No Yeah-But’s

561789-taekwondo-wallpapers-2500x1667-mobileI had a Taekwondo teacher who used to say that he didn’t want to hear any “yeah-but’s.” If he told a student to do something, he expected them to do it without delay or excuse. He claimed the right to unquestioning obedience by virtue of his superiority in his field.

In the gospel, we see a God who will accept no “yeah-but’s.” By his scandalous arrest, abuse, and execution, Christ declared for all time that the will of the Father must be obeyed. God isn’t just superior to us. He’s transcendent. We can’t speak of him in superlative terms. He’s primary and ultimate. His very essence creates a field of moral gravity calling for the unquestioning surrender which the Bible calls, “fear.” When we fear God, we simply give him his due. When we offer him, “yeah-but’s,” we take in hand to cast for ourselves a lesser god and give it his name.

Selective obedience not only perverts the idea of God in our minds, it also distorts our nature. We were made to fear God, not overthrow him. Our “yeah-but’s” twist our souls into beastly, ghastly, overgrown egos which stomp around this earth, blaming God for the destruction in our wake. Christ became human to restore our humanity by restoring our estimation of God’s holiness.

As believers in Christ, we’re called each day to die with Christ in small ways. We tell the truth when we know it will make us look bad or cost us relationships or opportunities. We don’t respond to the tension to speak truth with, “Yeah, God, but you know that if I do that, I’ll get fired.” Rather we confess that God is more to be feared than any consequence of obeying him.

Through his suffering, Christ demonstrated the fear of God. But he’s more than just our exemplar; he’s our savior. By his resurrection, Christ Jesus announced for all time that such abject trust in God will receive eternal reward. We can go to our own cross both figuratively and literally if necessary because God can be trusted. Not only are “yeah-buts” an affront to the very nature of God, not only do they mutilate our souls, they’re just foolish.

If God calls us to move to a high crime neighborhood and we respond, “Yeah, God, but I’m concerned that my children will come under bad influences or be attacked or even killed,” we forfeit his reward for whatever scraps we can forage and horde through this very short day which we call life.

Far from being the offer of a free ticket to heaven, the gospel calls us heavenward as it demands that we relinquish this earth. Some have suggested that faith in the gospel presents and easy alternative to conformity to a system of legal requirements. Maybe that’s true of a truncated gospel, but not the true one. The message of Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and coming return pulses with unrelenting blessed requirement.

Because of God’s mercy and patience, it might be easy for us to think that’s he’s accepted our “yeah-but’s.” He hasn’t. Every “yeah-but” that we offer God assails his holiness, corrupts our souls, and mires us in a world rolling ever faster toward the conflagration waiting at the end.

The good news is that as long as we have breath we can repent of our “yeah-but’s” and all will be forgiven. Our humanity will be restored. We can long for the coming day of his return.

 

 

Grin and Bear It

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One day at my old job I was assigned to load an “Over 70” trailer. For four hours I pulled packages that weighed at least 70lbs from a belt and loaded them onto a trailer. The next day, I came into work and lifted an ordinary package. My back immediately seized and my body locked in a half-erect stance. Following policy, I immediately reported the incident and was sent to Scotty, the center manager.

When I got to his office, he spoke first, “Are you sure you hurt yourself here?”

“Well, I spent all day yesterday lifting Over 70’s and first thing this morning my back went out, so I think I can guess what caused it.” I shot back.

“But you don’t know that it was an on-the-job injury. I’ve pulled my back leaning over in the shower or rolling over in bed.” He affirmed.

“Oh, come on…really?” I rebutted.

“I don’t think we can count this as an on the job injury. You can go home unpaid or take light duty today if you think you’re hurt too bad to do your regular work. That’s about the best I can do.” Was his definitive reply.

At this point, I’d worked for the company for thirteen years. I had been an exemplary worker (no, literally, they once punished a guy for laziness by making him watch me work). Now, after requiring me to work under unsafe conditions for an entire shift, they were going to make me take the fall for being hurt. At that moment I realized that to the company and to my superiors I didn’t matter. Nothing I’d given to company accrued the least bit of credit in their minds. At this moment they only saw me as a potential workers’ comp claim.

