Christianity 201

November 1, 2021

Be Careful How You Judge

Today our search for good devotional material took us to Lamp and Light, and writer Jason Smith who lives in Oregon, a state in the western US. On his “About” page he writes, “…if there is one thing that will be said of me at the end of my life, I hope it is this: this man lived for Jesus.”

Because this article appeared just hours ago, I’m going to close comments here and invite you instead to click the header which appears below, and read and comment there. I know he would be encouraged if you do.

Beware a Critical Spirit

“What gives you the right to judge?”

If you’ve lived in the United States for almost any amount of time, there’s a good chance you’ve heard this question or some version of it. Maybe someone even threw this barbed question at you or someone you know. It’s a question that gets to the heart of some major cultural shifts that have been witnessed in the last several decades. It’s also a question that points to why so many seem fed up with Christianity today.

But wait a minute, someone might say. Didn’t Jesus Himself tell us we are not to judge others?

Judge Not or Judge Correctly?

Perhaps more than any other passage in Scripture, I hear Matthew 7:1 quoted today – by both Christians and non-Christians alike.

“Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matthew 7:1, ESV)

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Many will even say, “Who are you to judge? Even Jesus said ‘Judge not.’”

Certainly such a command should be taken seriously, if we claim to follow Jesus as Lord. But let’s make sure we are understanding what exactly Jesus meant by this. For example, in another passage of the New Testament, the crowds are quick to criticize Jesus – even calling Him “demon-possessed!” That’s when Jesus showed them the error of their ways and added,

“Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly.” (John 7:24, NIV, emphasis added)

So, which is it? Are we to judge or not judge? We like simple and straightforward answers to this question, don’t we? And yet, as with so many other areas of human relationships, the answer has to be more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.”

Let’s consider the Matthew 7 quote in its full scriptural context. After saying “Judge not,” Jesus goes on to say this:

“For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.” (Matthew 7:2-5, ESV)

There’s a lot to unpack here, but if we seek to understand Jesus’ words we can avoid one of two errors that people often make. The first error is to think “judge not” is an absolute statement calling us to forsake all moral judgment or critique. The second error is to judge with a Pharisaical or self-righteous judgment.

Pharisaical Judgment

The first thing we need to see is that judgment here is akin to the word criticism. Jesus is chiding those who were eager to make harsh criticisms of others. This is seen in the ridiculous image Jesus paints for us. If you have read this passage before and completely missed Jesus’ use of righteous satire, there’s a good chance you missed what He’s saying.

Imagine someone walking into church with a massive tree trunk sticking out of his eye. To the amazement of everyone around him, the poor guy is somehow unaware of this ocular protrusion. How do you even broach the subject when he’s acting as if nothing is wrong? You then watch as he suddenly approaches one of the gentlemen staring at him in wonder.

“Listen, pal,” says Mr. Tree Trunk. “It seems that no one else is willing to tell you this, but you have some kind of black speck stuck in your eye. Here, I don’t want to embarrass you, but let me see if I can get it out of there.”

To which the other man, still startled by the size of that log, blurts out, “No, no! Thanks, but I think I’ll ask someone else to help with that.”

The whole scene sounds absurd, and yet it makes Jesus’ point perfectly. Jesus talks about things stuck in our eye, because very often our harsh criticism is the result of blindness to our own faults. To criticize someone else when we are struggling with the same thing (maybe even to a greater degree!) is to play the hypocrite.

Why Are We Quick to Judge?

It is part of our human nature that we tend to minimize the seriousness of our own sins and failures while we magnify the shortcomings of others. This can stem from spiritual pride – even if we don’t consider ourselves religious. We all have an inner Pharisee that is eager to make others look worse in order to make ourselves look better by comparison.

Take inventory of your own heart. When you hear about someone else’s failures, are you quick to condemn? Is there a part of you that smiles when others are exposed for wrongdoing? Do you jump at opportunities to show others to be in the wrong simply because you are gratified by being right?

There are times when we might be absolutely right, but the way we are speaking is shortsighted and harsh. Maybe it’s because we’re speaking like someone who has the goal of tearing others down rather than building them up.

Are you better at seeing the good intentions of others or finding errors in their thinking? Too often, we can criticize someone else only to find out later that we had no understanding of their unique situation. Proverbs 18:13 says, “To answer before listening— that is folly and shame.”

The Pharisees felt they had to bolster their own self-image, because for them everything hung on being seen as righteous and morally praiseworthy. But when you understand that your righteousness comes from Christ through faith, you no longer feel the need to be superior or self-righteous. When you understand your own guilt has been removed by Christ, you won’t feel the need to find guilt in others.

Why We Can’t Neglect Discernment

Secondly, let’s note that Jesus is not calling for an absolute ban on any and all moral judgments. We’ve already noted that Jesus elsewhere calls people to “judge correctly” or to make sober judgments in the right way. And in Matthew 7, Jesus goes on to say, “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs” (v. 6). Picking up Jesus’ metaphor for those who mock and malign us, how are we to know who the “dogs” or “pigs” are without careful discernment? A little later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns of “false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves” (v. 15). If we should never make any moral judgments whatsoever, why would He say, “You will recognize them by their fruits” (v. 20)? To determine if “fruit” of someone’s life is good or bad, one must make a moral judgment.

But even in the example of the man with a log in his own eye, Jesus tells us to “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5, ESV)

In other words, Jesus isn’t calling us to stop correcting people who are in error. Jesus is saying that until we have examined our own hearts first and confessed our own sin to God and others, we are in no position to confront others. A good question to ask ourselves before issuing criticism is: “While my situation is different, is this something that I too struggle with in some way?”

God calls all His people to live in holiness, so of course Jesus still wants us to speak the truth in love to one another (Ephesians 4:15). If God calls something “sin,” so should we. Sin is always destructive, and God’s commands are for our good (Deuteronomy 10:12-13). When we keep this in mind, we can warn both ourselves and others against it. Jesus calls the clear-eyed to help the brother with the speck out of love.

Elsewhere the New Testament says:

Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. (Galatians 6:1, NIV)

Confronting a brother or sister in sin is something Jesus explicitly calls His followers to do. But this is so important: the goal must always be restoration. The goal is not to expose, embarrass, condemn, or make an example of someone. To confront someone in love is to say, “I know that what you are doing offends God and can only bring harm to yourself and others in the long run. So please come back to the Savior who loves you too much to let you go your own way!”

Tenderness in tone goes a long way here. That’s why Paul says to restore the person caught in sin “gently.”

Jesus, Friend of Sinners

Let’s remember that Jesus came into this world not to condemn, but to save.[1] If you are at all familiar with the teachings of the Bible, you know it says that every last one of us are sinners. Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” All includes you, me, and everyone else in the line of Adam. What does that have to do with being overly critical?

Well, if I am a sinner who deserves condemnation but instead receives grace from God, that should radically shape the way I deal with others. As a Christian, I know that Jesus found me when I was lost and showed me incomprehensible grace when I was headed for the ultimate judgment of hell. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8, NIV). To forget this in my relationships with others is to forget the greatest thing that happened to me.

How quickly we can forget that because of Jesus’ compassion for the lost, He was frequently found with the biggest sinners. Why? Not because the perfect Son of God wanted to join in their sin, but simply because He loved them and knew they needed Him. How ironic that we don’t find Jesus sharply criticizing the sexually promiscuous or materialistic tax-collectors. Instead, it was for the religious leaders that Jesus reserved His sharpest criticism, the very ones who mocked Him with the label “Friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).

Cruelty, slander, and mud-slinging happen in the world. We know that. We know people get canceled and shamed and ostracized without a fair hearing. But that should not happen in the church of Jesus Christ. Jesus does not delight in a church that looks down on a sinner who has lost their way.

