Tag Archives: Christ

“Looking for a Changed Heart”

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In the only class on preaching that I ever took, Dr. Hunter Beckelhymer of blessed memory warned about what he called the “Christ cliché.”   He said that there was a tendency in much of the preaching that he heard to name a human problem, be it personal or social, to explore its dimensions with the precision of a psychologist or a sociologist, and then in the last few sentences to superficially slap Christ onto the problem as the solution before saying “Amen” and sitting down.

Today I observe an entirely different tendency in much of the preaching that I hear. The human problem, be it personal or social, still gets named and probed with the precision befitting a psychologist or a sociologist giving a talk, and then, without mentioning Christ at all, the preacher just sits down.  This strikes me as an example of what Harvey Cox called “Christological heart-failure” – not the superficial introduction of Christ into a sermon at the very last minute as a kind of afterthought that Dr. Beckelhymer called the “Christ cliché,” but the complete failure to speak of Christ at all.

Speaking as a minister to ministers about ministry Karl Barth observed – “When they come to us for help they do not really want to learn more about living: they want to learn more about what is on the farther edge of living – God” (The Word of God and The Word of Man – 189).  Because this is just so easy for me to forget, especially when the personal wound is deep or the social crisis is immediate and intense, I often return to a story that Rebecca Manley Pippert told in her book Hope Has Its Reasons (Harper & Row – 1989).  This  story has served me well as a reminder of who I am and of what it is that I am called to do.

While I affirm the important work that psychologists do, and try to incorporate their insights into my thinking, I am not a psychologist. And while I affirm the important work that sociologists do, and try to incorporate their insights into my thinking, I am not a sociologist.  What I am is a preacher, a servant of the Word, and it is my job to frame the Gospel as the solution to the personal problems that people present, and as the answer to the social questions that the world asks.    DBS +

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hopeOne of the courses I audited at Harvard was called “Systems of Counseling.” We were looking at a case study in which the therapist, using an approach called psychodynamic psychotherapy, helped the patient uncover a hidden hostility toward his mother.  Naming the problem and understanding the mechanisms of what really bothered him seemed to make the patient feel as if a great weight had been lifted.

Then the professor began to proceed to the next case. Mustering my courage, I raised my hand and said, “I don’t quite know how to phrase this in the appropriate psychobabble, but let’s say the patient returned a few weeks later and said, ‘I’m so relieved to understand what was bothering me. My mother did things that provoked my hostility.   But now I’d like to get beyond my anger.  I’d like to be able to love her and forgive her.  How do I do that?’  How does psychodynamic psychotherapy help a person with a request like this?”

There was silence. Then the professor answered, “I think the therapist would say, ‘lots of luck!’ It’s accomplishing a great deal in life just to be able to get past our feelings to uncover and name the hidden things that drive us, to identify our anxieties, fears, and problems at the root level and not the symptom level.   So to ask that his hostility magically disappear isn’t realistic.  He’ll have to learn to lie with it and hopefully not be driven by it.”

The professor’s frankness provoked the class. One of them said, “But isn’t the whole point of counseling, after diagnosing and naming the ailment, to help relieve suffering? And what causes more suffering than our inability to love and forgive those who’ve wounded us?”

That touched off an intense exchange. One student summarized what many of us were thinking: “It’s not that I expect problems to be instantly eliminated. Forgiving is a process.  But is the most we can hope merely the ability to name and understand our problems?  Can’t we ever be healed too?   Isn’t loving and forgiving a better way of living than not merely being controlled by anger?  If that’s the case, how do we help our clients find the power to change?”

The professor responded, “What we’re attempting to do is to help enable our patients to understand their true hidden feelings, to bring them to the surface and to experience them for what they are. So don’t force your values or neurosis about forgiveness onto the patient!”

I raised my hand again and said, “I’d like to make three observations. First, I agree completely that there will be no progress until we understand and experience our real feelings.  But having done that, how do we keep those feelings from destroying us?  Isn’t that why some of us have this ‘neurosis’ about seeking to forgive. The man needed to see he had more than a professed love for his mother.  But after he’s uncovered and identified his hostility, how does he keep it from devouring him?  Surely the answer isn’t to pretend he doesn’t hate or that his mother is perfect.  How can he be honest about his real feelings and yet get beyond them? Second, I wonder if you feel the words ‘love your enemy’ are rooted in neurosis.  And third, I’d like to say that I’m not taking this course for credit.”

The class exploded into laughter and the teacher, smiling, but with more candor than he may have realized, said, “If you guys are looking for a changed heart, I think you’re looking in the wrong department.”