I opted for light duty still fuming over Scotty’s response. I shared the whole exchange with a coworker who became as livid as I was over it. Then, I remembered 1 Peter 2:18-25:

Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
“He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

I shared with my coworker that in obedience to the example of Christ I planned to work even harder for the company and not take any kind of retaliatory action. He protested, “What?! You’re just going to roll over and take it?”

He was dumbfounded and a little disgusted.

The gospel of Christ teaches us how to deal with bad bosses.

If we’ll let it, the gospel will calibrate our expectations to insulate us from those moments of confusion and outrage.

The cross of Christ indicts humanity as sinners in need of a savior. Bosses are sinners and that sinful drive will determine their actions, especially if they haven’t been regenerated by the Spirit of Christ. This gospel awareness will arm us for the barbs hurled at us from the sinful hearts of others. When our boss makes a decision that benefits him and harms us, we won’t get rattled, because we knew he was a sinner to begin with.

The acknowledgement of human sinfulness doesn’t stop with our boss, though. His actions remind us of the person we were when Christ found us and who we still are should he not hold us up every minute. Seeing our boss as a sinner doesn’t mean that we judge him as inferior to us but as just like us. Christ’s indictment on sin from the cross takes away any pretention to superiority for all time.

Paul directed Titus to coach the church in Crete along these same lines:

Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good,to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone. At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. – Titus 3:1-3

 

Christ died on the cross to save us from a sinful world which is alienated from the life of God. The gospel will teach us that when we go into our workplaces, we shouldn’t expect pleasant experiences or fair treatment. We go every day into a fallen hellscape. We go not to be successful, happy, effective, recognized or any other career goal we might set for ourselves. We go to work to do battle with the forces of evil by blessing those who curse us, doing good to those who injure us. That’s the job. The rest of it is just context. If we get called out in front of everyone and face vocational consequences for just doing our best, we’ve just received a new assignment to show the world what gospel-shaped living looks like.

In addition to setting our expectations for our workday experiences and interactions, the gospel also empowers us to serve joyfully for the long haul.

Going to a toxic or unproductive work environment every day can crush our souls over time. According to the gospel, Christ, our Lord, was treated like a criminal even though he was the only innocent person to ever live. By his passion, he has forever sanctified unfair suffering as a sanctuary where his devotees can meet with him. Standing on the carpet before our boss can become an opportunity to experience Christ in a very real way. Injustice becomes a door to the divine.

Not only do we experience the grace of Christ through unfair treatment, our serene response will testify to the truth of our message. What more unnerving evidence of the truth of the gospel could their be than joyful acceptance in the midst of a tongue lashing?

Beyond the grace that flows from the cross into our difficult work relationships, the resurrection provides power to endure for the long haul. It’s one thing to withstand periodic unfair treatment. It’s quite another to pour our energies into a toxic work environment for years. Bad bosses kill careers. That’s the way it is. They often place unqualified people in positions of influence for their own personal reasons rather than based on merit or for the sake of the overall good of the business.

Christians who continually get passed over for promotions or have their achievements ignored because they refuse to join the “good ole boys” club feel the pain of passing time and the futility of their efforts. Some might suggest a job change, but that’s often not the best solution. At UPS, I was paid way more than the market mandated. I just had a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and I had a family to support. Leaving wasn’t an option. I’ve also watched people hop from job to job and every time the story was exactly the same. They left one “unfair” situation to land in another one which they would subsequently leave. After a while, people start to look side eye at your resumé if you do that long enough. Potential employers will begin to infer that you are the common denominator.

In a sinful world every workplace will feature some injustice, but the resurrection tells us that this world isn’t our destination. We don’t need to accomplish anything here. When Jesus told his disciples that he was going to Jerusalem to get crucified, Peter objected. I think he saw the potential in Jesus and couldn’t fathom that potential being taken from the earth. That’s what murderers take from people – their potential.

I sympathize with Peter, but I shouldn’t. Jesus called him, “Satan” for his concern (Matthew 16:21-23). God doesn’t need our accomplishments; just our complete trust. Only three years into his career, at the zenith of his influence, he willingly laid down his potential on the cross. The author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us why he did it:

And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1b-2)

Jesus didn’t need to protect his own interests. He could completely abandon them to his Father and relinquish his very life for the joy set before him. What’s more, he calls us to follow him along that path.

