“Everybody Hurts” (1 Peter 3:8-18)

Live long enough, you’ll bleed.  Perhaps the saddest thing about our pursuit of comfort is the fact that we never actually catch it.  Life is full of suffering; no one gets out of here alive.

C.S. Lewis—the brilliant mind behind the Narnia series—once wrote that “crises reveal character.”  Sometimes suffering says more about our hearts than it does our circumstances.  Very often suffering reveals our idols—reveals where we look for comfort and security.  When our idols are threatened, we become bitter, angry, resentful.

Suffering also says a lot about our religious commitments.  If I am a deeply religious person, my tendency is to make an idol out of my religious performance.  I may be a pillar in my community, a well-respected member of my Church.  But when suffering comes, I don’t know how to handle it.  Wasn’t I good enough?  Is God angry with me?  I may become bitter, guilty, and depressed as I struggle to understand what’s happening.  I may search for someone else to blame—casting myself as an innocent victim of wicked circumstances.  If only the government would come through for us…then I wouldn’t be in this mess.

If I’m a very non-religious person, I may view myself as basically a good person.  So when suffering comes, I don’t know how to react.  I may become bitter toward God for allowing bad things to happen to good people.

Suffering is one of our oldest questions.  The Biblical character Job wrote a whole book about suffering before most of the Bible was even written.  But when we look at the reality of the fallen world we live in, we realize that there’s nothing about suffering that should surprise us.  In fact, the Bible promises that those who follow after God will often reap hostility from others.  This is why Peter would encourage the early Christians to persevere despite their persecution.

1 Peter 3:8-18

Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. 10 For, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. 11 They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive,he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.

The message of the gospel is radical.  We shouldn’t be surprised when the righteous suffer—we should expect it.  Jesus lived, suffered, and died despite His sinless obedience to God.  Why would we expect anything different for ourselves?  We therefore encounter suffering not with clenched fists, but with soft tears.

In the middle of this section we find the key verse: “Always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that you have” (1 Pe 3:15).  Why would a message about suffering suddenly turn to the need for evangelism?  Because if crises reveal where we place our hope and trust, then crises also provide opportunities to point others to that same hope.  “Everybody Hurts,” writes the rock band R.E.M.  “When you’ve had too much of this life, hold on.”  Suffering forces us to evaluate what it is we hold onto.  Peter is offering the Church something to hold onto: the gospel.

This is why the rest of the section is Peter’s way of unpacking this message.  Do you hear what Peter is saying in verses 18-19?  He’s emphasizing the death and the resurrection of Jesus, the cross and the empty grave.  Chances are, we don’t always have a good answer to the questions that arise during times of suffering.  But the gospel tells us what the answers can’t be.  The cross tells us that the answer can’t be that God’s not loving, because He cared enough to send His Son.  The empty grave tells us that the answer can’t be that God’s not powerful, because He raised His Son from the dead.  Suddenly the gospel shifts from merely “religious” knowledge to personal conviction.  If this world is all there is, then suffering robs our world of meaning.  With eternity in view, suddenly we find ourselves waiting for God to make all things new.

So as we head into the world, we do so with the expectation that we’ll bleed—some of us more than others.  But we enter the world with the confidence in a God of love and a God of power. It is His message, His gospel that we carry into a hurting and dying world, offering them the simple message: hold on.  Hold on.  Hold on.

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“That’s Just Your Interpretation” (Luke 9:18-26)

CoexistChances are, you’ve seen this bumper sticker before.  The word is “coexist,” spelled with the various symbols that compose our spiritual landscape.  On the surface, its message is admirable: we shouldn’t let our differences lead to violence or hostility.  But I suspect there’s another, underlying message: that we shouldn’t let our differences matter at all.  I mean really—aren’t all religions basically the same?  Who could be so arrogant to suggest that their view of God is the only correct one?

The word for this is pluralism.  Leslie Newbigin, author and former missionary to India, says that pluralism comes in two flavors.  “Descriptive pluralism” means that multiple religions can exist peacefully in the same society—a freedom that even our own Constitution protects.  But “prescriptive pluralism” says that all religions are equally valid and therefore must be embraced by everyone.  You know: coexist.

The irony is that this simply won’t work.  If you believe that all religions are equally valid and that they should coexist, think about what you’re really saying: “My approach to religion is superior to your approach to religion.”  So even if you try to accommodate every view, you will always be at odds with those who don’t embrace your way of thinking.

