Christianity 201

September 29, 2022

Anchored in Jesus

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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Beginning a New Series: What Kind of Church?

by Clarke Dixon

Many people have become uncomfortable with the Church and churches to the point of being done with Christianity. They have seen too much politicking, hypocrisy, abuse, scandals, and the ignoring of science and education. One might wonder if Jesus himself would be comfortable in some churches.

While on Sabbatical I was grateful for efforts of our interim pastor Ray Jones who happens to be the executive director of an entity called Open Table Communities. What is Open Table Communities? There are many people known as the “dones,” that is, people who are done with churches and Christianity as a whole. While there is much more to it that what I’m about to say, I’d characterize Open Table Communities as saying, “before you throw out the baby with the bath water, let’s take a closer look at that baby, and the bath water.”

Open Table is guided by eight cultural statements. They are statements of “this is how we do things around here, this is the kind of community we are.” As I looked over the eight cultural statements, they struck me as being good, not just for a new kind of faith community like Open Table, but also for an old fashioned kind of church, such as we are at Calvary Baptist. Really they speak to a community that gets Jesus, his teaching and example, the kind of community Jesus would feel at home in, the kind of community many of us would feel at home in.

Therefore, over the next eight weeks we will be using of these statements as launching points for exploring the kind of church Jesus would feel at home in, the kind of church we want to be.

Here is the first statement:

We nurture cultures that are anchored in the Jesus story, his life, death and resurrection. We nurture a view of God that is seen through the lens of Christ, and consider how this way of seeing God, the world and human activity is conducive to all human flourishing.

Open Table Communities

Why anchor our faith and life in Jesus?

Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse because it is built on bedrock. But anyone who hears my teaching and doesn’t obey it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will collapse with a mighty crash.”

Matthew 7:24-27 (NLT)

Why anchor our faith and life in Jesus? Because Jesus said it was the wise thing to do. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus had already said several times “you have heard it said…but I say to you.”. Here in conclusion he is saying “Listen to me!”

Jesus later said,

I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.

Matthew 28:18-20 (NLT)

The kind of church that “gets Jesus” is one that is anchored in him.

But why listen to Jesus?

Why listen to Jesus when we wouldn’t listen to any of our friends if they said the same things about themselves as Jesus said about himself?

In a nutshell, the resurrection of Jesus changed everything and the apostles knew it.

With the resurrection of Jesus, on top of his teaching, and on top of the miracles he performed, listening to Jesus became the natural thing to do. With the resurrection of Jesus it became reasonable to believe him when he said that all authority had been given to him. With the resurrection of Jesus the disciples knew it was time for new wineskins. Everything had now changed.

But why listen to what the early Christians said about Jesus?

The disciples were convinced about Jesus, but why should we be? How do we know the New Testament is not just made up?

There is enough to say here to write a book, in fact I’ve done that as have many others. For now, let’s just recognize that Jesus is unique in the history of the world and the history of people. Jesus deserves a deeper dive, a second look, in fact a third and fourth look.

Where else might we anchor our faith and life rather than in Jesus?

There are many other places we might anchor our faith, many places which actually are good sources of truth. For example, science. Science is a great and important source of truth, but it cannot tell us everything. Likewise, philosophy, tradition, and our own experience can all be good sources of truth though they cannot replace Jesus as the anchor. Some anchor their faith in what pop culture says, or in what their social media streams tell them. There can be truth there too, but they do not compare to Jesus as an anchor for life and faith.

Here is another source of truth which is not to be the anchor: the Bible. Surprised? We are not Bible followers who look to Jesus to help us follow the Bible, but Jesus followers who look to the Bible to help us follow Jesus. There is a subtle but important distinction there. The Bible is “God-breathed,” and while that’s amazing and important, Jesus is “God with us,” and that’s even more amazing and more important. We Baptists like to say that the Bible is our authority. Sometimes what we mean, without our even realizing it, is that our understandings or interpretations of the Bible are the authority. Again, there is a subtle but important difference there. The Bible is so important for our faith. But it is not the anchor. Jesus is.

Jesus as the corrective lens.

If all we had was science, how would we view God, humanity, life, and everything else? If all we had was philosophy, how would we view God, humanity, life, and everything else. Or if all we had was pop-culture, social-media, or the Old Testament? We see what God is like through the lens of Jesus.

The corrective lens of Jesus, seeing everything through Jesus’ teaching, his life, his example, his death and resurrection, enabled Paul to say that “God is for us and not against us” (see Romans 8) and John to say that “God is love” (see 1st John 4). What does being anchored in Jesus enable you and I to say about God and our relationship with the Divine?

Since Jesus is the anchor, people are the focus.

Jesus said “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10 NRSV). When we focus on Jesus, his teaching, example, life, death, and resurrection, we see that Jesus was focused on us. Being anchored in the Jesus story means putting the focus on people, seeking human flourishing. There is a reason the only verb in the tagline of our church is “helping people.”

Here at Calvary, we want to be anchored in Jesus. We want to help people walk with Jesus in faith, hope, and love.


Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada; whose writing appears here most Thursdays. The sermon on which this is based can be see here.

August 12, 2022

Keeping Jesus the Focus of Our Scripture Reading

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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So readers and subscribers, bear with me on this one.

We’re featuring a lot of writers for the first time during August, and this one is no exception. The original article from which this is based is longer than what we usually run here, and this excerpt from it is a bit shorter that what you normally get.

But what struck me here — aside from the very obvious point the writer is making — is the way he cited scripture verses. Using (I think) the KJV as a base text, he inserts clarifications the same way the Amplified Bible inserts amplifications.

And somehow, I couldn’t walk way from how this brings the scriptures to life and the truths seem to leap off the page.