We can overcome a world run by self-interested jerks through daily abandonment of our own interests into the hands of God, our faithful Father. As the difficulty of the daily grind begins to wear on us, we can find new strength in contemplating the gospel. According to the author of Hebrews, we should, “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:3)”

Love Your Opponent

I read a story today that made me weep tears of joy.

Kenda Creasy Dean in her book Almost Christian, urges the church to reclaim the unmixed gospel as the basis for teen discipleship. Why? Because of an ESPN article on high school football, that’s why!

Grapevine, Texas—one of Money Magazine’s top 100 “best places to live” in 20072—is almost 90% white, has a $90,000 median family income, and award-winning schools like Faith Christian School. Like most towns in Texas, Grapevine takes its high school football seriously. Faith’s football team, for example, has seventy players, eleven coaches, the latest equipment, and hordes of involved parents. In November 2008, the Faith Lions were 7–2 going into the game with the Gainesville State Tornados.

Gainesville State, on the other hand, headed into the game 0–8, having scored only two touchdowns all year. Gainesville’s fourteen players wore seven-year-old pads and dilapidated helmets and were escorted by twelve security guards who took off the players’ handcuffs before the game. Gainesville State, a maximum security prison north of Dallas, gets its students by court order. Many Tornados have convictions for drugs, assaults, and robberies. Many of their families have disowned them. They play every game on the road.

Before the game, Faith’s head coach Kris Hogan had an idea. What if, just for one night, half of the Faith fans cheered for the kids on the opposing team? “Here is the message I want you to send,” Hogan wrote in an email to Faith’s faithful. “You are just as valuable as any other person on Planet Earth.” The Faith fans agreed.

When the Gainesville Tornados took the field, they crashed through a banner made by Faith fans that read “Go Tornados!” The Gainesville players were surprised to find themselves running through a forty-foot spirit line made up of cheering fans. From their benches at the side of the field, the Gainesville team heard two hundred fans on the bleachers behind them, cheering for them by name, led by real cheerleaders (Hogan had recruited the JV squad to cheer for the opposing team). “I thought maybe they were confused,” said Alex, a Gainesville lineman. Another lineman, Gerald, said: “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games. . . . But these people, they were yellin’ for us! By our names!” Gainesville’s quarterback and middle linebacker Isaiah shook his head in disbelief. “I never thought I’d hear people cheering for us to hit their kids. . . . But they wanted us to!”

At the end of the game (Faith won, 33–14), the losing team practically danced off the field with their fingers pointing #1 in the air. They gave Gainesville’s head coach Mark Williams what ESPN sportswriter Rick Reilly described as the first Gatorade bath in history for a 0–9 coach. When the teams gathered in the middle of the field to pray, Isaiah surprised everybody by asking to lead. (“We had no idea what the kid was going to say,” remembers Coach Hogan.) This was Isaiah’s prayer: “Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank You, but I never would’ve known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.”

As guards escorted the Tornados back to their bus, each player received a bag filled with burgers, fries, candy, a Bible, and an encouraging letter from a Faith player. Before he stepped onto the bus, Williams turned and grabbed Hogan hard by the shoulders: “You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight. You’ll never, ever know.” The Gainesville players crowded onto one side of the bus, peering out the windows at an unbelievable sight—people they had never met before smiling at them, waving goodbye, as the bus drove into the night.

Dean, Kenda Creasy. Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (pp. 85-87). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Our younger son, Jadon, is on a football team with a public junior high in “the hood.” I read the story to him and his sister this morning. As I read about the Gainesville team, he said, “That sounds familiar.”

I choked up as I read about the families from Faith Christian giving out the goody bags. Then, I looked up at Jadon and Lydia to say, “That’s the gospel. That’s the new thing that Jesus brought to the earth.”

On the way to school, Jadon told me that his “sketchy” friend Brandon got kicked off the team for lashing out at the opposing team after last week’s game. Jadon had previously told me some about Brandon’s home life. His dad’s out of the picture and his mother at least appears to be a meth addict. One time, when Brandon’s mom pulled to the curb to pick him up after practice, Jadon and some of his friends yelled after him, “We love you, Brandon!”