Perhaps you’ve heard it this way: a group of blind men encounter an elephant.  One of them feels its trunk and says, “It must be like a snake.”  Another touches its leg and says, “It must be like a tree.”  A third holds its tail and says, “It must be like a rope.”  The moral?  All religions can only describe a portion of the truth—it would be arrogant to claim that you’re right.  I just have one question: What’s an elephant?  Leslie Newbigin observes that the story is always told from the perspective of someone who sees the whole elephant.  Meaning, the person telling the story is actually aware of the truth and looks down on those who only see parts of it.

Jesus’ earliest followers lived in a world of many different cultures—primarily seen in the collision of the Romans and the Jews.  There were also many different perspectives on just who exactly Jesus was.  In Luke 9, we find Jesus discussing this confusion with His followers.

Luke 9:18-26

Peter Declares That Jesus Is the Messiah

18 Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”

19 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.”

20 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.”

The parallel accounts in Matthew and Luke tell us that this conversation took place in a region known as Caeserea Philippi.  At first glance, the region would have looked like an ideal vacation spot.  But behind the lush trees and waterfalls was a series of small caves where people worshipped various Roman gods—most notably one named “Pan,” the god of fear.  So it was in a pluralistic setting that Peter declares the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

Then the conversation takes a surprising turn.  In many ways, this was the turning point for Jesus’ ministry:

21 Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22 And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

Have you ever wondered what makes Christianity so unique among other religions?  There are actually many reasons, but what I find most fascinating is that Christianity is the only religion that can be proven wrong.  Think about it: nearly every major religion is built on the founder’s subjective experience.  Muhammad had a vision from God.  Buddha experienced personal enlightenment.  An angel appeared to Joseph Smith.  Experience can be neither proven nor disproven.  If I told you that God appeared to me in a dream, you’d have no way of knowing if I was lying, delusional, or the real thing.

What if instead I told you that my brother died and then came back to life?  That changes everything.  That’s a claim that can be proven wrong.  All the evidence you’d need to silence me would lie at the bottom of the grave.  If you found my brother’s body, it’s all over.  The early Church claimed that Jesus rose from the dead, and anchored itself not in subjective experience but objective history.  Christianity’s most crucial claim was also its most fragile.  All that Rome needed to do to silence the early Christians was to show them Jesus’ body.  The astonishing thing is that no one ever did.

What does that mean for us?

23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? 26 Whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

The gospel promises that a crown of thorns will always precede a crown of glory.  We live with the awareness of suffering as well as the certainty of consolation.  Religious traditions tell us that our purpose is found in self-improvement and self-righteousness.  Only Jesus tells us that our purpose is found in self-sacrifice.  Live for self, Jesus says, and you’ll only be ashamed of life’s truest purpose.  Live for God, and you’ll experience life like never before.  Our world is one of both diversity and hostility.  Now, more than ever, we need men and women who carry their cross with both confidence and courage. 

 

 

What’s Man For? (Matthew 5:1-16)

What’s man for?  Wait; let’s untangle that question.  See, my nephew’s reached the age of perpetual questions.  “What’s that?” he’ll ask, pointing to the fire truck for the thousandth time.  I don’t know much about child development, but there seems to be an age where questions become our primary way of engaging the world.  I’ve noticed that as kids get older, their questions even shift from simply “What’s that?” to “What’s that for?”  So when we ask “What’s man for?” we’re not asking what humankind is “for” as in, “in favor of.”  Instead we mean, “Why does man exist?  For what purpose?”

On the surface, it’s not a hard question.  “What’s a car for?”  Well, it’s for transportation.  “What’s a school for?”  That one’s for education.  “What’s a phone for?”  It’s for communication, interaction, and something called “Candy Crush.”  But “What’s man for?”  Well, that one gets a little trickier.

Social scientists tell us that there was a day when man was measured by his contributions to the greater good—was he/she a good teacher?  A good doctor?  Did they improve the lives of others?  But in today’s world, we measure ourselves by personal fulfillment.  Am I happy?  Am I achieving my dreams?  If the question was once: “How can we benefit?” the question today is: “How can I benefit?”

For God’s people, the greatest tragedy is not that we fail to attain happiness, but that we think that happiness is something that God owes us.  God’s Word delivers a vastly different set of values, and on a hillside in Galilee, God Himself sat down to teach His closest followers what “the good life” was really all about.