So as usually, we’ll link to the article, but this time around you have the option to continue reading the original on the writer’s blog. The author is David Buffaloe and the blog is BibleTeacher.org. Click the link below to read this there in full.

Our Business Is God’s Kingdom

John 1:10-14 He {Jesus} was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. {11} He came unto his own, and his own received him not. {12} But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: {13} Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. {14} And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”

Why Are We Here Today? Why Am I A Christian?

When Sherry and I were stationed in England for the United States Air Force we had the wonderful opportunity of riding these big red double decker buses in London. We’d taker our boys to the top floor of the bus – an upper “uncovered” floor – and enjoy a wonderful view as we rode around town. It was wonderful to ride those buses – that is, when you could get on them.

There were several times when our family was waiting at a bus stop, excited to ride the bus … and the bus driver passed us by without stopping! It wasn’t just us, but this happened frequently throughout London. Someone finally complained about this to the London Transit Authority, the organization that maintains the city buses. The London Transit Authority issued a public paper that stated the following:

“It is impossible for us to maintain our schedule if we are always having to stop and pick up passengers”

The Transit Authority forgot what its purpose is. Without passengers, the bus is useless. Without passengers, the Transit Authority makes no money. The business of the London Transit Authority is to take people around town in buses.

What Is The Business Of The Church?

The Business of the Church is to introduce the Lord Jesus and His Kingdom to a world that neither knows Him, nor wants to know Him. We are Light bearers & Seed sowers.

In our text today we see a tension between Jesus and the world He made. Jesus made the world. Jesus made every person who has ever been made. The Bible says:

John 1:1-3 In the beginning was the Word {that’s Jesus}, and the Word {that’s Jesus} was with God, and the Word {that’s Jesus} was God. 2 The same {that’s Jesus} was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

The Bible says All things were made by him. That’s Jesus. The Apostle Paul said of Jesus:

Colossians 1:15-18 Who {that’s Jesus} is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature {Jesus is the Source of all life}: 16 For by him {that’s Jesus} were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him {that’s Jesus}, and for him {that’s Jesus}: 17 And he {that’s Jesus} is before all things, and by him {that’s Jesus} all things consist {are held together}. 18 And he {that’s Jesus} is the head of the body, the church…

The Business of the Church is to tell others about Jesus, and as they believe on Him this will bring the Kingdom of God more and more to this present world.

 

►►finish reading the article at this link

May 20, 2022

Everything is Temporary … Except for One Thing

NIV.Acts.19.23 About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. 24 A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. 25 He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. 26 And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. 27 There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”

28 When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” 29 Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. 30 Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. 31 Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.

[…continue reading here…]

Today we have another first time writer to highlight here. Alistair Chalmers who writes at Chalmers Blog. Clicking the link in the header below will take to where this first appeared.

You can build but it will crumble

A couple weeks ago my wife and I were on holiday and we did a day trip to the ancient city of Ephesus. We walked the streets where Paul and Timothy would have preached. We stood in the amphitheater where Paul probably spoke at times. One thing that you can’t help but notice in these ancient cities is the amount of shrines and temples to pagan gods that they had. Some big and some small, but all for the same purpose, worshipping a pagan false idol.

If you remember from Acts 19, Demetrius a silversmith of the shrines for Artemis began an uproar that lead to a riot. The riot continued and people gathered in the court and for 2 hours they shouted “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

Ephesus was the place of one of the biggest temples to Artemis, it’s actually one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. So what does it look like now? A temple that once housed thousands of worshippers on a daily basis. A city in its shadow that believed it was safe because the goddess looked over them. What happened?

Well this once prominent temple is now a pile of rubble. Stones lay strewn in a field, it’s marked by a tiny road sign that you could clearly miss and there remains one pillar standing (it’s actually just been out together to help visitors imagine the height of the temple).

Such a prominent pagan temple, reduced to nothing sand forgotten by most of the world, why? Because you can build, even the most grandiose things, but all things temporary will crumble. What was once a temple is nothing more than a pile of stones. Temporary trimmings paying homage to a fake god that didn’t last very long.

As I stood underneath that pillar and imagined what it would have originally looked like I remembered two things;

1. That the things of this world are temporary and will pass away (1 Cor. 7:31, etc.)

2. That nothing will defeat the Church (Matt. 16:18, etc.)

There will always be things that are built oppose the gospel. There will always be people, institutions and religions who set themselves against God and His people. It was be frightening at times, it may feel like the local church is insignificant and weak, it may even seem that there is no chance that Christianity can survive at some points.

But the truth is that all attempts to rob people of the knowledge of Jesus, all brick and mortar will fall and all the voices that mock Christ and His people will one day be silenced.

Everything that is build against God has the same ending, it is futile and it will fail. Investing time and energy in something that you know will ultimately fail and be reduced to crumble is pointless.

Like the temple of Artemis, you can build your structure (physical or not) but it will fail. God is the only one who has always been and will always be. Remember that as your pick up a stone to build your next idol.


Scriptures in today’s devotional:

NLT.1 Cor.7.30 Those who weep or who rejoice or who buy things should not be absorbed by their weeping or their joy or their possessions. 31 Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away.

The Voice. Matt.16.18 This is why I have called you Peter (rock): for on this rock I will build My church. The church will reign triumphant even at the gates of hell.

 

March 20, 2022

Putting God Back Into Everything Church-Related

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.
– Colossians 4:5-6 NIV

“So commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these words of mine. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.”
– Deuteronomy 11:18-19 NLT

 

I’ve heard people talk about being at a fairly typical church meeting thing, and “then God showed up.” This may assume that he wasn’t “showing up” at previous meetings, or it may mean that he was there all along but an awareness of his presence finally broke in on the assembly.

