Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Pavlov's Dogs

And I tell 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 the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.  What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
(Luke 11:9-13 ESV)

Every morning at about 6:45 our dachshund “Hoover” (the 31st US President) extracts himself from our bed and stands on my back for a moment, a signal it is time to get up.  I oblige him, because to do otherwise would be futile.  After I get my bearings, I open the bedroom door.  Hoover always barks exactly twice at the top of the stairs.  It is a signal to the other dog, a lab-shepherd mix named “Truman” (yes, the 33rd US President) that he is on his way. 

Hoover gleefully throws himself down the stairs (ever watch a dachshund descend a flight of stairs?  Toy Story had it right – think Slinky), and runs to the downstairs bathroom door (where Truman sleeps), and barks his fool head off.   Truman is 11 ½.  He’s long past the age where “morning” is all that exciting.  Hoover continues to bark and dance until I go into the garage and get their food.  Truman joins in once the food dish is in sight and does a Michael Jackson moon walk backing himself into the bathroom once more awaiting the coveted brown nuggets.  Can kibble really be that much of a thrill? 

Bizarre behavior, you say?  You can observe this same behavior any Sunday you like at 10 am.  That’s when most of us who are part of a church get dressed up (crawling out from under the covers), sing a few hymns or worship songs (bark at the top of the stairs), do a dance (stand, sit, stand, sit), and hold out our hand looking mostly for kibble from God. 

When Jesus tells us we can ask and seek and knock, our attention immediately goes to physical concerns.  Most of our prayers in church have to do with the sick, the elderly, the infirm, and the poor.  Jesus cuts right to the point: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?”  Imagine if, instead of kibble one morning, I brought out rotted vegetables from our compost bin?   Okay.  Bad analogy.  Hoover and Truman would gladly eat those.

To butcher an old analogy, God could give you a fish and you’d be happy.  But his concern is much more in teaching you how to fish for men.   Why ask for a handout from God when you could have his very heart?  The best gift God can give you is his Holy Spirit.  When he gives you his Spirit in abundance, he empowers you to do the things his Spirit leads you into.  You are no longer a beggar, living in crisis from handout to handout.  You become an heir with a vision and a plan. 

Is God concerned with healing the sick?  Sure!  But before you spend a lot of time in church praying he would heal the sick, review: have YOU gone out in the power of the Holy Spirit and been with the sick?  Is God concerned with the plight of the elderly and infirm?  Sure!  But before you spend a lot of time in church asking him to take care of them, review: have YOU gone out in the power of the Holy Spirit and been with the infirm and the elderly?  Is God concerned with the poor?  Sure!  But before you spend a lot of time in church praying he would take care of the poor, review: have YOU gone out in the power of the Holy Spirit and been with the poor?  We do much more for others by asking God for his Holy Spirit in abundance to empower us for ministry than we ever could by merely asking for a handout for them from God.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:31, “earnestly desire the higher gifts.”


Sunday, May 29, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Voices of the Resurrection: Paul, the Voice of Reason

Lord’s Day Message
Immanuel Community Church, Concord, NH
Voices of the Resurrection: Paul – the Voice of Reason

From the dawn of time until the days of the Enlightenment, not just western man, but every person was taught to understand his own existence and meaning as being derived from the existence of a god or gods outside himself.  Every culture understood that all that happened was because of the gods.  As the ancient Hebrews understood it, our purpose as created beings was to worship and serve the Creator.  From the dawn of time until the days of the Enlightenment, the statement that gave man the greatest sense of dignity and purpose was God saying, “I am.”

Beginning in the early 1600s, as the Renaissance in Western Culture began to emerge from the Dark Ages, a group of philosophers, led by Rene Descartes, changed all of that.  Man’s reference point for meaning and being suddenly switched from God to man himself.  For the first time it was said that it was possible for man to know truth apart from the revelation of God.  If man in his ability to reason could discover truth and create beauty without God acting first, then meaning was possible apart from God.  For the first time in history, the self could give meaning without the action of God.  From the days of the Enlightenment until sometime in the early 20th century, the statement through which man understood meaning and derived purpose was Man saying, “I am.”

But the age of the machine changed all of that again.  The shift really started in the early days of the Industrial Revolution, as people became more and more necessary to the running of the machines that made modern cities possible.  The real avalanche that changed the statement of purpose once more came with the invention of the first interchangeable part.  Now the machine could be mass-produced, and all machines of the same type could be used to replace the parts of other machines of that type.  The idea of spare parts did a lot to change how man saw the universe around him.  Now God was no longer saying, “I am.”  Nor was Man saying “I am.” 

The statement had been reduced to “It is.” and Man’s search for meaning – a meaning that had now been lost to him as he was absorbed into the machine – began.    Francis Schaeffer, the mid-20th century Christian philosopher wrote, “If man is determined, then what is, is right. If all of life is only mechanism -- if that is all there is -- then morals really do not count. Morals become only a word for a sociological framework. Morals become a means of manipulation by society in the midst of the machine.”

How do you explain to a person who believes they are, at best, part of a vast meaningless machine, that they have meaning that has been given to them by a Creator who loved them into being and who defended that meaning with his very life and who sustains that meaning by his continued intimate involvement in every moment of their affairs? 

The Apostle Paul gives us a pattern for what happens when a person leaves his or her own comfort zone and enters the world and context of another and does the hard work necessary to speak meaningfully the narrative about Christ into the other person’s situation.

