results, church conflict, apathetic people, or the paucity of spiritual growth within Christians that we end up unwittingly substituting some idol in the place of Jesus.  Adding more bells and whistles to existing programs or starting new ministries because we think the objective factory system needs tinkering are not good options for church work.  Instead, try reading through the Gospels again to get a fresh perspective on Jesus – who he is and what he did.  Let the re-invigoration of the church, Christian organizations, and the Christian life be centered in Christ, and not in a curriculum or strategic plan, as if the assembly line has broken down.


            We must return to Christianity and church ministry as the incredible relational and spiritual interaction between God and his people through worship, fellowship, and personable outreach.  This is not a cerebral emphasis on reason in order to make the church factory run more efficiently, but a plea for fostering relationship with Jesus the Son, exaltation of God the Father, and being filled with the Holy Spirit.  We serve and glorify a God who transcends Enlightenment reason and is not limited to the scientific method.  Let us, therefore, live like it.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Follow Me



            Jesus is something else.  He had this way of doing things that was not at the whim or desire of anybody around him.  Sometimes Jesus spoke in parables when people expected him to be clear.  Sometimes Jesus did not say anything when others wanted him to speak.  And sometimes he just did not beat around bush at all and bluntly spoke.  Calling the disciples was one of those times.

What would make you drop everything and pursue an entirely new life?  What would it take for you to follow Jesus as if your life depended on it?  What would cause you to not make any excuses and simply follow Jesus?  I am impressed with the fact that the original disciples immediately obeyed Jesus when he plainly commanded them to “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:16-20).  They did not question Jesus as to whether this was a short term project or a long term assignment he was calling them to.  They did not ask Jesus how following him would look to other people, or how it would impact their fishermen’s stock portfolio.  They simply dropped everything and followed Jesus.  If those disciples followed Jesus with the same reason I originally decided to follow him, it was because Jesus is such a compelling person, so gracious, interesting, and loving that it is really no decision at all.  Everything else pales in comparison with Jesus.

Take the time to read all the Gospels and the book of Acts and you will find this:  Followers of Jesus follow Jesus; and, those who are not following Jesus are not his followers.  It is that simple.  Followers follow, and those who do not follow are not Christ’s followers.  What you will not find when reading the Gospels and the book of Acts is that following Jesus is optional or that somehow a person can be a Christian without following Jesus.

            Jesus commands us to follow him and he will make us fishers of humanity.  “But,” you might retort, “I do not know how to fish for people.”  Here is a simple observation:  Jesus said that he would make us fishers of people.  In other words, Jesus is not walking around looking for people with skills that he can use.  Rather, Jesus calls people and makes them into fishermen; he develops people and forms them with the ability to follow his call.  If that is true (and it is), then this has significant implications on multiple levels for church ministry.  At the very least it means that our pre-occupation with leadership and developing leaders needs to take a back seat to simple following of Jesus.  If that seems weird or counter-intuitive, then welcome to God’s upside-down kingdom.

            Jesus will train us; our responsibility is to answer the call to follow.  When I was five years old my Dad took the training wheels off my bike and told me to ride it.  I told him I couldn’t.  He told me to get on the bike and he would run beside me.  I got on the bike and started to ride with him holding it.  When I began to panic approaching a tree, I started talking to my Dad.  He didn’t answer… because he wasn’t beside me.  He dropped out from shagging me a long way back. 


            We are not called to follow Jesus based on our superior skills, but on the lack of them so that Jesus will do in us a work of total allegiance and loyalty to the kingdom of God.  Jesus will make sure to develop the prowess we need in order to do what he has called us to do.  We must hear and answer the call of Jesus to follow and to make us fishers of people.  Church ministry goes nowhere without this basic biblical building block.  Focus on following, and see what Jesus can do.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Egalitarian Zap



            What happens when we die?  Depending on who you ask, you will get various answers to that question.  Popular evangelicalism will typically respond something along these lines:  When we die we go to heaven.  What will we be doing when we die?  The answer to this gets as many answers as people who respond, it seems.  Again, a popular level response from many evangelicals will go something like this:  “After this life is over we will experience eternal life where we will all understand everything.”  If I could put a chapter and verse from the Bible on this, I would.  However, there is simply no warrant to this notion that after death we will just magically know everything, as if what we do now does not really matter but just believing the right things is what is important.  The Dean of the seminary I attended, Jim Grier, referred to this idea as “the egalitarian zap.”  That is, the concept that no matter what our level of understanding is now, and despite any differences between people’s morality and grasp of Scripture, we will all get zapped with divine understanding so that everyone in heaven knows everything; we will all have equal comprehension.