But the truth is, we are looking for a changed heart. We have seen that there can be no positive growth where there is pretense; no solution until we identify and own our problem.  We have observed that robust living is more than the identification of problems.  After we see we need to change, how do we find the power to do it?  If the cross enables us to see our problem and how God solved it, then the resurrection is where we see whether human behavior can be changed, and if so, how.  (113-115)

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Seven Reasons Why I think the Disciples of Christ Are Right

It is General Assembly week for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).   We are so focused on our congregational life and mission here at Northway that I fear that it is sometimes easy for us to miss the life and mission of the larger church, the General Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.  What follows here is part of a keynote address that I presented for a leadership training event in the Northeast Area of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest Region back in 2004.   What I say here was true for me in 2004, and it is still true for me today in 2017.

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chaliceBack in the 1920’s and 30’s a series of books called New Testament Christianity were privately published and freely distributed to the ministers of our churches.  It was our church’s version of The Fundamentals that were published at just about the same time and for exactly the same reason – to keep the church faithful to its historic convictions.

In the second volume of New Testament Christianity there is an essay by H.T. Morrison entitled “Twelve Reasons Why Disciple of Christ Are Right.” Now, that particular essay from 1926 doesn’t wear especially well today.  Its style is a tad bit more confrontational and its author a wee bit more argumentative than I am personally comfortable with being, but I sure don’t object to the concept.

If we didn’t think that we’re right about some things as a church, then why on earth, or should I say, why in the name of heaven, would we want to be Disciples of Christ?  I don’t know about you, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to be, or remain, part of a church that I thought was fundamentally wrong on the basic questions of faith.  So, what are some of the reasons why I think that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is right?

Well, here are seven of them –

  • First of all, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about having no creed but Christ.  As a church we’ve put all of our theological eggs in just one basket, and I think that’s proper. We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and we relate to Him personally as our Lord and Savior. Ours is a decidedly Christ-centered faith; of Him we’re passionately certain, and everything else flows from that basic commitment. I think that’s right.  

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  • Second, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the authority of the Bible. We’re not much interested as a church in a debate about alternate doctrines of the inspiration of Scripture. Don’t tell me about how you think the Bible got inspired; instead show me what you’re prepared to do with what the Bible actually teaches.   Our founders changed their settled convictions about the proper form and candidates for baptism once they got better clarity about what the Bible taught. Many of us in our lifetimes have changed our view on place of women in Christian ministry by reading the Bible more carefully. And our changing perspectives about human sexuality are being driven not by a neglect of Scripture as a church, but rather by a more careful reading of the Scriptures. This practical approach to the authority of Scripture serves us well as a church. We want to be doers of the Word. I think that’s right

 

  • Third, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the Gospel Ordinances – Baptism by immersion and weekly Lord’s Supper. When somebody voiced a desire to have a deeper experience of God’s grace and Christ’s presence, our church’s founders always sent them to the gospel ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They thought that it was spiritually silly for a Christian to think that he or she could be spiritually vital apart from the means of grace that Christ Himself instituted for our spiritual well-being. And nothing’s changed. Ours is a vital spirituality firmly rooted and grounded in the Gospel ordinances. I think that’s right.

 

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  • Fourth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the unity of the church. The late Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer used to say that Christian unity is the “final apologetic” of the Gospel. Jesus Christ gave the world the right to examine the love of Christians and the unity of the church as the evidence of the truth of the Gospel. The church’s witness to the unconditional love of God simply has no credibility when we can’t get along with or won’t cooperate with our brothers and sisters in other churches. We call the disunity of the church a sin. I think that’s right.

 

  • Fifth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the freedom of conscience and the right of private interpretation under the Lordship of Christ. As Disciples we cherish the freedom that we have to search the Scriptures for ourselves and to arrive at our own settled convictions without the overbearing interference of others. As individual Christians and congregations we want to be able to work out our life of faithfulness under the Lordship of Christ and in response to the guidance of the Word and Spirit. And this right that we claim for ourselves, we are in turn required to accord to others. In my relationship with you, I must begin with the assumption that you are just as committed to Jesus Christ as I am, and that you are just as concerned as I am about being faithful to Him. This community of faith is not created or maintained by an authoritarian insistence upon conformity in doctrine or morality, but in our common commitment to listen carefully to Jesus. I think that’s right.