When leading worship, I have often — though not every time — begun by following the traditional concept of invocation; inviting God’s presence into our time together. Or at least, sort of. I take it as a given that God is already among us, especially on Sunday morning. He never misses our church service, right?

So I’ll begin with something like,

“Lord, we don’t presume to invite your presence because after all, you said you would never leave us nor forsake us. Furthermore, we sometimes say that this building is your house, a place set apart for your worship, so we know if you’re omnipresent, you’re everywhere, then certainly of all places you are here.  No, instead, we ask you to help us have an awareness of your presence, an awareness of a presence that already exists, but we’re too distracted to realize. Open our hearts. Meet with us today in a special way.  Amen.”

The fact of the matter is however, that some things the church — as opposed to The Church — does are purely perfunctory. And I think a church business meeting is a good example of that. Unless of course, you are committed from the beginning that this business meeting is open to the possibility of God breaking in and doing something greater.

Basically, the question I want to ask is, “What if we spiritualized church?” Yeah, seriously. What if we decided there were no task-only, business-only events, but lived out each time we gathered together as moments full of eternal possibilities?  What if…

  • What if every item run through the church photocopier had to have a ministry value, even if it was just a verse tacked on at the end?
  • What if every church spring cleaning day was seen as a teachable moment, the way Jesus taught as he walked along the road with his disciples?
  • What if every mailout and every church newspaper advertisement kept its seeker appeal, but still contained the DNA of the gospel?
  • What if every church business meeting was more like a town hall forum where old men (and women) could prophesy and young men (and women) dream dreams?
  • What if every time there were announcements, they were viewed not as commercials, but as opportunities for greater fellowship, greater teaching, greater service?
  • What if every time there was a collection or offering, it was truly viewed as an act of worship?
  • What if the church bulletin had teaching or devotional value, not just announcements, to the point where people wanted to hang on to them beyond a single week?
  • What if your tax receipt for those donations was accompanied by a note of thanksgiving, or a teaching on how God delights and will reward our cheerful giving?
  • What if every salesman, tradesman, public sector worker, etc., who came in the front door of your church was told, “It’s no accident that you came in just now…” and then heard a piece of the particular good news that he/she needed that day?
  • What are the “What ifs” that your heart longs for?

That’s what I mean by “spiritualizing Church.” Yes, God is there with us all along, but we need to leave him a place to break into our program.

Quick example. Before we got married, I was a performing Christian solo artist in southern Ontario. I worked alone. One time, a friend of mine who was a professional, recording-studio quality jazz bass player offered to do a concert engagement with me at a local church. To maximize his talents and contribution, we rehearsed the songs with some instrumental ‘bridges’ in them so he could do a few improvised bass solos.

But when we actually got out before the audience, I got distracted and started playing the songs the way I normally do, moving quickly from verse to chorus to verse.    At the end of the first set, I realized this and told him, and his reply was, “I was trying to break in, but I couldn’t find an opening.”

I think that’s how the Holy Spirit would say it to us today.  ‘I was there, but you didn’t leave me any room in the program.’

Nobody is saying that God isn’t with us.  But we need to see the spiritual possibilities each time we get together, even if it’s just to rake the leaves on the church lawn or clean the church kitchen.  And just think, if we were really focused on doing this, we could actually invite our neighbors to “help out” in our church clean-up day, and they might actually see Christ in the most seeker friendly of all possible environments.

It would also revolutionize the way we do things  outside of church.   We would be spiritualizing or God-focusing our entire lives.  Nah. That’s way too radical.

Years ago (13 to be exact) our friend Kathy put this on her blog:

I’m reminded of a little church my sister and I visited in the UK, in 2007. St. Leonard’s in Speeton, Yorkshire dates back at least the the 12th century, maybe even further.  It’s the tiniest church I’ve ever seen — surely couldn’t hold more than 50 people — set on the outskirts of the village. It was lovely to sit in its pews and meditate for a while; so quiet and peaceful.

But what struck me the most was the sign on the door:

Don’t you think this sign should be on every church door?

Those routine church events — from cleanup days to business meeting — have a holy, supernatural potential; and we should participate with the expectation of seeing amazing things take place.

 

November 24, 2021

How Did They Miss That Sermon Reference?

The Voice – II Cor. 3:18 Now all of us, with our faces unveiled, reflect the glory of the Lord as if we are mirrors; and so we are being transformed, metamorphosed, into His same image from one radiance of glory to another, just as the Spirit of the Lord accomplishes it.

The Amplified Bible – II Cor. 3:18 And all of us, as with unveiled face, [because we] continued to behold [in the Word of God] as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are constantly being transfigured into His very own image in ever increasing splendor and from one degree of glory to another; [for this comes] from the Lord [Who is] the Spirit.

With the pandemic, it’s been awhile since some readers here have been physically present in a worship service, but for a moment, imagine you there and the pastor is preaching and after awhile it occurs to you that the whole sermon seems to be directed at one particular person’s situation. It’s almost embarrassing. It’s like everyone knows the minister is referring to Derek or Sylvia or Maggie or Justin, so why doesn’t he just go all the way and use their names?

But then, imagine that mysteriously, you’re drawn into a long conversation with Derek or Sylvia or Maggie or Justin a few weeks later, and you get the distinct impression that the sermon hasn’t changed a thing in their life; that whatever it was that made it so blatant to you and everyone else that it was about them, seems to have misfired or otherwise not taken root.

