My Pragma Ran Over My Dogma

Back when I was one of approximately four people going to heaven, I used to knock on doors to let others know. I didn’t really care that much if they accepted what I had to say; I just knew that in addition to conforming to every “command, example, and necessary inference”¹ in the Bible, I also had to warn others of their impending doom.

There was just one problem with doing all of that – it wasn’t possible.

I was newly married, had a part time job in the eeaarly mornings, was a full-time student, and spent at least two hours every day knocking doors. All of that was in addition to attending church services three plus times per week. After eighteen months at that pace, I played out. I reached a place where even the fear of hell wasn’t enough to get me off the couch.

I still remember when Uriah called. I took the cordless phone (this was the early nineties) out to the carport, rested my elbow on the washing machine and my ear on the receiver.

“Hey,” he said, “I was reading in Colossians and I got to 1:27 that says, ‘the mystery hidden for the ages is Christ in you.’ That’s it! That’s what it’s all about.”

“Man, I just don’t have the energy to think about that right now,” was my reply.

He responded, “This doesn’t take energy; it gives it! There’s something different about me now, I mean, I can’t drive by someone on the side of the road without stopping to help them.”

“That sounds great,” I dismissed. “Can we talk about this later?”

In a few days, my guilt compounded enough to pry me from the couch and into the seat of Uriah’s 1970-something Mercury Monarch. I still remember sitting in front of Applegate Apartments, paralyzed by dread.

“Man, I don’t think I can do this today,” I confided to my compatriot.

“I’m telling you, the answer is, ‘Christ in you,’” he responded.

I didn’t know what that meant, but there, trapped between hell on earth and hell in… hell, I decided to imagine that Jesus Christ himself did, in fact, inhabit my body. My willingness or ability no longer mattered. My limp hand rose to the door latch and dropped to pull it forward. My elbow swung outward and with it the creaky metal door. I half-fell to my feet, a disoriented newborn unsure of which way to place his first steps.

Just then, a long-haired man who looked as though he’d abused his body in nearly every way possible, came out of his apartment and hobbled toward us. He was probably in his early thirties but looked every sweaty swollen inch in his late forties. We accosted him with some sort of “are you saved” opener.

“I went to hell one time,” he blathered. “It was weird. It’s like all your stuff and your money and stuff…they’re not worth anything…”

He obviously wasn’t in any state to receive our rationalist take on conformity to the rules of the New Testament. Previously, that fact would have moved me on to a more coherent subject, but for some reason, I put my hand on his shoulder. I offered to pray with him. I felt a compassion for this lost cause that I hadn’t felt for others.

As we disengaged with that guy and moved around the apartment complex, our message changed from warnings about neglected New Testament requirements to invitations to a relationship with Jesus. The obligation that had been sapping my strength transformed into an invigorating indulgence in Christ himself.

At one point I remember turning to Uriah and saying, “You know what? Suddenly I don’t care if someone wants to worship God with a piano.”²

“Me neither!” he exclaimed.

When divine mandate failed to budge me out of the car, “Christ in you” put me to dancing in the street. Our relationship with God had been based on dogma gleaned from an ancient text – demanding, demoralizing, dead. Now, we’d sampled a hit of resurrection power. Our “pragma” (that which we learned through practical experience) had begun to run over our dogma.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that we were completely free that day. It was just the beginning of a long journey to the powerful, primitive faith that I now offer to anyone who’ll accept it.

Old dogmas die hard. We didn’t care whether someone wanted to worship with instruments, but we still knew that represented the one true church. We talked less about doctrine and more about Jesus, but then we’d always get back to doctrine. Our minds remained calcified in convictions long set in doctrinal forms, but a living seed had been planted in the dirt between the cracks. It would take time for living experience to displace the hardened legalism that surrounded it.

For now, we channeled our new-found passion into the same old tactics. Once a door opened (literally and figuratively) we set out to delegitimize our victims’ previous religious experience. We’d show them our well-worn proof texts which made abundantly clear that Baptists had been baptized for the wrong reason, and Methodists had been baptized in the wrong way. We argued that if their church had been wrong on something so foundational that it must be the wrong church. They needed to join us in the one true church. After being baptized in the right way and for the right reason, of course.

