“There’s More to Do…”

The book of Acts is the Gospel of Luke, Part 2.

The Gospel of Luke begins with Luke explaining himself, explaining what it was that he wrote, and why he wrote it – Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us,  just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,  it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” (1:1-4)

The Gospel of Luke presents itself to us as a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us,” based on what “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” were saying about them, written down in “an orderly account,” that its readers might be “informed” and “know the truth.” My expectation when I open the Gospel of Luke and read it is that I am going to be told about something that Jesus Christ said and/or did, and why it matters.

The book of Acts begins with a quick glance back before a steady moving forward – “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach,  until the day when he was taken up…  And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me, for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ He said to them… ‘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.’ And when he had said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” (1:1-2; 4-5; 8-9)

The Ascension (Christ’s “lifting up”) and Pentecost (the “coming upon you” of the Holy Spirit) is what propels the church forward and outward in mission (“and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth”). And what is that mission? It is to be witnesses to what Jesus Christ says and does.  The Gospel of Luke is about what Jesus “began to do and teach,” and the book of Acts is about what Jesus continues to do and say through the Spirit-prompted ministry of the Church. This is the significance of John 20:21-23, one of the versions of the “Great Commission” – “Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”

Greater Things?

Jesus “continues” working by the Spirit in the life and work of the church, and this is what frames what surely must be one of the most astonishing things that Jesus Christ ever said.  Right after telling His disciples that He is “the way, the truth, and the life,” how people “come to the Father” (14:6), Jesus was directly challenged by Philip (14:8). “Show us the Father,” Philip blurted out, “and we shall be satisfied!” Jesus was disappointed that Philip had to ask this. How could Philip have been with Jesus for all that time, and Philip not seen God in Him? Jesus cited the “works” that He’d done as the clues about who He was (14:10-11).  In the Gospel of John the works Jesus did are called “signs” to make this very point.  And it was in this discussion of His works that Jesus said, Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (14:12).

“Greater works?” Really? Just think about the mighty “works”/”signs” in the Gospel of John that Jesus did –

  • Changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-11);
  • Healing the royal official’s son (Jn 4:46-54);
  • Healing the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1-15);
  • Feeding the 5,000 (Jn 6:5-14);
  • Walking on water (Jn 6:16-21);
  • Healing the man born blind (Jn 9:1-7); and
  • Raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-45).

What could be “greater” than this? So, the right question is – “What did Jesus mean when He spoke of the greater things that we would do as His disciples?” And as you would expect, there are a range of answers.

Signs and Wonders

Some say that the “greater” things we will do as Christ’s disciples are in fact “signs and wonders” just like those that the Gospels report Jesus Himself as having done. The public ministry of Jesus Christ was accompanied by signs and wonders attesting it (Acts 2:22), as was the ministry of the early church (Hebrews 2:3-4). There was a pattern to the church’s proclamation of the Gospel in the book of Acts. Something miraculous – a sign or wonder – would happen creating an audience and some expectation. The thing that happened would then be explained as an expression of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, seated at the right hand of God, present by indwelling presence of the Spirit, and coming again. And finally, people would be invited to receive Jesus Christ as their own Lord and Savior through repentance and faith. 

It’s hard to read the New Testament and not see this pattern at work, but equally clear are the New Testament’s criticisms of those who were constantly seeking after signs and wonders (Matthew 12:38-41; 16:1-4; John 4:48; I Corinthians 1:22), and its praise for those who believed in Jesus Christ without needing to “touch” and “see” (John 20:29; I Peter 1:8-9). The complexity of this for me as someone who tries to take Scripture seriously has led me to adopt St. Augustine’s nuanced position on these kinds of “special experiences.  He said, “I do not seek them, and when they are present, I do not reject them, but I am prepared to do entirely without them.”  If John 14:12 is not the carte blanch for the miraculous that some Christians take it to be, a summary demand for bigger and better spectacles, then there must be a way of understanding the “greater” of which Jesus spoke as meaning more than just perpetually punching up the “wow factor” of the things that accompany and attest the Gospel’s advance.

The Multiplication of Ministry

And so, another way that Christians have understood Jesus’ “greater” in John 14:12 has come from reading it more quantitatively than qualitatively. Instead of taking “greater” to mean “better,” lots of Christians through the centuries have taken the “greater” of John 14:12 to mean “more.” Acts 10:38 is my favorite summary verse in the Bible about the public ministry of Jesus Christ. Preaching to the household of Cornelius the Centurion in Caesarea, the Gospel’s first Gentile congregation, Peter explained that “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power” so that He could “go about doing good and healing all that were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.” 

Jesus going about doing good was just one person working really hard every single day to make people whole.  When Jesus called the 12 to join Him, the work of doing good and making people whole was instantly, exponentially increased.  The work of the Kingdom expanded from one person touching the lives of the people in His radius with God’s power and compassion, to 12 people touching the lives of the people in their radii with God’s power and compassion. That’s “greater,” a twelve-fold increase.  After the resurrection but before Pentecost, Luke tells us that Jesus had 120 followers in Jerusalem (Acts 1:15), that’s a ten-fold increase of the work of the 12.  120 people touching the lives of the people in their radii with God’s power and compassion; that’s “greater.” And then, before the day of Pentecost day was through, Luke tells us that 3,000 souls were “added’ to the church (Acts 2:41), and that meant 3,000 people joining the 120 in the work of touching the lives of the people in their radii with God’s power and compassion in Jesus Christ.

The statisticians tell us that there are 2.38 billion Christians in the world today. If we took “greater” to mean “more,” imagine the multiplication of ministry that would ensue. 2.38 billion Christians touching the lives of the people in their radii with the power and compassion of the God we know in Jesus Christ.

Science and Technology

Other Christians have taken a much more philosophical approach to the meaning of the “greater works” that Jesus said we who are His followers would do.  Did you know that since 1582 there has been a working observatory at the Vatican? The Vatican observatory is not just for show.  It is a modern working astronomical observatory engaged in major scientific research with Universities all around the world. The mission of the Vatican Observatory is to show the world that the science and religion are not enemies.  But the argument is bigger than that. The Church likes to say that modern science is related to Christianity “as a child is to the womb out of which it came forth and with full vitality.” The idea here is that there is something about Christianity that stimulates and nurtures scientific discovery and human creativity.

One of the first things that Christians have historically confessed about God is that God is “the Maker of the Heavens and the Earth.” When human beings were created, the stories at the beginning of Genesis tells us that this God who is the “Maker of all things Visible and Invisible” instilled capacity and delegated responsibility to “keep and till the earth” and “to subdue and have dominion over creation” to His human partners. But among the adverse consequences that the Fall brought was a disordering of creation (3:17-19), and part of the redemption that Christ brings is the healing of creation. We sing about this at Christmas –

“No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.”

A way of understanding God’s saving work in Christ is as the restoration of the shalom of creation. The pictures of everybody and everything fitting together in a web of mutual interdependence and productivity that makes for cosmic well-being that the stories of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis paint are the template for the wholeness that God in Christ by the Spirit is moving the universe toward, and this means that Christianity is not just about church and “religion.” The truth that Christianity claims and proclaims touches everything. As Abraham Kuyper (1837 – 1920) famously put it, ““There’s not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is Lord over all, does not exclaim, ‘Mine’!”  And so, the Vatican has a working observatory. Every advance in human knowledge, every scientific discovery, every expression of creativity and beauty, every technological advance that makes life better for humanity and the cosmos is part of the “greater” that Jesus said we would do because we are His. As Abraham Kuyper put it – “…By research and reflection, humanity penetrated through the very essence of nature and learned to put the powers hidden within her into service… blessing thousands simultaneously in all their distress and diseases… [And so] Jesus – knowing what He would bring about and establish in and through us through later development – told his disciples that they would perform things that were greater than those visible in his miracles.”

The Salvation of Souls

Finally, there are those Christians who take the promise of the “greater” things that Jesus said we will do as His disciples than He Himself did in the days of His public ministry as a reference to the soul work of the Great Commission – preaching the Gospel and making disciples. The gift of salvation that comes by faith that we get to offer people is the “greater” work gave us to do. This is the perspective of the first temptation of Christ in the wilderness.  Jesus could have spent every day turning stones into bread and feeding physically hungry people, but as He told the adversary, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4// Deuteronomy 6:16).

