Tag Archives: Jesus Christ

“Come and See”

wind“Come and see.” That’s the Easter invitation. It’s found in Matthew 28:7 – “He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said,” the angel told the women at the tomb, “come and see the place where He was lying.”  This isn’t the only time that we hear this invitation extended in the Gospels.  When John the Baptist was in prison and sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask if He was really the Christ or should they start looking for someone else, Jesus told them to come and see what He was doing and then go back and tell John all about it before they made up their minds (Matthew 11:4-6).  And in the Gospel of John, on four separate occasions (1:39; 1:46; 4:29; 11:34), people were invited to “come and see” for themselves what Jesus was doing before making any decisions about who He was.

We don’t have access to what the angel invited those first disciples to “come and see.” And so our journeys of faith begin with a decision about the credibility of what those who actually went and saw have told us about it.  And when we do, when we trust what they have told us, then there are some other things that begin to emerge in our lives that people can actually “come and see” as evidence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, not just in a garden tomb 2,000 years ago, but also in our lives right here and right now.

T.R. Glover (1869-1943), a Cambridge University scholar from the last generation, famously observed that Christianity finally prevailed in the ancient marketplace of ideas because the first Christians “out-thought, out-lived and out-died” the competition.  And I am convinced that their capacity to do this, to “out-think,” “out-live,” and “out-die” their rivals, resided in the three claims about the uniqueness of Jesus Christ that Christianity makes, namely that He is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).  Theologian Gabriel JesusFackre argues that “the resurrection is the validation… of these [three] assertions about the uniqueness of Christ.” And this is where the resurrection shows today.  This is what people can still “come and see.” The resurrection is the vindication of Christ’s claim to be “the way,” and that changes the way that we live as Christians.  The resurrection is the vindication of Christ’s claim to be “the truth,” and that changes the way that we think as Christians.  And the resurrection is the vindication of Christ’s claim to be “the life,” and that changes the way that we die as Christians.

People today can “come and see” how the Resurrection of Jesus Christ impacts the way that we live as Christians.  In Acts chapter 4, after describing the pattern of economic sharing the emerged in life of the early church with the result that it could be said of them that there was not a needy person among them (4:34), Luke tells us that “with great power” they bore witness “to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33).  Connect the dots.

The power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the lives of those first Christians completely transformed their values. They had been raised by Christ to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4), and it showed in their compassion, kindness, humility, patience, forgiveness and love (Colossians 3:12-14).  Pope Francis, Saint Teresa of Calcutta, our own Feliberto Periera down in the Valley, and the dozens and dozens of quietly compelling Christians you know personally – the power of their lives is the power of the resurrection in them.  Raised with Christ, they are now living like Christ, and this is something that people can “come and see!”

People can also “come and see” how the resurrection of Jesus Christ impacts the way that we think as Christians.  When putting together a jigsaw puzzle you always start with the corners don’t you?  Once those corners are in place then you’ve got some clear reference points within which you can get to work.  And this is precisely what the Resurrection of Jesus Christ establishes for us as Christians.

History is loaded with accounts of saviors – messiahs – who made extravagant claims, who have espoused cure-all answers to life’s greatest dilemmas. In fact, Arnold Toynbee in his monumental work, The Study of History, devotes one entire chapter to the subject of saviors.  He broke them down into four categories: (1) The savior with a scepter – the political savior; (2) The savior with a book – the philosopher, teacher, theologian; (3) The savior with a sword – the military conqueror and strategist; and (4) The man-god or god-man saviors – the saviors of Greek and Norse mythology.  After this review, Professor Toynbee pointed out that each of these saviors ultimately capitulated to the last great enemy, death.  Politicians, kings, generals, philosophers and teachers all die.  And each of the demi-gods of history have likewise succumbed to the same enemy – they have ceased to be and ceased to matter. And then Professor Toynbee concluded this significant chapter with the words – “When the last civilization shall have crossed the river of death, there on the other side filling up the whole horizon with Himself will be the Savior.”  (Richard Halverson)

Paul began his letter to the Romans with the announcement that Jesus Christ was “declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection” (1:4). When Jesus began His public ministry by getting baptized by John in the Jordan, the Gospels tell us that there was a voice from heaven that said, “This is my beloved Son” (Matthew 3:17; Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22).  And according to Paul, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was that same kind of divine announcement.  Christ’s resurrection was God’s validation of His claims and His teachings, and when you believe that they’re true you are going to act on them, and this is something people can “come and see!”

Finally, people can “come and see” how the resurrection of Jesus Christ impacts the way that Christians die.  Somewhere I’ve read that in the ancient world there was the belief that people were born knowing just exactly how long they were going to live. The exact day of their deaths always loomed large in front of them, but that knowledge proved to be so painful, so paralyzing, that eventually it was erased from our souls. Well, the knowledge may be gone, but not the fear.  As the author of the book of Hebrews put it, we human beings are held in bondage by our fear of death (2:14-15).  But the good news is that Jesus Christ came as our deliverer to break the power of its hold on us.