Not long after having found “Christ in me,” we went door knocking again in the low-income neighborhood around those apartments where it all began. A kindly older lady in a cracker box house invited us in for coffee and condemnation. While we were working on her, a man who looked to be about ten years younger than she came to the door. He was apparently a friend and she invited him in as well. She made introductions all around and then said, “Hey Larry, these guys are here to talk about the Bible. I know you’re into that kind of stuff. Why don’t you talk with them?”

He agreed out of the side of his eyes, and we redirected our barrage at him.

I’ll never forget the serenity on his face as we hammered his claim on salvation.

When we called him to account for his dereliction of duty to the book we regularly violated, Larry would calmly respond, “You guys can say whatever you want. I know that I belong to Jesus.”

We scoffed at his subjective certainty, but we were also shaken by it. He could not measure up to our dogma, but we couldn’t measure up to his faith.

Then there was Shannon, a big guy who lived alone in a messy duplex. As he and I talked, we started comparing notes to discover that our experiences were almost identical. The longer the conversation went on, the more we found ourselves finishing each other’s sentences. We had a kinship that I didn’t have with anyone at the one true church, but Shannon insisted on remaining Catholic. I tried to help him bring his dogma in line, but he just didn’t feel the need.

The rift between us stretched through the middle of my worldview. If my experience had been authentically from God and Shannon had the same experience, then none of the doctrinal stuff mattered to God. But that would invalidate my exclusive claim on God. On the other hand, if my doctrinal formulas were correct, Shannon must have been deluded. If he had been deluded, I had no basis for confidence in my experience either. Shannon and I parted ways, but the tension continued to pull on my paradigm.

Eventually, I would discover that the whole problem had nothing to do with the Bible, but with my assumptions about it. Those assumptions had been given to me as axiomatic truth by the group to which I gave credence. The assumptions and not the Bible were my dogma. But that dogma didn’t hunt (southern reference). I mean it didn’t work.

It didn’t work practically. The New Testament when turned into a law is both too amorphous to master and too rigid to serve. The man who baptized me into the Church of Christ once described the Christian life as trying to hold a ball under water. “You push it down here and it pops up over there.”

So, you’re saying that Christianity consists of spending time and effort on a completely futile and frustrating endeavor? Sign me up!!!

At what point does a person chuck the ball out of the pool and say, “This game is stupid!”?

In addition to failing practically, my dogma also failed predictively. Like Ptolemaic astronomy, it failed to predict reality. If all those assumptions were true, then God couldn’t accept even one person like Larry or Shannon and yet it seemed that he had.

Before you write me off as a crackpot using his own experience to determine objective truth, could we look together at a biblical example of someone whose pragma ran over his dogma?

Peter was praying on the roof and he had this vision of a great sheet filled with all kinds of critters being lowered down out of heaven.

Then a voice said, “Get up Peter. Kill something and eat it.”

Peter’s response typifies the Biblicist approach to religion, “Not so, Lord, for nothing unclean has ever touched my lips.”

To which the Lord, responded, “Don’t call anything impure which God has made clean.”

For some reason, Peter needed to hear things three times  before he got them, so this cycle was repeated two more times.

A cynical synopsis of this narrative from Acts 10 could read as follows: “Christ appears to Peter and commands him to violate Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.”

As Gentile believers, we might not fully grasp the psychological turmoil into which this vision cast Peter. He whose name means “rock” had never wavered from his resolve to obey the Torah. Now, the Living Word expected him to violate the written word. I don’t know if I can even come up with a modern equivalent from New Testament practice. I suppose it would be like Jesus coming and telling us to replace the wine and bread on the Lord’s Supper table with Monster Energy drinks and churros. Even then, we Gentiles don’t grasp the importance of the food laws to the Jewish identity.

Speaking of Gentiles, Peter, directed by the Spirit, then went to the house of a Roman army officer named Cornelius to tell him the gospel. That, in and of itself, wasn’t scripturally wrong so much as it was a violation of traditional Jewish practice.

While Peter preached about Jesus, Cornelius with all of his friends and family began to speak in other languages and to prophesy by the power of the Holy Spirit. In response, Peter commanded that they all be baptized – that is, that they be visibly accepted into the covenant community.

That posed a problem. Peter allowed the uncircumcised Gentiles into the messianic community even though Genesis 17:9-12 declares that everyone, even foreigners, must be circumcised if they are going to belong to the Abrahamic covenant.

When Peter and his cohort returned to Jerusalem, they were called on the carpet for this action.

