Christianity 201

May 7, 2021

When a Church is Not Producing Real Fruit

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
Tags: , , ,

For a ninth time, we are featuring the writing of Mark McIntyre at Attempts at Honesty. While this one is church-focused, there is definitely an obvious personal takeaway you can gather from this as well. As always you’re encouraged to read these at source, so click the header below, check out other devotionals, and if you like what you see, sign up to subscribe.

No wax fruit

I have a pear tree, an apple tree, and a cherry tree in my yard. If they were not producing fruit, I could go out and buy a bunch of wax apples, cherries and pears and hang them on the trees. This would make the trees look productive to those passing by, but wouldn’t fool anyone who took the time to take a closer look.

In the same way, I have seen churches that manufacture a frenzy of activity that seems to indicate that there is spiritual growth taking place, but upon closer examination, I find only the appearance of fruitfulness.

Jesus said to the Church in Sardis,

“I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead. Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.”

Revelation 3:1, ESV

The problem lies in a faulty understanding of what it means to build the church. When Jesus builds the church, he uses the preaching of the gospel to transform individual hearers into children of God. The church’s responsibility ends with the proclamation of the gospel and the “equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). Real growth can only take place when the Godhead, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit bring about new life in the hearers.

But it seems that in 2021, the “experts” seem reluctant to wait upon God to bring growth so they invent methods to bring people in and make it appear that spiritual growth is taking place. The problem is that the fruit we produce by human methods is wax fruit and not real fruit.

The experts say you need professional musicians, concert-style lighting, slick branding, and polished speakers who won’t offend the hearers, to draw people in and, hopefully, capture their attention. Keep it fun and keep it light.

But when a church spends more effort on its style and branding than it does on teaching its members what it means to live in the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5), then little, if anything, of substance, is taking place.

I suppose it would be prudent to remind us what else Jesus wrote to Sardis:

“Remember then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you.”

Revelation 3:3, ESV

When the tree no longer produces real fruit, it may be time to cut down the tree.

When the church no longer produces spiritual fruit, it’s time to find a different church.

Because if they are not producing spiritual fruit, it is evidence that Jesus has already left the building. And, if Jesus isn’t there, there’s not much point in staying.


Bonus link: If you enjoyed this article, Mark has another one from earlier in the year where he also examined a problem that can impact local churches: The situation where leaders pledge or vow to uphold the standards and practices of a denomination and then choose to do disregard those promises and their own thing. Check out Fulfill What You Vow.

May 6, 2021

Team Jesus

1st John 2:1-6

by Clarke Dixon

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

1 John 1:9 (NRSV)

Good news! Our sins are forgiven!

But then, if we read ahead in John’s letter, we may feel like we encounter bad news, especially when we get to statements like these:

No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. . . . Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil;. . . Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God.

Selections from 1 John 3:6-9 (NRSV)

What if the good news is that our past sins are forgiven and only our past sins? What if we are given a fresh start, but we had better not ever sin after that? Maybe we will be relieved to know that God’s Spirit indwells us and will keep us from sin? Most of us, however, would still have great anxiety since we know from experience that we still sin. Or am I the only one? In fact our anxiety may grow if we think that perhaps we have chased God’s Holy Spirit away somehow.

As a way to think through this, let us think of ourselves as being hockey players, perhaps we can think of ourselves as playing for the Boston Bruins. Now let us think of God as having a hockey team, that our Lord is the owner, general manager, and coach. Of course we can think of the Toronto Maple Leafs as being that team!

Given this analogy, what would forgiveness from God look like? We may think that God comes to us and says that any goal we have ever scored, or helped our team to score against his team is forgiven. We might say “well thank you for letting bygones be bygones.” But then we keep playing for the Bruins, and keep trying to score on the Leafs. John is telling us in his letter that this is not how faith in Jesus works. It is not just about the forgiveness of sins.

The words of Jesus were really important to John, they should be to us too. So let us take a moment to look at the last words of Jesus recorded for us in the Gospel of Luke:

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Luke 24:45-49 (NRSV emphasis added)

Let us note here that it is not just forgiveness of sins that is to be proclaimed, but also repentance, meaning a change of mind, a change of path.

Now let us consider the last words of Jesus recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSV emphasis added)

Forgiveness of sins is not even mentioned here in Matthew! Following Jesus is, paying attention to the commandments of Jesus is.

Jesus would have said a lot of things once risen form the dead, so Luke and John are not recording the very last words of Jesus so much as emphasizing the elements of Jesus’ teaching they thought they should pass on to us. Where we might emphasize forgiveness, they both emphasize a new life in Jesus.

Now let us go back to John’s letter:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

1 John 2:1-6 (NRSV)

John is pushing us to think of a much bigger change in our lives than just experiencing forgivenesses. We are not just forgiven, we are set on a new path. To go back to the hockey analogy, God is not just offering forgiveness for the goals we have scored against his team, God is offering us a place on the team!

We don’t deserve it, we don’t play like the star players on his team. We might not even know how to skate yet. But we are invited to join the team!

Now just because we join the team, this does not mean we instantly become great players. Hockey players sometimes make mistakes. A bad pass can be intercepted and lead to the other team scoring. This does not lead to an instant expulsion from the team. This is a problem we often have as Christians. We assume that we should instantly become the Wayne Gretzky of Christians. But we still miss the mark. When we do,

. . . if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins

1 John 2:1 (NRSV)

We are not booted off the team. Everything that is necessary for us to be on the team has been accomplished.

What if, however, having moved from the Bruins to the Maple Leafs, during a playoff series against the Bruins, we continually pass the puck to the Bruins, and sometimes we even take a shot on our own net? The natural conclusion reached by the coach and fans alike, is that we have not really changed teams. We are still playing for the Bruins, we want the Bruins to win. This is what John is getting at in verses 3-6:

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

1 John 2:3-6 (NRSV)

If we really are in Jesus, then it will be evident that we are on team Jesus. When John says later in 3:6-9, that we will not sin, that we cannot sin, it is like a coach saying to a hockey player, “you will not pass to a player on the opposing team, indeed you cannot.” Well the hockey player might have a bad pass that goes to a member on the other team, which might lead them to score a goal. But the player will not pass it with the hope, “oh boy, I hope the other team wins.” He will not do that, and given his desire to win the Stanley Cup, he cannot do that.

If hockey players never wore a jersey, you would still be able to know who is playing for what team. When John says we don’t sin as Christ followers, what he means is that it should be obvious that we are on team Jesus, that we don’t play for the opposing team. We might still be learning to skate, and we might be awful at handling the puck, which might lead the other team to score from time to time, nevertheless, it is evident we are are on team Jesus.

As we read through 1st John, and especially here in 1:3-6 and later 3:6-9, we might ask, am I in deep trouble if I commit even one sin after coming to faith in Jesus? That is not a question that would have come to John’s mind. The question John is asking is: does your life show that you are on team Jesus? That you are in Christ?

Yes, we are going to mess up, there are forgivenesses when we do. But if we are on team Jesus, it will be obvious that we are on team Jesus, jerseys and Jesus fish not required. Those who are on team Jesus are easy to spot, even if they are not spotless. We may may not be superstar players, at least not yet, but let us commit to being on team Jesus! And let us enjoy that honor.


The full sermon can also be seen as part of this longer “online worship expressionClarke Dixon appears here most Thursdays and doesn’t get the usual 1-2 paragraph intro! He’s a pastor in Ontario, Canada; and a good friend to have. Clarke and his wife have three boys, but I don’t know if any of them share his love of motorcycles.