Matthew 5:1-16

5:1  Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

For Jesus, the “good life” wasn’t merely about some momentary happiness.  It was about being “blessed,” to enjoy the life that God had to offer.  And if you look at the list, God’s values seem radically different from those we usually think.  God’s Word offers us no promise of cheap, immediate fulfillment, but it offers spectacular promises of lasting joy.  It’s not as if God’s trying to get us to look at things upside down.  No; God’s trying to get us to realize that the world’s already upside down.  He’s just helping us see rightside-up again.

What does this have to do with bringing the gospel to our culture?  Plenty.  If you remember, the word “culture” denotes everything we use—art, music, film, politics, technology—to answer the question: “What’s it all mean?”  This in turn helps us understand our earlier question: “What’s man for?”  That’s a hard question to answer if you don’t believe in absolutes.

See, if the meaning of life is up to me to decide, then I can have no purpose other than my own private satisfaction.  But what if there was more?  What if life could have a definite meaning?  Suddenly my purpose could be a lot more clear.

If you have a background in church, you may have grown up with a small book called the Westminster Catechism—kind of a religious question-and-answer book.  The book opens by asking: “What is the chief end of man?”  The answer: “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”

There’s our answer.  What is man for?  We exist to show the world the glory of God.  Of course, that still sounds a little church-y.  What does the word “glory” mean?   The concept of glory comes from an ancient word that literally meant “weighty” or “massive.”  Even today, we call this a “heavy” subject.  So to “glorify” God means that we show the world just how significant He is in every facet of our lives.  And how do we do that?  By being people who mourn, who make peace, who hunger and thirst after righteousness—people who are not satisfied by cheap, material blessing, but find their greatest joy in the values of God’s kingdom.

That changes everything.  Suddenly the Church has something vital to offer to the world.  This is why Jesus goes on to tell His people:

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Salt and light.  This is what the Church is called to be.  I love how Christian writer Mike Metzger summarizes this concept:

“Being salt and light demands two things: we practice purity in the midst of a fallen world and yet we live in proximity to this fallen world. If you don’t hold both truths in tension, you invariably become useless and separated from the world God loves. For example, if you only practice purity apart from proximity to culture, you inevitably become pietistic, separatistic and conceited. If you live in close proximity to the culture without also living in a holy manner, you become indistinguishable from fallen culture and useless in God’s kingdom.” (Mike Metzger, quoted in unChristian by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons)

Purity and proximity.  We need both.  Some of the greatest failures of the Church have happened when we emphasize one over the other:

  • Creating subculture (all purity, no proximity): The last century has seen the dramatic rise in Christian “alternatives” to secular culture: education, music, books, etc.  The philosophy, of course, is that these alternatives preserve Christian morals without the corrupting influence of secular culture.  The problem is this: Jesus said “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19). If we are not being “fishers” by reaching non-Christians, can we truly be “followers?”
  • Accommodating to the culture (all proximity, no purity): The alternative, of course, is to blend in with the culture to such a degree that no one sees a true difference in the life of a Christian.  In the absence of purity, the Christian living in proximity to the world will embrace wealth, status, sex, and a whole host of other things as his greatest treasure.
  • Creating a missional counter-culture (both salt and light): The gospel teaches us to be “in the world but not of the world.”  To be “on mission” means to practice both purity and proximity in your everyday life.  Mission, therefore, is not a matter of program, but a lifestyle that God’s people are called to embody.

What’s man for?  This.  He’s for this.  God’s people exist to form a vibrant, soul-nourishing, culture-rattling, missional community that seeks to exalt the name of Jesus in every facet of our lives and in every fiber of our being.  If you and I are to find lasting joy, we have only to look to the city on the hill.

Life in the Spiritual Marketplace (Acts 17:16-34)

I have good news and bad news.  The bad news is that we’re facing the end of Christian America.  The good news is that we’re facing the end of Christian America.  Let me explain.  There was an era—not long in the past—when American culture was shaped by the kinds of conservative values we find in the pages of God’s Word.  But we currently inhabit a “post-Christian” world, one that no longer embraces Biblical teachings as the source of values.