 This same temptation played out in the Gospel of John after the feeding of 5,000 (6:1-14). The people liked this Jesus, the one who filled their hungry bellies with bread and fish, and so they conspired to take Jesus “by force to make him king” (6:15). Jesus “withdrew” from them, and when He showed up again on the other side of the Sea of Galilee it was with the message that it wasn’t enough to “labor for the food that perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life” (6:27). Just as their fathers could eat their fill of manna in the wilderness one day, only to be hungry again the next day, so Jesus said that He came not just to satisfy a temporal, transient need, but rather to provide “the bread which comes down from heaven, that a person can eat and not die” (6:50).

Leon Morris (1914 – 2006), the noted Australian New Testament scholar, explained this perspective well when he wrote – “We may profitably ask ourselves, ‘What work on earth is greater than the salvation of souls?’ When a person is healed of a physical complaint that person’s life is enriched for a few more years. But when a soul is saved something has happened that lasts through eternity. [In John 14:12] Jesus is saying that on the basis of his finished work of salvation the church would go forth in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring many, many more people into salvation than Jesus did during the years of his ministry on earth.” As St. Augustine noted, “When the disciples preached the Gospel, nations believed!”  And what could be “greater” than that?

Conclusion

So, what are the “greater” things that Jesus said we would do as His disciples after He had gone away and sent the Holy Spirit to be our “Helper”? There is no single answer, I think because the answer is not just one thing.  Even the promise was plural.  Jesus didn’t say “a greater work” (singular) we would do, but “greater works.” We should not limit the promise or narrow the possibilities.

In the 1980’s when a class on “Signs and Wonders” became an “event” at Fuller Theological Seminary, the Trustees commissioned a panel of scholars to explore “ministry and the miraculous” to help them better understand and interpret the meaning of what they were experiencing.  Their report, as you would expect, factored the importance of the promise of “greater” works that Jesus made in John 14:12 into their conversations and considerations, and their conclusion (edited by Lewis Smedes) stands as an example of the kind of intelligent and reverent balance that made Fuller the first seminary I attended. “We cannot say for sure what Jesus meant,” it begins, and then it weaves a way to understanding that honors the diverse ways that the church has faithfully lived with and into this promise –

“We note that compared by any ordinary standard of equivalence, the healings reported by contemporary healing ministries hardly qualify as ‘greater works’ than Jesus did. But we may well believer that the total scope of healing in all the medical and psychiatric hospitals, sanatoria, clinics, and all other institutions that Christian believers have been enabled by the Spirit to build and operate around the world probably have indeed brought about countless times as many healings as our Lord performed during his brief sojourn with us on earth. And it may also be true 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 as testimonies to his messianic office. So, in terms of effects on earthly lives of people, the believing community has, without claim to the miraculous, done ‘greater works’ than Jesus did.

In promising ‘greater works than these,’ Jesus may also have been putting a higher value on the spiritual effects of what the church would do than he did on his miraculous healings of bodies that, in any case, got terminally sick again, and died.  He promised his disciples  that thjeir witness would bear fruit unto eternal life (see John 5:20; 6:28f; 16:7-11; 20:22, 23). He promised, through the (fruit of the womb of the) Virgin Mary, that the hungry would be given food to eat, the lowly would be lifted up, and the unrighteous powerful and rich would be scattered and sent away empty (Luke 1:47-53).  It may have been in such senses as these, that his disciples were to do greater works than Jesus.

…Some Christian expectation of miraculous divine intervention in life existed almost continuously from the time of the apostles to the Reformation. …[But] this expectation, when separated from the context of [redemptive] suffering, led rather easily from a sober and responsible faith to superstition and exploitation, from liturgical prayer to quasi-magical tricks. The Reformers of the church believed that preoccupation with miracles seduced believers from the heart of the gospel’s spiritual message and moral mandate, and they returned the churches to the heart of the matter, justifying faith and sanctifying obedience.

…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. Perhaps it was with such priorities in mind that both Jesus and Paul depreciated popular craving for signs.  And it must have been at least partly out of the same true sense of priority that the great Reformers, Calvin and Luther, and the great evangelists, Whitefield, Finney, Moody, Fuller, and Graham, among others, were blessed with life-changing and epoch-transforming spiritual power but who yet never encouraged miraculous healing as a public feature of their historic undertakings for God.”

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More

There’s always more.

This morning (Monday, June 7) I read a John Henry Newman sermon as part of my sacred reading – “God the Sole Stay for Eternity.” Where I felt the “tug” was where he wrote –

“At the end of millions of years, I shall find in Thee the same, or rather, greater sweetness than at first, and shall seem then only beginning to enjoy Thee: and so on for eternity I shall ever be a little child beginning to be taught the rudiments of Thy infinite Divine nature.”

This was the same “tug” that I felt in church yesterday morning. It was a morning of incredible music at church (it always is – praise God for the musicians – they speak the language of God). As my pastor said, “sometimes you hear music, at other times you feel music.” Yesterday we all felt the music in church, and it felt like the Holy Spirit to me.

Two scriptures were insistently brought to my mind by the Spirit yesterday as I was gathered with God’s people under the Word, around the Table, and bathed in the power and beauty of the music of church yesterday morning, John 14:12 –  “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father,” and John 15:12-13 – “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

More!

That’s what these verses are telling us.

There are “greater things” to do.

There’s more truth to be known.

One of the very first things that I learned in my formal study of the Bible in Christian College was that Scripture unveils God’s truth gradually. We don’t get it all at once. No single verse, no single book, no single moment in salvation history dumps the full load. Hebrews 1:1-3 makes this clear –

“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.  He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.” 

Biblical Revelation is progressive. Glimpses in the Old Testament become gazes in the New Testament.  The hints and hunches we get from the Old Testament become the big ideas of the New Testament, and among the last things that Jesus told us was that the Spirit is given because there’s more to even those big ideas that we were given in the New Testament.  They have implications and applications that are still unfolding. God didn’t check out when Jesus went away. The Spirit was sent to continue the conversation, to deepen the insight, to advance God’s redemptive purpose.  In seminary this idea was framed as the “already and not yet” of our salvation. Things have happened. God has spoken and acted in decisive ways with the result that things are well underway. We know where it’s all going, what it is that God wants, and how it is that God is going about getting there.  That’s the “already.” But it’s not finished. There’s more to come, and that’s the “not yet.” 

Deism is the spiritual perspective that postulates a good God who sets things up, sets things in motion, steps back to let things play out on their own, and who will only step back in at the end to assess how we did.  I know lots of “New Testament Deists” (in fact, I have had a tendency in this direction myself). With the New Testament in our hands, we think that we’ve got it all even though the New Testament that we hold in our hands tells that we don’t! 

There’s more.

There’s always more. 

There’s more to do. 

There’s more to know.

The Spirit is the agent of that “more.”

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Trinity Sunday

Today is “Trinity Sunday” on the Church calendar. Since the 14th century the Church in the West has used the first Sunday after Pentecost to think and talk about how the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life,” and Jesus Christ who was “born of the Virgin Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, raised on the third day, and ascended into heaven,” “fit” together with the one God, “the Father Almighty,” the “Maker of heaven and earth.”  Trying to explain how the God of “one substance in three persons” works (See: www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/creeds/athanasian-creed) is what most churches around the world will be attempting to do today. But not the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  It will be the unusual congregation in my church family that so much as mentions the fact that today is “Trinity Sunday.”

The churches of the Stone/Campbell Movement have had an interesting relationship with the historic doctrine of the Trinity. We baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19), and we bless you with the words, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:14), but we would really rather not use the word “Trinity.”  I discovered this at one of the first worship services I ever attended at a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  It gave me real pause when it happened and was almost  enough for me to move along on my journey to find a church where I “fit.”

We stood to sing “Holy, Holy, Holy” as the worship hymn at the beginning of the service in that church, as sturdy and standard a hymn as there is in the church’s repertoire. The key was pitched just right, the accompaniment was well-paced, the words were familiar, the singing was enthusiastic, and I easily joined in –

“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty…”

And then it happened. Just as I opened my mouth to sing the familiar words of the last line of the first stanza – “God in three persons, blessed Trinity!” – that Disciples congregation I was visiting sang instead was – “God over all, and blest eternally.” I didn’t see it coming. Confused, I asked the pastor about it afterwards, and he patiently told me that as a New Testament Church that was trying to speak where the Bible speaks and to be silent where the Bible is silent, that they preferred using Biblical language when talking about Biblical things, and since the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible, he said they tried not to use it.  He told me that they didn’t deny the fact that we experience the Biblical God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “We will baptize and bless you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” he told me, “because that’s what the Bible does.”  But since the Bible never explains just exactly how this works, how God can be “one in three,” that minister told me that, not wanting to say more than the Bible says, they were “content to live with its mystery.” In time I found that I could live with it too, and have been now for more than 50 years. 