Donald Grey Barnhouse was the pastor of the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, for more than 30 years and was one of America’s leading Bible teachers in the first half of the 20th century. Cancer took his first wife, leaving him with three children all under 12. The day of the funeral, he was driving his family to the service when a large truck passed them, casting a noticeable shadow across their car. Turning to his oldest daughter, who was staring sadly out the window, he asked, “Tell me, sweetheart, would you rather be run over by that truck or its shadow?” Looking curiously at her father, she replied, “By the shadow, I guess. It can’t hurt you.” And then speaking to all his children, he said, “Your mother has not been run over by death, but by the shadow of death. [And] that’s nothing to fear.”

 Christians die and Christians grieve just as all human beings do. But because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians have the promise that even though they die, yet shall they live (John 11:25-26).  And this enables Christians to die and to grieve differently – hopefully (I Thessalonians 4:13), and this is something that people can “come and see!”

We were born too late to be able to heed the invitation of Matthew 28:6 to “come and see” for ourselves. But the witness of those that did has convinced me that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, and believing this has changed absolutely everything for me forever.  It has changed the way that I live.  It has changed the way that I think.  It will change the way that I die.  And these differences that Jesus Christ has made, is making, and will make in my life is something that you can “come and see!”  DBS +

 

 

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“Because He Lives”

ignatusWe don’t have patron saints in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but if we did, then Saint Ignatius of Antioch would be mine.  His Feast Day, October 17th, is my birthday, and that’s the way that most people figure out who their patron Saint is.  The Saint you share a day with is yours.

While we may not have patron Saints as a church, the idea is not entirely devoid of value if you ask me. The way you get to be a Saint is by being pretty good at being a Christian, and who couldn’t use some help with that?  The Apostle Paul told the Corinthian Christians to follow his example of following Christ (I Corinthians 11:1), and it seems to me that’s just exactly what patron Saints can do – they can provide us with individualized, concrete examples of what following Jesus Christ looks like in the life of another human being, and Saint Ignatius of Antioch is a pretty good one for this.

Ignatius grew up in the days of Jesus and the early church. He became a leader just as all of the apostles were dying off. He was the second leader of the church in Antioch, the second most important center of early Christianity in the ancient world after Jerusalem. When the persecution of Christians began in earnest early in the second century, Ignatius was arrested and taken to Rome to be martyred. He wrote a series of letters back to his churches while he was on that final journey to his death. In them he encouraged his flock to remain faithful in the face of the suffering that was coming their way. And then, when Ignatius got to Rome, tradition tells us that he was fed to the lions in the coliseum.

redThis is why the iconography of St. Ignatius of Antioch almost always shows him being eaten by lions. One of them is taking a bite out of his shoulder while the other one gnaws on an ankle. And St. Ignatius just stands there, looking cool and collected, as if nothing much was going on. Icons are teaching tools for the Christians who use them as part of their devotion. Icons spiritualize the people they represent, exaggerating the qualities that we are supposed to be emulating as followers of Jesus Christ ourselves, and the serenity on the face of St. Ignatius as he is being eaten by those lions is the whole point of his icon.

Writing about the way that people like St. Ignatius of Antioch died, Misty Callahan, a C.S. Lewis Fellow, says that “the fortitude and patience of the early Christians in suffering was notorious.”  What could have induced people to be Christians under such circumstances?” Misty wondered. Well, nothing but a “thorough conviction of its truth” is what she concluded. Misty Callahan calls the way that people like Saint Ignatius of Antioch died a “sign that Christianity is true.”  Saint Ignatius is peaceful in the icons that show him being eaten by lions because he knew something. He knew that Jesus Christ had confronted death on the cross, and defeated death on the third day when He arose. Death no longer held any fear for him.

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By way of contrast, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus were anything but composed, calm, cool, or collected (Luke 24). Luke tells us that they were walking away from Jerusalem on Easter Sunday morning “looking sad” (24:17). The word Luke used for “sad” in our text was a word that meant “downcast” — “having a look suggestive of gloom.” Geoff Thomas, the pastor of the historic Alfred Street Baptist Church in Aberystwyth, Wales, captured this moment in the Biblical story and its mood perfectly when he wrote –

The longest walk you’ll ever take is the walk away from the grave of someone you loved. If you’ve never done that, you can’t imagine how grievous it is. To walk away and feel as if the world has come to an end. To walk away and think about what used to be, and what might have been. To walk away and realize, “I’ll never be the same again.” …To reach out to touch a face and to find it gone forever. To cry until you can’t cry any more. To watch them bury your dreams and hopes and all that was good about life. To know it’s over, done, finished, the end, and there is nothing you can do about it. …It is the longest walk and the saddest day. Every step takes you away from the tombstone of a broken dream.

And this is what those two disciples on the road to Emmaus were doing. They were walking away from their broken dreams and shattered hopes.  You can hear it in their voices.  They spoke in the past tense — Jesus “was” (24:19) — they “had hoped” (24:21).  They were on that “longest walk.”  They were in that “saddest day.” Jesus was dead and gone.  The One they believed was the long awaited Messiah, the promised Deliverer of God’s people, had come to an inglorious end on a Roman cross and had been put away in a borrowed tomb.  There was nothing left for them to do but to go home; to go back to the lives that they had led before Jesus had shown up and filled them with such excitement and anticipation.  And so they were on the road to Emmaus. They were walking away, looking sad.