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who goes after that wandering sheep with the goal of bringing it back to the fold. That should be our hearts, too. And as I look at my own heart, I confess there are times that I’ve jumped to conclusions about people without giving them a fair hearing. That is always wrong, and Jesus calls us to do better than that.

Christians of all people should understand the importance of being slow to criticize. We should take our cues from Jesus and be known for humbly loving those with whom we strongly disagree. We should confront religious hypocrisy while being especially watchful about such hypocrisy in our own hearts.

Question for reflection: Am I more eager to confront hypocrisy in others than I am willing to confront it in my own life?


[1] John 3:18.

 

September 21, 2021

Christians and “Failure Porn”

A recent popular Christian podcast series was accused of creating “failure porn.” The term is a reference to those reports and stories of people who experienced failure in ministry — for whatever reason — and the resultant charge or excitement that others seem to get in hearing or reading such accounts.

It’s been compared to the “thrill” — and I hate having used that word — that someone might get in seeing a train wreck. It does seem to be a trait of human nature that people slow down when there has been a bad accident on the freeway. Is that mere curiosity or something else?

A Washington Post headline called it the “celebration of failure.”

Such reaction is antithetical to Christian living.

Romans 12:15 tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Or, other translations: weep with those who weep.)

We’re told that Job’s friends didn’t just drive by and later relay the details of Job’s tragedy to their friends and family, but rather they entered in to his suffering. We read that, “When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him.” (2:11)

This can also include entering into the suffering of those who, rather than have external circumstances befall them, have brought about their condition by their own doing. The writer of Hebrews tells us, Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. (13:3)

Paul echoes this in Romans: We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. (15:1)

“Bearing with” or “taking on” the consequences and circumstances of those who have fallen, as though it befell or happened to us will help us see these situations in a different light. Again, Paul writing to the Corinthians this time says, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (I-12:27-28)

He’s speaking about what it means to be part of a body. Even when someone with a high profile experiences catastrophic, headline-making failure, our response should be, “That’s my brother,” or “That’s my sister you’re talking about.”

…The thing I like about the podcast against which the charge of producing “failure porn” has been leveled against is that they are going out of their way to find the redemptive value in us hearing the stories and learning from them. The host has said many times he wants to do this in order to benefit the church, and I personally trust that this is indeed his genuine motive.

Furthermore, many of the Old Testament narratives — and a few in the New Testament as well — are accounts of colossal failures; stories of people who perhaps failed to listen to God (or the prophets) and committed grave errors and made huge mistakes.

Paul in Romans says that, “Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us…” We’re not to look at Noah’s weak moments, or David’s failure, or Samson’s character flaws and experience some type of endorphin rush, or what the Washington Post called celebration.

But even there in Romans, Paul is thankfully focused on the more positive things that are written for our benefit. The full text reads,

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (15:4-6)

all scriptures today, NIV

 

July 8, 2021

What I Love About Being a Christian, Despite the Shenanigans of Christianity

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm
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NIV John 13:35 By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

NRSV Acts 5:31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.

by Clarke Dixon

It may surprise some of you, but sometimes I, a Baptist pastor, don’t like being a Christian. There are aspects of Christianity that I don’t like. In fact there are aspects of Christianity I hate.

For one thing, I don’t like quite a bit of our history, especially where we have done things to others, and one another, which go well beyond the “shenanigans” spoken of in the title. Atrocities is a better word.

In our day we can point to residential schools here in Canada, all seemingly staffed and run by Christians from various denominations. These are only the tip of the iceberg on Christians doing things that would cause any atheist to say ‘you Christians make a good case for believing that evil exists, but not God.’

We Christians have done and still do bad things. We used to put one another to death for thinking differently. So much for “they will know we are Christians by our love” (see John 13:35). Many shady characters throughout history have identified as Christians. We have used the Bible to support the suppression of human rights, slavery and sexism coming to mind.

So why I am a Christian?

Despite all the things that I hate about Christianity, there are things I love about being a Christian.

I love being a Christian because following Jesus brings beauty.

The way the Jesus centered life works out in life is beautiful. While yes, we Christians have had our share of atrocities, there have been so many beautiful moments because people have followed Jesus in the way of love. This is a sermon in itself, actually many, so I will refer you to a series from a couple of years ago called “Believable and Beautiful. Why Christianity is Compelling.”

I love being a Christian because I don’t have to stop thinking to follow Jesus.

As I have often said, I don’t ever leave my brain at the front door of the church, and neither did I leave my faith in the parking lot of the university. Critical thinking (in the best sense of the phrase) is well integrated into my faith. Again, here is a series touching on this.

I love being a Christian because I am part of a movement of Jesus followers that is worldwide and enduring.

Despite efforts to stamp it out, the movement centered in Jesus continues on. Despite all the stupid and sinful things we have done, the movement has brought and continues to bring a positive impact in peoples lives.

I love being a Christian because the facts about Jesus answer my deepest questions.

The Bible’s storyline focused on Jesus answers my deepest questions about existence. That God is, and that Jesus is the self-revelation of God, makes the best sense of everything; the existence of the world, the existence of humanity as a unique species, the existence of the Bible as a unique collection of writings, and yes, even the existence of suffering.

It answers my deepest questions about the past, present, and future. Looking to the past, there is healing and forgiveness in Jesus, there is change from all that is ugly to all that is beautiful. As one songwriter has put it, we trade our ashes in for beauty. Looking to the present, there is the potential for growth and continual renewal in Jesus through the Holy Spirit. We trade our ashes in for beauty on a daily basis. Looking to the future, there is assurance of life through Jesus. We will trade our ashes in for beauty, quite literally, when even the ashes of our deceased bodies will be traded in for beauty.

I love being a Christian because of Christ.

Though there are things I actually hate about Christianity, Jesus resonates. In speaking before the religious leaders who wanted to squash the nascent Christian movement, Peter calls Jesus “Leader and Saviour” (Acts 5:31). If there is any person in the history of the world that I would want as my leader, it is Jesus. If there is any person in the history of the world that I could consider has any claim to be Saviour, it is Jesus. There is not even a close second. There is not even a distant second. There is no other. There is no other person in the history of the world where we see that God is, that God is love, and that God is for us and not against us.

There have been many inspiring people throughout history, but none as inspiring as Jesus. There have been many revolutionaries, but none as revolutionary as Jesus. There have been many who have had a lasting impact, but none have had as great and lasting an impact as Jesus. Looking to the future, none will have the impact on world, and on our lives, as Jesus.

Many people have inspired me, have brought revolution to my thinking, and have had lasting impact on me, but none like Jesus. No one rescues me from all that separates me from God like Jesus. No one else can.

In conclusion, there are reasons that I don’t like being a Christian. There are aspects of Christianity I actually hate. But I love being a Christian mainly because I love Jesus. Jesus loved me first.


Clarke Dixon appears here weekly. Videos for this and other messages on which his blog posts are based are available at this link.

May 9, 2021

Fixing Fractured Fellowship

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:34 pm
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I have written about what is called “The Philippian Hymn” many times. I’ve also preached a 40-minute sermon it, written my own paraphrase for it, and committed it memory several different ways. If pressed, I will tell you that the theme of the passage is the humility of Christ, though it’s really an overarching view of the incarnation of Christ from beginning to end. (See my sermon notes here.)

But scrolling through Twitter hours ago, I saw something that maybe I’d missed. While the passage itself is a very creed-like statement of all things that matter in terms of the life of Jesus, it’s true context is relationships.

NIV.Phil.2.1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

I remember years ago listening to a sermon on “present yourself as a living sacrifice;” and it was said that “The problem with a living sacrifice is that it tends to crawl off the altar.” Well, in light of the Philippians passage we could add, ‘The problem with being told to prefer others and defer to others is that it doesn’t apply in an argument or debate where I happen to be right.’ In other words, you might smile and open the door for someone, but continue to allow a Great Wall of Disagreement to be constructed where you have different views on a spiritual, political, or social issue.