When you think about it, Paul was the perfect person to find himself in Athens in the middle of the first century.  He was born in Tarsus, which is in Southern Turkey today.  In the last century before Christ’s birth, Tarsus was a prominent city in the Roman Empire, and was also the birthplace Mark Antony.  Paul was brought up in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city, a real melting pot of its time.  He was an ethnic Jew and studied under one of the great rabbis of the time, Rabbi Gamaliel.  He was also a citizen of Rome, not an easy thing to acquire for a Jew of that period.  If he were alive today we would think of him as a World Person – comfortable in many cultural contexts.

However, by the time Paul went to Athens he had been converted to Christianity and his reputation on the World stage was greatly changed.  I don’t know if you remember the period when folk singer Bob Dylan announced to the world that he had become a Christian or when Chuck Colson, special counsel to President Nixon converted, but in both cases their whole public perception was altered in a major paradigm shift. 

But an altered reputation doesn’t change a person’s talents, gifts, and abilities.  Dylan was still a powerful musical interpreter of his generation, and Colson still had a penetrating legal mind.  Paul had learned philosophy and rhetoric, and so came to Athens ready to use logic and reason on his audience.

The text of Acts 17 begins by saying that while Paul was waiting at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.   He became internally upset, not because Athens was cosmopolitan.  It had been that way when he was a young man and had undoubtedly traveled through Athens doing business for Rome.  What had changed wasn’t Athens.  What had changed was Paul’s perception of Athens.  Now, when he returned to this great city of philosophy, literature, art, and culture, instead of seeing a great and glorious city, Paul was made uneasy and really sick at heart because for the first time he realized the full extent of the idolatry built into the pantheon of gods. 

Some people get provoked and become violent.  Other people get provoked and start a political campaign.  When Paul got provoked, he argued.  Remember, this man wasn’t a natural preacher.  We don’t have a lengthy sermon by him, such as we do with Peter or Stephen.  What we have is a series of letters in which he argues logically and forcefully for Christ.  We also have his remarks before the Areopegus, the court of public opinion, the Lyceum of Athens where great ideas were discussed and judged.  The Areopegus that met at the Rock of Ares, what we know today as Mars Hill.

Paul used his powers of reason and rhetoric contextually.  He argued in the synagogue in Athens, speaking to his fellow Jews about Jesus.  He also argued in the marketplace where he spoke to non-Jews about the same Jesus.   That’s where he ran into trouble with two groups, the Epicureans and the Stoics.  The Epicureans taught a kind of material determinism in which all of the bodily pleasures are shunned in order to achieve ordered happiness, the idea of taking the highest material pleasures in life in small quantity so as not to lose the specialness of them or desire them too greatly.

The Stoics, on the other hand, taught self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions; the philosophy holds that becoming a clear and unbiased thinker allows one to understand the universal reason.  The one taught the shunning of the body, the other taught the shunning of emotion as a way of bringing yourself into harmony with the gods.

Paul’s presentation of salvation through Christ alone so completely angered these two groups that they immediately packed him off to the Areopegus.  For once the Epicureans and the Stoics found themselves on the same side.  They called him a babbler to his face, and they were going to tear his logic apart limb from limb.  They were going to make a laughing stock of this man Paul in front of the faculty of Harvard, as it were, in the Areopegus on Mars Hill.  And Paul, with no particular preparation, put the message of Christ in the context of their culture.

While the mob had swept him along the streets up to Mars Hill, Paul had kept his wits about him and noticed among the statues that lined the broad carefully laid out street; among all the statues to all of the Greek Pantheon Paul noticed a single statue with the inscription, “To an Unknown God.”  There it was.  There was his connection to these people.  This was how Paul would place Christ squarely in the context of Athenian culture.”

Paul doesn’t need to make a long sermon.  In just 18 verses he shows how Christ is the answer to all of their questions.  The Epicureans and the Stoics were saying that philosophy, and not religion was the way to harmony with the I Am of the universe.  The Jews Paul had been speaking to in the synagogue were saying the complete opposite.  Paul brings Jesus to both places.  Jesus is the answer to religion and culture.   

Paul begins in verse 22 by saying, “I see that in every way you people are religious.”  Jesus is the answer to philosophy.  The people of Athens were willing to listen to Paul instead of just throwing him out of town on a rail because he had rightly understood that their popular culture.  He was in no danger of being brought up on charges because his teaching about the Resurrection was new and different and these people were all about what was fashionable and provocative.  Jesus is the answer to popular culture. 

When they reached the Areopegus Paul connected the dots.  Standing before him were the great secularists of his century, and here he was standing in one of the premiere venues for philosophical discourse.   He begins his argument by explaining the relationship between the unknown god they claim to worship and the God of the Universe.  He doesn’t say, “By the way, your religion is a fraud, you should try mine.”  With great respect to the history of Athens, with great respect to the politics of Athens, with great respect to the thinkers of Athens, Paul says,  “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”  He is filling in the missing pieces by way of revelation.  Instead of blowing them out of the water, Paul is getting into their boat with them and rowing an extra mile.   Jesus is the answer to the unknown. 

Having established that their unknown God is actually the Creator of the Universe, Paul pulls together science and religion: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything.”  What Paul is saying here is as huge to the Athenians as Einstein neatly explaining in four letters the structure of space-time when he published his paper "On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies," in 1905.  E=MC2.  It is elegant.  It is brief.  It is a global statement.  Jesus is the answer to questions about the Universe and the Natural World. 

