Saturday, October 31, 2015

Free to Serve

I am not into arm-twisting when it comes to recruiting volunteers for service in the church.  And whenever someone thinks I am being “soft” on people by not making them feel guilty, I respond with conviction:  “That kind of approach is not consistent with the gospel of grace.”

Yet, that does not mean we ignore guilt because only true guilt can lead us to grace.  We all have times when we feel guilty.  Guilt in and of itself is not a bad thing.  Guilt is the response of the conscience to things we have done or left undone.  Guilt is the conscience telling us that we have done something wrong or have not done the good we know we ought to have done.  It is what we do with the guilt that determines the trajectory of our Christian lives. 

There are several ways we can respond to guilt.  We can rationalize our guilt and not accept the truth about what we have done.  When we use phrases like “it’s not my fault,” “it’s only wrong if I get caught,” “I didn’t hurt anybody,” “they deserved it,” and “it’s not that bad,” then our conscience can be seared like a hot iron so that we eventually do not feel guilty.  The result is of this is always hardness of heart.

            Another inappropriate way of dealing with guilt is the opposite of denying guilt; it is to hyper-focus on the guilt by feeling ashamed.  There is a difference between guilt and shame.  Guilt feels bad for actions done or not done.  Shame feels bad for who I am, as if I am incapable of being good.  Shame believes I do bad things because I am bad and deserve the consequences.  In other words, shame is really false guilt.

            The result of shame and false guilt is always one of two responses:  either we become inactive through feelings of discouragement and defeat; or, we become hyperactive by working like crazy to feel better and hope that the guilt and shame go away.  It is to impose a certain penance upon yourself in order to cope with the dirty feelings of guilt.

            But the good news is that every one of us can have freedom from guilt and a clear conscience because of Jesus Christ.  If we have been victimized in the past, we no longer have to feel ashamed as though we caused or deserved the violence done to us.  If we have said or done some truly egregious things that displease God and damage others, we no longer have to live with the regret and guilt on our consciences.  If we have failed others and God by not living up to who we ought to be, we no longer have to live day after day with our consciences bound with guilt.

            Here’s why we experience freedom and a clear conscience:  Christ has obtained eternal redemption for us by his blood (Hebrews 9:11-14).  Back in the Old Testament sacrificial system, the high priest would enter the temple/tabernacle to offer animal sacrifice.  Once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) he would enter the Most Holy Place.  The Ark of the Covenant was there.  The priest would slaughter the heifer and take some blood and sprinkle it on the altar. 

There were all kinds of rituals to perform in order to access God, and even then the sprinkling of blood only outwardly took care of cleansing the people.  But when Jesus offered himself once for all, the curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from the people was torn from top to bottom.  The way has been opened for not only an outward purification, but an inward cleansing of a guilty conscience so that we might now serve the living God with freedom and confidence.

All are now welcome at Christ’s Table.  There are no hoops to jump through.  There is only a radical hospitality that accepts everyone who comes to God by faith in Jesus.  We are holy because of the blood of Jesus Christ.  We can now serve God with joy and not serve him in order to gain spiritual brownie points and assuage our guilt. 

Service in the church needs to be motivated not by feelings of guilt but by a deep awareness of grace.  When we are overwhelmed with grace, to serve is to love God, which is the very thing we become eager to do.  So, when recruiting volunteers, take the route of inspiring grace in others, not guilt, for we are gloriously free in order to serve.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Jesus Is Enough

Jesus is our great high priest.  His priesthood, his intercessory ministry, is permanent.  He is the once-for-all sacrifice for sins.  Jesus lives forever.  He saves completely.  Jesus meets our need.  He has been made perfect forever (Hebrews 7:23-28).  Say any of those statements in the typical church and hardly an eyebrow would get raised – they almost seem ho-hum.  Our blank affect testifies that we have lost a great deal of the original force and extreme impact of Christianity.

In the first century, it was a radical idea to have one sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  Every ancient person understood that sacrifices were only temporary; you had to keep offering them over and over again.  Christianity, however, asked the world to have a new understanding of sacrifice.  No longer would there be any sacrifice – no grain sacrifice; no offerings of first-fruits; no animal sacrifices; no sacrifices, period.  There was no longer any need for them because Jesus is the once-for-all sacrifice to end all sacrifices.  This was such a crazy and ridiculous notion for so many people that they mocked Christians for it.  Both Jews and pagans could barely wrap their minds around such a liberal progressive idea.  It would be like saying to us today that there is no longer any need for money because somebody just became the underwriter for everything everybody does.