Now, at the end of this story that Luke tells us about these two forlorn disciples, things were completely different. In the end, we see them rushing back to Jerusalem with burning hearts and opened eyes to tell the other disciples that they had been with Jesus who was back from the dead, adding their testimony to the building body of evidence for the Resurrection of Christ.  And the pivot, the turning point for these two in the story that Luke tells us this morning were verses 25-27.  After listening to the two disciples tell their tale of woe on the road to Emmaus, the Risen Christ interrupted them and said –

25 “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! 26 Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

It was the Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer who said that Christian hope is not something that’s “pinned up in a vacuum.” Christian hope is not a cross your fingers and hope for the best sort of thing, a leap without a reason to jump, a stance without anywhere solid to stand.  No, Christian hope is something that’s rooted and grounded in the record of what God has already done, and in the promise of what God tells us that He intends to do next.  When those two despairing disciples on the road to Emmaus bumped into the Risen Christ, He didn’t tether their future to their wishful thinking and His sympathetic feelings, but rather to the Biblical record and the Biblical promise.

 Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures. (Luke 24:27)

As Misty Callhan put it –

While it may be true that other religions believe in life after death, only Christianity anchors that hope in a historical claim.

anchorIt’s the credibility of that historical claim that gives us courage and confidence in the face of the challenges that our circumstances create. Without a firm spiritual center of gravity we will be thrown by every change and crisis that comes our way. It is not without good reason that the traditional symbol for hope in Christianity is an anchor. Just as it is the anchor that keeps a ship from smashing into the rocks in a storm when the winds are blowing and the waves are crashing, so it’s our hope as Christians that keeps us straight and steady when “all around our souls gives way.”

In 1736 John Wesley and his brother Charles were on their way to America to serve as Anglican missionaries in Georgia. Aboard ship with them were a group of German Moravian Christians who were also going to America to share their deeply personal and passionate faith in Jesus Christ. In the middle of the Atlantic during their crossing a terrible storm came up and threatened to sink the ship. John Wesley was terrified, thinking that he was about to die. But in the hold of the ship the Moravians calmly sang their hymns and prayed their prayers. Wesley wrote about it in his journal –

shipIn the midst of the Psalm wherewith their service began, the sea broke over, split the main-sail in pieces, covered the ship and poured in between the decks, as if the great deep had already swallowed us up. A terrible screaming began among the English. The Germans calmly sung on. I asked one of them afterwards; “Were you not afraid?” He answered, “I thank God, no.” I asked: “But were not your women and children afraid?” He replied mildly: “No, our women and children are not afraid to die.”

colloseumSome of us are facing lions today. We’re in the Coliseum days of our lives. Death is circling us, staring us in the face. If this is you then what you need to know is that Easter is for you. Jesus went to the cross to confront death. Jesus was raised from the dead to defeat death. Just like Ignatius with those lions hanging off him, you can know and show real peace because of what Jesus Christ has done and promises to do for you.

duckBut the fact of the matter is that most of us don’t have lions stalking us at the moment. Most of us are facing ducks instead. Lions devour. Ducks nibble. It’s not one big thing; it’s a hundred little things, a nibble here and a nibble there. The car, the kids, the house, the job, the bills, the schedule, the doctor’s appointment, the taxes, the meetings, the traffic, the roof, the market, the waistline — those hundred little things that constantly demand your attention and that, bit by bit, wear you down, and wear you out. A nibble here, a nibble there, and then one day you wake up, and you’re missing an arm, or a leg! Hope is not just needed for that last day when we’re thrown to the lions. Hope is needed most every day just to get out of bed, and to get dressed, and to step back again into our worlds full of their demands, and dreams, and deals, and disappointments.   In just a moment now were going to turn in our hymnals to #562 –

“Because He Lives” has become something of a contemporary Easter standard. It was written nearly 50 years ago by Bill and Gloria Gaither. In 1971 Gloria was pregnant, Bill was sick, their church was in a crisis, and the world around them was unraveling – politically, socially, and spiritually. Gloria says that she remembers sitting in their living room in Alexandria, Louisiana, on New Year’s Eve, and feeling truly panicked about life and the future of her family. She worried about the world into which she would soon be bringing her new baby.

One sunny day in the early spring, Bill, Gloria and Bill’s father George walked across the paved parking lot at their small A-frame offices. George called Bill and Gloria’s attention to a spot they had not noticed. He pointed out a tiny blade of grass that had pushed aside layers of dirt, rock and concrete to reach the sunshine of the world above. It had such a strong will to live; it had overcome all the odds to fulfill its destiny. That blade of grass became a symbol to the Gaithers of how God works… And it inspired Gloria to write a song expressing the hope that was shaped by the resurrection of Jesus… (McDowell)

“God sent His Son, they called Him Jesus;
He came to love, heal and forgive.
He lived and died to buy my pardon;
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives…

How sweet to hold a newborn baby;
and feel the pride and joy that gives;
but greater still, the calm assurance:
This child can face uncertain days because He lives.

… Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.
Because He lives, all fear is gone.
Because I know He holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because He lives!”

It’s because there was an empty grave on that first Easter Sunday morning that we can face our uncertain days now. It’s because of Christ’s Resurrection that our lives are worth living. It’s because He lives, and holds the future, that all fear is gone. This is what Easter means. This is what Easter does for those who believe it, and who live by it. DBS +

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Christianity without the Cross

Did the Church get the Gospel all wrong?

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A Good Friday Reflection
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It happens every Easter.

The news media picks up on some story from the world of scholarship that in the popular imagination subverts the church’s traditional faith in the saving result of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The implication is always the same. We who are Christians have gotten it all wrong, either because we are sinister and are attempting to perpetrate some grand fraud on the world for our own greedy, power-mongering, selfish interests, or because we are stupid and have never really thought about our faith, or considered alternative interpretations.

This year it’s the “discovery” that the church didn’t have crucifixes in its first millennium.  This is a debatable point. The British New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado makes a compelling case for the church’s use of a stylized form of the crucifix in the earliest stages of its life (https://larryhurtado.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/staurogram-essay.pdf). But this is a rather specialized argument for a rather limited audience.  Besides it’s not really the point.

The real challenge that this popular news story is making to Easter this year is not about the presence or absence of crucifixes in the first thousand years of the church’s life and faith, but rather it’s about the interpretation of its meaning. The scholars who are promoting this “discovery” about the dearth of crucifixes in the church’s first thousand years argue that what it means is that Christianity’s emphasis on the cross and the saving work that Jesus Christ did on it as our Savior is a late development in the church’s life and faith, and if Christians didn’t need Christ on the cross for their Christianity in the first thousand years, then we certainly don’t need it now. Christianity is too atonement-centered, they say, too focused on the cross.

Three responses…

First, insofar as this “discovery” about crucifixes in the life of the church enlarges our understanding of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ, then hooray!  Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson’s 2012 book The Cross is not Enough (Baker Books) argues – from solidly within the Evangelical camp – that while the cross and what Jesus Christ did on it “for us and our salvation” is absolutely essential and crucial to Christianity, that the cross is not all that Jesus Christ did “for us and our salvation.” In his magisterial Transforming Mission (1991), David Bosch wrote about the six moments in Christ’s saving work: (1) The Incarnation; (2) The Crucifixion; (3) The Resurrection; (4) The Ascension; (5) The Sending of the Holy Spirit; and (6) The Second Coming. But the way I see this “discovery” being popularly used is not for this kind of addition, but rather for a subtraction. Rather than expanding our understanding of, and appreciation for, God’s saving work in Christ to the full scope of the Biblical witness, this “discovery” is being used to try to eliminate the scandal of the cross instead.  I am all for addition.  I am adamantly opposed to subtraction.

Second, even if the “discovery” about the absence of crucifixes in the first thousand years of the church’s life is correct (and I’m not at all convinced that it is), then there needs to be a much closer examination of the reasons why than simply concluding that it was because the death of Christ on the cross was just not all that important to them.  There are no crucifixes at the church I currently serve. In fact, there have been no crucifixes in any of the churches that I have served in my 40 years of ordained ministry.  But the reason why is not because “Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2) is inconsequential to our life and faith!  The reason why has a whole lot more to do with a particular understanding about the prohibition of graven images (Exodus 20: Deuteronomy 5:8-10) that has been popularly and uncritically embraced by Christians of my ilk.  Even if the churches I have served through the years have not had crucifixes, that doesn’t mean that we haven’t sung hymns about the death of Christ on the cross, or read Scriptures about the death of Christ on the cross, or preached sermons about the death of Christ on the cross, or observed sacraments monumental of the death of Christ on the cross.  And that brings me to my third observation.

I remember sitting in the sanctuary of one of our churches (a Disciples of Christ congregation) listening to one of the theologians of this “discovery” (a Disciples of Christ scholar) make her case for a de-emphasis of the violent death of Christ on the cross while standing in the pulpit of an “Akron Style” sanctuary with the pulpit in the center of a raised platform directly above the Lord’s Table.  And I was struck by the incongruity of the words she was speaking with the fact that on that Lord’s Table there was bread which would soon be broken in that very gathering in remembrance of Christ’s body broken for us on Calvary’s cross, and a cup which would soon be poured in remembrance of Christ’s blood poured out for us on Calvary’s Cross.