Brandon’s mom pointed at him through the car window and yelled, “Ha! I knew you were a f@ggot!”

It’s little wonder why Brandon flew off the handle last week.

I told Jadon that we should pray for Brandon and look for ways to remind him that he matters to God. By his quick agreement, I could tell that Jadon’s mind had already arrived there.

As believers in Christ, we’re called to live out the gospel. That simple story about how the Son of God came to live among us, die for our sins, rise again, and ascend to heaven to reign until his coming in judgment is pregnant with practical significance for every facet of human existence.

As a former legalist, I’ve learned that following a list of external rules, even an inspired one, leads to the fractured and frustrated disposition which the Bible calls, “death.” God didn’t nail the Torah requirements to the cross just to give us new written code in Matthew through Revelation. If he did, that would suggest that he had given Israel something faulty previously. The problem wasn’t with the specific commands, but with the very idea that commands could restore fallen rebels to a loving relationship with God and other people.

In Galatians 3:23-24, Paul speaks of the Mosaic law as a schoolmaster which superintended God’s people until the coming of “this faith.” Whatever “this faith” is, it made law obsolete. “This faith” can’t refer simply to belief in invisible realities since people living under the law possessed faith of that generic sort. “This faith” must be of such a quality that it can serve to direct human behavior in a way that the law prescribed but couldn’t accomplish in our rebellious hearts. So, what is “this faith”? Paul tells us several verses earlier:

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by (the faith of -NAW) the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20)

I’ve changed the phrase in the parenthetical to more accurately reflect the original Greek from the NIV’s translation “faith in.” Paul’s original intent seems to be to convey that Christ’s faith by which he offered himself on the cross had been transferred to Paul through that very act. Because Christ died for Paul, Paul was now beholden live by the faith of Christ.

On the cross, Jesus fully revealed both the heart of God and the obligation of every human. Now, we look to the gospel to know in any situation how we should live. By faith we perceive the instructions of the gospel. By faith we obey them. This, and only this, is the Christian life.

The gospel proclaims the intrinsic worth of even the most vile offender. On that evening in Grapevine, TX, Coach Kris and the families of Faith Christian School obeyed the gospel. As my kids go to school and encounter punks, freaks, geeks, jocks, and goths, the gospel will tell them what to do. I pray they will listen and obey.

As we go into this week, we’ll run into people that we’d rather ignore. Will we live by some minimum standard or will we live by the faith of Christ?

 

 

Black Light

I used to have a recurring nightmare. I’d enter a dark room where I sensed a malevolent 6e3b4bf860a2bf56c7e062a7d3325637--black-lights-bulbspresence. Instinctively, I’d flip the switch on the wall, but the light wouldn’t respond. Fear would grip my heart as I vainly repeated my attempts to shed light on whoever or whatever approached me in the darkness. It’s been quite some time since I’ve had that dream, but it still haunts me whenever I read Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 6:22-23.

The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

Can you imagine walking into a dark room and flipping the switch only to discover that the bulb emitted darkness? That image might be hard to visualize (no pun intended), but we need to grasp the reality behind Jesus’ metaphor because it illustrates a living nightmare from which many will never awaken.

To understand the reality behind Jesus’ figurative language here, we need to look at the broader context. In both this passage and the parallel one in Luke 11:33-36, this warning comes embedded between a rebuke of Pharisaic hypocrisy and exhortation to disciples regarding their treatment of money. The Pharisees knew the Torah, but rather than shedding light on them, it further darkened their hearts. Rather than see Christ in their scriptures, they used them as rationale to reject Christ. How terrifying!

Two people can encounter the same light, but one will be illumined and the other darkened. What accounts for this difference? Someone might say that the Pharisees were blinded by hypocrisy, but I disagree. I would say, rather, that hypocrisy is blindness the cause of which lies in something more apparent.

In both the Luke and Matthew passages, the word translated “healthy” referring to our eyes literally means, “generous” in the original language. The word translated, “unhealthy” means, “stingy.” Could it be that generous people come at divine revelation without the same bias that stingy people do? Could it be that stingy religious people come to interpret scripture in ways that alleviate their obligation to the poor?

