“Where the Spirit of the Lord is”

“Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is peace.                                          Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is love.                                                           There is comfort in life’s darkest hour,                                                          there is light and life.                                                                                  There help and power in the Spirit,  in the Spirit of the Lord.”

I have a little booklet in my library that talks about the “Six Pentecosts” in the New Testament.  The language is imprecise, but the point is well taken.  There are several episodes of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit recorded in the New Testament, six of them according to the count of the author of that little booklet that I have [“Six Pentecosts” – Dr. Josephine Massyngberde Ford, Associate Professor of Sacred Scripture, the University of Notre Dame –  Dove Publications, 1976]

Dr. Ford counts the presence and work of the Holy Spirit at the Annunciation as one of the New Testament’s “Pentecosts” (Luke 1:26-38), as well as the Resurrection appearance of the Risen Christ to His disciples in the Upper Room on the first Easter evening when He breathed on them, told them to “receive the Holy Spirit,” and gave them the ministry of reconciliation (John 20:19-23).  These are both important New Testament Holy Spirit texts, but I’m not sure I would put either of them under the “Pentecost” banner.   I have a hard time thinking or talking about any account of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament before Acts 2 as a “Pentecost” event or experience.

In the economy of redemption, Acts 2 is something of a pivot.  The Holy Spirit is present and active one way before Acts chapter 2, and then present and active in a different way after Acts chapter 2.   This means that the stories of the Spirit’s presence and action in Luke 1 and John 20 belong to the arrangements of the first Covenant while the stories of the Spirit’s presence and activity after Acts chapter 2 belong to the arrangements of the New Covenant (Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 44:3; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-27; Joel 2:28; John 1:33; 7:37-39; I John 2:26-27; Luke 24:49; Galatians 3:2-5).  Reading the Bible with the particular promises and provisions of the Covenants in mind is crucial to correctly understanding a text according to my interpretive tradition.  It’s a big part of what our founders called “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 – KJV).

Four of the “Six Pentecosts” described in that little booklet that I have “fit” under this “New Covenant” banner – what Dr. Ford called the “Jerusalem Pentecost” (Acts 2), the “Samaritan (Acts 8:14-17) and Gentile (Acts 10:44-48) Pentecost” (combined as one event in her assessment, but in my mind, two distinct events), the “Pauline Pentecost” (Acts 9, 22, 26, and Galatians 1:11-2:10), and the “Ephesian Pentecost”  (Acts 19:1-7). 

I would remove the account of Paul being filled with the Holy Spirit as a part of his conversion/commissioning story from this list of New Testament “Pentecosts” because it is a personal account of the normal Christian experience as set forth in Acts 2:37-39 (what my spiritual tradition has often called “the plan of salvation”).   There is a sense in which Acts 9 describes the “personal Pentecost” that’s available to and needed by us all, but it functions differently in the argument that Luke was making in the book of Acts (Acts 1:8) than do the rest of the “Pentecost” stories that he tells, and so, while I do not ignore it as an important example of how the Holy Spirit becomes normatively present and active in the life of a Christian believer, I do not think of it as a distinct New Testament “Pentecost” event, but rather as a story of how the Holy Spirit ordinarily operates according to the provisions of the New Covenant.

This leaves 3 “Pentecosts” (or 4 by my count) – “The” Pentecost in Jerusalem 50 days after Easter (Acts 2), the extension of salvation to the Samaritans and the “Pentecost” sign of their inclusion within the purposes, promises and provisions of God (Acts 8:14-17), the extension of salvation to the Gentiles and the “Pentecost” sign of their inclusion within the purposes, promises and provisions of God (Acts 10:44-48), and finally the completion of the experience of salvation in Christ for the disciples of John the Baptist in Ephesus signaled by the “Pentecost” sign after their water baptisms and the laying on of hands (Acts 19:1-7).  

I think that a pretty good case could be made that the story told in Acts chapter 8 about the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch (verses 26-40) was intended by Luke as an account of the extension of salvation in Christ to a marginalized population (sexual minorities).  But without an explicit reference to the “Pentecost” sign of their inclusion like the other stories in the book of Acts have (despite it being an explicitly Spirit-driven narrative – 8:29 and 8:39), it falls out of this conversation (although I will take it up in my next “Soundings”).

So, what we have is the Day of Pentecost in a Jewish setting (at the Jerusalem Temple during one of the Pilgrimage Feasts) as a distinct event in the history of salvation narrated in Acts chapter 2, followed by a series of accounts of its deliberate duplication as the Gospel crossed cultural/ethnic/spiritual boundaries – to the Samaritans (Acts 8), to the Gentiles (Acts 10), and to the disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19).  The thesis statement for the book of Acts is chapter 1, verse 8 – “But 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.”  Do you see it?  Beginning in Jerusalem and in all Judea (Acts 2), to Samaria (Acts 8), to the ends of the earth (Acts 10). 

In the book of Acts, when it was time for the church to push past its comfortable and familiar boundaries, the Holy Spirit orchestrated a duplicate Acts 2 “Pentecost”  experience for the excluded “undesirables” so that the beloved “chosen” could see and unmistakably understand that God’s saving purposes included “them” too.  Wherever there was “Pentecost” evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence and activity just beyond its already existing borders, the church was compelled to cross over in order to be faithful to the mission of God, and Amos Yong says that it still works this way.

Dean of School of Theology and School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary, Dr. Yong reasons from the Biblical truths of the Holy Spirit’s omnipresence in creation and providence (Psalm 139:7-10) and agency in a work of redemption that excludes no one (John 3:16; I Timothy 2:3-6; 2 Peter 3:9), that wherever we see evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence and action in the world today, that this is where God in Christ is at work and expects us to join in. 

Raised in a rather narrow sectarian Pentecostal tradition comprised of people who thought that they were the only “true” Christians, Dr. Yong says that it was during his graduate theological studies that he began to realize that were genuine Christians beyond the boundaries of his own church family.

“My studies at a Wesleyan Holiness seminary raised the intra-Christian ecumenical question for me with great force, challenging me to confront the very sectarian and exclusive form of Christian self-understanding which characterized the Chinese American Pentecostal churches of my upbringing. Further graduate studies expanded the ecumenical question: If it was possible that those whom I considered before as outside the pale of Christianity (e.g., Catholics, Orthodox, even Lutherans) did indeed have a saving relationship with God, what about others also categorized as pagan, heathen, or non-Christian?”

There are three big affirmations that we make as Christians (just look at the church’s historic creeds) –

God made everybody, everywhere.  His image is in us all.                                               Christ died for everyone, everywhere. He offered Himself as a sacrifice of love for all.  The Spirit is at work in everyone, everywhere, drawing us all.

All equally true, Dr. Yong suggests that we begin with that third affirmation about the Spirit, and see where it leads.  He suggests that when we start by paying attention to where we see evidence of the Spirit’s presence and activity, just like the church in the book of Acts, we will find ourselves with people in places beyond the borders that currently define us.  Pondering Dr. Yong’s work, Roger Olsen, the very fine Professor of Theology at Baylor’s Truett Seminary, asks, “What criteria should we use for discerning the Spirit’s work?”  Because the Holy Spirit spotlights the person and work of Jesus Christ (John  14:25-26; 16:12-15), the surest sign of the Spirit’s work will always be where we see Jesus Christ exalted. 

