All “Prophet” and no “Pastor” Unbalances the Ministry of the Church [as does all “Evangelist,” and all “Teacher,” and all “Apostle”]

When I went to seminary in the mid to late 1970’s the clear focus was on pastoral ministry – on how to “comfort the afflicted.”   Today, when people go to seminary the focus seems to be on prophetic ministry – on how to “afflict the comfortable.”  But according to Paul, five leadership gifts were necessary to fully equip the body of Christ for the work of ministry – apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11).

When ministry is conceived primarily or exclusively in pastoral terms, as it was in the days of my ministerial formation, then the life and ministry of the church becomes Biblically unbalanced as a result.  And when ministry is conceived primarily or exclusively in prophetic terms, as it is in the ministerial formation of so many seminarians today, then the life and ministry of the church becomes just as unbalanced Biblically.  And I am enough of a student of church history to know that there have been seasons when ministry has been conceived primarily or exclusively in evangelistic, apostolic, or didactic terms, and that the life and ministry of the church was just as unbalanced Biblically in those times as well.  And I am enough of an informed observer of church life right now to know that there are sectors where ministry is being conceived primarily or exclusively in evangelistic, apostolic, or didactic terms, and that the life and ministry of the church is just as unbalanced Biblically in those places as well.

No ministry has primacy or exclusivity in the five-fold model of Ephesians 4:11.  All five ministries are necessary in the maturation of the church’s life and in the effectiveness of the church’s mission.  I believe that my particular giftedness in ministry has been that of a teacher. This is how I have functioned most naturally and effectively in the 40 years of my ministry in local churches around the state of Texas. But I have always understood that I was not excused because of this from nurturing and modeling prophetic ministry, pastoral ministry, evangelistic ministry, and apostolic ministry in the churches that I was called to serve as well.  And I’m pretty sure that nothing would serve the world better right now than a church that is being formed, informed, and transformed by this fivefold ministry.

  • The world desperately needs a church that proclaims the Gospel of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ and that calls people to personal and communal responses of faith, and that’s going to require ministers to be evangelists.
  • The world desperately needs a church that nurtures personal wholeness and social healing, and that’s going to require ministers to be pastors.
  • The world desperately needs a church that knows and that can meaningfully explain who God is, what God is doing, and what God expects of us both individually and corporately, and that’s going to require ministers to be teachers.
  • The world desperately needs a church that knows the shape of the Kingdom that’s coming, the Kingdom that will break in upon us from the outside, and that fearlessly challenges people and systems to be fashioned by it values right here and right now, and that’s going to require ministers to be prophets.
  • And the world desperately needs a church that is constantly pushing past its present borders and across the well-established thresholds to those who are standing just outside its doors thinking that they are beyond the scope of God’s care and concern, and that’s going to require ministers to be apostles.

In 1968 Robert Raines’ Voight Lectures at McKendree College in Illinois were published under the title – The Secular Congregation (Harper & Row).  What he said has become an important part of the architecture of my heart, mind, and soul.  Identifying two responses that people were making to the great social challenges of that day, and how they were solidifying into intractable positions with no meaningful contact between the people who held them,   Robert Raines acknowledged the legitimate insight and real value of both points of view, and forcefully argued that they really needed each other in order get at the fullness of what’s good, true, and beautiful.  Robert Raines said that the critical challenge of his day was to keep these people of divergent convictions and settled conclusions “within hearing distance of each other, and to reconcile them.”   And I believe that what the world today desperately needs today is a church where prophetic, evangelistic, teaching, pastoral and apostolic ministries are kept within hearing distance of each other, and can be reconciled to each other. And if this is to happen, it is going to require ministers to embrace the fullness of the five-fold ministry. The prophetic, the evangelistic, the didactic, the pastoral, and the apostolic strands of ministry must all cohere in them and be allowed to contribute to the life and mission of the churches they serve. DBS+

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When Christians were “Weird”

The book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the book of Revelation in the New Testament both belong to a kind of writing that’s called  “apocalyptic.”  That word  – “apocalyptic” – comes from a Greek word that means “revelation.”  It literally refers to pulling back a curtain to show what’s going on behind it, and that’s exactly what the book of Daniel did for Jews in the Old Testament and what the book of Revelation did for Christians in the New Testament.  When the days were dark and difficult for the people of God, God pulled back the curtain of history to show them where He was, and what He was doing, and what was coming next.  In my first class in seminary I was told that the whole meaning of the book of Revelation could be summarized in just two words – “God wins!”  That’s what the people of God need to know when to all appearances the cause of God is losing.  When Christians were being persecuted by Rome, the book of Revelation gave them courage, and when the Jews were in exile in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 586 BC, the book of Daniel gave them hope.  The book of Revelation in the New Testament and the book of Daniel in the Old Testament assured God’s people that despite their present painful circumstances, that He was still around, and that He wasn’t finished yet.

Today there are Christians who love to ransack these two Biblical books looking for hidden clues about the shape of things to come.  They treat the books of Daniel and Revelation like crystal balls that have been given to us to divine the future.  Other Christians, Christians like us, unwilling to do this, choose instead to just ignore them.  If somebody broke into our Bibles in the middle of the night and ripped the books of Daniel and Revelation out of them, it’s highly unlikely that they would ever be missed. But both of these approaches, if you ask me, are wrong. In fact, it’s my view that there may not be two more practical books in the whole Bible than the books of Daniel and Revelation!  Daniel and Revelation were written to tell God’s people what to do when nothing’s going right and it feels like everything that you’ve believed in and given yourself to, both heart and soul, is on the verge of collapse.

Just recently I heard a missionary say that because they don’t know what’s in the Bible, that the new Christians on the mission field where he serves are just one crisis away from leaving the faith. He said that because they aren’t “rooted and grounded” in the promises of God, when trouble comes they are quick to jump ship.  But this isn’t just a problem for new Christians on faraway foreign mission fields.  I’ve seen it in every church I’ve served right here in Texas for the past 40 years too — in Lubbock, Plainview, Houston, Amarillo, and Dallas. When we don’t have a good sense of where God is, or of what God is doing, when the lights go out in our lives or the world, our faith invariably flounders and wilts.  But when we do know where God is, and what God is doing, and where things are heading, then when the lights go out, we have a place to stand and from which we can continue to operate with confidence and conviction.   This is what the story in the first chapter of the book of Daniel is about.

Daniel and his friends were the brightest and the best that conquered Judah had to offer, and Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon, had plans to use their gifts in the service of his kingdom.  To assimilate them into the ways of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar enrolled them in a re-education process.  For three years he would immerse them in Babylonian ways.  He would dress them in Babylonian clothes.  He would teach them the Babylonian language.  He would school them in Babylonian literature. He would expose them to all of the Babylonian traditions. And he would feed them with only the best Babylonian food.  And that’s where Daniel drew the line. Jews have strict dietary restrictions as part of their devotion to God. I have an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi friend, and he told me that the first three years of his rabbinical training focused on nothing else but these dietary laws!  They are just that important to observant Jews, and so for Daniel and his friends to have eaten those rich Babylonian foods and to have drunk those fine Babylonian wines would have been tantamount to them abandoning their Jewish identity and convictions.  And so they drew a line and they said that they would not cross it. This is the engine that drives all the stories in the book of Daniel.  The story of the exile of God’s people in Babylon is the story of how to remain faithful in a culture that does not share your values and convictions.  The book of Daniel explores the question of when, if ever, should God’s people compromise with the culture in which they find themselves?  How can God’s people be “in” but not “of” the world?   Where should people of Biblical faith dig in their heels and refuse to budge?

