Christ-likeness

“If evangelicals elected popes,” Michael Cromartie (1950 – 2017) once famously said, “they would have chosen John R.W. Stott (1921 – 2011).”  Critical of so much of the popular Christianity that he observed around him, describing it as “a thousand miles wide and half an inch deep,” John Stott spent his whole life cultivating a Christianity that was “deep, thick and different.” 

A prolific author, some of John Stott’s books are the most important volumes in my library and have been the most defining for my thinking – “Basic Christianity” (1958, revised 1971), “The Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit” (1964, revised 1976), “Balanced Christianity” (1975), “The Message of the Sermon on the Mount”(1978),  “The Cross of Christ(1986), “Evangelical Essentials” (1989), “The Message of Acts”(1990), and “The Message of Romans”(1994).

John Stott retired from active ministry in April 2007 at the age of 86 and died in 2011.  His Final Address at the annual Keswick Convention (a world-famous Spiritual Life lectureship) held in England’s Lake District took place in July of 2007.  Walking slowly with a cane, Dr. Stott made his way to the podium in an auditorium where he had been the featured preacher and teacher many times before to bring his last public address.  It’s not uncommon for preachers to wonder about what they would say if they were told that they could only preach one more sermon.  For Dr. Stott the choice was clear.  He preached his last message on Christian maturity, what he called – “The Model: Becoming More Like Christ.”

“What is God’s purpose for His people?” was the question that Dr. Stott wanted to answer in this message.  His answer was “Christ-likeness.” “God wants His people to become like Christ” Dr. Stott proclaimed.  He based this conclusion on three New Testament texts –

  1. Romans 8:29 –

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.”

  • 2 Corinthians 3:18 –

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

  • 1 John 3:2 –

“Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.”

Dr. Stott said that these three texts provide us with three perspectives on the purpose of God.  Romans 8:29 provides us with an eternal perspective on God’s purpose – “God has predestined His people to be conformed to the image of His Son: that is, to become like Jesus.”  2 Corinthians 3:18 provides us with the present historical perspective on God’s purpose – “It is by God’s indwelling Spirit that we are being changed from glory to glory – becoming like Christ – being transformed into the image of Jesus.” And 1 John 3:2  provides us with the final eschatological perspective on God’s purpose – “We don’t know in any detail what we shall be in the last day, but we do know that we will be like Christ.”

Summarizing, Dr. Stott explained –

“Here are three perspectives—past, present, and future. All of them are pointing in the same direction: there is God’s eternal purpose, we have been predestined; there is God’s historical purpose, we are being changed, transformed by the Holy Spirit; and there is God’s final or eschatological purpose, we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. All three – the eternal, the historical, and the eschatological – combine towards the same end of Christ-likeness. This is the purpose of God for the people of God.”

And to explain what this means, Dr. Stott quoted the Anglican Canon John Poulton, once the Chair of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Council on Evangelism,  who wrote –

“The most effective preaching comes from those who embody the things they are saying. They are their message. Christians need to look like what they are talking about. It is people who communicate primarily, not words or ideas. Authenticity gets across. Deep down inside people, what communicates now is basically personal authenticity.”

Christ-likeness – Is there a greater need for Christians and churches than this?  And is there a greater scandal in Christianity than it’s absence in those who bear His name and claim His grace? Every sin of the Church can be laid at the feet of its failure to be Christlike.  In his 2002 bestseller “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” Philip Yancey told a story about a friend who worked in inner city ministry.  A prostitute came to him in wretched straits, homeless, sick, unable to buy food for her two-year-old daughter with a sordid story about what she had been reduced to in order to survive. What she told him left him speechless.

“At last I asked if she had ever thought of going to a church for help. I will never forget the look of pure, naive shock that crossed her face. “Church!” she cried. “Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”

And Philip wrote –


“What struck me about my friend’s story is that women much like this prostitute fled toward Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself, the more likely she saw Jesus as a refuge. Has the church lost that gift? Evidently the down-and-out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers. What has happened?”

And I think the answer is Christ-likeness.  It’s that sanctification gap that I wrote about last week.  We’ve made it easy for people to “get saved” by coming forward and giving their hearts to Jesus by simply repeating “the sinner’s prayer,” but in this transaction we’ve failed to make it clear to those who are praying that Jesus can’t be your Savior if you aren’t prepared to let Him be your Lord.  Saving faith involves surrender. It’s easy to give Christ our sins as Savior.  The pain and burden of them is intolerable, the release and relief of forgiveness, sweet. But this is not all Christ wants.  This is not all Christ does. He wants our lives as Lord as well.  The heart He purifies by grace, is the heart He intends to inhabit. He moves in and takes charge, and our lives change as the result, slowly at first, and at times even imperceptibly, but fundamentally, and invariably, and irrevocably.

I have come to an ecumenical appreciation for the different ways that different churches baptize. I recognize and can affirm the different theologies of baptism that drive the churches varied practices of the sacramental sign and seal.  I’d be hard pressed to serve a closed membership church (a church that insists that a person must be immersed in order to be a member) with an open table for communion to which everyone is invited and at which everyone is welcome.  But I only preach and practice believer’s baptism by immersion because I think it is the New Testament pattern, and because I think it rightly orders the way that Gospel salvation unfolds in our lives.

Baptism by immersion points to the saving work of Christ – to His own death, burial and resurrection.  And then baptism by immersion points to the way that the saving work of Christ on the cross, in the grave, and out from the empty tomb gets personally applied to us – through our own death to self, the burial of our old nature, and our resurrection to walk in newness of life. I believe that something actually happens in the watery grave.  Something in us, about us, changes.  It’s what the Biblical language of “regeneration,” of being “born again,” of having the old, hard, dead heart of stone removed from us, and the new, warm, responsive heart of flesh (Ezekiel 32:26) is talking about.

I don’t think that baptism by immersion is what causes this to happen.  It’s not the amount of water or the form of its application that is regenerative.  It’s the saving acts of God’s grace in Christ, and our personal reception of their benefits as a gift received by faith that is regenerative.  But baptism by immersion, by its very design, bears witness externally to this process that takes place internally as one crosses the threshold of saving faith.  It serves as the sign and seal of God’s saving work in our hearts, and if we understood it more biblically ourselves, and explained it more thoroughly to those being baptized, I believe that we might be well on our way to closing the “sanctification gap.”

“When Jesus bids a man to come and follow Him,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained, “Christ bids that man to come and die.”  This truth might get lost or obscured in churches that practice other modes of baptism.  But for immersionists its inescapable.  The physical act of plunging a person underwater and then pulling them back up again is a recital of death and resurrection, a sharing in Christ’s death and resurrection and a witness to our very own spiritual deaths and resurrections.

I know of some missionaries from my faith tradition who served in a foreign field in the days of a devastating drought.  There wasn’t enough water for them to bathe and drink, let alone to fill a tank for baptisms.  So, as an alternative they dug a grave right outside the front door of the church, and every time somebody became a Christian inside, they would all go outside to watch that person be lowered down into that hole in the ground and then be pulled back out!  There was no confusion about the meaning of that act.  Who they had been was dead and buried.  Who they now were was new and different.  And what was expected was that it would begin to show.

This is the theology of baptism by immersion, and, if you ask me, the key to our Christ-likeness –

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For he who has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. Do not yield your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Romans 6:1-14)

I’ve never forgotten how my college professor of missions told us that –

“When James Calvert went out as a missionary to the cannibals of the Fiji Islands, the ship captain tried to turn him back, saying, ‘You will lose your life and the lives of those with you if you go among such savages.’ To that, Calvert replied, ‘We died before we came here.”

If we have died to ourselves and been raised with Christ, which is the only way to become a Christian, then our lives are under new management, and we will begin to move in a new direction.  When we invite Christ in, the work of Christ-likeness begins.  And while we can slow it, the Corinthian Christians are evidence of that (I Corinthians 3:1-4), we cannot stop it.  If we are Christians, Christ likeness is “predestined.”  If you are a Christian the work has begun, and will continue.  Using the word in Greek (ἐνδύω) that refers to putting on your clothes when you get up in the morning, we are commanded as Christian to “put on” Christ (Romans 13:14), to “put on” our new self (Ephesians 4:24), and to put on love and all the other virtues that Christ cultivates in those who confess Him as Lord (Colossians 3:12-17).

If you are a Christian, you are a new creation.  The old has passed away. The new has come (2 Corinthians 5:17). Get used to it. DBS+

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The Sanctification Gap

Because Jesus Christ prayed that His followers would be one so that the world might believe that He is the Christ (John 17:21), the spiritual tradition of which I am a part has regarded church divisions as sinful. Thomas Campbell (1763 – 1854) in his “Declaration and Address” (1809) wrote the classic statement of my church’s historic position on denominationalism –

“Division among the Christians is a horrid evil, fraught with many evils. It is anti-Christian, as it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ; as if he were divided against himself, excluding and excommunicating a part of himself. It is anti-scriptural, as being strictly prohibited by his sovereign authority; a direct violation of his express command. It is anti-natural, as it excited Christians to condemn to hate, and oppose one another, who are bound by the highest and most endearing obligations to love each other as brethren, even as Christ has loved them. In a word, it is productive of confusion and of every evil work.”

One of the effects that this idea has had on me has been a desire to know how people from other Christian traditions think about who God is, how God works, and what God wants.  In Christian College I adopted as one of my life rules something that the Anabaptist leader Balthasar Hubmaier (1480-1528) said in his “Short Apology” (1526) –

“I can err, for I am a man, but I cannot be a heretic, for I am willing to be taught better by anybody.  And if anyone will teach me better, I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks.”