In his book of sermons on the Holy Spirit, David Hubbard asked, “Do you have a favorite portrait of Jesus?  A picture that captures for you the remarkable characteristics of the One whom we call Lord and Savior?”  After touring the gallery in his heart of some of his favorite paintings of Jesus Christ, Dr. Hubbard said that his favorite portrait of Him was the one “painted by Paul  in Galatians”“the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”  “It takes no great insight,” he explained, “to see that Paul; was summing up the personal qualities of Jesus Christ (here), who Himself sat for this portrait.”  And so, wherever we see love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control being cultivated the Holy Spirit is spotlighting how Jesus Christ is present there and what Jesus Christ is doing there, and that’s always an invitation for us to show up and join in that work.  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, that’s where we need to be too. DBS+


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What is the Point of Pentecost?

Cake and ice cream are intrinsic to the whole birthday experience, but cake and ice cream are not the point of birthdays. Hot buttered popcorn is intrinsic to the movie at a theater experience, but hot buttered popcorn is not the point of going to a movie at a theater. Standing and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch at a major league baseball game is pretty intrinsic to the whole experience of being at a ballpark, but standing and singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” is not the point of going to a ballpark. Fireworks are pretty intrinsic to the celebration of the Fourth of July, but a fireworks show is not the point of the Fourth of July.  So, while “the birthday of the church” is certainly an implication of Pentecost, “the birthday of the church” is not the point of Pentecost. This is one of my Biblical/Theological “pet peeves.”  I have tilted at this windmill before (see: https://dougskinner.wordpress.com/2013/05/22/burying-the-lead/). But while  sitting in church yesterday morning listening to the Scripture lesson being read – the story of the Pentecost from Acts chapter 2 – I was struck once again by the fact that in the only narrative we have in Scripture about what happened in Jerusalem 50 days after Easter, the explosive growth of the church is a consequence of what happened on Pentecost, but not its point. When the question was explicitly asked in the text – “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12) – the answer was not – “Well, it’s the birthday of the church!”  No,  where the text sends us is to redemptive history, to what it is that God has promised to do save us and all of creation.

The text of Peter’s sermon on that first Pentecost morning was Joel 2:28-32 and its description of the promised coming of the Day of the Lord.  It was John Stott’s little booklet – “The Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit” (IVP – 1964) – that first alerted me to the significance of this, and the very first thing he argued in that little booklet was that “the fullness of the Holy Spirit is one of the distinctive blessings of the new age” (11). 

Pentecost is not the beginning of God the Holy Spirit any more than Christmas is the beginning of God the Son.  God, traditionally understood by Christians, is an eternal trinity – always and forever the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  What Pentecost signals is God’s new way of being present with and in His people as part of His redemptive work.  Biblically, God the Holy Spirit existed and was fully active before the day of Pentecost. “Nevertheless,” as John Stott pointed out, “some of the prophets foretold that in the days of the Messiah God would grant a liberal effusion of the Holy Spirit, which would be new, and distinctive, and available for all (Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 44:3; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:26-27; Joel 2:28).

The “New Covenant” that God made with humanity in Jesus Christ was “twofold” according to John Stott.  “It involves a removal and a bestowal, a taking away of sin and a baptizing with the Holy Spirit. These are the two great gifts of Jesus Christ our Savior” (13).  This is why John the Baptist’s introduction of Jesus as the Christ in the Gospel of John consisted of the dual announcement that Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (1:29) as well as the One who “baptizes with the Holy Spirit” (1:33).  It was as the Lamb of God that Jesus Christ went to Calvary’s Cross and then got up out of the borrowed tomb three days later “for us men and our salvation.”  This is what Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday are all about.  But the saving work of God is not finished on Easter Sunday morning.

On the eve of His saving death, Jesus told His disciples that when He went away that He would send to them another “Helper” – the “Comforter,” the “Counselor,” the “Advocate,” the “Intercessor,” the “Teacher,” the “Friend” (John 14:15-17; 14:25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7-11; 16:12-15).  “I will not leave you desolate,” Jesus told His disciples right before going to the cross, “I will come to you… Yet a little while , and the world will see me no more, but you will know me… because (I will be) in you…  we (God the Father and God the Son) will come to you and make our home with you” (John 14:18-24). 

It is this continuing, indwelling, empowering presence of Jesus Christ in us that is the Biblical point of Pentecost.  Pentecost is the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s promises about the Holy Spirit’s coming to us and being with us in a new way through the person and work of the Messiah, and the way that all of the things that Jesus told His disciples in the Upper Room about how He would continue to be with them and in them after He had gone away became a living reality.  As John Stott explained – “the Day of Pentecost was the last event of the saving career of Jesus, the long-promised outpouring of the Spirit consequent upon His death, resurrection, and ascension.  As such it completed the inauguration of the new or Messianic age, the age of the Spirit…the blessings of which are for all who belong to Christ… without exception… the gifts of the forgiveness and the Spirit which Christ made available by his death, resurrection, ascension and outpouring of the Spirit (Pentecost)” ( 29-30 – “Baptism and Fullness” – Second Edition – 1975).

More than just “the birthday of the church,” Pentecost is an aspect of the God’s saving work no less essential nor instrumental than what God in Christ did in Bethlehem’s manger or on Calvary’s Cross.  This came home to me most powerfully while praying with a print of the gifted Russian Saint Andrei Rublev’s famous icon “The Old Testament Trinity”  (1411).  I urge you to go to – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trinity_(Andrei_Rublev) – to see it before continuing to read.  In the tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity this icon is often brought out for Pentecost. This image proclaims the spiritual significance of the day for them.

Based on the Genesis 18 story of Abraham showing hospitality to the three strangers,  the church has long seen in this story “a type and shadow” (Hebrews 8:5) of God who is a Trinity.  Frederica Mathewes-Green, the very fine Eastern Orthodox Christian writer, reflected on this icon in her contribution to a 2006 collection of essays on “God the Holy Trinity” (Baker Academic ) edited by Timothy George, the Dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. A version of her essay is online, and in it she explains –

The three figures sit around a stone table that early Christians would have recognized as an altar… On the table is a gold chalice containing red wine mixed with bread. This is how Eastern Orthodox prepare the Eucharist, by combining leavened bread and wine in the same chalice and receiving from a spoon.

…God the Father is on the left. His robe is iridescent, shifting from glowing golden-red to azure blue, a triumph of the painter’s art. God the Son and God the Holy Spirit both gaze toward him, inclining their heads. There is an expression of deference, which is reflected in the version of the Nicene Creed that Rublev would have recited daily: the Son is begotten of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father.  If we imagine this theology of the Trinity represented as a triangle, the point is clearly on the top. The Father is the “arche,” the source; both Son and Spirit originate in Him.