The apostles and the believers throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” – Acts 11:1-3

In his defense, Peter recounted the whole story of how he had been called to go to Cornelius’ house to preach the gospel and how God’s pragma had run over his dogma:

“As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning. Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ So if God gave them the same gift he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.” – Acts 11:15-18

It would seem from God’s dealing with Peter that he never meant for Scripture to hamper our interaction with him in a dynamic relationship. Christ could command Peter to violate the Torah and then the Holy Spirit could circumvent the covenant requirements he himself put into place.

But why would God do this?

Because no written code, even one given by God, could possibly apply to every circumstance or address every person. Scripture serves a purpose, but it’s very nature also makes it provisional.


Footnotes:

  1. In my strain of the Church of Christ, we used these three phrases to establish New Testament authority.
  2. The Church of Christ is known for shunning the use of instruments in their public assemblies. Here’s an  article for more on the belief.

Eating According to the Gospel

photo credit: onsizzle.com @somexican

It’s a new year. This time, I’ll lose that excess weight and keep it off!

Right?

Okay, so I haven’t been focusing on my health this year, but I have been attending to it.

I was on my way to meet a friend for tacos yesterday and thinking about whether to get a salad or some other sad taco substitute. Then it occurred to me: Common people in Mexico don’t have weight problems and they subsist on tortillas. I concluded that eating tacos was a Christlike thing to do.

I know. I know. Convenient, isn’t it?

Hear me out.

I’ve struggled my entire Christian life to apply the gospel to my eating. Like many people, I’ve had a few victories in the battle of the bulge, but even more defeats. I just don’t have the resources personally to reach ultimate victory. I need the power of God to save me and that power is the gospel.

But what does the gospel teach regarding the care of our physical bodies?

Jesus had a body, but he doesn’t offer any impetus for concern over the way our bodies look. In fact, we only have this kind of description of his appearance:

…his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness… (Isaiah 52:14b)

He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2b)

We live in a culture so egotistical that vanity has become a virtue. We can cut someone down with our words or ignore suffering around us without so much as a tinge of conscience, but we’ll be mortified by a candid photo that reveals our fat rolls.

Yes, the gospel does speak to our physical appearance. It says, “Stop thinking about it.”

I can hear the justifications now: “I’m not worried about how I look. I just want to be healthy.”

Great. According to the gospel, Christ offered his body to be destroyed for the sake of the world. Talk about bad stewardship!

Someone might argue that Jesus’ circumstance was unique and the rest of us should try to be as healthy as we can. Paul didn’t agree:

For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. (2 Cor. 4:11-12, 16)

I’m not saying that we should all go and seek martyrdom (though it should probably be more common than it is). I’m demonstrating the trouble I’ve had finding motivation from within the gospel to lose weight or eat healthy. Instead, these goals/obsessions run contrary to the message about Christ.

As I discovered on my taco run, though, the gospel does speak to what and how we should eat. Here are some things which the gospel is telling me about food:

  1. Eat cheap, readily available, calorie dense food most of the time. When eating becomes expensive, inconvenient, or complicated it draws resources away from the higher purpose of our life. We take money which we could invest in kingdom causes or give to the poor (who aren’t eating organic) to buy unreasonably expensive items which haven’t even been clinically proven to improve health. We draw our already taxed attention to study diets or plan elaborate menus rather than focusing our mind’s eye on Christ through reading and contemplation. We take time that could be invested in relationship to shop, prep, and cook stuff we don’t even like.
  2. Enjoy good food. Even splurge on occasion. When our kids were smaller, I used to enjoy watching my daughter in the rearview mirror as she watched a movie on the van’s DVD player. Something about seeing her amused face brought me such joy. God is our Father and he loves us way more than I love my daughter. He enjoys our enjoyment. As someone that grew up without a dad, that’s been a hard truth for me to grasp. I always thought of God more as a boss who only valued me when I performed. In more recent years, I’ve come to apply the gospel to my life not only in self-sacrifice but through enjoyment of his good gifts.
  3. Learn to be in want. The gospel teaches that we’re more than our physical bodies. Our bodies sometimes need physical reminders of this fact. Christ told the Pharisees that after he had left the earth his disciples would fast.* Do we? Are we trying to make him look like a liar? When Christ ascended to the heavens, he took our hope with him to keep on deposit. This world in its present form isn’t our home. We long for his return at which time we’ll celebrate in the “Messianic Banquet.”** When we fast, we remind ourselves that we’ve not yet arrived and that our master is Christ, not our stomachs.
  4. Do more than eat when you eat. I’m not talking about eating in front of the television. I’m talking about seeing food as a means to spiritual enrichment. Just as fasting reminds us that the Messianic Banquet is yet to come. Eating with other believers reminds us that it is coming. I’ll be candid on this score: elective dietary restrictions hamper community. When an individual either abstains from table fellowship or forces everyone to abide by their weight loss protocols, that’s a violation of the gospel. Empty yourself and fill up your plate. It’s literally what Jesus did.***
  5. Be thankful, not greedy. The gospel makes us eternal debtors to God. The first instinct of the redeemed should be overflowing gratitude. As redeemed people, we live in a state of grace. In Greek, that’s “charis,” which is also translated, “gift.” Everyone who belongs to Christ moves through a medium of God’s generosity. Thankfulness must be our de facto posture if we are to properly comport ourselves in divine society. Thankfulness and greed can’t cohabit in our hearts. Thankful people assess high value onto what they’ve received. Greedy people discount what they have, in pursuit of what more they want. I’m not overweight because I have a sweet tooth, or because I eat fast food. I’m overweight because I over eat. I over eat because I don’t stop to appreciate my food. We need to do more than give thanks before meals. We need to remain thankful for each bite. Rather than presume on God’s generosity, we need to stop and give thanks when we’ve had enough.