 

  • Sixth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about not forcing a choice between the church’s spiritual mission of witness and the social mission of service. Evangelism and justice are twin mandates of Christ’s church. We are commanded to preach Christ and to feed the hungry; to make disciples and to shelter the homeless; to teach everything that Christ commanded and to tend to the sick; to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to work for the liberation of the oppressed.   Like “the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of a bird” or the two pedals of a bike, Christ’s Church has two mandates. We are called to save souls and to serve society. We refuse to choose between them as a church, and I think that’s right.

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  • And finally I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the ministry of every believer. There is nothing that I am qualified or required to do as a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that you are not qualified and required to do as a member as well, and that’s Biblical. I can baptize; you can baptize. I can preach; you can preach. I can preside at the Table; you can preside at the Table. I can lead a person to Christ; you can lead a person to Christ. We believe that Christian ministry has been placed in the hands of every believer. You were ordained in the waters of baptism and equipped for ministry when you were filled with the Holy Spirit. Part of God’s eternal purpose has been entrusted to you. Each one of us has a place in the ministry of the church. And I think that’s right.

You don’t have to agree with me about what appears on my list, that’s what the freedom of conscience and the right of private interpretation under the Lordship of Christ means. But then again, you’d better have a list of your own, or start working on one, because that’s a big part of the responsibility of being a Disciple.   It was Socrates who said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” And I would argue that an unexamined church is not worth joining.   If you conclude that the Disciples are wrong, then, for conscience sake, you need to find a church that you think is right. And if you conclude that the Disciples are right, then you need to start acting like it — get excited, talk about it, and be prepared to make some sacrifices for it. And if you just don’t know, then isn’t it time to start figuring it out for yourself?   DBS +

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I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth…

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I spent last week with a group of 9th graders at camp teaching them about the God who made us in His image, who sought us in Christ when we went astray, and who wants to be in a conversational relationship with us every single day.  And this week I will play the role of the Apostle Paul in chains in a Roman jail cell at our church’s annual Vacation Bible School where I will get to tell the story of God’s great love for us in Jesus Christ no matter our circumstances to all the children who are there.

In both cases, I know that I am playing the long game.

There will likely be no immediate measurable results from the time and effort put into these two demanding weeks of ministry.  Peter preached one sermon on the day of Pentecost and saw 3,000 people repent, believe and get baptized as the result.   I will put in hours of preparation and expend tremendous amounts of energy in presentation during weeks of ministry like these, and only rarely do I see the needle of faith move appreciably in anybody’s life as a direct result.  Still, I consider weeks like these to be some of the most important of the year.  And that’s because I know that most of the work that I do as a minister is hidden, and only unfolds over time.  As Paul told the Corinthians (I Corinthians 3:6) – I plant, others water, and still others harvest.  Rarely does the same person get to do all three.

Oh, there have been seasons of return and stretches of quantifiable growth in my 40+ Blog_June_26_2years of ministry, to be sure, but never the Acts chapter 2 result of “3,000 souls on one day,” or anything ever even close to it.  No, my experience has been much more in line with what Ole Hallesby (1879 – 1961), the influential Norwegian Lutheran theologian from the last generation described in his lecture “How Can the Word of God Be Preached so as to Result in Awakening and Conversion?” delivered at an annual conference of “The Brotherhood of Pastors Faithful to the Confessions” in Norway.

It is generally conceded to be an incontrovertible fact that there has been, and is, very little spiritual awakening as a result …of the preaching of the ministers of Norway… who on the whole are both capable and conscientious… This raises the serious question: why has there been so little spiritual awakening resulting from this ministerial preaching?  …I would not hereby seek to disparage in the least the solid and faithful inspirational and educational work done by our pastors, and least of all would I hereby seek to add a single stone to their burdens—already difficult and heavy enough to bear. Nor am I forgetting that a believing pastor in many ways does the preparatory work for many a spiritual awakening which God calls into being and leads through others.  And I know, of course, that a believing pastor now and then is also permitted to lead individuals to conscious life in God.   … But, I can get no peace until I have brought this question into the foreground because it burns within my soul – If we desire spiritual awakenings, if we pray for such awakenings, if there is a cry in the souls of our pastors for spiritual awakenings, why then cannot God make use of us to bring them about?

Blog_June_26_3There is a mystery involved in soul work.  Jesus said so Himself in His Parable of the seed growing secretly (Mark 4:26-29) –

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,  and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.