God the Son, in the middle, is wearing a robe of deep purple-red; this is the purple of royalty… Over his purple tunic the Son wears a blue mantle, indicating divinity. Both God the Father and God the Spirit wear their blues as a tunic…

The green mantle of the Spirit, scintillating with light, is another of Rublev’s achievements. Green belongs to the Spirit because the Spirit is the source of life. On the Feast of Pentecost, Eastern Orthodox churches are decorated with greenery, boughs and branches, and worshippers will wear green clothing…  

God the Son and God the Spirit both bow their heads to the Father, but their  equality is shown in  other ways Each of them carries a slim red staff, an emblem of authority. Each has a halo, which should not be understood as a flat disk behind the head, but as a globe of light encircling the head, like the sphere around a candle flame. All three gesture toward the chalice with their right hands; the Father and the Son holding their fingers in the form of a blessing. ” (http://www.pravmir.com/printer_297.html)

The truth that this icon teaches in line and color is the same thing that Reformed theologians called the eternal or everlasting covenant in their catechisms and confessions. What it says is that before Genesis 1:1, before the foundation of the world (Revelation 13:8), God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – mutually agreed on how to proceed when humanity, created in God’s image, would fall through the rebellion of sin.  To accomplish the redemption that’s eternally in the heart of God the Father (symbolized in the icon by the focal point of the Communion chalice on the altar around which they sit), God the Son agrees to become flesh and dwell among us  (John 1:1-18) to undertake the work of redemption on the cross (Philippians 2:1-11), and God the Spirit agrees to apply that objectively accomplished salvation subjectively to each one of our hearts.

This is why our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters bring this icon out for Pentecost each year. Pentecost marks a salvation event.  As A.W. Tozer used to say, we are “saved from” sin (the work of God the Son), and we are “saved to” newness of life (the work of the Spirit).  Back in the day, my friends who emphasized the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, in the church and the world, liked to call themselves “full Gospel” Christians.  They understood that the new life that God established by the work of the Son gets applied to our hearts by the work of the Spirit, and that we only experience the fullness of salvation when what Pentecost signals is as important to us as what Christmas and Easter signal. DBS+    

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The Citadel of Hope

Lyle Schaller was one of the gurus of church life and ministry effectiveness 40 years ago when I was just starting out.  I bought and read all his books back then, and one of the things that he liked to say was that churches need to read the “election results.”  Every Sunday morning is a referendum on your church, he explained, and the way people vote for or against you is by attendance and giving.  “Nickels and noses” — that’s what you have to count if you want to know how you’re doing, and by those metrics the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has lost this election in a landslide.

When I was ordained 40 years ago, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) was a denomination with a reported membership of 1.2 million people.  We are now a denomination with a reported membership of 450 thousand people. This means that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has lost 750,000 members – three quarters of a million people – over the last 40 years.  We’re not even half the size that we were back when I became a minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 1979.

We’re not alone in this.  Every church in America is in numerical decline these days, even the Catholics and the Baptists.  We just happen to be better at it than anybody else.  No American denomination has lost more members in recent history than has the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  There are lots of reasons for this, and we ought to be thinking seriously about them,  but that’s not what I want to talk with you about this morning on my last Sunday as your Interim Minister.  No, what I want to talk about this morning instead is hope.  It was the great 20th century American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who said that hope is a citadel built on the brink of despair.  It’s that citadel of hope that I’m interested in talking about this morning.

I knew a minister in one of our tall steeple churches back in the day who, when his church was building their annual budget, after all of the pledges had been calculated, and all of the revenue streams had been fully taken into account, and they had a good fix on their projected income for the coming year, insisted that another 10% be automatically added to the bottom line.  He called that extra 10% “the faith quotient.”  He liked to say that he didn’t become a minister to raise churches’ budgets but to grow people’s faith, and he said that the added 10% “faith quotient” was just a concrete way of reminding himself ,and his people, that God was able to do things in them, and through them, that they couldn’t even see yet.  So, what do you think?  Was this a foolish or a faithful thing for him to do? 

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29) is what the Risen Christ said to “Doubting” Thomas in the Upper Room just one week after Easter Sunday.  Jesus had been there before.  On Easter evening Jesus had come to His disciples in that same room to give them a special endowment of the Holy Spirit to empower their ministry after He had gone back to the Father.  Jesus said –

“As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.”  And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.(John 20:21-22)

Thomas was not there when Jesus showed up, and when the others told him that they had seen the Lord, Thomas told them that “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).  This is how Thomas got his reputation as the “doubter.”   He wasn’t going to believe what he couldn’t see.   Peter Marshall, the famous Presbyterian preacher who became the Chaplain of the United States Senate in the mid-1940’s, called Thomas a “Palestinian Missourian” — a “show-me” kind of Christian, as are so many of us.  In fact, I’ve heard it said that “Doubting” Thomas just might be the Patron Saint of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Oh, we may walk by faith and not by sight as the Bible says (2 Corinthians 5:7), but that doesn’t mean that we like it!  I don’t imagine that there’s one of us here this morning who wouldn’t welcome the opportunity that Thomas was given.

“His disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (20:26-29).

So, is faith just a leap in the dark?  Is the invitation of faith that we’re extended an invitation to jump without looking, to commit ourselves without there being sufficient evidence for doping so?  The spiritual tradition of which First Christian Church of McAllen, Texas, is a part has always been very clear about this.  “Faith is belief in the testimony of credible witnesses,” that’s what our Founders said.  We’ve always been a thinking church, a church that starts by presenting facts to the head, believing that those facts, when fully considered, will, in turn, sweetly distill into the affections of the heart, and eventually issue in the movement of the hands to do what it is that we know to be true and feel to be right.  That’s the flow chart of faithfulness that our founders championed – from head to heart to hands.  And because it starts with the head, as one of my teachers in Christian College liked to say, we should never let our hearts embrace any ideas that our heads have not first fully considered. And the way that our heads come to endorse an idea is by establishing that idea’s trustworthiness and truthfulness. “Faith is belief in the testimony of credible witnesses.”

Now, Thomas heard the testimony of credible witnesses.  People he knew and trusted told him that they had seen the Risen Christ, but that wasn’t enough for him.  Thomas told them that he wouldn’t believe that Jesus was back until and unless he could see it for himself.  When the Risen Christ showed up again a week later to see Thomas, his doubt was instantly turned to faith.  Looking the Risen Christ full in the face, Thomas confessed “My Lord and my God!”  and you won’t find a higher confession of faith in Jesus Christ anywhere in the Bible, but John didn’t linger over it for very long.  Instead he pushed the decision of faith forward.

“Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe” – Jesus said, and that’s us.  That’s you and me.  We’re numbered among those who do not see but who are nevertheless asked to believe.  The question is, on what grounds are we asked to do this?  Well, I’m pretty sure that part of the reason why John tells us Thomas’ story is because it was his seeing gives us a basis for our believing.  We may not be able to see, but that doesn’t mean that nobody ever saw, and what each one of us is asked to do now is to believe on the basis of what people like Thomas saw back then.

