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Why don’t we Celebrate Pentecost like we do Christmas and Easter?

The Absence of a “Conscious Experience” of the Holy Spirit
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doveThe next big “event” in our life of faith and worship as a church will be Pentecost – Sunday, June 4th.  Pentecost doesn’t get the attention that Christmas and Easter do.  If the truth be told, Pentecost doesn’t even get the attention that Mother’s Day and the Fourth of July get in most of our churches.  And that’s a shame because this thing that we call Christianity just doesn’t work without what it is that Pentecost promises to provide.

In memorable language, E. Stanley Jones called the Holy Spirit the “adequate dynamic” we are offered for the living of the Christian life. He wrote – “I cannot imagine that Jesus, whose coming was specifically to baptize with the Holy Spirit, would lay before us the amazing charter of the new life [in the Sermon on the Mount] and then fail to mention the one power that could make the whole thing possible, namely, the power of the Holy Spirit.”

Pentecost marks the occurrence of an unrepeatable event in salvation history like the birth of Christ in Bethlehem, or the death of Christ on the cross, or His resurrection from the garden tomb. These things happened just once.  They have profound and continuing implications for our thinking, being and doing – to be sure – but they are events that happened in time and space once and for all.   Alister McGrath, the British Theologian, described them as “hard historical facts,” events, which if they did not happen, destroy the credentials and claims of Christianity.

The unrepeatable event of salvation history that Pentecost marks was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the sign of the inauguration of the new covenant that God’s Messiah came to establish. When the dramatic events of Pentecost Sunday began unfolding in Jerusalem 50 days after Easter (Acts 2:1-4), and people were beginning to ask what it all meant, Peter connected the dots between what was happening right in front of them with the promise that God had made to them long before through the Prophets about a coming day when God would pour out His Spirit on all flesh and a new way of relating to God would be created thereby (Joel 2:28-32//Acts 2:14-21).  The indwelling presence of God in each believer was part of the promised blessings of the new covenant (Ezekiel 36:22-27; Jeremiah 31:31-34), and it was part of the work of Christ as a “Spirit-person” who operated Himself in the fullness of the Spirit’s presence and power in the days of His public ministry (Matthew 3:16-17 ~ 4:1; Mark 1:10-11 ~ 1:12; Luke 3:21-22 ~ 4:1; John 1:32), and who promised to then bestow this same gift on His disciples (“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” – Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16 ~ 24:49//Acts 1:8; John 1:33; 7:39; 14:16-17; 15:26; 16:7) just as soon as He went away.

Pentecost marks the moment of the initial fulfillment of this promise in salvation history, and it signals the beginning of a new dispensation in our relationship with God (2 Corinthians 3:3; 5-8). The new thing that God did for the very first time on Pentecost Sunday has become a standard part of the normal Christian life ever since.  When we repent and are baptized, we are given the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).  The gift of the Holy Spirit when we first believe is now part of the normative pattern of conversion in the New Testament (Acts 19:2; Romans 8:9; 2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 1:13-14; I John 2:20-27).  It’s part of the standard package.

The problem is that this is not something that most of us were told anything about when we became Christians.   Oh, the Holy Spirit was named in the baptismal formula (Matthew 28:19) that was spoken, and I believe that we were all given the promised gift of the Holy Spirit at that moment because that’s what the Scriptures say happens, but experientially, it seems to me that the gift of the Holy Spirit was something that arrived without instructions and that therefore got left unopened on the front doorsteps of our Christian lives, leaving us to try to manage the continuing Christian life and the church’s mission in our own strength without the “adequate spiritual dynamic” that that makes the whole thing possible in the first place.

wrapI had two great spinster aunts from out-of- state who sent me ties for Christians throughout my childhood and youth. Every year, it was a tie – hardly the heart’s desire of a little boy at Christmastime.  And so in the annual frenzy of present-opening on Christmas morning, when it came to their package, I’d smile, shrug and throw it, still in its holiday wrapping, onto the pile of presents that I’d amassed.   And then when all of that loot got transferred to my bedroom, that unopened box with its tie in it would get tossed into the closet where it disappeared in the detritus of a boy’s life that inevitably winds up on the floor buried under layers and layers of stuff, not to be seen or heard from again, that is, unless those spinster aunts suddenly make a surprise visit to Southern California!  Then you were sent scurrying to find one of those ties so that it could be worn appreciatively at a big family dinner.  This has become something of a parable of the Holy Spirit’s presence in my own life as a Christian.

I believe that I was given the Holy Spirit when I first believed, but I sure didn’t know who, or what, or why? I didn’t have a clue about what to do with the Holy Spirit that I had been given, so I just pushed the Holy Spirit to the side like an unwanted and unopened present on Christmas morning, and then I didn’t give the Holy Spirit another thought until years later, when spiritually exhausted and frustrated, I got to the end of my own natural abilities and capacities, and I went scrambling through the detritus on the floor of my soul for that gift that I had been given long before but had cast aside as my journey of faith had begun. It was only when it had become agonizingly clear to me that I wasn’t strong enough or smart enough to “run” either the church or my own life, that I went back looking for the “adequate dynamic” that had been offered to me when I first believed, and that had been refused by me in my ignorance and pride.