Ask an average evangelical Christian, and they’ll tell you that America is heading for profound spiritual ruin.  Ask someone outside the church, and they’ll lament that Christians are trying to run the country.   How can both of those statements be true?  The answer is simple: people in today’s world are more “spiritual” than ever before; they’re just not wild about finding their answers within the confines of “traditional” religion.  Instead, spiritual pursuits are a matter of individual preference—what a CNN article once referred to as “Burger King Spirituality,” because you can truly “have it your way.”

Such was Paul’s experience in the city of Athens.  While waiting for his missionary companions, he found himself surrounded by the opulence of this great city, renowned the world over for its intellectual climate and spiritual leanings.  Later writers would remark that you couldn’t look anywhere without your eyes resting on an idol.

Here’s what happened in the city of Athens:

Acts 17:16-34

16 While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17 So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. 18 A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to debate with him. Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection. 19 Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20 You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.” 21 (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)

Don’t you love that last verse?  Our nation finds no greater value than that of diversity.  Paul initially finds himself in the agora, or the city’s “marketplace.”  It was the common area where people gathered to discuss ideas.  But the interesting thing is that in today’s world, I’m not sure that such a place exists.  Perhaps for some it’s the coffee shop.  Maybe it’s a dinner table.  But in today’s post-everything world, I suspect the internet (social media, blogs, etc.) represents the most sprawling example of a marketplace, and the place where ideas are most regularly exchanged.

Chances are we meet the same kinds of people that Paul did.  Paul met three groups of people.  The Jews (and God-fearing Gentiles) may not have believed in Jesus, but at least they shared a common belief in the Bible.  They might be analogous to the traditional religious community of our day.  The Epicureans were another story.  They were the first to believe that the world was composed of “atoms,” and therefore when man dies he simply ceases to exist (according to Epicurus, even the gods would die and be no more).  They’re probably similar to the atheists of our day, who believe man comes from nothing and proceeds toward nothing.  Finally, the Stoics.  They believed the universe was governed by a universal “world-soul” which permeates everything in existence.  If this sounds like “the force” in Star Wars, you’re not far off.  It’s the same kind of thinking found in many Eastern religions (and their New Age counterparts).

Spiritual Types in Athens

When you look at these views together, you begin to realize that Paul stands in the center of all these swirling trends—as do we.  Paul is asked to speak to the Aereopagus, which was something of a council of intellectuals who would render their verdict on Paul’s new beliefs:

22 Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. 23 For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.

24 “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. 25 And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. 26 From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 28 ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Yes, the end of Christian America is indeed good news.  Why?  Because for a long time, Christians have sought comfort and security through isolation.  The last century saw the rise of Christian schools and universities, radio stations, coffee shops—heck, even Christian breath-mints.  So much for being “salt and light” to our world.  We’ve been more likely to peek behind our protective walls to lob a few grenades as part of an ongoing “culture war.”

But Paul’s no cultural warrior.  He’s more interested in dialogue than debate.  His conversation is sprinkled with specific phrases to grab his audience’s attention.  Most significantly, he knew their song lyrics.  He quotes their own poets back to them, because he wisely understands that quoting the Bible isn’t going to do much good in their current spiritual state.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a prison cell in Nazi Germany, said that we need to learn to “speak in a secular way about God.”  What did he mean by that?  Well, it means that when the Bible is no longer the starting point for a spiritual conversation, we need to find a new starting point.  And so Paul finds this point of contact in culture itself.

But make no mistake; just because the Bible wasn’t a suitable starting point doesn’t mean that his speech was anything less than Biblical.  And the gospel, properly spoken, will generate strong reaction.  Here’s what happened in Athens:

29 “Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by human design and skill. 30 In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. 31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.”

32 When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” 33 At that, Paul left the Council. 34 Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.

Notice that for this community, it was the resurrection of the dead that proved to be a sticky point.  I tend to think that the gospel will challenge every culture differently.  In fact, I’d even suggest that in Western culture, we tend to struggle most with God directing human events.  Why can’t I control my own destiny?  Who cares what I do in private?  Who cares who I sleep with?  Like Paul, we can expect a similar diversity of reactions.  Some believed, some rejected—others wanted the conversation to continue.  And that’s perhaps what we also have to hope for.

I’m told that the Japanese word for “crisis” is the same as the word for “opportunity.”  I don’t know much about Japanese grammar, but it’s a nice concept.  The demise of Christian America is a crisis worthy of lament.  But it’s also an opportunity waiting to be seized.  Time to make your choice.