John, the very same John who wrote the Gospel from which our Scripture lesson this morning was read, wrote three letters that were included in the New Testament as well, and he began his first letter by explaining that he had some things that he wanted to tell his readers about Jesus, and that they should believe what he had to say about Jesus because he had actually been there with Jesus.  He had seen Jesus with his own two eyes.  He had heard Jesus with his own two ears. He had touched Jesus with his own two hands (I John 1:1-4).   And this means that the question for us is, “Will we believe him?” “Can we trust him?”  This is the decision of faith we face every single time we open our Bibles and read.  Do we find the witness of Scripture credible?

Francis Schaeffer, the first theological influence in my life and on my faith,  explained the choice we face as clearly as anyone ever has for me.

“Suppose we are climbing in the Alps and are very high on the bare rock, when suddenly the fog rolls in. We know that the ice is forming and that if we stay put that we will freeze to death, and so to keep warm, we keep crawling further and further out on the rock face until we have absolutely no idea where we are. That’s when we begin to wonder – ‘Suppose I just let go and dropped?  There might be a ledge somewhere below me in the fog where I could get out of the storm and survive until the morning.’ And so, with absolutely no reason to justify it, you hang and drop into the fog. That’s what some people mean by ’faith.’  It is an illogical leap into the darkness.”

“But imagine that after working your way out onto the rock face, in the midst of all the fog and ice, you stop and hear a voice saying, ‘You can’t see me, but I’ve been watching you, and I know just exactly where you are.  I’m on the ridge across from you.  I have lived in these mountains since I was a little boy. I know every foot of them, and I promise that just ten feet below you there is a ledge, and if you will hang and drop, you will land on it and you can make it through the night there, and then I will come and get you in the morning.’  You ask a couple of questions to help establish the credibility of the one who is speaking, and then, once you are convinced by the answers you are getting, you hang in the fog and drop.  That’s what the Bible means by faith. There’s still a risk, to be sure, but there are good and sufficient reasons for taking it.”

Why am I so hopeful about the future of First Christian Church, of McAllen, Texas?  Why am I convinced, despite the decline, that God is not finished with churches like this one, congregations of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)?  Is this just wishful thinking on my part?  An ungrounded optimism? Or, does my hope have “good and sufficient” reasons? Well, at least part of the reason why I believe that First Christian Church of McAllen, Texas, has a future is because I’ve gotten to know you.  The election results that Paul “read” to take stock of his churches’ well-being in the New Testament were not Lyle Schaller’s “nickels and noses,” but were rather the familiar triad of “faith, hope, and love” (I Corinthians 13:13;  I Thessalonians 1:2-3; 2 Thessalonians 1:3-4; Colossians 1:3-5; Ephesians 1:15-18)., and I’ve seen all three in you this year.

Paul told the Philippian Christians that his fervent prayer for them was that the marks of spiritual well-being that he saw in them – their faith, hope, and love – would “abound more and more” (1:9), and this will be my prayer for you too in the coming days.  It’s as faith, hope, and love continue to grow in you as Christians and a church that they will carry you into the future.  But as important as this is, my real confidence about your future as a church does not rest on your own faith, hope, and love at all, but rather on who the God is that you believe in, and in what it is that He has promised, and on just how much He loves you.

In his influential 1925 book The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesterton observed that “at least five times” before in church history it has looked like Christianity was just about to “go to the dogs,” but that each time “it was the dog that died.”  Here’s what G.K. Chesterton saw so clearly – “Christianity would have perished had it been perishable.”  But Christianity is not perishable.  Christianity is not perishable because Jesus Christ Himself said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matthew 24:35).  And Christianity is not perishable because Jesus Christ Himself said, “I am going to build my church and the powers of hell will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).   And Christianity is not perishable because Jesus Christ is “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

There are days when the church struggles to be sure.  We’re in the middle of one of those days right now.   There are seasons when “the whole soul seems to go out of Christianity,” and to all appearances the church looks like its dying.  But that’s when, “almost as unexpected as Christ Himself rising from the dead,” Christianity has gotten back on its feet and gone on to do even greater things for Christ.  The church in her history has had to face one challenge after another, and there have been many times when it has looked like Christianity just might die. But it never has, and it never will, because, as G.K. Chesterton put it, the God of Christianity is the God “who knows His way out of the grave.”

Resurrection is stronger than crucifixion. Salvation is stronger than sin. Forgiveness is stronger than bitterness. Reconciliation is stronger than hatred. Light is stronger than darkness… Hope is stronger than memory. (Callahan)

“Blessed are those who do not see… and yet believe.”

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Blessed are those who Hear Gods’ Word, and Do It

The ancient Greeks called Cyprus the “Blessed” island.  It was so lovely, so fertile, so rich that it was said that you never had to go anywhere else to be perfectly happy (Barcaly).  And the word they used to describe the island of Cyprus is the very same word that the New Testament uses for its Beatitudes.

The Sermon on the Mount, our Lord’s most representative and comprehensive teaching, begins with nine Beatitudes, you know, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…,” “Blessed are the meek…,” “Blessed are the pure in heart….” (Matthew 5:3-11).  These could very easily be translated “Happy are….”  Biblically, the Beatitudes are descriptions of the conditions that make for happiness. 

While we think of the Sermon on the Mount when the topic is the Beatitudes, there are more Beatitudes in the New Testament than just the nine that we find at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount.  We’ve already taken a look at one of them in this sermon series on the places where and the ways how the Risen Christ is blessing us with every spiritual blessing from heaven (Ephesians 1:3).  Two weeks ago, we looked at Matthew 24:46 – ““Blessed is the faithful and wise servant whose master finds him doing his assigned work when he comes” (paraphrased).  There is true happiness in knowing and doing what God wants.

Perhaps the most famous Beatitude not in the Sermon on the Mount is Acts 20:35 – “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”  If you have a red-letter edition of the Bible, a Bible with the words of Jesus in red, then you will note that this verse is printed in red!  It’s pretty unusual to find a red-letter verse outside the four Gospels.  The scholars call them “agraphas” – which literally means “not written.”  They are things that Jesus said that were not written in the Gospels.

And there are still other Beatitudes in the New Testament.  Next week we’ll look at the “Doubting Thomas” Beatitude – “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).  In what seems to be completely counter-intuitive, the book of James opens with the Beatitude – “Blessed is the one who endures trials…” (1:12).  This “blessing” that waits to be discovered in the trials and tribulations of life is precious to those who have found it.  The book of Revelation promises a special blessing to anyone who will listen to what it’s saying, and heeds it (1:13).  Jerry Cook, a pastor in Portland, Oregon, read the whole book of Revelation out loud to his congregation without comment over several Sundays based on this promised blessing, and he said that the result was electrifying for him and his church. And the Beatitude that I say out loud at every funeral I conduct is Revelation 14:13 – “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.”

Our Scripture reading this morning included a Beatitude – “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28).  Now, to understand why Jesus said this, we dipped back into the Gospel of Luke a little bit, back to the story about the day when Jesus’ biological family – “His mother and His brothers” – came to Him, and He turned them away explaining, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:19-21). 