In the very next verse of Matthew 6, Jesus says this:

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Stingy people want to keep what they have and they also want what God gives. So, they tell themselves that they can have both in spite of the teaching of the book they claim to revere. This self deception colors all future revelation in dark hues of greed so that when a penniless itinerant rabbi calls them out, they have no trouble putting him to death on a cross. Or at least putting him on a distant crucifix hung in their lavish dwellings.

Justice, mercy, and compassion comprise the soul of religion. Without those, religion devolves into self-referential ritual and incantation offered to appease the whim of a deity just as self-interested as his worshipers. Prohibition and prescription become the essence of a soulless shell. Those who violate the crucial minutia must pay for the religious leaders’ justifications.

The Pharisees in Jesus’ day embodied wicked religion. The passage directly following Luke’s telling of the illustration of eye health goes like this:

When Jesus had finished speaking, a Pharisee invited him to eat with him; so he went in and reclined at the table. But the Pharisee was surprised when he noticed that Jesus did not first wash before the meal.

Then the Lord said to him, “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.You foolish people! Did not the one who made the outside make the inside also? But now as for what is inside you—be generous to the poor, and everything will be clean for you.” (Luke 11:37-41)

While the Pharisees have gone down in infamy, they hardly hold a monopoly.

Why do the people who seem most up in arms about prayer in the schools or the imposition of “biblical values” on society seem to almost always advocate against programs designed to alleviate the suffering of the poor?

Amazing grace is truly a sweet sound, but it strikes a sour note in the mouth of the stingy. Without generosity, “grace” clangs and bongs in the ears of a lost world. Greedy religious people deceive themselves most of all and, so, ever deepening darkness falls over their eyes. For, nobody can truly believe themselves a saved wretch, lost now found, and remain a lover of money. Those who count grace God’s indescribable gift no longer regard material things with a covetous eye.

They were blind,

but now they see.

Te Quiero

I have a friend who wants to help me fix my car. Yes, I made a bad decision and purchased a lemon. No, I don’t have the money or skill to fix my situation. But, that’s not his main motivation to help me. He also wants to spend a week working side by side with me on it. That’s God’s kind of love.

That’s the love demonstrated in Romans 1:6-7:

And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

We’re called to belong to Jesus Christ. God loves us and called us to be his holy people – that is, his own possession.

Jesus didn’t come to die, rise, and return just because we’re pathetic. He went to all of that trouble because he wants us. He did it for us and he did it for himself. The author of the letter to the Hebrews said that Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him. What was that joy? It was you and me.

The good news that Paul preached isn’t just “good” to us. It’s “good” to God. We’re restored from waking death and God gets his children back. Then, we all celebrate together!

In some ways the Spanish language conveys the concepts of the gospel in every day life better than English. “I love you” in Spanish translated literally is, “te amo.” That’s not how it’s said in daily speech, though. If you want to express love like a person might have for their spouse, you say, “te quiero,” literally, “I want you.” This isn’t sexual. It’s an expression of the value placed on the other. It says, “You are my treasure.”

Recuerde hoy, Jesu Cristo te quiere.

 

What’s in a Name?

My cousin is a Jehovah’s Witness. She and I had a conversation a while back. I asked her, “When Jesus said that he had given his disciples God’s name, what name did he mean?”

“Jehovah.” was her unhesitating response.

Then I asked her where in the Gospels do we find an instance of Jesus ever calling God, “Jehovah.” She didn’t have an answer. Jesus had his own name for God which he taught his disciples to use as well. Know what it is?

I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. (John 17:11)

The Hebrew scriptures speak from time to time of the LORD as being like a father to his people, but no one used, “Holy Father,” in the vocative tense to call on God. Only Jesus, the eternal Son, could so refer to God. That is, until by his death and resurrection, he paid our adoption fee.

The name, “Father,” when applied to God holds tremendous power regardless of the language we speak. Those who call God by this name can count on his protection, provision, guidance and correction. The children of God can live victorious, though persecuted, in the midst of a wicked society.

The name Christ has given us to call God by speaks of relationship. The power comes not from phonemes, but from our access in Christ to the Father by one Spirit (see Ephesians 2:18). If it were any other way, God would be reduced to some sort of impersonal force required to respond to properly pronounced incantation.