            Yet, we in the modern church sometimes go back to the old kind of sacrificial system, not by physically offering animal sacrifices, but treating Christ’s once-for-all finished work as if it were just too good to be true.  We reason that we need to do something to help save ourselves.  However, Jesus has not just saved us partially, but fully.  Our church attendance can subtly be looked upon as a sacrifice to appease God, as if he needed to be soothed into not becoming angry at us.  Our giving can become some non-bloody sacrifice that is meant to satisfy God’s furrowed brow against us.  Our service can degenerate into a sacrifice to assuage our guilty conscience.  In all these kinds of instances, it is going back to an old sacrificial system that is obsolete.

            The biblical and theological truth is that Jesus has thoroughly saved us from our sin, and, so, has cleansed us from all guilt, including a guilty conscience.  Jesus meets our need and has completely satisfied God’s wrath against sin.  Jesus is our mediator and intercedes for us as we come to God’s throne of grace.  That means we do not need to try and get God’s attention with performing spiritual cartwheels or some incredible sacrifice that will somehow obligate him to take notice.  The truth is that there is never a time in which we lack attention from God.

            Since we have been justified by faith in Jesus, we need not worry anymore about being good enough.  Since Jesus is perfect, his work is made complete in us.  This constant anxiety of feeling like we don’t measure-up does not come from God.  Jesus is sufficient and has taken our place so that we can live in the freedom and joy of a complete deliverance from sin, death, and hell.  There is no longer any necessary sacrifice to make!

            “Well,” you might say, “if everybody in the church believed that then nobody would ever do anything.”  No, it is just the opposite.  When we feel like we don’t measure up, we do less, not more.  A low level discouragement sets in and we do nothing because we intuitively know it will never be enough.  We do just enough to squeak by, never quite knowing if it is doing anything.  We consider giving up because Christianity doesn’t work for us.  But when we grasp the New Covenant of Christ’s sacrifice to end all sacrifices, and are overwhelmed by grace, then everything we do in the Christian life is a simple desire to say “thank you” with our life and our lips.  It is a joyous offering ourselves, body, soul, and spirit.  It is the grace, and not the wrath, of God that teaches us to say “no” to ungodliness and worldly passions and to live upright and godly lives (Titus 2:11-12).

            On this upcoming Reformation Sunday we celebrate the glorious reality that we are justified by faith in Jesus Christ alone and not by our own accomplishments, pedigree, or effort.   Trusting in our heritage, relying on our family’s faith, or believing our hard work gives us a leg-up toward heaven will only end in despair.  But if we trust in Christ’s perfect sacrifice then a whole new world of mercy and grace opens before us.  Soli Deo Gloria!

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Challenge of Change

            People are all for change – we just typically want everybody else to change but ourselves.  Just say the word “change” in a church and you will get responses from some guy going apoplectic about not changing ‘on his watch’ to another person lamenting loudly over the lack of change within the congregation, to every response in-between.  Peter Steinke, a respected church consultant who deftly applies systems-theory to congregations, has made the most basic of observations:  “Change is a magnet for emotional reactions.”

            Every church leader has inevitably run into an emotional buzzsaw when attempting some sort of change, whether minor or major.  When people feel they are losing control or not getting what they want from a proposed change, they might try and throw a monkey wrench in the whole deal through some means of sabotage.  Yes, it does happen in churches.  People do not always play well or fair.  There are individual parishioners who will go to almost any length to have things their way or keep an existing system entrenched.  As a result, some pastors and leaders wither under the pressure, afraid of the emotional reactivity that might result from implementing some sort of change.  But when we take up the mantle of leadership, like Nehemiah of old, we regulate ourselves to staying on task even when the naysayers and saboteurs look for a way to frustrate the vision (Nehemiah 6:1-15).

            It must be kept in mind that every healthy living organism will grow, change, and reproduce.  Churches that never change are unhealthy.  At the least, they are just plain ineffective at ministry; at the worst, they become stagnant pools dispensing spiritual death.  But good outcomes can and do happen as leaders take courage to address issues and implement change without abandoning the goal.  The Apostle Paul stated the goal like this:  “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11).