In Luke 11, it was when a woman in the crowd who had just seen Jesus do His mighty acts and heard Jesus teach His great truths, and blessed Jesus’ mother for the gift of her Son, that Jesus reversed the flow of her praise and directed it instead to His disciples, to all those who hear His words and keep them (11:27-28).  In both cases, Jesus seemed to be rebuffing the members His physical family and His ordinary duties to them in favor of His commitment to disciples. So, what’s going on here?

Well, this is one of the “hard” teachings of Jesus.  As “meek and mild,” “tender and gentle” as we are accustomed to thinking and talking about Jesus, we nevertheless get occasional flashes of the majesty of His Lordship in the Gospels, and it startles us when we do. Jesus is a demanding Lord who brooks no rivals.  This is what the historic Creeds of Christianity insisted on keeping front and center in our faith by reminding us that the Lord Jesus Christ “who for us men and our salvation came down from heaven,” is the very same Lord Jesus Christ who “shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead.”  The same Lord Jesus Christ is both our Savior and our Judge.  God’s “holy love” is complicated.

There’s a petition in the morning prayer that I often pray that says – “Imprint upon our hearts such a dread of thy judgments, and such a grateful sense of thy goodness to us, as may make us both afraid and ashamed to offend thee.”   “Afraid” and “ashamed” — I’m intimately acquainted with both of these feelings. I’m afraid of how Christ as my Judge looks on my sins, and I’m ashamed of how my sins grieve Christ my Savior. Most of us opt for that Savior part alone, but let go of either side of this paradox, and you’ll wind up losing the Gospel.

Paul warned the Romans that God’s patience and mercy with us is not an excuse for us “to presume upon the kindness of God” (2:4).  The kindness of God is meant to lead us instead to repentance, Paul explained, to the reordering of our lives and our world with God and His will at the very center of them.  Unfortunately, the kindness of God can have the exact opposite effect. Because the judgement of God has not fallen on us, we start to think that the judgment of God will never fall on us.  Don’t kid yourself – “God is not mocked, what we sow we will reap” (Galatians 6:7).  That’s one of the moral laws of the universe.  There will be a reckoning. God expects us to take Him and what He wants seriously.  That’s the whole point of what Jesus said in our Beatitude this morning – “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28).  This Beatitude creates two obligations in us – (1) First, we need to hear the word of God, and (2) second, we need to do what the word of God says.   This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.  We hear what He’s saying, and then we set about to do it.  First, we need to hear what God is saying. 

The spiritual tradition of which First Christian church is a part began on the American frontier in the early 1800’s.  We were born in a time of wild revival when people were claiming to hear directly from God in their unusual spiritual experiences and emotional upheavals.  People who didn’t know and who didn’t care that Jesus Christ had been born for them in Bethlehem, or what He taught on the hillsides and in the synagogues of Galilee, or why He died on Calvary’s cross for them, said that they were  Christians nonetheless because of their own personal relationship with Jesus in their hearts. 

People said that they loved Jesus, but they knew next to nothing about Jesus apart from their own private experiences with Him and their intense feelings about Him (Trueman).  Like blind men who took hold of an elephant, and who thought that the part of the elephant that they touched was all that there was to elephants, so everyone had their own private version of Christianity based on their own private experience with Jesus. 

Someone touched the side of the elephant and said – “Elephants are like a wall.”  Somebody else grabbed hold of the elephant’s trunk and announced – “No, elephants are like snakes.”  Somebody else touched the tusk of the elephant and argued – “No, elephants are sharp like the point of a spear.”  Somebody else touched the leg of the elephant and said – “No, an elephant is like a tree.”  Somebody else took hold of the elephant’s ear and said – “No, an elephant is like a fan.” And somebody else touched the tail of the elephant and said – “No, an elephant is like a rope.”   And so long as everyone is blind, who could argue with any of this.  If all we’ve got are our own private experiences of elephants, then elephants are always going to just be a matter of our personal feelings and private impressions, no one’s any better than anybody else’s. But what happens the minute that someone can see? 

Suddenly there’s more to elephants that just our own personal experiences of elephants.  When somebody can actually see the whole elephant, elephants have an objective reality, something to which all of our private experiences have got to correspond, and against which they all have to be measured.  That’s what the Bible does for us as Christians.  This is why the spiritual tradition of this church began with its founders telling people to open their Bibles for themselves and to read it, to listen closely and carefully to what it is says because it’s where we see God for who God really is.  All of our subjective experiences and impression of God get tested by what God has told us and shown us about Himself in His Word.

Traditionally, when the church bell rang on a Sunday morning, it was to announce to the world that something great, something crucial, something momentous was just about to happen (Barth).  Church was about to begin, and in church the Bible was going to be opened, read, and explained.  Traditionally, people came to church expecting to hear from God.  They came believing that God was going to speak to them from His Word, and they came ready, even eager, to hear what He had to say, and that’s the first obligation that this morning’s Beatitude creates in us.  “Blessed are those who hear the word of God.”  The founders of our spiritual tradition would be mystified by our Biblical illiteracy today, and stunned by our complacency about it.  They would be shocked that we know so little about what’s in the Bible, and they would be even more troubled by the fact that we do little to correct that ignorance.  We know who God is, what God is doing, and what God wants from His word to us found in the Bible.

The second obligation that this morning’s Beatitude creates in us is to do what God says.  “Blessed are those who keep the word of God.” 

Have you seen that bumper sticker that says – “God said it.  I believe it.  That settles it.” I’ve thought and talked about God my whole life long.  I’m seminary trained and denominationally certified, educated beyond my intelligence.  And I know that I’m supposed to scoff at the simplicity of that bumper sticker’s  naïve declaration of faith.  But I’ve got to tell you, my faith is really not much more complicated than this — What can be shown to be what God said, and meant, is what I’m already prepared to believe, and obey.Oh, I can get down into the weeds of interpretation with the best of them, but in all this, I’ve never lost touch with the fact that what started me out on this journey some 50 years ago was a simple desire to know God, and to do what God wants, and it’s this desire that will keep me going until that day when my faith finally becomes sight.  I hear God speak when I read the Bible, and I find that what God says in the Bible creates in me an obligation to be and do what He wants.

“When God communicates information, I am obligated to believe it. When he tells me to do something, I am obligated to obey it. When he tells me a parable, I am obligated to place myself in the narrative and meditate on the implications of it. When he expresses affection, I am obligated to appreciate and reciprocate it. When he gives me a promise, I am obligated to trust it.”  (John Frame)

I read my Bible, the word of God, to learn the will of God, and then, when I know God’s will from God’s word, I set out to do it as best I understand it, to the best of my ability.  I’ve learned to start by doing the very first thing that I hear God telling me to do in His word, and then I just go on from there (Tozer), and try to do the next thing  I try to –   

Do it immediately, (to) do it with prayer;  (To) do it reliantly, casting all care;  (To) do it with reverence, tracing His hand  Who placed it before (me) with earnest command. Stayed on Omnipotence, safe ‘neath His wing, Leaving all results, (I) do the next thing.

“Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”   (Luke 11:28). 


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“The full loneliness of the thinking Christian…”

Harry Blamires was one of C.S. Lewis’ star pupils.  In 1963 he published one of the more defining books for my life and faith, “The Christian Mind” (Seabury Press).  In addition to its helpful examination of the six “marks” of the Christian mind – (1) Its Supernatural Orientation; (2) Its Awareness of Evil; (3) Its Conception of Truth; (4) Its Acceptance of Authority; (5) Its Concern for the Person; and (6) Its Sacramental Cast, “The Christian Mind” was a lament for the near total abandonment of the spiritual discipline of “thinking Christianly” by Christians in his day (and ours), and an appeal for its recovery. 

To illustrate the state of things, Harry Blamires recommended an exercise.

Take some topic of current political importance.  Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relation to it; and do so in total detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form your conclusions by thinking Christianly.  Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation.  The full loneliness of the thinking Christian will descend upon you.  It is not that people disagree with you.  Some do and some don’t.  In a sense that does not matter.  But they will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly.  In almost all cases you will find that views are wholly determined by political allegiance.  Though he does not face it, the loyalty of the average Churchman to the Conservative party or to the Labour party (Blamires was British)  is in practical political matters prior to his loyalty to the Church. It is important that this point about the loneliness of the thinking Christian should not be misunderstood.  It is not lonely to disagree with other people.  It is not lonely to meet in the same field of discourse with men and women who reach conclusions that contradict your own.  But it is desperately lonely to occupy a field of discourse which no one else will enter, even if you are surrounded by people who have reached exactly the same conclusions as you yourself. (13-14)

We are on the outermost perimeter of the next Presidential election cycle, and already the Facebook postings of so many of my Christian friends and acquaintances have exposed and exacerbated “the full loneliness of thinking Christianly” for me. Unless you are prepared to equate Biblical Christianity with the planks of a particular political party and to conflate your confession of the Lordship of Jesus Christ with the support of a particular Presidential candidate (which if you do, I would urge a careful reading of Tim Keller’s September 29, 2018, opinion piece in the New York Times – “How Do Christians Fit into the Two-Party System? They Don’t” ), then I want to invite you to make a commitment to “think (and talk) Christianly” in the coming months and not just politically. 

A good place to start living into this commitment would be to knock-off the selective moral outrage, and to just choose a clear and consistent moral vision instead.

We are guilty of selective moral outrage when, rather than condemning dishonesty as something that is entirely inconsistent with our moral vision as Christians, we condemn it only in those whose political conclusions are at variance with our own political conclusions, or we relativize it by saying that the dishonesty of our political opponents is more egregious than the dishonesty of our political choices.

We are guilty of selective moral outrage when, rather than abhorring religious violence whenever, wherever, and to whomever it occurs, we counter the reports of attacks on Muslims in the free exercise of their religious convictions (an inalienable right with which they are endowed by our Creator) with an – “Oh yeah, well what about attacks on Christians!”  – as if it’s more serious and significant when it happens to “us” than when it happens to “them.” 

We are guilty of selective moral outrage when, rather than taking a stand against killing as the sixth commandment requires, we highlight instead the tragic deaths of those by the actions of undocumented residents of our country and demand immediate and decisive action because it “fits” with our political conclusions about the immigration crisis and how it should be solved, but we can’t, or won’t, be as urgent or decisive about how to address the crisis of mass shootings in our schools because it doesn’t “fit” with our political conclusions about what the Second Amendment guarantees us as citizens. 

We are guilty of selective moral outrage when we are disgusted by the disrespect shown to the elected leaders for whom we have voted, and are deeply troubled by the uncivil way that they are treated and regarded, while ourselves being  disrespectful of the elected leaders for whom we did not vote, and treating and regarding them without any civility at all.  We can’t be offended when we are called stupid and evil for our political choices while at the very same time calling people who have made different political choices stupid and evil.

If people know that you are a Republican or a Democrat more than they know that you are a Christian; if they know how you feel about President Trump and who you plan on voting for in the next election more than they know that Jesus Christ is the Lord and Savior of your life; if you are more passionate about letting people know where you stand politically on the big questions of the day than you are on knowing and making known the mind of Christ on those issues, then you are not “thinking Christianly.”  And while it may win elections, it doesn’t serve the coming Kingdom for which we as Christians constantly pray. DBS+  

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The Greatest in the Kingdom

One of the more defining Old Testament texts for my understanding of how the New Testament church is supposed to work is Zechariah 8:20-23 –

“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the Lord and seek the Lord Almighty. I myself am going.’  And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek  the Lord Almighty and to entreat him’  This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’”

You’ve got to have something that people want and need if they are going to come, and what we have is the presence of God in Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Savior. Jesus Christ is at church every Sunday morning. He promises to be.  He promises to be in our midst when 2 or 3 gather in His name (Matthew 18:20).  He promises to be present with us in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35; I Corinthians 10:16).  He promises to be active in our engagement with the Word, Holy Scripture (Hebrews 4:12). And He promises to “inhabit our praise” (Psalm 22:3).  When the eyes of our hearts are opened (Ephesians 1:18), and we see Him here with us week in and week out, and “this truth becomes explosively alive in our inner being” so that people see it in us and hear us talking about it, they will grab hold of us, just as Zechariah foresaw in his day, and they will say — “Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.”

Our churches need to be places to which we come each week knowing that God’s blessing is there, and places from which we are sent each week, prepared and eager to bless others.  Someone has said that the most sacred moment in the weekly order of worship is when the last hymn has been sung, the Benediction has been pronounced, and the doors of the church are opened for us to go back out into the world again.  The hour of worship each week is not the point of the hour of worship each week.  The hour of worship on Sunday is for all of the other hours of the week that we will have. In the hour pf worship we catch the rhythm of grace. In the hour of worship we see the face of God in Jesus Christ and feel His fresh touch on our lives through the Holy Spirit.  We get “blessed” in these ways here in te hour of worship in order to be a blessing in all the other hours of the week to come.  This is how it works.  And according to Mark 10:13-16, one of the real centers and channels of Christ’s blessing in a church’s life is going to be where the children are.


We’re not specifically not told who it was that was bringing these children to Jesus, but I think we can safely assume that it was their parents.  Politicians kiss babies.  When the Pope works a crowd, people hold up their children to him for a blessing, and it was no different in Jesus’ day.  Jewish mothers wanted their children blessed by teachers who were thought to be especially close to God, and so they brought them to Jesus.


In ancient Israel you blessed someone by putting your hands on their heads and saying some sacred words.  Many Jewish parents still do this every Sabbath evening with their children.  They put their hands on their heads and they bless them.  It was St. Ambrose who observed – “You may not be rich; you may be unable to bequeath any great possessions to your children; but one thing you can give them; the heritage of your blessing. And it is better to be blessed than to be rich.” 


Again, we’re not told why.  I suspect that it was because they thought that Jesus was too busy doing important things to be bothered by children who were invisible and insignificant to people in Jesus’ day.


