Relax, Your Church is a Mess (For Now)

If you are a Christian then you love the church because you love what Jesus loves.  Jesus died for her (Eph 5.2, 25) and it’s Christian to love those for whom Jesus died.  But Christ’s bride is one messed-up group of people because you and I are some messed-up folk.

Jesus did not give himself up for the church because of who she was but because of who he would make her to be.  Jesus knew full well his church would never be perfect in this life.  He would sanctify her until the last day when he raises her anew as a gift to his Father (Eph 5.26-27).  We serve an illusion if we think our churches will be spotless, wrinkle-free, holy and blameless before the day Jesus presents her on that day.  Jesus never intended to create the perfect church in this age. He would preserve a faithful people who ride together the ups-and-downs of sin, pain, sorrow and joy by faith until he comes again.

Meanwhile, we are one motley group of weak people running a very difficult race of faith.

The true marks of a church, according to the Reformers, are the right preaching of God’s word, the right administration of the sacraments/ordinances and the exercise of church discipline.  Any church aiming at those marks will go through some very painful circumstances.  It’s nosy business we welcomed when we were baptized.  When Jesus came on the Galilean scene demons came out of nowhere to go toe-to-toe with the one they knew would destroy them.  Likewise, striving for and maintaining healthy churches means meeting sin and Satan in the dark alleys of human hearts.  And no one comes away without scars in that fight.

Have you considered the reason why we have thirteen New Testament letters?  They’re all, in one sense or another, responses to church conflicts.  Be it sneaky false teachers or plain old infighting, local churches suffered grievous internal conflict. There were no perfect churches in the NT.  In fact, we’re surprised to see some groups of believers still considered part of the church!  Jesus’ seven letters in Revelation 2-3 were to confront imperfect churches.  Until the end of time, Christ’s church will not be what she will be when Christ gets done with her on the last day.

The ministry of Jesus invited conflict.  Therefore, true gospel ministry invites conflict in the “best” of churches.  We don’t relish the conflict, but we’re not surprised or excessively despaired by it. Conflict is often the means of testing faithfulness (2 Cor 2.9) and reminding us that we’re not There yet and therefore must keep each other’s eyes fixed on Christ.

We can ignore conflict by avoiding the hard work of communal accountability to the gospel.  Offenders and offended simply slip out the side-door so as to avoid any confrontation and stain of scandal.

We can exaggerate conflict by assuming Satan is successfully destroying the church.  Satan only has as much leash as God allows, though.  Let’s be careful of ascribing to Satan what are really our own selfish, prideful desires.  No offense is unresolvable. Either by humble reconciliation or loving church discipline, Jesus has made a way to deal with church conflict.

We can understate conflict by publicly ignoring it but privately gossiping about it until the cancer takes over major organs.  Jesus gives courage to elders to confront conflict early so no bitter fruit blossoms (Heb 12.14).  Otherwise, what are probably minor offenses explode into major rifts.

We can fear conflict by running from it so we soon have a church with people exactly like us.

Or, we can consider conflict biblically.  Conflict will happen in the best of churches.  That’s why we have most of the New Testament. Therefore, we should be honest about conflict.  The world doesn’t need to see a billboard of superficial, smiling suburbanites.  The world needs to see a community of sinners who have found Living Hope in the gospel and pursue peace with each other.

We should consider conflict as a means by which God exposes our own sin. He tests our love so we will enjoy even more of Christ’s power and provision.  He will allow conflict to show the world the precious value of Jesus over indwelling sin and personal hatred.

We shouldn’t be surprised by conflict if we’re striving to be healthy churches.  Satan has declared war on the church (Rev 12.17) and when we poke him he snarls.

We should see conflict in light of the big picture rather than our infinitesimally small world.  Christ is sanctifying a global community and we’re barely a sliver of it.  Whatever conflict we face in the American church should be seen in light of the persecution of Christians in most of the rest of the world.

We should consider conflict part of God’s means of sanctifying his people.  We still need Christ to redeem, repent and restore.

We shouldn’t consider a healthy church the one without any conflict. There is such a thing as false peace.  The healthy church is one who deals with conflict in a Christ-exalting, saint-loving, purity-protecting way.

While conflict shouldn’t dominate a church’s life, it will be a regular condition in the life of the church.  Such is life in the age of groaning (Rom 8.22-24).  There will always be someone(s) giving into temptation, incubating wicked thoughts, hiding secret sins, etc.  The joy of Christian ministry is not making sure everyone looks perfect but in making sure everyone is hoping in Christ and his perfections.

We live in the age of the hope of glory (Rom 5.2; Col 1.27), knowing the day is coming soon when we will finally, and in reality, be the glorious people for whom Christ died.  Until then “with perseverance we wait eagerly for it” (Rom 8.25).  So, relax, your church is a mess.  But not for too much longer.