In a doctoral seminar on developments in contemporary theology that I took during my

studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, when the class got into the weeds one day in a discussion about the Trinity with my Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, and Catholic peers arguing over some of the finer points of theology, I sat back as a spectator and smugly made the observation that as a Disciple I was comfortable with the mystery of it all, to which our professor, Dr. Alan Lewis of blessed memory, quickly replied, “that, or you’re theologically lazy!” I can see why some might conclude this of my church family. There’s a silence born of ignorance and sloth, from the refusal to think hard and speak clearly.  But there’s also a silence born of humility and reverence. There’s a whole tradition of Christian spirituality, the apophatic tradition, based on it, and I’d like to think that this is what accounts for our silence as a church.

I just love Psalm 131. It may very well be my favorite Psalm of them all.  As someone who’s faith has relentlessly sought understanding and who has tried to love God with all the strength of my mind, I find Psalm 131’s admission and image strangely reassuring –

“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.”

In 1273 when he was fifty years old and after having written hundreds of works, and while he was still working on his masterpiece, the “Summa Theologica” (“Summary of Theology”), Thomas Aquinas went to the chapel to pray one day, came back, and never wrote another word.   When pressed to explain this, all Thomas Aquinas would say was that “everything that I have written seems like straw to me compared to those things that I have seen and have been revealed to me.” Theologian Fred Sanders explains, “Thomas received a visionary moment of clarity, and saw the object of his theological reasoning in a way that made further writing inadequate.” Dr. Sanders writes further –

“Once, at the beginning of his work ‘Opusculum De Creaturis Spiritualibus’ (‘The Perfection of Spiritual Beings’), Thomas had given a rough reason of why theologians do what they do: ‘Not being able to do the work of the angels in choir, we can at least write about them.’ As he drew near to the destiny of doing the work of the angels gathered around God, perhaps the task of writing out theology, which was always a kind of compensation anyway, became less urgent.”

I’d like to think that my church’s principled reticence to say more than the Bible says about God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is an expression of this same appreciation for mystery, modesty, and devotion. Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662), the French mathematician and mystic who was so much more interested in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the God of experience and relationships) than he was in “the God of philosophers and theologians” (the God of ideas and arguments) liked to say that “the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.”  And I’ve found this to be true of my Trinitarianism. The idea of God as a Trinity is just as confusing and complicated to me as it probably is to you. I read a lot of theology, and I can honestly say that there are ways of thinking and talking about God as Trinity that make my head hurt.  But my experience of God as a Trinity is something that is deeply meaningful and profoundly moving to me. 

Irenaeus of Lyons (130 – 202 AD), one of the Apostolic Fathers (the second generation of early church leaders after the Apostles) said that we can think of Jesus Christ as God’s “right hand,” and the Holy Spirit as God’s “left hand.” His point was that the God of Scripture is ambidextrous.  This was his picturesque way of talking about how the one eternal and invisible God becomes present and active in our world, and it has helped me make sense of my own relationship with God.

My Trinitarianism is functional. To use a business analogy, God the Father has the vision, God the Son is in production, and God the Spirit oversees sales.  Saving us is God’s idea. The saving work was actually done by Christ in His incarnation, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension. And the application of that salvation to individual human hearts as well as to social systems and structures is what the Holy Spirit does.  This understanding of God frames every theological discussion we have about where God is and what God is doing. And so, while we may not talk about it being Trinity Sunday in worship today, when we gather around the Lord’s Table, as we do every Lord’s Day as a church, to break bread, pour a cup, remember Christ and Him crucified, and give thanks, it will be within this Trinitarian framework.

The “Preamble” to the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a creed-like confession with a Trinitarian flow to it (“In Christ’s name and by his grace”— “in God, maker of heaven and earth” — “In the communion of the Holy Spirit”), says that we do two things at the Table of the Lord – “we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.” Since the days when a denominational “Panel of Scholars” reviewed the life, faith, and work of our church (1956-1962) in order to better position us as an ecumenical partner in the community of churches, it has been customary for us to think and talk about the Lord’s Supper using two words – “remembrance” and “presence.” 

The Lord’s Supper is an act by which we “call to mind the reality for which it stands.” The bread broken helps us to remember Christ’s body that was broken; the cup poured helps us to remember Christ’s blood that was shed. And the Lord’s Supper is also a way for Christ to actually be present and for us to participate in the fullness of the salvation that He so freely provides. Using Irenaeus’ analogy, at the Lord’s Table each week God uses both His right hand (The “remembrance” of Christ’s saving work) and His left hand (The continuing  “presence” of the Spirit) in His encounter with us to provide for us, refashion us, and equip us for the mission of witness and service that God puts in our hands.

What happens at the Lord’s Table each Lord’s Day begins in the heart of God. Barton Stone (1772 – 1844), one of my tradition’s founders, told the story – “A father provides plentifully for a large family of children. Some of them may know the means by which the father got the provisions – others may not so well know, and the youngest may scarcely know anything more than that the father’s love provided these things. Yet they all eat and thrive, without quarreling about the means by which the provisions were obtained.  O that Christians would do likewise.” This is the baseline of the Trinitarian shape of our weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper – “the father’s love provided these things.”

What happens at the Lord’s Table each Lord’s Day is based on who Christ is and what Christ came to do. In his presentation of the theology of the Lord’s Supper from his British Pentecostal tradition, Jonathan Black discusses the passionate exchanges between church leaders about whether leavened or unleavened bread, one loaf or little crackers, white wine or red wine, one cup or many cups, drinking from the cup or dipping into the cup are the right practices for a proper Communion service. It seems like such minutiae. But Jonathan Black defends such attention to detail on the grounds that since the Lord’s Supper was given to us by Christ to help us remember what He did for us, the way we do it matters. “At the Table we see the Cross,” his Apostolic tradition explains, and so getting the details right is just part of telling the story faithfully.  If we come to the Table to remember with thanksgiving the saving acts of Christ, getting those saving acts straight matters.

And what happens at the Lord’s Table each Lord’s Day depends on the Holy Spirit’s enlivening and empowering presence. It’s not just ancient history that we recall when we come to the Lord’s Table, but an encounter with the Living, Loving God that we expect, and it is the Holy Spirit who “makes our meal of bread and cup more than just a remembrance of a crucified Jesus,” as Richard Floyd explains, “but a celebration of the living Christ still present among us… it is the Spirit who makes Jesus our contemporary.”

It is quite likely that the word “Trinity” will not be said even once in church this morning. The fact that this is Trinity Sunday will probably pass without notice even though it’s been on the Church calendar now for some 700 years. But we wouldn’t be there in church without the Trinity, without the Loving God coming to us in Christ and the Spirit to rescue and restore us, and at the Table, to the eyes of faith, the Triune God will be present in our thanksgiving of the Triune God’s saving work.

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The Holy Spirit Catechism

The link to the “Holy Spirit Catechism” at the end of my last “Soundings” didn’t work – this one does:

A Holy Spirit Catechism (1).docx – Microsoft Word Online (live.com)

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“On Being Filled with the Holy Spirit”

In his familiar essay on “How to be Filled with the Holy Spirit,” A.W. Tozer (1897 –1963) said that the first thing that needs to happen in the process is that we need to become “convinced that being filled (with the Spirit) is part of the total plan of God in redemption; that it is nothing added or extra, nothing strange… but a proper and normal… spiritual and right operation of God, based upon and growing out of the work of Christ in atonement.” Unless and until we believe that being filled with the Holy Spirit is something that God wants for us and that we actually need as Christians, then it seems to me that it will be highly unlikely that we will bother doing the seeking, asking, and knocking that Jesus said was involved in God’s giving of the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:9-13).