May 5, 2021

He Could Have Spoken Complex Theology; He Chose Parables

If I had been planning more carefully, I would have posted this yesterday, which marked the two year anniversary of the passing of Rachel Held Evans. While Rachel graciously endured having a number of critics, for those of us who knew her spirit, she was a beautiful person and an insightful, realistic, gifted writer, who helped so many people who felt they were outside the family of God see that Christ had saved a place for them at the table.

To read at source, click the header which follows. (Yes, thankfully her blog posts are still there for all to enjoy.)

“Without a parable, he told them nothing…”

I’m blogging with the lectionary this year and this week’s reading comes from Matthew 13:24-43:

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’

Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.’

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, ‘Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.’ He answered, ‘The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!’

In the Gospel reading for this week, we learn that in the time between Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and the events leading to his death and resurrection, the travelling teacher communicated through stories. Matthew goes so far as to say “without a parable he told them nothing.”

It is an astounding detail when you think about it: The God of all creation, the One who knows every corner of the cosmos and fathoms every mystery, the One who could answer every theological riddle and who, I suspect, chuckles at our volumes of guesses, our centuries of pompous philosophical tomes debating His nature, when present in the person of Jesus Christ, told stories.

  • Stories about farming.
  • Stories about kneading bread.
  • Stories about seeds and trees and birds.
  • Stories that somehow, in their ordinary profundity, “proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”

Jesus, who certainly could have filled volumes, favored riddles to lectures, metaphors to propositions, everyday language, images, and humor to stiff religious pontification. In a strange burst of joy, Jesus even exclaimed, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

Religious education is good and important, certainly. But it’s not as important as paying attention. It’s not as important as seeking the Kingdom in the quotidian rhythms of the everyday. It’s not as important as obedience.

After all, Jesus didn’t come for the rich, the educated, or the right. Jesus came for those with listening ears and open eyes, those who are hungry for righteousness and thirsty for God, those comfortable with metaphors and similes and “almosts” and “not yets,” those content to understand without knowing fully, those with dirt in their fingernails and flour in their hair.

In Matthew 13, we encounter several parables all packed in together, each one worthy of a thousand different reflections. (The one about the seed that grows into a tree is one of my personal favorites.) Each of these parables features Jesus’ very favorite subject, the thing he spoke about more than any other: The Kingdom.

The Kingdom is like a tiny mustard seed, Jesus said, that grows into an enormous tree with branches wide and strong enough to make a home for all the birds. It is like a buried treasure, a delicious feast, or a net that catches an abundance of fish. The Kingdom is right here, Jesus said. It is present and yet hidden, immanent yet transcendent. The Kingdom isn’t some far off place you go where you die, the Kingdom is at hand—among us and beyond us, now and not-yet. It is the wheat growing in the midst of weeds, the yeast working its magic in the dough, the pearl germinating in a sepulchral shell. It can come and go in the twinkling of an eye, Jesus said. So pay attention; don’t miss it.

This Kingdom knows no geographic boundaries, no political parties, no single language or culture. It advances not through power and might, but through acts of love and joy and peace, missions of mercy and kindness and humility. This Kingdom has arrived, not with a trumpet’s sound but with a baby’s cries, not with the vanquishing of enemies but with the forgiving of them, not on the back of a war horse but on the back of a donkey, not with triumph and a conquest but with a death and a resurrection.

And yet there is more to this Kingdom that is still to come, Jesus said, and so we await a day when every tear will be wiped from every eye, when swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears shaped into a pruning hooks, when justice will cascade like a river down a mountain and righteousness like a never-ending stream, when people from every tribe and tongue and nation will live together in peace, when there will be no more death.

On this week when our newspapers reveal the ugly reality that evil and good grow alongside one another—in the world and even in our own hearts—the parable of the wheat and the weeds seems especially weighty. As reports of civilian casualties mount, we see that, just as Jesus warned, human attempts to “root out evil” on our own, by force, result in the destruction of innocent lives.

Every. Single. Time.

Like it or not, this parable challenges, (perhaps even mocks), our notion of “precision airstrikes,” of getting rid of the “bad guys” without hurting the “good guys.” The fact is, we don’t see the world as God sees it. We are not equipped to call the shots on who deserves to live and who deserves to die, who is evil and who is good—especially when, if we’re honest, we can feel both impulses coursing through our own bloodstreams.

While we could certainly digress into an eschatological conversation about exactly what Jesus means when he talks about throwing evildoers into the fire, the instructive call of this parable remains the same: to let God do the farming. God is the judge—not you, not me, not kings, not presidents.

“Without a parable, he told them nothing.”

Yet still we struggle to understand. Still we struggle to obey.

Two-thousand years after Matthew recorded these parables about seeds and wheat and yeast, we’re still combing our theology books for answers. We’re still talking about airstrikes and minimizing civilian casualties. We’re still seeking power and vengeance, knowledge and stuff.

In Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle tells of a young woman who told the author, “I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was eight or nine. I didn’t understand it, but I knew what it was about.”

That’s often how I feel about the parables of Jesus. I don’t understand them exactly, but I know what they’re about.

L’Engle concludes: “…One does not have to understand to be obedient. Instead of understanding—that intellectual understanding which we are so fond of—there is a feeling of rightness, of knowing, knowing things which you are not yet able to understand…As long as we know what it’s about, then we can have the courage to go wherever we are asked to go, even if we fear that the road may take us through danger and pain.”

The God of the universe has beckoned us into His lap to tell us a story, to teach us to pay attention.

Let those with ears hear.

May 4, 2021

Watched From Above: By More Than God Alone

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Today I want to introduce a new website to you which digs into weightier topics than many other devotional pages. It goes by the long(er) name (deep breath) Professing His Kingdom Come, His Will Be Done. The author(s) listing just says, “Professing Christians.” A day before the devotion we chose for today, there was one about The Rapture, or as they called it, The Plucking.

For this one, you can read here, or as you’re always encouraged, send some traffic to the writers featured here by clicking headers like the one which follows.

The Cloud of Witnesses

Those who read and study the New Testament know who the cloud of witnesses are: they are people in heaven, some of which quite possibly serve in the courts of heaven, that know what we are doing and what we are going through down here on earth. It’s always been a fascinating subject to me. But how can this be when scripture hints that there is no contact between those who have gone before us, and we who have not yet come to the next world or realm? (for lack of a really good word to describe what’s coming)

What first comes to mind is the certain rich man who goes to hell and asks for mercy from Abraham (also deceased). Jesus tells this story:

Luke 16: 23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and sees Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.

24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime received thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.

26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

Here it’s talking about those in hell can see those in heaven and can even communicate. Wow! So if they can communicate with each other through the ‘great gulf fixed,’ is it possible for either heaven or hell to communicate with us here? Let’s examine.

Necromancy (definition):

1 : conjuration (by magic or sorcery) of the spirits of the dead for purposes of magically revealing the future or influencing the course of events

Ok, so we know God condemns magic and sorcery AND trying to contact dead spirits. I’m pretty sure we all can agree on that. But what about this cloud of witnesses that seems to be involved in the lives of the saints?

Hebrews 11 is the great faith chapter. The writer (Paul, James, or whoever it was) takes the entire chapter to talk about all those of great faith that have gone before us: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthae, David, Samuel, and all the prophets. But then the author says,

Hebrews 11: 39 And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: 40 God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (emphasis mine)

Hebrews 11 talks about great faith, Hebrews 12 goes on to talk about the promise of our being perfected. Apparently, patriarchs of old couldn’t be perfected without us and we can’t be perfected without their examples of faith, among other things as the Lord commands.