            Maybe this is a popular idea among evangelicals because the biblical language and reality of a New Heaven and a New Earth gets left out of the equation.  If the end game of Christianity is not simply going to heaven when we die and getting zapped so that all are intellectually equal, but is really heaven getting pulled down to earth so that God’s love, justice, and peace reigns forever and ever, then what we do here and now impacts eternity.  It means that church ministry has important work to do that will have permanent effect, even beyond the human soul; ministries that deal with tangible human need, like tackling sex-trafficking and addressing global poverty are not ancillary to God’s kingdom endeavor.

            It has always been God’s vision to restore and renew all things on earth back to their original design so that a return to the garden is in order.  What is proposed here might be so off the radar for many Christians that quoting Revelation 21 at length is needed: 

            Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.  He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
            And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”  Also, he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”  And he said to me, “It is done!  I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.  The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.  But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death….
            And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb.  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.  By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.  They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.  But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

            This is a vision from God for a new society where the boundary between heaven and earth is no more.  It is an earth the way God dreamed it would be, without the devil and death.  It is a place where there will be no obstacles to living the way we were intended to live.  It is a new earth where all kinds of people, the nations, engage in all kinds of activity, just without the sinister specter of sin lurking behind it animating every move.  It will not be some kind of flat non-material dimension where everything is the same.  It is a grand vision from God; it is a new creation.  And it is here, and, at the same time, it is still to come; it is the great already/not yet.


            So, let us, then, embrace the church as the vehicle that proclaims and brings near the kingdom of God.  What we do now does matter.  We will not get zapped someday, just shed of our sinful proclivities.  After all, we pray this (hopefully) each week:  Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Amen, may it be so.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Listening to God



We are obsessed with hearing ourselves talk.  So much chatter happens about so many things that we rarely even remember much of what we said; and many of those words are uttered before we even think.  But, from a biblical perspective, the church and Christians must have the wisdom to know when to speak and when to be quiet.  When being quiet is required, it is to be for the purpose of listening.  Listening is a lost art and a forgotten ability in our day and age.  People can be so concerned to express their opinions and say what they want to say that the virtue of listening is not at all valued.  However, God puts a premium on taking the stance of listening.  There is a proverb that says, “Where words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise” (Proverbs 10:19).

            One of the reasons that listening is not well-practiced is that we esteem being busy and constant activity to the degree that taking the time for silence long enough to listen is not recognized as being of value to us.  But if the church is to hear the voice of God, we Christians must be still and silent long enough to listen to what he is trying to say to us.

            We might even be uncomfortable with silence, and seek to fill any quiet space with noise so as to not have to deal with what is really going on inside of us.  I have a friend (I’ll call him Elmer) who recently spent eighteen hours in complete silence without any talking whatsoever in order to listen to God.  You maybe believe that Elmer must be a monkish sort of introvert who likes that kind of thing.  No, he is actually an extrovert who lives in the inner city and comes from a large family.  Elmer simply came to the point of understanding that he was so busy moving from one thing to another, and constantly talking to the point that he was drowning-out the voice of the Lord.  Here is what Elmer said about his time of silence:  “Those eighteen hours of silence were the loudest hours I have ever experienced.  My mind was so noisy and so filled with stuff that it nearly drove me nuts.  But after many hours passed, as the noise started to fade away, I could begin to hear the still small voice of God.”  Elmer discovered that he was a person who kept pushing his agenda on God.  After his fast from talking, he determined to start grafting times of solitude and silence into his everyday life, even if for only ten minutes, so he could listen to what God wants rather than tell God what to do.

            If we want to hear God speak to us, we must take the same approach as the boy Samuel and say, “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:16).  And, then, we must be quiet and listen.  Any fool can babble on about his/her gripes and opinions.  But in the Bible human speech is generally viewed as being overrated.  Instead, silence and solitude, listening and learning are the virtues practiced by Jesus; the kingdom of God cannot operate without them.

            Therefore, we must take up the shield of faith with which to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one who wants to keep us trapped in either a cycle of constant chatter without listening, or continual silence without acting upon what we hear from God.  We must be quiet for the purpose of listening to God.  Then, when we hear him speak, we must act in faith to say and do what he calls us to.