The way that Tozer advised us to actually go about getting to the “point of conviction” on this matter was by taking the time to read and meditate on what the Scriptures say about the Spirit and the experience of the Spirit’s infilling of believers. “Faith comes from the Word of God (Romans 10:17),” Tozer reminded his readers, and so rather than relying on the “suggestion, exhortation or the psychological effect of the testimony of others who have been filled,” we “should not press the matter nor allow ourselves to fall victim to the emotional manipulators intent upon forcing the issue” until we are persuaded by the Scriptures that the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit is part of the normal Christian life.

I find this to be sound advice on any matter of faith. From childhood on I’ve prayed that the “Blessed Lord who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning” would “grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,” that thus be informed, formed and transformed by the realities to which they bear witness (Collect for the Second Sunday of Advent, the Book of Common Prayer). This is precisely what Tozer said we should do in the process of being filled with the Holy Spirit, but just as soon as we agree with him that this should be the way of moving forward, we are confronted with a problem. The Bible is a great big book that’s not always easy to read with understanding. So, what’s the best way to navigate what the Bible says about the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians and the church?

When I travel, I like to have a good map with me that I can look at to anticipate what I’m going to find on the road ahead of me and see in the country around me. One of my favorite things to do is to go over to the AAA office and get the maps of places that Mary Lynn and I plan to visit.  We made a couple of these trips right before the pandemic hit.  But for the past year all I’ve had are my maps.  I’ve studied them.  I’ve traced routes. I’ve imagined places. I’ve built lists of things that I want to do and see. But a plan is not a trip, and a map is not the road.  I find that the very best map is the one that’s right beside you in the car as you’re driving down the road that it’s folded open to!

A “catechism” (from the Greek “κατηχέω” – “to teach orally”) is a content “map” to what the Bible teaches. It’s a lousy substitute for the Bible, but it can be a helpful tool for navigating your way through what’s in the Bible.  Because we’ve not been particularly adept at “reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting” what’s in the Bible for ourselves with the result that it isn’t informing, forming, and transforming us very much as Christians, getting an accurate map to help us undertake a journey through the Word just might prove to be one of the most important things that we could possibly have, and because being filled with the Holy Spirit is such an urgent and indispensable part of New Testament Christianity, as A. W. Tozer observed, I have put together a “Holy Spirit Catechism” to help people navigate what the Bible says about the necessity and possibility of experiencing the indwelling and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in them. It’s a map and not the road, but I think that it can help guide someone who hears the Scripture’s offer of “another Helper,” and who feels their own deep need for just such a One in their lives on where to turn in Scripture to be convinced that the experience of being filled with this Holy Spirit is for meant for them.

A Holy Spirit Catechism.pdf

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“I Believe in the Holy Ghost… the Giver of Life”

Some people take communion and all they get is a bite of bread and a sip of juice. Some people get baptized and all that happens is that they get wet.  The Church has known that this could happen to us right from the very beginning, and so we were warned in 2 Timothy 3:5 against holding to “the form of religion” while denying its “power.”

The definition of a sacrament that I was taught as kid in the Catechism from the Book of Common Prayer was that it’s “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” Church history shows that we’re pretty good at fussing and tussling over the outward and the visible while remaining largely oblivious to the inward and the invisible. This explains why, as E. Stanley Jones put it, it’s just so easy for someone to get outwardly into the church without being inwardly in Christ.

There’s a petition in the Church’s traditional Communion prayer that’s designed to keep the inward and the invisible at the forefront of our attention in the action at the Lord’s Table.  It’s called the “epiclesis.” The word literally means “invocation.”  The “epiclesis” is a prayer that invokes.  It’s prayed right after the Words of Institution (“The Lord Jesus on the night when Christ was betrayed took bread…”). The “epiclesis” is when we specifically ask God to send His Holy Spirit so that the bread and wine might become for us an actual sharing in the body and blood of Christ. This is what it sounds like in the Anglican tradition – “We pray you, gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant. Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”

It’s the presence and action of the Holy Spirit that potentially makes what we do at the Lord’s Table each Sunday morning a true “communion” (from the Latin: “com” – “with, together” + “unus” – “oneness, union”). It’s the enlivening work of the Spirit that transforms ordinary pieces of bread into the bread of eternal life (John 6:53-58). As Jesus told His disciples, “It is the Spirit that gives life” (John 6:63).

This connection between the Spirit and life looms large in the Biblical imagination. It’s not without reasons that when it was time for the church to sort out what it believed about the person and work of the Holy Spirit, that the very first thing they affirmed was that the Holy Spirit is “the Lord and Giver of Life.” There’s little doubt that the Biblical thought behind these words is what Genesis 2:7 describes – “The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”

In both Hebrew and Greek, the Biblical languages, “breath” and “Spirit” are words that are “always related, and sometimes even synonymous.”  To underscore the force of this animating connection, George Montague, the very fine Catholic Scripture scholar from down in San Antonio, often asks his students to hold their breaths for just as long as they possibly can.  He writes, “as one by one they let go in this gentle contest, they are reminded of just how precious their breath is and how utterly dependent upon it they are… to breathe is to live.”  In the spiritual life the Holy Spirit is this “life-breath.”  The Holy Spirit is “the giver of life.”

We can trace this idea throughout Scripture – It’s the breath of God that causes Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones to live again (Ezekiel 37), it’s the wind of the Spirit that pushes us to regeneration (John 3:3-8), the Risen Christ “breathed on” His disciples before sending them out to offer people forgiveness (John 20:21-23), the Holy Spirit came “upon all flesh” as “a mighty rushing wind” on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:2), the sacred writings which are able to instruct us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus are “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:15-16), and the two witnesses in the book of Revelation (symbols of the believing community – Spiritual Israel and the Church?) who are left for dead in the middle of the street are raised up when “a breath of life from God entered them” (Revelation 11:11).

This is what the Holy Spirit does. “The life-breath of the Spirit blows on everything, bringing life from death, beauty from ugliness, and peace from confusion” (Clark Pinnock). The Spirit takes our dry, dusty lives, our empty words and meaningless rituals, our lifeless institutions with their tired systems and structures, and breathing on them, the Spirit creates new possibilities for the church’s life and mission while opening us up to depths of love that we would never have imagined possible before the Spirit blew through.

“Breathe on me, Breath of God, fill me with life anew,
That I may love the things you love, and do what you would do.

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No “Spirit-less” Christianity

The most liberating seminar that I have ever attended was in San Antonio back in 1986.  It was on “Prayer and Temperament.”  In those two days I learned more about who I am and why things affect me as they do than I had ever known before.  After taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, we were then introduced to the prayer forms that best fit our particular personality types, and we were given the opportunity to experiment with them.  As I said, it was liberating. 

After years of suppressing certain spiritual practices as being leftovers from my Anglo-Catholic upbringing that were completely inappropriate to my new Evangelical Protestant Christian faith, I suddenly understood why they still appealed to me so.  I have the kind of soul that honors tradition, needs structure, responds to duty and requires solitude.  This doesn’t make me better than you, or inferior to you, just different from you, and that’s just fine.  Our individuality extends to our spirituality; we know and love God in Jesus Christ through the uniqueness of our temperaments.  Churches have temperaments too.

It was Eugene Nida of the American Bible Society who said that the day is long past when a Presbyterian should say that she is a Presbyterian because only the Presbyterians are right, or a Methodist should say that he is a Methodist because only the Methodists are right, or a Baptist should say that she is a Baptist because only the Baptists are right.  If we are honest with ourselves and with each other, Eugene Nida observed that Presbyterians should say that they are Presbyterians because they like being Presbyterians, and Methodists are Methodists because they like being Methodists, and Baptists and Baptists because they like being Baptists. 

Rather than being a problem, the denominations are actually something of a gift; a way for people with different doctrinal emphases and spiritual temperaments to find communities where they “fit” best.   As Billy Graham put it, there are so many different styles of hats for men and women to wear because while every human being has a head, no one style of hat can be worn by us all with equal satisfaction.  

So, just exactly what kind of hat is the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)?

Well, I’ve heard us described both as Christians who love God with all our minds, and as God’s “frozen chosen.”  Clearly there is a preponderance of head over heart in our heritage.  For a while we were actually accused of having a “Spiritless” Christianity because of our insistence that we not give our hearts to any idea or experience that our minds had not first endorsed.  When other Christians are testifying to having Holy Ghost goose bumps and spiritual chills running up and down their spines, we tend to maintain the stiff-upper-lip of a Sergeant Joe Friday who just wants “the facts mam, nothing but the facts.”  It helps to know that this is how we started.