What’s worse is that in that in the present climate, the differences we have seem to be magnified. And our reactions– whether it’s to pick a fight or simply shut down — have become more frequent and more dramatic.

I have always found Romans 14 to be instructive. It’s dealing with specific issues — the eating of certain food, the keeping of certain days — but the principle behind what’s stated is widely applicable:

NIV.Rom.14.1. Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters… 10 You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat… 13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister… 19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

…While looking for something else earlier today, I came across an item that we had posted nine years ago from author Mark O. Wilson. He had begun with his Mother’s Day sermon with The wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands, the foolish one tears hers down. Proverbs 14:1

Although we don’t usually re-post third-party devotions here, so much of this was appropriate to today’s cultural moment, both inside and outside the church. Where you see the word “home” below, just replace with “Church” or “community” or “extended family.”

Killkenny Cats and Home Squabble

…Wisdom builds the house. Foolishness tears it down.

When we fail to think before we speak and act, we’re likely to tear the house down. We’ve been given two ears and one mouth, and they should be used in that proportion.

Sometimes, in a passion to say right things, we say things wrong and hurt people. We’re wrong in our rightness, and unwilling to budge an inch in spirit. I think this is at the heart of the polarization in our state and nation. People are eager to share their opinions, but few are humble and patent enough to take the time to listen and understand others.

Too many homes are marked by unhealthy conflict and misunderstanding. Sometimes, it’s just a slow simmer of frustration. Frequently, it leads to checking out, and giving less than one’s best. Occasionally, it erupts into full-scale, brutal warfare. In the squabble, hurtful and destructive things are spoken that can never been undone. Rash words in a fit of anger can destroy the very fabric of the relationship.

As the old rhyme goes:

There once were two cats of Kilkenny.
Each thought there was one cat too many.
So they fought and they fit,,
And they scratched and they bit
‘Til excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats there weren’t any.

Perhaps this is why Proverbs 19:11 reminds us it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.”

It’s very possible to win the battle (argument) and lose the war (relationship.) Here’s a question: Is what we’re fighting over worth the fight?

Occasionally, it is. Sometimes, there is a significant principle or human right at stake, and only a good fight will set it straight. However, most of the time, our conflicts are over lesser things. We let our selfishness stand in the way, then hold stubbornly to our opinions as a “matter of honor.” Little issues become major eruptions when we stake our significance on them.

Conflict is an emotional state, and the issue will not be resolved when either party is in that state. You can’t argue someone out of it. The only way to help another person move from the state of conflict is through kindness and patient understanding.

Argument may force the other person into a corner, forcing him to agree – but it will only be a surface agreement, and definitely not be an agreement of hearts. As the old adage goes, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

Here’s an idea: fight FOR your family instead of fighting against them. What dreams and hopes to you have for your family? What actions can you take to gently move in that direction? If you don’t do anything different, you will keep following the same path with the same patterns. I appreciate Andy Stanley’s observation, “Direction, not intention, equals destination.”

Weigh your words. Bite your tongue. Think twice. Then, as Colossians 4:6 says, let your conversation be full of grace, seasoned with salt so that you ay know how to answer everyone.

January 14, 2021

When We Still Can’t Go to Church: There is Good News

by Clarke Dixon

In these days of restrictions due to COVID-19 our lives are far from normal. The expression of our faith is also now far from normal. Those of us who would normally make our way to church on a Sunday morning among other times are stuck at home. Our church building can feel like our spiritual home, not just the building itself, but the church family we expect to meet there.

As Carey Nieuwhof has often said, this is not an interruption, but a disruption. We wonder if we will ever get back to normal.

There was a huge disruption in the early days of Christianity, a disruption which had a huge impact on how God’s people expressed their faith. There was no getting back to normal. Looking at that great disruption will help us navigate ours.

Let us put ourselves back into New Testament times. Imagine that you were a Jew, for whom the Temple was a focal point of the expression of your faith. The sacrifices are held there, you make pilgrimages there, the life of the nation is focused there in so many ways. While the local synagogue also played a big role, the readings of the Scriptures often pointed to the Tabernacle of the days of Moses and the judges, and the Temple which was built in the days of the kings. The synagogue was convenient, but the Temple was central, and crucial.

You come to trust in Jesus as the Messiah, as your Lord and Saviour. Being a Jewish Christian, the temple is still very important to you, the traditions around the temple are still a part of your life. Indeed we see in the Book of Acts how the apostles, with their Jewish background, would often make their way to the temple in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, normally under Roman control until a Jewish rebellion in 67AD, was put under a proper siege in 70AD. After a few months the city fell and the temple was destroyed. Indeed, it has never been rebuilt. Now that was a disruption! This meant, not just the loss of the temple, but the loss of many cherished traditions that centred on the temple. There would be no getting back to normal. As a Jewish Christian how do you handle the disruption? Is there hope?

There is. One verse in the Gospel of John captured how God’s people now had something far better in Christ:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14 (NRSV)

The word translated as “lived” among us, but sometimes translated as “dwelt” among us, is the word for pitching a tent. It was a word that evokes the tabernacle that God’s people were to build for the presence of God’s glory among them as directed to Moses following the exodus from Egypt. This tabernacle, literally a tent, would give way to a temple once Jerusalem was established as the focal city in the days of the kings. You could translate John 1:14 as “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” The tabernacle was the place where God was said to reside among his people. Since the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us, we no longer go to the temple in Jerusalem to find God. We go to Jesus.

The tabernacle/temple was also the place where God’s glory rested, often referred to as His shekina glory. Note again John 1:14 and “we have seen his glory.” The glory of God was to be found, not at the temple, but in Jesus. Again, the destruction of the temple could not disrupt the worship of the Christ follower.

The tabernacle/temple was also the place where intimacy with God was shown to be an impossible thing. Only one person, the High Priest, could enter the Most Holy Place in the temple, and then only once a year after much religious rigmarole. The lesson was clear: while God wanted to be among His people, a holy God and an unholy people cannot mix. While the temple symbolized the nearness of God to His people, it also represented distance. John 1:14 continues with “the glory as of a father’s only son.” While even the priests could not speak of intimacy with God such that they could meet with God face to face, Jesus has a unique intimate connection with the Father. Jesus represented intimacy with God. Through his death on the cross, intimacy with God is now possible for us. The destruction of the temple could not change the fact that in Jesus, a much better intimacy with God was on offer.

John 1:14 goes on to say that Jesus is “full of grace and truth.” Before Jesus you would go to the temple to experience and be reminded of God’s grace. It was the place of sacrifice for atonement, a place representing the forgiveness of sin and covenant with God. The temple was the place you would expect to be reminded of the truths of God, the reality of God’s relationship with His people. The destruction of the temple could not destroy the experience of grace, the presence of truth, for these are found in Jesus, even more so.

In summary, before Jesus, if you were wondering where to go to find God, you would be pointed to the temple. But now we look to Jesus. Being with Jesus was far more important and exciting than being at the temple!

Here is a point which is important for us today. Being with and walking with Jesus in all of life is far better than being religious in a sacred space once a week. Having Jesus in our hearts and minds is far better than having ourselves in a church building. Experiencing Jesus in our lives daily is far better than experiencing church ministries from time to time.

There was one major benefit to the destruction of the temple as we will see. Worship at the temple could become temple worship.

The disciples were impressed by the temple:

As Jesus was leaving the Temple that day, one of his disciples said, “Teacher, look at these magnificent buildings! Look at the impressive stones in the walls.”

Mark 13:1 (NLT)

Jesus responded:

Yes, look at these great buildings. But they will be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!