            Church ministry that does not practice silence and solitude is not worth much because it is running programs based upon human ingenuity and ideas without distilling them through the slow and steady process of silent prayerful meditation upon God’s Word.  There is no substitute.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Baptism of the Lord



Taking a Sunday each year at this time to consider the baptism of our Lord Jesus is a regular staple in the Christian Calendar.  Christ’s baptism is a theologically profound event that announces the fact of his divinity in a dramatic way; it helps us understand our Lord’s identity, as well as his mission.

Because God the Father acknowledged Jesus as God the Son, we know that through Christ’s words and actions that we are encountering God’s will for us.  Jesus is the hinge upon which all history turns.  The centrality of Jesus for everything we say and do is confirmed and expected through this event of his baptism.

Jesus came to be baptized by John in the Jordan River not because he personally needed to repent of sin.  Rather, through his baptism Jesus identified with us as humans and signaled that he will be the true way of life for all people.  With the Father’s affirmation of Christ, the Lord Jesus is our authority.  All authority on heaven and earth has been given to him.  He is the author and finisher of our faith.  So we must pay careful attention to Jesus.

It just may well be that the name of Jesus is so familiar to us that we actually end up ignoring him.  Or, we might be so disappointed with Jesus that, over time, we simply slide away from him.  That this is a clear possibility is why the author of the book of Hebrews exhorted:  We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.  For if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? (Hebrews 2:1-3). 

            Heaven was “torn” open (Mark 1:10) at Christ’s baptism; it is the strongest possible of words to communicate the striking reality that God does not remain far away, but has come near to us in his Son, the Lord Jesus. In Hebrews, a book saturated with the centrality and superiority of Jesus, we are confronted with the importance of Christ:  In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.  The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.  After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Hebrews 1:1-3).

            This term for heaven being “torn” open appears again at the death of Christ.  The curtain of the Temple that separated the inner sanctuary from everything else was ripped in two from top to bottom – signifying that once for all God is near to us and has become close to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

            Since Jesus is the rightful ruler of the universe; since he has authority over all things; since he is a faithful high priest always living to intercede for us; since he has the power to transform and give new life; since deliverance can only be found through Christ our Lord; our proper response is confession, repentance, and the expectation of change.

            Our Lord’s baptism exposes all the things we rely on other than Jesus:  our own ability to set goals and accomplish them through sheer willpower; our own ingenuity; our own experience; our own ideas to work things out.  Any person on earth can attempt these things, but only Jesus can change us (and our own heart transformation is what is needed).  Rather than expecting everyone and every circumstance to change, God calls us to change through the empowering presence of the Spirit, the same Spirit given to Jesus.

            Instead of relying on other things or people, we are to rely on Jesus.  We might think that personal change is not necessary – that there is plenty of evil in the world that needs to turn around, and lots of people worse off than us that need transformation.  But if you find yourself complaining more than being thankful; if you spend more time on social media than in prayer; if being a good person is more important than asking God for help; if you find yourself feeling sorry for yourself more than helping others; if you think this blog post is more for other people than yourself; then, today the baptism of Jesus calls us to confession, repentance, and inner change.


            Just as it took humility for Jesus to be baptized by John in the Jordan, so it takes humility for us to come to Christ and admit our need for help and for inner transformation.  May it be so, to the glory of our Lord Christ.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Epiphany



            Each year on January 6 in the Church Calendar, after the twelve days of Christmas, is the celebration of Epiphany.  Christ’s coming to this earth as a child and becoming like us is much more than a baby in a manger.  Epiphany helps to bring a vision and understanding of God’s glory to all kinds of people of the world.

            Epiphany means “manifestation” or “appearance.”  The event most closely associated with this season is the visit of the Magi to Jesus.  Included in this time of the year between the seasons of Christmas and Lent is a special emphasis on the teaching and healing ministry of Jesus.  The great celebration and focus of these weeks is that salvation is not limited to Israel but extends to the Gentiles, as well.

            Every season in the Christian Year has its particular angle of grace.  With Epiphany we see that one of the most scandalous truths of Christianity is that God graces common ordinary people who seem far from God with the gift of Jesus.  God grants repentance that leads to life for all kinds of people no matter what their race, ethnicity, class, or background.  It is a wondrous and astounding spiritual truth that God’s gracious concern is not limited to a certain type of person or a particular group of persons.