In 1790 when he was a student at a small school in North Carolina, Barton Warren Stone (one of our denomination’s founders) heard the preaching of a traveling evangelist and resolved then and there to give his life to Jesus Christ.  But the theology of the day said that this desire was not enough get someone saved.  The desire to be saved had to be matched, according to the theology of the day, with some clear indication from God that actually wanted to save you individually. And so Barton Warren Stone began a long and tortured process of begging God for some sure sign to assure him that he was personally numbered among the elect. 

A year passed; no sign came, and Barton Stone was suffering the tortures of the damned.  He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, and he couldn’t stop wrestling with God to give him some assurance of salvation.  Finally, in despair, Barton Stone went to hear another preacher, and in that meeting everything changed.  The message that night was on God’s love shown in Jesus Christ.  And as that preacher proclaimed the full sufficiency and certainty of what God had already done in Jesus Christ to save sinners, Barton Stone began to wonder that if this was true, then why was he waiting for some further indication that he was acceptable to God and included within the scope of Christ’s saving work?

That very night, Barton Stone fell to his knees and took the Bible at its word that God is love, that Jesus had come to seek and save the lost, and that anyone who would turn to Him in repentance and faith would not be turned away.  It doesn’t require bells or whistles, chills or thrills, visions or voices, signs or wonders.  As Paul put it in Romans, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (10:17).  And this makes the head the gateway to salvation. 

There’s an old evangelistic illustration that makes this point quite effectively –

“The promise of God’s Word, the Bible — not our feelings — is our authority. The Christian lives by faith in the trustworthiness of God Himself and His Word. A picture of a train with a coal car and a caboose illustrates the relationship between locomotive of fact (God and His Word), the coal car of faith (our trust in God and His Word), and caboose of feelings (the result of our faith and obedience). The train will run with or without a caboose. However, it would be useless to attempt to pull the train by the caboose. In the same way, as Christians we do not depend on feelings or emotions, but we place our faith in the trustworthiness of God and the promises of His Word.” (www.gospeloutreach.net)

Understand, this is not an argument against feelings; just an insistence that they be kept in their proper place in the dynamics of salvation.  As the defining experience of our denomination’s founder Barton Stone illustrates, regeneration involves a “renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:2).  The Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13) who is sent from the God of truth (Isaiah 65:16) ushers us into an encounter with Him who is the truth, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (John 1:14; 17; 14:6).  There’s a reasonableness to Christianity; it makes its appeal to the mind, offering good and sufficient people reasons to believe.  And the Holy Spirit is involved in the process.  

Anointing” is a term that I hear a lot these days.  Preachers and churches claim to be “anointed,” and what they point to as proof is the “electricity” they say is present in the air of their meetings and the “warmth” that they say they feel inside when they are there.  “I feel the anointing here,” they shout, whipping up the frenzy like cheerleaders at a ballgame, and I don’t doubt that it’s all very exciting and energetic.  But is it really the “anointing” of the Holy Spirit”?

The only place where “anointing” gets mentioned in the New Testament in any respect other than an actual physical act performed with oil (Mark 6:13; Luke 7:38; James 5:14), is in I John chapter 2.  Here John writes –

…you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge.* 21I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth.” (2:20-21)

“… 2224Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25And this is what he has promised us,* eternal life. 26 I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you. 27As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him.”*  (2:24-27)

The “28anointing” that John describes here has nothing to do with feeling warm fuzzies, and everything to do with knowing the truth of the Gospel.  The roots of this teaching reach back into one of the most important messianic prophecies found in the book of Jeremiah about what the New Covenant would bring. 

“The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. …I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; … (And) no longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD;…” (31:31; 33-34)

This is the “anointing” of the Holy Spirit that the New Testament declares is the possession of all Christians, a personal knowing of the Lord in the heart according to the truth of what has been revealed.  In the Upper Room Jesus said that the primary mission of the Holy Spirit would be to make Christ known to us (John 15:26).  As Jesus put it in His farewell discourse in the Upper Room, “He (the Holy Spirit) will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears, he will speak… He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine, and declare it to you” (16:12-15).  And Romans 8:12-17 describes the experience of this actually happening in the life of a believer. It describes what is called the “inner witness” of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. This is sometimes referred to as the experience of “Blessed Assurance.”  It’s what happens when the Holy Spirit takes the objective truths that the Bible teaches and persuades us that they personally apply to us.  We can know that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem and that He died on Calvary, but until He gets born in our hearts and we accept the truth that He died for us, it’s all just so much information.   And this is what the Holy Spirit does according to our Scripture lesson this morning – “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we children of God” (Romans 8:16). 

It is the Holy Spirit’s job to take what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and make it real in our hearts.  The “anointing” of the Holy Spirit that the New Testament describes is a matter of personally and powerfully knowing the truth of the Gospel.  It’s not just knowing that the Gospel is true, but knowing that it is true for us. This was Barton Warren Stone’s experience that day in 1790 when the Holy Spirit used the preaching of the Word to persuade him that he was personally included within the scope of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ; that he had been accepted and was forgiven by God.  And the Holy Spirit is present to do this very same thing in each one of us.  But how will we know when it’s happening?  What does the Holy Spirit feel like?   Peg Bowman, a woman with a degree in music who ten years ago was publicly wrestling online with a call to ministry through her blog called “Getting Started,” described it with honesty and insight –

“’What does the Holy Spirit feel like?’ Interestingly scripture never mentions this…  Many passages in the Bible include the words, “…and the Spirit of the Lord came upon him/her/them…”.  However, this quotation is never followed by anything like, ‘…and the people said, ‘whoa, what was THAT?’  Generally speaking, when the Spirit speaks, people recognize the message as coming from God.  So, what I’d say is that the Holy Spirit feels like truth.”

This exactly corresponds to the experience that F.B. Meyer (1847-1929), someone I have found to be a most reliable guide into the deeper life of the Spirit, had that fundamentally and irrevocably changed him –

“Very memorable was the night when I came to close quarters with God… I said feebly, ‘Lord now I give myself to You: body, soul and spirit; in sorrow or in joy; in the dark or in the light; in life or in death; to be Yours only, wholly, and forever. Make the most of me that can be made for Your glory.’ No rapture or rush of joy came to assure me that the gift was accepted. I left the place with almost a heavy heart. I simply assured myself that He must have taken that which I had given, and at the moment of my giving it. And to that belief I clung in all the days that followed, constantly repeating to myself the words, “I am His.” And thus, at last the joy and rest, victory and freedom from burdening care, entered my heart, and I found that He was molding my will and making it easy to do what I thought impossible. I felt that He was leading me into the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake, but so gently as to be almost imperceptible to my weak sight.”

The coming of God’s Spirit in fullness into a life… it feels like truth.

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Ascension Sunday?

Yesterday was “Ascension Sunday.”

Now, technically there is no such thing as “Ascension Sunday.”  The Ascension has its own day, the Thursday 40 days after Easter Sunday. Ascension Day 2021 was Thursday, May 13th. In the spiritual tradition of my childhood and youth, Ascension Day was a “Holy Day of Obligation,” one of the required days for us to be in church because something essential to the Christian Faith was being remembered in its worship service. The required “Days of Obligation” were every Sunday (this catches Easter and Pentecost), Christmas (December 25), Circumcision Day (January 1 to affirm the Gospel essential truth of the Incarnation – that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”), Ascension Day, and All Saints Day (November 1 to affirm the essential Gospel truth that “though we die, yet shall we live”).

We may bristle at this idea of there being “required” days for us to be in church if we are serious Christians, and we may want to quibble over the actual days that the church has “required.” It’s a problem of omission – Where’s Ash Wednesday? Maundy Thursday? Good Friday? Thanksgiving? And commission – Circumcision Day? Really? But you will get no quarrel from me about the fact that Christianity has a content, a body of things that it proclaims as true and important, and insists that we believe, and that those things are based on events and acts in history.  I agree with J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) who argued –

“Jesus is our Savior, not because He has inspired us to live the same kind of life that He lived, but because He took upon Himself the dreadful guilt of our sins and bore it instead of us on the cross… Christianity is dependent upon history… ‘Gospel’ means ‘good news,’ information about something that has happened.”