And so, through the years I have deliberately sought out people from a wide variety of other spiritual traditions who I thought might be able to teach me something different, and perhaps even “better” about our shared Christian faith.  Every denomination has a defining emphasis or experience that makes them unique in the family of churches.  At some point along the way this unique perspective mattered enough for them to organize themselves around it, and then to separate themselves from others in order to preserve it. 

St. Augustine said that every time this happens, a truth that properly belongs to us all  gets carried away by a few, and St. Augustine said that this can only happen if the truth that gets taken away has not been “sufficiently regarded and respected” by the rest of us.  If this is the case, and I think it is, then every denomination has something that I need for my faith to full and whole, and so through the years I have spiritually sojourned with others, with Baptists and Benedictines, Quakers and Puritans, Charismatics and the Eastern Orthodox, Moravians and Mennonites, Anglicans and Adventists, receiving from all of them some wonderful gifts that are now vital to my own Christian faith and practice. 

One of the spiritual traditions that has significantly expanded the way that I presently think about and try to live out of my own Christianity has been the Holiness Movement.  In fact, in many respects I find that it’s the gifts that these diverse communities of faith who are the spiritual descendants of John and Charles Wesley have to offer the larger church that are what are most needed “for the facing of this hour.”

One of the great criticisms of Christians and the church today is our inconsistency, how we are chronically guilty of saying one thing and then turning around and doing something altogether different. Our beliefs and our behaviors don’t always, and some would say – don’t often intersect. We don’t practice what we preach.  In some ways this is unavoidable. It comes with territory of redemption. As Os Guinness explained in his book  “Renaissance” (IVP – 2014), Christianity “possesses a doctrine of its own failure” which is the source of its “ongoing self-criticism and renewal.”

“Christians are realistic about human fallibility. We all often go wrong… So human evil is always a possibility and never a  surprise.  We expect it, we watch out for it, and whenever we can, we guard against it… If we admit that all of us can always go wrong, it is still challenging but far less difficult to face the fact that we have done it again… [So] Christian faith calls for an open and voluntary confession of our wrongs, whenever we are wrong… It may certainly be embarrassing for anyone who has to do it, but it is in fact an act of moral [and spiritual] courage.  For in confession we are called to do what no human does naturally and easily: to go on record against ourselves.”

There will always be a gap between the moral and spiritual values to which we aspire as Christians, and our actual embodiment of them in our lives. Christianity is a religion of salvation, a religion of reclamation, regeneration, and renewal. This means that Christians are always in the process of becoming. Throughout this life we are perpetually on the way, morally and spiritually, from one way of being human – “in Adam” – to another way – “in Christ” (Romans 5:12 -7:25), and this means that there are always going to be “gaps” between what we say we believe and how we actually embody those beliefs in our character and conduct. 

This doesn’t mean that we settle for moral or spiritual mediocrity.  As Paul told the Philippians –

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (3:12-14)

But it does mean that we “go on record against ourselves.” We say that Jesus is Lord, but He doesn’t seem to be making that much of a difference in the way that we are actually living our lives. We can glibly recite from memory that God “so loved the world that He have His only begotten Son,” and then turn right around and want nothing to do with people who don’t look like us, or speak our language, or think like we do, or value the things that we value. We enthusiastically tell people that we believe that the Bible is the Word of God, but we don’t really know what it says, and that fact doesn’t bother us enough to try to do something about it, like reading the Bible. We pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” but are rarely moved to embody clear Kingdom values like equality, justice, compassion, righteousness, or peace in our personal relations, social attitudes or political choices.  We are regularly amazed by God’s grace and we claim God’s mercy for ourselves every day while being incredibly impatient and demanding of others, judgmental and unforgiving, unthinkingly critical, harsh, and rude.  We say that we want to spent eternity with God, but we find it hard to give God just a little bit of our undivided attention each day, or to gather in the Spirit, under the Word, and around the Table where God promises to be with us each week. 

Christ is just window dressing in our lives if we’re not prepared to let Him constantly challenge and change us, our homes, our churches, and our world, pushing us from who we are right now to who it is that He always intended us to be and is right now hard at work helping us to become.  To effect these changes, then what Richard Lovelace, a Professor of Church History at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, called the “sanctification gap” in his 1979 book, “Dynamics of Spiritual Life,” is going to have to be closed.

By “sanctification gap” Dr. Lovelace was talking about the way that sanctification, the name given to the lifelong process of moral and spiritual transformation that follows conversion, has been removed from the Gospel equation in so much popular Christianity.  It’s Ephesians 2:8-9 – “By grace you have been saved through faith; and… not because of works, lest anyone should boast,” without finishing the thought in Ephesians 2:10 – “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.” It’s the preaching of Christ as Savior with the promise of the peace of forgiveness now, and the promise of eternal life in heaven when we die, without the parallel preaching of Christ as Lord with His claim on every part of our lives and His work of putting to death in us everything that is hostile, inconsistent, or indifferent to God’s will for us.  It’s the “cheap grace” of which Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in “The Cost of Discipleship” (1937) –

“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. …Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”

The defining emphasis and experience of the churches of the Holiness Movement is evident in their name – “holiness.”  Holiness Movement churches are serious about sanctification.  The root of the word “sanctification” in Greek is the word for “holy.”   “Sanctification” literally means “to make holy.” The gift that the Holiness Movement has for the larger church in an era of compromise and confusion is a clear vision of the holiness to which we have been called (I Thessalonians 4:7), and without which we will never see God (Hebrews 12:14).  Who better to help the larger church close the “sanctification gap” than those Christians who have claimed and championed a special concern for sanctification as their own distinctive emphasis and experience? 

Four aspects of the emphasis and experience of the churches of the Holiness Movement seem especially pertinent to the life and needs of the larger church today.

  1. There is more to Christianity than conversion.

The necessity of a personal, conscious, intentional crossing of the threshold of faith is one of non-negotiables of my take on Christianity as an evangelical (See British Church Historian David Bebbington’s evangelical “quadrilateral” @ https://www.nae.net/what-is-an-evangelical/).  Some pretty basic, and I might add, incredibly wonderful things follow immediately on the heels of this initial decision of faith. We are forgiven. We find peace with God and are offered peace of mind and heart. We are personally assured that we are beloved of God, and we are promised that God’s love will carry us through death into His presence.  All of this is true, and good, and essential.  But the fact is that we can be clear about and convinced of all this, and still miss the Gospel fact that something vital is supposed to be going on in us between conversion and death.  It’s not just a holding pattern.  As the old evangelist used to say, “God may love us just as we are, but God loves us way too much to leave us like that!” The grace that saves the sinner does not leave the sinner in his sin.  The forgiveness of sins not only cleanses us of what’s in the past, it changes the direction of our futures.  The new birth awakens an appetite for holiness in us, and the churches of the Holiness Movement know how to feed it. 

  • The Holy Spirit is indispensable to Christian formation.

Jesus came, according to John the Baptist, to do two things.  “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” was what John said when he first saw Jesus coming to be baptized (John 1:29).  And “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain,” John the Baptist added, “this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  Evangelicals are big on the first task of Jesus as the Christ – taking away the sins of the world.  Holiness folks are big on the second – being baptized with the Holy Spirit.  A critical part of the special emphasis of the Holiness Movement churches is the experience of being “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8) as a distinct act of God’s saving grace subsequent to conversion, a “Second Blessing.”  We are to be born again and Spirit-filled, and what the Spirit fills us to be and do is implicit in the name – the “Holy” Spirit.  It is the indwelling and empowering presence of the Spirit of God in us that directs and effects our growth in righteousness both personal and social.  The Holy Spirit is the active agent of our transformation, and the churches of the Holiness Movement are specialists on how to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

What’s the proof that we love Jesus? Witness tee shirts? Cross jewelry? Carrying a Bible? Peppering our speech with God talk? Faith signaling on Facebook? Bumper stickers on our cars?  Jesus was clear about what He thought. “If you love me,” He said, “you will keep my commandment” (John 14:15).  And again, “If you keep my commandments,” Jesus said, “you will abide in my love” (John 15:9). New Testament scholars often use the grammatical categories of indicative and the imperative to describe two aspects of the Christian gospel. The Gospel makes statements about what God has done for us in Christ and about who we are as a result.  Those are the Gospel’s indicatives.  And the Gospel issues commands about the things that we are or are not to do as Christians.  Those are the Gospel imperatives. “Jesus loves you” and “I love Jesus” are the foundational indicatives of Christian discipleship, and “keep my commandments” is the comprehensive imperative of discipleship. “The gospel clearly includes both the indicative and the imperative,” Norman Young writes, “the imperative is always conditioned by the prior indicative, and the indicative always gives rise to the ethical imperative.”  It’s keeping the Gospel indicative of God’s love for us and our love for God vitally connected to the Gospel imperative of obeying all that Christ has commanded that is the defining emphasis and experience of the churches of the Holiness Movement. They can be our teachers in holiness.

My relationship the Holiness Movement has primarily been through my involvement with the Walk to Emmaus Community, a renewal movement modeled on the Wesleyan/Holiness pattern of spiritual formation.  One of the distinctive elements of early Methodism was the way that John Wesley gathered his followers into small spiritual accountability groups called “bands.” In these “bands,” members asked one another a series of questions that were designed to help them recognize God’s work in them and to help break the power of sin over them by mutual confession. In the same way, at the end of a three day Walk to Emmaus, every participant is encouraged to become part of a small spiritual accountability group like a “band” to ask and answer some specific questions –

At what moment this past week did you feel closest to Christ?

At what moment during this week did you feel you were responding to God’s call to be His disciple?

Where did you participate in being the Church this week?

When was your faith tested this week through failure?

What is your plan for spirituality, study, and action for the week to come?