A.W. Tozer, one of my most trusted and enduring spiritual directors, wrote –

…Let me shock you at this point. A naturally bright person can carry on religious activity without a special gift from God. Filling church pulpits every week are some who are using only natural abilities and special training. Some are known as Bible expositors, for it is possible to read and study commentaries and then repeat what has been learned about the Scriptures. Yes, it may shock you, but it is true that anyone able to talk fluently can learn to use religious phrases and can become recognized as a preacher. But if any person is determined to preach so that his work and ministry will abide in the day of the judgment fire, then he must preach, teach and exhort with the kind of love and concern that comes only through a genuine gift of the Holy Spirit—something beyond his own capabilities…

…The Christian church cannot rise to its true stature in accomplishing God’s purposes when its members neglect the true gifts and graces of God’s Spirit. Much of the religious activity we see in our churches is not the eternal working of the Eternal Spirit but the mortal working of man’s mortal mind.” (A. W. Tozer – Tragedy in the Church: The Missing Gifts – 1978)

A church that fails to celebrate Pentecost, or that obscures the outpouring of God’s empowering Spirit on Christians and the church in the way that it actually does celebrate Pentecost, is a church whose “conscious experience” of the Holy Spirit is weak and at real risk.  It’s a month now until Pentecost on the church calendar. And just as the season of Lent prepares us spiritually for the event and experience of Easter, and just as the season of Advent prepares us spiritually for the event and experience of Christmas, so these next four weeks provide us with an opportunity to prepare ourselves spiritually for the event and experience of Pentecost. The monastic community with which I have had an association has a guide that they offer to people as a way of getting them spiritually ready for the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The Risen Christ told His disciples to “tarry” in Jerusalem “until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:48), and it is my observation and experience that this fullness of the Spirit is something for which we must get prepared.  It’s something that must be sought –

“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish?  Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?  If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:9-13)

Again, A.W. Tozer is helpful –

fly…It is in the preparation for receiving the Spirit’s anointing that most Christians fail… No one can be filled with the Holy Spirit until he is convinced that being filled with the Holy Spirit is a part of the total plan of God in redemption; that it is nothing added or extra, nothing strange or queer, but a proper and spiritual operation of God… The inquirer must be sure to the point of conviction. He must believe that the whole thing is normal and right. …Unless he is persuaded from the Scriptures he should not press the matter nor allow himself to fall victim to the emotional manipulators intent upon forcing the issue. God is wonderfully patient and understanding and will wait for the slow heart to catch up with the truth.

In these next few weeks leading up to Pentecost I will be sharing in my blog some of the things that I have learned about the Holy Spirit through my “conscious experience” of the Holy Spirit through the years.  And then in the nine days immediately before Pentecost this year, I will be sharing a day-by-day prayer experience designed to prepare all of us for afresh outpouring of the presence, power and provision of the God in us and on the church.  I invite you to join me on the journey. DBS +

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A Prayer for Revival by C H Spurgeon

O God, send us the Holy Spirit! Give us both the breath spiritual life and the fire of unconquerable zeal. You are our God, answer us by fire, we pray! Answer us both by wind and fire, and then we shall see You are God indeed. The Kingdom comes not, and the work is flagging. O, that You would send the wind and fire! You will do this when we are all of one accord, all believing, all expecting, all prepared by prayer. Lord, bring us to this waiting state! God, send us a season of glorious disorder. O, for a sweep of the wind that will set the seas in motion, and make our ironclad church, laying so quietly at anchor, to roll from stem to stern! O for the fire to fall again – a fire which shall effect the most stolid! O, that such fire might first sit upon the disciples, and then fall on all around! O God, You are ready to work with us today even as You did then. Stay not, we plead with You, but work at once. Break down every barrier that hinders the incoming of Your might! Give us now both hearts of flame and tongues of fire to preach Your reconciling word, for Jesus’ sake! Amen!”

 

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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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“Incompetence is what we’re good at…”

crossAs part of my Lenten discipline this year I have been reading Christopher J.H. Wright’s new book To the Cross (IVP -2017).  This book is based on Holy Week sermons that he has preached through the years at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London.  Dr. Wright is a Cambridge University trained Old Testament scholar who is now the international director of the Langham Partnership, the successor to the late John R.W. Stott.  After reading his prophetic keynote address at the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010, Dr. Wright has become one of my “go to” sources on all matters Biblical, missional and theological.

The chapter in To the Cross that has most stirred my head and heart so far is the one on “Peter’s Denial” based on Matthew 26:69-75.  This text is the familiar Gospel story of Peter’s threefold denial in the courtyard of the high priest after Jesus’ arrest in the garden.  Dr. Wright’s sermonic reflections on this text get organized under the big idea that “failure is a fact in the Bible” (37).  Quoting from his favorite book (The Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile), Dr. Wright observes that “incompetence is what we’re good at.”