Hebrews 12: 1 Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about (Strong’s – encircled, bound with, hang about) with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us,

Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God…

22 But ye are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels,

23 To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,

24 And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaks better things than that of Abel.

Have you ever noticed that, in the Bible, there are some who come to give a message to a prophet or person of God and they are described as men, and other times they are described as angels? Abraham entertained three men, one of which was the Lord; Joshua sent the two spies but later they are described as messengers/angels (Joshua 6:25); John, in Revelation 19:10, falls down to worship this magnificent being and he tells him not to, that he is of his “fellow brethren”? There’s some weird stuff going on here.

Angels are depicted as beings with wings in the Bible. They come and go in the second heaven, which is believed to be our atmosphere above the earth, where the demons roam, ascending and descending between our realm and the realm of the Father, to His throne. Other times they have to fight their way through, as in Daniel 10, by the way which is described as a man needing Michael’s (the archangel) help to bring Daniel the message! What is going on here??

Are they given the ability on assignment to come and encourage us here? Why are they described as “fellow brethren”? Angels don’t go through what we go through to be called the children of God and brothers and sisters of Christ. And being called “witnesses” too, doesn’t that mean besides giving their testimony for God, albeit in the Old Testament, that they need us to be obedient to our call so they can be perfected post-Calvary and therefore are working WITH us? Just some things to think about.

 

May 3, 2021

Seven Times Jesus Socially Distanced

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
Tags: , , ,

NLT.Luke.6.12 One day soon afterward Jesus went up on a mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night. 13 At daybreak he called together all of his disciples and chose twelve of them to be apostles.

I know what you’re thinking:“It’s been 15 months since the pandemic came to my part of the world and I’ve missed seeing friends and family, and I’ve missed so many activities. If I have to read one more devotional about quietness, rest, stillness or solitude I’m going to scream. Don’t give me ‘Be still and know…’ I want the verse that says ‘Be active and busy and engaged and know…'”

But then I looked at today’s devotional and especially the list of seven things. I encourage you, don’t rush through this one. It’s short and you’ve got time to focus on that list. How might it apply? And what does it say about being prepared for the next season of life?

This is our third time with Wes Barry, the pastor of Waypoint in Charlotte, North Carolina. Clicking the header below takes you to his blog.

Devotion: Solitude

Luke 5:16–He would withdraw to desolate places and pray.

When is the last time you were alone?

While many of us have become isolated in our homes during this pandemic, we still have not sought solitude. Our days are filled with noises and distractions. Our homes require a daily demandedness. We fill the silence with podcasts, television and music; we read books, play video games or watch YouTube to fill the void.

Solitude is the intentional practice of seeking silence and aloneness.

Because we have become so hyper saturated with noise and distractions, we become anxious and uncertain at any moment of aloneness. Notice how many drivers around you habitually pull out their phones at a stop light. For those brief 30 seconds, they cannot stand not having something to read, look at, listen to or do.

This is why I love to trail run. Disappearing onto a trail is my place of solitude. People are baffled when they learn that I will run for hours on a trail without music. It is just me, the rocks, and the rhythm of my breath. But in this practice of solitude, I am joining in a long tradition of Christians called the “desert fathers.”

Now granted, their times of solitude were not 45 minutes on a Tuesday along the Backyard Trails of Charlotte. Instead, they moved into the desert for years to live in solitude and silence. They understood in their pre-television and pre-internet days, that the distractions and noise of this world would overwhelm their senses and mute their ability to hear from the Lord.

The desert–the wilderness–is the place where the Lord has spoken to people for generations. These places of solitude are where we reestablish our connection with our Creator.

There are 7 times Jesus retreated into solitude:

  1. To deal with inner struggles (Luke 4:1-2): Jesus retreats into solitude to withstand the devil’s temptation.
  2. After a big event (Matthew 14:22): Jesus retreated to solitude after feeding 5000 people.
  3. Before making a big decision (Luke 6:12): Jesus retreats into solitude before selecting his 12 disciples.
  4. To pray (Luke 5:16): Jesus retreats to reconnect himself with his Father.
  5. When experiencing grief (Matthew 14:13): When Jesus learned about John the Baptist’s death.
  6. When experiencing anxiety (Luke 22:39-42): The night before being arrested.
  7. In order to fulfill His mission: In the ultimate moment of solitude, Jesus conquers sin and death.

Something that I have always wondered about is what Jesus was doing on Holy Saturday. The day between Good Friday–the day of Jesus’ crucifixion and death–and Easter Morning–the day of His resurrection. Just this week, I finally put an obvious piece into that puzzle for me–it was the Sabbath. The holy day of rest. Jesus, in his victory over Satan and death, did not use that day to conquer evil. He did not go into a spiritual battle in the pits of hell for us. No, he followed the tradition of His Heavenly Father, and he rested on the seventh day. He found silence and solitude in his death, and this is what conquered sin and death. This means for us, that these practices of “not doing” are vital spiritual disciplines that can conquer the sin in our own lives.

When was the last time you sought solitude? When have you embraced silence?

 

May 2, 2021

Communion Perspective

Ruth shared this mediation with the online church family this morning. Your church’s expression of the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper may be different, but I hope that a holy imagination allows it to stir up similar thoughts each time you participate.

by Ruth Wilkinson

1 Cor 11:23-29 For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: On the night when He was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said, “This is My body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.”

In the same way, after supper He also took the cup and said, “This cup is the new covenant established by My blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy way will be guilty of sin against the body and blood of the Lord. So a man should examine himself; in this way he should eat the bread and drink from the cup. For whoever eats and drinks without recognizing the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself.

I love communion Sundays.

The first Sundays of each month, together in our building downtown, built with stones cemented together in centuries past, lit by coloured windows created in living memory, sharing bottled grape juice, and matzoh bread.

I love it when we all sit still and straight and facing the front while the silver trays catch the light as they’re passed up and down each row of us, hand to hand, becoming lighter and emptier as they go… like the collection in reverse. Everybody taking one small clear plastic cup and holding it. And waiting. Then the bread, already broken into small pieces by reverent hands. Taking our bread, and holding it. And waiting.

The pastor reads from the scriptures (“For I received from the Lord what I pass on to you…”), and then in his own words reminds us of what we do and why. We sit in silence together, pray together to the accompaniment of traffic noises and trains and the ceiling fans. Then we drink and eat together.

I love communion Sundays.

Partly because in ritual, in the familiar pattern, I find space to think. To be humbled.

…sitting still in a quiet room, being part of this family.
…knowing that, whatever our questions, the truth we share runs deeper.
…whatever our differences, the love we share runs deeper.
…whatever our struggles, we are here for and with each other.

I love communion Sundays.

Partly because in stillness, I find time to remember. To re-centre.

…staring down into the depths of that little cup of deep purple,
…seeing the light hit the darkness and make it glow just a little.
…just like Jesus entered the darkness of broken human life and brought the life that is the light of humanity–the light that was not overcome.

I love communion Sundays.

Partly because in interaction, I find a prompting to reset. To re-focus.

…holding that piece of matzoh between my fingers,
…seeing the stripes and the little holes,
…feeling the grit of it and the sharp edges.
…Remembering Jesus.

I love communion Sundays.

I love holding in my hand his blood and body. His bleeding and brokenness. Knowing that he bled and endured for us.

I love being aware of the people in my life. Being challenged to do what we can because of what Jesus did for us.

What did he do? He showed up. Lived our life, the good and the bad.
Did what he could, taught what we could learn.
Gave us his strength and health for the times when we would have none of our own.

He was broken so that he could put everything back together.
Including me. Including you.

We can’t hold our own brokenness in our hand. We can’t look from above into the depths of our own bleeding. We can’t always see the ways in which the topography of our skin and soul is irrevocably changed by scars and loss.
We can’t always see the ways in which our brokenness can help someone else.

Only Jesus is Jesus.
Only he could come and do what he did. Only through him can we do what we can do.