When we call God, “Father,” we proclaim gospel theology.

Fathers, especially adoptive ones, initiate the relationship with their children apart from any effort or work on their part. Children can be proud of their father, but they can’t boast in their own merit at achieving a place as his child.

Fathers want to give gifts to their children. We can come boldly to God to ask for small things as well as big things.

Fathers seek the best for their children, but children must trust that this is so in order to benefit from that good will. This is why everything in our relationship with God must come from and operate on faith.

Fathers discipline wayward children for their benefit even though it isn’t pleasant for either party. There is a severe side to God as Father, but always for our good.

Every father’s ultimate goal is to develop mature offspring who reflect their character but also stand as full fledged individuals. God commands us to live free.

These facets of our understanding of God can seem to contradict, but they harmonize completely in God’s nature as Father. By holding all of these dimensions of the name, “Father,” in tension, we will be protected not only from external harm, but also from destructive ideas about God in our own minds. We will truly be kept in his name.

Pessoptimism

I’m a bit of a critic. At times I’ve felt guilty for failing to be more positive. After reading Oman this morning, I feel a little less so.

A half and half morality always means a hopeless view of humanity; whereas a view of man as involved in a widely organised and radical corruption, always means a high estimate of his possibilities and a universal sense of the moral significance of life. –Grace and Personality

The gospel teaches that we live in a world infested with evil which permeates the hearts of every person. We were made to reflect the very glory of God, but have chosen instead to make our own destiny to our own destruction. These truths hardly call us to “accentuate the positive.”

That last phrase reminds me of a story which Bani, my friend from Albania, told me about living under the totalitarian regime of Enver Hoxha. Bani said that under communism the least mention of a fault in their society could get a person incarcerated. He spoke of a man who went to the store for potatoes to discover that they had run out. Later, that man met a friend for coffee and mentioned that there had been no potatoes at the store. An informant at the next table reported the man and he was thrown into prison. Apparently, the correct response to the question, “Why didn’t you get potatoes?” was, “I changed my mind.”

There is an optimism which hides corruption and a pessimism which reveals glory.

Most pessimistic of all is the teaching of Jesus. The highest morality turns out to be mere respectability, the purest religion mere formalism, and the insincerity is such that the Prince of this world is the Father of Lies. Nowhere, nevertheless, is the Kingdom so real or so near.

Jesus came to convict the world of sin, righteousness, and a judgement to come. He passed that call on to us (John 16:1-11).

Body Life Part 1 – United

When Jesus set out to make disciples, he gathered committed people around him and did life with them. Yes, he taught the multitudes, but it doesn’t seem that those people became champions of the kingdom after his death. Perhaps many of them were actually among the throngs demanding that Pilate crucify him. His teaching seems to have been an invitation to join the small group of committed people who shared life with him.

After his death and resurrection, he left his disciples with each other and the Holy Spirit.

He didn’t leave them a book or even a DVD series on how to live in the kingdom. They had no building, no programs, and no parachurch ministries – for crying out loud, they didn’t even have a place to drop their kids!

Those things belong to institutions, but Christ had made them his body. Bodies grow as life flows through to all of their members. Bodies perform work as each member receives direction from the head.

All of these functions are natural. They just happen in healthy bodies.

In Ephesians 4:1-16, Paul describes the healthy function of Christ’s body.

The Healthy Body of Christ Sticks Together

I know a guy who cut off the end of his middle finger with a circular saw. He took it to the emergency room, but they didn’t have a vascular surgeon on staff and the only one in the area wouldn’t be back in town for two days. So, they literally taped it back on! I’ve gotta tell you, I didn’t have much hope that he’d be able to keep the finger when I saw it. Two days later, the blackish purple appendage got reattached. It took, and he still has the finger. Unfortunately, he can’t bend it, so he inadvertently offends people once in a while.

Apart from the body, my friend’s finger was dying. His body also suffered the loss of that finger’s full function. That’s what happens when just one member of Christ’s body becomes separated from the rest. The body of Christ can suffer far greater damage when disgruntled factions defect at once. Can you imagine the trauma to a physical body if one third of its mass was suddenly cut away?