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He asks his readers to “think about it,” to “do a mental scan of the Bible.”  When he did this himself, Dr. Wright concluded that “the whole Bible, from beginning to end, is a story of human failure (with the single exception of then Lord Jesus Christ himself)” (38).  And the evidence that he amassed in support of this conclusion included these Biblical citations –

Adam and Eve failed, even though they were in a perfect environment. Abraham failed; he told lies about his wife and he abused Hagar. Samuel failed to get his own sons to behave properly, even though he started out his own career condemning Eli for the same thing.  Gideon failed, even after his great victory over the Midianites, when he said he wouldn’t become a king and then behaved as if he was one and made an idolatrous object.  Moses failed in the wilderness, to his own great regret.  David failed appallingly, not only in his acts of adultery and planned murder, but in failing to control his own family during the rest of his life.  Every king of Israel failed in one way or another.  The people of Israel as a whole – God’s covenant people, God’s redeemed people – failed for generation after generation through the Old Testament.  Failure runs through the Old Testament like a ragged thread.  [And] the New Testament shows us people failing all over the place as well. (37)

Failure is a fact in the Bible, and in each of our lives. Consciously following Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior now for more than 50 years now, I can tell you that much of my journey has been a matter of travelling the same ground over and over again.  The terrain of my failure is familiar.  I know the line from the poet/priest George Herbert’s poem “Discipline” by heart – “Though I halt in pace, yet I creep to the throne of grace.” In fact, I live these words.

The unknown author of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote about “the sin that so easily entangles us” (12:1).  In the parlance of Christianity spirituality this is what’s meant by a “besetting sin.” This is the sin that just seems to have our number, it’s the sin that is our Achilles’ heel, our particular weakness.  It’s “the sin that so easily entangles us.”

Christian wisdom often pairs this notion of our “besetting sin” with that of the seven deadly sins – pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. These seven “deadly sins” are the headings of seven broad categories under which all of the different ways that we offend against God’s holy laws, leaving undone those things which we ought to have done and having done those things which we ought not to have done” can be organized. The guide for Self-Examination in Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book: A Book of Devotion for Members of the Episcopal Church (Holy Cross Publications -1967) is a good example of how this works (pp. 112-121).  And when you undertake this spiritual discipline, a frequent discovery that people make is that while we all certainly have a capacity for the sins in all seven of these categories that nevertheless we each seem to be particularly adept at the sins in one of them – and that’s our “besetting sin” – “the sin that so easily entangles us.”   This is the sin will become our familiar foe, our lifelong struggle.

A story is told of a holy man who was dying. Satan appeared before him and, looking abject, said “At last, you have beaten me.”  And the old man, near death but still alert, replied, “Not yet!” (Alan Jones in Soul Making – Harper San Francisco – 1989 – p.98)

silence-movie-poster.pngI thought about this one evening last December when I sat in a theater all by myself watching Martin Scorsese’s lifetime project, the movie “Silence.”  Hardly anybody saw this film, and there were good reasons why.  It was too long.  It was too slow.  It was too demanding of the viewer.  And I loved it.  In fact, it wasn’t just the best movie that I saw last year, it was the best movie that I’ve seen in the last decade.

The story of Jesuit missionary priests in Japan in an era of the violent suppression of the church and the martyrdom of Christians, Silence is a sustained meditation on the mystery and the meaning of what it means to be faithful before the silence of God.  One of the characters in the story is a Japanese Christian named Kichijiro.  He is a confusing character in the story, a jumble of contradictions – at once faithful and unfaithful, brave and cowardly, advocate and adversary.  Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest himself, has written about him in the magazine of which he is the editor-at-large, America: The Jesuit Review

I’ve heard that the figure of Kichijiro, initially Rodrigues’s and Garupe’s (the Jesuit missionary priests) Japanese guide, and later Rodrigues’s friend, elicited some chuckles in movie theaters. Kichijiro is, by his own admission, a sinful man. He repeatedly apostatizes and cravenly turns Rodrigues in to the Japanese authorities. Time and again, Kichijiro returns to Rodrigues for confession, and towards the end of the film, after Rodrigues’s apostasy, he seeks out the former priest to hear his confession. Some viewers have found Kichijiro’s manifold weaknesses and his repeated desire for confession amusing. I found it human. Who hasn’t struggled with a sin that comes back to haunt us? Who hasn’t felt embarrassed about repeatedly confessing the same sins? Who hasn’t longed for God’s forgiveness? Towards the end of the film, this seemingly weak man also helps to bring Father Rodrigues back to his priesthood by seeking confession. In a moving scene, Father Rodrigues places his head on Kichijiro’s head, as if in prayer. Or absolution. Kichijiro’s final scene may be the most mysterious. A Japanese authority notices a necklace around Kichijiro’s neck and rips it off. He opens the leather pouch and discovers a Christian image. Kichijiro is revealed as a Christian and is swiftly led away, presumably to die. It took me three viewings to realize something: Kichijiro would become a traditional Christian martyr. Kichijiro would become the kind of person that Catholics would later venerate. How ironic that this “weak” man becomes the inadvertent hero, while the “stronger” man, Rodrigues, whose “martyrdom” is of a different type, will not be venerated. It is a mysterious meditation on sacrifice and martyrdom. (http://www.americamagazine.org)

In Kichijiro I caught the reflection of myself.