Mark 13:2 (NLT)

So don’t be too impressed with the temple. It is temporary. Worship that which is eternal. The destruction of the temple was also the deletion of an idol.

Worship in a church can become worship of the church. We are easily impressed with things that cannot last. In our day, the expression of faith through the ministry of a church is not being destroyed, but perhaps it is being deconstructed. What was once impressive, is not so much anymore. With a lockdown in our province, the most impressive church buildings are now much less impressive. Even those built to hold thousands can currently only hold ten.

We cannot at this time invite people to attend impressive churches, to experience impressive ministries, held together with impressive leadership. But we can connect with, and invite others to connect with, an impressive God.

Very few churches have impressive ministries right now. Our own church “services” are shot using the phone in my pocket, and edited with software that came free with our computer. It is a very Mickey Mouse affair. In fact I refuse to call them church “services,” but instead call them “worship expressions.” It is just not the same! But that’s okay, it is not about impressive churches and ministries, but about becoming people through whom God makes an impression on the world.

Perhaps a positive from all this is that we are being weaned from trying to be impressive in what we do for Jesus, and instead must focus on leaving an impression, from what God is doing in us.

An impression is left, when,

  • someone forgives as a result of focusing their worship on Jesus,
  • someone expresses generosity as a result of a walk with Jesus,
  • someone is a peacemaker as a result of being with Jesus,
  • someone becomes a more faithful and loving partner in a marriage relationship because of their relationship with Jesus,
  • someone shows a gentleness that was not there before, because of the inner soul work of Jesus through the Holy Spirit,
  • Someone makes progress on coming to terms with an addiction, because of the higher power of Jesus . . .

The list can go on. An impression is left when people are growing in the fruit of the Spirit, growing in love, peace, kindness, joy, patience, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Jesus calls us to follow him. The question is not, how impressive are our men’s ministries and women’s ministries, but are there men and women of God who are following Jesus?

Don’t get me wrong. We will regather for in-person worship at some point. This is important. However, the things we do as a church are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. The end is to be walking with Jesus. What can we do as a church family to help people walk with Jesus in faith, hope, and love, to the glory of God? This is a question we can ask whether we are in lockdown or not. In this time of disruption let us put church in its proper place, as a means to an end, and not the end in itself. Let us turn from idolatry if we have let worship at the church become worship of the church.

We live in a bad news world, things are not normal, the expression of our faith in worship is not normal.

There is good news, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Our faith is not dependent on being in impressive buildings or going to impressive churches with impressive ministries and impressive pastors. Believe me, our church has not been dependent on an impressive pastor, at least not since my arrival here nine years ago or so. It is dependent on the presence of Jesus through His Holy Spirit.

When are we getting back to normal? The Lord knows. Walking with Jesus is way more exciting than getting back to normal anyway.

(Clarke Dixon appears here most Thursdays. The full reflection can be seen as part of this “online worship expression”)

November 12, 2020

What Makes Us God’s People?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:36 pm
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A Look at Philippians 3:1-11

by Clarke Dixon

What makes me a Canadian? Is it being born in Canada? I wasn’t. Is it having a Canadian accent, eh? Many don’t. Is it living here in Canada? Many Canadians don’t even do that. So what makes me Canadian?

We can also ask, what makes us God’s people?

In the earliest days of Christianity, before there was something known as the New Testament, the answer to that question for some people was very simple; if you are part God’s people you will act like God’s people as laid out in the only Testament available, the Old Testament. You will therefore be found keeping the covenant, keeping all the customs and traditions including dietary restrictions, festivals, and of course the mark of belonging for the males, circumcision. In other words, to be part of God’s people in Christ you must become a Jew, though a Jesus-believing Jew of course.

After all, some would have said, as God’s old covenant people we are considered to be the righteous ones, the ones in right standing with God, while the rest are the unrighteous ones, the ones not in right standing with God. Through Jesus you can duck under our Jewish umbrella.

But is that it?

This became a very important question among the early Christians. There was a discernment process which we read about in Acts 15. Here is the conclusion of the matter as written in a letter to Christ followers of non-Jewish background:

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.

Acts 15:28-29 (NIV)

Short, sweet, and to the point! You don’t need to become Jewish to be part of God’s people. But neither can you worship who, what, and how you once worshipped before walking with Jesus. This is why food, blood, and sexual immortality are mentioned, these all being part and parcel of the worship of the gods commonly worshipped in that time and place.

The early Christians realized that in Jesus God was not inviting people to get under the Jewish umbrella, but that there was now a bigger umbrella that now included non-Jewish people, just as they are, but now focusing their lives and their worship on Jesus.

Paul, knowing that it would only be a matter of time before the non-Jewish Christ followers in Philippi would be under pressure by some to become more Jewish, warned them very strongly:

Watch out for those dogs, those people who do evil, those mutilators who say you must be circumcised to be saved. For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us.

Philippians 3:2-3 (NLT)

Paul is reiterating here very strongly what was already recognized: you don’t need to become Jewish in order to become part of the people of God. Whatever makes us God’s people, keeping the customs of God’s old covenant people isn’t it.

If it was it, Paul could boast of the things that marked him out as truly belonging to God’s people:

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

Philippians 3:4-6 (NRSV)

If being Jewish is what makes you righteous, if it is what gives you right standing before God, then Paul can boast of his Jewishness. But that’s not it:

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.

Philippians 3:7-9 (NRSV)

Paul knows that God doesn’t relate to him on the basis of his fitting in with Jewish society. God relates to him through Christ. Being God’s people is about “knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord,” and being “found in him.” It is about “faith in Christ.”

There is a challenge in translating “faith in Christ.” Some Bible scholars point to the possible translation of “faith of Christ,” that is, the faithfulness of Christ. So we could paraphrase it like this: “Not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ, the righteousness from God based on God’s faithfulness to us.”

The focus is on the faithfulness and obedience of Jesus

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:6-8 (NRSV)

We should each ask, am I part of God’s people? Am I included? It is not by taking up religion. It is not by figuring out the right rules and keeping them really well. It is not by picking a Christian sub-culture and trying to fit in with what you wear and how you speak or what kind of music you listen to. It is by being “found in” Christ, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law,” but one that comes through the faithfulness of Christ. It is by responding to the invitation of God and walking with Jesus. What makes us God’s people? God’s love and grace.


Clarke Dixon is, in case you missed the first paragraph, a Canadian pastor. His church is in a town with a latitude of 43.9667 (or 43.9598 depending on who you’re reading) which places it just a tad south of Eugene, Oregon; and Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The full sermon on which this devotional is based was shared on November 8th)

October 12, 2020

What’s the Mission of Your Local Church?

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. – Hebrews 10:24-25

“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – Jesus, Matthew 18:20

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. – Colossians 3:15

Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word. – Ephesians 5: 25b-26

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. – I Cor. 12:27

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 4:4-6

And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church ,which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. – Ephesians 1:22-23

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. – Jesus, Matthew 16:18

if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. – I Timothy 3:15

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. – Ephesians 4: 11-13*

 

As I shared with readers at Thinking Out Loud earlier today, there is a song from a 2012 album which captivated my imagination back then as to what the local church can be and do, and it’s this song by former NorthPoint worship leader Eddie Kirkland. We play Christian music each evening during dinner and this one came around again on Friday and it’s been playing all weekend.

Consider the lyrics; play the video below as you read them; re-examine the scriptures at the top of the page, then follow the links at the bottom of the page to look at more scriptural images of the local church.