The horse and buggies of the Amish is where they’ve drawn the line.  The refusal to pledge allegiance to the flag or to swear an oath in court is where the Jehovah’s witnesses have drawn the line.  Not going to public schools is where many of the Seventh Day Adventists I grew up with in Southern California drew the line.  Not registering for the draft or performing any kind of military service is where Quakers have historically drawn the line. Not smoking, drinking, dancing, chewing, or “going with girls that do” is where lots and lots of the fundamentalists I know draw the line.  So, what about us?  Do we draw a line, and if so, where?  When do we say – “I’m a Christian, and I won’t, I can’t do that.”  I think this is exactly what Jesus was talking about when He told His disciples that they were to be the salt of the earth.  In saying this, Jesus was telling us that He expected His followers to be noticeably different from others.  The primary characteristic of salt is the way that it tastes different from whatever it gets added to.  It brings its own special zing to the party.  In fact, Jesus said that when salt loses its saltiness – that distinctive zest –that it’s good for nothing but to be thrown out and trodden under foot.  The value of salt is its unique and unmistakable taste.  And just as salt is distinct, so Christ’s disciples are supposed to be too.

In the last few years lots of new research has been done on the early church.  In the marketplace of ideas that was the ancient Roman Empire, why did Christianity emerge as the big winner?  That’s what the scholars have been interested in exploring.  How did Christianity, “a religion whose first believers were 20 or so illiterate day laborers in a remote part of the empire become the official religion of Rome, converting some 30 million people in just four centuries” (Kruger)?  And the answer, according to Larry Hurtado, one of the historians who has carefully examined the evidence, is that those first Christians were self-consciously and consistently “weird.” In other words, they were salt. Those first Christians cultivated a distinctive identity and they lived by a different set of values than those of the people around them.  They drew clear moral and spiritual lines that they refused to cross. They were intentionally odd, and this made them stand out.  At first people were amazed by Christians, and then they were attracted to Christianity.  It was a better way to live.

Christians opposed… the practice of “infant exposure,” in which unwanted babies were simply thrown out.  In the midst of a society that thought that sex with anyone at anytime was perfectly fine, Christians promoted a sexual counterculture by teaching people to abstain from sex outside of  marriage. Christians were unusually generous with their money, particularly to the poor and needy, and not just to their own family and racial group. Christian  communities were multi-ethnic, since their common identity in Christ was more fundamental than their racial identities and therefore created a multi-ethnic diversity, which was unprecedented for a religion. And Christians believed in non-retaliation, in forgiving their enemies, even those who were killing them.  (Keller)

In the same way that Daniel and his friends served Babylon in the days of the exile without becoming Babylonians, so the first Christians blessed and enriched the world in which they lived without losing their distinctive values and convictions. They were salt, and if we are to impact our world today, then we must be salt too.  We must rediscover what it is that makes Christianity different from the world around us, and then unapologetically and unhesitatingly embrace those distinctives.  But we’ve got to be careful precisely here.

For many Christians in recent years this has meant declaring a culture war, and the flashpoints have been saying “Merry Christmas” at the checkout counter at the mall, Ten Commandment monuments at courthouses, Christmas crèches on the lawn at city hall, Bible verses on cheerleaders’ banners at high school football games, and prayers offered in Jesus’ Name to open city council meetings.  Richard Stearns, the President of World Vision,  points out that as Christians have fought these very public battles that our approval rating in culture has dropped from an 85% favorable rating in 1996 to a 15% favorable rating today.

When people were asked to describe Christians, adjectives like, judgmental, hypocritical, close-minded, insensitive, too critical and too political were most often cited.  We might contrast that list with what the Apostle Paul in Galatians listed as the “fruit of the Spirit” ~ “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”

Maybe, Richard Stearns writes, it’s time to change our strategy.

The fight over symbolic issues is backfiring, alienating people from the truths of the Gospel rather than attracting them to it. …Maybe we just need to go back to the basics of living as disciples of Christ… demonstrating the Gospel in tangible ways within our schools, workplaces and communities… What if we simply stuck to what Jesus commanded us to do: loving our neighbors as ourselves, caring for the poor and the sick and the brokenhearted, standing up for the oppressed, being generous with our time and money, and living winsome lives filled with grace and gentleness?

The part of the story in Daniel chapter 1 that makes the greatest impression on me is not that Daniel and his friends were salt, that they drew a line and refused to budge, but rather that when Daniel and his friends were brought before the king, that “in every matter of wisdom and understanding concerning which he inquired of them, he found them to be ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters that were in his kingdom” (1:20).

In 1979 Rebecca Manley Pippert wrote a book that was voted one of the 50 most influential Christian books of the 20th century.  Out of the Saltshaker and into the World (IVP 1979) asks Christians like us just one simple question:  “How can we be the salt of the earth if we never get out of the salt shaker?”  Daniel and his friends were salt, they were self-consciously distinct in their beliefs and values from the culture in which they found themselves.  But Daniel and his friends only has impact when they got out of the shaker and into the world, and in the same way, once we’ve come to terms with our own saltiness – what it means to be a Christian and how that’s different from being a Texan, or an American, or a Republican, or a Democrat – it’s time to get out of the shaker and into the world where our difference can make a difference.  DBS+

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Having an Enemy is Good for You!

In the Gospel of John, right after feeding the 5,000 (6:1-14) Jesus told the crowds that He was the bread of life who had come down from heaven.  “The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (6:51) Jesus explained, and then He added – “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you; whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day” (6:53-54).  John tells us that when the crowd heard Jesus say this that they got upset.  It was, after all, a “hard saying” (6:60).  It offended them (6:61).  And so John tells us that they left (6:67).  In fact, so many of them left that Jesus turned to the twelve, to His closest friends and most committed followers, and He asked them – “Are you leaving now too?” (6:68).

I discovered just how difficult and demanding Jesus could be when I was 15 and convinced a high school friend of mine to read the Gospel of Matthew.  He wasn’t a Christian, and had never seriously considered the claims of Christ, and so he agreed to go home and read the Gospel of Matthew.  Well, he was back the very next day telling me that he wanted nothing to do with Jesus. This isn’t what I expected or had hoped for. When I asked Him why, my friend opened the Bible I had given him to Matthew chapter 10, and he pointed at verses 34-38 –

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.

“How can you follow someone who says something like this?” my friend demanded to know.  I didn’t have a good answer.  That was 50 years ago. Over that time I have come across lots of other hard things that Jesus said.  Things that are hard to understand.  Things that are hard to explain. Things that are hard to put into practice.  There are some things that I wish Jesus had never said, and one of them is the eighth Beatitude and its related teachings just a little bit later in the Sermon on the Mount –

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven… (5:11)

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven… (5:44-45)

In telling us that the persecuted are blessed, Jesus was telling us that it’s not going to be easy to be a Christian.  I don’t want to hear that.  What I want to hear is that being a Christian is going to be fun, comfortable, and effortless.  I want a walk in the park on a sunny day.  But in the Upper Room, on the night before He was crucified, Jesus pulled His friends in close and told them that just as He had been opposed, persecuted, and hated by the world, so they soon would be too (John 15:18-25). They were going to be tested and tried, “sifted like wheat” is what Jesus said (Luke 22:31).