The Ascension event (Acts 1:1-11) took place 40 days after Easter Sunday. That means that it “happened” on a Thursday and not a Sunday, and that fact has been enshrined in the church’s life of worship for centuries in a special and obligatory Thursday worship service on the church calendar and not on the following Sunday.  In my heart I am a purist, and I care deeply about this (I am an SJ on the Prayer and Temperament scale).  But in my head, I am a realist, and so I know how to compromise.

I pastored local churches for 46 years.  I know how hard it is to get people to come out for midweek worship services. They’re busy, tired, and not well-informed. And so, we make adjustments. We push the events of salvation history that fall midweek to the next Sunday.  I’ve imposed ashes on the first Sunday of Lent because most people don’t make it to Ash Wednesday services.  I always talked about the cross on Palm Sunday because I knew that Jesus needed to be dead if Easter was to be a celebration and most people won’t make it to church on Good Friday. And we always had our Service of Remembrance for our faithful departed on the Sunday after Halloween because people were preoccupied on All Saints’ Day with candy, costumes, and parties. I get it.  I don’t like it, but I get it, and so I don’t tilt at those windmills much anymore.

Yesterday was “Ascension Sunday.”

The lectionary reading was Acts 1:15-17; 21-26.  To get the actual story of the Ascension (Acts 1:1-11) you had to be in church on Thursday, and maybe if we push holy-days to the following Sundays we ought to take their Scripture readings with us too, but that’s okay with last Sunday’s lesson because Acts 1:15-17; 21-26 can be understood as a “crater of the Ascension.”  Where a meteor hits the earth, it leaves a crater.  It was Ron Sider who used this idea to talk about the impact of Biblical events in our lives. The things that happened in the Bible left craters in our lives and in the life of the church and world, and Acts 1:15-17; 21-26 describes the crater that the Ascension (Acts 1:1-11) created.

The event of the Ascension is less about the Risen Christ going somewhere than it is about the Risen Christ becoming something.  The punchline of Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost was: “Know assuredly that God has made him (Jesus) both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).  This was Peter’s interpretation of the Ascension (Acts 2:32-35). The crucified and Risen Christ was “exalted” in the Ascension, and He now reigns at the right hand of God.  This is why the Protestant Reformer John Calvin (1509 –1564) called the Ascension the event of Christ’s Lordship. This trajectory of the Gospel is on full display in the hymn of Philippians 2:6-11 –

“Though he was in the form of God,

He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

But emptied himself,

Taking the form of a servant,

Being born in the likeness of men. 

And being found in human form

He humbled himself

And became obedient unto death,

Even death on a cross. 

Therefore God has highly exalted him

And bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 

That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

In heaven and on earth and under the earth, 

And every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

To the glory of God the Father.”

The Ascension means that Jesus Christ, God the Son, is now in charge.  In the language of the Revelation of John, it is Jesus Christ, the Lamb that was slain (45:6) from the foundation of the world (13:9) who is worthy to take the scroll of history and break open its seals (5:7-14). And in the language of the Apostle Paul, it is Jesus Christ who is the head of His body, the Church (I Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:15; 5:23; Colossians 1:18; 2:10; 2:19). 

Acts 1:15-17; 21-26 is the first story that Luke tells us after the Risen Christ has ascended and sat down at the Right hand of God. 50 days after Easter, 10 days after the Ascension is Pentecost.  Sending the Holy Spirit was the big promise that Jesus repeatedly made in the Upper Room during His Farewell Discourse (John 13-17) on the night before He died.  But sending the Holy Spirit was not the first thing that the exalted Lord did after His departure “out of this world to the Father” (John 13:1). The first act of His Lordship was organizational.  The Risen, Exalted Christ took care of the vacancy that Judas Iscariot’s departure had created.

The opening vision of the book of Revelation shows the Risen, Exalted Christ walking among the seven golden candlesticks (1:9-20) which stood for seven actual churches in Asia Minor at the end of the first century as well, I believe, for the church in all places and times. The meaning of this vision that John had was that Christ is not a distant and disinterested head of His church but is rather Someone who is in our very midst.  The Lord Jesus Christ is Someone who knows our condition, is involved in our life, and who has specific instructions for our future. The Risen, Exalted Christ is not an absentee landlord of His church. He is fully present in its life and actively engaged in its work.  And so the very first thing that He did when He sat down at the Right Hand of God was to get the church ready for the mission of witness and service that would come with the gift of the Holy Spirit that He was about to pour out upon it in abundance.

Just as God’s covenant with our spiritual mothers and fathers, the Jews, was ordered by the 12 tribes of Israel, so the church, as God’s second Israel (Galatians 6:16; Romans 2:28-29; I Peter 2:9-10) was ordered by the 12 Apostles. The church doesn’t replace Israel.  The New Covenant doesn’t abolish the first Covenant. We’re all in trouble if God makes promises that He doesn’t intend on keeping (Romans 9-11).  To be sure, there are mysteries at work here, but God’s faithfulness to His promises is not one of them. “The gifts and the call of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29), and so, in one of our first glimpses into heaven, surrounding the throne of God there were 24 thrones with 24 elders seated upon them (Revelation 4:4).  I take these 24 as symbolic of the 12 tribes of God’s first Covenant with Israel and the 12 apostles of God’s New Covenant with the Church. Our faith is built on the foundation of the apostles (New Testament) and the prophets (Old Testament) [Ephesians 2:20].

Against this backdrop, it should come as no great surprise that the very first thing that the Risen, Exalted Head of the Church did from heaven when He got there was to immediately is repair the damage that Judas’ defection had done to His church. The ship of faith had to be made seaworthy before being launched on her maiden voyage, and so   Matthias was chosen to replace Judas (Acts 1:23-26). Two candidates met the prerequisites (“men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” – 1:22), and so two names were “put forward.”  Luke tells us that the church prayed, in fact, Luke provided us with the specific petition that they prayed – ““Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two thou hast chosento take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside, to go to his own place” (1:24-25). 

I hear an “echo” in this prayer of the story of David’s selection as King (I Samuel 16). When Samuel was sent to the house of Jesse in Bethlehem to anoint Saul’s successor to the throne, the Lord told Samuel – “Just because someone is tall and handsome doesn’t mean that he’s the one I’ve chosen. People judge others by what they look like, but I judge people by what is in their hearts” (I Samuel 16:7). It is God who does the choosing, and so the early church asked the Lord to “show which one of these two thou hast chosen.” The expectation that this was something that the Lord would do was not just for the “big ticket” items like kings and apostles, but for the “five and dime” local church leaders like elders.  In Acts 20, when Paul gathered that elders of Ephesus to meet him on his way to Jerusalem with their collection for the saints, Paul addressed them as the ones that “the Holy Spirit had made overseers, to care for the church of God which He obtained with the blood of His own Son” (Acts 20:28).  It’s God’s choosing.  It’s God’s doing.

Ervin Stutzman, a Mennonite Church leader, has written about the difficulty we seem to have these days in speaking about God “as the subject of an active verb.” He says that as he travelled around the country in his denomination work that he often asked church people to tell him about what God was doing in their lives, and he says that what he invariably heard were things like –

“Our church just started a new outreach ministry.”                                                             

“I’ve been attending a Bible study.”                                                                                 

“We had a great worship service last Sunday.”                                                              

“We are raising money for a new building.”                                                             

To his great disappointment, Ervin Stutzman says that he never heard anybody say anything like –

“Last week, God was with me during in a very difficult situation.”                                                       

“When I was 20 years old, Jesus rescued me, and He’s been leading me ever since.”                     

“The Holy Spirit just convicted me about something in my life, and I made a change.”

“The Lord brought someone into my life He wanted me to serve.”

Ervin Stutzman says that there is a world of difference between these two ways to thinking and talking. In the first set of responses, it’s all “we” and “I.” We’re the ones in the driver seat who are making all the decisions. But in the second of responses, it’s “God,” Jesus,” the “Lord,” and the “Spirit” who is the actor and the initiator. Acts 1:15-17; 21-26 makes the case for us being a second set of responses kind of church, the kind of people who can think and talk of God “as the subject of an active verb,” people who believe that Jesus Christ is the Head of His body the Church, and that He “hastens and chastens His will to make known.”