We have not needed, nor have we ever used crucifixes as a church to keep the saving work of God in Jesus Christ at the center of our attention, reflection, and devotion. It has been the three “Gospel Ordinances” of Baptism by immersion, the Lord’s Day, and the Lord’s Supper that have kept us focused on the three facts of the Gospel – the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ – with their single message – God is love. No new “discovery” can shake my complete confidence in and utter dependence on this truth that is Christianity. DBS +

 

 

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God’s “No” & God’s “Yes”

I started Christian College with a guy who was there studying to become a minister just like I was. But after a couple of years he dropped out and disappeared. Years later I found out from a mutual friend that he had become a police officer, and when my friend asked him why, that guy told my friend that he discovered that he didn’t have enough mercy in him to be a minister, but that he did have enough justice in him to go into law enforcement. I’ve thought a lot about these words in my 40 years as a minister, and about the interplay between justice and mercy.

hatMartin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, believed that God only speaks two words to us – the Law and the Gospel. The Law came to Moses by way of Mt. Sinai and it tells us what God wants us to do. The Gospel came through Jesus by way of Mt. Calvary and it tells us what God has done for us. In Christian College I was told that the most important page in my Bible was the one that separates the book of Malachi from the book of Matthew, the Old Testament from the New Testament.  Drawing the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is more complicated than this, but generally speaking, this is where it starts. “The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came though Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

noThe Law usually gets heard by us as a “no.” Growing up I prayed a prayer of confession when I was in church that said – “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and there is no health in us.” The Law is God’s moral instructions to us, and so it was the Law that made clear to us what we had done and left done for which we needed to be sorry.  As Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, the Law takes our moral measure and shows us just exactly where and how we come up short (Romans 3:19-23).

I hear this “no” most clearly in the Bible’s “woes.” A “woe” is the exact opposite of a blessing.  In fact, in Luke’s account of the Sermon on the Mount (6:20-26), after four Beatitudes, after four “blessed are you if…,” we are given four corresponding “woes,” four “woe to you if….”   A “woe” is a prophetic word of judgment.  It’s not a word that gets spoken lightly.  It’s a word that only gets spoken with great seriousness and sadness. A “woe” is a very clear, and a very emphatic – “don’t do this!”  And it begs a question, at least in my mind – “When do we say this about anything?”

Racism certainly demands a clear and emphatic woe. So does the random slaughter of our children in school, as does sexual abuse in the workplace, or anyplace for that matter.  The book The Death of Outrage was published some 20 years ago. In it the author wondered about why more people weren’t more alarmed by the moral decline of our society.  And at least part of the answer he offered was “relativism,” the idea that nobody is really evil, and that nothing is finally wrong, because we don’t really have a sure way of knowing what’s good and bad.

The Bible disagrees, in fact, this viewpoint even gets a “woe.” Isaiah 5:20 says – “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter.” The whole point of the Law is moral clarity, knowing what’s right and wrong. “You have no right to say that Hitler was wrong,” a teacher reports hearing from a student in her class during a discussion, “because he thought he was right.” That’s relativism, and it’s outrageous because Hitler was wrong, and so is racism, and gun violence, and sexual predation. How do I know? Well, the Law tells me so.

The Law is God’s “no” to anything and everything that’s contrary to God’s good intentions for creation, to anything and everything that diminishes our dignity as bearers of God’s image, to anything and everything that threatens our well-being or that interferes with our flourishing as human beings. God says “no,” and we should not be reluctant to repeat it. But we shouldn’t just stop with the “no” either.

yesGod says “no.” But “no” is not the only word that God says, nor is it that last word that God says. God also says “yes.” In fact, the “no” of God’s Law is a preparation for the “yes” of God’s second word to us – the Gospel. Rather than being opposed to each other, the “no” of God’s Law and the “yes” of God’s Gospel actually “require” each other. It’s the “no” of the Law that actually opens our hearts to receive the “yes” of the Gospel.

cookJerry Cook, the pastor of a church in Portland, Oregon, for many years, was soundly criticized by a number of his ministerial colleagues in that city for welcoming into worship one Sunday morning a high profile minister he knew from the community who had left his wife for another woman, and who had lost his ministry and reputation as the result. That man called Jerry to ask if he could come to church. It seems that he had gone to other churches and had been asked from the pulpit to leave. Some pastors had actually called him and told him that he would not be welcome at their churches. And so this man called Jerry to ask if he, his new wife, and their little baby could slip into church after the service started, sit quietly on the back row, and then leave during the closing hymn without drawing any attention to themselves? Jerry told him to come and that he would be at the front door to greet them. And when he came, and Jerry was there to welcome him, this man grabbed Jerry, and buried his head into Jerry’s shoulder. Weeping like a baby, he held onto Jerry like a drowning man. “Jerry,” he asked, “can you love us? I’ve spent my whole life loving broken sinful people, and right now I really need someone to love us.”

People who have heard the “no” of the Law need to hear the “yes” of the Gospel. Their hearts are ready for it. In fact, they’re desperate for it. Its love, acceptance, and forgiveness, not hatred, rejection, and condemnation that change people. This is why Jerry made a “minimal guarantee” to anyone who showed up at his church –

First, we are going to love you – always, under every circumstance, without exception.   Second, we are going to accept you, totally, without reservation. And third, no matter how miserably you fail, or how blatantly you sin, unreserved forgiveness is yours for the asking with no bitter taste left in anyone’s mouth. (11)

God speaks two words to us. It’s not just one or the other – a “no” or a “yes” – the Law or the Gospel.  It’s both – it’s both “no” and “yes” – it’s both Law and Gospel.  And as hard as it is for us to do, we’ve got to hang onto both of these words. The “no” of the Law is not harsh and unyielding, God’s only and final word. Without becoming sentimental, or being indifferent to the wrong done by us, or to us, God’s “compassion grows warm and tender.” In the “yes” of the Gospel God’s mercy prevails. As the old Gospel hymn put it so well –

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.