Only Mark’s Gospel uses that word “indignant” to describe Jesus’ response to the way that His disciples were trying to handle Him.  It’s a really strong word.  It means that they made Jesus mad.  We don’t usually think of Jesus like this. A mad Jesus is not part of our usual frame of reference when it comes to Jesus.  The English Evangelist Leonard Ravenhill said that he had seen hundreds of cars with the bumper sticker that says, “Smile, God loves you,” but not one, even once, that said – “God is angry with the wicked every day” (Psalm 7:11). But there are things that do make God mad, and neglecting children is right at the top of that list.  Jesus said that it would be better for us to have a great millstone fastened round our necks and for us to be thrown into the depths of the sea than to do something that hurts a child – physically, emotionally, spiritually (Matthew 18:6).


George MacDonald, the Scottish author of children’s stories, said that you shouldn’t go to any church where children are afraid to play outside its doors.  Children know where they are wanted and welcome, and Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me, do not hinder them,” intended His church to be just such a place.


This was Jesus’ way of yelling “head’s up” in the outfield, or pounding a gavel in the courtroom.  It was a signal that it was time to pay attention, that something important was about to be said.


On another occasion (Matthew 18:1-4), when Jesus’ disciples were fussing with each other about who was the greatest, we’re told that Jesus grabbed the closest child and, holding that child in His arms, Jesus  explained that little children are the greatest in the Kingdom, and that unless we became like them, that we would never enter it ourselves.  Now, some people will try to tell you that it’s a child’s innocence that Jesus was talking about here, but it’s only people who aren’t around children very much who would are to say such a thing.  Children aren’t innocent.  Children are just little human beings with the same exact capacity for cruelty and kindness that we have as adults  Children aren’t any more innocent than we are, but they are more dependent.  They need somebody to look after them, to take care of them.  Children wouldn’t survive for very long if somebody wasn’t there watching over them.  The same thing is true of us as adults, and it’s only when we can admit this – that we are powerless and that our lives are unmanageable on our own – that the door of the Kingdom opens to us.


Brennan Manning said that he was so glad that Jesus didn’t just do a group blessing that day, but instead took up each child into His arms and blessed them individually, one by one. Children who had been held by Jesus when He was on earth were called the “Theophoros” by the early church – the “God borne,”  or the “God carried.”  There was a certain prestige given to those who had actually been taken up into Christ’s arms in the days of His earthly ministry, but the greater truth is that there’s not a one of us, not even the smallest child, who has not been taken up into Christ’s heart and is held there.

It’s because Jesus gathered up the children into His arms to bless them that the church has always had a special concern for children in its life and ministry.  As mainline churches have aged and thinned, maintaining a ministry to children has become increasingly challenging. 

In one of the churches that I served along the way we had a great big weekday preschool, and when they put on their annual Christmas Program, we always made a point of inviting the entire Sunday morning congregation to come out for it.  After one of these programs that involved hundreds of kids and their families, I was visiting with a longtime church leader, and she told me how sad the program had made her.  When I asked her why children singing about the birth of Jesus had made her sad, she told me that she could remember the time when the church had put on the children’s Christmas program with participation like that, “but now the school has to do it” she lamented.  “But the school is a ministry of the church,” I told her, “and this means that the church is still putting on the children’s Christmas program.”  I told her that while we may not be touching those kids and their families with the love of Christ on Sunday mornings, we were touching them with His love Monday through Friday in a different way.  Things have changed.  Things may not look, or work, or feel like they did before, but that doesn’t mean that we still don’t need to have a ministry to children as a church.

One of the ways the New Testament talks about what it is that God needs us to do is to be spiritual mothers.  Just as we have our physical mothers who give us physical birth, so people need spiritual mothers to give them spiritual birth.  This is why Paul told the Galatian Christians that he was “going through labor pains for them all over again, and that those pains would continue until Christ was fully formed in them” (4:19).  Paul was their spiritual mother.  He had gone through the agony of labor for them to be born again, and he was still agonizing over them as he nurtured their continuing growth just as a mother would.  Every church needs to figure out how to do this in their setting.

Not long after Dwight L. Moody became a Christian, he volunteered to teach in the Sunday School of his home church and was turned down because he was too young and too inexperienced.  And so, undeterred, Dwight L. Moody went out into the roughest neighborhood of Chicago to start a Mission Sunday School.  He found a ramshackle shanty that had once been a saloon, rented it, and then he started hunting children –  dirty, unkempt, and rowdy children –  but “each one with a soul to save.”   In three months, he had 200 kids attending his Mission Sunday School.  In six months 350, and within a year the average attendance was 650, with an occasional crowd of almost 1000.  It’s not these astonishing numbers, impressive as they are, that’s the point of this story, but rather, it’s the commitment that he made, and the creativity that he displayed in order to do what He knew that Christ commanded had commanded His people to do.

Not long ago the Christian Reformed Church told its congregations that one of the  important things that they should be counting in order to get a better sense of their missional health and vitality was the number of infants that they were baptizing each year.  Churches that baptize believers and not infants, and churches that are aging and thinning are not off the hook.  A crucial metric of the spiritual health and vitality of churches like these will be a tally of all the different ways they are reaching out to children and their families with the love of God in Jesus Christ who took children into His arms, blessed them, and said, “Let the little children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”   Whether the children are coming to the church, or the church is going to the children, church and children go together — our soul depends on it, Jesus said so. DBS+

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“Blessed to be a Blessing”

No doubt you’ve heard it said that we are “Blessed to be a blessing.”  This is a thoroughly Biblical idea.   It goes back to the Bible’s foundational story of God’s call of Abraham in Genesis 12.  God told our spiritual father – “I will bless you… so that you will be a blessing” (12:2).  There are two parts to this truth – first, God blesses us, and then, we become a blessing.  Let go of either side of this Biblical equation, and everything changes. 

Because we can’t give away what we don’t have, before anything else can happen, we’ve got to be blessed.  God’s blessing is the gas in the engine.  It’s the fire in the fireplace.  It’s the meat in the bun.  Church and the Christian life simply don’t work without it.  This is what Easter is all about.  Christ got up on the third day with blessings in His hands ready to give to His people (Luke 24:50-51; Ephesians 1:3-14). “I want to bless you” is the first thing that God always tells us.  And then, once we have received God’s blessings from Christ by faith with thanksgiving, then the next thing that God always says to us is – “now go and be a blessing to others.” 

It’s one of the great temptations for people of Biblical faith to quit once they’ve been blessed.  Because God always gives first and freely – that’s what grace means – it’s easy for us to think that once we’ve received what God’s giving, that we’re done.  But the character who was always criticized the most in the stories that Jesus told was the one who took what he was given and then went home, the one who did nothing with what they had been given.  Jesus’ teaching on this can be boiled down to this memorable refrain from one of those stories that He told – “To whom much is given, much will be required” (Luke 12:48).  We are never just blessed to be blessed ourselves.  We are always blessed to be a blessing to others.