On a webpage where Disciple ministers talk, a young colleague recently asked if any of us thought that ministers should be held to a higher standard of morality than the members of our churches. It’s the wrong question.  There’s no two-tiered morality in the Bible, one for serious Christians like ministers, and another one for everyone else.  As Gene Getz pointed out, all of the moral and spiritual prerequisites for elders found in I Timothy 3 appear elsewhere in the New Testament as moral and spiritual expectations of every believer.  No, there’s not a higher standard, and that standard doesn’t function differently for a minister than it does for a church member.

Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.  But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… (Romans 3:19-24)

After watching a seagull circle round and round a crust of bread floating on the water, Helen Mallon said wrote – “repentance is the stillness around which I turn; this arc is my true shape.” She said, “I will move forward, my need for grace orienting me toward the true Center.” And finally she asks, “Can I find a better name than this: to be called One Who Returns?” (http://www.marshillreview.com/menus/extracts.shtm)

And this is where Dr. Wright ended his sermon on Peter’s failure in his book To the Cross.

Have you failed Jesus? Of course you have. The more appropriate question to ask would be: When did you most recently fail Jesus?  Then the key question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

Have you let Jesus down again? Of course you have.  Of course I have.  The question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

Have you felt the shame of that failure? And the embarrassment of it?  Have you found yourself almost unable to face Jesus in prayer again because of it? Of course you have.  The question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

And this is the question that Lent comes round each year posing with a certain intentionality and urgency – Do you still trust Jesus? The answer that Easter is requires us to wrestle with this question right now. DBS +

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Why I Got Baptized by Immersion

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It was just Easter in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Now, there are two reasons why we observed Easter as a church way back on March 27 and why our Orthodox brothers and sisters just got around to observing Easter last Sunday (May 1) –

The first factor, the calendar, has to do with the fact that the Christian Orthodox Church continues to follow the Julian calendar when calculating the date of Pascha (Easter). The rest of Christianity uses the Gregorian calendar. There is a thirteen-day difference between the two calendars, the Julian calendar being thirteen (13) days behind the Gregorian. The other factor at work is that the Orthodox Church continues to adhere to the rule set forth by the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicea in 325 AD, that requires that Pascha must take place after the Jewish Passover in order to maintain the Biblical sequence of Christ’s Passion. The rest of Christianity ignores this requirement, which means that on occasion Western Easter takes place either before or during the Jewish Passover. http://usa.greekreporter.com

On the grounds of tradition (This is my SJ “Ignatian” spiritual inclinations coming out – see: Prayer and Temperament – Michael & Norrisey -The Open Door – 1991), I’m much more Eastern Church than I am Western Church on this, but not enough to make a big fuss about it.  In fact, in recent years I have found that this calendar variation between when Eastern Christians and when Western Christians observe Holy Week has actually proven to be spiritually beneficial for me. You see, I’m a little busy during Holy Week when we observe it as a church.  And so getting another chance to walk the way of the cross from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday each year when I’m not the one who is responsible for planning, preparing and presenting the worship services has been a real gift to me.  By lurking at the edges of the Eastern Orthodox community of faith during their observances of the events of our salvation in Christ accomplished during their later Holy Week services, I have found that I have been able to worship myself.

This is what I was doing in a Greek Orthodox Church on a Good Friday afternoon. I was there to hear the Gospel story of Jesus Christ’s saving death read in its entirety in a harmonization of what Mathew, Mark, Luke and John told us, and to witness all of the ritual acts which embody it for those faithful Christians in that spiritual tradition.  I followed along in my copy of the Holy Week Orthodox Service Book that I have, and watched with fascination as the icon of Christ on the cross was venerated and then eventually taken down.  Nails were literally pulled from the wood and the image of Christ that hung there was reverently detached, shrouded and carried through the Sanctuary in a symbolic burial procession.  It eventually wound up on a table in the front that was meant to be symbolic of the tomb, and then a curious thing happened.

prayWorshippers – the young and the old, men and women, the strong and the infirm – began to line up, and when they got to that table in the front that was symbolic of the tomb where the body of Christ had been reverently placed, they got down on their hands and knees and crawled beneath it! Now, I had not anticipated this, but watching it happen, it was clear to me what was going on.

By passing under that table these faithful people were personally identifying themselves with Christ’s death and burial in full anticipation of His resurrection. This was their symbolic way of entering into Christ’s death.  I get this, in fact, this is why I was baptized myself by immersion when I was 17 years old after I had crossed the threshold of “owned” faith after having been baptized as an infant by my parents in their genuine act of “affiliative” faith. My parents brought me to church long before I was even capable of knowing what was happening to me and they had me ritually marked as already being the object of God’s affection and attention in Jesus Christ.  It was a promise that they made then and there, a promise that they would raise me in the faith of the church so that I would one day have the opportunity to make it my own.