The author of the book of Hebrews told that struggling first century community of faith to –

“Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one fail to obtain the grace of God…” (12:12-15)

The churches of the Holiness Movement understand mutual accountability, what it means to be members one of another (Romans 12:5), and how to bear the burdens of one another (Galatians 6:2).

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“Becoming Who We Are”

The poetry of Carl Dennis is “a body of work that by now approaches the status of wisdom literature” according to James Scruton of the “Valparaiso Poetry Review.” Reading and pondering a poem a day has been one of my personal disciplines for many years now, and nobody’s poems have challenged my thinking, enlarged my vision, tickled my fancy, or fed my spirit more consistently or deeply than have those of Carl Dennis.   He is my “go-to” poet.

In his 2018 volume of poems – “Night School” – he includes one that he calls “An Actress”  (page 20).  It’s about a neighbor “from across the street”  that Carl Dennis says he has to “admire” because he knows that while, for whatever reason, she really doesn’t like him, she nevertheless “goes through the motions” of being “neighborly.” She makes “a show of interest she doesn’t feel,” waving, smiling, and asking about what he’s been up to “like somebody not indifferent to my answers.”  Carl Dennis doesn’t criticize his neighbor’s “performance” so much as he observes the “show,” and wonders if by going “through the motions,” is she taking “the first step on the road to change,” her “inner self” noticing the effort that her “outer self is making.”

In his 2014 volume of poems – “Another Reason” – Carl Dennis included one that he called “The True Self” (pages 4-5) that explores the same terrain that “An Actress” covers.  “The True Self” is a poem about the difference between a man who is “giving by nature,” and another one who is “selfish by nature” but “who’d like to become more giving.”  Both of these men volunteer at the same soup kitchen “dishing out tuna casserole to the regulars.”  For the man who is “giving by nature,” this act is a “pleasure,” and for the man who is  “selfish by nature,” it’s a pleasure “to behave all evening like someone else.”  In “The True Self” Carl Dennis describes the effort it takes for the man who is selfish by nature “to learn the lines of a part that feels unnatural,” and he names the struggle that he must feel “between the man he’s playing and the man he is.”

I know that neighbor in “An Actress.”  She’s me. And I know the man who is selfish by nature in “The True Self.”  He’s me. Oh, I believe that I was built to be giving by nature and that I’m designed to be instinctively neighborly.  I can easily salute them as virtues that I admire and affirm, and I certainly have them as tendencies within me, it’s just that I know that they’re not all that’s in there.

E. Stanley Jones in his “Christ of the Mount” (Abingdon, 1931) said that the first time we read the Sermon on the Mount as Christians we throw up our hands and declare it to be an impossibility, but the second time we read it we feel “that nothing else is possible.” “I can’t” is the inner response the first time we hear the moral demands Jesus makes of us as His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount. “But I sure want to” is our inner response the second time we hear them.  The river of my spiritual and moral life as a Christian has flowed between the two banks of these responses.  “I ought to” and “I want to” on the one side are matched and countered by “I can’t” and “I won’t” on the other side. There’s not just one impulse inside me.  There are two. My nature is divided. 

I can be nobly generous, even altruistic, and shockingly selfish and embarrassingly narcissistic.  And there’s rarely been a moment in my life when these two impulses haven’t been contending inside me.  It’s a perpetual tug-of-war.  I find that every response I make involves a conscious decision about which of the two people who are tussling for control inside me is going to get to call the shot for the situation that I’m in, and when I turn down the noise of their tumult because I’m tired, or impatient, or preoccupied, and default to automatic pilot instead, it’s invariably that “I can’t” and “I won’t” guy who steps up and takes charge.

E. Stanley Jones put it like this –

“I sat for a long with my legs twisted under me so that when I got up to walk it was exceedingly painful to straighten them out and to move along.  I had sat in an unnatural position for so long that the natural functioning of the legs seemed unnatural… Human nature has so accommodated itself (to “twistedness”) that it (the “twistedness”) seems to be the natural way to live and our more human ways seem unnatural. We have lived so long on the wolf principles of selfishness and competition and strife that the Christian way of unselfishness, of co-operation, and love seems to us a foreign way.”

This is the normal Christian life.  It’s a lifelong process of becoming who we are.  Early in my journey of faith I read Paul Little’s “Know What You Believe,” a book together with his “Know Why You Believe” and “How to give Your Faith Away” have been called the “Evangelical Catechism.”  It was in the chapter on “Salvation” in “Know What You Believe” that I was first introduced to the idea that there are three phases of salvation: past, present, and future. That we have been saved (justification).  That we are being saved (sanctification). And that we shall be saved (glorification). 

Justification happens in an instant, when we first cross the threshold of faith.  Glorification happens in an instant as well, but at the end, “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet” (I Corinthians 15:52). And sanctification is a process, “a long obedience in the same direction.”  In justification we’re born again as children of God (John 11:12-13; 3:3) and immediately we begin growing up in every way into Christ  (Ephesians 4:11-16).  At glorification we’ll cross the finish line and our conformity to the image of Christ will be complete (Romans 8:29-30). And now, in-between that starting point of justification and that finishing point of glorification, in sanctification our lives zig and zag, constantly moving back and forth between who we’ve been and who we are becoming. 

When Clifton Fadiman (1904 – 1999), the American man of letters and media personality, turned fifty, he wrote –

“At twenty I knew I would amass the great American fortune.

At thirty I knew that I would write the great American novel.

At forty I knew that I would become a Socrates for sagacity.

At fifty I know better. 

At fifty I know I shall end my days semieducated and semisolvent,

leaving behind me an untidy trail of forgettable prose…

[But] at fifty we begin a new game with a subtler opponent, the person we would like to be. Never quite matching him, we have the pleasure of feeling that at least the struggle is for real and not illusory stakes.  To know what we are may well take half a century.  To develop that which we now know is well worth the rest of one’s life.”

For a Christian, this discovery and its subsequent process doesn’t wait until we’re fifty. In sanctification, bit by bit, a Christian starts to become the person their justification says they are, and the person their glorification tells them that they will one day fully, finally be.

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Preaching on the Trinity While Cities Burn

If I were in a pulpit this morning, June 7, 2020, Trinity Sunday, after a week of anguish, anxiety, and rage like the one we’ve just come through as a nation, I think that I would preach the twin parables of Matthew 13:44-46 –

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls,who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Whenever I preached these parables when I pastored a church I liked to talk about how we all come to the Kingdom in different ways, some of us by way of a long hard quest like the merchant in search of the pearl of great price while others of us stumble upon it quite unexpectedly like the farmer plowing in his field. I’ve always thought that this was something important to say out loud in church. We’re not all the same.  We lead different lives.  We have different points of view.  We have different experiences, and expectations. We are driven by different concerns. We get to the kingdom by different routes.  But, however we come, when this great discovery gets made, in response to the absolute worth of what we’ve found, we all need to do everything and anything we possibly can to make it our own.  I think I’d drill down on that response if I were preaching this morning, Trinity Sunday.

The treasure of the kingdom is Jesus Christ.  He didn’t just talk about the coming kingdom, He embodied and established it.  When we say “Jesus is Lord” (the church’s earliest “creed” – Philippians 2:11; I Corinthians 12:3; Romans 10:9) we are accepting His “reign.” It’s a “kingdom” shift, as Paul explained it Colossians 1:13-14 – “God has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” And what compels this realignment of our lives and world is the realization of love. 

John 3:16 is a pretty standard way for us to think and talk about the Christian Gospel – For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  This is the pearl of great price.  This is the treasure buried in the field.  This is the great discovery – God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).  And once we’ve accepted this as the great truth of the universe and our very own lives, we’re immediately ushered into a consideration of the Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity didn’t begin as a conversation about an abstract concept by the philosophers and theologians.  It began instead with ordinary Christians trying to make sense of what had happened to them.  They had been “seized by the power of a great affection.”  They found their lives and worlds fundamentally and irrevocably rearranged – turned upside down (Acts 17:6) – by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and they knew that somehow God was behind it.  They knew that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19), but how, they wondered?  How was what Christ did for them the work of God?  How were God and Christ related? And then with their additional Pentecost experience of the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the “temple” of their bodies (I Corinthians 6:19) and in the “temple” of the church (I Corinthians 3:16-17), they began to wonder about how the Spirit “fit” in their experience of what God had done and in their understanding of who God was.

The early church talked about the Apostles’ creeds as a “symbol.”  A symbol is an expression of, a representation of something else.  A flag is the symbol of a country.  A map is the symbol of some geography. A painting is a symbol of something in an artist’s vision or imagination.  The affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed are a symbol of the reality of God and God’s saving actions, and the structure of those affirmations are Trinitarian. The Christian experience of God is an experience of God’s actions as a Creator, a Redeemer, and a Sustainer. Christians know that God made them, saves them, and inhabits them.

One of the earliest attempts to talk about this triune God was what Irenaeus (130 – 202), Bishop of Lyons, wrote about the hands of God.  In his commentary of the book of Genesis, Irenaeus paused to reflect on the meaning of the phrase in chapter 1, verse 26 –  “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness…’ “Us”? “Our”?  To explain this plural reference to God, Irenaeus said that the Son and the Spirit, like hands, are the ways that that God did the work of creation. In fact, Irenaeus observed, God uses His hands – His right hand, the Son, and His left hand, the Spirit – to do all His works.  The Son is the hand by which God does His outward and objective work of salvation in time and space, and the Spirit is the hand by which God does His inward and subjective work of salvation in human hearts.  The Spirit applies what the Son establishes, and it is the Father who decides and directs it all.