02

09 2014

The Sacrament of Sunrise

20140828_064255The sun rose beautifully on Memphis today.  And when the sun rose the gospel rose with it.

I wonder if we might overplay our hand when we make the creation accounts in Gen 1-2 merely about, well, creation.  Is God merely trying to explain how things came to be, the science of origins? Or is God weaving in the created order the very fabric of the gospel he will work out in Christ for all the world to see?  Is Gen 1-2 simply about creationism or ultimately about the gospel of Jesus Christ?

Creation is certainly about more than chronology and cosmology. Creation is primarily about theology in general and Christology in particular.  After all,

…by [the beloved Son] all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through him and for him” (Col 1.16).

For the Christian, “general revelation” (creation and conscience) becomes Christological revelation as everything “in the heavens and on earth” display Christ’s excellencies.  In that sense, all of creation is sacramental as much as it is elemental.

Each morning the sun “is as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber; it rejoices as a strong man to run its course.  Its rising is from one end of the heavens, and its circuit to the other end of them; and there is nothing hidden from its heat” (Ps 19.5-6).

Jesus said the Psalms prepare us for he is and what he does (Lk 24.44).  The New Testament and Jesus in particular repeatedly use the Psalms to explain who he is (Mt 22.41-46), what he’s doing (Mk 14.20f.; Lk 23.46) and what is happening to him (cf. Mk 14.34; Jn 19.24).  The apostles used the Psalms to ground the early church in a robust Christology (Acts 2.25-31, 34-36; 13.32-37).

Therefore, we should expect Psalm 19 to do more than fill our hearts at a seaside sunrise.  It should compel us toward thoughts and worship of Jesus.  Risking an allegorical hermeneutic, it’s no accident Jesus was known as the “bridegroom” (Mt 9.14f.; 25.1-13; Rev 19.7) and an unstoppable “strong man” (Mt 12.29) from whose “heat” no one can escape (Heb 4.13). The sunrise David described in Ps 19 shows the Christian more than its “intelligent design.”  It is as much created for Christ as it is by him.

As early as Gen 1.2-3 we learn each sunrise proclaims the good news that light, God’s light, always overcomes darkness.  God wove into the very fabric of the created order the reality that light will always overcome darkness.  And that prepares us for the reality Paul described in 2 Cor 4.6:

For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the of Christ.”

God’s light-creating power at creation paved the way for his gospel-giving power at our redemption.  The light that overcame darkness at creation echoes the Light that overcomes the darkness of our hearts in new creation.  And no matter how dark the night is, the sun will soon rise and dispel it.  Every day, everywhere.

Just as marriage serves an earthly, parabolic and Christological function (Eph 5.22-33) that will one day end (Mt 22.23-33), so too the sunrise:

And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev 22.5).

With every sunrise God declares the triumph of light over darkness (Ps 19.4).  And that feeds our hope for today, a day that will soon end in darkness.  Indeed, a life that ends in darkness.  The day is coming, though, when the sun rises for the last time and the Light of the world (Jn 1.4-5; 8.12) will no longer be veiled by clouds and shadows nor will it burn those who see it.  The night of weeping will be overcome by the morning’s joy (Ps 30.5) when the “Sunrise from on high will visit us” (Lk 1.78).  Every sunrise since Gen 1 has been building that eternal hope in us.  Night is temporary.  Light wins every time until He wins forever.

The God who “is Light, and in [whom] there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1.5) will allow for no night in the new creation.  Jesus will at last have overcome the darkness of our own hearts once and for all.

Dayspring of eternity!
Hide no more Thy radiant dawning!
Light from light’s exhaustless sea,
Shine on us afresh this morning!
And dispel with glorious might
All our night.

Let the glow of love destroy
Cold obedience faintly given,
Wake our hearts to love and joy
With the flushing eastern heaven;
Let us truly rise ere yet
Life hath set.

Through this dark and tearful place
Never be Thy light denied us.
O Thou glorious Sun of grace,
To yon world of gladness guide us,
When to joys that never end
We ascend!

Ah! Thou Dayspring from on high
Grant that at Thy next appearing
We who in the graves do lie
May arise, Thy summons hearing,
And rejoice in our new life,
Far from strife.

Light us to those heavenly spheres,
Sun of grace, in glory shrouded;
Lead us through this vale of tears
To the land whose days unclouded,
Purest joy, and perfect peace
Never cease.
(Christian von Rosenroth, 1664)

Post tenebras lux.