            Grace is and ought to be the guiding factor in how we interact with people.  Losing sight of grace leads to being critical and defensive.  Like King Herod of old, a graceless person becomes enamored with earthly power and control.  But embracing grace leads to the humility to see the image of God in people very different from ourselves.  Like the Apostle Peter, who learned in a vision to bring the gospel to non-Jews, old legalisms begin to be worn away so that people from all walks of life can have access to Jesus and his gracious saving and healing ministry.  Grace brings down barriers and causes us to do away with unnecessary distinctions between others.  Our appropriate response to such a grace is to glorify God for his marvelous and amazing work.

            It is a gracious and merciful reality that the Magi, or Wise Men, who were really pagan astrologers, were directed to the Messiah.  A light was provided to lead them to Jesus.  Apart from God’s care and intervention they would have remained in darkness.  And it is no less true for people today.  This old broken world is wrapped in darkness.  All kinds of people have no light at the end of the tunnel of their lives for hope and new life.  But the gospel of Jesus Christ brings that light to those walking around with no ability to see.  Jesus, in his teaching ministry in the Sermon on the Mount, exhorted his followers not to hide their light but to let it shine for all to see.

            Sometimes, maybe oftentimes, the best way to bring resolution to our own troubles and problems is through helping others make sense of their lives through the gracious light of Christ so that they can see an appearance, an epiphany, of what their lives can be in the gracious rule of the kingdom of God. 


            As we celebrate Epiphany and journey with Jesus through his earthly upbringing and into his gracious ministry to people, let us keep vigilance to not let our light grow dim.  Instead, let us hunger and thirst after Christ’s righteousness so that our joy is full and our light is bright.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Chosen by God



We are blessed people because God is active in the world he has made.  Before I gave my life to Christ, I thought God was some old grandpa sitting in heaven twiddling his thumbs and watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie.  But the truth is that God is an Eternal Being and involved in his creation.  God has a vision and a clear picture of what he wants the end of all his activity on his earth to result in, and it isn’t just to see Nellie Olsen get her come-uppance.  God is busy reconciling people back to himself, and to each other; and, restoring the entire world back under the lordship of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:9-10).  So, in order to accomplish this, God has initiated and given us, the church, the spiritual blessing of “election.”

            Even before the creation of the world, God had the conclusion to his story in mind and began making divine decisions about how to have the result he desired.  This, by the way, is how we are to approach ministry in the church.  That is, we begin with an end in mind of what we want to accomplish; then, we gather the people and begin making the decisions we need to make in order to see that end purpose realized.  Too often, churches begin with a group of people and wonder about what they should do – that is completely backwards from how God operates. 
  
            In eternity past, in love, God predestined us to be adopted as his children (Ephesians 1:5).  Believers are so loved by God that we became special to him before we were ever born!  Election means that God has a purpose for us.  On our human level of operation, we elect political candidates not for the end purpose of merely winning an office, but so that those elected officials may serve the common good and put their energies into accomplishing some noble cause.  So it is with God.  We were not elected by God simply to go to heaven when we die, and sit on some celestial couch eating popcorn with Jesus, and maybe Michael Landon.  The reason we were chosen by God was so that we would be holy and blameless (Ephesians 1:4), and might be for the praise of God’s glory (Ephesians 1:6, 12).  In other words, we are not in some sort of holding pattern here on earth simply doing whatever we want with our time while we wait to die.  No, we are to be busy accomplishing God’s purposes in election. 

We are receiving an inheritance from God.  It will be put into effect when God’s timing and purpose is accomplished:  to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, Jesus Christ.  The chosen and redeemed of God will one day die; after death they will go to be with Christ; but that is not yet the end.  It is not yet the end because the entire world still needs redemption.  This is why the writer to the Hebrews could say about the great heroes of the faith:  “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.  God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

            In other words, there is not just life after death; there is, as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright puts it, “life after life-after-death.”  All those people of faith, including our friends and relatives who have gone before us to be with Jesus, are waiting.  They, along with us, have not yet received all the promised blessings of our inheritance.  And what we are waiting for is the reconciliation and restoration of all things, a new heaven and a new earth in which we will all together be sons and daughters in the kingdom of God with Jesus as King over us.  The possession of the Holy Spirit is the guarantee that this is the case, and it will happen (Ephesians 1:12-13). 


            Let us, then, live into the election we have received by engaging in ministry that is concerned for the restoration of all things.  That is a worthy resolution no matter what time of year it is.