We didn’t make our bodies, but we know we need to keep them in tact.

According to the apostle Paul, it’s the same way with the body of Christ.

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

We don’t create the body of Christ. We don’t even join the body. We’re members of the body because we share one Spirit. The Spirit unifies all those whom he indwells into one. From the moment we’re born again, we become united to every other regenerated person. We are one body because we’ve received life from Christ.

We can’t produce the unity of the Spirit, but we can undermine it. In the same way that abuse or neglect of the physical body will jeopardize it’s health, so we need to “Make every effort to keep (or maintain) the unity of the Spirit.” We keep what we’ve been given by considering one another and tolerating each other. Who wouldn’t want to be in a community where everyone worked to be pleasant company and to keep loving each other even when they weren’t so pleasant?  In this way, we will begin to fulfill our calling.

What calling is that, you ask?

This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.

His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,  according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Ephesians 3:6,10-11)

God means to hold up the church before all heavenly beings as an expression of his ability to bring all kinds of people together into one new humanity. It our job to get in step with this plan.

In an age of megachurch, it might seem strange to advocate for unity among believers. Someone might say, “Hey, we’ve got 20,000 people coming to this campus every Sunday. How much more unified can you get?”

A lot.

Here’s the problem. People go to megachurch to receive spiritual goods and services for themselves. If they don’t receive the type or quality of spiritual goods and services they’re looking for, they just go to another church that promises better products to meet their demands. Their relationship with the church isn’t with the other members but with the institution, and it’s a tenuous, codependent relationship.

It’s easy to go to a place where I can drop off my kids to be entertained, get a free cup of coffee, listen to a concert in a padded seat, and get an inspirational message all while being told that I’m following Jesus. And best of all, since it’s such a large group, I can sit or stand all alone in a crowd. (Unless that junior pastor makes everyone turn to shake hands.)

I’m not against worshiping through song, or hearing a message from the Bible. I’m just saying that those things can’t possibly be what Paul was talking about in Ephesians 4 because they don’t require us to “Make every effort.” If we’re going to put for effort into church, shouldn’t it be to build loyal, loving relationships with other believers who are different from us in every other way?

If the life of Christ within us isn’t enough to knit us together across every other cultural divide, then God has failed. He never fails, so we need to make every effort to cross the seat back partitions between us and share life. We need to eat together, travel together, work together, play together. That’s church. Nothing else will grow us into the likeness of Christ.

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Double Jeopardy

We’re often told that Christians shouldn’t beat themselves up for their sins and yet so many do it. Maybe that’s because the advice has been understated. Maybe we should go one step further to say that Christians mustn’t beat themselves up for their sins.

I’m reading Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life for the umpteenth time. This quote reminded me today why this book is a classic:

What then of our attitude to Satan? This is important, for he accuses us not only before God but in our own conscience also. “You have sinned, and you keep on sinning. You are weak, and God can have nothing more to do with you.” This is his argument. And our temptation is to look within and in self-defense to try to find in ourselves, in our feelings or our behavior, some ground for believing that Satan is wrong. Alternatively we are tempted to admit our helplessness and, going to the other extreme, to yield to depression and despair. Thus, accusation becomes one of the greatest and most effective of Satan’s weapons. He points to our sins and seeks to charge us with them before God; and if we accept his accusations, we go down immediately.

Now the reason why we so readily accept his accusations is that we are still hoping to have some righteousness of our own. The ground of our expectation is wrong. Satan has succeeded in making us look in the wrong direction.

Our salvation lies in looking away to the Lord Jesus and in seeing that the blood of the Lamb has met the whole situation created by our sins and has answered it. That is the sure foundation on which we stand. Never should we try to answer Satan with our good conduct but always with the blood.

Strange Fire

The religious group that I came up in was built on the notion that God gave the New Testament to humanity as a blueprint for the way he wanted them to live and worship him. We believed that in the letters of Paul God had prescribed exactly how he wanted collective worship to be performed and that any deviation from that prescription would incur divine judgment.

For those of you who’ve always wondered, that’s why Churches of Christ “don’t have music” – the New Testament prescribes singing and so “playing” is forbidden.