We are given the light of God’s life and truth and love so that we may carry that light to every darkened corner of human existence.  God gives us the experience of salvation so that through us God’s salvation “may reach to the end of the earth.”  We are not the final circle of  redeemed people but the redeeming people.  We are chosen not to privilege but to service. (Come 66)

To be a blessing we’ve got to receive God’s blessing, and Jesus said that one of the ways that God’s blessing gets hold of us is by doing what He tells us to do, and that brings us to  Matthew 25:31-40. These verses are part of a larger unit of Scripture, what’s known as the “Olivet Discourse.”  This is a unit of our Lord’s teachings on the end times.   The Gospel of Matthew is built around 5 of these units of teaching.  This is meant to correspond to the five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy –  the Pentateuch, the Torah.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of Abraham, the Son of David, the fulfillment of God’s promises to His people Israel, and to the whole world, according to Matthew.  That’s the case his Gospel makes, and so the connections between the Old Testament promises and their New Testament fulfillment are frequent and strong in the Gospel of Matthew.

The 24th and 25th chapters of Matthew are the fifth and last unit of Jesus’ teachings in the Gospel.  They were given during Holy Week after  Jesus had entered Jerusalem (21:1-11), cleansed the Temple (Matthew 21:12-17), and been aggressively challenged by the religious leaders of the day (22:15-40).  It was as Jesus was leaving Jerusalem for the day with His disciples in tow, on their way back across the Kidron Valley and up the Mount of Olives, that their conversation turned to the majestic buildings of the Temple where they had just been.  Jesus told them that the day was coming when not one stone of them would be left standing on another (24:2), and that prompted His disciples to ask – “When will this happen?”  And so, Jesus sat down with His disciples on top of the Mount of Olives to talk with them about what the future held.  This was not an unimportant conversation for them to be having.  Jesus’ time with them was quickly winding down, and at the end of His 33 years on earth, there were still lots of things that God had promised to do through the Messiah, the Christ, that Jesus had not yet gotten to. 

Later Paul would confidently exclaim that “all of the promises of God have their ‘yes’ in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20).  But mind you, that “yes” doesn’t happen in one fell swoop.  Instead, it unfolds gradually over time.  For some promises, God’s “yes” in Christ has already been spoken, but for other promises, God’s “yes” in Christ has not yet been spoken.  Right now, we live in-between that “already” and that “not yet,” and that can be a tricky place to be, like someone with one foot on a dock and the other foot in a rocking, roiling boat.  Many of the big mistakes that I see people of faith make these days involves what Gustav Aulen called “the unwarranted anticipation of the future,” thinking and acting as if things promised by God for the future are already in effect today.  This is a recipe for spiritual disappointment and disillusionment.  

On top of the Mount of Olives, looking back across the Kidron Valley at the Temple that He’d just said would not always be there, Jesus spoke with His disciples about the future, about where history was going.  Ultimately, this is always going to be a conversation about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ who will return one day to finish the work of redemption that He began in Bethlehem’s manger and on Calvary’s cross.

There is no book or message in the New Testament which does not expressly declare or imply the return of our Lord as the “blessed hope” of those whose trust is fixed in Him. (Hobbs)

Christianity is forever incomplete apart from Christ’s visible, personal, triumphant return.  Sadly, many of those who see this Biblical truth most clearly seem to go crazy.  They start speculating wildly about when and how it will all take place, ransacking the Bible for hidden clues.  Interestingly, not only do the Biblical texts that address the Second Coming of Jesus Christ most directly not do this, many of them actually forbid it.  It is not for us to know the times and seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority (Acts 1:7). 

When the New Testament turns its attention to what the future holds, its motive is not speculative but moral.  It’s not to fill our heads with fanciful ideas, but rather to fill our lives with practical purpose.  When the New Testament talks about the Second Coming, it is not so that we will get out our calendars to set dates, but so that we would get serious about the work that Jesus Christ has left us to do.  Jesus concluded His Olivet Discourse about what was coming next, and how His disciples could best be ready for it, by telling them a series of  parables – The Parable of the Ten Virgins, The Parable of the Talents, and The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. In the set-up to these three stories, Jesus stated their general theme with a beatitude – “Blessed is the faithful and wise servant whose master finds him doing his assigned work when he comes” (paraphrase of 24:46).

A woman once approached John Wesley (1703-1791) with an interesting question: “Suppose you knew for certain that you were going to die and meet your Maker at the stroke of midnight tomorrow. She said, “How would you spend your time between now and then?” And John Wesley replied, “Well madam, just as I intend to spend it now. I will preach this evening at Gloucester and again at five tomorrow morning. After that I will ride to Tewkesbury to preach in the afternoon and meet with the societies in the evening. Then I’ll go home to dinner, talk and pray with the family as usual, retire to my room at 10 p.m., commend myself to God, lie down to rest and wake up to GLORY!” When he had been similarly questioned, Martin Luther (1483-1546) replied, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my little apple tree and pay my debts.” And centuries before Luther and Wesley, Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was hoeing his garden when one of his brothers in Christ put the same question to him. “Come what may,” he answered, “I would finish hoeing my garden.” (Sanchez)

And this brings us to the Parable of the Sheep and Goats (25:31-46).

If one of the places where the blessing of God resides for us is in doing what Christ commands us to do, then the next question is, what is it that Christ has commanded us to do?  Of course, this is a big question, and it takes the whole New Testament to answer it.  There’s a reason why, when Christ gave us the Great Commission to make disciples, that He told us “to teach all that He had commanded” (Matthew 28:20).  But as we do this, certain passages of Scripture emerge pretty quickly as the anchors for our lives of discipleship, and Matthew 25:31-40 is one of those anchors.

It’s those who feed the hungry and who give drink to the thirsty, who welcome the stranger, cloth the naked, visit the sick, and go to the imprisoned who are called the “Blessed of the Father,” and who will be welcomed into “the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world.”  This is what Jesus Christ wants to find us doing as His disciples when He comes.  And the blessing that’s there for those who do these things is nothing less the presence of Jesus Christ Himself.  Christ waits for us to find Him “in the distress and disguise of the poor” (Mother Teresa).  Take, for example, St. Martin of Tours.

The son of an officer in the Roman army in the Fourth Century, when Martin turned 15, as the custom of the day dictated, he became a Roman soldier himself.  He was stationed at Amiens, in Gaul, when something happened that forever changed the direction of his life.

As he rode towards town one winter day, he noticed near the gates a poor man, thinly clad, shivering with cold, and begging alms. Martin saw that no one who passed by stopped to help him.  Martin had nothing with him but the clothes on his back, so, drawing his sword he cut his great woolen cloak into two pieces and gave one half to the beggar while wrapping himself in the other. That night Martin had a dream in which he saw Jesus Christ, surrounded by His angels, and dressed in the half of the cloak that he had given Him. And in his dream, Martin heard Jesus say to the angels, “Martin covered me with his cloak,” and from that moment, tradition says that Martin devoted the rest of his life to knowing and serving Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. (https://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/martin.htm)

This story is the template for our story.  We are blessed to be a blessing, and it’s in the act of blessing others, especially the poor and needy, that we will find ourselves blessed by the presence of Christ and hear the promise of His eternal welcome. DBS+

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