 Completely without apology, Paul introduces what was to them a thoroughly new concept.  Their mythology explained how the Greeks were made, how Athens was established.  But even the Greeks knew that the Romans had their gods and the Egyptians had theirs.   The unknown God gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.  He never says, “and your pantheon is a mere myth.”  He never says, “you’ve been lied to.”  He never says, “the only hope for your culture is to become like my culture.”  These are the things the church has been saying to popular culture ever since the Renaissance.  The great failure of Protestantism is that it forgot the lesson learned by the Irish missionaries who changed the culture of the Celts by living among them and letting them see that Jesus is not just my answer.  Jesus is the answer. 

“God gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”  You see these statues to Ares and Hermes, to Athena and to Dionysus?  These statues would not exist if it weren’t for Jesus.”  In Colossians 1:17 Paul writes, “he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  He is merely echoing what Jesus himself said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  Paul offers no lengthy philosophical defense of what he is saying.  He knows these are not things you can argue someone into believing.  He simply states what he knows to be true.  Jesus is the answer for all mankind.     

This is not a message for Rome or for Athens or for Jerusalem only.  This God “made from one man (Adam) every nation of mankind.”  There is nothing unique or particularly more godly about the American Republican form of democracy.  God, Paul says, has “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of the dwelling places of all nations,” for the purpose “that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward him and find him.”   God has a purpose in all nationhood.  And Jesus is the answer to global politics. 

Now, with great respect, never once saying anything to suggest that he believed how they arrived at this point in their history was wrong, Paul draws his whole argument together for the people standing in front of him.  “You know, he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, “‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”  He hasn’t given them a couple of quotes from a Bible they have no regard for.  He has just quoted the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, and the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus.  Jesus is the answer to poetry. 

“We ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man.”  Jesus is the answer to art. 

Finally, after all of this, Paul makes a simple presentation of who Jesus is, what he has done, and what people may do to know this Jesus for themselves.  “God commands,” Paul says, “all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”  Jesus is the answer for you and for me and for all who hear. 

Jesus is the answer. 

Jesus is the answer.

On the Day of Pentecost, in Jerusalem, 3000 people came to Christ because of Peter’s preaching.  It was an absolute avalanche of evangelistic fruit.  That’s not the way it went down for Paul in Athens.  There it was more like what you’d expect if you gathered a group on the streets of Concord, or Boston, or New York, and met their culture in respectful, positive, logical terms, with Jesus.  Some, the text says, mocked. Others, true to their contemporary Athenian culture said, “We will hear you again about this.” Paul was fashionable to them.  And after all the hoopla was over, quietly,  “some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” 

In Christ you have the answer to religion, and to popular culture.  In Christ you have the answer to the unknown, to science, and the universe.  In Christ you have the answer for all mankind, for poetry, and for art.  In Christ you have the message that all may repent, though not all will. 

Look around you at the context of daily life and learn to place Jesus in context for people.  They will most likely won’t invite you to speak at Harvard, though occasionally a Christian voice does.  But if you bring Christ to them instead of expecting them to come to the Church and find Christ here, you will find yourself invited into their homes, their workplaces, their schools, their parks.  You will find yourself invited into their lives.  And you will find there that Jesus fits, without any stretch or imagination required.  He fits their art, their poetry, their politics, their philosophy and their science.  He fits, because Jesus is the answer.


Friday, May 27, 2011

The Morning Watch: Just a Touch

            As Jesus went, the people pressed around him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased. And Jesus said, “Who was it that touched me?” When all denied it, Peter said, “Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!” But Jesus said, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me.” And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”
(Luke 8:42-48 ESV)

People will sometimes do things out of desperation they would never do under normal circumstances.  The woman in the story had run out of resources and was in a terrible jam.  Her “discharge of blood” had made her ceremonially unclean for the past twelve years.  That is to say, she was not welcome in church.  And if she was not welcome in church, that meant she was unacceptable to God in her present condition.  And if she was unacceptable to God, she was also unacceptable to anyone else.  She was a social outcast because of a medical condition she could do nothing about.

The fact that people were pressing in on Jesus meant that those nearest him were definitely in contact with his clothes.  What the woman does is to merely touch the fringe of his tallit.  The tallit is a Jewish prayer shawl normally made of wool and has special twined and knotted fringes (tzitziot) attached to each of its four corners. The tallit is thus sometimes called the arba kanfot, "four corners."  So what the woman did was quite specific.  Because the shawl is used in morning prayer by Jewish men, she figured that even though her prayers were unacceptable to God, perhaps she could “steal a prayer” by touching the prayer fringe on Jesus’ shawl.  Because of how the shawl hangs on the shoulders of the man wearing it, my guess is that she reached out and touched one of the two that hang toward the rear of the garment, probably squeezing her hand through between two other people to complete her plan.

The connection that was made was not because someone touched Jesus’ body.  What isn’t readily evident is that the woman was touching Jesus’ prayers.  By implication, the fact that Jesus was aware that someone had “touched him” means that the power of prayer had been released, and he, being God, recognized it when it happened.

When the woman came forward she was trembling for two reasons.  The first was very practical.  She was an outcast, and didn’t want anyone in the crowd to know it.  If she was “found out” she’d be cast out or worse.  She was also probably trembling because she realized that the power of prayer had been unleashed, and the fact that her preposterous plan had actually worked had some pretty huge implications in terms of who she might be dealing with in Jesus.

He calls her “daughter.”  She has stolen nothing.  She believed Jesus to be the source of healing and also the source of her connection to God. 