I’ve heard it said that having an enemy – somebody who really doesn’t like us, somebody who deliberately says and does things to hurt us, somebody who is dangerous to our physical, spiritual and emotional well-being – is one of the very best things that can happen to us spiritually. They “plumb the depth of our Christian maturity.”  They are like little thermometers stuck deep into our souls to check the state of our spiritual health.  How we treat our enemies is a pretty good indicator of just how firmly we have been grasped by the power of the Gospel.

As the Apostle Peter approached his death at the hands of Rome for being a Christian, he told his churches that Jesus Christ in His suffering had left them an example “to follow in his steps” (I Peter 2:21).

When he was insulted, he did not reply with insults. When he suffered, he did not threaten revenge. Instead, he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. (2:23)

This is counter intuitive.  My natural instinct when somebody hits me is to try hit them back even harder.  As the British Rock Band “The Smiths” asked in their 1984 hit “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now” – “Why do I smile at people who I’d much rather kick in the eye?”  And our answer to that question, if we are Christians, is “Jesus.”

On the cross as He was dying Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them” (Luke 23:34).  And then, just a few years later, as Stephen was in the process of becoming the very first Christian to die for Christ, he prayed the very same thing (Acts 7:60).  This set the pattern for us.  When people revile and oppose us for being Christians, we are to respond to them with mercy and grace because we are to treat those who wrong and hurt us in exactly the same way that God in Jesus Christ treats us when we wrong and hurt Him.  This is how Paul explained it to the Romans (Chapter 5) –

While we were still weak, at the right moment, Christ died for ungodly people. It isn’t often that someone will die for a righteous person, though maybe someone might dare to die for a good person. But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us… 10 If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life?

Paul described us as God’s “enemies” as He made is approach to us in Jesus Christ.  “Enemies!”  We were “hostile” to God and defiant of His will and ways Paul said just a little but later in Romans (8:7).   We didn’t want God telling us what to do, and we didn’t want there to be any consequences to our neglect and rejection of what God said. But there are.  The rebellion of our sin puts us at odds with God.  The Bible is very clear about this.  God opposes everyone and everything that is hostile or indifferent to Himself (Aulen).  This is what it means to call God “holy,” and if all God was is “holy,” then we’d be in real trouble.  As Psalm 130 puts it –

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand?  But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can,  with reverence, serve you. (3-4)

The good news is that in addition to being “holy,” God is merciful too.  This is what Paul meant in Romans 5 when he said that – “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (8).   And the way that we show that this love has gotten through to us, and taken root in us, is by loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us.

More than one person has pointed out that the only way we can do that first thing – loving our enemies – is by consistently doing that second thing – praying for them.  When we tell God in prayer all about the people who oppose us, God reminds us that we have been known to be people who  oppose Him.  When we tell God in prayer to do something about our enemies, God reminds us of what it was that He did when we were His enemies.  Because God was patient with us, we need to be patient with them.  Because God was generous with us, we need to be generous with them.  Because God pursued reconciliation with us, we need to pursue reconciliation with them.

I’ve heard it said that this is one of the most distinctive teachings of Christianity. Amy-Jill Levine, a Professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School, was asked after a lecture on the teachings of Jesus at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, if there was anything “unique” about anything that Jesus taught?  “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” she answered. “I don’t know of anyone else from antiquity to have given this instruction” (Long).  This is Christianity 101.

If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life?

When the pursuit of God in Christ finally catches up with us, and we are turned from enemy to friend by His love, in the transformation that follows, we start to think and act like Christ.  This is the fundamental change that takes place in us when we become Christians.  E. Stanley Jones said that before Jesus spoke the words of the Sermon on the Mount He lived them.  Before it was a sermon it was His life.  And when we say that He is going to be our Lord, then bit by bit and day by day He is going to start changing us to be more like Him. We will be conformed to His image (Romans 8:29). We will grow up in every way into Him (Ephesians 4:15).  We are being “saved by His life.”

In a 1918 editorial in a Lutheran periodical, when the author was asked if there was anything unique about Christianity, he told three stories.

The Sioux Indians now raise $300 every year to support a missionary among their worst enemies, the Crow tribe.  They are moved to do this in obedience to Christ’s command which tells us to love our enemies.

 A frivolous traveler on a visit to the Fiji Islands conceitedly remarked to a Fijian chief: “It is really a pity that you have been so foolish to listen to these missionaries.  No one nowadays believes the Bible.” The chief’s eye’s flashed as he said: “Do you see that stone?  There we killed our enemies.  Do you see that oven? There we roasted their bodies for our feasts.  If it had not been for the missionaries and the Bible you would have met the same fate.”

 A [white] settler in South Africa [cut off the hand of an African man he thought was trying to steal one of his horses].  Months later this settler found himself benighted while still far from his home.  [He was taken in by an African man who fed him and gave him a bed for the night]. The next morning, when the settler rose to depart, his host held up his right arm and asked the settler if he recognized it?  The settler turned pale – the hand was gone.  He knew that he was at the mercy of the African man whom he had treated so cruelly.  The African man continued: “You were in my power.  I could have killed you in your sleep.  Revenge said – ‘Kill this man who maimed you for life! But I replied, ‘No! I am a Christian, and I will forgive.’”

Loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us may be the hardest thing that Jesus Christ ever asked us to do as His disciples, and the most important.  After all, Jesus said that this is how we show ourselves to be the children of our Father in heaven.

It’s the way that God in Jesus Christ treated us when we were His enemies that now gives shape and form to the way that we are to treat our enemies as Christians.  We are never more Christ-like than when we are loving them and praying for them.

Hassan Dehqani-Tafti became the Anglican Bishop of Iran in 1961.  In 1979, Bahram Dehqani-Tafti, the son of Bishop Dehqani-Tafti  was murdered in the aftermath of the revolution that brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power. Exiled from the country and unable to go back for his son’s funeral, Bishop Dehqani-Tafti composed a prayer and broadcast it live into the service.

O God, we remember not only Bahram but also his murderers; not because they killed him in the prime of his youth and made our hearts bleed and our tears flow. Not because with this savage act they have brought further disgrace on the name of our country among the civilized world; But because through their crime we now follow thy foot-steps more closely in the way of sacrifice.

The terrible fire of the calamity burns up all selfishness and possessiveness in us; Its flame reveals the depth of depravity and meanness and suspicion, the dimension of hatred and the measure of sinfulness in human nature; It makes obvious as never before our need to trust in God’s love as shown in the cross of Jesus and his resurrection; Love which makes us free from hate towards our persecutors; Love which brings patience, forbearance, courage, loyalty, humility, generosity of heart; Love which more than ever deepens our trust in God’s final victory and his eternal designs for the Church and for the world; Love which teaches us how to prepare ourselves to face our own day of death.

O God, Bahram’s blood has multiplied the fruit of the Spirit in the soil of our souls; so when his murderers stand before thee on the Day of Judgment, remember the fruit of the Spirit by which they have enriched our lives. And forgive…

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:11)

 

 

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Find the Book!