            Sometimes, we as church leaders do not immediately think like Paul.  We desire a successful ministry, full of resurrection power, but neglect the bald reality that there must be suffering.  You cannot have a resurrection without having a death.  Paul embraced suffering and death as the means of attaining new life.  It would be sage for us all to reflect on this and how it applies to our ministries.  Change is typically a slow, often painful process, of dying to self and old ways and re-awakening to a new spiritual life of knowing Jesus Christ.  In order to truly know Christ, we will experience difficulty.  Our congregations are going to know Christ not by always having their way and/or never having to endure the hardship of change.  No, they are going to know Christ through sharing in his sufferings.

            Resistance to change will come.  Bank on it.  Plan for it.  Anticipate it.  It will happen. I have to admit that I am no expert in this area.  I have made more mistakes and flubbed more ideas and attempts at ministry than you can possibly imagine.  From the school of hard knocks, here is what I have learned:  it takes a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to move an existing congregation to a new way of seeing and living; and, there needs to be a biblical goal in order to stay the course and realize transformation.  I believe the best goal is to help people know Christ better, and introduce people who don’t know him to a new relationship with Jesus.  All our strategic plans need to keep on track toward this grand pursuit of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.

            So, what will you do to help move such a goal forward?  How will you work together with others to achieve knowing Christ?  In what ways will you deal with the inevitable resistance to change?  What things do you need to put to death in order to realize new life?  Where do faith, hope, and love fit into your plans for growth and change?  Let’s all pray for one another, so that we come to maturity in Christ together, knowing Jesus better and living and loving like him in all things.  So may it be.  Amen.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Judgment and Grace

Judgment and grace are two prominent themes within Holy Scripture.  You will not find one without the other so that we cannot ignore one over another.  We all need to struggle with the tension between God’s Word to us, and our words to God; between God’s judgment, which opens our souls on a spiritual operating table; and, God’s grace which jumpstarts our broken hearts.  Our most fundamental need above anything else in this life is the need for God’s mercy in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 4:12-16).

            God intends that our outer lives and our inner lives match each other.  It is when the two are out of sync that we come under the judgment of God’s Word.  The early Hebrew Christians had slowly drifted from the truth so that their inner and outer lives did not line up well.  Some of them were still performing the outward duties of being a Christian, but were inwardly despising their hard situation.  A growing vacuum was occurring on their insides as they slowly started letting go of Jesus as their object of devotion.  Their hearts began to harden because of their troubles.  On the other hand, there were other Hebrew Christians who began drifting in a different way.  Inwardly, they tried to maintain their devotion and commitment to Christ, but began compromising their outward life to match the culture around them.  In both cases of hardening inwardly, and of compromising outwardly, they each shared the situation of drifting away from their original commitment to Christ.

            Even today, it is a very real temptation to try and avoid suffering, to grow weary of our present circumstances and look for a way to get out from under the pain and find a quick fix.  Whenever we find ourselves in such a situation, the remedy is to be reminded that we must continue to hold firmly to the faith we profess because of who Jesus is.

            Jesus is our great and ultimate high priest.  He did not enter the temporary sacrificial system of the Old Testament to deal with sins for only a year.  Jesus not only took on the role of high priest, but became the sacrifice, as well.  As a result, we now have a permanent forgiveness of sins through Christ.  So, any Christian who considers going back to an old outdated system needs to be brought back to his senses and embrace the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus. 

            Let us then approach Jesus with confidence, with boldness, knowing that with him there is mercy and grace.  Jesus did not just suffer for us; he also suffers with us right now.  Jesus is not detached from us, but is our great high priest, the One whom is intimately involved in every nook and cranny of our lives.  He knows what you are going through, and he is ready to give you grace to help you through whatever it is you are going through right now. 

            What is so wonderful about this is that coming to Jesus has nothing to do with being good enough to do so.  Coming to Jesus is all about grace.  Whenever we find that we have drifted from God and are confronted with his Word cutting us to the heart in judgment, the end result is not wrath; the result is mercy.

            Like the early Hebrew Christians, we all face situations out of our control that wear us down and cause us to become weary.  It is in such times that we can be tempted to let our commitment to Christ slide in some small way.  Over time, the small compromises of faith can snowball into a big slide away from God.  But Jesus is not sitting in heaven frustrated or confounded.  God is not looking for a reason to punish people.  It is just the opposite.  Jesus, the Son of God, our great high priest, is looking for a reason to show grace and help us in our time of need.  He is waiting for us to approach the throne of grace with confidence.  Right now, Jesus is alive.  He is scanning this world, and his church, looking to extend mercy to those who need it.  Thank you, Jesus.