Understand this, and you will know what it means to be forgiven. Understand this and you will find in your own heart, and discover in your own experience the tools that are necessary for you to be forgiving.  DBS+

 

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“Are you saved?”

edwardsI can still remember reading Jonathan Edward’s (1703 – 1758) sermon – “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” – in an American literature anthology when I was in high school, and being absolutely horrified by it.

“The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you… God’s wrath towards you burns like fire; God looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire…”

 When I was in the 11th grade, I didn’t think that I was nearly as bad a person as that sermon said I was, and I didn’t think that God was nearly as mean and awful as that sermon made Him out to be.  And if this is what I, someone who actually believed in God and regularly went to church thought about what Jonathan Edwards said in his sermon, then, I wondered, what would an unchurched unbeliever think? I’ve since found it.  If getting “saved” involves the view of God and self that Jonathan Edwards described in his sermon, then they’re just not having it.  But what if getting “saved” doesn’t involve Jonathan Edward’s view of God or self at all?

Back in the day, when students at Yale University would tell Dr. George Buttrick (1892 – 1980), Dean of the Chapel, that they weren’t coming to his services “because they didn’t believe in God anymore,” his standard response was always to say -“Tell me more about this God you don’t believe in anymore because I probably don’t believe in that God either!” And this makes me think that before rejecting “saved” talk because of the spiritual offense of what Jonathan Edwards famously did with it, maybe it should first be wrenched from his grip so that we might look at it from another vantage point.

The New Testament word for “saved” means to be “rescued,” “delivered,” “kept from harm.” It was a word that assumed that there was something or someone powerful out there that’s threatening people; someone or something that’s trying really hard to destroy them.  And the New Testament word for “Savior” was the title given in the ancient world to anyone who was able to keep people from that something or someone actually harming them.  Generals who won great military victories were called “saviors” in the ancient world.  So were ship captains who navigated terrible storms and brought their passengers and cargo safely to port, as were wealthy benefactors who rebuilt cites after natural disasters, as were rulers who brought stability and prosperity to their states.  We do the same thing.  A “Savior” is someone who “saves” people from something horrible that’s happening to them.

When he was just a little boy the preacher David Pratte says that he and some of his neighborhood friends built some rickety rafts to float down the drainage ditch in front of their homes after a big storm (https://www.gospelway.com).  A neighbor warned them that the ditch was deep, that the current was fast, and that the water was muddy. “It’s dangerous boys” he told them. “You could drown if you fall in,” and David almost did.

raftWhen his raft predictably capsized, David struggled to get to the shore, but he couldn’t get a good grip on the slippery bank and he kept being pulled away and under by the swift current. When he finally slipped exhausted beneath the dark water for what he thought was the last time, that neighbor heard the commotion from his house, ran just as fast as he could to the ditch and jumped in fully clothed.  He couldn’t see where David was in the muddy swirling water, but he just happened to kick him when he jumped in, and so he was able to reach down and pull David up and out to safety. You saved my life,” David kept repeating to that man that day, “you saved my life.” And to this day David will tell you that he thinks of that man as his “savior,” and the story that the Bible tells us is the story of how God does this for us as human beings.  He jumps into our lives, and into our world, to pull us out of the trouble we’re in.

The Gospel is not as complicated as we sometimes make it out to be. We’re made for fellowship with God, but that intimacy got shattered when we chose to cut God out of our lives, and then everything else in our world began spinning out of control because God was no longer at its center holding everything in good balance and proper orbit.  Seeing the damage we’d done, and understanding the trouble we were in, God began the slow and deliberate process of making His way back into our lives.

Now, when we talk about getting “saved,” I believe that what we’re talking about is God doing this hard work of fixing what’s broken, of repairing what’s gone awry, of restoring us to a right relationship with Himself.  Some Christians, like Jonathan Edwards, when talking about salvation put the emphasis on the negative impact that all of the bad things we do have on God.  What we do wrong makes God mad, and so getting “saved” means escaping His punishment. But there are other Christians who, when talking about salvation, put the emphasis instead on the negative impact that all of the bad things we do have on us.  It makes God sad to see the way we struggle and suffer, and so getting “saved” means that God steps in to help make things better.