I suppose there could be a number of possibilities here, of which four are:

  • They were tuned out for most of the sermon; not paying attention
  • The pastor’s remarks registered, but they assumed it applied to someone else, never considering it might be them to whom the sermon was most directly speaking
  • The application and needed next steps registered, but were eventually dismissed or forgotten
  • The cost of change or the price of obedience was simply too high

The Bible tells us we’re not simply to be hearers of the word, but doers of the word; but sometimes we mess up the hearing part which cancels out the rest.

James 1:22-24 (The Message) Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.

For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think… Romans 12: 3a NASB

Imagine not knowing what you look like.

People do this everyday however. The middle aged man steps into his souped up sports car, turns the music on the sound system up high, and believes he is still 18. He starts flirting with his assistant at work and with the receptionist at the dentist’s office, and forgets he’s graying; that he has a wife and kids.

He needs a mirror.

The woman who goes out to lunch to with four friends and then spontaneously offers to pick the tab for everyone’s meal before they embark on an afternoon of shopping, slapping down the credit card at store after store, forgetting that the bank has already canceled her other credit card because of too many missed payments, and her income prospects for the foreseeable future are rather dim.

She needs a mirror.

We all need a mirror. An accurate one. One that doesn’t distort the truth. The clearest, most focused mirror is God’s word. It shows us what right living looks like. It tells us where we’ve messed up. What we can do to get back on track. What it will take for us to stay on track. You can read more about this four-fold purpose of scripture by clicking here.

…Sometimes however, the sermon is about you. It’s like there’s no one else there. Imagine the same scenario, but it’s more like a bad dream. The pastor preaches a similar sermon, but everyone turns around stares directly at you.

But weeks later your life is unchanged. That would be a bigger nightmare.

What would your excuse be?


Want to further wrestle with the issue of how we see ourselves vs. how we really are? Consider the book by Brant Hansen, The Truth About Us. Here’s a link to a review of the book.

September 29, 2021

Letters to the Seven (or more) Churches in Revelation

This is a revisit to an article that was posted here eleven years ago. It’s been rewritten for clarity. It also features a graphic image at the bottom. When I tested the link, I discovered that the original site is no longer available, so I can’t give proper credit. Make sure you spend as much time looking over the chart as you do reading what follows…

(NIV) Rev. 1:9 I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, 11 which said: “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.”

12 I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. 15 His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, and coming out of his mouth was a sharp, double-edged sword. His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.

17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. 18 I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.

19 “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. 20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.

Seven letters to seven different churches that existed when John received the vision, right?

Zoom out a little. There were a dozen or so well-established churches at the time. Could it be that the choice of “seven” means that these letters have application to the whole church? That the letters, like the rest of scripture, are not written to us but are definitely written for us?

Zoom back in. Some people teach that the seven churches represent different ages of the larger church over different eras. That this is a historical overview of church history. Perhaps. But there may be something more immediate for us to consider.

Zoom in again. Churches like the seven so-described exist today. If you’ve been around different denominations, or have attended a variety of churches, you might be able to put different names next to each letter.

Zoom in more. Even within an individual church, there are often different sub-groups to whom these different letters might apply. Or maybe they represent different stages in the history of that local church over time.

Zoom in tighter. We shouldn’t get caught up in the idea that the letters are a message that someone else needs to hear. That it’s for the church in the Middle Ages. That the message applies to the church down the block. Rather these letters contain a message that’s for me. These letters have application to each one of us. Maybe the message to the church at Laodicia is pertinent to you right now. Or maybe you’re at a Sardis or Ephesus point in your Christian life.

Zoom in!

…Here’s a bonus for you today…

If you didn’t grow up in church before the 1960s, here’s an example of the kind of visual presentation you missed out on when the letters were taught!

We considered the seven letters elsewhere at C201. Here’s a link to Seven Letters: Seven Problem Churches (It’s a short article and uses the same scripture reference, so you’re already halfway through!)


If you’re reading this at the site and not as an email, there’s a formatting problem (depending on what browser you’re using and the size of your monitor) with the last ten or so articles that normally I can fix, but this time it’s not fixing. Thanks for your patience. If you wish the text of a particular article emailed to you, use the submissions and contact tab to request.

March 7, 2021

Why Didn’t God Stop the Church from Charting Diverse Paths?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:32 pm
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In the early days of Christianity 201, a frequent source of material was Jim Greer at the blog Not For Itching Ears: Calling the Church Back to the Cross. Yesterday I reconnected with something he had written more recently, and this morning I discovered it’s been seven years since we featured his writing here. (Not sure why!) Clicking the title which follows takes you to read this directly from his site.

Does God Care About Your Theology As Much As You Do?

“Maybe it doesn’t matter to Him?”

My friend stared at me in disbelief. How could I say something like that? We’d been discussing the state of the church in its four major divisions: Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant. (For the sake of brevity, I’ve lumped all us Protestants into one category. I don’t have time to list us all!)

“Of course THE Church matters to God”, he replied, “He died to give it birth!

I can’t argue with that!

What perplexes me though, is there are so many different types of churches. Catholics believe in purgatory, the other three divisions of the church, don’t. That’s a big difference. We don’t agree on how many books are actually the official “word of God”. That also seems significant. Some churches teach that how one lives has absolutely nothing to do with salvation, while others teach that it has everything to do with it. That’s a HUGE deal, right? Others are somewhere in-between.

We have Catholic decrees calling the Reformers heretics, and we have the Reformers labeling the Pope the anti-Christ. Orthodox and Catholics are at odds over one word in the Creed among other substantial issues. We can’t even seem to agree on the purpose of Christianity.

Then we have us Protestants!

Protestants agree that Jesus Christ died on the cross for “our” sins, but we can’t agree on who is included in “our”. We agree in the “Atonement”, but can’t agree on what it actually entails. We believe people worked miracles, but don’t agree on when or IF that has stopped.