That’s my list of gospel dietary directives. Like the gospel, they’re counter cultural. Like the gospel, they’re paradoxical. That’s as it should be. We mustn’t see our faith as motivation to win at the world’s game. Faith puts us on an entirely different playing field where we’re always more than conquerors.

This new year, I resolve not to worry about losing weight or even getting healthy. I resolve to glorify God in everything including the way I eat.

*Mark 2:20
**Isaiah 25:6-8
***Matthew 11:19

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?

 

 

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.

 

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.

Mere Christianity – Chapter 8 – “The Great Sin” – C.S. Lewis

I know a man who is haunted by Matthew 7:21-23. He won’t declare with 100% certainty that he is destined for eternal life and there is nothing anyone can say to assure him. Having read this quote this morning, I wonder if he is not plagued with spiritual pride.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s not a bad person or an overtly arrogant man. I just wonder if he like so many others of us has been marinated in religious performance for so long that he has no idea that there is a difference.

My prayer for this man, myself and for you this morning is that all of us would have an encounter with the real and living God which would shatter our every illusion that we could merit his acceptance. That bereft of our relative worth we could come to the confidence that is also known as humility.

How is it that people who are quite obviously eaten up with Pride can say they believe in God and appear to themselves very religious? I am afraid it means they are worshiping an imaginary God. They theoretically admit themselves to be nothing in the presence of this phantom God, but are really all the time imagining how He approves of them and thinks them far better than ordinary people: that is, they pay a pennyworth of imaginary humility to Him and get out of it a pound’s worth of Pride towards their fellow-men. I suppose it was of those people Christ was thinking when He said that some would preach about Him and cast out devils in His name, only to be told at the end of the world that He had never known them. And any of us may at any moment be in this death-trap. Luckily, we have a test. Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good—above all, that we are better than someone else—I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God, but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether.

via Mere Christianity – Chapter 8 – “The Great Sin” – C.S. Lewis.

Blame You

Christ’s commands us to love each other. It’s such a simple rule and yet we can’t do it without him. This is why he calls it a new command even though it was the one the Jews had heard from the beginning. Christ came to love and he left a community of love which he expected to remain and spread. Praise the Lord it has! On the night of his betrayal, Christ prayed that we would be one so that the Father would be glorified in the Son.

Conversely, this world and its Prince continue to conspire against God’s project by sowing bitterness among God’s people. In Ephesians 4:26, Paul warns his audience to forgive quickly lest they give the devil (blamer) a foothold among them. Nothing arrests our progress toward oneness like bitterness. When a fellow believer does something careless or even malicious (as will inevitably happen), we must at the foot of the cross offer them forgiveness. Why? Because mercy lives at the foot of the cross. In order to harbor bitterness, we must abandon the hope of our own forgiveness and flee the cross for exile in the solitary seat of judgment. In that realm “they” come to offer us aid and comfort as they help us build our case against our offenders and eventually the entire world.