To illustrate the gravity of any sort of innovation, we’d point to the tragic story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10:1-3. These two sons of Aaron offered “strange fire” before God which he had not authorized. In response to their sacrilege, fire flared up from the presence of the LORD and killed them. God required that anyone who came near him treat him as holy.

God hasn’t changed. We mustn’t despise him in any way. Worship has changed, though. When asked by the Samaritan woman about the proper location to worship God, Jesus divulged a secret:

Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.  God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth. (John 4:23-24)

The redemptive work of Christ would transition worship from physical rituals and sacrifices to spiritual practices and offerings (Spirit). He would reveal the reality (truth) represented by the temple and priesthood which had been shadows cast on a wall awaiting the full light of Christ’s presence.

The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews faced exclusion from the temple service in retribution for their “blasphemous” proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah. The author of that letter wrote to assure them that they would suffer no loss whatsoever since worship under the superior priesthood of Christ could never be withheld from anyone. Why not? Because we worship “outside the camp” in the wilds of our daily lives and not within sacred spaces or under the auspices of any human authority. Consider the glory of vulgar worship that pleases God:

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.  Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.  Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,

“Never will I leave you;
    never will I forsake you.”

 So we say with confidence,

“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
    What can mere mortals do to me?”

 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood.  Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. (Hebrews 12:28-13:16 emphasis mine NAW)

This section is bookended with the idea of pleasing worship to God. Everything in the middle describes that pleasing worship. God has not changed since the days of Nadab and Abihu. He’s a consuming fire today just like he was then. On the day Christ fulfilled our obligations to God, the curtain of the temple ripped from top to bottom. The divine presence has been released, imposing holiness on every aspect of human existence.

Now, we worship when we mow our brother’s yard, take our sister a meal, or pray for a brother in prison. We encounter the transcendent and pure when we have sex with our spouse. We pay homage to God when we follow our leaders into the abandonment of material gain and goods because of faith in his provision. Consuming a ceremonial meal does nothing for our hearts because grace keeps us ever partaking and always filled. Instead of making an animal pay for our devotion to God, we offer the more costly gifts of unashamed confession of his name and sacrificial service and giving.

In light of that description of worship, the rituals and ceremonies which the church offers smell like strange fire.

We don’t gather weekly to worship. The early church didn’t model their meetings on the worship at the temple but on the gatherings at synagogue. God never called upon Israel to gather every Sabbath to worship him. He gave no direction whatsoever regarding the procedure or structure of synagogue service. Jews which had been scattered after the Babylonian captivity in 586 BCE, spontaneously began coming together (the literal meaning of the word “synagogue”) for mutual encouragement and learning.

Jesus never told his people when, how, or why to meet. He made them a called out people of the resurrection and disbursed them among a hostile world. Having risen out of Judaism, they knew that meeting once a week for mutual encouragement and learning was critical to the maintenance of their distinct identity and spiritual vigor. In structure and procedure, early church gatherings were almost identical to synagogue service.

Here’s the kicker, just as synagogue grew out of necessity and was shaped by human thinking, so church gatherings, governance, and their liturgy have no connection with divine mandate. God gave the gift of wisdom to Paul and the other apostles who ministered to their generation, but they appointed elders in every church because every synagogue was presided over by elders, not because Jesus told them that churches should be elder led. Paul prohibited women from ministering in the gatherings of some of the churches, but women couldn’t even attend synagogue.

If we’re going to regard Paul, then we’ll need to respect his declaration that we no longer serve God under a covenant based on written rules but one which expresses God’s purposes in Christ. When Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper, he didn’t specify how often they were to eat it. He only required that as often as they did partake that they remember him. Communion is for us. Through that remembrance, we come back to the wellspring of our faith. In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul spoke of divine discipline carried out on those who ate unworthily, but the sacrilegious actions had nothing to do with mishandling emblems; it consisted of mistreating the people of God.

We meet to encourage one another – that is the spirit of Paul’s letters. When we attempt to strain out every doctrinal gnat of church procedure, we always end up swallowing the camel of dead legalism.

Because we meet for mutual encouragement, we need to stop asking, “What did the early church do?” or even, “What does the Bible say about how we should meet?” and start asking, “What will encourage everyone to go out into the world and really worship?”