We want to be a church where freedom reigns
We want to be a people full of grace
We want to be a shelter where the broken find their place

We want to be a refuge for the weak
We want to be a light for the world to see
We want to be a love that breaks the walls and fills the streets

All are welcome here
As we are
As we are
For our God is near every heart

Let Your mercy rise
Let Your hope resound
Let Your love in our hearts be found
Let Your grace run free
Let Your name bring peace
Heaven come in the here and now

We want to be a door that’s open wide
We want to see compassion come to life
We want to carry truth that shines a beacon in the night

We want to see the city fill with hope
We want to bring peace to troubled souls
We want to tell the story of a God that we can know

All are welcome here
As we are
As we are
For our God is near every heart

Let Your mercy rise
Let Your hope resound
Let Your love in our hearts be found
Let Your grace run free
Let Your name bring peace
Heaven come in the here and now

Let justice roll like a river wild
Let mercy grow like a burning fire
Let it come in the here and now
Your kingdom come til it rules the earth
Your will be done all around the world
Let it come in the here and now

All are welcome here
All are welcome here
All are welcome here
As we are
As we are
For our God is near every heart

Let Your mercy rise
Let Your hope resound
Let Your love in our hearts be found
Let Your grace run free
Let Your name bring peace
Heaven come in the here and now

Let justice roll like a river wild
Let mercy grow like a burning fire
Let it come in the here and now
Your kingdom come til it rules the earth
Your will be done all around the world
Let it come in the here and now

Let justice roll like a river wild
Let mercy grow like a burning fire
Let it come in the here and now
Your kingdom come til it rules the earth
Your will be done all around the world
Let it come in the here and now
Let it come in the here and now 


Scripture sources: DailyVerses.net, Knowing-Jesus.com, OpenBible.info, BibleStudyTools.com

*NLT; all other verses NIV

July 25, 2020

Being Saved vs. Being Safe

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

At least once a year I like to highlight the writing of pastor, author and evangelist Greg Laurie, of Harvest Church in Riverside, California; Harvest.org. Here are two shorter devotions for you today. If you click through (on the titles below), you’ll see an option where you can have Greg’s devotions delivered to your mobile device each day.

Hold on Tight!

Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

—Jude 1:21

I don’t keep myself saved, but I keep myself safe.

God saves me. That’s established. But I keep myself safe, which means that I keep myself in the love of God.

Though God’s love is unsought, undeserved, and unconditional, it’s possible for me to be out of sync with His love.

Jude wrote, “Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life” (1:21 NKJV). He was basically saying, ‘Keep yourself away from those things that are unlike Him. Keep yourself from any influence that violates His love or brings sorrow to God’s heart. And keep yourself in a place where God can actively show His love to you.’

In John 17 Jesus prayed to the Father, “I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one” (verse 15 NKJV).

In this context “the world” refers to a mentality. It’s talking about a culture, a way of thinking, and the world system under the control of Satan. That’s why the Bible calls the devil “the god of this world” (see 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT).

There is God’s part and our part. If you were on a diet, for example, you wouldn’t hang around donut stores, would you?

Just as donuts aren’t good for diets, there are things that feed sin. That’s what Jesus meant when He taught us to pray, “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13 NLT).

Basically, that’s saying, “Lord, help me not to put myself in a place where I could fall into sin.”

So, God will keep you, but if you’re yanking your hand out of His hand, that’s a problem. God is holding on to you. But the question is this: Are you holding on to Him?


What Jesus Wants for Us

I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.
—John 17:21

Before I heard the gospel message, the love that Christians had for each other won me over. I watched them on my high school campus and thought, “Is this for real, or are they making this up? Is this an act? Do these people really love each other?”

After all, I was used to hanging around with people that I liked. Certain kids hung around certain kids. But as I watched the Christians, I realized they were from every kind of background imaginable, yet they obviously had something in common.

When Christians are unified and when they love one another, it’s a powerful witness to a lost and divided world. And that is just what Jesus wants for us.

In John’s gospel we find His prayer for us: “I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me” (17:21 NLT).

Now, I’m not calling for unity at any cost because the most important thing is truth. But sometimes Christians divide over ridiculous things. They’ll get upset over some minor thing, so they decide to leave fellowship altogether.

It reminds me of a story I heard about a man who had been stranded on a desert island. When rescuers finally found him, they noticed he’d built three huts on the island.

“I built those huts myself,” he told them.

“Wow! What is this hut here?”

“That’s my house.”

“How about this one?”

“That’s my church.”

“That’s fantastic! And what’s the third hut?”

“Well,” he said, “that’s the church I used to go to.”

As Christians, we should seek to live in unity and love one another as Christ has loved us.


Hi again, this is Paul, the editor and publisher of Christianity 201. Today I’d like to ask readers for prayer concerning some yet-undiagnosed health issues. Thanks.

July 19, 2020

Builders and Wreckers

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.
 – 1 Thess. 5:11 NIV

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
 – Eph. 4:29 NIV

So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up.
 – Rom 14:19 NLT

Looking today at some of the earliest posts on our parent blog, Thinking Out Loud, I discovered an item of poetry which was also shared once here in 2011, but never repeated. I thought it was definitely worth another look, especially in light of the hyper-critical spirit we see on so much social media, as well as the polarization which takes place when people have an opinion different from our own. If you post something, and enough people see it, someone will find something objectionable about it.

As a parable for our times, I think this couldn’t be clearer or more powerful…

I watched them tearing a building down,
A gang of men in a busy town.
With a ho, heave, ho and a lusty yell
They swung a beam and a wall fell.

I asked the foreman, “Are these men skilled?
Like the men you’d hire if you had to build?”
He laughed as he replied, “No, indeed,
Just common labor is all I need.

I can easily wreck in a day or two
What builders have taken years to do.”
I asked myself as I went away
Which of these roles have I tried to play?

Am I a builder who works with care,
Measuring life by rule and square?
Or am I a wrecker who walks the town
Content with the labor of tearing down?

Oh Lord, let my life and labors be
That which build for eternity.

…At the time it was posted I found some accompanying comments on websites carrying the poem, but unfortunately didn’t link them at the time. Here they are…

■ Why do so many of us find it gratifying to be sideline cynics smothering ideas in a relentless barrage of “what ifs” and warnings? As the poem points out, it’s much easier to be a wrecker than a builder.

■ Of course it’s wise and necessary to challenge assumptions, test theories and predict problems, but that should be the beginning not an end. We should measure our value by the number of balloons we helped launch, not the number we deflated.

■ A builder sees problems as challenges and seeks solutions; a dismantler sees problems in every solution. A builder sees flaws and tries to fix them; a dismantler sees flaws in every fix.

We should keep on encouraging each other to be thoughtful and to do helpful things… We should keep on encouraging each other, especially since you know that the day of the Lord’s coming is getting closer.
– Hebrews 10:24-25 CEV

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up…May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
– Romans 15: 1-2, 5-7 ESV

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
– Ephesians 4: 11-13 NRSV

 

 

July 13, 2020

Spiritually Good People Can Be Worn Down by the Spiritually Bad

Today we’re returning to the website of The Superior Word Community Fellowship in Sarasota, Florida and pastor Charlie Garrett. Readers there have been working verse-by-verse through the book of 3 John, and if you go back into previous articles, you’ll learn much about a character named Diotrephes, and the effect he is having on the local church. (If you have the time, this makes a good study.) Then, John moves to a passage which might be more familiar to us. Click the header below for today’s piece.

3 John -11

Beloved, do not imitate what is evil, but what is good. He who does good is of God, but he who does evil has not seen God. 3 John -11

John now begins a new thought, as indicated by the word, “Beloved.” This is the fourth and final time he uses this word in the letter. As with each instance, it is referring to the main addressee of the letter, Gaius. John has just referred to Diotrephes, noting his disgraceful conduct towards those he interacts with. Understanding this context, John now says, “do not imitate what is evil.”