Though this demonic program carries especially grievous implications for the believing community, every person on the planet has encountered it. The animated feature, “Meet the Robinsons,” offers one of the most poignant examples of the dynamics of bitterness and its power to ruin lives. At the end of the clip, the advice, “Let it go and keep moving forward,” is useful if we can understand where we can let it go to and which direction is “forward.” Those answers have been released in the gospel of Christ.

Simple church planting resources galore

What if the essence of church could be boiled down to two words? What if believers in Christ shared life? When we share our lives – our time, money, burdens, joys, and struggles – we experience and demonstrate the kingdom of God. When we share his life, we intentionally engage with the lost and dying world through gospel-driven words and actions. This is church and we’re working to resource God’s people to share life through our new Life Teams app and it’s companion blog. Check them both out here:  http://lifeteamsblog.org/

Learning to Learn

I have some friends who’ve recently come to faith. They’re from a subculture very disparate from mine. They’ve drawn me into conversations I’ve never had with other church members. Since they’re new believers and I’m a pastor, I usually see our interactions as an opportunity for me to assist their spiritual growth. I find myself defaulting to asking what about their worldview needs correcting. Today, it dawned on me that they are changing my worldview as much as I am changing theirs. By receiving Christ, they have brought their unique perspective on the gospel to bear on the church’s mission in the world.  Today I had to admit to my friend that he was right about something over which we had disagreed.

His response was, “It’s like this turn signal thing on my van.  If I find the short I can fix it.  You needed a fix to the short.  Its me.”

He’s right. I can get all energized by God’s grace but that energy won’t reach certain people in the world unless I have a bridge like my friend.  I can study the Bible for the rest of my life but the gaps in my perspective will always hinder my understanding.  I need a fix like my friend.

In the New Testament, Cornelius the centurion served as a bridge. He was a gentile who came to faith in Christ without having to convert to Judaism. His conversion not only catalyzed the a new gentile church in Caesarea it also sent theological shock waves through a church which saw itself largely as an extension of Judaism. Cornelius’ conversion converted the mindset of the church leaders of the day. We need to reach people from all backgrounds not only because they need Jesus but also because we need their idiosyncrasies to better understand and communicate our own message. (Acts 10-11; 15)

Gospel

In 1 Cor. 15:3-6, Paul recounts his gospel.  Those who would participate in evangelizing the world, do well to consider this passage.  First, notice the brevity of Paul’s statement.  In just 25 words, Paul relates the crucial elements of the gospel – “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”

Notice also the repetition of the phrase, “according to the Scriptures.”  Paul didn’t expect blind faith in his assertions.  He took the trouble to point out the Old Testament allusions and prophecies pointing to Christ.  This approach commends the message as true when compared with other religions.  Take as an example a Muslim friend of mine.  Though he won’t admit it, he has worked hard to convert me.  In response I have challenged him by saying, “I can prove the gospel with only the Old Testament.  Can you prove the truth of the Qur’an with only the New Testament?”  His honest response was, “No, I can’t.”  A God who claims to live above time ought to be able to give us a heads up about what he’s going to do.  Not only so, but if the gospel is true then we ought to find passages in the Old Testament which make no sense apart from the fulfillment in Christ.  Isaiah 53 is such a passage.

Not only did Paul call the Scriptures to testify about his message, he also could point to a contemporary witness of these events – Peter, The Twelve, the 500, and then James.  One might say, “Okay, so that was good for Paul since many of these people were still alive in his day but what about us at the first part of the 21st century?”  The answer can be found in the final witness he listed, “Last of all to me.”  Because Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision, we can expect him to continue to express himself in various other ways – changed life stories, healings, dreams, and visions.  Everyone who has encountered the risen Christ has a story to tell.

So, to preach the gospel like Paul we should 1. succintly share the facts, 2. support them with Scripture, and 3. weave our own experience and that of others into an effective gospel presentation.  See my attempt at covering these elements below:

The world is a messed up place.  The Bible says that it’s messed up because people rebelled against their creator and did things that were wrong – they sinned.  God plans to fix the world but he must first deal with sin.  God’s messenger, Isaiah, foretold that God would send his Chosen One to die as punishment for sins, be buried and rise again to turn people away from living sinful lives.  700 years later Jesus Christ came and did what was foretold by dying on a cross for our sin and rising to life again.  I’ve accepted his death as payment for my wrongs. He’s set me free from the guilt and power of sin.  Now I’m looking forward to his return when he’ll fix this broken world where his people will live forever.