The Taming of Shamu and Jesus

You parents know what it’s like to traipse through Sea World thinking, “So this is what my parents went through!” As a kid, I strolled through Sea World without a care in the world as if the whole park were mine to explore.  All the while my parents counted pennies, peeled eyes, shared drinks and hauled souvenirs.  Now I was the one doing it for our children.  “Stay with us!”  “Don’t run off!”  “You’re splitting a drink with your sister.”  “We can’t afford another stuffed frog.”  “It’s time to go.”

We took our kids to Sea World-San Antonio on several occasions while living in Central Texas.  Everyone knows Sea World is nothing without Shamu, The Killer Whale.  I remember the first time I met Shamu, The Killer Whale.  It was San Diego and I was mesmerized. Terrified. I hated him. I loved him.

Like good parents we passed down the legacy of fear that was passed down to us.  We built him (at least I hope it’s a him) up to our kids for weeks.  We sat down in the “splash zone” eagerly waiting for the rain of terror.  Imagine my surprise when the Shamu show opened with a schmutzy video about anything being possible if I just believe.  Had we unwittingly stumbled into a ballet?  What about Killer did they not understand?  We were there to see Shamu, The Killer Whale.

Shamu and friends were paraded around to Kenny G music like puppies. They’d tamed Shamu, The Killer Whale!  He’s probably not even a he.  He was nothing more than Flipper in an orca suit. Where’s the fear and adrenaline that gripped me as a kid? Where’s the ferocity?  Shamu nearly ate me as child (or so I thought) and I loved it. Send Bud and Sandy for some real piscine predators or give us a refund!

Speaking of Sea World, Dale Ralph Davis has written some very helpful OT commentaries for Christian Focus Publications. Commenting on Joshua 10, Davis unleashed this insight:

“The popular image of Jesus is that he is not only kind and tender but also soft and prissy, as though Jesus comes to us reeking of hand cream. Such a Jesus can hardly steel the soul that is daily assaulted by the enemy. We need to learn the catechism of Psalm 24. Question: Who is the King of glory? Answer: Yahweh, strong and mighty! Yahweh – mighty in battle! (Ps 24:8). We must catch the vision of the Faithful and True sitting on the white horse, the One who ‘judges and makes war’ in righteousness (Rev 19:11-16). No mild God or soft Jesus can give his people hope. It is only as we know the warrior of Israel who fights for us (and sometimes without us) that we have hope of triumphing in the muck of life” (Davis, Joshua: No Falling Words, Focus on the Bible: 82).

Hand cream?  Maybe that’s why Shamu smelled so good.

Unlike Shamu, Jesus cannot be tamed.

27

08 2014

God’s Love Actually

Among other questions, the prophets answer the question, “What is God’s posture toward his people?”  Had God given up on saving a people for himself (Hos 4.6)?  Could God actually overlook or forgive his people’s rebellion against him (Mic 6.9-16)? Will God sit idly by while pagan nations run roughshod over the people he claims to love (Hab 1.13)?  How can we reconcile God’s apparent displeasure with his promise of eternal love toward the very ones with whom he’s displeased?  Does God’s love wax and wane toward those he saves?  Is God mainly angry or mainly loving?

In typical eloquent fashion C.S. Lewis wrote:

“The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word ‘love’, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. ‘Thou has created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created’ (Rev 4:11). We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest ‘well-pleased’. . . . What we would here and now call our ‘happiness’ is not the end God chiefly has in view: but when we are such as He can love without impediment, we shall in fact be happy” (The Problem of Pain, HarperCollins: 2001, pp40-41).

If you are in Christ, God is making you into someone he can love “without impediment.” That’s God’s goal for all the pain and pressure in our lives.  Scripture regularly refers to this process as fiery refining (1 Pt 1.7-9).  God loves us too much to let impurity, sin, immaturity, and earthbound desires live like squatters in our hearts.

We tend to think of God (especially the “Old Testament God”) as one who is constantly angry until we persuade him to love us (with obedience, sacrifice, etc.). We might assume God really wants to be angry with us but begrudgingly and dutifully loves us because Jesus finally makes him do so.  The prophets teach the exact opposite.  God is not angry until we persuade him to love. We are the ones angry with God until he persuades us to love (and be loved).  We don’t make God lovable.  He makes us lovable.  God loved us first (1 Jn 4.19).

God is happy whether we exist or not and whether we like it or not. He owns and rules every molecule in the universe to serve his own happiness (Ps 24.1; 50.10-12). He needs no help to be a happy God (Acts 17.24ff). What then is a God to do who owns all, rules all and needs none?  Give! There is nothing for God to get; therefore, if he is to do anything at all he must give.  For a God who has nothing to gain, even the lifting of his pinky finger is an effort to give.  And give he does.