To that end they had my sisters and me in church every Sunday morning, and when I was 12, they had me confirmed. I didn’t resist, but this was still more about them and their hopes for me than it was about me and what I actually believed.  But God was faithful in this gradual unfolding process as well, and the moment eventually came when what I had been so carefully taught was true through all those years of going to church became real for me.  I crossed the threshold of personal faith nurtured by the community of faith.  The promise of my baptism as an infant with all of its hope for my faithful future became the defining fact and experience of my life as an adolescent. I finally accepted Jesus Christ for myself as Lord and Savior.  I gave the title of my life over to Him.  I committed myself to trying to be who He wanted me to be and trying to do what He wanted me to do.  And with that decision of faith made, I believed that a fundamental change occurred inside me.  I had been born again.  The person I had been died and the person God in Christ always intended me to be was brought to life, and the more I thought about this, and experienced this, the more what the New Testament said about baptism by immersion began to make sense to both my head and my heart.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.  For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5)

blueIt was believing this, and experiencing this, that finally led me to be baptized by immersion during my senior year of High School. Now, I wasn’t immersed because I thought that I had to be in order to be truly saved. No, I was immersed because the New Testament said that it was a command, and because the New Testament said that it involved some really important promises. Years and years after my baptism by immersion I read the Radical Reformer Menno Simons’ observation about baptism being the least important thing that Christ commands us to do as our Lord.  The commands of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6-7), in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:27-40) and in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) are all so much more important than His command for us to be baptized.  But because the command to be baptized comes first in the Christian life, at its very beginning, on its very threshold, our obedience to it establishes the proper disposition of our hearts to be obedient to all that Christ has commanded.  If we are evasive and resistant about the very first thing that Jesus Christ asks us to do as Lord, what will we do when the things that Christ asks us to do start getting really serious (e.g. – “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” – Luke 9:23)?

And then there are the promises.

“Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)

According to Peter in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Christian Baptism has reference to both forgiveness – being saved from our sins; and the gift of the Holy Spirit – being saved to newness of life. Just as water cleanses and refreshes, so water baptism is a symbol of both purification and renewal.  Water baptism points to the forgiveness of our sins as the “washing” or “bath of regeneration” (Titus 3:5).  But water Baptism also points to the Baptism of the Spirit that is often compared in Scripture to a well of life-giving water gushing up and flowing out from somewhere deep inside us (John 4:14; 7:38; Isaiah 44:3; Ezekiel 47:1-12; Revelation 22:1-2).

My decision to be immersed in 1970 when I was 17 was not just a decision that was born of my strongly felt need to be personally obedient to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, but it was just as much a decision that was born of my deep need to be consciously rooted and continuously grounded in the promises of forgiveness and renewal in the Holy Spirit that are instrumentally attached to the act of Baptism in Acts 2:38.

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, said “there is on earth no greater comfort than baptism” and he proved this in his personal life and experience. Luther admitted that when he was in the distress of affliction and anxiety he comforted himself by repeating, “I am baptized! I am baptized!” In so saying, “I’m baptized!” Luther affirmed, and rightly stated that he belonged to God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By this we learn that who you are, and whose you are, are important components of baptism. (http://pilgrimindy.org)

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And this same desire is what I saw in the act of all those people who were passing under the table of Christ’s tomb on Good Friday afternoon. It was an act motivated by their profound awareness of just how much they desperately needed what it was that Christ had accomplished by dying on the cross and then by being raised from the dead.  I need it too, and that’s why I am so glad that I can say, “I am baptized! I am baptized!” And if this is something you think you want, or need, then let’s talk.  Water Baptism may be something that you really need to consider for your comfort and assurance. DBS +

 

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“…Christ Died for Our Sins in Accordance with the Scriptures…”

lamb

What was God Doing on the Cross? [Part 3]
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A commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” results in both an appreciation for the diverse ways that the Bible speaks about something and in the recognition that the Bible often speaks more frequently and forcefully about something in some ways than it does in other ways.  Take the Lord’s Supper for example.

cupIn their “Word to the Church on the Lord’s Supper” (1991) the Commission on Theology of the Council on Christian Unity of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) identified “five strands of meaning” in our observance of communion as people of Biblical faith: (1) Remembrance; (2) Communion of the Faithful; (3) Sacrifice; (4) Unity; and (5) The Feast of the Reign of God. And Dr. Byron Lambert, a Stone/Campbell Church Historian from a different branch of the family actually identified ten!  A Biblical understanding of the Lord’s Supper has got to reflect a breadth of meaning just as wide and deep as that of Scripture itself.   That’s what a commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” demands of those of us who affirm it.

But when you do this, it also becomes apparent pretty quickly that not every “strand of meaning” the Bible introduces is equally weighted.  And this is the other thing that a commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks” leads to – an honest recognition of Biblical emphases.  Just as it would be Biblically inaccurate to speak of the Lord’s Supper in just one way, so it would be just as Biblically inaccurate not to point out that when the Bible speaks of the Lord’s Supper that the first thing it almost always says is something about remembrance.

rememberance

“Do this in remembrance of Me” is engraved on so many of the Lord’s Tables in the churches of our tribe because of this fact. Remembrance is certainly not the only thing that the Lord’s Supper means to us Biblically, but it is almost always the first thing.

In recent weeks, as part of my own spiritual preparation for Holy Week, I have been using my weekly blog to think out loud about the meaning of the cross. Two weeks ago I wrote about how it is that what God in Christ did on the cross cinches for me the foundational Gospel claim that God loves us. God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This “strand of meaning” for the cross has a name, it’s called the “Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement,” and because I seek a faith that is Biblical, I embrace in it.