The word mimeomai, translated as “imitate,” is seen only four times. This is its last occurrence. It is the root of our modern-day word “mimic.” Thus, the translation as “imitate” is well-founded. Gaius (and also we who apply John’s wisdom to our lives) is encouraged to not imitate what is evil. This implies that what Diotrephes was doing is, in fact, evil. The word translated as “evil,” however, is not the same as the previous verse. This word is a more universal word signifying morally bad. One can think of rot in wood which eats away at the tree.

Therefore, rather than imitating such conduct, John next says, “but what is good.” In this, Gaius needs to look no further than the example of Christ. Diotrephes had rejected that. Instead of being vibrant and healthy, his actions were rotten and in a state of decay.

John next says, “He who does good is of God.” The idea here is that the good a person does shows that he is out of, or from, God. His actions demonstrate the character, and the source of, who he is. Jesus referred to this in Luke 20 –

“For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. 44 For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. 45 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.”

Understanding this, John then finishes with, “but he who does evil has not seen God.” John’s words are to be taken in a general sense. There are people who do things which are “good,” which may be even more admirable than that of Christians. And there are Christians who do things which are not so good. They may be worse than those who are not Christians. What John is conveying is a state of being similar to that found in 1 John 3 –

“Little children, let no one deceive you. He who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous. He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil. Whoever has been born of God does not sin, for His seed remains in him; and he cannot sin, because he has been born of God.” 1 John 3:7-9

A person who is in Christ has moved from the authority of the devil to the authority of Christ. His actions are reckoned in an overall state.  Without being dogmatic on the matter, it appears that John believes Diotrephes had never truly believed in Christ. His actions are contrary to what a true believer would do. However, he does not question his salvation. He simply makes the observation that what Diotrephes is doing reflects the character of someone who has not seen God (meaning believed in what God has done in Christ).

Thus, when he comes, John indicates that he will deal with the matter. It will probably be an action similar to what Paul exhorted the Corinthians to take in 1 Corinthians 5:13. By putting him out of the congregation.

Life application: One may question, “Why would John say the words of this verse to Gaius if he had been acting in a Christian and responsible manner so far?” The answer is that just as a stone wears down to a pebble in a river by the continued slow grinding of the water and turbulence, we are equally susceptible to wearing down in our Christian conduct.

Bad company and bad examples will always bring down those around them unless they are diligent in maintaining their good behavior. This is abundantly evident in the political landscape of America. As people practicing perversion, and others with less than moral behavior, move into positions of power, those around them tend to degenerate into like-mindedness. The exceptions are belittled for their morality and defense of godliness. Eventually, only the most resolute and determined souls maintain their strong morals – usually at the expense of any true influence. This then is what John is warning against.

When he says “does good,” he is using a term which describes moral and spiritual goodness, just as mentioned in the example of those in politics above. The Greek word translated as “does evil” refers to something which lacks the necessary qualities that it should otherwise possess – like a lemon in a car lot. This was Diotrephes – the lemon on the lot, inferior and unworthy of any true value in the kingdom of God. We know this because John says that he who acts this way has not seen God in any heartfelt way which would qualify him for glorification.

Glorious and Almighty Heavenly Father – the world is a difficult place filled with perversion, wickedness, and unrighteousness. It is so very easy to become overwhelmed by the ungodly living around us. Please be our Shield and our Defender against the fiery darts which are constantly thrown at us. Keep us wholesome and healthy in our walk with Jesus. Amen.

July 3, 2020

Communal Faith

NIV.Mark.2v1 A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Today I want to highlight and recommend a book that I just received in yesterday’s mail, and I’m already halfway through. Why Would Anyone Go To Church: A Young Community’s Quest to Reclaim Church for Good by Kevin Makins (Baker Books, 2020) is the story of Kevin and his wife Meg and a team of volunteers who planted Eucharist Church in the urban core of Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. It’s full of insight and practical lessons for anyone who wants to do ministry in the inner-city. Learn more from the publisher about the book at this link. Follow Kevin on Twitter at this link.


…When the word gets out that Jesus is back in town, the entire region comes to see him. Before long, the house he’s in is so packed that no one can even get on the property. People are poking their heads through windows and climbing on shoulders just to hear one of his stories. Those outside the home notice a small group in the distance, carrying something between them and moving quickly despite the heat. “You should have come earlier if you wanted a seat,” someone shouts to them as they get closer. “Unless you’re carrying a pile of gold on that mat, you ain’t gettin’ in!” But the truth is that they had started scrambling as soon as they’d heard Jesus was back in town–the four friends working to track one another down before heading to the fifth, who is always at the same place: the city gate.

The men are carrying their friend, who has been unable to walk for as long as they have known him. To be paralyzed in any culture is to face unique challenges, but in the ancient world, without social assistance or accessibility laws, it was difficult to even survive. Unless you had people who cared for you. Being resourceful fellows, they decide to bypass the front door entirely, instead boosting one another onto the roof of the clay house and carefully hoisting their friend up as well. Inside, the people try to ignore the sound of footsteps on the roof, but when dirt begins to fall onto their heads, it proves impossible. Looking up, they see cracks forming as chunks of clay begin to fall, and before they can even piece together what’s happening, a human hand has burst through. The ceiling is quickly being replaced by daylight which is then interrupted by a large shadow. Something is being carefully lowered down…

…Jesus looks up to the four friends whose heads are now peeking in from the corners of his new sunroof and, having witnessed their faith, he heals the paralyzed man.

But, wait, that can’ be right.

The author must have meant that when Jesus saw the paralyzed man’s faith, he healed him. But that’s not what the text says. It says that Jesus saw their faith. Plural. The faith of the paralyzed man’s friends made him well. The Gospel accounts are filled with stories of people helping one another experience Jesus’ healing. A Roman centurion has enough faith to heal–not himself but his servant. A woman has faith to heal her daughter. Faith is never an individual exercise. There’s a reason Jesus didn’t select one good student but instead called twelve apostles and seventy-two disciples. It’s the same reason the early Christians clustered together and formed the church. It’s why the Nicene Creed doesn’t begin with “I believe” but “We believe.” Why the Lord’s Prayer begins with “Our Father who is in heaven,” not “My Father who is in heaven.”

Faith is a communal endeavour…

…Once we rediscover this side of church, so much begins to fall into place. Many of us were taught that we needed to believe the right things to belong in the church, but maybe we don’t need to have all our intellectual opinions sorted out before we start to follow Jesus. If church is a community of people called by God to move toward Jesus, then it’s perfectly acceptable to walk with others in that direction, even if you don’t know what you personally believe.

Eucharist Church celebrates Communion every Sunday afternoon, and we are quick to remind people that this table does not belong to our church. It’s Jesus’ table, and he welcomes all who desire to come to him, whether they have a lot of faith or just a tiny mustard seed of belief. What’s important is that we come to Jesus’ table together and bring him what we have. Feelings and intellectual opinions will come and go; they aren’t a good foundation for a life of discipleship. But when we bind ourselves to a group of people who have committed to move toward Jesus together, we no longer have to be anxious about what we feel or think in any given moment. We can trust that those around us will help us get to Christ, and as we grow and mature, we’ll even be able to help others.

(excerpt from pages 61-64)

May 28, 2020

What Do You Have to Have, to Have a Church?

Readers: This week you’re getting a double dose of Clarke Dixon’s writing. This was an extra item he posted on his blog, and then tomorrow, we’ll pick up where Clarke left us working our way through Matthew 7.

by Clarke Dixon

When I wrote this back in 2016 I did not realize that in 2020 we would not have what we normally have. Thank the Lord we still have what we have to have to have a church!

What do you have to have to have a church? Here are some possible answers I’ve heard along the way:

  • you have to have mission and vision statements.
  • you have to have music that reflects the culture outside the church.
  • you have to have music that reflects the culture within the church.
  • you have to have PowerPoint for the sermons, shorter sermons, or even no sermons.
  • you have to have a constitution, a budget, a proper system of governance, and a bunch of paperwork … or risk losing your charitable status, which of course everyone knows you have to have.
  • you have to have buildings and paid staff.
  • you have to have programming for every age group and for every felt need.
  • you have to have values that reflect the society around you, which means ever changing values of course.
  • you have to have a worship experience that makes each person feel affirmed and good.
  • you have to have a good consumer experience for a happy customer.