Are you familiar with the Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant?

Six blind men were invited to the Rajah’s palace where they encountered an elephant up close and personal. The first blind man put out his hand and touched the side of the elephant. “How smooth!” he said. “An elephant is like a wall.” The second blind man  put out his hand and touched the trunk of the elephant. “How round!” he said. “An elephant is like a snake.” The third blind man put out his hand and touched the tusk of the elephant. “How sharp!” he said. “An elephant is like a spear.” The fourth blind man put out his hand and touched the leg of the elephant. “How tall!” he said. “An elephant is like a tree.” The fifth blind man reached out his hand and touched the ear of the elephant. “How wide!” he said. “An elephant is like a fan.” The sixth blind man put out his hand and touched the tail of the elephant. “How thin!” he said. “An elephant is like a rope.”  Soon there was a big argument, each blind man thinking that his own perception of the elephant was the only correct one. The Rajah, awakened by all the commotion, finally called out to them from his balcony. “The elephant is a big animal,” he said. “Each of you has only touched part of it. You’ve got to put all those parts together to know what an elephant is really like.”

It’s a good story that gets used all the time to teach some truly important lessons about things like the twin theological virtues of modesty and mystery, and about the legitimacy of diverse points of view, and about the humility that comes from recognizing that none of us has the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God,  But there’s a detail in this story that usually goes unnoticed.  You see, not everyone in it was blind.  There was someone in the story who could actually see the elephant, and the minute that somebody can see, then elephants are no longer a matter of our best hunches and guesses. Once somebody can see the elephant, then it doesn’t really matter anymore what blind people think about elephants.  The minute somebody  sees the elephant, from that point on you’ve got to deal with elephants and not just people’s ideas about elephants.  Reformations always begin with somebody seeing the elephant.

Martin Luther believed that he had seen the elephant.  When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church 500 years ago telling the church how it needed to change it was on the basis of his firm belief that the Bible had given him access to the mind of Christ.  From Luther’s point of view, the story that the Bible tells is a story about a God who personally makes Himself and His purposes known to people like us in ways that we can meaningfully understand, and with the reasonable expectation that we can and should respond appropriately.  This is the watershed.  Have we heard from God or not? Do we know what God wants or not?

2 Kings chapter 21-23 tells the story of one of the great reformations in the Bible, and it has served as something of a template for every Reformation that’s followed ever since.  Six things happened in this story, and they are widely regarded to be the steps of a Reformation –

  1. There was a deliberate departure from the standards established by the book of God’s Word with the result that the book of God’s Word gets “lost.” (2 Kings 21)
  2. The book of God’s Word gets rediscovered. (2 Kings 22:1-10)
  3. There is a personal and painful realization that we have not been doing what the Book of God’s Word says.   (2 Kings 22:11- 20)
  4. What’s in the Book of God’s Word becomes more widely known. (2 Kings 23:1-2)
  5. A commitment to do what’s in the Book of God’s Word gets made. (2 Kings 23:3)
  6. And finally, constructive steps are taken to start bringing things back into line with what’s in the Book of God’s Word. (2 Kings 23:4-25)

Back in 1969 Louis and Bess Cochran called their popular history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) – Captives of the Word – because, as they put it, “their [agenda] was based on the Bible… [they] should therefore be [called] ‘Captives of the Word of God.’”  We began as a “back to the Bible” movement, and the Bible still has a place in our life. The research shows that most of us own 4 to 5 Bibles. We love our Bibles, we just don’t read our Bibles, and because we don’t we really don’t know what’s in the Bible, the Bible isn’t influencing what we think or how we act, and the great insight of the Protestant Reformation – that the Bible is the performative instrument that the Holy Spirit uses to change us, and to change the church, and to change the world – gets lost.

Chuck Miller was a popular Bible Teacher whose materials I used back in the day when I was doing youth ministry. Whenever Chuck began to teach a new group of students, he always liked to get a sense of who they were by asking them some basic questions.  With a show of hands he’d ask them to respond to the same four questions –

  1. How many of you believe the Bible is an important book?
  2. How many of you believe that the Bible is the most important book?
  3. How many of you believe that the Bible is the most important book in your life?
  4. How many of you have actually read your Bible for at least 15 minutes a day for the past week?

Martin Marty, the noted University of Chicago church historian, has written about the two ways that the Bible has functioned in American Christianity  – the “iconic” and the  “substantial.” The way people like us so easily and enthusiastically affirm the Bible’s value is its “iconic” use, and the way people actually turn to the Bible to inform their faith’s convictions and practices is its “substantial” use.  What the evidence suggests is that the Bible is deeply “iconic” to us, but not very “substantial.”  People will tell you that they believe in the Bible, but when pressed, very few of them can tell you what’s actually in the Bible. And the result is that our faith’s convictions and practices, untethered to the Word, begin to drift further and further away from the standard of the Word.

A hundred years after Martin Luther’s death the church he reformed needed reforming again.  That’s just how it works.  Nothing stays pure for very long. The struggle between good and evil, truth and error never ends. And so the church is always — “reformata, semper reformanda” — “reformed, and always reforming.”  The Reformer Philipp Jacob Spener (1635 – 1705) one hundred years after Luther, didn’t nail his call for reform to the door of a church, instead he published it in a book – “Pia Desideria” or, “A Heartfelt Desire for God-pleasing Reform.”  I read this book in seminary 40 years ago, and it has been the guide for my ministry in every congregation that I have served ever since.

Not content to merely expose and denounce the corrupt conditions that he saw in the church of his day, Philipp Jacob Spener made a series of concrete and constructive proposals to actually change things, and one of his proposals was for “a more extensive and attentive listening to the Word of God.”  Philipp Jacob Spener believed in the transformative power of the Scriptures.  He got this from Luther who liked to say it was while he slept and drank Wittenberg beer that God’s Word effected the Reformation of the Church.  “I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word,” Luther said, “otherwise I did nothing; I left it to the Word.” And Philipp Jacob Spener believed the very same thing.  He wrote –

The diligent use of the Word of God, which consists not only of listening  to sermons but also of reading, mediating and discussing [what’s in the Bible], [is] the chief means for reforming something… The Word of God remains the seed from which all that is good in us must grow.  If we can succeed in getting people to eagerly and diligently seek their joy in the book of life, their spiritual lives will be wonderfully strengthened, and they will become altogether different people.

A changed world requires a changed church.  A changed church requires a changed people.  And it is the serious and sustained engagement with the book of God’s Word that changes people. Albert Schweitzer, a son of the Protestant Reformation, said that his Bible exploded one day while he was reading it.  It exploded in his hands.  It exploded in his head.  And it exploded in his heart.  That explosion blasted him from the lecture hall where he was a first-rate New Testament theologian, and from the concert hall where he was a world class organist to medical school where he became a doctor, and then it blasted him from medical school to French Equatorial Africa where he lived out the rest of his days as a medical missionary.