Last week I wrote about how what God in Christ did on the cross both underscores the Gospel’s claim of “Emmanuel,” that “God is with us” as “Christus Dolor” (the Christ who suffers with us) and establishes the Gospel’s announcement of God’s victory over the principalities and powers through Christ’s resurrection from the dead on the third day.  This “strand of meaning” for the cross has a name too, it’s called the “Christus Victor” or “Classical” Theory of the Atonement, and because I seek a faith that is Biblical, I embrace it as well.

coffeeBeing able to hold onto more than just one thought at a time is a skill necessary for people of Biblical faith because the Bible never says just one thing about any topic. The way the Bible teaches its truths is by putting different ideas into faithful conversation with each other, and it is by eavesdropping on that exchange that we begin to plumb the depths of God’s self-disclosure to which Scripture itself is both a witness and a result.

Coming at Scripture in this way leaves me spiritually frustrated with those who want to artificially restrict the conversation. In my experience, this happens in two very different ways.  It happens when somebody tries to tell me that something in the Bible is cut and dried –  neat and clean – black and white – either/or – when clearly it is not.  I find that it’s most often my theologically conservative friends who are guilty of trying to restrict the conversation in this way.  But this also happens when somebody tries to tell me that something that is in the Bible isn’t really there, or, if it is, that it isn’t spiritually or intellectually legitimate and therefore isn’t deserving of our serious consideration.  I find that it’s most often my theologically progressive friends who are guilty of trying to restrict the conversation in this way.  Both approaches, it seems to me, are failures in speaking where the Scriptures speak. Take the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement.

lamby

Both my conservative and my progressive friends seem to want me to restrict the conversation when it comes to this idea these days. The conservatives want me to think and talk about it exclusively as the only proper way to truly understand the meaning of the cross of Christ, while my progressive friends don’t seem to want me to think or talk about it as having any legitimacy at all as a way of trying to make sense of the meaning of the cross.  When you come down to it, they are both trying to restrict the theological conversation, and the result is that they both make me want to scream!

petersTed Peters, the Professor of Systematic Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, in his essay on the “Models of the Atonement” [http://www.plts.edu] — and what a fine, fair and incredibly reader-friendly essay it is — explained Substitutionary Atonement this way –

When the word ‘atonement’ comes up, we most frequently rely on the model of “Jesus as our satisfaction.” Variants on this model are called “substitutionary atonement”, “penal substitution”, or even “blood atonement.” The work of Christ in atoning for our sins renders us forgiven, or just, or justified. The blood of Christ renders us clean, righteous, ready to stand in God’s presence. Why does Jesus’ death accomplish this? Satisfaction of the need for cosmic justice is one theological answer…

 …Our word ‘satisfaction’ comes from St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109), who wrote a book, Cur Deus Homo? asking: why did God become human in Jesus Christ? Anselm began by describing the world as God originally created it. It was a world of order, a world of justice. All things were ordered in harmony for the benefit of God’s creatures. It is God’s will that we creatures enjoy lives of fulfillment, felicity, and blessedness. Human disobedience in the form of sin, however, has disrupted the world order. Like defaulting on a mortgage, humanity cannot pay what it owes to make amends. As a result, justice requires that humans be disqualified from enjoying the blessedness God had originally planned. Does this mean God’s will has been thwarted by human sin?

 God, however, wants to press on. God wants to deliver blessedness despite human sin and still in harmony with the order of justice. God confronts a dilemma. Neither God alone nor humanity alone can pay the debt to satisfy what is required by the order of justice. On the one hand, if God simply forgives humanity for its sinful disobedience, then this would throw the order of justice out of sync. It would introduce disorder into the creation. So, God can’t just write it off and forget the loss. On the other hand, the human race cannot fix what is broken either. The damage is too severe. No human being has the moral capital to repay the debt. Only justice in the form of retribution can repair the broken creation. But this means humanity will get punishment rather than blessedness. What’s a loving God to do?!

 An offering to satisfy justice must be made from the human side; but only God has the capacity for making such satisfaction. Because only God is able to make the offering that we ought to make, it must be made by a combination of the divine and the human. Therefore, concludes Anselm, the incarnation is necessary to accomplish salvation. Now we know why God became human.

 Professor Peters notes that this “idea of satisfaction is a narrow theological concept, which is used to interpret a large collection of verbal symbols in the Bible: blood, lamb, sheep, the Good Shepherd, scapegoat, the “lamb upon the throne,” high priest, and such.” Which is to say that it’s one of the ways that Scripture speaks about the cross, and therefore should be a voice — not the only voice, mind you — but at least one of the voices, and maybe even one of the louder voices in our conversation about what the cross means and what the cross accomplishes.

Scot McKnight’s brilliant analogy of the golf bag full of different clubs explains shows how this works –

golfEach “theory” of the Atonement is, like a particular golf club, better suited to some situations than others. Ministering the gospel is like playing a round of golf. Just as a golfer knows when to use a driver, a wedge, or a putter, the way we proclaim, teach, or share the Good News should be adapted to the situation. You can hit the ball out of a sand trap with your driver, but why would you if you had a wedge available? The strength of the golf-bag metaphor is that it asks us to stop being partisan toward one particular theory of the Atonement and to minister with the best tools at hand. [“Your Atonement Is Too Small” – David Neff – May 20, 2008 – www.christianitytoday.com]

And so when the problem is ignorance – not being sure about how the God who is there really feels about us – the “club” that I go to is the moral influence theory of the atonement. What Christ did on the cross “proves” that God loves us, and shows us just how much.