All we can do is plant the seed.  It sprouts and grows all on its own, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. And then there’s the harvest.  Summer camp and Vacation Bible School are exercises in seed planting not harvesting.  My task in these settings is to sow the seed of the Word in the heads and hearts of the young so that it can eventually have its effect –

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,   and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;  it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,  and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

The seed that I sow will grow to a harvest that I myself will likely not see.  I plant the seed, somebody else will harvest the crop, and I’ve got to trust the process.  Al Mohler has written about the peculiar strain and stress that all of this creates in ministers –

We who are pastors have a certain product envy. We envy those who build houses or sell cars or build great corporations or assemble automobiles, or merely those who cut the grass. Why? It is because they have something tangible to show for their labor at the end of the day. They may be fastening widgets and assembling automobiles, or they may be putting things in boxes and sealing them up and sending them out, or they may be cutting the grass. They can see the product of their hands. A carpenter or an artist or a building contractor has something to which he can point. What about the preacher? The preacher is robbed of that satisfaction. We are not given the sight to see what we would like to see. As a matter of fact, it seems like we stand up and throw out words and wonder, “What in the world becomes of them? What happens from it? What after all, is our product, and where in the world can you see it?” Words, words, and more words. And then, we sometimes feel like we are flattering ourselves that people even remember what it was we had to say. We are chastened from even asking our own church members and fellow believers for the identity of our text halfway through the next week. Why? Because we are afraid that we will get that shocked look of anticipated response when a person of good intentions simply says, “That was a fine message. I don’t remember exactly what it was about, and I have a very vague recollection of something you may have said, but I want you to know it was powerful.” I think the Apostle Paul responds to this, at least somewhat, in verse 23 when he writes to the Colossians saying, “All of this is true, if indeed, you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.” Paul understood that it was possible to hear in vain and he hoped that it I was not true of this church — that their response to his preaching was not just a succession of nice accolades and respectful comments. Rather, we would like to have an assembly line of maturing Christians go out the door of the church, wherein we could at least see something and note some progress. We could statistically even mark what kind of impact this sermon had over against another. But, we do not have that sight; it is largely a hidden work in the human heart. Such a work will bear good fruit, but this will take time to be evident.

Blog_June_26_4So, bring on the kids!  I’ve got a story to tell, “a story of truth and mercy, a story of peace and light,” a story that has the power to change them, and through them, to change the world.  Just like the Trojan Horse, my only task this week is to get the story past their defenses of the “ennui” of our age, and get it deep inside them so that when they least expect it, the bottom of it can drop out and the power of its beauty and truth can seize and save them.  I probably won’t be there to see how the Christ story finally leads them to a Christ-decision that makes them Christ-like, but I know that it happens… because it happened to me.  DBS +

 

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“Something More”

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I actually have a certificate signed by the Episcopal Bishop of Los Angeles that says I received the Holy Spirit together with His Sevenfold Gifts (Isaiah 11:1-2) when he laid his hands on me at my Confirmation in 1965 when I was 12 years old. But up to that point, and for a number of years afterwards, my experience of the Holy Spirit was just about as flat as that piece of paper.

In 1974 Catherine Marshall wrote her book Something More in which she explained that there is “a big difference between being indwelt by the Spirit and being ‘filled’ with His presence.” She explained that “for years (and sometimes for a lifetime) a Christian can keep the Spirit at a sub-basement level by the insistence on running one’s own life. Then through teaching or need – or both – that person recognizes his divine Guest’s presence, opens hitherto closed doors into crayon rooms in his being so that the Spirit can enter there too… It is not God’s attitude toward us that needs to be changed, but our attitude toward Him.  He will not give us anything new; rather we are to receive in a new and far fuller sense that which He has already given us at Pentecost… Sunlight can be kept out only by erecting barriers against it.  All we need do then, is take down our shutters and barriers and walk out into the sunlight already given” (276).  Until and unless this happens, she said, we will operate at a level well below what God intends for us spiritually, and we will experience this deficit as “an aching void in our hearts.”

It was a feeling of this kind of emptiness that brought J. Rodman Williams, a well-known and highly respected Presbyterian theologian, to the place of seeking “something more.”  In his 1972 book The Pentecostal Reality he wrote –

At the heart of much of our life and activity a deep spiritual crisis exists. Despite multiple attempts by the church at reassessment and relevance, there remains the haunting sense of something lacking or unfulfilled and a feeling of spiritual impotence… Where, many are asking, is the dynamic reality of God’s presence? In an article appearing in “The Christian Century” (May 13, 1979) entitled “The Power of Pentecost: We Need it More Now Than Ever,” the author asks, “Why in every sector of Christianity today… [is] there so little evidence of spiritual power…?” “I am haunted,” he continues, “by the memory of Pentecost and its power surging into the hearts of the disciples long, long ago.  Where is that power today?  Can it come among us again?”  Then, finally, he adds, “It is time we took Pentecost seriously and eagerly received a new infusion of the Holy Spirit.”