Every Reformation, personal and congregational, begins in the same way – with “a more extensive and attentive listening to the Word of God.”  If it’s change you want — find the book. DBS+

 

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“Think things over again… prayerfully… carefully…”

What comes to mind when you hear the word “repent”?  I see a tall thin man with a long gray beard dressed in a dirty burlap sack hoisting a ragged placard that reads “Turn or Burn.” That’s what I saw through the back window of the family sedan every time we went downtown LA when I was a kid to pick up my dad from work.  Pershing Square right across the street from my dad’s office building was crowded with characters like this back in the day, and it was always with a mixture of fear and fascination that I looked out at them as we drove slowly by.  In my mind repentance was something eccentric demanded by misfits and addressed to deadbeats.  Nobody from my world – the respectable world of cub scouts and little league, swimming pools and manicured lawns – had any need for, or interest in, repentance. So, imagine my surprise when I, a good church kid, opened up a Bible one day and read the very first words that Jesus Christ spoke in the Gospel of Mark – “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand; Repent…” (Mark 1:15).

“It’s his most consistent message,” Frederica Mathewes-Green writes. “In all times and in every situation, His advice is to repent” (37).  This explains why eight times in the seven letters to the troubled churches of Asia Minor with which the book of Revelation begins, the Risen Christ says “repent.” Revelation 3:1-6 is one of those letters, the letter from the Risen Christ to the church at Sardis, and  “repent,” the Risen Christ told them, “because I am coming to you like a thief in the night” (3:3).

The Greek word for repentance – “metanoia” – means a transformation of the mind, whereby greater clarity and insight are obtained.  It doesn’t refer to emotion.  Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2)…. Repentance is insight not emotion. (Mathewes-Green)

Repentance literally means “think things over again, prayerfully, carefully,” which is why the Protestant Reformation began with a call to repentance.  We officially mark the beginning of the Protestant Reformation to the moment when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. That was  October 31, 1517. The Protestant Reformation began with Martin Luther telling the church of his day that there were 95 things that he, on the basis of his study of Scripture, thought that they needed to talk about, and the first one was about repentance. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17),” the first of the 95 Theses reads, “he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

In the book of the Hebrew Prophet Amos there’s a famous vision of a plumb line (7:7-9). Builders use plumb lines to keep their work straight. A plumb line is just a cord with a weight attached to the end of it. When the cord is held so that the weight can hang free, it becomes a low-tech tool for determining whether or not what you are building is straight.  Amos was a prophet sent by to Israel in the middle of the eighth century BC with the word that judgment was coming because they were “selling the righteous for silver, and they were trampling the heads of the poor into the dust of the earth, and they were pushing aside the needy at the gate” (2:6-8).  In other words, things had become crooked. God had told His people very clearly how He wanted them to treat each other, and especially the poor.  All of this was spelled out in the Law, but Israel was ignoring it.  And so God showed Amos a plumb line, and God told Amos that it would be by the measure of His Word that He would soon judge Israel.

500 years ago when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door in Wittenberg he was telling the church that he believed that it had become crooked too.  And the plumb line that Martin Luther used to take the measure of the church was the Bible.  Using the standard of God’s Word, the faith and practice of the church is constantly being measured, and when the gap between what the Bible says and what the church does becomes wide enough, that’s when we’ve got to repent.  That’s where we’ve got to rethink things and start to make some changes.

Ask someone today about what they know of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and what you’re likely to hear is something about how we baptize and how often we observe the Lord’s Supper.  As Alexander Campbell put it long ago, if we were going to be “conspicuous” for anything as a Movement, it is was going to be for the attention that we paid to the Apostolic form and content of the Gospel ordinances.  And what I find fascinating about this is that we didn’t start out as a church that baptized by immersion. Thomas and Alexander Campbell were both baptized as infants.  Infant baptism was the unquestioned form of baptism that they both knew, experienced, and practiced.  But in 1809 they left the Presbyterian Church and started a Movement with slogans like, “We speak where the Bible speaks and we are silent where the Bible is silent.”  Some members of their new Association were Biblically literate enough to know that “speaking where the Bible speaks” on baptism would have some serious implications for how they would baptize. They knew that when “the Bible speaks” about baptism that it speaks about believer’s baptism by immersion and not about infant baptism by pouring or sprinkling.  But when they raised the question, Thomas Campbell was not prepared “to make an issue of it” (Short 27)… yet.  It wasn’t until 1812, when Alexander Campbell became a father for the very first time, that Baptism became an issue for us.  Upon the birth of his child, Alexander Campbell began a serious study of baptism in the New Testament, “and he finally concluded that he had not in fact been scripturally baptized.”  And so he immediately made arrangements to be immersed by a Baptist preacher, and he was joined in the waters by his wife, his parents, a sister, and two other members of the Brush Run Church.

This couldn’t have been easy for any of them. To change a settled and cherished practice, something that you have always seen and done, and been told is right and true, requires a special kind of spiritual courage, a willingness to subject what you believe and what you do to the scrutiny of the Scriptures. This is the kind of repentance that Martin Luther called for when he nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, a prayerful and careful rethinking of things as a prelude to substantive and faithful change. When the Canadian theologian John Stackhouse wants to help his students understand what the Bible means by repentance, he tells them this story –

Suppose we intend to drive from San Francisco, in northern California, to San Diego, in the far south. I insist on driving, since I’ve actually visited San Francisco once or twice and I never, ever get lost. You graciously concede the wheel, and off we go. The miles and hours go by. You begin to feel uneasy, however, when we pass what looks for all the world like a sign welcoming us to state of Oregon. I insist that “Oregon” must be a region of California, and that Los Angeles surely must be coming up soon. As we drive through Portland, however, you are convinced I am heading in exactly the wrong direction. And as the Washington state line comes up, you become rather insistent on the point. In fact, you want very much to convert me to your opinion. What is it, exactly, that you want when you want me to convert?  

First, you want me to recognize my error. I can’t take any further steps until I have agreed that I am, in fact, heading north instead of south. But let’s suppose I do that—“Yes, by golly, this sure looks a lot more like Pacific rain forest than Californian coastland!”—and yet I don’t care. “Hey, Washington is a beautiful place, too. Almost as nice as British Columbia!” Surely true repentance is what you seek from me. Merely recognizing my mistake is not enough. I must regret that mistake. “I’m heading in the wrong direction, and I’m sorry.” Then I must take further action. I must abandon the path I’m on (taking the next exit ramp); turning the car around by crossing over to the other side on the bridge; and get a new start (by getting on the entrance ramp in the opposite direction). Suppose I do all this. Are you now satisfied? Have I fully converted? No. Not until I drive us all the way to San Diego, which was the objective of the exercise. It’s good that I’m properly reoriented. In fact, that binary move is indeed the essential move that has to be made if I’m first heading in the wrong direction. But turning around is not enough. Getting to the goal is all or nothing; …I’m not there until I’m there. (75)

This is the journey that the Risen Christ told the church in Sardis that they needed to undertake. They were heading in the wrong direction, and so the Risen Christ told them that they needed stop, turn around, and start heading in the opposite direction.  In the Risen Christ’s word to the church in Sardis we are given a road map to the renewal of the church in every age and place – “Remember what you received and heard; obey it, and repent” (3:3).