I love communion Sundays,

when I hold that little cup of purple, and that little shard of white.
Thinking about how much it must have hurt. And how much it does hurt.

And how much, how very much, it’s all been worth it.

And how very very grateful I am to have been bled for, and to have the chance to bleed for and with someone else.


For further meditation: Here again is the link to our Communion Sunday music playlist, 2 hours of worship and narrative songs.

May 1, 2021

The Day the Grade Five Sunday School Teacher Taught Reincarnation

We begin with two scriptures:

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, because you know that we will be judged more strictly. ~James 3:1 NET

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! ~Matthew 18:6-7 NIV

I am reminded of a something that happened many years ago. The church secretary’s ten-year-old son announced at lunch that his Sunday School teacher believed in reincarnation. True story. There’s a family mealtime conversation for which I would love to have been a fly on the wall.

Needless to say, an investigation ensued, the child’s report was accurate, and the teacher was relieved of responsibilities.

I’ve probably shared this story about a dozen times in the twenty years since it happened, but only today did I ask myself, “I wonder if anybody ever set the woman straight?” Obviously, removing the teacher from the classroom was the first thing that needed to happen, but someone also needed to set her straight on why Christians don’t see themselves as having existed before in another form and then, at the end of this life, returning to earth in another life-form.

I would suspect that at the most elementary level, correction would entail some notion of the teaching that “It is appointed onto man once to die, and after that the judgement” Hebrews 9:27 KJV, italics added. A Christian theological understanding of man would assert that we don’t come back in some other form as taught in Spiritism or Hinduism.

About a year ago, I discovered something I had previously overlooked; namely, that in the various doctrines which join together to form a systematic theology (or as I prefer, a cohesive theology) there is a doctrine of man and for that the term used is anthropology, the same term we normally use to describe a particular discipline in the social sciences alongside things like psychology or sociology or philosophy. Perhaps you took ‘anthro’ in school but never thought of it in a doctrinal sense.In the list of branches of theology at Wikipedia, it’s listed as “Theological Anthropology”

  • Bible – the nature and means of its inspiration, etc.; including hermeneutics (the development and study of theories of the interpretation and understanding of texts and the topic of Biblical law in Christianity)
  • Eschatology – the study of the last things, or end times. Covers subjects such as death and the afterlife, the end of history, the end of the world, the last judgment, the nature of hope and progress, etc.
  • Christology – the study of Jesus Christ, of his nature(s), and of the relationship between his divinity and humanity;
  • Creation myths
  • Divine providence – the study of sovereignty, superintendence, or agency of God over events in people’s lives and throughout history.
  • Ecclesiology (sometimes a subsection of missiology)—the study of the Christian Church, including the institutional structure, sacraments and practices (especially the worship of God) thereof
  • Mariology – area of theology concerned with Mary…
  • Missiology (sometimes a subsection of ecclesiology)—God’s will in the world, missions, evangelism, etc.
  • Pneumatology – the study of the Holy Spirit, sometimes also ‘geist’ as in Hegelianism and other philosophico-theological systems
  • Soteriology – the study of the nature and means of salvation. May include Hamartiology (the study of sin), Law and Gospel (the study of the relationship between Divine Law and Divine Grace, justification, sanctification
  • Theological anthropology – the study of humanity, especially as it relates to the divine
  • Theology Proper – the study of God’s attributes, nature, and relation to the world. May include:
    • Theodicy – attempts at reconciling the existence of evil and suffering in the world with the nature and justice of God
    • Apophatic theology – negative theology which seeks to describe God by negation (e.g., immutable, impassible ). It is the discussion of what God is not, or the investigation of how language about God breaks down (see the nature of God in Western theology). Apophatic theology often is contrasted with “Cataphatic theology.”

The Bible’s truth and Christianity’s orthodoxy is not comprised solely of doctrines about God, but also teachings about the nature of man and the world.

But we’re digressing from our Sunday School teacher.

For the record, I have however in my limited contact with this person over the years encouraged them along the lines of deeper Bible study. It grieves me to think that someone could be in church for so many years and hold to views that are so far from orthodox. However, there are times when spiritual confrontation is appropriate.

I’m not sure at this point that it would be helpful to revisit a 25-year old discussion, nor to reveal I was party to something that might have been considered confidential at the time. But I am reminded of this verse:

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness… (Galatians 6:1 NRSV)

Brothers and sisters, if someone in your group does something wrong, you who are spiritual should go to that person and gently help make him right again. (same vs. NCV)

The context is more overt sin and wrongdoing, but the principle is the same: To gently guide that person to the right path, using scripture. In a very, very early post here on Christianity 201, I looked at 2 Timothy 3:16 (the one that begins, “All scripture is inspired…”) and suggested the following paraphrase:

All scripture has its point of origin in God’s mind, and

■ shows us the path God would have us walk
■ highlights when and where we’ve gotten off the path
■ points the way back to the path
■ gives us the advice we need to keep from wandering off the path in future

The second point is most applicable here, but some remediation along the lines of the last point is important as well. Over the years I’ve seen that some people are simply “prone to wander.”

The chorus of the old hymn, “Brighten the Corner” describes this. While you might not fully understand all the nautical imagery, it’s easy to see the gist of the sentiment:

Brighten the corner where you are!
Brighten the corner where you are!
Someone far from harbor you may guide across the bar;
Brighten the corner where you are!

Our responsibility is threefold:

  1. To identify (discern) false teaching
  2. To remove the person caught in error from public ministry
  3. To try to restore that person to sound doctrine

As to point #2: This is for their benefit (to avoid being under judgement, as in today’s opening verses) and to prevent them from causing “little ones”(which can be literal in terms of children, or figurative in terms of people new to the faith) to stumble

We brighten the corner by shining light where light is needed.


The person in the story still attends the same church and still serves in a somewhat lesser capacity. They are in regular contact with people who are well-versed on the truths of Christianity and I believe are able to hold unorthodox beliefs in check.\


Previously on Christianity 201:

April 30, 2021

The Bible’s Divine Symmetries Exceed Literary Beauty

There’s a quotation that is now widely attributed to Philip Yancey, but I’m sure he said he got it from someone else:

If Jesus had never lived, we never would have been able to invent him.

Although I Corinthians 2:9’s context is different, our New Testament begins with the life of One that no human mind has conceived (NIV) or that never entered into the heart of man (KJV). Each of the gospel writers could have ended with the phrase, ‘Seriously! This all happened! We’re not making this up!’

The story of Jesus is simply incredibly complex. It seems simple enough and for just a little money you can purchase any one of hundreds of Bible books which will provide the primary narrative to children. But as you dig deeper, it reveals layers of significance you never considered.

When I was a university student there was a course offered called “The Bible as Literature.” Knowing where my life ended up, part of me wishes I’d taken this course, but another part of me wonders if it may have caused me to reduce the Bible to only literature; to deny its “living, active… sharper than any two-edged sword” power.

Eight years ago at this time, I was reading Jesus, A Theography by Leonard Sweet and Frank Viola. The use of theography is to suggest that while most stories of Jesus are simple biographies that is, they narrate “from womb to tomb,” this one is attempting to begin with “Christ before the manger,” and then move into eternity. I don’t know that the book lived up to its goals entirely, but I value it as a resource — I’d place it in my top ten — and it’s still in print. 

I’ve mentioned before that the ancients viewed scripture as a multi faceted jewel that revealed more and more with each slight turn; capturing and reflecting and refracting light in infinite combinations. To Sweet and Viola, the preferred image is that of a constellation with phrases from various sections combining to form images.

In the case of John’s gospel, the birth narrative is paralleled to the “I am” statements which are unique to that book.

Jesus A TheographyThe seven I AM metaphorical statements of Jesus in the gospel  of John are followed by their corresponding circumstances in the story of Jesus’ birth:

“I am the bread of life.”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which means  “house of bread.”