Putting on Skin (John 1:1-18)

In his book Dangerous Wonder, Mike Yacconelli relates a story about a little girl meeting her baby brother for the first time.  “Baby, what does God sound like?”  she asked.  “Because I’m starting to forget.”

What do you think of when you hear the word “God?”  If you ask five different people, you’ll probably hear six different answers.  Maybe the question has even been a source of frustration—if God would just reveal Himself, then maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult to believe.

But that’s the radical nature of the gospel.  See, the gospel doesn’t just tell us that God exists.  No, the gospel tells us that God speaks.  Throughout the scriptures, God communicates through His Word.  When He spoke through His various prophets, it was because “the Word of the Lord came to Isaiah” and to Jeremiah and so on.  And, in the fullness of time, the Word of the Lord literally became flesh.  Listen to John’s description in John 1:

John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.

John is describing what is known as the “incarnation.”  The eternal God of the universe took on human form in the person of Jesus.

But why?  There are actually many reasons—the primary one being God satisfying His own need for a man to offer a perfect sacrifice for sin.  But there’s another reason as well.  In coming to earth in the humble flesh of Jesus, God shows a willingness to identify with the plight of mankind.  In Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the devoted father Atticus Finch reminds his daughter Scout that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge others.  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view” he tells her. “You’ve got to put on his skin, and walk around in it.”

And that’s what God did.  He put on our skin, and walked around in it, so that we have a “high priest” who can “sympathize with our weaknesses…yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).  If the God of the universe can do this, how much more can we try and see things through the eyes of spiritual outsiders.  If we are called to relate the gospel to our culture, we need to look no further than the humble example of Jesus.  To love our world is to see things from their point of view—in the hopes and confidence of the power of the gospel to speak through us to produce radical and lasting change.

The Fast Track to Church Unity – Romans 15:1-13

It is a sad truth that churches are very often known as places of interpersonal warfare and party squabbling. The stories of ridiculous church fights are legendary. The typical tale is that the brawl was sourced in the color of the carpet or drapes or something of that level of relative insignificance. Many times controversies have broken out over the music program – historically called “the worship wars.” 

My father was not especially excited to see his son heading off to Bible College and Seminary with a view toward church work, beginning with music. Though he was a generous supporter of the local church and superlative servant, when it came right down to it, he would rather that the pastor be someone from someone else’s family! He had seen so many pastors brutalized over the years, he would have rather I had chosen to go into finance and investing. Dad was especially wary of me doing the music component; and he was famous for saying to me, “Randy, don’t you know that when the Devil fell, he fell into the choir loft and he’s been there ever since!”

In my first church ministry position in Texas, I remember that there was some sort of controversy in the music program – the details of which have long since slipped my mind. But one of the things I did at the time in the midst of it was put a sign on my office door that covered over the “Minister of Music” label … my new sign saying, “Office of the Department of War.”

Of course, it is not supposed to be this way at all. And when any church is acutely a place of conflict, the end result is a shameful appearance to the unbelieving world … in front of people who either recall specifically, or minimally sense, that the way it should be is like Jesus said, “They will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.”

The prescription for the fast track to church unity is really very simple and is found in our passage today. It is simply this:  Don’t think about yourself; give yourself completely to help and build up others around you, and in doing this, you will do the same thing Jesus did when he gave his life for you; and when all of you within the same walls do this, the end result will be that you will with one voice together worship the Lord in incredible unity.

Is this realistic? Maybe not fully, at least not as it will be finally in heaven. But certainly we (like any church) can be a lot better than we are. That is our goal and vision … as it is also God’s vision for us. Notice from this passage how God anticipated incredible diversity within the church even centuries and millennia ahead of when it was realized in Christ. We may think that this inclusion of Gentiles into God’s overall scheme of things was sort of like a “plan B” when “the Jewish Messiah plan A” failed. Not so. Look at verses 9-12 today, which are a series of quotes from the Old Testament – talking about grace to the Gentiles and quoting from the books of 2 Samuel, Deuteronomy, Psalms, and Isaiah!

God’s heart for diverse people of all nations and ethnicities is pervasive in the Scriptures. His love is expansive; and our love should certainly be expansive enough to cover even the crop of eccentrics and unique personalities within our church community. It has to go beyond simply the people we naturally love and gravitate toward. The text today says that when Christ accepted us and died for us, it was not at a time when we loved him first! NO, we love him because he first loved us – at a time when we were in total rebellion against him. That is an amazing love! And it is the goal and vision toward which we strive together.