  • We don’t agree on how a church should conduct itself in worship.
  • We don’t agree on something as simple as how a person actually comes to Christ.
  • We don’t agree on what it means to follow Christ.
  • We don’t agree on a host of important issues.

The world looks at us and sees “Christian” sects. Groups that argue amongst themselves and can’t agree on the essentials. We are divided, pure and simple. Stating otherwise is wishful thinking.

“Maybe it doesn’t matter to Him?”

Of course, Jesus did pray for “those who would believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one…May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me…” (John 17:20-21, 23.) Unity was important enough to pray for on the eve of the crucifixion.   The Father gave a big “Sorry Son, no can do” answer on that one. At least Jesus knows what it’s like to have his prayers go unanswered!

Why did God allow it to happen?

Many Protestants believe that around 300AD the real church was infiltrated and perverted by the Catholic Church. As a result, the true Gospel was lost. And God let the Gospel be lost for 1200 years? That leaves more questions!

If purity of doctrine matters so much…

  • Why didn’t God step in at such a critical moment to stop the hijacking of the Gospel?
  • Why would God allow His church to proclaim a false gospel? One that would consign its followers to hell?
  • Why didn’t he put a quick end to it? I find these questions a bit troubling.

To be fair, Catholics believe the Reformers are the real usurpers. Who can blame them? After all, the church existed virtually unchanged for 1500 years, until Luther come along. It’s understandable that they got together at Trent and called the Reformers heretics.

Here’s the compelling issue for me: In both cases, God did not stop the supposed error from taking root. If God is omniscient then he knew what would happen if he did nothing. God foresaw the doctrinal mess that would result. He knew what would happen if He did nothing, and he did…. nothing. Think about that!

He stepped in before, why not again?

We do know that if God wanted to step in and crush the rebellions, he could have. He did that very thing during the Exodus when Korah and his crew openly challenged Moses leadership of the young Israel. Read about it in Numbers 16. The gist of it is that God caused the ground to open up and swallow the leaders of the rebellion, their families and everything they owned! Rebellion over. Case closed. God’s leadership of his people settled.

But that is not what he did in 300AD. That is not what he did when the West and East Split in 1054. It’s not what he did at the beginning of the Reformation. He still hasn’t done it. In all these cases, God allowed it to stand. He had the opportunity to answer the Son’s prayer for unity, but chose not to.

You may counter and say that God NOT acting isn’t proof He doesn’t care. And I’d agree with you 100%. His non-action doesn’t prove anything on either side of the question. What we know from the Bible is that God has acted in human history. At key moments and in powerful ways, he’s intervened to ensure his plan moves forward as planned. But not on this issue. When you consider how significant the Church is to God’s plan, I think his inaction is worth considering.

It matters to us, but does it matter to God?

This brings me back to my conversation with my friend. Obviously, the doctrinal differences we’ve killed others for matter to us. They are a big deal. But do they matter to God? Personally, I don’t think so.

Before you get the kindling and tie me to the stake consider what I’m NOT saying. I’m not saying that God doesn’t care about the Gospel or the church, or the world of lost souls. He does. But our petty little arguments?

This isn’t simply a thought exercise. The church in the USA could be heading into a very dark period. The culture is shifting. Their opinion of the church is souring even more. They’re calling some members of the church terrorists. They don’t like that we want to gather together for worship. New political leadership is rising that doesn’t care about religious freedom. What lies ahead? I’m not sure. But it sure seems like dark clouds on the horizon.

If dark days lie ahead, we’ll need to circle the wagon of faith. We’ll need to set aside our petty theological differences. We’ll need to unite around the basic essentials.

Who am I kidding? That will never happen! That would take a miracle and miracles don’t happen anymore. 🙂

That’s my view from the cheap seats. What’s yours? Why do you think God has allowed so much diversity to exist in His Church?


By the same author:

Jim continued this theme with his next article, What Does God Want?

At the end of today’s article, he also recommended an earlier one:  God Does Not Need Our Worship…We Need It!

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”)

August 5, 2020

When Things Are So Very Hateful: Don’t Lose Your Love

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One of the most-featured writers here over the years has been J. Lee Grady who’s blog is titled Fire in My Bones. Today’s article has been edited for length; you’re encouraged to read the entire piece at Charisma Blogs at the link below. Note: When you click through, you’ll have the option of listening to a devotional podcast At Work With God.

Don’t Let Love Grow Cold in These Hateful Times

…I’ve never known my country to be so hateful.

Anger has reached a boiling point. Passengers are being removed from planes because they started fistfights over leg room. Store customers are going ballistic because other customers aren’t wearing masks. Entitled Americans, always ready to record a cellphone video, are ready to blow the whistle on each other.

We don’t care how our words hurt people anymore. We have become a vicious culture. Jesus warned this would happen when He said that in the last days, “Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold” (Matt. 24:12, NASB)…

…The world tells us that ending a relationship is as easy as hitting the unfriend button. But when I read the Bible, I don’t see any room for outrage, resentment, intolerance or “unfriending.” Jesus calls us to love—and He gives us the supernatural power to do it.

Have you considered ending a relationship recently because of politics? Did you already walk out of a church or break a close friendship because of a disagreement? If so, examine your heart and ask these probing questions first:

  1. Am I giving up too soon? The apostle Paul told the Ephesians they should “always demonstrate gentleness and generous love toward one another, especially toward those who try your patience” (Eph. 4:2b, TPT). Your love will never grow unless it is stretched—and the best way to stretch your love is to show kindness when you feel like slamming a door in a person’s face.