“Remember what you have received and heard…”

Timothy George is the Dean of the Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.  A church historian who has concentrated his lifetime of research and writing on the Reformation, Dr. George has a painting of William Tyndale hanging in his office. William Tyndale is the Father of the English Bible.  He as the first person to translate the New Testament into English.  As Steve Lawson puts it, if you own, read, or preach from an English Bible, then you are standing on William Tyndale’s shoulders. The painting of William Tyndale in Dr. George’s office shows him holding a copy of his Bible in one hand and pointing at it with the index finger of his other hand.  Dr. George says that this image captures for him the essence of the Protestant Reformation.  When he spoke to preachers, Walter Kaiser, the former President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, would often tell them that they should never remove their hand from the Bible.  If gesturing with your right hand, keep your left hand on your Bible, he’d say.  And if gesturing with your left hand, then keep your right hand on your Bible.  “A preacher should always be pointing to the Scriptures,” he said.  And so should the church.  In one of his recent books, Reading Scripture with the Reformers, the first thing Dr. George did was to quote G.R. Elton, an earlier Reformation historian, who said that – “If there is a single thread running through the whole story of the Reformation, it is the explosive and renovating and often disintegrating effect of the Bible” (11). It’s because the Bible is the tool that the Holy Spirit uses to speak to our heads and our hearts, bringing us to repentance and faith, both as individuals and as a church, that we need to “remember what we have received and heard.”  This is the first life-giving instruction that the Risen Christ gave to the church at Sardis – Return to My Word.  The other two life-giving instructions that the Risen Christ gave to the church concern what we need to do with His Word once we have returned to it.

 “Obey it…”

In a prayer of confession that I frequently pray, I tell God that I am habitually guilty of at least two things – I “leave undone the things that I ought to have done,” and I “have done the things that I ought not to have done.”   My life is littered with sins of omission and sins of commission.  The second life-giving instruction that the Risen Christ gave to His church in Revelation 3:3 about what to do with His Word once it has been heard and received again is to “obey it.”  This is how we deal with the way that we leave undone the things that we ought to have done.  Just do it.  As A.W. Tozer said in his sermon on the “Fruits of Obedience” –

“Just do the next thing you know you should do to carry out the will of the Lord. If there is sin in your life, quit it instantly. Put away lying, gossiping, dishonesty or whatever your sin may be. Forsake worldly pleasures, extravagance in spending, vanity in dress, in your home. Get right with any person you may have wronged. Forgive everyone who may have wronged you. Begin to use your money to help the poor and advance the cause of Christ. Take up the Cross and live sacrificially. Pray, attend the Lord’s services. Witness for Christ, not only when it is convenient but when you know you should. Look to no cost and fear no consequences. Study the Bible to learn the will of God and then do His will as you understand it. Start now by doing the next thing, and then go on from there.”

If obedience is how we deal with the way that we leave undone the things that we ought to have done, then repentance is how we deal with the way that we do things that we ought not to have done. This is the third life-giving instruction from the Risen Christ to His church in Revelation 3:3 –

 “And repent…” 

A few years ago at the church I was serving the ministers all read a book together about worship.  It was full of good ideas about how to worship in ways that make sense to people today.  Since we wanted to do that better as a church,  we found the book to be helpful, all except for one thing.  At the very end of it the author said that a good worship service will always leave people feeling happy.  Well, C.S. Lewis said – “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”  The invitation to worship that I heard every Sunday morning at the church my family attended when I was growing up said –

Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, 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…

I don’t need the church to be the tunnel of cheery affirmation that I see parents form on the field at the end of my grandboys soccer games.  I don’t come to worship to be told that I’m great when I know that I’m not.  No, what I need is an opportunity every week to sit under the Word so that it can confront and correct me, and to sit at the Lord’s Table where I can be assured of God’s grace for me in Jesus Christ, and to be commissioned as an agent of God’s grace for others in the coming week.

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matthew 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”  Those were the very first words of the 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed to the Wittenberg church door.  These were the words that launched the Protestant Reformation.  Are they still relevant?

Hold the world up to the measure of God’s Word.

Hold the church up to the measure of God’s Word.

Hold your own life up to the measure of God’s Word.

Where there are gaps between what the Bible says and what you see in the world, in the church, and in our lives is where the work of Reformation must be done. The gaps expose the places were repentance is required.  The gaps mean that there are some things that need to be rethought, there are changes that need to be made.

The difference between you and me,” John Stott said Luther told Erasmus, the humanist scholar, “is that you sit above Scripture and judge it, while I sit under Scripture and let it judge me.” Sitting under Scripture, and letting it judge us is the trigger for Reformation, it’s the posture of Repentance. DBS+

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Kissing for Jesus

I wasn’t expecting it.  One minute I was standing there with my head bowed and my eyes closed in prayer, and the next thing I knew I was being gathered up into the arms of a great big bearded man who was planting scratchy kisses on both of my cheeks, and right behind him stood a cluster of other big bearded men who were all waiting their turn to do the very same thing to me.

The Holy Kiss is something that my wife’s mother’s people – the Dunkards (Old German Brethren Baptists) – believe is a sacrament on par with Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and they can show you the verses in the Bible that they say make it so (Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; 2 Corinthians 13:12; I Thessalonians 5:26; and I Peter 5:14).  A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.  The outward and visible sign of the sacrament of Baptism is water. The inward and invisible grace to which it points is forgiveness – being washed thoroughly from our wickedness and cleansed from our sin (Psalm 51:2).  The outward and visible sign of Communion is the bread and cup.  The inward and invisible grace to which they point is the saving work and presence of Christ.  And the outward and visible sign of the Holy Kiss my Dunkard kin would tell you is the kiss itself, and the inward and invisible grace to which it points is the peace of reconciliation.  This is the blessing of the seventh Beatitude, the blessing of being a peacemaker because you are a child of God.

Paul told the Ephesians that this is what Jesus Christ came to do.  In Ephesians chapter 1:3-14 Paul blessed God the Father for all of the spiritual blessings with which He has blessed us in Christ (1:3).  These 12 verses are one of the most detailed explorations in the Bible of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and right in the middle of the list is this stunning announcement –

With full wisdom and understanding God let us know his secret plan. This was what God wanted, and he planned to do it through Christ.  God’s goal was to finish his plan when the right time came. He planned that all things in heaven and on earth be joined together with Christ as the head. [vs. 8-10 – ERV] 

This is a staggering announcement.  God has “let us in on” His secret plan.  We know what God wants!  We know what God’s doing!  In this world where everything seems to be flying apart and everybody seems to be at ever-deepening and angry odds, God came to us in Jesus Christ to pull it all back together again.  

The official Identity Statement of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) says –

We are  a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.

That’s the mission statement of an Ephesians 1:8-10 church, and I became a Disciple of the basis of the promise that this is precisely the kind of church that we are – a seventh Beatitude kind of church, a blessed peacemaker church.

You’ve no doubt seen the bumper sticker that says, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!”  Well, I wasn’t born into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but I got here as fast as I could. I like to tell people that I ordered the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from the Sears Roebuck Catalogue.  Spiritually awakened and doing my own believing for the first time, I went looking for a spiritual home of my own when I was teenager.  I visited the Methodists and the Mormons, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Catholics and the Congregationalists, the Baptists and Adventists, and I found something in every one of these faith traditions that I could affirm, which only made my search that much more complicated.