Romans 15:1-13 – One voice of unity from the same attitude as Christ Jesus

15:1  We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:

“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles; I will sing the praises of your name.”

10 Again, it says, “Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.”

11 And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples extol him.”

12 And again, Isaiah says, “The Root of Jesse will spring up, one who will arise to rule over the nations; in him the Gentiles will hope.”

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Remembering Your Roots – Romans 11:11-24

The incredible abundance of online resources and digital search capacities has made ancestral research a popular activity in our day. You can even take continuing education classes to enhance your techniques and the use of such tools as ancestry.com, etc.

One of the advertising tools to draw people into this hobby is to promote that you might find out that you are related to the Royal Family of England or some such thing. Perhaps your forgotten great-grandfather produced a famous invention, or perchance he served as a hero in the Civil War.

Of course, there is probably a greater chance that just the opposite sort of ignominious revelation will surface, but that doesn’t make for very good advertising! Actually, I could testify to this very experience.

Some of you reading this have likely heard me reference my experiences in the last couple of years of accessing these resources to learn about the rather dark one-half of my background through my biological father. I had only a few clues to begin. Yet I was incredibly able to trace back a number of generations, and I was even able to find and eventually meet with a cousin I did not know even existed. However, I have also discovered that great-granddaddy Parks spent a decade or so in federal prison for a crime related to stealing from the mail in the post office where he worked!

The fact is that most of us don’t have very auspicious roots. Not many are from royalty or fame. And if we consider the issue spiritually, ALL OF US have a very dark and troubled background dating back to Adam and Eve.

Today’s passage is more difficult to understand than most, and in a way, it is sort of unusual that we put it in this series and in this week of talking about spiritually caring for one another. But if we are going to be successful in really being an interpersonally caring and serving community, it is good to remember our spiritual roots – whatever they are. Because, whatever they are, this much is for sure: It is all by grace! And that is a major takeaway point when reading this portion of Paul’s writing to these Roman Gentiles about their standing relative to the people of Israel.

OK… to begin… step back from the passage!  Remember this about Romans: Chapter 9 talks about Israel’s past (a glorious history of God’s covenant promises), chapter 10 is Israel’s present (a condition largely of unbelief in Jesus as the promised Christ), and chapter 11 is Israel’s future (where there will be a day of salvation and return to the Lord).

So as Paul is writing to a largely Gentile audience, he is telling them that they are (pictorially) wild olive branches that have been grafted into the natural olive tree of God’s program of the ages. By this he is referencing how God’s work was through the nation of Israel and the promises and covenants that had been instituted – and then fulfilled so expansively in the work of Christ that an extensive universal grace was offered to all who would trust in this provision. Through unbelief, the natural branches of Israel were broken off, and now newly grafted branches of the Gentiles were gaining nourishing sap from the root. And Paul makes it clear that this was nothing for them to boast about, as they were supported by the root, not the other way around!

For everyone – Jew, Gentile, whatever – it is all by grace … or as the passage put it, “the kindness of God.”  And that is why this reading is a part of our conversation this week. All of us in the church family are there by God’s kindness and grace. None of us have a place for boasting. So much grace has been given to each of us that there is no place for us to stand above or stand aloof … no, we should stand alongside each other in spiritual encouragement. And that is the vision of the leadership of this church.

Romans 11:11-24 …. Ingrafted Branches

11 Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! Rather, because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12 But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring!

13 I am talking to you Gentiles. Inasmuch as I am the apostle to the Gentiles, I take pride in my ministry 14 in the hope that I may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.15 For if their rejection brought reconciliation to the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? 16 If the part of the dough offered as firstfruits is holy, then the whole batch is holy; if the root is holy, so are the branches.

17 If some of the branches have been broken off, and you, though a wild olive shoot, have been grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing sap from the olive root, 18 do not consider yourself to be superior to those other branches. If you do, consider this: You do not support the root, but the root supports you. 19 You will say then, “Branches were broken off so that I could be grafted in.” 20 Granted. But they were broken off because of unbelief, and you stand by faith. Do not be arrogant, but tremble. 21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, he will not spare you either.

22 Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. 23 And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again. 24 After all, if you were cut out of an olive tree that is wild by nature, and contrary to nature were grafted into a cultivated olive tree, how much more readily will these, the natural branches, be grafted into their own olive tree!