“I am the light of the world.”
Jesus was born under the light of the star of Bethlehem.

I am the door of the sheep.”
The doors of the guest house were closed to Mary and Joseph, but the gate to the stable was open.

“I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”
The infant Jesus was sought by shepherds looking for a baby wrapped in swaddling bands (used for birth or burial) and lying in a manger.

“I am the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus survived King Herod’s attempt to kill him.

“I am the way, the truth and the life.”
Wise men found their way to him, recognized the truth about him and defied King Herod’s evil plot.

“I am the true vine.”
Jesus was born in Bethlehem Ephrathah, which means ‘fruitful.’

The example above, while not the strongest of the parallels introduced, is fairly typical, and the reader must decide if the this information is significant spiritually or merely reflective of the Bible’s literary value. To the believer and Christ-follower, the Bible has to be more than great literature.

The book is well crafted and well researched and on average, each of the sixteen chapters has about a hundred footnotes. Still, I find a good filter is needed when reading this; each reader has to determine what they want their ‘take away’ to be from each chapter.

For me, more than anything else, the book highlights the issue of reading of Christian books versus only reading the Bible. I am where I am today spiritually because of the influence that Christian writers have had on me. If anything their words have drawn me into a deeper examination of scripture.

But the Bible’s complexities can be distracting to some people. It’s easy to get “lost in the weeds” of its intricate details and miss out on what God is saying to you and me through any given passage.

For example … Go back to the quoted section above. Beyond things like the significance of the name of His birthplace, or the ways in which His life mirrors the “I Am” statements, what does it speak to you and me?

[Instead of just throwing the question out there; let me offer a personal response: I think that often the amazing life of Jesus compels me to worship. Not in the ‘bursting into song’ sense, but just an awe for the narrative that leaves no loose ends. For an earthly, incarnate life that is so whole, so full, so rich.]

Can we know too much? On the one hand, in terms of Bible study is there such a thing as too much information? I believe Jesus: A Theography is on one hand a valuable addition to my library, but on the other hand, it’s important that I not stray too far from the simplicity found in those children’s Bible study books.

Matthew 11:25-26 (NIV)

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.

Matthew 18:2-4 (NIV)

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

But on the other hand, making discoveries in books like these is like suddenly reading those narratives we heard has children with a pair of 3-D glasses, and seeing dimensions unfold we never knew previously; filled with ‘ah-ha’ and ‘Wow!’ moments.

Luke 24:31-32 (NIV)

Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

Again, sheer awe.

April 29, 2021

Walking in the Light, Right Here, Right Now

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
Tags: , , ,

1st John 1:5-10

by Clarke Dixon

Bad things can happen when we walk in the dark. We don’t see the dangers around us, plus we can lose the path. Don’t we often think “if only I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently”? We make decisions in the dark which come back to haunt us. We don’t know the path ahead.

In life and in relationships bad things happen when we are in the dark. We need light! There is good news:

This is the message we heard from Jesus and now declare to you: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all.

1 John 1:5 (NLT)

First off, let us be sure to affirm that this is not about colour.

There are very clear reasons for anti-racism given in the Bible, starting at the beginning with all of us being created in the image of God. Jesus likely had darker skin, darker hair and darker eyes than we normally envision. The Holy Spirit is poured out upon all different kinds of peoples without discrimination. The vision for the future given in the Book of Revelation has all different kinds of peoples together as one, yet unique, in the presence of God.

“God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all” is not about colour. It is about illumination. It is about light that helps us see and appreciate colour, all colours including light and dark colours. It is the light that enables us to see where we are going. It is the light that enables us to see how things really are. It is the light that enables things to grow and gives life.

So if God is light, what difference does that make for us?

First, when God illuminates our way we see the better path to walk:

So we are lying if we say we have fellowship with God but go on living in spiritual darkness; we are not practicing the truth. But if we are living in the light, as God is in the light, then we have fellowship with each other, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.

1 John 1:6-7 (NLT)

We often talk about salvation in terms of past and future. You may have been asked “have you trusted in Jesus so that you can be with God when you die?” That is a good question, but it is not one John is asking here in his letter. That question is focused on the past and future. If we were to turn John’s words here into a question it would be, “are you walking with God now, and are you seeing the difference that makes now?”

If we are walking with God now, walking in his light now, that will play out in our relationships with one another. We will have “fellowship with each other.” The word “fellowship” if often used to translate the Greek term here “koinonia,” which no English term captures perfectly. It is the idea of true community, of authentic and good relationships among a group of people.

When we read John’s words, we may in our minds go to very ‘spiritualised’ understanding, that having trusted in Jesus, we will experience complete unity as Christians someday in the future. Again we are thinking of salvation as a past and future thing. John here, however, is focused on the present. If we are walking in the light now, if we walking with others the way God calls and enables us to walk with others now, then good things happen in our relationships in the here and now.

Consider the fruit of the Spirit;

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. . .

Galatians 5:22-23 (NLT)

As we grow in these “fruit of the Spirit” there is a significant impact or our relationships now! When we are walking in God’s light, our relationships are transformed, because we are being transformed. The path of God’s work within us is the better path to take.

Further, if we are walking with God now, walking in the light now, then “the blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.”

Here again in our minds we might go to a highly theological past and future understanding, that having trusted in Jesus in the past, we will blameless on the day of judgement that is in our future. True, but here John is also speaking about practical matters in the present. There is a cleaning up that can happen in the here and now when we pay attention to “the blood of Jesus” and what it means.

If we live now according to the example of Jesus, in the way of the cross, of sacrificial and undeserved love, of forgiveness and grace rather than retaliation and violence, then our messes will start getting cleaned up. Everything plays out differently when we walk in the way of love as Jesus loved. Good things happen, in the here and now, when we walk in the light. When we see that path and walk in it, we see the difference God makes.

Second, when God illuminates our way we see things as they really are:

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts.

1 John 1:8-10 (NLT)

Here is the way things really are: we each have sin, we each “miss the mark,” and that sin separates us from our Creator. But our Creator is also our Rescuer. God offers forgiveness through Jesus so that we can stand in right relationship with God, now and forevermore.

When we are walking with the Lord, and the Lord is shining a light on the way things really are, we will see our need for God’s love, and we will see God’s love in Jesus. That is how things really are.

What does our relationship with God look like? Do we look back to the past, to the moment that we trusted in Jesus and then turn our focus to the future, to the moment we meet Jesus in glory? In the meantime we might have the occasional dip into spirituality, sort of like the occasional Zoom call with family members during a pandemic. Or do we think of our walk with the Lord as a very present reality?

John calls us to walk in the light every day, moment by moment. When we do we will see God shaping our lives in the here and now. When we are walking with the Lord, it changes us, it changes all our relationships, it can begin to change the world around us.

God is light, when we walk in the light the path ahead comes clearer to see. God is light, when we walk in the light the way things really are comes into focus. God is light, His presence leads to life.

Let us walk in the light every day by pursuing God, pursuing Jesus every day. Let us watch for the difference that makes in us, and all around us.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Cobourg, Ontario. The full sermon on which this is based can also be seen as part of this “online worship expression

April 28, 2021

Everyone Should Have Samaritan Friends

Four years ago we introduced you to Mel Wild who is senior pastor at Cornerstone Church and director of Radiant School of Ministry, both based in Wisconsin USA. He’s in the middle of a series of writings on Jesus and the Samaritan woman and the question of “Who is my neighbor?” Reading this on his site by clicking the header which follows gets you pictures and the opportunity to explore his other writing, and is greatly encouraged.