In Acts 1 the early church cast lots as the way for God to let them know what He wanted. As strange as this sounds to us, it was part of the standard operating procedures for the people of God in Scripture. The practice of casting lots is mentioned seventy times in the Old Testament and seven times in the New Testament.  When there was a choice to be made from among viable alternatives, the randomness of casting lots was regarded as a way for God to make His choice known by controlling the outcome. There are still churches that operate this way. For instance, when the Amish need a new leader, they conduct a “divine lottery.” Once those in a community who meet the requirements of the office have been identified, and the field has been narrowed by a community process of prayerful discernment, the new leader is randomly selected by everyone in the remaining pool selecting a hymnal from a stack laid out on the Lord’s Table.  The one who selects the hymnal with the slip of paper on which the words of Acts 1:24 have been written – “Lord, who knowest the hearts of all, show us whom Thou hast chosen” – becomes the next leader. Now, I don’t know many churches these days that would be prepared to adopt this as their practice for choosing ministers and new church leaders, but I would hope that every church wants to think seriously about how they who believe in the Ascension truth that Jesus Christ is the Risen and Exalted Head of the Body, His Church, could make Him the “subject of the active verb” of their life and work.” I see three broad ways that Christians have tried to do this – through the Bible, by the Spirit, and with leaders.

Many Christians turn to the pages of Scripture to learn what it is that God intends His church to be and to do. Approaching the Bible like the blueprint of the will of God, these Christians read what it tells them carefully so that they can then get busy following its directions.  These are the Christians who need a chapter and a verse.

Other Christians look to the indwelling and empowering presence of the Spirit of God to show them what it is that God wants and then to enable them to do it. These Christians rely on the inner witness of the Spirit in their hearts and/or on the outward exercise of the spiritual gifts to know and to do the will of God.  These are the Christians who take the stirrings of the Spirit as a – “God told me.”

And still other Christians look to certain leaders who seem to know God and His ways to interpret His will for them. By calling, giftedness, temperament, training, testing, and experience, these men and women are granted standing in a community as trustworthy servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God (I Corinthians 4:1-2). These are the Christians who just want somebody else to tell them what it is that God wants of them.

I’m a combination of all three of these ways of knowing what it is that God wants. I believe in an authoritative Bible, the living and active Spirit of God, and God-called and equipped leaders. My affirmation of the Lordship of Christ, the Gospel’s Ascension truth, means that I expect Him as the Head of the Church, His Body, to both have a stake in what we do and to have a way of making known to us what it is that He wants of us. The Acts 1:15-17; 21-26 crater that the Acts 1:1-11 Ascension creates is the reality of the Risen and Exalted Christ who is intimately involved in the life of the Church. And for us who call Him Lord, nothing could be more important than knowing what it is He wants, and doing it.

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“Where is He Now?” ~ “What is He Doing Now?”

I’ll never forget something that my minister said on an Easter Sunday morning after services in the church of my childhood and youth.  As we exited the sanctuary after the last service of the day, he muttered to no one in particular, “Thank God that’s over!”  

Now, as a human being I know exactly what he meant.  Holy Week has lots and lots of worship services, and it’s preceded by the 40 days of Lent, a season of spiritual rigor if ever there was one.  “Thank God that’s over!” was just my minister’s way of saying that he was really tired.  Who isn’t?  But because I’m a minister, I also understand his words in a different way, at a deeper level.   

The way that so many of us think and talk about Easter, it’s just the way that the story of Jesus ends.  “Thank God that’s over!”   The music swells, the curtain closes, the audience applauds, the lights come up and we’re left to our thoughts of Him as we walk out into the night.  In the minds of many of Christians Easter is the end.  Jesus got up on Easter Sunday morning to be sure, but He had nowhere to go and nothing to do.   His work was finished, and now He’s just someone we remember and someone we maybe look forward to seeing again sometime and somewhere in the future.  But for right now, He’s not really in the picture all that much, except maybe as a good example and a fond memory.  This is not the Christianity of the New Testament.

In John Masefield’s imaginative drama, The Trial of Jesus, there’s an interesting exchange between two legendary persons.  Longinus, the traditional name given to the Roman centurion who was in charge of the crucifixion, the one who is supposed to have said, “truly this was the Son of God,” (Mt 27:54) returns to the court of Pilate to give his report.  There he is drawn aside by Procula, the name given to Pontius Pilate’s wife.  She asks him, “Do you think he is dead?” Longinus replies, “No, Lady, I don’t.” “Then where is he?” she asks. And he says, “Lady, he’s let loose in the world.” And that’s the New Testament’s perspective. Jesus isn’t “done” and “gone,” no, “He’s let loose in the world.”  He’s alive, and that means that He’s still around and that He’s still doing things

Speaking of the Risen Christ, Hebrews 7:25 says that “He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”  Did you catch that?  “He always lives to make intercession.” In the New Testament, this is a big part of what Jesus Christ is doing right now.  He “always lives to make intercession” for us.  So, what exactly does that mean?  What is the ministry of intercession that the Risen Christ is performing for us right now in heaven?

Exodus chapter 28 tells us about the High Priest of Israel.  Verses 15 -19 say that one of the items that he wore when he stepped into the Holy of Holies to represent the people of God on the annual Day of Atonement was a breastplate with four rows of three stones each – one for each of the 12 tribes of Israel.  The High Priest was told to always have the names of the 12 sons of Israel over his heart when he came into the Lord’s presence because he was there for them, he was there to represent them, he was there to plead their case, he was there to seek God’s blessing for them, he was there to carry their requests to God.  And in the New Testament book of Hebrews we are told that Jesus Christ has now taken up that same role for us as Christians.  He is called our great High Priest who now lives to intercede for us.

A good picture of what this looks like is found in Luke 22:31-34.  This is part of what Luke tells us happened on the night when Christ was betrayed.  It’s a pre-cross and pre-resurrection preview of the work that Christ would be doing for all who know Him as their Lord and Savior after the cross and after the resurrection.  You see when Jesus finished His work on the cross, He wasn’t finished with His work as our Redeemer.  There was still more for Him to do.  Now He lives to make intercession for us, and to see what that looks like we need go no further than what Jesus told Peter right before they left the Upper Room for the Garden of Gethsemane.

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat. But I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail.” (Luke 22:31-32)

The word “Satan” here literally means “adversary.”  It’s the Bible’s way of talking about that something or someone out there that “seeks to work us woe.”  There is something antagonistic at work in the universe and in our lives that is doing its best to keep us from being what God created us to be and from doing what God created us to do.  Biblically “Satan” is pictured as a prosecuting attorney, as the one who brings charges against God’s people.  “Look at how weak he is.”  “Look at how immature she is.” “Look at how often he fails.”  “Look at how easily she sins.”  “Surely he’s not a Christian!”  “She can’t possibly be one of yours.”  Shame, guilt, condemnation, insecurity – these are the poisoned fruit of the adversary’s work in us, and Jesus told Peter that he was going to be the next target of the adversary’s assault. 

Jesus told Peter that the adversary was going to sift him like wheat. In the same way that a kernel of grain gets violently separated from its husk, So Jesus told Peter that he was going to be taken apart to see what he was made of.  He was going to be beaten up and broken down.  But in that hour of his testing, Jesus promised Peter that he would not be alone.  “I have pleaded in prayer for you, Simon, that your faith should not fail.”  When we pray that familiar petition of the Lord’s Prayer – “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” – I’m pretty sure that what these words have in mind is the very situation that Luke 22 describes.  And what our Savior does about it is to intercede.  “I have pleaded in prayer for you… that your faith should not fail.”

Easter is not the end of the story of Jesus.   When He died on the cross and got up out of that borrowed tomb long ago Jesus Christ “obtained eternal redemption” for us, and now, in heaven at the right hand of God the Father, Jesus Christ, the only Begotten Son of God, is actively “applying that redemption” to us (Denney).  He lives to make sure that every blessing that the Father has ever intended for us and for the whole world actually makes its way into our lives.  And this means that Easter is not the signal that that the story of Jesus Christ is over, but rather that the page has turned and that a new chapter in His saving work has begun.

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The Center and Substance of Christianity

In her book “What are they Saying about Death and Christian Hope?” (Paulist Press, 1978), Monika Hellwig (1929 – 2005), a research assistant at the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) and a distinguished Professor of Theology at Georgetown University for more than three decades, in a chapter about “The Death and Resurrection of Jesus,” wrote –

“The symbol of the cross at the center of Christianity is significant.  We could have had at the center of Christian memory, consciousness, and iconography the figure of Jesus teaching.  Instead, we have given the place of honor to the crucified and dying Jesus.  It is the image of a man bound and restrained, of a man marginated from decision making and manipulative power, of a man whose fate is thrust upon him… Only by entering into the ‘mind and heart’ of this man to try to fathom the meaning of his death from within the dying of it does the believer transcend the scandal of the cross. Scandal is essentially in the cross.  It is only the unthinking familiarity with the cross as liturgical symbol that blunts the edge of the impact, and such blunted perception is far from Christian faith.  Faith really only begins where the shocking contradiction of this symbol is felt and confronted… It is not by evading this realization but by moving into it and through it that Christians can come to some sense of the liberating death of Jesus and what is revealed in it.” (45-46)

I’d thought this long before I read it.