The truth is that we often give up on relationships because we just don’t want to exert the energy to improve them. Relationships require a lot of work. When you unfriend someone just because they hurt you, you are missing an opportunity to become more like Christ.

Show some patience. Choose to love even when you don’t get anything in return.

Ephesians 4:3 (NLT) says we must “make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.” The Greek word for “make every effort” means “to be diligent; to use speed; to be prompt or earnest; to labor.” That means you shouldn’t let wounds fester. Act quickly to repair the relationship before it gets worse!

  1. Would Jesus end this relationship? When you end a friendship because of an offense, you are doing the exact opposite of what Jesus did for you. Ephesians 4:32 says “be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you.” You will never understand God’s merciful love if you don’t show it to others.

Jesus doesn’t flippantly write people off. He loved us even when we were sinners, and He patiently drew us to Himself using “ropes of kindness and love” (Hos. 11:4b). Before you end a friendship, judge a pastor, storm out of a church or give someone the cold shoulder, remember how aggressively Jesus pursued a relationship with you. Let His ropes of kindness pull you out of your bad attitude.

When Peter asked Jesus how many times we are required to forgive a person, Jesus answered “seventy times seven” (see Matt. 18:22b). Taken literally, that means 490 times—but Jesus wasn’t putting a limit on forgiveness. He was using the number seven to imply infinity. Stop counting how many times you have been offended and instead thank God for all the times He has overlooked your mistakes.

  1. Am I nursing a grudge? Our divisive political climate encourages people to get up mad in the morning, fuel their anger with hot political rhetoric throughout the day and then go to bed after listening to more arguments on news broadcasts. We are literally poisoning ourselves.

Many Christians have allowed similar poison in their lives because of church drama. They are mad that a pastor slighted them. They are jealous of someone who took a position they wanted. They are angry because a Christian did something hypocritical.

Resentment is deadly. It actually makes people sick. It also makes us ugly and unpleasant. Unforgiveness puts a frown on your face, wrinkles around your eyes and a sour tone in your voice.

Don’t let today’s culture of outrage infect you. Go against the flow of toxic hate. Make a decision today to work harder at maintaining your relationships. Forgive those who hurt you so your love doesn’t grow cold.

 

 

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

February 28, 2020

Signs of a Healthy Church

Last Sunday, I attended the annual meeting of the church where my wife is employed, and where I’ve also been attending for nearly two years. It was my first such business meeting in a church of this denomination. Though required by law, the AGM (Annual General Meeting) is also a good opportunity for churches to step back and see the ‘big picture’ of church life, consider what God is doing through their efforts, thank God for His provision and look forward to the future.

The danger of course is to reduce meetings like this to statistics; to pie-chart and bar-graph church life to extremes. Often we rejoice in the reports of individual departments, but then the meeting really kicks into high gear when attendees are told to turn to the financial reports. Generally AGMs are all about numbers.

I doubt the first century church did this kind of record-keeping, and the Apostle Paul — who had a great mind when it came to understanding justification and atonement — was somewhat fuzzy on if or when he had baptized people.

Years ago we published an excerpt from an annual report from a UK church which began by reminding people of the marks of a healthy church. (The source blog is no longer online.) Check it out:

1. People are coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ.
2. Our missions program is expanding locally, nationally and globally.
3. People are making public professions of faith through baptism.
4. Attendance in worship services is increasing.
5. The worship experience is vibrant, enthusiastic and intergenerational.
6. There is broad participation in serving throughout the ministries.
7. New ministries are beginning as God imparts vision.
8. Guests are being connected to church life.
9. Covenant membership is increasing.
10. Our budgetary needs are being met.
11. Leaders are being developed and placed in ministry roles.
12. Scripture is central to our message.
13. Staff relationships are healthy.

That’s the kind of church I want to be a part of; though I think the eleven hour round trip would take its toll after a few Sundays. Although it represented a larger church, I believe these goals are viable at some level for churches of all shapes and sizes.

What else does a healthy church look like? I want to leave us with a look at how The Message translates two familiar passages describing the early church. Take your time with this:

Acts 2:38-39Peter said, “Change your life. Turn to God and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so your sins are forgiven. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is targeted to you and your children, but also to all who are far away—whomever, in fact, our Master God invites.”

40He went on in this vein for a long time, urging them over and over, “Get out while you can; get out of this sick and stupid culture!”

41-42That day about three thousand took him at his word, were baptized and were signed up. They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.

43-45Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.

46-47They followed a daily discipline of worship in the Temple followed by meals at home, every meal a celebration, exuberant and joyful, as they praised God. People in general liked what they saw. Every day their number grew as God added those who were saved.

Acts 4:31While they were praying, the place where they were meeting trembled and shook. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak God’s Word with fearless confidence.

32-33The whole congregation of believers was united as one—one heart, one mind! They didn’t even claim ownership of their own possessions. No one said, “That’s mine; you can’t have it.” They shared everything. The apostles gave powerful witness to the resurrection of the Master Jesus, and grace was on all of them.

34-35And so it turned out that not a person among them was needy. Those who owned fields or houses sold them and brought the price of the sale to the apostles and made an offering of it. The apostles then distributed it according to each person’s need.

February 24, 2020

Letting People See Heaven Mirrored In Earth

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:33 pm
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We are always scanning the internet looking for new sources of devotional material we can highlight and direct you towards. The blog A Simple Christian‘s author goes by ‘justified and sinner’ and is the pastor of a Lutheran Church in California and has been writing online since 2009. As always, click the header below to read this at source.

Is there anything on earth…like heaven?