Have you been stealing prayers from God?  Do you come up sheepishly behind him and touch the fringe of his shawl in hope that he will grant your request without you having to actually talk with him face to face?  What are you afraid of?  Don’t come as a beggar when you are an heir!  Don’t approach God as a pariah if you know he is your parent! 

Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?  Do you believe he has saved you for all time and in all ways?  Then you are already healed.  Your faith has made you well. Approach him boldly as the child he has already declared you to be. He calls you clean.  Why live as if he will strike you?  It is time to stop touching the fringe of his garment when you could be in his full embrace.   Those are strong arms, and he has a joyful and loving heart.

Your faith has made you well; go in peace.


Thursday, May 26, 2011

What Really Matters

            As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
            One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
            Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,
            “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
                        and every tongue shall confess to God.”
            So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.
(Romans 14:1-12 ESV)

Paul spends a good deal of time, in his letter to the Romans and also in 1 Corinthians and Colossians talking about eating (or abstaining) as a sign of the relative maturity of a person’s faith.  In this passage, the mark of maturity is the freedom to eat anything. 

The problem seems to stem from the pagan practice of sacrificing animals to one of their gods in a ritual and then packaging the meat for sale in the marketplace and labeling it “100% Certified Artemis Beef,” as if that made it better somehow.  I have seen such beef down at our local Hannaford’s, except that beef was apparently sacrificed to the god Angus.  He must be a Celtic god.

Something else to consider about the eating of meat is that Paul isn’t talking about vegetarianism here, as if at some point in his life Paul had been to San Francisco.  His admonition is only valid in the context of the community of faith.  The early believers, Acts tells us, “[daily attended] the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:46-47 ESV)  

They weren’t going to worship at the Temple and then inviting their friends from church over for lunch.  Remember that the Temple and the synagogues of the 1st century did not celebrate the Lord’s Supper.   From the very beginning, it was the practice of these first Christians to celebrate the Eucharist every time they met for worship.  They overcame the problem by worshipping at Temple (or Synagogue) and then moving on to nearby homes for Eucharist and other food and fellowship.  They gave thanks (eucharistica) and received grace (charis).  The two words have the same root with good reason.  That was fine when the church was restricted to Jerusalem and the surrounding area.  Only kosher was on the table.  But once the church began to spread to other parts of the empire, they were going to have to deal with the question of demon beef.  Up in the churches of Asia minor and Greece, when the house churches reclined at table to celebrate the Lord’s supper, there, sitting on the table next to the cup and the bread was… 100% certified Artemis Beef. 

“Publius, where did you get your meat from?”

“From the market at the Temple of Artemis, Eusebius”

“Well, Publius, the Holy Spirit tells me it isn’t right to eat meat sacrificed to an idol.”

“But Eusebius, it is just meat!”

“That may be, Publius, I have knowledge from God, and (looking disapprovingly over his spectacles) I don’t believe it would be right for a Christian to eat this meat.”

“Well, Eusebius, (chuckling sardonically) you go right ahead.  There are some nice veggie side dishes you can probably pick at.   I’M not letting this good meat go to waste.  Remember, there are children starving in Antioch.”

That’s pretty much how it was going.  

The situation presented twin problems.  First and foremost, it was causing major divisions in these new church plants at a time when they could ill-afford to be divided.  Satan is pretty much of a concrete sequential in his thinking, the deeper things of heart and soul are hard for him to grasp.  That’s why you’ll hardly ever hear of a church that broke up because people were worshipping the Lord together.  But you hear all the time about churches splitting over whether to use powerpoint or where the small groups should meet or what color to paint the downstairs bathroom.  Which is easier, to rip brothers and sisters apart over their devotion to Jesus or to rip them apart over whether to dunk or sprinkle?  It is easier still to bust up Christian relationships over where to put the Bible in church or over a few gallons of green or blue paint.

Briefly, the other example Paul gives is what we would call today “Feast Days” in the liturgically based churches.  I happen to like acknowledging various special Sundays with the churches I serve.  There’s a huge amount of history they can learn from celebrating Epiphany or Christ the King or even Pentecost.  But watch out!  If you celebrate St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26, by the way), or All Saints (November 1), you’re going to have the Doctrine Police down on you in a lot of Evangelical churches.  Brrrr… smacks of Popery (if that’s even a word).

It is, in fact, the Doctrine Police Paul is speaking to here.  He is quick to remind us of what is being called today the Irreducible Core of the Gospel, ““As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”  And I believe the reference had, by this time become an early creedal statement.  He fleshes it out more fully in Philippians 2:10-11, adding “…confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  But beyond that, Paul is leaving a great deal of latitude for Christian liberty. 

There are things worth fighting over, and Paul (and others) are clear about them, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)  Pretty much everything else has nothing to do with whether you are saved or not.

It seems to me that grace demands that we welcome the weaker brother or sister, the one who believes it is vital that you really understand predestination or tongues, baptism, the end times, hell, plenary inspiration, or even the virgin birth without looking down our spectacles at them because they don’t understand your freedom in Christ.

And to those of you in the other camp – the ones who have some real convictions about doctrinal issues and who have really tested the faith to arrive at those convictions?   It is okay.  I’m really pretty sure you won’t weaken the integrity of the Gospel if you feed the poor, visit prisoners, heal the sick, or offer mercy shoulder to shoulder with a less mature brother or sister who hasn’t developed those convictions yet.  You and they will have a much more effective witness to unbelievers and believers alike when they see it is Jesus you love and not your doctrinal statement about him.  Our greatest concern must be that we introduced people to Jesus.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Obeying the Government

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
(Romans 13:1-7 ESV)

One of the problems with the way most Christians interpret the Scriptures is that we want every statement made in the Bible to cover all situations of that type.   We really do tend to look at the material as if it were the law covering all matters that fall into a particular category.  And that’s where we can get in trouble.