LouiseI like to read mysteries, and one of my favorite series are the books that the Canadian author Louise Penney writes about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the provincial police force of Quebec, and the quirky little village where he lives with his wife and friends – Three Pines. Armand Gamache is one of the wisest literary characters that I have the pleasure of knowing, and he is forever saying that there are four sentences that we all need to learn how to say as human beings — “I don’t know.” “I need help.” “I’m sorry.”  And “I was wrong.” It’s gotten so that now when people ask me why I think they need to be “saved,” I think in Inspector Gamache’s terms –

  • People need to be “saved” because we need help. As the folks in recovery know all too well – we are powerless over so many things, and our lives are unmanageable in so many ways, and only a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity and stability. Unlike Jonathan Edwards, my emphasis when thinking and talking about salvation is not that we’re bad and that God is mad, but that we’re in trouble and need God’s help.
  • We also need “saving” because there’s just so much that we don’t know. We don’t really know who we are, or what it is that we finally want. And we aren’t really sure about who God is, or what it is that He finally wants. Thus is why the book of Proverbs begins with the declaration that “reverence for God is the beginning of knowledge” (1:7). Jesus meant the same thing when He said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and then everything else in your life will start to sort out for you” (Matthew 6:33). When the fact of God’s existence and the truth God’s being gets fully reestablished in our lives, then we have a firm place to stand, and a sure foundation from which operate.
  • And finally, we need “saving” because we’re frequently wrong and we’re often sorry. I know I’m guilty about some of the things that I’ve done in my life, and I’m deeply ashamed of the kind of person that I know I can be at times. You may have seen that bumper sticker that says – “I want to be the person my dog thinks I am.” Well, I’ve got cats and I’m not sure that they even give me a thought except when they want to be fed. So, for me, it’s different.   I want to be the kind of person that I know God created me to be, that Jesus Christ has made possible for me to become again by dying and rising for me, and that the Holy Spirit is right now empowering me – bit by bit and day by day – to actually become.

When I hear the word “salvation” these days, I don’t primarily think about a God who needs to be appeased because He’s mad at us for being sinners, but rather, I think about a God who’s steadily, relentlessly making His way towards us, at great personal cost to Himself, because He knows we’re in trouble, in desperate need to help, and He loves us.

Practically speaking, believing this has some very real consequences for me –

  • First of all, I know that every single person I meet every day, all day, is in some kind of trouble. The fact is, we all need “saving.” As Dr. Charles Kemp, my professor of Pastoral Care at Brite Divinity School 40 years ago constantly told us – “Always be gentle and kind to people because everyone is carrying a heavy burden of some sort.”
  • And second, I know that every single person I meet is someone for whom Christ died (I Corinthians 8:11). Jesus Christ is the way God makes His approach to us in our need, and it’s what Jesus Christ did for us on the cross and then by getting up out of that borrowed tomb that is how God deals with all of those forces in our lives and this world that seek to work us woe. Jesus Christ is how God jumps into the deep, dark, swirling waters that are pulling us under to pull us up and out.

It was hard for me to see the face, and heart, of the God I knew in Jesus Christ in the things that Jonathan Edwards said about Him in his famous sermon. But rather than throwing the theological baby out of the homiletical bathwater that he was using, I discovered that there are other, better ways of Biblically thinking and talking about the saving work of God in Jesus Christ than the one Jonathan Edwards chose to develop.

Christianity is a religion of salvation. Jesus Christ is the Savior.  Christians are people who have been saved.  And it matters, it really matters, that we who know this firsthand in our own experience of it by faith to then think and talk about it in ways that emphasize God’s goodness and grace in a world where suffering, struggling people are desperately seeking help and hope. DBS+

 

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“Well Done Thou Good & Faithful Servant” (Part 2)

William Franklin Graham Jr.
(November 7, 1918 – February 21, 2018)

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“I Stand by the Door”
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Billy Graham was an instrumental voice in my own spiritual awakening in 1969 when I was 16 years old. People I know like to criticize Billy Graham for not being more theologically sophisticated. But that’s always seemed to me to be a little bit like criticizing Nolan Ryan for not being a better batter, or Bill Gates for not ever having a song in the Billboard top ten. Nolan Ryan was not paid to hit the ball but to throw strikes, and he was pretty good at that! And we don’t know Bill Gates for his singing abilities but for his technical and entrepreneurial genius, and that genius is pretty impressive! So, to criticize Billy Graham for not writing anything comparable to Karl Barth’s “Church Dogmatics,” or for not teaching at some top tier theological seminary where he might have become a first-rate scholar is to completely miss his gifts and call.

Robert Raines got it exactly right when he wrote in his 1961 book New Life in the Church (Harper & Row) –

When Billy Graham came to New York City for a Crusade (1957), Protestant clergymen came out both for and against him. Reinhold Niebuhr, a top-flight theologian, took what appeared to be a thoroughly negative view of Graham’s coming, “as though the eye were to say to the hand, I have no need of your” (I Corinthians 12:20). But Henry Pitney Van Dusen, the President of Union Theological Seminary where Dr. Niebuhr was a world-famous teacher, said – “There are many, of whom I am one, who are not ashamed to testify that they would probably never have come within the sound of Dr. Niebuhr’s voice or the influence of his mind if they had not first been touched by the message of the earlier Billy [Billy Sunday]. Quite probably five or ten years hence there may appear in the classrooms and churches of Billy Graham’s severest critics not a few who will be glad to give parallel testimony to his role in starting them in that direction.” (42)

Sam Shoemaker, another evangelist of the last generation, spoke of his ministry in a way that helps me understand and appreciate Billy Graham’s ministry.