What God has planned for people who love him is more than eyes have seen or ears have heard. It has never even entered our minds!”  1 Cor. 2:9 CEV

When Gideon looked, the angel was gone. Gideon realized that he had seen one of the LORD’s angels. “Oh!” he moaned. “Now I’m going to die.”  “Calm down!” the LORD told Gideon. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. You’re not going to die.” Gideon built an altar for worshiping the LORD and called it “The LORD Calms Our Fears.”  Judges 6:21-24 CEV


Even the atheistic philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said, “There comes a time when you say even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, ‘Is that all there is?’ ” How can we understand anything of Heaven if there is nothing at all on earth to compare it to, nothing heavenly, nothing that never gets boring? Thus either Heaven is boring, or something on earth is not boring, or nothing on earth is like Heaven.

There are two parts to the answer: first, that everything on earth except agape is meant to be boring; and second, that agape is not.

– Peter Kreeft, The God Who Loves You (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2004), 88.


So let us take up this problem: genuine art is “esoteric in the best sense”, say Rahner and Vorgrimler; liturgy is simple; it must be possible for everyone, particularly the simple, to participate. Can liturgy accommodate real church music? Does it in fact demand it, or does it exclude it? In looking for an answer to these questions, we will not find much help in our theological inheritance. It seems that relations between theology and church music have always been somewhat cool.

– Joseph Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 100.


As I read Kreeft’s words in scripture today, I was amazed by their accuracy. We don’t understand heaven, we can’t conceive of it, even as the Apostle Paul says in the first quote.

I remember a professor quoting one of the early revivalists who said if he could give people a minute of hell, he would never have to convince them to repent.  My sarcastic comment was, “but what if we could give them a glance of heaven?”

Sarcastically said then, but I’ve thought of the wisdom of it – how can we give people a taste of heaven?  How can we help them know the joys of which we should sing?  That which is “beyond” theology, that which defies our explanation?

How can we show them the holiness, the glory, the pure love that we will experience in heaven? How can we help them experience love beyond love, as radical as the day is from the darkest, stormiest night?

The church’s liturgy aims to do so, revealing the love of God as we celebrate our forgiveness, the Lord dwelling among us, the actions He takes to bless and transform us into His holy people, and the feast of the broken bread and the wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus. The feast that celebrates the love, the feast that opens, for a few moments, a view for our souls of heaven.

I love the story of Gideon, especially the verses above. Here he is, somehow missing the miracles the Angel did, then realizing afterward the significance of being in the presence of a holy messenger.  He starts to freak out, the anxiety builds as he realizes his own sin and inadequacy. His glimpse of something holy, someone from heaven, causes enormous fear.

Then the Lord God tells him to chill.

Wait – where was he?

God does speak to us still, just as He did to Gideon.  One of the ways that should happen is in our church’s gathering.  Even as we receive the message we will struggle with, that kills of our sinful self, and raises us to life with the crucified Christ.  Even as we struggle with that, the Lord comes to us in His feast and tells us, don’t fear, I am with you…

That is why we have a dilemma about the art of leading liturgy and the art of leading songs and hymns that accompany it. The use of the term “art” makes us think it is a showcase for the best of our talents. It isn’t!

What the art is, is not found in the musician’s talent, or the pastor, in the charisma. It is found in the communion, the communication of revealing to people they dwell in the presence of God, and helping them to hear His voice. Therein is the art, there is our target, the goal we strive for, there is our art.

There is our joy as well, for the connection is undeniable, and beautiful beyond words, as people come to know they are loved… as they feast with the Lord, knowing the joy that only comes from knowing you are loved.

January 12, 2020

Understanding the Message Happens with Applying the Message

A year ago we quoted a short excerpt from the blog of author Rick Thomas. Today we’re doing the same, as this is taken from a much longer article written for pastors and leaders. I encourage you to read it at its source, in full. Just click the header which follows:

You Need More Than Preaching If You Want to Change

The Parable of the Sower (Mark 4, ESV)

1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” 9 And he said, He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

The Purpose of the Parables

10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that

“ ‘they may indeed see but not perceive,

and may indeed hear but not understand,

lest they should turn and be forgiven.’ ”

13 And he said to them, Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?

Community Contexts

In verses 1-9 Jesus was teaching to a very large crowd from the pulpit,so to speak. In verses 10-13 He begins to unpack the teaching lesson in a personal, customized, relevant, and practical way for His community.

The pulpit is a great place to exalt the Savior and expound the gospel, as well as call people to live lives of holiness. To be sure, God-ordained preaching for the proclamation of His Word. It is the foolishness of preaching that confounds the wise and empowers the faithful (1 Corinthians 1:18).

In addition to great preaching, you also find in Scripture that it is in the living rooms of the communitywhere the truths preached from the pulpit are worked out in the contexts of lives.

You can exhort someone over and over again from the pulpit to serve, and its possible he will understand, personalize, and apply that idea. But if you bring a towel and basin to his living room and wash your friends feet, you can be assured he will never forget that one act of other-centered serving (see John 13:15; Matthew 26:13).

Helping others is where Jesus excelled. He contextualized His preached Word in the community of the believers. He did not let the preached Word stand alone. He modeled His message to drive home His points.

Practically Speaking

Rachel has heard wonderful preaching the past 16 years of her life. Nearly every Sunday, she has been encouraged, enlightened, and envisioned about how to be a woman for God.

Recently, a growing bitterness took root in her soul toward her church, her pastor, and some of her friends. The more she hears the wonderful truths from the Word declared from the pulpit, the more cynical and suspicious she becomes. 

She’s seeing the discontinuity between the preached Word on Sunday and her marriage and family during the week. The dots are not practically connecting for her.

Sadly, her cynicism and suspicion are directed toward Godthough she would never say it that way. She hoped for a different life and believed it would come by “going to church,” as she put it.