The Bible is not the legal code of an angry divine Emperor who will swat us from here to Kingdom Come if we don’t obey his law.  Parts of the Bible are God’s direct revelation of his nature and character, and parts of it are the stories of God’s people interacting with a holy God as he revealed himself to them.  Still other parts (Romans, for example) are commentary on the direct revelation and/or the stories.   And yes, parts of the Scriptures are a written code which, prior to the fullest revelation of God in Christ, was the best way God had to explain the relationship between him and people.

I am in no way here seeking to weaken the authority of the Word of God.  To be clear: in every single word, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, spoken into the world.  Nothing is there that God didn’t put there, and nothing has been left out that would have shed new light on the character of God if we had access to it.  However, to treat all Scripture the same way, as if it were all direct revelation, is both spiritual and intellectual suicide. 

Way back at the beginning of Romans 12, Paul had said, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

What follows is a discussion on what it looks like to present our bodies as living sacrifices.  He talks about humility, even in the face of persecution.  What transforms us is that in Christ we look at the world we are interacting with differently, not that we have adopted a new law and stuck to it fervently.

If Romans 13:1-7 were intended as a new law, then our marching orders would be clear.  If you live in a utopian society where the authorities are the greatest workers of good who ever lived and who work only your best and the best of every other citizen (ie: if you work for Apple, Inc.), you are to obey the authorities.   If, on the other hand, you live in a modern Sodom, where the leaders are all corrupt, abusive, murderous and evil (ie: if you work for Microsoft), you are compelled to obey the authorities just the same. 

But that isn’t what Paul is saying.  Nor are we to obey every wicked thing a government does.  Our attitude toward government is to be one of peaceable humility; doing good and expecting good in return.  Paul makes the general statement that that is the reason you pay taxes.   However, he most certainly isn’t saying that every tax is just or that the way every government spends the money it raises through taxation is moral or good.  His commentary here is based on Jesus’ own words, “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” 

Paul is setting a pattern for the humble of heart, not a policy to be strictly adhered to.

Now comes the really difficult question.  What do I do when the governing authorities become truly evil?  The answer is the same.  Exercise quiet humility.  Our resistance must be the resistance of reasoned love and not reactionary violence.  I have always loved what Thomas Jefferson said in the Declaration of Independence, “That to secure these rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness), Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” 

Jefferson goes on to say that disgruntled citizens should be very slow in abolishing or changing the governments over them.  The devil you know may indeed be better than the devil you don’t know.  That’s where humility is so important.  That’s where having a non-violent response is absolutely vital.  That’s where, with respect to the governments over us, it is so completely important that our first and only allegiance is to Christ himself.  We must not pledge “our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor” to anyone but him, or we will be truly disappointed in the end.


Monday, May 23, 2011

Having a good time

One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.”
            “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”      
(Luke 7:36-50 ESV)

Quick!  Someone call The National Enquirer. 

This story has two major characters.  Let’s take care of the woman first.  This is no mere prostitute, if in fact that is what her sin was.  But we don’t know that’s what sort of woman she was.  What we do know about her is that she was no mere sinner.  She was the stuff of tabloid journalism.  Everyone knew she was a sinner.  She also must have been wealthy.  She was in possession of an alabaster flask of ointment.  That means she had some ability to purchase such things and own them.

Then there is Simon the Pharisee.  He was well connected, and probably also was fairly well off financially.  His reputation was built on his ability to quote you chapter and verse about how to live right before God.

Whoever they were, it was as if the Mayflower Madame wandered into a dinner party hosted by this fellow who graduated top of his class at Princeton.  Not a single person said, “What is SHE doing here?”  The reason is that her connections and her face were her ticket in. 

Of course, even though she could waltz right into the dinner party, that didn’t stop Simon from judging her a little in his heart.

The thing that is easy to miss about what happens next is that Jesus really isn’t saying anything we don’t already know about either the woman or the Pharisee.  She did love much because she was forgiven much.  And Simon really did love Jesus just a little.  He may not have kissed Jesus’ feet, but he did invite him to a really nifty dinner party (black tie optional). 

The story turns out to be about judging, forgiveness, and having a good time.  Where you place yourself in the story, whether you see yourself more as the host at the party or as the woman, I think you’ll see that everyone was having a good time except Simon.   He spent the whole dinner party caught up in the politics of notoriety.  The woman was having an overwhelming experience of being with Jesus.  Jesus was having a blast.  He was getting a foot massage of the highest quality and experiencing fully the love this woman wanted to shower on him.   I suspect that even the other guests were reveling in the moment.  Not Simon.

I was at a wedding this weekend.  Had an awesome time.  After dinner they had an absolutely phenomenal jazz quintet that played 20s and 30s dance music for a couple of hours.  I brought a chair out and parked it where I’d be able to watch the action.  At one point my son and his wife tried to goad me into finding Jama and getting her to dance with me.  I wasn’t buying.  There was this couple I had been watching who were dressed outlandishly and who were dancing even more outlandishly.  I wasn’t going to make a similar kind of fool out of myself.  I wasn’t going to dance with that sort of person on the floor.