As a “symbol,” this one makes as much sense to me as any about who the triune God is and how the triune God works.  In Jesus Christ, the eternal God stepped onto the stage of human history to counter, confront and defeat the powers that hold us in their grip and that seek to work us woe. In the Holy Spirit the eternal God works in the human heart to convict, convince, and assure us that what Christ did was for us. 

On Trinity Sunday each year, the first Sunday after Pentecost with its emphasis on the person and work of the Spirit, and after the Easter Season with its emphasis on the person and work of the Son, the church is asked to stop for just a quick moment to reflect on and rejoice in who God is, how God works, and what God has done in light of the liturgical ground that’s just been covered. I’m not sure that a theological investigation of the inner workings of the mystery of the ontology of the Godhead is what the church needs on any Sunday morning, let alone on Trinity Sunday morning 2020.  That would be akin to fiddling while Rome burns.  But after a week like this one we’ve just been through, a week of the spreading global pandemic, continuing economic upheaval, the occurrence of outrageous acts of racial injustice, the explosion of legitimate social protest, the dark mayhem of hooliganism, and the unnerving flexing of the state’s authoritarian muscles, nothing could be more important than knowing where God is and what God is doing in this moment, and Trinity Sunday is what tells us.

Of the cross, George MacLeod (1895 – 1991), the founder of the Iona Community, famously wrote –

“I simply argue that the cross be raised again,
at the centre of the marketplace
as well as on the steeple of the church.
I am recovering the claim that
Jesus was not crucified
in a cathedral between two candles
but on a cross between two thieves;
on a town garbage heap;
at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan
that they had to write His title
in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek …
and at the kind of place
where cynics talk smut,
and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble.
Because that is where He died,
And that is what He died about.
And that is where Christ’s own ought to be,
And that is what church people ought to be about.”

And I would make the same argument for the Trinity. The Trinity is the church’s historic explanation of how God works in the world.  It is not an idea that was birthed in the ivy-covered towers of academia, but in the gutters and alleys of life where people were lived and died, and needed to know if God was there, and if so, what God was going to do about their hurts and hopes?  It is ironic to me that the Trinity has become the theological poster child for the church’s preoccupation with obtuse and irrelevant concerns, when in fact the Trinity was the foundation of the church’s answer to the most urgent and practical questions we have as human beings living and dying in this world.

Where is God? 

God is not far away. God is right here.  The God of the Bible is not a God who sits in the splendid isolation of heaven untouched by our struggles and sorrows, but is rather a God who breaks into our world and our lives to rescue, heal, and redeem.

How does God work?

God does the work of rescuing, healing, and redeeming through the Son and the Spirit. God does His saving work in the world with His right hand, the Son.  And God does His saving work in each human heart with His left hand, the Spirit.

What is God doing?

Outwardly, God in Christ is in the process of tearing down the strongholds of the powers that diminish human dignity and destroy human thriving (I Corinthians 15:20-28).  And inwardly God is, by the indwelling Spirit, convicting human hearts (John 16:8-11) of their evil imaginations (Genesis 6:5; 2 Corinthians 10:5; Roman 1:21) and renewing human lives, conforming them to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29; 12:2).

The church’s doctrine of the Trinity is an affirmation of God’s action in the world and our hearts, and nothing could be more important than knowing this, and trusting this now.

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Judge Not?

I vote. This means that I have to make judgments every time I get a ballot.  I have to make a critical determination if a candidate’s character and convictions line up with what I believe and value. 

Because I am a Christian, that commitment comes with me into my polling place.  My social, political, economic, and moral concerns are all formed and informed by my lifelong engagement with inspired Scripture, by my awareness of and appreciation for the diverse ways that the commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord has been understood and embodied by different communities of faithfulness, by my reason that is constantly being shaped by the pushy Holy Spirit, and by my experience of the dailiness of life with the triune God in whom I live, and move and have my being. 

It’s through these lenses that I come to the conclusion that some things are right and that other things are wrong.  That some political positions and public policies are good and that others are bad.  That some candidates have the character and convictions that allow me to vote for them in good conscience while others do not. 

Of course, all of this is seriously complicated by the fact that no candidate, no political party, nor plank in a partisan platform ever fully reflects my concerns as a Christian.  I agree with the point of Tim Keller’s September 29, 2018 “New York Times” opinion piece – “How Do Christians Fit into the Two-Party System? They Don’t” – that “the historical Christian positions on social issues do not fit into contemporary political alignments.”  And so, when I vote as a Christian, I make judgments. I make choices about which issues are most important to me and about which candidate comes closest to representing my settled convictions and critical concerns.  I will vote in November, God willing.  I will make a judgment. So, don’t play the Matthew 7:1 card with me – “Judge not lest you be judged.”  

This verse, wrenched from context, often gets quoted when the candidate you’ve supported or the position you’ve taken gets criticized. “Who are you to judge?” they say.  “A voter” should be your response, someone who has the constitutional privilege and responsibility to periodically choose between competing claims and candidates. Matthew 7:1 doesn’t forbid such political judgments.  In fact, in context Matthew 7:1 isn’t an absolute prohibition on judging at all.  “Judge not lest you be judged” does not stand all by itself in splendid isolation as the sum total of Christian moral obligation. 

The whole Sermon on the Mount, of which this verse is a part, is an explanation of what’s good and what’s bad, what’s right and what’s wrong by Jesus for His disciples.  Jesus demands that we see things clearly, and that we make our choices accordingly.  In fact, in this very section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about the right way to take a speck out of a spiritual sibling’s eye (7:3-5). 

Jesus didn’t say to His disciples, “Don’t worry about those specks – those acts and attitudes of a fellow believer that are entirely inconsistent with their profession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ as if you don’t know what’s right and wrong, or as if such things don’t matter.”  No, what Jesus said was that before you address the speck in somebody else’s eye, that you first address the “log” that’s in your own eye. 

What Jesus opposed in Matthew 7:1-6 was not the necessity of making searching moral inventories or our mutual spiritual accountability, but rather holding others to standards that we ourselves weren’t keeping.  In fact, this is exactly how Jesus explained – “Judge not lest you be judged.”  The very next thing that He said was, “for with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (7:2).  If Jesus was against His disciples making moral and spiritual judgments, then why did He, within spitting distance of saying “judge not lest you be judged,” tell us not to give “what’s holy” to “dogs,” or to “throw your pearls before swine”? 

Identifying the “dogs” and the “pigs” is going to require some moral and spiritual discernment, and at the end of this chapter that opens with Jesus saying “judge not lest you be judged,” Jesus told us how to go about this determination.  Jesus told us to “beware of false prophets” (7:15).  He told us that we would know them by their fruit (7:16; 20).  He told us that we were going to have make determinations about what kind of tree a person  was – whether “good” or “bad” – on the basis of the kind of fruit they were producing (7:16-19), on the basis of what we could see. 

I can’t determine another person’s final destiny.  That’s not my job.  I am nobody’s final judge.  I’ve got no say on whether someone gets to heaven or winds up in hell. But every single day, all day long, I am called to make provisional prudential judgments about who I am going to do business with, and about who I am going to associate with, and every November, about who I am going to vote for.  I am going to make judgments, and what I hear my Lord telling me in Matthew 7:1-6 is that I need to be conscious of, deliberate about, and consistent with the standards that I am using to make those judgments.

In Amos 7:7-8, the prophet had a vision –

“Thus He showed me, and behold, the Lord was standing by a vertical wall with a plumb line in His hand. The Lord said to me, “What do you see, Amos?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold I am about to put a plumb line in the midst of My people Israel.”

In Christian interpretation it is not uncommon to hear the plumb that determines whether a wall is straight as a reference to Scripture.  I understand the complexity of Scripture. I know that it was written to another people in another time and place, a world as different from mine “as rural Kenya or Kurdistan” is today. I appreciate the grammatical, cultural, historical, and theological lenses through Scripture must be viewed to be understood properly, and even then I know that I often ask questions that the Bible doesn’t answer and routinely face situations that the Bible never anticipated. I know how different people looking at the very same text can see very different things, and how texts from different books of the Bible deliberately put alternative ideas into conversation with each other. The Bible is not a magic book with a platitude for every mood, or a formula for every dilemma, or a doctrine for every confusion.  But having said all that, I nevertheless turn to Scripture as my first and best source for knowing who God is, how God works, and what God wants.

The standards I use as a Christian to make the prudential judgments that fill my days and that are required of me by my world are Biblical.  In the commands and stories of Scripture, by its words and images, through its propositions and principles, my conscience and intellect are informed, formed, and transformed, and it is with that in-the-process-of-being-sanctified conscience and intellect that I make my judgments, and I have to make  them all the time.  Jesus knew this, and what I think He wanted for me as one of His disciples was to be sure that my judgments were always being made with reference to Him, His word and will. And so, I intend my values and convictions to reflect Biblical patterns.  I want my judgments to express a Biblical sense of what’s right and wrong.  And I need to be able to connect the dots between the judgments I make and the authority of Scripture that I acknowledge.

I vote, and that means that I must make judgments. If you vote, you do you.  And just like you, I won’t approve of some political positions and public policies, and just like you I am going to determine that the character and convictions of some candidates are morally and spiritually unacceptable to me.  And if I should say so, don’t come at me with Matthew 7:1 – “Judge not.”  Instead come at me with Matthew 7:2 – “with what judgment do you judge, with the measure do you measure”?  Don’t tell me not to judge when voting is an act of judgment.  But do ask me how I made my decision, what are the standards that I used to make my judgment, and then don’t be surprised, or get defensive, should I ask you to do the same. DBS+

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Fruit Inspectors

Have you ever noticed how the Bible insists that we are saved by grace (Romans  6:23) through faith and not by works (Romans  10:9-10; 13; Ephesians 2:4-10), but that in the end we will stand before the throne of God and be judged according to our works (Matthew 12:27; 25:31-46; John 5:28-29; I Corinthians 3:10-16; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Revelation 20:13; 22:12)? 