Loving our Samaritans

Jesus loves the people we hate. He also loves the people who hate us. As you probably can tell, I think that the neo-Marxist ideologies of the radical left are evil and cancerous. But I don’t feel that way at all about the people who embrace these ideologies.  I actually have a soft spot in my heart for them. Growing up, one of my best friends was a tree-hugging, card-carrying Marxist activist. I think everyone should have “Samaritan” friends.

My Marxist friend was older than me, so when he went to college, I got to visit him several times while I was still in high school. It was an exciting adventure for me. His dorm room was plastered with Che Guevara and Black Panther posters. I got to read the Communist Manifesto as a teenager for the first time because that was his “Bible.” I got to go some of his campus protests. I knew nothing about the dangers of this Western brand of neo-Marxism on college campuses at the time, and it didn’t matter.

Years later, when I became a born-again Christian, and he stayed a radical Marxist activist, we remained close friends. This was because our friendship was not based on ideology or politics; it was based on something much more important. When I became a pastor, he would ask me about God and Jesus, and he was always especially open to the love of Jesus. He passed away a few years ago, so I am grateful for those conversations.

And that brings me to the story about Jesus and the original Samaritans.

51 Jesus let nothing distract him from departing for Jerusalem because the time for him to be lifted up drew near, and he was full of passion to complete his mission there. 52 So he sent messengers ahead of him as envoys to a village of the Samaritans. 53 But as they approached the village, the people turned them away. They would not allow Jesus to enter, for he was on his way to worship in Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51-53 TPT*)

First, let’s think about how we would honestly respond to such rejection. Of course, no response happens in a vacuum. In this case, it’s in context of generations of prejudicial hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews.

I want us to think about this because I really do believe that Jesus is calling His church to go to Samaria, to those people who we think are our enemies. Because of all that’s gone on over the last year, I believe people are more ready to hear the message of the Kingdom of God than ever before. But the problem is…us. Before we can change the world, we may have to change.

We’re a lot like Jesus’ disciples in this story, not being able to heal people like Jesus, but jealous of others who weren’t even following Him but were doing the “stuff,”  and preoccupied with arguing over who’s the greatest (see Luke 9:37-43; 46-50). This is Jesus’ A-team! They were the ones He was investing in to change the world. But, like us, they still had a lot to learn. To see that, let’s continue the story…

54 When the disciples Jacob and John realized what was happening, they returned to Jesus and said, “Lord, if you wanted to, you could command fire to fall down from heaven, just as Elijah did and destroy all these wicked people.”

55 Jesus rebuked them sharply, saying, Don’t you realize what spews from your hearts when you say that? The Son of Man did not come to destroy life, but to bring life to the earth.” (Luke 9:54-55 TPT*)

If we’re going to learn anything at all from this passage, we  must first ask ourselves honestly, “Who are my Samaritans?” Who do I want God to rain fire down on? For me, because of my experience growing up, I actually have more grace for radical neo-Marxist leftists than I do obnoxiously legalistic Christians! That’s an area where I needed to change my heart.

What’s interesting about the disciple’s response was that they were using Scripture to justify their violent response to the Samaritan’s rejection of Jesus. Beloved, whenever we use the phrase, “But the Bible says…” when justifying hatred and revenge, you can be sure you need to realize what spews from your hearts when you say that?” Or, as the NKJV puts it,You do not know what manner of spirit you are of.” I hope you do understand that you could be biblically correct yet be on the wrong side of God.

Now, you and I may say we love those who hate us, persecute us, cancel us, lie about us, but do we? Here’s the passage we have a hard time believing:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (Matt.5:43-46 NKJV*)

It makes me wonder, do I have a “tax-collector” kind of love, or Jesus’ kind of love?

You see, you and I will never learn to see people like God sees them until we learn to love our Samaritans. As I hope to show next time, seeing people the way Jesus sees them opens up something wonderful and amazing to behold.


Published on his site as licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 License.

April 27, 2021

When Your Faith is a Spiritual Mix Tape

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

While the use of cassettes is now quite rare, people still make personalized mix tapes consisting of their favorite songs on other formats. I think a phrase better understood now is personal playlist.

Spiritually, some people do this as well. The whole ends up being a bit of this and a bit of that, often fusing elements that have little in common. I’ve heard this called by different names, one of which is cafeteria Christianity.

I’m currently reading a 2002 book called And Beginning With Moses: Teaching Those Who Know Little or Nothing about the Bible by John R. Cross (Goodseed*). It begins with a horror story of a tribe which had gladly received the message of Christianity from missionaries, but had simply added it to their tribal beliefs.

In religious studies parlance, when this happens, it’s called syncretism. You don’t even have to go overseas to find it, in North America and Western Europe it’s possible to find people who are simply looking to add a dash of Christianity to their previously held beliefs the way a chef adds spices and mystery ingredients to an entree.

Here’s a short excerpt from the book. It begins with a horrific story of supposedly converted people reverting to pagan practices much to the shock of the missionaries present.

Syncretism in the Bible

Syncretism is not new. The ancient Israelites en route from Egypt to the Promised Land had problems in this area. God asked them a rhetorical question.

“Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel?”  Amos 5:25 NASB

The answer was, “Yes, they did.” They could make a legitimate claim to be following the true God. But there was something more. The next verse explains what they carried in their bags. God said…

“You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves.”  Amos 5:26 NASB

These were pagan Assyrian gods. Israel was trying to worship God and idols at the same time. They were mixing two belief systems.

This problem of “mixing” seems innate to the human heart. When centuries ago, Gentiles settled in the heartland of Israel, the Bible says,

They worshipped the LORD, but they also appointed all sorts of their own people to officiate for them as priests in the shrines at the high places.  2 Kings 17:32

Visiting the Middle East, I remember pondering those ancient high place altars, recalling God’s grief with the immorality and child sacrifice that was often part of idolatrous worship. The Lord said,

“They have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as offerings to Baal–something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.”  Jeremiah 19:5

Rightly so, such decadence had not entered God’s mind, but man’s mind seemed quite agile at mixing this evil and God’s good. The Bible says, ”

They worshipped the LORD, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought.  2 Kings 17:33

This is syncretism. Syncretism’s tenacity is illustrated in that, even after the Gentile “settlers” were instructed in true worship,

They would not listen, however, but persisted in their former practices. Even while these people were worshipping the LORD, they were serving their idols. 2 Kings 17:40-41

Centuries later God had the Apostle Paul write…

“…I do not want you to become sharers in demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.”  1 Corinthians 10:20-21

Syncretism has plagued the church since its earliest days. Paul wrote the book of Galatians to sort out the confusion caused by those who were trying to mix religious legalism with the truth. The book of Colossians and the First Epistle of John were written for a similar purpose, this time having to do with a mixing of Gnosticism and the Bible.

In the following centuries, people syncretized true Christianity with ancient Roman, Egyptian and Babylonian paganism, creating various “mixes” dominated by error. Mohammed syncretized Arab tribal beliefs with Judaism and a Christian cult to form Islam. These religions in turn have syncretized to form others. The list is long. It seems very human to believe a mangled and mixed message.


*Goodseed is an organization I first encountered at a missions conference. Their signature book is actually four books, with the same material covered for four different audiences:

  • The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus – written for people who grew up with a Christian or Catholic perspective
  • All That the Prophets Have Spoken – written for those with an Islamic background
  • By the Name – written for readers with a Middle Eastern worldview
  • No Ordinary Story – written for non-religious people approaching with a secular worldview

You give someone the version that is right for them. I like the idea that they realized they couldn’t do a “one size fits all” book and did some radical re-writing of large sections of the material. You can learn more at goodseed.com

 

April 26, 2021

From Faith to Doubt to Faith Again

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Every pastor has a Bible character for whom they are able to tell his story in exceptional ways.  For Andy Stanley it’s Nehemiah. For the young preacher you’re about to meet it’s Thomas. Yesterday I listened to two full-length sermons by Tyler Staton. The first was sent to me in a link by a friend who wanted me to know that Tyler is replacing John Mark Comer as teaching pastor at Bridgetown. He’s moving cross-country from Brooklyn, New York to Portland, Oregon.