And when the problem is the evil that holds us and the whole world in its sway, the “club” that I go to is the “Classical” “Christus Victor” theory of the atonement.  On the cross Christ confronted the powers of darkness that enslave us, and by getting up on the third day, He triumphed over them.

And when the problem before me is the very real separation that the rebellion of sin has created in my relationship with God, and my relationship with others, and my relationship with myself, and my relationship with all of creation, the “club” that I go to is the “Substitutionary” theory of the atonement. On the cross God Himself removes the barriers that hinder all of my relationships.

Next week in my final posting in this series on “What Was God Doing on the Cross?” I will name the three essential Biblical truths that I personally find that the Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement preserves for me better than the other theories of the atonement do.  But suffice it for now to simply say that I am glad that it is one of the clubs in my spiritual golf bag.   Because my own need for forgiveness is great, my appreciation for the Substitutionary theory of the Atonement is deep.

Richard Mouw wrote about (“Getting to the Crux of Calvary” – Christianity Today – June 4, 2012) overhearing some young ministers at a conference discussing their conscious distancing of themselves and their ministries from the traditional Substitutionary Theory of the Atonement.  Dr. Mouw said that he thought that it was a terrible mistake.

This is not to say that every sermon preached has to be an invitation to bring our guilt to the Cross of Calvary… The fact is that the Bible presents the work of Christ as a many-faceted event, setting forth a variety of images for the Atonement: self-giving love, the forgiveness of enemies, payment of a debt, the ransom of captives, victory over the demonic principalities and powers, and so on… I would not have worried about the comment that I overheard from those young pastrors if they were simply celebrating having a golf bag full of theological clubs, and resolving to use the victory-over-the-powers club more effectively in appropriate situations. But instead, they said that they “seldom” talked anymore about substitutionary atonement, and to me, that sounded like a basic mistake in theological golfing.

And to me as a big “D” Disciple, it sounds like a fundamental violation of our commitment to “speaking where the Bible speaks.DBS+

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The “Double Structure” of the Gospel

A Holy Week Reminder
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In his popular commentary on the Gospel of John (John: The Gospel of Life – Judson Press – 1979) D. George Vanderlip, a Professor of New Testament at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, wrote –

donkeyThe story is told in the imagination of the feelings of the donkey who bore Jesus into Jerusalem on the day of his so-called triumphal entry. The donkey was plodding along slowly with head down until he suddenly noticed a crowd gathering and then the people beginning to shout and throw palm branches into the street.  He immediately began to lift up his ears and quicken his pace, thinking, “They are glad to see me.  They are applauding me.” (37)

Dr. Vanderlip used this story to make the point that it’s not all about us.  As Michael Horton likes to say, “God is not a supporting actor in the movie about us; we’re supporting actors in the movie about God!”  Now, this cuts directly against the grain of our cultural preoccupation with self where we are daily bombarded with messages that say “have it your way.” 

80David Hubbard, the President of Fuller Theological Seminary when I was a student there in the mid 1970’s, said that he was troubled by the way that some churches, in an effort to be more “attractional,” were beginning to cater to the preferences of people outside the church in order to get them inside the church. Under the banner of being sensitive to “seekers” they were beginning to tailor their weekly worship experiences to better fit the expectations of those who were not there in order to increase their chances of getting them there.

The last thing you want to hear from people who have just come out of one of your worship services is: “I didn’t get anything out of it.”  Dr. Hubbard said that when we judge a church this way we typically use three criteria –

  • The “intellectual criterion” – Was the sermon as stimulating as it could have been?
  • The “emotional criterion” – How did the worship service leave me feeling?
  • The “aesthetic criterion” – Did the music, the décor, the style and the setting of worship suit my tastes?

Dr. Hubbard was concerned that this approach could easily lead a church to put the emphasis in the wrong place.  In the pursuit of customer satisfaction, he worried that product quality might begin to suffer.  When the focus shifts from Christ to the donkey, our desire for success can begin to interfere with our obligation to be faithful.  Trying to make people happy can lead you to lose touch with what it is that you are there to do in the first place.  It’s a fine line.

boatIn the Great Commission Christ sent his church “into the world” to “preach the Gospel.”  If we are to reach the “world” then clearly we’ve got to be sensitive to our audience and responsive to their needs.  But to faithfully preach “the Gospel” then we’ve got to be careful to “retain the standard of sound words” (2 Timothy 1:13) and preserve “the treasure that been entrusted to us” (2 Timothy 1:14).  Finding and then maintaining the balance between cultural relevance and Biblical fidelity is tricky.  It’s a horse that you can fall off from either side.  You can be too flexible at the point of culture, and you can get too rigid at the point of Scripture.  Fortunately, we are not left completely on our own in navigating this Scylla and Charybdis.