It’s important to understand why this is.

In Romans 1:18 Paul explained that God’s “invisible nature, namely His eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”  Just like us, God’s got an inside (His “invisible nature”) that’s hidden from view (sometimes called God’s “essence”), and an outside, what we can “clearly perceive” about God from His speaking and showing (sometimes called God’s “energies”). We know who God is by what God does.  This dynamic of being operates in us too. 

We’ve got an inside and an outside as well.  Part of us shows and part of us is hidden.  Faith is a matter of the heart.  It first takes hold in our hidden part.  But faith, if it’s real, has got to show, only gradually and imperfectly to be sure, but invariably and inevitably nonetheless, on the outside.  It will show in the kind of people we are becoming when Christ is the Lord of our lives.  The fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 are the outward measures of a life with genuine inward faith – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.”   And it will show in the ways that, just like Christ did in His earthly life, we are moved with compassion and give ourselves in unselfish service and sacrifice to the least, the last, and the lost – feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and going to the imprisoned (Matthew 25:35-36).

It’s commonplace to say that we cannot know what’s in a person’s heart, and there’s some truth in this to be sure (I Samuel 16:7). But the humility that comes with acknowledging this should not obscure the very clear Biblical idea that what’s on the inside of a person is always going to show on the outside of that person (Matthew 15:18-20 – actions “proceed from the heart”), or excuse us from the obligation of being discerning.  “By their fruits you will know them” Jesus said (Matthew 7:16 & 20).  “Are grapes gathered from thistles?” Jesus asked (7:16) “Sound trees bear good fruit,” Jesus observed, and “bad trees bear evil fruit” (7:17).  So, always inspect the fruit so that you will know who and what you are dealing with, Jesus said.  In fact, Jesus specifically gave non-Christians the right to judge the depth of our commitment to Him as Christians on the basis of the love (John 13:35) and unity (John 17:20-21) that they can see in us.

One of the biggest slams on Christians is our hypocrisy, how we say one thing and do another. We’ve gotten pretty good at deflecting this criticism.  “Nobody’s perfect,” we tell ourselves, excusing our own failures to keep faith with our professions of faith. “My heart’s right,” we reassure ourselves, “no matter what I say or do.”  And while this may help us sleep at night, I’m not sure that it passes muster with the One who said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

What’s on the inside is going to show on the outside.

If nothing shows, it forces the hard question, is anything there?

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“Greater Things?” (John 14:12)

The significance of Pentecost has regularly presented itself to me rather forcefully by reflecting on the connection between the incredible promise Jesus made in John 14:12 that we as His disciples would do “greater works” than He did in the days of His public ministry and the promise He made just 4 verses later that we (Christ’s disciples) were going to be given “another Helper” (John 14:16).  This is the first occurrence of this idea in Christ’s Farewell Discourse in the Upper Room (John 13 – 17), and as such, I think it gets the ball rolling in a certain direction.

After telling His disciples that He was the way, the truth, and the life, our approach to the Father (14:6), Christ’s disciple Philip made the most numbskulled request of Jesus found anywhere in the Gospels – “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied” (14:8).  You can almost hear the exasperation in Christ’s response – “Have I been with you so long, and yet you don’t know me, Philip?” (14:9)  This conversation is taking place in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday. Jesus and His disciples had been together for three years at this point.  As somebody has put it, they had had the best Sunday School teacher in history, and still they weren’t getting it!  After making the highest claim for Himself anywhere in the Gospels – “How can you say, ‘Show us the Father,’ don’t you know that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (14:9-10a). 

Understanding just how astonishing this claim was, Jesus amassed the corroborating evidence in its defense – “the words that I say to you I don’t speak I don’t speak on my own authority; but the Father who dwells in me does his works”  (14:10b).   Jesus latched onto the works that He was doing – called “signs” in the Gospel of John because they were acts that established and explicated His claims –  as the best evidence of the truthfulness of the claim that He had just made about Himself – “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves” (14:11).  “If you don’t trust what I’m telling you about who I am,” Jesus seems to be saying, “then take a good look at what I’ve been doing these past three years, and ask yourself – ‘Who could do such things except the Son of God?”  

This is a familiar Gospel approach to sorting out who Jesus is (Mark 4:35-41; Matthew 11:2-6; Acts 2:22; Hebrews 2:1-4), and it was in the middle of this argument that Jesus went and said one of the most baffling things that He ever said –  “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (14:12)  So, what does that mean? What are those “greater things” that Christ said His disciples would be doing “because He was going to the Father”

There are three things in the verses that frame this promise that need to be put on the table if we are to have any chance of understanding it – 

First, this promise of “greater works” was dependent on the fact that Jesus was going to the Father (14:12d).  In the Ascension the Risen Christ sat down at the right of the Father to continue His saving work, not in the humble state of His “emptying,” but rather in the glorified state of His exaltation (Philippians 2:5-11; I Corinthians 15:25).  Just as Jesus operated in the power of, and by the authority of the Father throughout the days of His earthly ministry, so will we.  Whatever works we do will be because of Him, and through Him, and for Him.

Second, Jesus made it clear that our primary agency in these “greater works” would be prayer (14:13-14).  Jesus made one of His extravagant prayer promises – “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” – in the context of His “greater works” promise. The most neglected aspect of the Risen Christ’s present activity is His ministry of intercession.  He “lives to make intercession” (Hebrews 7:25), and it is His intercession at the right hand of God that is our assurance that God is for us and that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:31-39).  In prayer we get pulled into the saving work that God is doing in Christ.

And third, the promise of “greater works” depends on the sending of the “other helper” (14:16; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7; 16:13). Jesus told His disciples that they needed to be “clothed with power from on high” in order take up the mission that He had given them (Luke 24:49).   The immediate prelude to Pentecost in the book of Acts was the promise of “power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8).  This is why E. Stanley Jones called the Holy Spirit the “adequate spiritual dynamic” of Christianity.”  He said that he simply couldn’t imagine that Jesus would “lay before us the amazing charter of the new life” that He came to provide, and then “fail to mention the one power that could make it all possible, namely, the power of the Holy Spirit.”

It is on these three legs –  the leg of Christ’s return to the power and glory of God’s expanding reign, the leg of the causality of prayer in the scheme of God’s actions, and the leg of the empowering presence of God in us through the indwelling Spirit, the “other helper,” that the promise that Christ’s disciples would do “greater things” rests.  Taken together, this means that the “greater things” that Jesus said we would do will be His own continuing work in which we gain a share by prayer and the power of the Spirit.

So, what are those “greater things” that we will do?

Well, the meaning of those “greater things” has largely been framed by a series of additional interpretive decisions.  The first one is deciding whether “greater things” was a specific promise that Christ made to the Apostles alone in and for the first century only (Before the New Testament was written), or a general promise that Christ made to disciples in every time and place including you and me.  I was schooled in the first perspective in Christian College, and rejected it later on exegetical, theological, historical, and experiential grounds (See  George Mallone’s “Tidy Doctrine and Truncated Experience” – Chapter 1 in his “Those Controversial Gifts” – IVP -1983).  I believe that John 14:12 is a promise made to us.

With that decided, the next interpretive conundrum when it comes to John 14:12 centers on the meaning of the word “greater.”  Is “greater” a reference to quality as in “better than,” or is it a reference to quantity as in “more than.” Frederick Dale Brunner in his commentary on this verse wrote –

“In teaching this text I have said to my classes only half facetiously: This is the only place in the Gospel where I think I can say with confidence that ‘Jesus is mistaken.’ Can any of us, no matter how prayerful or how faithful, ‘do greater things’ than Jesus? –  Reconcile the world to God, satisfy God’s justice, reveal God classically, exorcise the devil definitely, die carrying away the sin of the world, rise defeating death forever?  Please forgive me if I do not think so.  I cannot believe that anyone. No matter how believing, can ever do anything even touching what Jesus did, not to mention doing ‘greater’ things than he did. ”

I find it hard to argue with any of this, and so I read the “greater” in the promise of “greater things” quantitatively.  There are more of them because there are more of us, and the ministry of Christ expands quantitatively as His followers take up His work.  It happened twice in the days of His public ministry.  In Matthew 10:1-15 Christ called the 12, equipped them for ministry, and sent them out to quantitatively expand His mission (Synoptic parallels in Mark 6:7-13 and Luke 9:1-16).  And then, in Luke 10:1-24 Jesus did it again.  He  “appointed 70 others and sent them on ahead of Him.”  This principle of Jesus expanding His ministry quantitatively by equipping and sharing His work with His disciples is what drives the story that the book of Acts tells. 

“In the first book, O Theophilus,” Luke wrote, “I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (1:1).  Luke’s “first book” was his Gospel.   It was a book about what Jesus said and did in His physical body during the days of His earthly life. Acts, Luke’s second book, takes up the story as the Risen and soon-to-be-Ascended Christ continues to speak and act through His other body, the church.  The equipping and the sending coalesce of Acts 1:8 – “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth.”  Indwelt by His presence, operating in His power, conscious of His commission, Christ’s disciples move out to join Him in His mission, continuing His saving work by making known from our front doorsteps to the ends of the earth what Jesus said to us and did for us. The work of Christ quantitatively expands as each disciple hears His call, receives His gifts, and follows His lead.