I stand by the door. I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out. The door is the most important door in the world – It is the door through which men walk when they find God. There is no use my going way inside and staying there, when so many are still outside and they, as much as I, crave to know where the door is. And all that so many ever find is only the wall where the door ought to be. They creep along the wall like blind men, with outstretched, groping hands, feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door, yet they never find it. So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world is for men to find that door – the door to God. The most important thing that any man can do is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands and put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks and opens to the man’s own touch. Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die on cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter. Die for want of what is within their grasp. They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it. Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it, and open it, and walk in, and find Him. So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in – Go way down into the cavernous cellars, and way up into the spacious attics. It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is. Go into the deepest of hidden casements, of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood. Some must inhabit those inner rooms and know the depths and heights of God, and call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is. Sometimes I take a deeper look in. Sometimes venture in a little farther, but my place seems closer to the opening. So I stand by the door.

…I admire the people who go way in. But I wish they would not forget how it was before they got in. Then they would be able to help the people who have not yet even found the door… As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place, near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there, but not so far from men as not to hear them, and remember they are there too. Where? Outside the door – Thousands of them. Millions of them. But – more important for me – One of them, two of them, ten of them. Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch. So I shall stand by the door and wait for those who seek it. “I would rather be a door-keeper” (Psalm 84:10) – So I stand by the door.

Billy stood by the door to show people where and how to get in, and as one who was ushered by him into a deeper understanding and a fuller experience of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, I am so grateful that he was there. DBS+

 

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“Thoughts & Prayers” and “Pastoral Malpratice”, Part 2

thoughts

Part 2

More than just some pious drivel, I find that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves me in two crucial conversations. The first one is the conversation that is Scripture itself.

What we have in the Bible are a series of serious conversations about scared subjects. The Hebrew Scriptures, or “First” Testament, are in a serious conversation with the Christian Scriptures, or “Later” Testament, about what God is doing. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke are in a serious conversation with the Gospel of Mark about what Jesus did, and what it means, and the Gospel of John jumps in later to have an important conversation with the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke about who Jesus is, and why He matters. Paul is in a conversation with James about the meaning of saving faith. Peter and Jude are in a conversation with each other about what faithfulness looks like in oppositional times. And the Book of Revelation is in an important conversation with all of the other books in the Christian collection about how God in Jesus Christ is finally going to complete His work of salvation begun in the Incarnation 2,000 years ago.

A real commitment to “thoughts & prayers” is a commitment to eavesdropping on the conversations that are already going on in the Bible on any given subject long enough to get a good sense of what’s at stake from God’s point of view, and to understand what faithful alternatives are actually open to us. The New Testament scholar Richard Hayes says that the first two steps that are involved in this process of taking the Bible seriously are – first, to read the texts carefully (a “descriptive” task) and, second, to look for the coherence that exists between them (a “synthetic” task). The first task is making sure that you have all of the relevant pieces of the puzzle that you are working on, and the second task is trying to figure out how they all fit together. The fact of the matter is that we all tend to proof text our preconceived positions when we open our Bibles. We know what we already think, and so we selectively go to the Bible looking for those verses that support it while discounting any verses that we might come across that don’t. The approach that Richard Hayes describes as “faithful” begins instead with a gathering of all of the relevant texts rightly understood in their proper literary, historical, and theological contexts.

For instance, in the Bible’s conversation about social violence, someone following Dr. Hayes’ approach is going to have to bring the sixth commandment about not killing (Exodus 20:13) into conversation with the Noahide commandment (“Noahidism” is a monotheistic ideology within Rabbinic Judaism that says that non-Jews are not obligated to convert to Judaism, but that they are required to observe the Seven Laws of Noah) to kill those who kill (Genesis 9:6). The Prophet Joel’s instruction to “beat your plowshares into swords” (3:10) is going to have to be put into conversation with the Prophet Isaiah’s instruction to “beat your swords into plowshares” (2:4). Jesus’ instruction to His disciples to put away their swords (Matthew 26:52) is going to have to be brought into conversation with His instruction to buy swords (Luke 22:36). And the angel’s announcement at His birth that Jesus is the bringer of peace (Luke 2:14) is going to have to be brought into conversation with Jesus’ own protest that He came “not to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). And this just scratches the surface.

The first crucial conversation that a commitment to “thoughts & prayers” involves us in as Christians is the one that Scripture has within itself – one text arguing with another text; one idea grappling with another idea; one truth challenging another truth. Every significant thing that the Bible teaches involves us in just this sort of complicated thinking – God is three and one; Jesus is fully God and fully human; the Kingdom has already come and is not yet here; we are saved by faith without works, but faith without works is dead; God is sovereign and we are free; the Bible is the Word of God and a thoroughly human word. It’s only as we wrestle with the Bible’s “furious opposites” that we begin to gain the mind of Christ, and start to think God’s thoughts after Him. But this doesn’t happen without being in conversation with God, and so tomorrow we’ll look at praying… DBS +

 

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