I’ve been going to church my whole life.  I grew up as a high church Episcopalian, then I consciously chose, was ordained in, and served Disciples of Christ churches as my spiritual home for 50 years. The common denominator was the Lord’s Supper. Every Sunday, in both of these traditions, Holy Communion is central. I’m one of those Christians who feels like I’ve not really been to church unless I’ve taken communion, not mechanically mind you, an empty ritual, but experientially, as a sharing in, a participation in the body and blood of Christ (I Corinthians 10:16-17).

“Red Letter Christians” refers to those Christians who believe that we should be paying more attention to Jesus’ words, which are printed in red in some Bibles.  As a Christian with a high view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, you will get no argument from me against anyone who is trying to get people to take the Bible more seriously, it’s red letters, or its black letters. A few years ago, just as the “Red Letter Christians” movement was gaining traction, at the Lord’s Table one Sunday morning, as the Words of Institution were being spoken (I Corinthians 11:23-26), it occurred to me that these four “red letter” verses were the part of the Bible that I had heard most often in my life. In the elegant Anglican Eucharistic liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer and in the simple and plain speech of the Table talk in every Disciple church I’ve ever known and loved, some version of these four verses have been read or recited. With a quick calculation in my head, I figure that I’ve heard them more than 5,000 times in my life.

I’ve never been at the Lord’s Table and had the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) rather than the Words of Institution (I Corinthians 11:23-26) used to order the service of bread and cup. My experience is exactly what Dr. Hellwig noted, that while “we could have had at the center of Christian memory, consciousness, and iconography the figure of Jesus teaching” (the Sermon on the Mount), that instead “we have given the place of honor to the crucified and dying Jesus” (the Words of Institution), and I wonder why?

My “good confession” as a Christian names Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God as my Lord and Savior.  This is not an either/or proposition, but a both/and affirmation.  When I say, “Jesus is my Lord,” the Sermon on the Mount is the “red letter” Biblical text that first comes to my mind and heart. When I say, “Jesus is Lord,” what I’m saying is that He’s in charge, and the Sermon on the Mount is the clearest expression of what He wants that I know anything about.  When I say, “Jesus is my Savior,” the Lord’s Table where the “red letter” Words of Institution get spoken every week is what comes to my mind and heart. When I say, “Jesus is my Savior,” what I’m saying is that I believe He died to forgive me and was raised to change me.  These are not separate commitments. I didn’t accept Jesus Christ as my Savior, and then at some later date, surrender to His claim on my life as Lord. I understood it instead as a package deal.  As A.W. Tozer put it, there is “no Saviorhood with Lordship.”  “It is altogether doubtful whether anyone can be saved who comes to Christ for His help,” Tozer memorably said, “but with no intention to obey Him.”

I read E. Stanley Jones’ “The Christ of the Mount” (Abingdon 1931) for a class on the Life of Christ in Christian College back when I was freshman 50 years ago. It was one of the defining reads of my life.  In this book Dr. Jones explained that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has both an ethical and a redemptive side.  The center and substance of the Gospel’s redemptive message are the cross and the empty tomb. The Gospel ordinances of baptism by immersion, the Lord’s Supper, and the Lord’s Day (Sunday) anchor our spiritual lives to the great saving events of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.

The center and substance of the Gospel’s ethical message is the Sermon on the Mount. E. Stanley Jones called it “the main moral content in the word ’Christian.’” He insisted that, “If the ethical side of our Gospel is unworkable, then by that very fact the redemptive side is rendered worthless.” And he lamented the absence of any reference to the Sermon on the Mount in the historic Creeds of Christianity.

“As the Apostles’ Creed now stands you can accept every word of it and leave the essential self untouched. Suppose we had written it in our creeds and had repeated each time with conviction: ‘I believe in the Sermon on the Mount and in its way of life, and I intend, God helping me, to embody it!’  What would have happened? I feel sure that if this had been our main emphasis, the history of Christendom would have been different. With emphasis on doctrines (the orthodoxy of the creed) which left unaffected our way of life (the orthopraxy of the deed) the Christian Church could accept Constantine as its prize convert… who took the nails that were supposed to come from the cross and used one in his war helmet and another on the bridle of his war horse… What had happened was that the Christian Church had been conquered by a pagan warrior. And the church allowed itself to be this conquered, for Christ’s ideal of the Sermon on the Mount did not have possession of its soul.”

As a Bible-believing Christian, the Gospel’s ethical side and the Gospel’s redemptive side both matter greatly to me, and that’s because Jesus Christ is both my Lord and Savior. My faith is built on the foundation of both the “red letters” of the Sermon on the Mount and the ”red letters” of the Words of Institution, and so I refuse to choose between them.  But I think that they “fit” together in a certain way. I find that there is a Gospel ordering of their place in my head and heart. The “weight” of the teachings of Christ on my life, and on the life and faith of the church, is a direct consequence of who Jesus is and what He did.  I take the Sermon on the Mount seriously because they are the teachings of the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. As Alister McGrath wrote –

“Jesus has moral authority on account of who He is. To put this bluntly: We pay attention to Jesus because of who we recognize him to be.  And if Jesus is indeed God incarnate, then His teaching is indeed to be taken with greatest seriousness.  But precisely because He is the Son of God, it is not His teaching that is of utmost importance.”

My spiritual wholeness these days finds its expression in my presence at the Lord’s Table of my Disciples congregational home on Sundays for the Lord’s Supper, and around the altar of the Anglican Church in my neighborhood church on Wednesdays at noon for Eucharist. Last Wednesday, after a very thoughtful meditation on the Scripture lessons for the day, I was invited to receive Holy Communion with these words from the Book of Common Prayer –

“Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways; Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort.”

Two words stood out for me this week in the invitation – “intend” and “henceforth.” I love Communion because of the “comfort” it supplies when I “draw near with faith.” In the language of my Disciples formation, it is “at the Table of the Lord that I celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.” I come to the Lord’s Table because it is there that I remember what Jesus Christ did on the cross, and that He did it “for me.” And I come to the Lord’s Table because it is one of the places where I experience His presence powerfully and see His purpose unfailingly.  But the Lord’s Supper is not an end in itself.  I am not invited to the Table just because it makes me feel so loved and valued. And so, the Book of Common Prayer invitation to the Table asked me about my intentions.  What was I going to do with the “comfort” I was being offered in this holy sacrament? Did I “intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways”?  Did I expect the grace received at the Lord’s Table to change me? The words “intention” and “henceforth” position “leading a new life, “following the commandments of God,” and “walking in in His holy ways” as responses to the comfort extended to me at the Table. 

The “red letters” of the Words of Institution must always be spoken first at the Lord’s Table.  They establish the work of Christ as Savior as always being prior and primary.  This is the pattern of Biblical salvation. God takes the initiative and makes the effort before anything is asked of us.  But once that grace has been extended full and free, there is a consequence that comes with the offer.  “God may love us just the way we are,” the old evangelist said, “but God loves us way too much to leave us like that!”  Invite Jesus Christ into your heart as Savior and know that He will begin to rearrange and reconstruct your life as Lord.  So, maybe the “red letters” of the Sermon on the Mount need to start being read at the Lord’s Table too!

So, here’s my modest proposal –

Let’s continue coming to the Lord’s Table each Lord’s Day with a reading of the “red letters” of the Words of Institution because they establish grace – what God does for us and for all in Jesus Christ  – as the foundation of Christianity, but let’s start being sent from the Lord’s Table every Lord’s Day with a reading of some portion of the “red letters” of the Sermon on the Mount to establish the obedience of faith – what we are asked to be and do as disciples of Christ – as the expectation of Christianity. It’s only when the Gospel’s redemptive side the Gospel’s ethical side are kept together that Christ can function in our lives and in the world as the Savior and Lord that He is.  

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