What does the Bible say you have to have to have a church? What better place to go than the Books of Acts where we read about the earliest Christians and the origins of the Church. In looking to the book of Acts there is one sentence that captures what you have to have to have a church:

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. Acts 2:46-47

Did you notice what was there in the first church without which you cannot have a church? No, not food. Just two things: “The Lord,” and “those who were being saved.”

“The Lord.” You cannot have a church without the presence of the Lord. And by Lord we do not mean just any god, or God in a generic sense. This is the LORD, Who created the heavens and the earth, Who created all life including humanity, Who called Abraham with a promise, Who rescued His people from slavery in Egypt, Who gave His people the Law and the covenants, Who came to humanity in Jesus, and bearing a cross for our sin He rose from the dead, Who comes to us in the Holy Spirit, Who ensured we had a record of all this and more in the Bible. That LORD. The church is not in the business of promoting spirituality but rather has a ministry of reconciliation. We introduce people to that LORD. You can have all the things people generally think you have to have to have a church, yet if you are missing the presence of the Lord, then you don’t have a church.

“Those who were being saved.” We can read the entire book of Acts to be introduced to those people and find out what they are like. When we do we find out that they are an imperfect people, a growing and learning people, a praying people, a listening people, a preaching and reaching people, a generous people, a missionary people, a hope filled people, a changed people, and a willing-to-be-persecuted people. You have to have people like that to have a church.

There are some practical implications in needing only two things to have a church:

Church is a people rather than an organization. In the Book of Acts we are not given a manual on how to organize a church. Sometimes we might wish we were! We are given, rather, the story and stories of people responding and relating to the Lord. We do well to remember that we organize as churches, not for the sake of the organization created, but for the sake of the people God is re-creating. As you read through the book of Acts you never once hear a church named. There is no “Calvary Baptist,” or “Grace United,” or the like. But you hear time and time again about the Lord, about people, and about the Lord in relationship with people. When we celebrate a church anniversary, which is something we love to do for we like any excuse to have our cake and eat it too, we are not celebrating how long an organization has been organized. We are celebrating the lives that have been changed by God through the lives of the people who have been changed by God.

The church is something we always are rather than something we sometimes do. It is funny how when asked to describe our churches we quickly report on Sunday morning attendance. Instead we ought to report about what happens throughout the week. We should speak of the saints on their knees in prayer, those who visit, those who give, those who encourage, those who volunteer, those who forgive, those who are patient, those who are peaceful, those who are joyful, those who are self-controlled. . .  you get the picture. In the Book of Acts you never hear of a church described by numbers in attendance on a Sunday morning. But you you do read of people living their lives for the Lord every day. Church is what we always are, not something we sometimes do.

That you only have to have two things is good news for the small church. I must admit to being discouraged when I read a book written for small church pastors then realize they are written by superstar pastors, or that by “small church” they mean a church of 200. That is so not me, and so not us! Good news, to have a church you do not have to emulate the big churches and do everything they do. We are not to follow the lead of bigger churches, we are to follow the lead of the Lord. Small church leaders can learn to say as the church leadership said in Acts “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” (Acts 15:28)

That you only have to have two things is good news for a church under threat. We are told we face the threat of becoming irrelevant. From that perspective, the first Christians must have seemed supremely irrelevant. The apostle Paul discovered that the Gospel was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23). Yet the presence of the Lord together with the presence of God’s people was turning the world upside down.

Perhaps someday we will face the threat of losing our charitable status as we do not keep in step with a society that keeps changing step. Look to the first Christians. Never mind a privileged position in society, they were persecuted. Yet with the presence of the Lord and the presence of a people who set themselves to the task of keeping in step with God’s Holy Spirit, not even the gates of hell could stop the Church.

What do you have to have to have a church? Look to the Book of Acts where they did not have charitable status, buildings, mission and visions statements, organs, worship bands, a multitude of programs for every age, denominations, PowerPoint, constitutions, church growth consultants, or a very organized clergy. (Some days it seems the church I pastor still lacks organized clergy!) All they had was the presence of the Lord, and the Holy Spirit filled people of God. And it was brilliant. When we have those two things, it still is!


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. Scripture references today are taken from the NRSV.

 

 

April 3, 2020

We’re Part of a Worship Service Happening in Eternity

There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, in all, and living through all. – Eph. 4: 5-6 NLT

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. – Deut. 6:4 NIV

Your kingdom come… on earth as it is in heaven. – Matt. 6:10 ESV

No local service this week? You’ve been told you can worship God ‘at home.’ But don’t think of that on the micro scale; think macro: We’re part of a much larger worship service happening worldwide … and beyond!

by Ruth Wilkinson

Welcome to the new normal.

My congregation is one of many churches putting services online, trying to find creative ways to sustain the spirit of Sunday morning.  I’ve seen a few types of responses to this.

On one had, some people say that they’re glad it’s there for them. They say, “it’s better than nothing, but it’s not the same.” One woman said it’s like watching a hockey game on TV instead of putting on your skates and hitting the ice. That’s the camp I find myself in.

On the other hand, I’ve seen memes on social media, suggesting that the current situation just goes to prove that “the church doesn’t need buildings. The church isn’t a building! We are the church! We just need to get out there and be the church! Buildings are expensive and time consuming. Who needs them?”

Well, actually, the church needs buildings. They’re here for a reason.

Yes, people are the church, and the church is people.

When Jesus said, “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church,” He wasn’t looking at blueprints. He was talking about His Church, His ecclesia. His gathering of people.

He was talking about a quirky, dysfunctional, adopted family.

A family of:

  •     Christ–living in His God-ness, taking His name.
  •     The cross–living in our need for reconciliation with our Creator.
  •     The resurrection–living in the unending hope of life forever, starting now.
  •     Fellowship–living as part of each other.
  •     Worship–living and expressing what we learn and experiencd, in joy and sorrow.
  •     Ministry–living out the work we’ve been given to do, building Jesus’ Kingdom day by day.

And because that’s who we are, because we’re a family, we have always needed buildings. From Day One, when we met in

  • somebody’s spare room (to feel the fire of the Spirit for the first time together)
  • in people’s homes (to share meals and communion)
  • in the Temple courts (to hear the apostles teach)
  • in synagogues (to pray together)
  • and in catacombs (hiding away for a time in safety and rest, finding courage to head back out again).

Since those days, the family has grown, evolved, and created spaces set aside specially for those exact same activities: sharing, learning, praying, resting together.

***************

This Sunday is Palm Sunday. This week we remember Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem in the fashion of a conquering military hero, with people lining the streets, gathering around Him, shouting and singing. Singing Hallelujahs, because He was finally, finally here!  Shouting Hosannas–O, save us!– because they were excited to see what they thought He would do next.

***************

I learned something recently that comes from Catholic doctrine and tradition. (Yes, the sign on the door says “baptist.” My church is baptist. We have the tank and the casserole dishes to prove it. But bear with me. This is cool).

The Catholic worship gathering is called “the mass.” It’s called “the. mass.” because–get this–there is only one.

Only one mass–one gathering of God’s people and all of God’s creation in prayer and in celebration,

  • one eternal event that’s been happening since there was time for it to happen in,
  • one gathering that has always been happening, is always happening, will always be happening,
  • one celebration in the invisible realm,
  • one never ending triumphal entry,
  • with all of the voices of all of creation shouting their Hallelujahs, their Hosannas.

Just one.

When we miss our Sunday services, when we say “It’s not the same,” I believe that what we are missing is so much more than we know.