How to be a “Star” – Philippians 2:12-18

It has been a strange autumn for me in several respects. For the first time in my life, I was hospitalized with that crazy pulmonary blood clots surprise; but also it is odd since it is the first year that I’ve not been coaching cross country runners in a very long time (and for many years before that, I was a running news sportswriter).

I had the great privilege of coaching a lot of “star” runners – having 27 different kids achieve all-state status a total of 50 times. But the athletes that most stand out in my memory are those who were the most serious about the sport, yet remained also cheerful and compliant along the way as evidenced by the manner in which they diligently did their work each day.

There was one day when I was really pushing that great three-time state champions girls team through a very difficult workout. It was quite grueling, without doubt!  And they did not like it and were not very happy with me – even uncharacteristically argued that I was killing them! As a group (I learned later), they decided they were going to ice me out by not talking to me anymore that day. Being a very verbal bunch, it did strike me that they were unusually focused on just running fast. After the last element, I was so excited that they hit all their target times that I went running across the WHS athletic fields to heap praise and congratulations upon them … which I did. But they did not turn their heads to even acknowledge me … instead, just went walking toward the locker room. I’m not sure what I said or did, but one of the girls just couldn’t hold it together. She broke from the pack and came back to me in tears saying she was sorry for ignoring me and just could not do what the others had agreed upon. It was so sweet of her, and also a very humorous moment. But she was such a great kid who always indeed did everything without grumbling or arguing.

Coaches don’t like grumblers or complainers … neither does the boss, nor does a parent. And you can add God to that list also!

shining-starsAs the Apostle Paul continues to speak to the Philippians about some of the attitudinal situations that were creating strife in the church in that city, he tells them to be serious about the execution of their faith and to do things without grumbling and arguing. Doing this would make them a “star” – for they would stand out like a bright dot of light in the dark night sky. The natural proclivity for mankind is to be self focused and to easily be personally annoyed – expressing that with complaints and wrangling with others. To be different from that tendency would cause them to particularly shine in an exemplary way, being also in accord with God’s Word. And that is a timeless truth that extends to our day.

As you read the passage, recall that Paul is writing this letter to them from a time when he was a prisoner. He could not be with them, and he appeals to them from his precarious position. Paul was uncertain if he would be released; and though he had an underlying tone of optimism, it was not certain. So we see him thinking even in terms of his legacy with them – hoping his efforts were indeed fruitful among these Philippians. He desired to be pleased that they were obedient and moving forward in their faith.

Grumbling, arguing, and otherwise participating in discord in the church family is really such a waste of time and energy. There is so much work to be done. And we all need to check ourselves regularly in this regard, to be sure we are not losing focus on what is most important. But we can be pleased also in the knowledge that it is God who works in us as we yield to him – not only to fulfill his purposes for us, but to also build in us an increasing desire to do so.

So, go be a “star.”

Philippians 2:12-18 … Do Everything without Grumbling

12 Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.

14 Do everything without grumbling or arguing, 15 so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky 16 as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labor in vain. 17 But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you.18 So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

Getting to the Top by Going through the Bottom – Philippians 2:1-11

How do you get to the top by going through the bottom? Doesn’t that go completely against everything we were taught by our parents about standing up for ourselves? We were told to not let people run over us. Be assertive! Take charge!

Let me tell you the story of a fellow from my previous church where I was the pastor many years ago. Don was a sort of “special” person. He was exceedingly nice and kind … and also odd and eccentric in many ways. I don’t think he had actual mental deficiencies, though it may have looked that way to many people. Having been a professional musician in earlier life before coming to know Christ, he may well have burned out some of his brain on substance abuse. Whatever his background, there was no doubt that Don deeply LOVED everyone in the church.

He worked diligently to know every person, and he had a genuine concern for each and every individual. In fact, whenever anyone from the church was in the hospital, he would visit with them each day they were admitted.  Yes, he was a little strange and some of those visits were a bit awkward, but there was no doubt that Don was a guy who simply loved you and believed when he prayed for you, God was going to help you!

One day, Don had a medical emergency – I forget if it was a gall bladder surgery or a ruptured appendicitis – but it was something that had him admitted for a series of days. And even long before the era of the immediacy of emails and Facebook communications, the word spread like wildfire through the church family that Don was in the hospital. And people started to visit him. Dozens of people would show up at the same time, and over the initial two or three days there were more than 150 people wanting to visit. They were continuously overflowing the hospital’s waiting area in the lobby. After a while, the hospital administration called the church office to appeal to us to make some church-wide effort to call off the visitation.