I’ve long been reassured by what Jesus said in the Upper Room in John 15:26-27.  Speaking to His disciples, Jesus said – “you will bear witness because you have been with Me from the beginning” (15:27).  They were to proclaim what they had seen and heard (I John 1:1-3).  They were custodians of the Gospel story, “the faith once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 4).  Fidelity to this charge could be measured rather straightforwardly – were they handing on the same message that they had received (I Corinthians 15:1-3; 2 Timothy 2:2)?  Deviations from this delivered tradition were not to be tolerated (Galatians 1:1-10).  This is on us.  A faithful church must always be taking the measure of its life and message by the Scriptures (Acts 17:11).  It must be consciously “tethered to the Word.” 

But in the Upper Room, in the Gospel of John, Jesus also said, “When the Helper comes… He will bear witness of Me” (15:26).  This is on God.  Just as we have our “witness” role to play, so the Spirit of God has a “witness” role to play as well.  Bernard Ramm explained what Jesus meant by saying that “upon the objective truth of revelation must fall the subjective light of the Holy Spirit’s illumination.”   This is what the two disciples on the road to Emmaus described as feeling their hearts “burning” within them as the Risen Christ explained the scriptures to them (Luke 24:32).  As Bernard Ramm put it – “It is the Spirit who makes the heart burn as the Word is heard.  Thus revelation always comes in this double structure – the inner and the outer, the objective and the subjective, the hearing ear and the burning heart.”

In this “double structure” there is a clear division of labor, God has His part to play and we have ours. It’s our job to tell the story of God’s redemptive involvement with human beings from creation through the covenant with Israel, the coming of Christ and the establishment of the church to the final consummation. Of course, we’ve got to tell this story in ways that people can actually understand it.  Our communication has to be comprehensible and just as compelling as we can possibly make it.  That’s on us.  But the impact that this story actually makes on the heads and hearts of those who hear us tell it is not our responsibility.  This is on God.  We tell the story of what God has done in Jesus Christ to bring us back into a right relationship with Himself, that’s our “witness” (John 15:27).  And then God takes what we’ve said, and through the Holy Spirit, applies it to people’s hearts where they are free to accept or reject it.  That’s His “witness” (John 15:26).

I think about these things every year at this time.

The church’s Holy Week services are always some of the best attended of the year.  As Elton Trueblood used to say, if a church member won’t come to church for Easter, they probably aren’t coming for anything!  And so the temptation is to pull out all the stops and do something spectacular while they’re here to convince them to come back the following week (almost always one of the worst attended Sundays of the year).  The count of nickels and noses during Holy Week worship services, especially on Easter, gives us a brief vision of what could be for our churches, and it is just so appealing, it makes us feel so good about ourselves as a church, so “successful,” that we start to think about what we could do to keep them coming.  And this is when the focus can begin to shift Dr. Hubbard warned. When the spotlight’s on the donkey, Christ can get lost in the shadows.

The “double structure” of the Gospel shows us another way.  Our job is to be clear, to point people unswervingly and unhesitatingly to Jesus Christ.  The promise is in John 12:32: “When I am lifted up… I will draw all people to myself.”  We witness to Christ, we “lift Him up,” and then the Holy Spirit uses that witness as the basis for His own witness in people’s hearts, “drawing people to Himself.”  Again, something that Bernard Ramm said is quite helpful – “God speaks into the heart while the ear listens to the outward Word” (21).  Our witness gets addressed to the outer ear, the Spirit’s witness gets addressed to the inner heart.  Our task is to be clear, consistent and compelling about who Christ is and what Christ has done.  The Spirit’s task is then to convict the hearts and convince the minds of those who listen to us.

This is why Stanley Hauerwas, the man Time magazine once called “America’s Best Theologian,” says that the future of the church is going to be found in “doing the same thing Sunday after Sunday.” Anthony D. Baker, a professor of Theology down at the Episcopal Seminary in Austin explains what this means –

It all depends, of course, on what “same thing” we are doing. If we mean the same failures of acculturation, then clearly this is wrongheaded: The future of the church very decidedly is not found in coughing with embarrassment during Gospel readings, or in nervous thumb-twiddling during prayer. But if “the same thing week after week” means proclaiming the gospel, forgiving sins, and attending to the various classical practices that form people’s lives within the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then we must agree: The future of the church is found in doing this week in and week out, Sunday after Sunday, come rain, drought, hell, or high water.

cupIf we could surrender our anxiety-ridden need for novelty, we could think about how to “work with the words” of the gospel in a way that makes God’s loving call resound anew for children and adults alike. In learning to read the gospel, we would be giving ourselves the greatest and most formative gift possible: the gift of love for the fundamental story of the world, and a way of receiving and experiencing the divine love that story narrates. Imagine a church in which children and adults of all ages, races, and classes were bound together by their common love for the words of the gospel. If Christians can learn, week after week, to read the story of Jesus of Nazareth—to love what we read, to be loved by what we read—then surely the future of the church would look a bit more hopeful. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/december/learninggospelagain.html)

And so this week, Holy Week, we will just tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love again, just as we did last year during Holy Week, and just as we will next year during Holy Week.  We will try to tell the story clearly and compellingly, and our focus will on Christ because Holy Week is not about the donkey.  It’s about who was on the donkey, and what He was riding it into Jerusalem to do. DBS+

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