I believe that it is this awareness of “something missing” that prepares us for the “something more” that the experience of the fullness of the Holy Spirit brings into our spiritual lives.  It’s when we hunger and thirst for the reality of the things that we believe are true that we will start to ask, and knock, and seek, and that’s when Jesus said that the fullness of the Holy Spirit will be given to us (Luke 11:13).

My spiritual awakening happened in 1965.  That’s when I was “born again,” and I believe that it was at that time that I was forgiven and given the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit is just “part of the package” of Christian conversion Biblically.  You can’t be a Christian and not have the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38; Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 12:3; Galatians 3:1-5). But in my experience it wouldn’t be for another six years that I would “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit who indwelt me when I first believed.  For six long years the Holy Spirit had been living in the house of my life, but I wasn’t aware of His presence or consciously plugged into His power.  This happens because, as the Reformed Biblical Theologian Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) explained –

In (the) great redeeming process two stages are to be distinguished. First come those acts of God which have a universal and objective significance, being aimed at the production of an organic center for the new order of things. After this had been accomplished, there follows a second stage during which this objective redemption is subjectively applied to individuals.

I’d believed the objective work of God in Christ to save me, but I’d not had a conscious experience of this saving work of God in Christ subjectively applied to me. I see this dynamic at work in the great “Apostolic Benediction” of 2 Corinthians 13:14 –

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
 

Salvation is the work of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It originates in the love of the Father.  It is accomplished by the grace of the Son in the finished work of His atoning death, burial and resurrection.   And it is applied by the communion of the Holy Spirit, by the way that the Holy Spirit communicates God’s grace in Christ to us and facilitates our sharing in it.  When we resist (Acts 7:51), quench (1 Thessalonians 5:19), and grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), we close the door on the Spirit’s indwelling and empowering presence in our lives, and miss the conscious experience of the adequate spiritual dynamic for the living of the Christian life that God in Christ intends for us.

Jeffrey Simmons was an Episcopal Priest who was irritated when some members of his parish kept urging him to go to a certain conference where he could “get the Spirit.”   He finally wound up going, but resolved that he wasn’t going to let anybody pray for him while he was there.  Dodging offers to be prayed over at every turn, and becoming increasingly irritated by the whole idea, he finally retreated to a quiet garden where he could hide.

Sitting with my back against the trunk of a tree, I tried to sort out my feelings. I felt trapped (someone else had driven and I didn’t have a car.)  I felt pressured and manipulated… But as the sunlight sparkling through the cool green leaves started to calm me, I became aware that I (also) felt curious and a little ashamed of myself for not being more adventurous.  The theme of the conference, boiled down to the essentials, was nothing more than, “God wants to have a closer and more productive relationship with you, if you will just open yourself to receive it.”  I couldn’t argue with that… so I sat under that tree fir an hour and a half praying the hardest I had ever prayed in my life, “Dear God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.”

Several decades later, I still look back at that time of prayer with gratitude. I was not aware, when I emerged from under the tree, that anything had changed.  It was not an emotional experience at all.  The changes happened gradually over the next six months.  Prayer became a hunger, and the sense of God’s presence far more intense.  The amount of money I spent on Christian books increased dramatically. The biggest change, however, was what happened when I read the Bible.  Passages I had read fifty times took on a vividness and urgency that were almost disorienting.  All I had said was, “God, if you have something for me that I don’t have, I’ll take it.” …It simply says, as I think Christians should always say, that God always has more for me, and I am standing before him with empty, receptive hands.

Biblically, I believe that the normal Christian life consists of both being “born again” (John 3:3) and of being “Spirit-filled” (Ephesians 5:18). Jesus Christ as the Savior came to do both.  He is the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and He is the “One who baptizes in the Holy Spirit” (John 1:33).  But my spiritual life had been artificially truncated because nobody ever told me this, or showed me in Scripture how this was so.  As the disciples of John the Baptist told Paul outside of Ephesus in Acts 19:2 – I hadn’t even been told “that there was a Holy Spirit!”  And then, everything changed for me when at a prayer meeting when I was encouraged to “receive” or “make welcome” the Holy Spirit.  I did, and what I had known for a long long time was true suddenly became just as real to me, in me, and that’s the promise that Pentecost holds for each one of us.  “Come Holy Spirit, Come!DBS +

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“All dressed up with nowhere to go, and nothing to do…”

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I grew up in the Episcopal Church, the high church variety. You know, “smells and bells.”  We took ourselves and our adherence to tradition quite seriously. In that old nature/nurture debate, I attribute my stalwart “SJ” temperament [matched by an “I” and a “T” for anyone who might be curious about my “type”] in no small measure to my being spiritually socialized in a church that actually had full rehearsals for all of its high holy day worship services so that we would “do it right” — that is, the way that it had always been done according to tradition.