With “greater” understood as “more” not “better,” all that remains is for us to understand the meaning of the word “things” in the promise of our doing “greater things” as Christ’s disciples.  In March of 1986 Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California undertook a critical self-study to address the questions that a controversial course in their School of World Mission had raised. 800 students took “The Miraculous and Church Growth” course between 1982 and 1985, breaking all enrollment records for a class in school history.  A course taught jointly by C. Peter Wagner and his research assistant John Wimber (Founder of the Vineyard Church), “The Miraculous and Church Growth” explored the role that signs and wonders play in the success of the evangelistic ministry of the church.  At the close of each lecture there was a laboratory session at which the signs and wonders that had been discussed in class would be actively sought by those in attendance. 

Overflow crowds from the school and the larger community soon gathered for every laboratory session to witness the anticipated miraculous manifestations of God’s power, generating both criticism and notoriety, and raising any number of significant Biblical, theological, scientific, and pastoral concerns.  Eventually Fuller called for a moratorium on this course until those concerns could be adequately addressed. An interdenominational and interdisciplinary task force of 12 highly respected scholars drawn from both inside and outside the faculty of the school and chaired by Louis Smedes, a Professor of Theology and Ethics at Fuller and a member of the Christian Reformed Church, undertook the work.  Their report was published in 1987 by Fuller Theological Seminary in 1987 under the title, “Ministry and the Miraculous.”

Taking the promise of Jesus Christ in John 14:12-14 that His disciples would do the works that He did and even greater works as their reference point, they noted that the disciples of Jesus in the book of Acts did far fewer miracles in both number and range than did Jesus in His ministry reported by the Gospels, and that by “any ordinary standard of equivalence,” the miracles claimed by parts of the church in their ministries today “hardly qualify as ‘greater works’ than Jesus did.” 

Because the claims of supernaturalism in the ministry of the church fall short of the promise that Jesus made in John 14:12-14, the Fuller Task Force considered other interpretations of its meaning –

It may be that “the total scope of healing in all the medical and psychiatric hospitals, sanatoria, clinics, and other institutions that Christian believers have been enabled by the Spirit to build and operate around the world” have brought about countless more healings than Jesus performed in the days of His public ministry.

It may be that “spiritually motivated movements of social reform have improved the living conditions of people to a quantitative degree far greater than the occasional physical healings our Lord performed.”

The Task Force noted that “in terms of effects on the earthly lives of people, the believing community has, without claim to the miraculous, done ‘greater works’ than Jesus did.”

Then they observed that it may be that the “greater things” that Jesus was talking about in John 14:12-14 have to do with the “spiritual effects” of the ministry of the church rather than to the miraculous healings of bodies, after all, they pointed out, everyone who was ever healed by Jesus in the Gospels eventually got sick again and died, but the preaching of the Gospel “bears fruit for eternal life.” It is, after all, personal regeneration and not physical healing that is called the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Romans 1:16).

And finally, they wondered if it may be that the works of Gospel compassion and the values of the Kingdom  – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, visiting the sick (Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 1:46-55; 4:16-19)  – that are the “greater works” that Jesus promised His disciples would do.

Without denying the possibility of miraculous divine interventions, the Fuller Task Force nevertheless concluded that “the priorities of the gospel call for the proclamation of forgiveness and for seeking justice, doing mercy, and walking humbly through life in stride with the victorious and compassionate Savior.”  In an age when people are seeking after spectacular signs to bolster belief (something both Jesus and Paul criticized), the Fuller Task Force on “Ministry and the Miraculous” concluded that the priority of a church committed to Gospel ministry would be to the ordinary means of grace whereby people are brought to repentance and faith, receive forgiveness and regeneration, and are nurtured into lives of transformation and growth.  As a standard Gospel song from my personal spiritual past put it –

“I cannot doubt the work of God it’s plain for all to see;
The miracles that He has wrought should lead to Calvary.
I believe in miracles; I’ve see a soul set free.
Miraculous the change in one redeemed through Calvary…

I believe in miracles, for I believe in God!” (Carlton Buck)

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The Birthday of the Church?

In the fifth episode of the third season of “West Wing” – “On the Day Before” – there’s a gala dinner at the White House for Nobel Prize winners.  But before the event begins there’s a suicide bombing in Israel that kills 2 Americans, and on the domestic front, President Bartlet has just vetoed his first bill and the wheels are in motion to override him in a late night vote in Congress. So, C.J. goes to the White House press room in her formal dinner gown to provide an update and answer some questions when, in the middle of the scrum, a lifestyle reporter from Dallas who was in town to report on the gala asks her what she’s wearing?  She wanted to know who the designer of C.J.’s dress was?  C.J. was flabbergasted that this is what that reporter wanted to talk about when so many more important things were happening, and this is my experience with the way that Pentecost gets celebrated in most churches these days.  We talk about “dresses” when something bigger and so much more important is going on.

Pentecost is the birthday of the church!” we say, and if we weren’t social distancing right now for all we’re worth then there’d be a cake with candles, some balloons, streamers, and the singing of “Happy Birthday to You” during the children’s’ sermon in worship. It happens every year, but is it true?  Is Pentecost the birthday of the church? 

Well, the Bible never says that it is.  There’s no chapter and verse for this idea.  In fact, what the Bible does say would seem to refute it.  Luke tells us at the end of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost that “those who accepted his message were baptized and that day about 3,000 people were added to them” (Acts 2:41).  The right question is – “Added to what?”  Clearly something existed before the events of the day of Pentecost. So, what was that something?  In Acts 2:1 we’re told that “when the day of Pentecost had arrived they were all together in one place.”   It was to this “they” that those 3,000 were added, so just exactly who were “they”?  Well, I think that “they” were the church before the day of Pentecost.

In Acts chapter 1 the “they” were simply identified as the “120” (Acts 1:16).  The 120 were the “little flock” that Jesus had gathered around Him in the days of His public ministry and whose shepherd He was (Luke 12:32; Matthew 10:16; 26:31; John 10:1-21). From the very first moment of Creation it was God’s plan to be in close communion/community with human beings, those who bear His image. God had the church in mind and heart from before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-6; Revelation 13:8).  As the Heidelberg Catechism explains it –


“Out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, the Son of God, by his Spirit and Word, gathers, defends, and preserves for Himself, a church chosen to everlasting lifein the unity of the true faith.”

The ingathering of Israel as God’s chosen people was the first-fruits of God’s plan to “gather, defend, and preserve for Himself” a people of every nation, tribe, and language for eternal life (Revelation 5:9-10).  The church gets “grafted onto” this work that was already underway and that continues today (Romans 11:11-32).

Traditionally, the birth of the church has been tied to the death of Christ on the cross (Ephesians 2:11-21).  Specifically, the church’s birth has been tied to the very moment when Christ’s side was pierced by the soldier’s spear (John 19:34) and “at once there came out blood and water.” It’s said that “the Church was born from the wounded side of the crucified Christ (Keith Fournier).

Origen wrote “Christ has flooded the universe with divine and sanctifying waves.

For the thirsty He sends a spring of living water from the wound which the spear opened in His Side. From the wound in Christ’s side has come forth the Church, and He has made her His Bride.” The great golden-mouthed Bishop of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom in his catechetical instructions to the early Christians taught, “The gospel records that when Christ was dead, but still hung on the cross, a soldier came and pierced his side with a lance and immediately there poured out water and blood… the water was a symbol of baptism and the blood was a symbol of the holy Eucharist… (and) from these two sacraments the Church is born…” (https://www.catholic.org/lent/story.php?id=41144)

And so, the official “Catechism of the Catholic Church” (1994) teaches –

“The Church is born primarily of Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation, anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist and fulfilled on the cross. The origin and growth of the Church are symbolized by the blood and water which flowed from the open side of the crucified Jesus. For it was from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross that there came forth the wondrous sacrament of the whole Church.  As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross.”

From this perspective, the Church existed before the day of Pentecost, but the day of Pentecost brought something to the Church that was absolutely indispensable to its continuing life, ministry, and vitality.  Church doesn’t work without the Holy Spirit, and so the Risen Christ, after telling the disciples what their mission was going to be (Luke 24:47 – “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His name to all nations”), told them to wait until they were “clothed with power from on high” before getting started (Luke 24:49). Reflecting on this, A.W. Tozer made a truly startling observation –

“The popular notion that the first obligation of the church is to spread the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth is false. Her first obligation is to be spiritually worthy to spread it.  Our Lord said, ‘Go ye,’ but He also said, ‘Tarry ye,’ and the tarrying had to come before the going. Had the disciples gone forth as missionaries before the Day of Pentecost it would have been an overwhelming spiritual disaster.”

When we promote Pentecost as “the birthday of the church,” not only are we saying something that Scripture doesn’t say (which should give us pause), we’re also missing the point.  We’re talking about dresses when something so much bigger and so much more important is going on.  That much bigger and more important something that’s happening on Pentecost is the giving of the gift of the Holy Spirit, God’s indwelling and empowering presence.  Baptizing us in the Holy Spirit is part of what Jesus as the Christ came to do (John 1:33; 7:37-39; 14:16; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7; 16:13).  This is an aspect of Christ’s saving work no less than was His birth in the manger, His death on Calvary’s Cross, and His resurrection from a borrowed tomb. Pentecost is the fulfillment of a promise that signals that the new age of salvation has dawned (Joel 2:28-32; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel  36:26-27).  To make Pentecost about the birthday of the church is to bury the lead. To make it about the birthday of the church is to confuse an effect with its cause.  It is to talk about a dress, and to miss the point. DBS+

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“How I’m Spending My Quarantine”

I’m remembering those first days back in school essays that I had to write when I was a kid – “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.”  The Quarantine is not over for me, no matter what the President, the Governor, or the County Judge says. I’m old. I’m fat. I’ve got a lung problem.  I’m the proverbial “low lying fruit” for the Corona 19 virus.  And so, I’ve not been out of the house, except for a doctor’s visit and some grandson drive-by sightings, since March 15th. That’s 10 weeks now and counting. So, how have I spent my quarantine?