Her belief about the church is why she committed herself to God and the meetings of the church. She even took on a ministry in the church to help in whatever way she could. Her faith and practice were real. Rachel loves God.

But like a person asleep in a boat, only to awake hours later to find they drifted beyond the buoys, Rachels marriage has seemingly slipped past the point of no return. All the while she is faithfully committed to her local church.

Rachel is not struggling with sound doctrine. She does not have a theological problem, as far as her understanding of the Bible. What she has is a methodological problem.

Building a knowledge base through learning and growing in theological understanding, is half the equation. Rachel is getting good information on Sunday morning. It is consistently biblical, easy to understand, and well-delivered.

Her problem is the other half of the solution she needs. Her church has not provided or trained her on how to take the good Word preached and work it out in the milieu (contexts) of her life. She needs a clear and practical application. The Sunday church meeting is not designed to fulfill that part of her solution.

Rachel is half-full: She knows the Word, but she has not been equipped to apply it practically in ways that matter to her life, marriage, and other relationships. If she continues this way, she’ll be running on empty before long.


Rick then continues with ten action steps for local churches. See the closing section of the article which I am again, linking here.

December 29, 2019

When We Speak of Joining a “Faith Community”

He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.
 -Acts 9:2 NIV

At that point Felix, who was quite familiar with the Way, adjourned the hearing and said, “Wait until Lysias, the garrison commander, arrives. Then I will decide the case.”
 -Acts 24:22 NIV

This article took a long and roundabout route to get here. I do think his point is worth your time. Dr. Ed Searcy is a retired minister in the United Church of Canada in Vancouver. You can read more on his blog, Holy Scribbler. Or click the header which follows:

The Problem with Calling the Church a Faith Community

In recent years it has become common place in The United Church of Canada and beyond to speak of the church as a “community of faith” and to refer to congregations as “faith communities”. I suspect that this shift in language has been made in order to include ministries that are not patterned on a congregational template. This generic designation is also seen to allow for a sense of shared identity when in an inter-faith context. Some report it is language that is invitational to seekers. However, in adopting such a change it is worth stopping to note the problems inherent in calling the church a “community of faith”.

First, by speaking of religious communities as “faith-based” we reveal our captivity to modernity’s definition of faith. In this modern paradigm those who live in the “real world” of the market and of military might are not living by faith. Such people are “realists” who base their judgments on facts and figures. Yet coming to the conclusion that this “real world” is ultimate reality is itself an act of faith.  Everyone lives by faith in something or someone. There is no community that is not living by faith. The church is called to reveal the illusory nature of the so-called “real world” which pretends that it is not based on faith. Adopting contemporary culture’s designation of the church as a “faith community” suggests that we have forgotten that the offers of a good life marketed on all sides are offers based on faith. In such a world it is imperative the church bears prophetic witness that there is no such thing as a non-faith community. The question is not whether to have faith or not to have faith. The question is “In what or in whom will we place our trust.”

The second problem with calling the church a “faith community” is that this focuses attention on us. The issue becomes our faith or lack thereof. The human actors in the drama become the subject. Then theology (talk about God) is essentially anthropology (talk about us). We get to God through our faith. In this we imagine that Christianity is akin to every other religion. All religions, we assume, are about the human desire to connect with the divine. This is what we mean, so we think, when we identify ourselves as participants in a community of faith. Before we know it our worship and our life together puts the emphasis on us, on our needs and desires, on our doubts and our beliefs. God becomes the backdrop on which the human drama unfolds.

But the drama at the heart of Christianity is not human faith in God. The drama at the heart of Christianity is the faithfulness of God revealed in Jesus Christ. God is the subject, the church is the predicate. In Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we discover that the God who has promised to save and heal is carrying through on those promises. The faith of the church is the result of the faithfulness of God. Our faith is a sign of God’s faithfulness. Such faith as we may have in God is a gift the Holy Spirit – a gift from God. To say that the church is a community of faith is to say that it is a community that is always being formed by God’s faithfulness. The emphasis is to be on God’s faithfulness rather than on our response. Alas, while we may pay lip service to God our sermons and board meetings often move immediately to the matter of how we will accomplish what God is apparently leaving undone. Parker Palmer has called this temptation in the church our “functional atheism”. While we speak about God we do not act in ways that suggest we trust God to be redeeming creation and us with it.

We would be wise to remember names which have been used to identify Christian communities in the past (the following terms are described in more detail at the gathering). There is the name “church” derived from a Greek word meaning “of the Lord”. Not “people of faith” but “people of the Lord”. The first Christians were called people of “The Way” (Acts 9:2). This identifies disciples of Jesus as a people who think and act and live in the Way of Christ. This is much more specific than “faith communities”. It reminds us of the oddness that sets apart Christian communities because of the faithfulness of Jesus. Early Christians also called their communities “Ekklesia” (as in “ecclesial”). They borrowed this title – that means “called out to meet” – from the gatherings of free men who met to discuss matters of importance. Now slave and free, male and female, Gentile and Jew were gathering in a new kind of Ekklesia because Jesus, the Servant Lord, was the head of this surprising household (for a contemporary example visit the Ekklesia Project).

The oldest name for Christian gatherings was inherited from its Jewish roots. It is the word “synagogue” or “gathering”, often translated as “congregation”. The congregation is made up of those being caught up in the drama of the faithfulness of God. The recovery of names such as these is a useful corrective to the generic language of “faith community”. Along with recovering ancient names for Christian community I suggest we encourage one another to be creative with contemporary language in order to name something of the peculiarity, specificity and wonder of Christian communal life today.

 

 

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