Anyway, it was at the end of a long Lenten season and a marathon of intricate Holy Week worship services, that I was standing in the sacristy (the communion preparation room and worship staging area) with a couple of my fellow acolytes attending to all of the post-service details after the last Easter morning Worship, when I overheard our priest, getting out of his liturgical vestments, mutter – “Thank God that’s over.”

I’ve been through 40 Lents and Holy Weeks as a local church pastor now myself, so I know full well what he meant. He was tired.  He just wanted to go home and have a martini — what he had “given up” for Lent and go to bed.  He needed some down time.  I “get” that.  What I don’t “get” is the spiritual and Biblical myopia that his statement betrayed.

In the minds of way too many of us, Easter marks the end of the story. Get to Easter, and we’re finished until Advent and Christmas rolls around again in November and December.  This is our Christianity –

  • God becoming flesh and dwelling among us in Jesus Christ – the Christmas truth of the Incarnation – check – got it!
  • Jesus Christ going to the cross in a saving act of sacrificial love – the Good Friday truth of the Atonement – check – got it!
  • And Jesus Christ being raised from the dead on the third day triumphing over death and darkness – the Easter truth of Personal Regeneration and Cosmic Renewal – check – got it!

But if this is where we stop, then what we’ve got is Jesus back up on His feet and all dressed-up, but with nowhere to go and nothing to do! And if this is where your Christianity puts the period, then you’ve only got half of the Gospel.

bosch.pngDavid Bosch in his magisterial theology of the mission of the church Transforming Mission Orbis – 1991) identified the six Biblical moments in the saving work of God in Jesus Christ: (1) Christmas – the Incarnation – what God was doing to save us by becoming flesh in Jesus Christ; (2) Good Friday – the Atonement – what God in Christ was doing to save us by going to the cross; (3) Easter – the Resurrection – what God was doing to save us by raising Jesus Christ from the dead on the third day; (4) The Ascension –what God was doing to save us by seating Jesus Christ at His right hand as Lord; (5) Pentecost – what God was doing to save us by sending the continuing empowering presence of Christ to indwell individual Christians and the whole church; and (6) The Second Coming – what God is going to do to finish the work of salvation already begun in Jesus Christ when He comes again.

The “full” Gospel takes into account all six of these saving moments in the drama of God’s work in Jesus Christ.  And so, to pull up short and stop at Easter is to literally leave half of the Gospel on the table, and ironically, it’s the half of the Gospel that actually moves the story from history to our hearts!  As a prayer I am praying these days as part of my personal devotion puts it –

“Thou hast this day spread before us the fuller pages of revelation, and in them we see what thou wouldest have us do, what thou hast required of us, what thou hast done for us, what thou hast promised us, what thou hast given us in Jesus. [Now] we pray thee for a conscious experience of his salvation…” (The Sunday Evening Prayer from The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions – Arthur Bennet, ed.  The Banner of Truth Trust. 1975. — Yes, I really am an “SJ”…)

For a “conscious experience of salvation” we need the part of the Gospel that the Ascension, Pentecost and the promise of the Second Coming specifically offer us – that is, an awareness of the active Lordship of Christ over all of creation (Ascension); the experience of the indwelling and empowering presence of Christ assuring us of our identity as God’s children and driving us out to share in His mission in the world (Pentecost); and a deep aching for the final coming of the Kingdom when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven (The Second Coming).  Without this awareness, this experience and this ache, our Christianity will always be more a theory than a love affair.  For a “conscious experience of salvation” we need the whole Gospel. So, to my priest’s exhausted – “Thank God that’s over” – spoken in the sacristy of the Church of the Holy Apostles in Glendale, California, 50 years ago, this veteran of 40 Lents and Holy Weeks now himself replies – “Not yet, Father… it’s not over yet.” Jesus Christ was raised on the third day to finish the work of salvation that His birth, life, death and resurrection began, and “finishing” it involves the Ascension, Pentecost and the Second Coming.