Tim and his wife Alice danced and even took our grandson River for a turn on the floor.  I sat out.  I had a good time, mind you.  But I sat out the dancing and missed a kind of joy I might have experienced.  Late in the evening I walked past the man from the outlandish couple I had been secretly judging all evening.  He put his hand on my arm for one moment and looked at me in complete sincerity and said, “That was a great message you gave at the wedding.  Thank you.”   That’s when I realized I should have danced.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Stephen - The Voice of a Martyr

But [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.  (Acts 7:55-60 ESV)

In the wonderful 1986 Gene Hackman movie, Hoosiers, an unorthodox high school coach upsets small town basketball pride and riles up local leaders when he tries to make a winning team out of eight undisciplined boys.  At the first practice one of the local men tries to show the coach “how things are done here,” and is quickly rebuffed and asked to leave the gym.  Publically embarrassed in front of the team, the man turns to the coach and says, “Mister, there's two kinds of crazy: someone who gets naked, runs out into the forest and barks at the moon, and someone who does the same thing in my living room. The first one I don't care about, the second I'm kind of forced to deal with."

We’ve been listening these past few weeks to the Voices of the Resurrection.  We started with Thomas, the Voice of Lingering Doubt.  Then came Luke, the Voice of Proclamation.  Last week we heard from the 3000 united voices that all came to Christ on the day of Pentecost.  And what a great experience it was that the Lord set up for us a pulpit exchange last Sunday where Randy Thompson and his wife Jill came from Connecticut to share in worship with you all and Jama and I had the opportunity to go and share in worship with their congregation.  The more we understand that there are not many churches but one, the better off all of us will be.

Today we want to listen to what is perhaps the most well documented and yet least often heard voice of the New Testament era, after Jesus own voice.  The narrative concerning Stephen begins at Acts 6:1 and is a sermon some 1750 words long, more than twice the length of Peter’s message on Pentecost.  It takes up two complete chapters.  With the exception of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which may well be more of a compilation of sermonic bits of Jesus’ teaching, rather than an actual sermon, and was certainly recorded long after Jesus’ death, Stephen’s sermon is a complete sermon ostensibly recorded verbatim as it was preached: the longest single preached message we have in the New Testament.

As we are about to discover, Stephen left behind himself what I want to call The Little Way of Christ, because of its similarities to Jesus’ own martyrdom.  He also left behind a pattern for true Christian martyrdom because, after Christ, he is the first person martyred in the church age whose name we know of.

Other than his name and the names of the six other original deacons of the church who were Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, we really don’t know much about Stephen.  He was Jewish by descent, but his name is Greek, and at least one of the other deacons who was chosen with him was from Antioch in Syria, the same place where Luke, the gospel writer and author of Acts came from.  So there is the high probability his family came from Galilee of the Gentiles or even further north, into Syria. 

The seven men were chosen to take care of the needs of a specific group of widows of Hellenistic, that is Greek origin living in Jerusalem. The story of these men helps us understand a little of the pressure that was on these early entrepreneurial believers.  The church was spreading like wild fire in and around Jerusalem, and they had no clear pattern of who should be doing what sort of service. 

The Making of a Martyr
Quickly, let’s back up to Luke 6:1.  If you have your Bible turn there and let’s have a look at what got Stephen in so much trouble. 

The first characteristic of a martyr of the church is that they aspire to nothing.  They don’t jockey for position, or look to get their name known.  They don’t generally go to seminary in order to take an important or well-connected pulpit somewhere.  Contrary to what you might think, they are not generally noted for their preaching ability.  What the martyrs of the church have tended to do is tackle spiritual and social issues, calling either the church or the world or both to account for their pattern of sin, especially with regard to the poor, the needy, and those who have no voice to speak for themselves.  The people who become genuine martyrs, and not self-made martyrs, are people we would not recognize as ambitious.  They, like Stephen, have simply become obedient to the Holy Spirit and in gentle, guileless honesty of heart, go out and offer themselves in service to others. 

The office of Deacon isn’t something you can aspire to, though in many churches in our day, you would think otherwise.  Acts 6:2 says that the council of the Apostles – at that time there were again twelve – approached the rest of those who had been acknowledged by the church as disciples (a number probably in excess of the 120 mentioned in the gospels) and brought the problem to them. 

Note the structure of leadership in the early church.  The council of the Apostles was the central guiding force in these first days after the Ascension.  And beyond them those who were recognized as disciples  -- men and women who had walked with Jesus while he was alive – were working in concert with the Twelve when important decisions had to be made.  If these people were living in 2011, this would probably be equivalent to the Elders of a contemporary church approaching all of the small group leaders in order to get a read on how to proceed.   You will notice that no vote was taken.  I think it was abundantly clear which men they wanted as their first deacons.  They were chosen by general ascent, and then prayed over by the full number of the disciples.  It must have been a very moving, very humbling experience.  So the first mark of a martyr of the church is that they aspire to nothing, but are chosen by everyone.

The second characteristic of true martyrdom is that martyrs are always trained by God and set aside as cups of wine that will be poured out in service to Christ. Let God train you now to be a person filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith.  Again, this takes a heart of quiet humility, rather than an angry fire in the belly to achieve something.  I have no doubt, judging from the text, that it never occurred to Stephen that he would be chosen for the work with the widows. 

Third, martyrs always take on the task God has given them gratefully and joyfully in the Body, no matter what it is.  Generally, martyrs have served in nearly anonymous positions until the moment God calls upon the resource he has given them in the Holy Spirit and the impulse to step forward takes over. 