Spiritually, I began to understand that I was not going to be an “easy fit” anywhere.  I wanted the compassionate activism of the Methodists, the sense of community of the Mormons, the spiritual fervor of the Pentecostals, the deep thoughtfulness of the Presbyterians, the beautiful tradition of the Catholics,  the personal freedom of the Congregationalists, the Biblical emphasis of the Baptists, and the blessed hope of the Adventists. I have a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” head and heart.  I am just not wired for “my way or the highway” kind of thinking. Instead I want to stay in communion and conversation with people who are different from me and my way of believing.  I want to know why they think what they think and do what they do. I want to see what they see, and how they see. To be sure, I have my own settled convictions which I would argue I  have learned from the Scriptures.  I believe some things deeply, and I try to preach and teach those things just as boldly and clearly as I possibly can.  But, I know that there are other ways of believing too, and equally committed believers who are just as passionate about what they’ve learned from their serious engagement with the Bible as well, conclusions which in some matters stand at wide variance with my own.

I experienced this during my search for a spiritual home when I was a young Christian.  As I sojourned among the Methodists and the Mormons, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Catholics and the Congregationalists, the Baptists and Adventists, I quickly came to two conclusions: (1) That there were some defining issues and insights that were characteristic of each of the various churches I visited to which they were fully committed and about which they were very passionate, and (2) That they didn’t agree with each other about these things.  And so at the end of my quest I knew that I needed a church home that nurtured both the passion of that first conclusion and the honesty of that second conclusion. Today they call what I went looking for 48 years ago “Generous Orthodoxy.”   But 48 years ago all I knew was that what I was going to need in order to spiritually thrive was a faith community that was absolutely clear and crazy about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior,  and one that also honored the rich variety of ways that different people have experienced and understood Him through the years.

The most helpful resource I found in those days to help me navigate this journey “home” was Leo Rosten’s book Religions in America (Simon & Schuster – 1963).  This was a collection of the famous “Look” magazine articles on the faiths, churches and denominations in the United States that were published over more than a decade.  This book functioned as a spiritual Sears Roebuck catalogue for me.  I’d read through the essays one after the other like a shopper eagerly searching for the perfect product to meet their needs, and it was when I got to James Craig’s essay on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?” that I caught my first glimpse of “home.”  It was this one line from that essay that captured my heart’s imagination –

There is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience.

This is the kind of church that I went looking for 48 years ago, and this is the kind of church that I still want to be part of today –  a church where “each person is responsible for his/her own believing according to the dictates of his/her own conscience,” and where they can “sit down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper.  But here 48 years later what I have learned is that it’s not easy to be and do church like this. The centripetal forces seem to be push harder these days than the centrifugal forces pull.  It feels more like things are flying apart than that they are coming together.  Maybe this is why Paul told the Ephesians that this unity that Jesus Christ came to establish was something that they were going to have to be “eager to maintain”  (4:3).  It was something that they were going to have to keep working on themselves.

The church in Ephesus was a divided church.  There were people who had come to Christ out of Judaism who were members of it, as well as people who had come to Christ out of paganism.  These were not people who naturally associated with each other before they found themselves standing side by side in Christian worship.  Jewish men their whole lives long had prayed a prayer every morning upon rising that thanked God that they had not been born Gentiles, and then suddenly, because they embraced Jesus as the Christ, they found themselves in spiritual community with Gentiles. They didn’t understand this, and they didn’t like it.  They felt spiritually superior to and more entitled than the Gentile Believers in the church.  They were, after all, the chosen people.  God had a special history and a special relationship with them that had found its fulfillment in Christ.  What they didn’t know was that God had history and a relationship with the Gentiles too.  God is “the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (3:15) Paul told them.  The Saving God does not delight in the death of any sinner.  The Saving God desires everyone to repent and receive the free gift of eternal life (Ezekiel 33:11).

In Ephesians chapter 2:14 Paul told the Ephesian Christians that Jesus Christ was their peace.  In Jesus Christ God broke down the dividing wall of hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles by reconciling both Jews and Gentiles to Himself through the same saving work that was done on the cross. As Billy Graham used to say, “The ground at the foot of the cross is level,” which is to say that it doesn’t matter who you are, a way to God has been opened for you in Christ.  And since I get to God through Christ in exactly the same way that you get to God through Christ, then who am I to start acting spiritually superior to you now, or to start thinking that it’s my job to put you in your place, or even to try to kick you out of the pool of God’s grace altogether?

Right before Paul told the Christians in Rome to greet one another with a holy kiss (16:16), he told them to stop passing judgement on each other (14:4;10).  God has welcomed the person with whom you disagree about something in exactly the same way that God has welcomed you (14:2-4), Paul told them, so stop building walls to keep these people away from you (14:13) and start tearing walls down instead.  Welcome them, Paul told the Romans, just as Jesus Christ has welcomed you (15:7).

It’s easier to go to church with people who look like me, who think like me, who talk the way I talk, who believe the way that I believe, who like the hymns that I like, and who vote the way that I vote.  But that kind of church is a flat contradiction of the work that Jesus Christ came to do according to the book of Ephesians.

I can still feel the scratchy beard on my cheeks.  That holy kiss has become a powerful sacramental sign for me – the outward and visible of something that’s inward and invisible, and absolutely essential to the Gospel –Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9). DBS+

 

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Just One Thing

My spiritual awakening occurred in a monastery in the hills above Santa Barbara, California, in 1965 when I was 12 years old.  I’d been raised in the church. My parents took my sisters and me every Sunday.  In fact, I was on that retreat at that monastery on that fall weekend in 1965 because it was one of the things that the men of that church did every year.  The best way to describe what happened to me on that retreat when I was 12 is to tell you how the Puritan preacher Thomas Goodwin (1600 – 1680) talked about his own experience of having been baptized in the Holy Spirit.  Imagine, he said –

A man and his little child walking down the road.  They are walking hand in hand, and that child knows that he is the child of his father, and he knows that his father loves him, and he rejoices in that, and he is happy in it. There is no uncertainty about it all, but suddenly the father, moved by some impulse, takes hold of the child and picks him up, embraces him in his arms, kisses him, showers his love upon him, and then he puts him down again and they go on walking together. …That child knew before that his father loved him, and he knew before that he was his child. But oh! the loving embrace, this extra outpouring of love, this unusual manifestation of it — that is the kind of thing. The Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.” 

I went to that monastery on a Friday evening in 1965 already knowing that God loved me and that I was his child.  But when I left that monastery on Sunday afternoon — “oh! the loving embrace, this extra outpouring of love, this unusual manifestation of it.”

So powerful was my experience of God that weekend that I felt called to spend the rest of my life getting to know this God better, and to making this God better known.  Because my spiritual awakening had taken place in a monastery, I just naturally concluded that what God wanted me to become was a monk.  I’d seen the seriousness with which those monks at that monastery attended to their relationships with God.   Even then I understood that their vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and stability were their ways of saying that nothing mattered more to them than knowing God and doing His will, and I knew that I had that same desire in me.  I still do.  And so, when I was 12 and all my friends wanted to be astronauts, and rock stars, and professional athletes when they grew up, I wanted to be a monk. I even wrote a letter to the abbot telling him all about my sense of call and seeking an early admission to his monastery.  He wisely declined my request while at the very same time taking my sense of call with compete seriousness.  He told me to test that call in the coming years.  He knew that wanting to be a monk was a fairly easy decision for a 12-year-old boy who still thought that girls had cooties and who had never driven a car.  “Check back with me in ten years,” he told me, “then we’ll talk.”