Well, I’ve drunk coffee.  I’ve shopped and worshiped online. I’ve posted some blogs. I’ve played with the cat. I’ve watched the news. I’ve listened to music. I’ve sat on the patio most mornings with the Book of Common Prayer (1928) in hand and heart, watching the birds and listening to the wind blow through the trees. I’ve spent lots and lots of time with my best friend, Mary Lynn, liking her even more… most of the time, and I’ve tried to keep up with other friends too. Oh yeah, and I’ve been reading.  In fact, proportionately, I’ve spent as much time reading every day for these past 10 weeks as I’ve spent sleeping.

92 books – that’s my reading count as of this morning.  It will be 95 by nightfall. I’ve read part or all of 92 books over the past 10 weeks.  This is not a random read.  It’s focused. I’m chasing something.  This is the best part of my station in life right now. Before, when I pursued an idea for preaching, or teaching, or living, I had limits.  I could only go so far with an idea before I had to step away.  I could sample a truth, but never fully digest it.  There simply wasn’t time. There were always meetings to attend, plans to be made, hospitals to be visited, people to be seen, conversations to be had, services to organize and conduct, and sermons to write and preach.  Now, I’ve got time.  And so, for the past 10 weeks I’ve been in hot pursuit of something.  It’s St. John of the Cross’s (1542 – 1591) fault.

One of the last public events I attended before the quarantine began was a presentation on the life and thought of St. John of the Cross at the Carmelite Monastery here in Dallas.  It was the third of four scheduled sessions on his life and thought (The fourth didn’t survive the virus-imposed isolation – Dang it!).  Again, one of the best parts of my life this past year have been the workshops, seminars, and conferences that I have been able to attend, and these sessions on St. John of the Cross by his some of his spiritual descendants (The Carmelites) have been among the best. 

St. John of the Cross has never been my theological “home-boy,” in fact, he would be from the deep shadow side of my spiritual temperament.  This isn’t going to come as news to any of you who know me, but I’m decidedly more head than heart (Remember those 92 books that I was telling you about?).  I think about my faith more like an attorney or an engineer than feeling it like a poet or a painter.  Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Francis Turrentin, Herman Bavinck, Hendrikus Berkhof – these guys are my more natural companions on the journey of faith. I “get” what they were doing.  I do the same thing.  I pull ideas apart and then I put them back together again.  I analyze and systematize. But in obedience to Matthew 22:37, you know, that business about loving God “with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind,” I’ve consciously tried to cultivate relationships with people who aren’t like me both in what they think of Christianity and in how they think about Christianity.  It’s knowing that I need to love God with more than just mind that explains my surprising relationship with St. John of the Cross this past year.

Known as a “poet theologian,” the best-known writings of St. John of the Cross are commentaries on some love poems about God that he wrote, what he called “Stanzas of the Soul.”  Here’s his most famous one – “The Dark Night”

“One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
—ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
—ah, the sheer grace!—
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
—him I knew so well—
there in a place where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast|
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

This poem is cut from the same bolt of spiritual cloth as the “Song of Solomon” in the Bible. The analogous use of romantic passion as a way of thinking and talking about our relationship with God has a clear and strong biblical pedigree (see the interpretive key provided in Ephesians 5:32 after a teaching on marriage). One of the 92 books I read in my quarantine so far was Charles William’s (1886 – 1945) “Outlines of Romantic Theology,” and I’m still thinking about what he wrote.  You see, his touchy, feely argument is not a natural way for me to think and talk about Christianity. I’m much more comfortable and conversant with the approach of the critique of so much contemporary Christian praise and worship music these days as “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs.  Preston Sprinkle writes (https://www.prestonsprinkle.com/blog/2015/02/is-jesus-my-boyfriend) –

“Something is wrong when I can sing a worship song to God and then turn to my wife with the same lyrics. Because, when I look at you, babe, “my heart turns violently inside of my chest,” and I feel like…

‘I’m madly in love with you’

‘You are more beautiful than anyone ever’

‘There has never ever been anyone like you’

‘I want to hear your voice, I want to know you more’

‘I want to touch you, I want to see your face’

‘I’m desperate for you; I’m lost without you’

Is Jesus our cosmic boyfriend? 

These are all lyrics from actual worship songs, but they also give me some good material to romance my wife. Is this okay? Is our love for God an amped up version of the romantic love we have for our significant others?”

Dr. Sprinkle says “no,” and all my instincts immediately want to jump on board his argument. Why, I’m not even comfortable with PDA with my wife of 45 years, so its highly unlikely that you’re ever going to catch me swaying in worship to the music with my arms outstretched in an imagined Jesus’ embrace and a syrupy sentimental look on my upturned face.  This whole approach to Christianity is just so far from my own spiritual experience that I try to avoid it if as much as I can.  And then along comes St. John of the Cross…

“Upon my flowering breast|
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.”

I remember sitting in a conference room at the Carmelite house here in Dallas earlier this year listening to a very engaging explanation of the meaning of this mystical poem by a very enthusiastic priest, and wondering if I had ever felt anything even remotely close to what it was that St. John of the Cross was describing?

Psalm 73:25 says, “There is nothing upon earth that I desire besides thee,” and those words convict me. Theoretically they’re true for me, but in practice I find that my motives have always been so much more mixed.  I want God, and I have wanted personal success.  I want God, and I have wanted financial security.  I want God, and I have wanted good health.  I want God, and I have wanted to be liked. I want God, and I have wanted to get my way.  Singing Matthew 6:33 has been part of my worship repertoire since my Christian college days – “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you, allelu, alleluia.”  And, again, it’s theoretically true.  But too often, in my own experience, it’s not been about me seeking God and then getting these things added, but rather, it’s been more about me seeking all these things, and then trying to add God to the package.  Augustine (354 – 430) saw it as a matter of “rightly ordering” our loves.  There’s room for God and “all these things” in our lives, but there’s a proper order to them, a right sequence, and it’s getting them rightly ordered that proves to be so tricky.

I preached my Senior Sermon in seminary chapel 41 years ago on Matthew 6:33.  When I started seminary at Fuller in California, Dr. David Hubbard, then the President of the school, preached a sermon in chapel (getting to hear him preach weekly was probably the highlight of my experience there) about the dangers of a theological education in pursuit of a pastoral vocation.  He asked us to imagine a kid so enthralled with cars and driving them that he decides to become a mechanic.  He goes to mechanic school where he learns all about the mysteries of the internal combustion engine.  He becomes efficient at taking cars apart and at putting them back together again.  He becomes a certified automotive expert.  But imagine, Dr Hubbard said, that if while this kid was busy learning all about cars and how they work, that he forgets how to drive!  And Dr. Hubbard said that this was something that all of us who were sitting there in chapel that day were at real risk of having happen to us because we were seminarians.  In learning all about God and God’s ways, it’s possible, Dr. Hubbard explained, to lose our relationship with God, what it was that had brought us to seminary.  Talking about God is not the same thing as talking to God.  Reading about God is not the same thing as listening for God.  Knowing all about the Trinitarian controversies in the fourth century is not the same thing as knowing the Triune God.

I told this story in my Senior Sermon at the end of my seminary journey back in 1979. I talked about how I had not gone to seminary to become a religious professional. I had not gone to seminary to get qualified to run a religious institution.  I had not gone to seminary to garner academic recognition.  No, I had gone to seminary because I’d had an encounter with the living, loving God when I was 12 years old, and that moment had changed me fundamentally and inexorably.  I went to seminary so I might know God better, and make God known more clearly.  But standing there in the pulpit of my seminary’s chapel just weeks from ordination and graduation, I had to admit that “all these things”  had muddied the waters some for me.

In that message I talked about Soren Kierkegaard’s parable of “The Candidate Seeking.” “Imagine a candidate in theology,” Kierkegaard wrote, “Let it be me, I also indeed am a candidate in theology.”

“He has already been a candidate for some few years, and now he enters upon that period of life when it is said of him that ‘he is seeking.’ ‘A candidate in theology’ –‘seeks’ – and when one hears that a “theological” candidate is seeking, one need not have an especially vivid imagination to understand what it is he seeks. Of course, it is the kingdom of God, which indeed one must seek first!  However, your guess is wrong; no, he seeks something else, as parish, a living – he seeks this almost absolutely.”

Well, it’s now 40 years later, and I found the living I sought.  I was privileged to serve five churches, the last one for 21 years.  I got “all these things” in abundance, but my time with St. John of the Cross has recently been forcing me to think about how God and His kingdom have fared in this same time.  Has God and God’s Kingdom been what I always sought first, and loved most?

I find that there is real comfort in remembering that no journey of faith undertaken in Scripture ever moves forward in a straight line without detour or delay. The story of Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land is characterized by fits and starts, and yet Abraham is extolled as the Father of Faith (Romans 4:16).  The Israelites wander in the wilderness for a generation, and yet they remain God’s chosen people.  The story of David’s accession to the throne is messy and muddled, and yet David is forever memorialized as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22).  Nobody “marches to Zion” unimpeded, not even St. John of the Cross.