This all hit me with particular force a week ago at Sunday evening’s Ephesians Bible study (broadcast each week between 5:30 and 6:30 pm – Central Standard Time – on Facebook Live) as we dug into 1:17-21 –

17 I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.

Paul addressed these words to Christians, to people who already knew and fully trusted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. In 1:15-16 Paul had affirmed and celebrated with the Ephesians what it was that he had heard about their faith and love.  They were already well-grounded believers, and what Paul wanted for them next was growth.  He didn’t want them to rest on their past laurels of faith and faithfulness, but rather Paul wanted them to keep on growing in their understanding and experience of the hope to which they had been called, of the value of the promises that God had made to them, and of the power that was available to them.  It wasn’t over yet, and Paul wanted these believers who had had such a good start not to stall out in the face of the challenges and conflicts that were yet to come their way.  And in his word of encouragement to them, Paul appealed to what God had already done for them by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, as well as anticipating what it was that God was still going to do for them because Jesus Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places.  In other words, Paul brought the “full” Gospel into play in his efforts to encourage the faith of the Ephesian Christians as they moved into the future, and it’s there for us as well.

godIn Romans 8, Paul grounded his affirmation of God’s love in Jesus Christ from which nothing can separate us in three Gospel moments: (1) In the fact that Christ died for us (8:32); (2) In the fact that Christ was raised for us (8:34b); and (3) In the fact that Christ now intercedes for us at the right hand of God (8:34c). Again, it’s the “full” Gospel – what Christ has already done for us, what Christ is presently doing for us, and what Christ has yet to do for us – and not some partial version of it that securely tethers us to the certainty of God’s love and that tightly attaches us to the promises of God’s faithful care and concern for us, and the whole world.

When Christ was raised from the dead on the third day, He had somewhere to go and something to do, and for a conscious experience of the salvation that He provides, it’s best to see this story through to its very end, and to build our faith on the complete foundation that we are being offered. DBS +

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“Do Something Beautiful for God… Become Someone Beautiful for God”

Tradition says that after considering other religious options, that the Russians consciously chose Eastern Orthodox Christianity to be their state religion because when they experienced its worship for the very first time, they “knew not whether they were in heaven or on earth… for on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty… and they could not forget that beauty.”

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I thought this about our worship at Northway on Easter Sunday morning. I cannot forget that beauty — the Choral Scholars’ Quartet singing Mendelssohn’s “O Come, Every One that Thirsteth,” the flowering of the cross, the y’all come and sing version of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, Margaret and Justin’s astonishing piano and organ duet during the Offertory, the spectacular spread of blooming Easter lilies, the choir’s lush anthem and stirring preface to our processional hymn, and the worship team singing “Beautiful Things” after my morning meditation on “Beauty from Ashes” (Isaiah 61:1-3).

I didn’t know if I was on earth or in heaven!

goodWe have tended to underestimate the power of beauty as one of the God-triggers in our souls. One of the three “transcendentals,” we’ve tended to rely on the other two so much more in practice. Our activist impulse, that God-implanted desire to do something, anything, to make the world a better place orients us towards the way of the good.  And our drive to understand things both great and small routinely puts us on the path of the true. But classically understood, beauty is just as sure a way into an awareness of God as is our drive to do what’s good and to know what’s true.

I based my Easter message this year on the line from Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant” song about how the mission of God’s Messiah when He came would be to exchange “ashes for beauty” (61:3), and how this has become a familiar way for Christians to think and talk about the promise of Easter. After the brutality of Good Friday and the emptiness of Holy Saturday, when Jesus was raised on the third day, this exchange occurred — the ashes of death, despair, and apparent defeat became the beauty of the resurrection to newness of life. At the lowest moment in the story of Jesus, “all of the shattered fragments of spiritual power were suddenly quickened, strengthened, and clothed with loveliness.” On Easter Sunday morning I said that this is what Christ came to do – “to bring a new life out of the old ashes” (James D. Wilson). And this is not some abstract theological concept.  No, this is immediate and personal.

It’s about the difference that Jesus Christ makes in your life as your Lord and Savior. It’s what we mean when we sing – “I once was lost but now I’m found; was blind but now I see.” It’s about the ashes of death giving way to the beauty of life, both eternal and abundant. It’s about the ashes of despair giving way to the beauty of hope.   It’s about the ashes of shame and guilt giving way to the beauty of forgiveness.  It’s about the ashes of division giving way to the beauty of inclusion.   It’s about the ashes of defeat and discouragement giving way to the beauty of transformation and renewal.  It’s about the ashes of regret giving way to the beauty of regeneration.  The power of Easter is in how it takes our ashes and makes them into something beautiful.