Ten years later I was married.  I was a brand-new graduate of Christian College.  I was in my first fulltime ministry at a church in Pocatello, Idaho, and I was making plans with Mary Lynn to go to seminary.  Ten years later I wasn’t about to join a monastery, but I still wanted to be a monk.  The word “monk” comes from the Latin word “monos” – a word that means “one.”  It’s the name that is used to describe a person who is single-minded in their desire to know God and to follow in God’s ways.  More than once I have stood in church and sung from my heart, often with tears in my eyes –

All to Jesus I surrender; all to him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live.
I surrender all, I surrender all, all to thee my blessed Savior, I surrender all.

Every time I sing these words I am taken back to that monastery in 1965 when I was 12 and to that moment in time when God, the Maker of the heavens and the earth and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, gathered me up into His arms, assured me of His love for me, and asked me to follow where He would lead.  For 53 years now, my life has been a feeble attempt to do this.

I went sailing for the first and only time in my life some 30 years ago when I was preaching a Revival at our church in Orange.  After one of the evening services a leader of that church took me out on his boat, and after clearing the docks and getting out onto the open water of the bay he turned the “driving” over to me for a while.  And what I learned really quick is that sailboats don’t drive like cars do.  You point a car in a direction, hang onto the steering wheel firmly, and that’s where the car goes, but because of the push and the pull of the wind and the tides a sail boat doesn’t move in a straight line.  “Pick a point on the opposite shore” the man who took me sailing told me, and then “keep making adjustments, weave back and forth in that general direction.” Well, my life has been more like sailing a sailboat than driving a car.

When I was 12 and at the monastery I picked a point of the opposite shore and said that’s where I wanted to go, and for the past 53 years my life has had this focus.  It’s not been a journey in a straight line.  I’ve swung back and forth, pushed by the spiritual and emotional equivalents of the wind and the tides.  But there’s always been a direction.  There’s always been that point on the opposite shore towards which my life has moved.  And I think that’s what Jesus was talking about when He talked about being pure in heart.

It was a book I came across when I was in seminary that opened me up to this idea – Soren Kierkegaard’s “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.”  Up to that point I’d pretty much understood the sixth Beatitude in light of the idea that a Holy God cannot look upon sin (Habakkuk 1:13).  To see God we have to be morally and spiritually pure, and since we aren’t, then the sixth Beatitude prepares our hearts for the cleansing work that God does for us in Jesus Christ on the cross.  This is a part of the Gospel that I see very clearly in the elaborate sacrificial system of the Old Testament and on the pages of New Testament books like Romans and Hebrews. I won’t see God because I’m morally and spiritually pure all on my own.  No, I will see God because I am made pure by the saving work of God in Christ. I believe in the truth of this, in fact I am trusting it for my salvation. But I’m not sure that this is what the sixth Beatitude is talking about.

The word for “pure” in the sixth Beatitude was a word that was primarily used in the ancient world to describe things that were undivided or unmixed – grain that had been winnowed from chaff, gold and silver that had been refined of alloys, an army purged of its discontent soldiers, wine or milk that was uncut with water, an animal that had been bred from unblemished stock (Barclay 72). One of the most prominent scholars of New Testament Greek from the last generation [R.G.V. Tasker quoted in Stott 49] said that the word “pure” in the sixth Beatitude referred to “single-mindedness,” to someone who is not double-minded, unsteady and unstable in all their ways, like a rudderless boat on a stormy sea being tossed and turned by every blowing wind and crashing wave (James 1:7-8; Ephesians  4:14).  To be “pure” in this sense is to have a clear and uncluttered direction, focus, passion, and purpose in life.  People ought to be able to look at us, and without too much difficulty, be able to see just exactly who or what it is that we are living for. Purity of heart is to will one thing.  It is to seek one thing.  It is to live for one thing, and this is  what Jesus told Martha in Luke chapter 10.

I don’t know any passage in the Bible that’s been more willfully misinterpreted than this one has.  We’re either a “Mary”  – a “thinker” – or we’re a “Martha” – a “doer.”  One’s not better than the other one.  One’s not more important than the other. In fact, the world and the church need both “Mary’s” and “Martha’s,” so whichever one you are, you’re good, or so goes every sermon that I’ve ever heard preached on this Gospel story.  The only problem is that this is not what Jesus said.  In fact, this is the exact opposite of what Jesus said!  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by so many things,” Jesus told her, “but there is only one needful or necessary thing” (10:41).  Just one.  That’s single-mindedness.  So what is that one needful and necessary thing?  It’s not a complicated question, in fact, Jesus answered it right after he asked it.  “Mary has chosen the better part” (10:42), Jesus told Martha.  And what was the part that Mary chose?  Well, it was to sit at the Lord’s feet and to listen to Him (10:39). At the center of Christianity is an undivided and unmistakable focus on Jesus Christ.

It’s been said that you can be a faithful Muslim without concerning yourself in the least with the person of Mohammad.  You can be a true and faithful Buddhist without knowing anything about the Buddha at all.  You can be a follower of the teachings of Plato whether or not Plato ever actually existed.  But there is simply no Christianity without Christ (Griffith Thomas).  He was the content of His own preaching, which is why we as a church ask just one question of anyone who would join us  –  “Do you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, your Lord and Savior?”

 “What think ye of Jesus?” That’s what we need to know.  We certainly know what the first followers of Jesus though of Him. Acts 11:26 tells us that it was in Antioch that the disciples were called “Christians” for the first time.  Michael Green, a New Testament scholar at Oxford University, observes –“they did not call themselves Christians, they were called it by others.  It was  a nickname.”

The nickname was based, no doubt, on the way [that people popularly talked about] the household of the Emperor.  They were known as “Augustians” because they belonged to Augustus, they were loyal and devoted to him.  And so it was just reasonable for the people of Antioch to call Christ’s people, the people who were loyal and devoted to Him “Christians” following the familiar pattern.

What was it about the followers of Jesus that made this association with the followers of the Emperor so obvious Professor Green wondered?  And he concluded –

It must have been because they kept speaking of Christ, and kept working for Christ, and kept trying to please Christ, and kept acting as they thought Christ would have acted.  What a testimony this bears to the faithfulness and wholehearted dedication of the early church in Antioch.  They were consumed with a passion  for Jesus Christ.   He was  their Lord, he was their first love; nothing else was so important to them.  And the people in Antioch knew it.

Ernest Boyer, in his book Finding God at Home, describes an event at which Mother Teresa was speaking to persons from all over the world who had come to meet her. Among them was a group of nuns from many of the North American religious orders. After Mother Teresa had finished, she asked if there were any questions. “Yes, I have one,” a woman sitting near the front said. “As you know, most of the religious orders represented here have been losing members lately. But your order is growing. How are you doing this?”  And without hesitating, Mother Teresa answered, “I give them Jesus.” “Yes, I know,” said the woman. “But take habits, for example. Do your women object to wearing habits? And the rules of the order—how are you modifying them?” “I give them Jesus,” Mother Teresa replied. “Yes, I know, Mother,” said the woman, “but could you be more specific?” “I give them Jesus,” Mother Teresa repeated. “Mother,” said the woman, “we’re all aware of your fine work. But I want to know if there’s something else, something more.” And Mother Teresa quietly said, “There is nothing else, nothing more. I give them Jesus.”

“Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”

 

 

 

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