Helen Mallon’s confessional essay “The Arc of Repentance” in the “Mars Hill Review” (http://www.marshillreview.com/menus/extracts.shtm) remains one of the most impactful reads of my life.  After narrating the frenzy of an emotional affair that she’d had with another writer, Helen Mallon quoted a line from a George Herbert poem – Though I fail, I weep: Though I halt in pace, yet I creep to the throne of grace,” and then she wrote of a restorative family trip to the beach –

“Two days ago, we watched seagulls scavenging at the water’s edge. They cut arcs in the wind. One hovered lower than the others, its head cocked toward a piece of bread that floated on the shallow waves. It pivoted as if its unmoving wingtip had punctured the sky, then dropped down, ungainly and raucous, to snatch the crust. My earthbound repentance is the stillness around which I turn; this arc is my true shape. I will move forward, my need for grace orienting me toward the true Center. Though I’d like to rewrite the last twelve months of my life, I am comforted to know I’m not the final author of my own story. Can I find a better name than this: to be called ‘One Who Returns.’”

And by this standard, the standard of the orientation of grace and perpetual return, God and God’s Kingdom have, if not necessarily rightly ordered, always been in view.   But that’s very different from the heart-aching singularity of St. John of the Cross’s focus in his poem, isn’t it?   So, when has this singularity of focus been my experience? And my answer is – in moments, only in moments, and that may be okay. 

That Carmelite priest who led us through St. John of the Cross’s poem said that there is a sense in which we must read this journey of love that he described as the journey that we are on from this life, through death, to the next life.  One of the basic ways that the church has historically thought and talked about what awaits us on the other side of death is as a vision, the “Beatific Vision,” a vision that makes us “happy.” And what is that happiness producing vision?  Well, it’s a vision of God.  As Paul put it in 2 Corinthians, now we walk by faith, but then we will walk by sight (5:7), and in I Corinthians, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood” (13:12).  The “Beatific Vision” is where the book of Revelation winds up its vision of the coming Kingdom – “…the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him;  they shall see his face…” (22:3-4).  As the priest at that Conference talked about how this vision is the goal of the Christian life, a goal not fully realized until after death,  I remembered something Keith Green said nearly 30 years ago  –

“The Lord made me realize recently that if I do not absolutely relish His company now, desiring to be with Him more than anyone in the whole world, then I would not really be comfortable in heaven at all – for it is there that we will spend all eternity in the company of the Holy One who made us.”

And that’s what I’ve been trying to come to terms with since this quarantine began.  The 92 books that I’ve read so far, and the stack of another 50 or so spread out on the floor of my office in front of my desk that are waiting to be read, are all about what becomes of us when we die, and how finally being “face to face” with God is the organizing center around which all of the Gospel’s promises about eternal life revolve.  Some ideas about what the future holds for us are becoming very clear as I read.  There is broad consensus among the various Christian camps on more things than I had ever imagined, and I am eager to share what I am learning.  But here is this most interesting thing about this process – the deeper I dig into the Biblical witness and the church’s interpretations, the more singular my hope becomes.  St. John of the Cross alerted me to the journey that my life, that our lives, are on, and with Boethius (480-525), prompts me to pray –

“O Holy One, give the spirit power to climb
To the fountain of all light, and be purified.
Break through the mists of earth, the weight of the clod
Shine forth in splendor, thou that art calm weather,
And quiet resting place for faithful souls.
To see Thee is the end and the beginning,
Thou carriest us, and Thou dost go before,
Thou art the journey, and the journey’s end.”

Amen.

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An Order for an Ascension Day Worship Service

The Christ Candle

Light a candle to symbolize the presence of the Risen Reigning Christ. Ascension Day is when we remember the way that “our Savior Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). Light the Christ Candle as an expression of your faith in Christ’s promise to be with us always, even to the close of the age (Matthew 28:20).

Looking

To “ignite your imagination” access images online of the Ascension and sit with them for a while. Among my favorites are –  “The Ascension of Christ” by Pietro Perugino,  the Ascension fresco by Giotto di Bondone, and Andrea Ritzos’ Icon of the “Ascension of Christ with the Hetoimasia” (The  prepared throne, the ready throne, the Throne of the Second Coming).

Listening

“L’Ascension” (“The Ascension”) is a piece for orchestra composed by Olivier Messiaen (1908 – 1992)  in 1932. Messiaen described it as “4 meditations for orchestra.” The orchestral piece is in four brief sections. A complete performance takes around 27 minutes.

  1. “Majesté du Christ demandant sa gloire à son Père” (“The majesty of Christ demanding his glory of the Father”)
  2. “Alleluias sereins d’une âme qui désire le ciel” (“Serene alleluias of a soul that longs for heaven”)
  3. “Alleluia sur la trompette, alleluia sur la cymbale” (“Alleluia on the trumpet, alleluia on the cymbal”)
  4. “Prière du Christ montant vers son Père” (“Prayer of Christ ascending towards his Father”)

Call to Worship –

…having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, may you know …the immeasurable greatness of his power in those who believe, according to the working of his great might which he accomplished in Christ when he raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…” (Ephesians 1:18-21)

Ascension Day Collect – Book of Common Prayer

Grant, we pray, Almighty God, that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with him continually dwell; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Hymn –

“Alleluia! Sing to Jesus” (Dix; Prichard) – #233 in the “Chalice Hymnal”

Scriptures –

Acts 1:6-11

Philippians 2:5-11

Sermon –

“Getting Carried Away” – Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, First Congregational Church (UCC), Columbus, Ohio (https://www.first-church.org/Downloads/sermon051213.pdf)

A Litany of Jesus Glorified –

Lord, have mercy on us.
Christ, have mercy on us.
Lord, have mercy on us.
Jesus in Glory, graciously hear us.
God the Father of heaven, have mercy on us.

God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
God the Holy Ghost,
Holy Trinity, one God,
Jesus, King of Glory,
Jesus, Lord and Christ,
Jesus, Prince and Savior,
Jesus, blessed and only mighty,
Jesus, Who only hast immortality,
Jesus, Who didst ascend into heaven,
Jesus, Who didst ascend above the stars into the Heaven of heavens,
Jesus, Who didst ascend to Thy Father and our Father, to Thy God and our God,
Jesus, Who ledst captivity captive,
Jesus, Who despoiledst principalities and powers, triumphing over them.
Jesus, Who art exalted by the right hand of God,
Jesus, Who art exalted far above all principality and power,
Jesus, to Whom all power is given in heaven and earth,
Jesus, Who art crowned with glory and honor,
Jesus, Who art glorified with the glory which Thou hadst with the Father before the world was,
Jesus, Who art glorified, in Thy Sacred Humanity, at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
Jesus, Who must reign till Thou hast put all things under Thy feet,
Jesus, Whose throne is forever and ever,
Jesus, Who art adored by all the Angels of God,
Jesus, Who art anointed with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows,
Jesus, Who art the happiness of the Blessed,
Jesus, in Whose Presence is life,
Jesus, Who hast opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers,
Jesus, Who hast entered into heaven itself for us,
Jesus, the Mediator of the New Testament,
Jesus, our High Priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech,
Jesus, Who always livest to make intercession for us,
Jesus, Who art able to save forever those that come unto the Father by Thee
Jesus, Head over all the Church,
Jesus, Who didst send down the Holy Ghost on Thine Apostles,
Jesus, Who didst promise that whatsoever we ask in Thy Name Thou wouldst grant…
Jesus, Who art gone to prepare a place for us,
Jesus, Who shall come again in like manner as Thou wentest away,
Jesus, Who didst promise new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth justice,
Jesus, Who livest forever,
Jesus, Son of God the Father,

We sinners: Beseech Thee to hear us.

That we may seek the things that are above, and not the things that are upon earth,
That Thou wouldst cleanse our consciences from dead works to serve the living God,
That we may live the rest of our time in the flesh, not after the desires of men, but according to the will of God,
That Thou wouldst dwell in our hearts by faith,
That Thou wouldst come unto us, and make Thy abode with us,
That we may hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,
That Thou wouldst pour down Thy benedictions upon Thy Church,
That Thou wouldst order all things for the good of them that love Thee,
That Thou wouldst draw all men unto Thee…
That Thou wouldst come again and take us to Thyself, that where Thou art, we may be also,
That when Thou shalt appear, we may receive a never-fading crown of glory,
That we may behold Thy glory,
That in Thy light we may see light,
That Thou wouldst have mercy on the souls of the faithful departed,
That Thou wouldst let the light of Thy countenance shine upon them,
That Thou wouldst admit them to the joy of the Beatific Vision,
That Thou wouldst hasten the day of Thy appearing,
That Thou wouldst hear us from Thy holy place,

Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world: Spare us, O Lord,
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world: Graciously hear us, O Lord.
Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world: Have mercy on us, O Lord.

Christ, graciously hear us.

God is ascended with jubilee. Alleluia.
And the Lord with the sound of the trumpet. Alleluia.

Let us pray: Grant, we beseech Thee, Almighty God, that we who believe Thine only-begotten Son to have ascended into heaven, may ourselves also in heart and mind thither ascend, and through the same Lord, dwell in heavenly places. Amen.

[Source: “Kyrie Eleison: Two Hundred Litanies with Historico-Liturgical Introduction and Notes” – Rev. Fr. Benjamin Francis Musser, O.F.M. (Westminster, MD: The Newman Bookshop, 1944) with a few “Protestant Revisions”]

Hymn –

“Jesus Shall Reign Where’er the Sun” (Watts; Hatton) – #95 in the “Chalice Hymnal”

Prayer

Grant, Almighty God, that as thou hast given us thy only begotten Son to rule us, and hast by thy good pleasure consecrated him a King over us, that we may be perpetually safe and secure under his hand against all the attempts of the devil and of the whole world, – O grant, that we may suffer ourselves to be ruled by his authority, and so conduct ourselves, that he may ever continue to watch for our safety: and as thou hast committed us to him, that he may be the guardian of our salvation, so also suffer us not either to turn aside or to fall, but preserve us ever in his service, until we be at length gathered into that blessed and everlasting kingdom, which has been procured for us by the blood of thy only Son. Amen. (John Calvin)

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