The application of this story to today’s reading is clearly obvious. The story of Don and our passage today from Philippians both illustrate the principle as stated in the words of Jesus Christ:  “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

It is clear from the letter to the Philippians that there was discord among certain people and factions in the church family in that city. The Apostle Paul reminds them in the first four verses of all the assets they possessed through faith and relationship with Christ Jesus. And he tells them that it would make his own joy complete if they would stop thinking of themselves and rather imitate Christ in humbly serving one another.

This great theological passage that defines the combination of Christ’s humanity and deity is given by Paul to remind his readers of the incredible humility of Christ – who set aside his personal rights in glory to condescend to earth, become human, and die the most awful of deaths. Surely the story of one who did something this amazing would goad the Philippians to faithfully follow that example in selfless service, one to another.

Christ was glorified to the highest level due to his humble sacrifice, and likewise, those who serve others will have their own needs met in abundance by the grace and supply of a faithful heavenly Father who sees all and judges with fairness and equity. When we serve at the bottom, God ultimately rewards us at the top. It seems crazy to the way of the world’s thinking, but that is how God works his math … and we’ll talk about this again on Friday.

Philippians 2:1-11 – Imitating Christ’s Humility

2:1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very natureGod, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Steelers and Ravens Merger – Ephesians 2:11-22

At the risk of losing all the non sports fans and football antagonists, yet also in the spirit of the Fall season, I’m going to go ahead with the following analogy. For some of you, it is going to hit you on the head; but if you are not one of them, well, “give it the old college try.”

Living here in Western Maryland, we are at once in the distant “football fan boonies” of the Ravens to the east and the Steelers to the west. Every Sunday in church I see the mix of yellows, purples, and blacks.

Imagine if there was a restructuring of the NFL and the Ravens and Steelers were merged together into one new team called the Steel Ravens! And, imagine the color of the new team was designated as blue and silver! (Some others of you might have to imagine a Cowboys/Redskins, Packers/Bears, or likewise odious admixture of traditions.)

Could you make the shift? Think about all the office people with whom you’ve argued over the years because they were too stupid to see it your way! Think about how you are now going to be sitting in the stands with those same people, wearing blue and silver together. Think about how your favorite players are going to have to work together with their former enemies on the other side of the ball! Who is the new quarterback – Rothlisberger or Flacco? Don’t you suppose the whole thing might be just a little bit awkward?

YEP! And that is the sort of environment that Paul is writing about in our passage today. He is writing (in terms of our analogy) to the one fan base – the Gentiles – as he talks to them about how through the work of Christ they have been merged together with the Jews into a new team called “The Church.”  He reminds them as to how they were seen as total outsiders, without hope, and completely foreign to all the promises of God in his covenants with the Jewish people. But now, that has all changed, they’ve been brought near and made one through the blood of Christ.

For you see, Jesus and what he has done is bigger than the things that divided the two groups before. The old laws of the Jews have been done away with, and the wall of hostility that separated everyone has been broken down. Christ has truly made them into one new people – one new team – the Church of Jesus Christ. Now there is a new peace, as each has the same access to the same Father God.

So what is the practical result? It is that they are all to no longer act likes enemies and strangers. They are rather to see one another in a variety of illustrative ways: as fellow citizens of the same country, as brothers together in the same household, as building blocks who together with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone now form the greatest building ever constructed.

So, there is no room in such an arrangement for the old squabbles to break out!  There is no more yellow on one side and purple on the other, because there is only one new entity that exists. And the health and vitality of that new team is contingent upon the mutual support and love of previously disparate people now coming together to work together as one.

So today begins the first of five readings and devotionals that talk about point number four (of five) in our series on the vision statement of Tri-State Fellowship: We envision a multi-generational community of theologically-sound believers, who manifest Christ’s character, by applying biblical principles to daily life, encouraging one another spiritually and relating the Gospel to our culture.  Yes, we are one body in Christ – one new team, and we need to be about encouraging one another in every way … so let’s talk about that this week.

Ephesians 2:11-22 – Jew and Gentile Reconciled Through Christ

11 Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)—12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. 21 In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. 22 And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.