Years ago Joseph Aldrich wrote about how it is the beauty of the Gospel and not just the Gospel’s words that has the real power to transform people. He wrote –

…The “music” of the gospel is the beauty of the indwelling Christ as lived out in the everyday relationships of our lives. We must become recipients of God’s blessing, begin to incarnate His beauty in our relationships, and open these relationships to the non-Christian… Once this “music” has been heard, then expect to be asked for the “reasons for the hope (beauty) that you have.”  Play the beautiful music, and they’ll listen to the words of the song. (Life-Style Evangelism 21)

motherMother Teresa was famous for telling her little brothers and sisters of charity all around the world to try to “do something beautiful for God” each and every day. This prompted Philip Kosloski to write an essay for the “National Catholic Register” on the beauty of Mother Teresa’s life and work for the weekend last September when she was canonized a Saint in the Roman Catholic Church. He asked —

…Will beauty save the world? Yes it will, but it must be a Beauty united to Truth and Goodness, and a beauty that encompasses all aspects of life. The Gospel we preach to the Modern World will not be found effective if it does not recognize the importance of beauty, especially the beauty of Christian witness.

…By drawing closer to God, our lives reflect a particular beauty, which has the capacity to attract others to the beauty of God. In seeing the beauty of God in our lives, others see that being a Christian is not something oppressive or burdensome, but is actually liberating and beautiful.

“… the Christian life is called to become, in the force of Grace given by Christ resurrected, an event of susceptible beauty to arouse admiration and reflection and incite conversion. The meeting with Christ and His disciples… must always and everywhere have the potential to become an event of beauty, a moment of joy in the discovery of a new dimension of existence, an invitation to put oneself on the road to the Father of Heaven to enjoy the vision of the Complete Truth, the beauty of the Love of God: Beauty is the splendour of the truth and the flowering of Love.” (The Via Pulchritudinis, §III.3 – Pope Benedict XVI)

You see, we don’t just believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as Christians, we live it. The Gospel’s exchange of ashes for beauty that Christ’s resurrection 2,000 years ago embodied now plays out in our lives as the ashes of the rebellion of our sin and the brokenness of our lives getting exchanged for the beauty of our transformation and personal renewal.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. And all this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to Himself…” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18)

Because Christ is Risen and we are walking in newness of life through our share in it by faith (Romans 6:1-1-11), this Eastertide let’s go do something beautiful for God, or better yet, let’s become someone beautiful for God. Because of Easter, our ashes have a beauty appointment.  DBS +

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Seeing the Gospel

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Holy Week Worship
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There is tremendous confusion about the Gospel these days. J.C. Ryle (1816 – 1900) the 19th century Anglican Bishop and spiritual giant warned that the church can obscure the Gospel in at least three different ways:  By addition – that is, by adding beliefs and practices to God’s saving work in Jesus Christ; By substitution – that is, by making other things more interesting or more urgent than God’s saving work in Jesus Christ; and by disproportion – that is, by exaggerating the importance of the secondary things of Christianity, thereby diminishing the importance of the first thing of Christianity – God’s saving work in Jesus Christ.

When this happens, when the Gospel gets obscured, the church becomes “a trumpet that gives an uncertain sound,” as the Apostle Paul put it, and people don’t know what to do or where to turn (I Corinthians 14:8). And the tragedy of this is that the Gospel is “the power of God for salvation for everyone who will believe” (Romans 16:16).  People all around us are desperately looking for meaning and purpose, for forgiveness and reconciliation, for courage and strength, for hope and peace.  And we are too!  The Gospel of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ is what we’re all looking for, it’s what we all need, and if we’re not clear about what it is as a church, then what is it that we think we have to offer instead?

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I’ve been haunted for 50 years now by something that the radical Episcopal Bishop James Pike told the Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer. He said that what he went looking for was the bread of life and that what the church gave him instead were just stones. One of the big reasons why I am a Disciple of Christ is because of our practice of weekly Lord’s Supper.  Every Sunday morning in the breaking of the bread and in the pouring of the cup the Gospel gets preached again to me again.  Each week at the Lord’s Table I am reminded of and renewed by God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. And it holds that possibility for you too.  No matter what else may or may not be going on in a church on any given Sunday morning, there’s living bread and not stones being offered at the Lord’s table in a congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) where Christ’s sacrifice of love is remembered in the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the cup.

The way I read the Gospels, Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to preach another sermon. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to organize a movement. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to topple a government. Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to make an argument.  Jesus Christ didn’t ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to work another miracle.  Jesus Christ rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to offer Himself as “the one perfect Lamb of God willing to take away the sins of the world in one final sacrifice.” So, draw in close this week. Pay attention to what’s happening, to the story that’s being told, to the events that are remembered in worship on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. This is the Gospel that we are seeing.  DBS +

 

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