Stephen could have groused about the assignment he was given.  After all, caring for widows isn’t exactly the most manly job on earth.  They weren’t sending him out to preach, or to teach, or to heal, or to stand against Rome.  They gave him a really simple job: take good care of the little old ladies no one else wanted to take care of.   He didn’t get to be head trustee, or assistantant to the pastor.  He didn’t even get to be on the Elder Board.  

Gentlemen, start your engines! I’ve got a tough job for you.  If you really want to serve God, we’d like you to go around town – for the duration of your ministry – and take food and flowers to widows and sit with them, pray with them, eat with them, love them, and share Christ with them.   Do you remember what a private says to his commanding officer in basic training when they ask him to clean the toilet with a toothbrush?  He snaps to attention with a smile on his face and says, “Just happy to be here, sir.”

I have a friend named Chris back in Connecticut.  When Chris came to Christ in 1993 he was nearing the end of his high school years and was deeply involved in the drama program there.  Our musical drama ministry attracted him, and he received Christ very unglamorously one day in the front seat of the 15-passenger van I was driving.  The next year we wrote a play whose main character was a janitor who works quietly behind the scenes and ultimately adopts a homeless teen.  The character, whose name was Joe, also appeared in a sequel we wrote the next year. 

And so began God’s work training Chris.  Chris not only played the character of Joe on and off over the next 12 years, he also learned what service means.  More often than not, when a church toilet clogged, Chris was the one of our staff who would go and clean up the mess.  You would most often find him in the kitchen or working on our technical crew.  When he wasn’t on stage playing Joe he was being Joe behind the scenes helping others succeed.  And all the while he was testifying to the power of Christ in his life.  Chris had and has the four primary qualities of a deacon of the church:  Aspire to nothing.  Let God train you.  Take on the task.   And when someone in the church complains about you or accuses you of doing it wrong (as they invariably will), be a person of peace.   That is also something deeply woven into the fabric of who Chris is.

Stephen was being a witness for Christ in a way that was galling to the leaders of the synagogues in Jerusalem that accepted what were called proselytes.  These were culturally based synagogues that catered to people coming into Judaism from the outside.  As the early church began to be woven into the fabric of these synagogues, the leaders were deeply jealous of anyone who belonged to the Way who didn’t first submit to their teaching.  These guys, just like the party of the Pharisees before them, were terribly threatened because they worried that they might lose their position and the general control they had over their people’s faith.  Stephen had no interest in arguing with them or even talking about what he was up to.  He just wanted to serve, and he was doing it in such a way that he was getting noticed all over town.   When they came and accused him falsely, Stephen, like Jesus, sat before his accusers without uttering a word.  That’s why it says that everyone could see he had the face of an angel.   Violent people cannot stand a non-violent response.  They simply don’t know what to do with it, and it causes them to become more and more enraged.  A person of peace threatens their whole being right to the core.

Finally the whole thing got so bad that the high priest intervened.  I think he was trying to prevent a repeat of what had happened just months before when Jesus stood unflappable before the Sanhedrin and said nothing in his own defense.  The High Priest asked if the accusations against Stephen were true.

What follows is one of the least polished sermons you ever heard.  The first 50 verses of Acts 7 are nothing more than a re-telling of the Exodus account.   I have been to seminary, and I can tell you that his sermon would never have gotten Stephen through preaching 101.  Stephen is answering the High Priest’s question in detail.  Are the accusations true?  Does Stephen actually deny the authority of Moses?  Does he speak against the Temple? 

Stephen never studied or prepared to deliver this sermon.  He is speaking, as we might say today, off the cuff.  But Stephen had aspired to nothing (and learned the way of Christ), he had let God train him (and learned the way of Christ), he had taken on the task (and learned the way of Christ), and now he was being a man of peace (DOING the way of Christ).  And this man from somewhere up north knew the history of Israel better than the priests did, not because he had gone to seminary but because he had learned the way of Christ and now God was using him – a man who had never preached before – to powerfully rebuke the leaders of the synagogue for not grasping the full meaning of the Scriptures, just as Jesus had done.  That’s why I call Stephen’s martyrdom the Little Way of Christ.

All the rest of what Stephen did you and I can do any day we want.  We can aspire to nothing, let God train us, take on the task, and be people of peace and, as Paul says, we will be walking as children of light in the church and before the world.  Actually, none of those things by themselves will get you martyred.  Those are all background, and are necessary if you want to walk the Little Way of Christ yourself.  But do all of those things and then publically call the leaders of your church “stiff-necked people, children of those who murdered the prophets,” and tell them they are responsible for the murder of Christ, and as the coach in Hoosiers found out, they will be “forced to deal with you.” 

Aspire to nothing. Let God train you. Take on the task.  Be a person of peace, and then humbly and yet forcefully tell people a painful truth.  THAT is a sure-fire way to become a martyr of the church.  

I suspect that it didn’t help Stephen’s case that at that moment he had what is called a theophany – a vision of heaven.  And in that moment of vision, the Holy Spirit did what he always does in people he has firmly in his grip: he testified to the Father and the Son. 

That was the final straw.  That was the nail in the coffin.  They rushed him and carried him out of the city and stoned him to death.  Stephen wasn’t trying to become a martyr.  I don’t believe he wanted to die for the cause.  He simply wasn’t politically smart; he was a man without the power of deceit.  The genuineness of his heart toward God gave him no alternative but to speak the truth and testify to the Father and the Son.  And as he was stoned to death he did exactly what his Lord had done when he was crucified:  He commended his own soul to God, fully assured that his relationship with God would last into eternity, and he asked God to forgive the act of violence done against him.  It is from the Voice of the Martyr that we learn the Little Way of Christ.  It is from the Voice of the Martyr that we learn the way of non-violence in the face of violent abuse, torture, and even death.  It is from the Voice of the Martyr that we learn the way of forgiveness.