The second sermon I watched was focused on Thomas, so I was thrilled to discover that Thomas takes up a good one-third of Tyler’s book, Searching for Enough: The High Wire Walk Between Doubt and Faith.

This devotional is adapted by the book and was first published by the Bible Gateway Blog, and appeared later at Devotions Daily. Click the title below to read at source, and click the link at the end to learn more about the book. Clicking the header below will also lead you to an audio reading of the book’s first chapter.

Stuck Between Two Unsatisfying Stories

Thomas is my favorite. He’s always been my favorite. I know Thomas. I am Thomas.

Thomas wasn’t a fiercely rational cynic. To think of him that way would be to minimize a whole life down to one single moment, which is always a mistake. This is a man who left everything behind to follow a self-proclaimed Nazarene rabbi. He risked everything for Jesus. He witnessed miracles that left him rubbing his eyes in wonder, but he also faced rejection, confusion, and public disgrace for associating so closely with one who was called a criminal.

The very week of Jesus’ crucifixion, Thomas steps forward in a critical moment to say he’s ready to die with Jesus. He was ready to die with his rabbi, but he wasn’t ready to live without him. And that’s exactly what Jesus asked Thomas to do when he wouldn’t say a word at his own defense hearing and took the death penalty like he was planning it all along.

Thomas isn’t a cynic or even a skeptic. It’s so much more personal than that. He’s disappointed. He’s hurt. Imagine pushing in all your chips, like he did on Jesus, and then the story ends in the kind of heartbreak so far outside of the realm of possibility that it blindsides you completely, leaving you in the kind of daze you never want to feel again. That’s the Thomas we meet in his famous declaration of doubt.

He’s hurting. He’s confused. He’s guarded. Life on his own terms wasn’t enough; that’s why he risked everything on Jesus in the first place, but how can he be the King of the everlasting kingdom from within a casket? Thomas isn’t a doubter; he’s a realist—calling it like he sees it.

“So the grave’s empty, huh? Well, that’s great, but I’m gonna need a lot more than that. If the rest of you are so desperate to believe, then go ahead, but I’m gonna piece together my actual life in the actual world. And if laughter, beer, and sex is as good as it gets . . . and if suffering is senseless and death is final and none of it amounts to anything more . . . then at least I had the courage to face it.”

Thomas’s resurrection reaction reads like God picked up a thirty-something from San Francisco or Berlin or Melbourne or Brooklyn and sat them down in first-century Jerusalem on that defining Sunday morning.

I’m not sure I understand the experience of seeing someone alive on Sunday who was definitely dead on Friday, but I certainly understand the skepticism of hearing other people spread a holy rumor like that one and categorizing it as religious well-wishing at best. I see myself in Thomas. I see my friends in Thomas. I see my city in Thomas. Stuck between two unsatisfying stories.

Now Thomas . . . was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” John 20:24–25

In essence, Thomas is saying, “If God wants me, he can come get me. I’m not hiding.” Thomas was a realist—a strong-willed, fiercely logical realist—and that earned him a nickname: Doubting Thomas. That’s a modern invention though.

His given name was Didymus, but everyone who really knew him called him by his Aramaic name—Thomas, which translates to “twin.” The Twin—that’s what all the other disciples called him, and it suits him . . . because, in a way, he’s all of our twin.

Thomas is modern Western culture personified. A whole hemisphere is stuck between two unsatisfying stories. The citizens of the industrialized Western world enjoy more personal freedom, leisure time, career options, and entertaining distractions than anyone at any other time in human history, and yet the increase in personal autonomy and freedom hasn’t led to increased happiness and fulfillment. Diagnosed and medicated mental illness has grown almost exactly parallel to these factors. The world’s freest, wealthiest, most autonomous people are also the world’s most anxious and depressed people.

Is there anyone you can identify with more in the Gospels than Thomas? Regardless of how you’d categorize your particular brand of belief or unbelief at this particular moment, plenty of us could say right along with Thomas, “It’s not enough. The meaning I’ve tried to drum up for myself in this life is not enough to still my restlessness, but to be honest, I’m starting to think an empty tomb is not enough either.”

Two Stories Caught in a Single Frame

Early on a hot summer morning in the mid-1970s, Philippe Petit walked across a wire suspended between the iconic Twin Towers dotting the Lower Manhattan skyline. It was a spectacle.

Almost exactly 27 years later, two commercial flights were hijacked and steered directly into those same Twin Towers, bringing them to the ground with thousands of casualties. It was also a spectacle—of the very worst kind.

A photo was snapped during Petit’s jaunt across the wire that was meaningless for nearly three decades but then became iconic: a commercial plane caught behind the balancing man on the wire appears to be flying much too low, almost like it will hit the towers. Two moments that seem logically a lifetime apart are caught in a single frame. The stories overlap for just a moment.

That’s what happened to Thomas. The story of the world and the story of Jesus seemed incompatible on resurrection morning. It was wishful thinking for any true realist. Then, for just a moment, the stories overlapped in a small upper room hideaway in central Jerusalem. Thomas, disenchanted by an empty tomb, encountered the presence of the living God.

That’s the invitation for you.


Learn more about the book at zondervan.com

Thanks to HarperCollins Christian Publishing for the opportunity to reprint these excerpts. Books is ©2021 Zondervan Publishing. Used by permission.

April 25, 2021

He Formed Us and is Still Forming Us

For You formed my inward parts; You wove me in my mother’s womb. I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.Psalm 139: 13, 14a

being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. – Philippians 1:6 NIV

And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:18b NLT

for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. – Philippians 2:13

Earlier today I had a sense that today’s devotional should center around the “fearfully and wonderfully made” phrase from Psalm 139. I knew that many are already familiar with the Psalm and was hoping to find some insight I had never considered before. I was very quickly and unexpectedly rewarded.

I met Syd Hielema once while he was chaplain of Redeemer University. He wrote the devotions which appear below for Today, a publication of the Christian Reformed Church in Canada and the United States. I don’t if he was thinking the same thing that I got from reading them, but these appeared on consecutive days, in the same order you see them below! (Click the headers below to read them at Today.)

Wonderfully Made—and Remade

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made. . . . Search me, God. . . . See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. — Psalm 139:14, 23-24

These verses from Psalm 139 remind us that while each one of us is a beautiful creation of the Lord, there are also offensive ways inside us that need to be dealt with.

After the fall into sin (described in Genesis 3), we human beings continue to live as precious works of the Creator while also needing to be redeemed from sin and brokenness. So in his great and amazing love for us, God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to pay the price for our sin and to give us new life forever with him. And now the Spirit of God lives in us, guiding us to become like Jesus. He leads us “in the way everlasting.”

The apostle Paul describes it this way: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20), giving us one of the clearest statements in the Bible about dying to live.

The fact that we are fearfully and wonderfully made—and remade—leads to some of the most glorious announcements in Scripture, like this one: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).

Prayer

Thank you, Father, Son, and Spirit, for your gifts of creation and redemption. Continue to search us and to lead us in your way ever­lasting. Amen.

Refined Toward Wholeness

We know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. — 1 John 3:2

The word lavish doesn’t occur very often in the Bible, so its use here in 1 John 3 is striking: “See what great love the Father has lavished on us . . . !” This is where our salvation begins: with the overwhelming, overflowing love of God.