  • it’s more than fellowship, being with friends,
  • it’s more than the preacher’s jokes,
  • it’s more than the cookies,
  • it’s more than our favourite pew, our favourite songs,
  • it’s more than hearing good old Mrs. Fafflefink honking out the alto part like a foghorn.

We’re missing more that just the comfortable and familiar.

What we are missing is something we’ve never yet done. Something we’ve never yet seen. With people we’ve never yet met.

Because, to quote that ancient theologian, Doctor Who, “A footprint doesn’t look like a boot”.

When we gather in our dozens or in our hundreds we, here and now, are a tiny, visible expression of something eternal of which we are part. A tangible, taste-and-see, relatable expression of the indescribable. In those moments together, we brush up against the Eternal that is pressing itself into our hearts and bodies and minds.

We are the footprint. We’ve never seen the boot.

When we sing together, pray together, rest together, learn together, we’re in concert with every voice that has ever been raised in worship, in adoration, in prayer and in need. With every voice that ever will be and with every voice, human and otherwise, that is right now crying, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.”

And that’s what we’re missing on Sunday morning. How could we not?

So for the next few weeks or (hopefully not) months, I’ll keep singing those songs. When I do, I’ll think of singing them with you and Mrs. Fafflefink. I’ll keep on with my Hallelujahs and my Hosannas, knowing that you will too.

And when you sing, think of you and me standing together in the Eternal. And again someday in the here and now.

***************

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honour and glory and praise!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honour and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”

The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshipped.

Revelation 5:11ff

March 23, 2020

Missing Each Other

Yesterday at The Meeting House family of churches in Ontario, Canada, pastor Bruxy Cavey began with this passage in I Thess. 2:

17 Dear brothers and sisters, after we were separated from you for a little while (though our hearts never left you), we tried very hard to come back because of our intense longing to see you again. 18 We wanted very much to come to you, and I, Paul, tried again and again…

In the opening scriptures, they couldn’t resist adding the first part of John 16:32

“A time is coming and in fact has come when you will be scattered, each to your own home…”

I guess it helps to keep a sense of humor.

The verse that follows that one (verse 33) is instructive for us however,

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

In the sermon, Bruxy turned next to Judges 6. Gideon is speaking is verse 13:

“…if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us? And where are all the miracles our ancestors told us about”

Gideon then references the dramatic deliverance from Egypt. But in the next verse, God replies.

Then the Lord turned to him and said, “Go with the strength you have, and rescue Israel from the Midianites. I am sending you!”

God entrusts Gideon and his people to enact a similar deliverance but not with the dramatic intervention Israel experienced from Egypt, but rather, “with the strength you have.”

There was then a reference to Esther 4:14. You know this story. You know this verse. This is Esther’s uncle Mordecai speaking:

If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this?”

Bruxy said, “When God wants to do something, people are always his ‘Plan A.”

…On a recent podcast, Brant Hansen quoted the full text of The Serenity Prayer which includes these words:

…Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it.
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His will…

Again, “trusting that He will make all things right.”

Brant and co-host Sherri-Lynn also asked the question that needs to be asked of anyone out there who feels they have a belief system or a philosophy of life that is different from ours; that question is, “How does your faith stand up to a pandemic?”

Let’s take that question and make it more personal. Most people reading here at C201 are believers, right? So, how does your faith stand up to a pandemic?

When I met my wife she was a traveling soloist who did music ministry in a variety of churches in various parts of our province. One of the songs she did is by Twila Paris, titled The Warrior is a Child. This song epitomizes the feelings we have as Christ-followers where one minute we are on the mountain, but the next minute we are in the valley; one moment we feel great spiritual triumph and victory, and the next moment we feel great defeat.

Lately I’ve been winning battles left and right
But even winners can get wounded in the fight
People say that I’m amazing
Strong beyond my years
But they don’t see inside of me
I’m hiding all the tears

They don’t know that I go running home when I fall down
They don’t know who picks me up when no one is around
I drop my sword and cry for just a while
‘Cause deep inside this armor
The warrior is a child

Unafraid because His armor is the best
But even soldiers need a quiet place to rest
People say that I’m amazing
Never face retreat
But they don’t see the enemies
That lay me at His feet

They don’t know that I go running home when I fall down…

Sometimes I think we have more fight in us when we together than we are alone. This alone time really shakes us and also causes us to look inside and see our weaknesses; uncover our spiritual vulnerabilities.

Perhaps in times past you’ve been living on Victory Street, but are finding the events of the past few weeks crushing you mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. That happens. Be honest. Confess that to our Father.

We’re separated from one another as local churches. We may not see the Egypt-style dramatic deliverance from this we’d like.

Take the message Gideon received, “Go in the strength you have.”


March 18, 2020

Biblical Christianity and Social Distancing (2)

Yesterday I wrote,

The present period of lockdown, quarantine, or social distancing is contrary to our nature…

As people created in God’s image, we were made for community and some theologians teach that the God head (Father, Son, Spirit) itself models that community and functions as community.

Writer Christina Fox at Christianity.com continues our theme from yesterday; this is an excerpt, click the header which follows for the complete article…

Don’t Go It Alone, You Were Made for Community

God’s word tells us that we simply can’t function without each other. We need each other and we need community.

…We once were a society that centered around family. Multiple generations often lived together under one roof and when families did live separately, they never moved very far. These days, we are more of an individualistic culture. We rely on ourselves. We live far away from where we were raised. Our connections with other people take place most often in the workplace. But those connections are usually shallow, fickle, and short lived.

In the church, we see this sense of individualism and disconnectedness as well. Many people serially date churches, never staying in one place very long. Some may stake a claim on a church but remain distant and on the margins, attending only when something better isn’t going on. And then there are those who may indeed have a committed relationship with a church but they are not all in. They aren’t fully known by their community. They don’t rely on the Body when they are struggling or in need. Instead, they wear masks that cover the pain of their lives, pretending that everything’s okay, even though it’s not.

Yet individualism and doing life on our own is not part of God’s design. After all, God is a community in himself. Existing for all of eternity past, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have enjoyed the love and fellowship of their perfect triune community. In creating mankind, God desired for us to participate in that community and know the perfect and joyous love the Godhead share.

But God didn’t stop there. He didn’t create man to be in community with him alone. After he created the world and Adam, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18). God created man and woman to be in community together, to create families and live together, bearing the image of and reflecting the three-in-one God.

Scripture is all about community. God chose the Israelites to be his people. “And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12). They lived and worshipped him together in community. Following the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, God then instituted the church, the Body of Christ as a community of believers. “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27).

Here’s what Paul Tripp says in his book, Whiter Than Snow: Meditations on Sin and Mercy,

“We weren’t created to be independent, autonomous, or self-sufficient. We were made to live in a humble, worshipful, and loving dependency upon God and in a loving and humble interdependency with others. Our lives were designed to be community projects. Yet, the foolishness of sin tells us that we have all that we need within ourselves. So we settle for relationships that never go beneath the casual. We defend ourselves when the people around us point out a weakness or a wrong. We hold our struggles within, not taking advantage of the resources God has given us.” (p. 147)

…The truth is, we need each other. We need to trust, rely on, and depend upon other believers. God gave us each other to walk alongside, encourage, and spur one another one in the faith. The writer to the Hebrews says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

James 5:16 says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” We are to carry each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2), care for each other’s practical needs (Romans 12:13, Hebrews 13:16), warn each other of sin (1 Thessalonians 5:14) and rejoice and mourn with each other (Romans 12:15)…


So how do we do that today? In Psalm 137:4 the Psalmist reflects on Israel’s captivity and asks, “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? Today we could equally ask, How do we practice Christian community while in isolation? We need to work to seek solutions in a less than ideal set of circumstances.

 

 

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