There is an epilogue to Stephen’s story that we need to know.  If you read Acts 8, verse 1, you’ll find these sad words, “And Saul approved of his execution.”  I can’t verify this, but it seems to me that Luke probably wasn’t present for the stoning of Stephen.  When the leaders of the synagogue grabbed Stephen and cast him out of the city, in all likelihood the twelve Apostles and the rest of the disciples would have been excluded from the lynching.  But there is one voice of the Resurrection who we know was present for Stephen’s execution.  He was a young man at the time, and we now know of him as the Apostle Paul.  He was there. 

That was in late 33 AD.  And I think that one night about twenty years later, after Christ had met him on the Damascus Road, after he had come to Christ, after he had spent 14 years in seclusion, after he had been accepted as an Apostle by the council of the Twelve in Jerusalem, after they had commissioned him and sent him out to bring the gospel to the gentile world; I think that one night about twenty years later, Paul was sitting at a campfire someplace up in Asia minor and tearfully told a story to his friend and traveling companion, Luke, of how he had stood by and acted as official witness as they stoned to death the man with the face of an angel and the Voice of a Martyr.

The Voice of a Martyr speaks the Way of Christ from beyond the grave.   Directly or indirectly Paul learned what it means to walk with Christ from this man, probably more than from all his other teachers combined.   From Stephen, Paul learned, and you and I can learn, to Aspire to nothing. Let God train you. Take on the task.  Be a person of peace, tell people a painful truth they need to know, and let the Holy Spirit testify to the Father and the Son. 


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Go and give them Jesus!

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
(Colossians 2:8-15 ESV)

“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit.”  What a gracious warning to the church.  And how brilliantly have we failed to observe it!

The dictionary definition of philosophy that applies here is, “A theory or attitude held by a person or organization that acts as a guiding principle for behavior.”  Anyone who has observed the church, even casually, in any age, knows that we, of all people, profane the sacred and make sacred the most common things.  I have seen churches come to pieces over the placement of the Bible on the altar, and over the color to paint the sanctuary.  And I have also seen us ignore the most basic things that are important to Jesus himself.  As he reminds us, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Matthew 15:8, quoting Isaiah 29:13). 

Deceit is defined as “the action or practice of deceiving someone by concealing or misrepresenting the truth.”  Romans 1:18-19 testifies, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” 

The really awful thing about Romans 1 is that the people it is talking about are more likely to inhabit denominational headquarters, seminary professorships, and church pulpits than they are to inhabit bars, gambling halls, and brothels.  Most of the people mired in those addictions aren’t suppressing the truth; they are simply ignorant of the truth.   But we who claim the name of Christ suppress the truth when we leave our ignorant neighbor in the same condition we found him.  We suppress the truth when we don’t go to the bar, the gambling hall, and the brothel and offer there the message that Christ is holding out the hope of salvation to all who will trust him.   And those who should be teachers of Christ, who should be leaders of the church?  Is the thing that is foremost on their lips and in their heart a passion to see the rest of us know Christ and make him known to the nations? 

I had the profound blessing of having known as mentor a man who, at 83 and in frail health stood in a walker frame in a convalescent center and had the audacity to say, “You know, I could preach from here.”   He never failed to ask me when I would show up to visit, “How’s your soul?”  And as I departed he always told me, to “Go and give them Jesus.”  Do your seminary professors, denominational officials, and pastors say things like that?  If not, you’re probably in the wrong place. 

I don’t know how many people actually read these blog entries every day.  But if you are reading this and you are a pastor or are in some way involved in Christian leadership, be very careful to “stay on message,” as the politicians like to say.  It is so easy to get caught up in everything from social agenda to building programs and church suppers, to frankly, injecting yourself and your own personal needs into all that you do, and forgetting the mission on which you were sent: to make disciples of all nations.   

Paul is very quick to keep us on track, “For in him (in Christ) the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.”  Do notice that for Paul, the fact that Christ has a body at all times since his resurrection is very important.  He does not say, “in him the whole fullness of deity dwelt bodily.”  Christ is incarnate in the world even after his Ascension.  The confusion we feel because metaphorically we are the Bride of Christ and also the Body of Christ must not get in the way.  In Ephesians 5 Paul clearly shows us that the Bride IS the Body, “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.”  This isn’t commentary on human marriage so much as it is commentary on the fact that in marriage, the two become one.  The presence of the Bride fully represents the presence of the Husband.  Wherever she is, he is there in his full authority.  Her body is his as surely as if he were present in the flesh himself.

The use of the image of circumcision is interesting here.  We usually talk today about Christ covering our sin so that God will not see it.  Far from it!  In receiving Christ we are called to shed our sin as surely as the foreskin was shed in circumcision.   Our sin is not covered over, it is done away with.  That’s what Paul means when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)    

You and I have all the power we need to live Godly lives today.  We don’t have tomorrow’s power, and we can’t rely on yesterday’s power.   The power that raised Christ from the dead is only available in the moment.  The AA people have it right: “One day at a time,” they say.   So when you go out today, go and give them Jesus.  As you do, he will uncover what needs to be uncovered in you, shedding what needs to be shed, that Christ in you may be fully seen and fully known.