John then continues by contrasting what is now (“we are children of God!”) with what will be: “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” And this describes the finished project, the good work in us that God is bringing to completion (Philippians 1:6). Now we see “only a reflection as in a mirror” (1 Corinthians 13:12), but when we see Christ as he is, we shall be like him.

“All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure,” says John. Hope in Jesus is the bridge, the link between the love lavished on us now and becoming like him when he appears. This is love that is determined to bring us home. This hope is not wishful thinking; this is active hope, purifying hope—that is, hope that surrenders to the purifying fire of the Spirit of God as he burns away every part of us that is not pure and good.

It’s a good habit to look back over each day, give it up to God, and pray some words like these:

Prayer

Lord, use your purifying fire to burn away the parts of me that hurt and dishonor you and others. Help me to die to those things so that I can really live, filled with the wholeness of Jesus. Thank you, Lord, for the good work you have begun in me. Keep purifying me each day. Amen.

April 24, 2021

Have You Heard The Call?

Earlier today I was looking at things I had posted 13 years ago at Thinking Out Loud (this was before C201 existed) and discovered the name John Rothra. I remembered reading his material at the time, and discovered that (as of last week) he is still writing. Later I realized that we’ve used his material three times previously here, twice as recent as 2019.

He has just started a series on “The Hero’s Journey.” He explains,

Depending on which hero’s journey structure you look at, it will contain various numbers of steps or stages. However, despite the differences, there are five core stages that exist within most (if not all) models, and it is those five that I’ll be using for this series.  Those stages are:

  1. The Call
  2. The Wise Mentor
  3. The Struggle
  4. The Growth
  5. The Victory

So what follows is an excerpt from the first part, dealing with “the call.” Click on the header which follows to read the whole article.

Using the Hero’s Journey to Understand the Christian Journey, Part 1: The Gospel Call

The Gospel Call: Two Types

Each Christian’s journey, like the hero’s, begins with a call.  That is, the person is invited to go on the journey.  For a Christian, this call is the gospel call, and it consists of two types of calls: the human call and the divine call.   These two calls – human and divine – often go by various names, but whatever they may be called, we do see each of them in Scripture.

The Human Call

What is the human call? The human call is when one person shares the gospel with another person and then invites them to respond to the gospel message.  This is evangelism, or sharing the gospel of Jesus, and we see this call in Scripture.  For example, in Luke 14, Jesus tells a parable about a master who is holding a banquet.  He wants many people to attend, so he sends his servant out with instructions to invite people to come to the banquet.  In verse 23, Jesus says,

23 And the master said to the servant, “Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.”

Luke 14:23

In this parable, Jesus (who is the master) is telling his servant (who is you and I), to invite people to come to the banquet.  In other words, you and I are commanded to share the gospel with others and invite them to put their faith in Jesus.

We see the human call mentioned later in Luke’s gospel:

45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Luke 24:45-47

Jesus is telling his disciples – including you and I – that the gospel of Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of sins, his physical resurrection, and repentance is to be preached to everyone all over the world.  We later see the human call being issued by Peter in the book of Acts:

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:37-38

Here, Peter has just preached the gospel and now asks the listeners to respond to what they just heard.

Thus, we see from Scripture that there is a human call aspect of the gospel call, but what about the divine call?

The Divine Call

The divine call is when God himself invites a person to respond to the gospel message.  While God can issue this call at any time, according to Scripture, it occurs through the preaching of the gospel (Rom 10:14-17; Acts 2:14-41). Through the divine call, God not only calls people to respond to the gospel, but he also convicts them of their sin.  We see the divine call addressed at least twice in John’s gospels.

In John 6, Jesus is addressing some disbelieving Jews who are not accepting what he is telling them.  The apostle records Jesus’ response:

43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.”

John 6:43-44

Jesus makes it clear that God himself sends people to Jesus.  This is the divine call.  However, Jesus again references this call in John 16 where Jesus is teaching about the work of the Holy Spirit:

And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

John 16:8-11

As you can see, Jesus tells us that part of the work of the third person of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, is convicting people of their sin.  This is, again, is a reference to the divine call in which the Holy Spirit convicts a sinner and invites him or her to respond by repenting of their sin in faith.

Thus, we see in Scripture that the gospel call consists of both a human call and a divine call.  The question is, how can people respond?

to learn how people can respond, continue reading by clicking this link. Don’t miss this.

April 23, 2021

Some of Jesus’ Statements We Call Hyperbole Are Still Truth

Can you imagine the crowds listening to some of the more outrageous statements made by Jesus and saying, “Oh, there he goes again!” Despite the sensational nature of some of the things he said, the phrasing is also the reason we remember them, like the one in today’s devotional.

Our online travels today took us to For Christ’s Sake Fellowship which is run by Pastor Daniel Harlow. This online ministry describes their goal as: “We aren’t necessarily looking for a congregation as much as we are trying to help establish a strong, personal, and life long connection between you and Jesus Christ.”

Click the header which follows to read at their site.

Cast Off Your Hand

“And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.” – Matthew 5:30

Temptations abound in this world. You can’t turn on the tv or even drive down the road without being bombarded by beckoning sin. Even the smart phones we hold in our hands create an open doorway for all kinds of evils. What is a good person to do?

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus said that if your eye or your hand causes you to stumble, it would be better for you to pluck the eye out or cut off your hand and cast them away rather than to have your souls to end up in Hell.

What Jesus is saying there is not about hurting yourself, it’s about being willing to do whatever it takes to keep your eyes and your mind on Heaven. Aim for your righteousness and it will help yourself and others.

I do say “yourself and others” because you have more power and affect on other people than you realize. There is truly no such thing as a personal sin. Sin hurts and people who think much of you will follow your lead. You will take many souls with you wherever you go, either to eternal peace in Heaven or to eternal death.

Jesus mentioned the right hand for a reason. It is an example of your strong side. For most people, you get the greatest benefit from using your strong hand. That being said, even if something is benefiting you, it may also be what is doing the most damage to you in the long run.

There are many things in this world that are OK to do, but are they leading you somewhere good? Has the Holy Spirit been knocking on your door recently about something? Do you pray? Do you spend time in the scriptures? Do you use your tone wisely to help others?

I like to fish and I enjoy watching TV now and then. A few little relaxing pursuits are OK, but not when they consume my time. Even OK things, lawful things that benefit us, can get in the way of our eternal salvation. Moderation is key in many cases, but some things, even small seemingly insignificant things can take you away from the life God has called you too.

Jesus Christ suffered and died so that you can be free from sin. All of those bad things you’ve done are gone when you accept His payment on the cross. He died and rose again to give you an abundant life not only in Heaven for eternity, but here on Earth as well.

Use your abundance, whether it is food or money or strength or whatever, to help other people. Don’t use your time and earthly pursuits to chase sin. And make no mistake about it, if you are not actively chasing Heaven, you are slipping back down farther towards hell.

Jesus said there are only two roads. There is a wide one with a large gate that’s pointed in the wrong direction. Many people are on that road, heading for destruction. However, there is another road, a straight and narrow path that leads to an eternity of love and peace. Few find that road.

Which one are you on right now?

Once again, I’m not telling you to ACTUALLY cut off your hand. Please don’t! But I am telling you that we must be ready and willing to cut things out of our lives to gain God’s kingdom and blessings. Even if those things in our lives are OK and lawful, maybe they even benefit us sometimes, but if they harm us and cause others to stumble, then those things must be done away with in our lives.

If you do this, God has promised blessings and peace for now and forever. So stay on that straight and narrow path. It’s worth it.

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” – Philippians 4:8-9

God’s blessings to you.


Bonus item: Here’s a short devotional from the same author/site. Check out “Refire!”

Next Page »