God doesn’t create us primarily to get anything from us because he has no lack.  God creates us to give everything to us, namely, himself and all his glorious excellencies. To make us recipients worthy of all he gives God gives us Jesus to make us alive and able to love.  God gives Jesus to us and us to him so that what Jesus deserves to have he gives to us.  As the Father loves the Son “without impediment,” so he conforms us into the image of the Son so he would love us likewise (Jn 17.23-24; Rom 8.28-39). Now, every spiritual blessing is ours in Christ (Eph 1.3).

We tend to make God liberal with his wrath and stingy with his love. The opposite is true.  The cross is not the work of a stingy God, but of One who is passionately jealous for a people to love (Jn 3.16).  It’s far easier to expect God’s wrath than his love. The prophets lived and died to change our minds on that.

“Who is a God like you, who pardons iniquity and passes over the rebellious act of the remnant of His possession? He does not retain His anger forever, because He delights in unchanging love” (Micah 7.18).

26

08 2014

The Prerequisite for Salvation

“When [God] causes the gospel to be preached, it is certainly the case that he is not saying, ‘I have come to save Simon Peter or Cornelius the centurion or Mary Magdalene.’ He calls no one by the name given them by men at the time of their circumcision or baptism. Were that the case, we could certainly doubt our salvation, for then the thought would legitimately arise that not we but perhaps someone else with the same name was meant. But when you hear that Jesus Christ has come to save sinners, then you have the choice either of rejecting the title ‘sinner’ or of confessing that he means you because he has come to save you. Conclude boldly, then, that ‘Jesus Christ has come to save sinners, and I confess that that is also my name since I also am a sinner. Therefore, he has come to save me!’” (Jean Taffin, The Marks of God’s Children)

“Come to Jesus just as you are,” pleads the worked up and well-meaning revival preacher.  What he means is there are no intellectual, economic, ethnic or moral prerequisites for salvation.  You need not know more, behave better, or earn less before Jesus would save you.  Jesus does not require us to be anything before he would save us.  Or does he?

Jesus didn’t die for the self-ascribed godly, but only for those who know themselves to be ungodly (Rom 5.6). He didn’t come to save the self-proclaimed righteous, but only those who know themselves to be sinners (Lk 5.32). Jesus didn’t redeem those who attempt to impress God and are entitled to a reward.  He redeemed only those who are impressed with God and his lavish grace.  If you consider yourself godly and righteous then you cannot come “just as you are.” But if you know yourself to be ungodly and unrighteous then Jesus lived, died and was raised for people just like you.

Just as I am, without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me,
And that thou bidd’st me come to thee,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

Just as I am, poor, wretched, blind;
Sight, riches, healing of the mind,
Yea, all I need, in thee to find,
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
(Charlotte Elliot, 1835)

25

08 2014

The Church to #Ferguson, With Love

The church of Jesus Christ is the alternative kingdom to the kingdom of this age.  She is the evidence that Jesus has begun reclaiming, restoring and resurrecting what is rightfully his: a people devoted to and pleased by God’s glory (Eph 5.26-27, 32).  God shows us through the church he is repairing what has gone wrong with our world through, in and for Christ (Eph 3.8-11).  And since we are what’s wrong with this world, his work is primarily the transformation of sinners into saints.  The church is God’s testimony that his kingdom is one of changed people, not merely changed democracies, schools, economies or armies and where love is the rule of law (1 Jn 4.7-21).

The church is by no means perfect because those in her are not yet perfected.  She is at all times dependent on the grace, mercy and power of Christ.  But she is indeed the only reflection, even everso faint, of the world as it should be.  As Israel lived in Babylonian exile, so the church of Jesus Christ lives as aliens, strangers in a foreign land (1 Pt 2.11).  The citizens of Zion live among the Babylonians until the “great harlot” finally falls (Rev 18.1-3; 19.1-6). As an outpost of heaven the church sets God’s table in a wilderness for parched souls thirsting for lasting rest (Ps 78.19).

The church also reflects, even everso faintly, the world as it will be. Jesus will soon complete what he started.  He will finally rid the world of sin, recreate a world of righteousness and forever establish love – his love – among his people.  Indeed, the church is the hope of the world because she displays the Living Hope of her Risen Savior (1 Pt 1.3-5).

‘Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
She waits the consummation
Of peace for evermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.
(Samuel Stone)

While “she waits the consummation” the church exists as “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Tim 3.15).  As such, the church brings heavenly wisdom and gospel hope to a world clamoring for truth and justice.  This is no more true than in Ferguson, MO where a town is at war with itself.  What should the church say to the souls of Ferguson?

The Church to the Police:
You have weighty responsibility to say the least.  Whether or not any given police officer is a Christian, you have your authority by God’s common grace on all mankind (Rom 13.1-7).  As part of our trusting God we trust you to steward this derivative authority soberly, patiently and equitably.  For the most part we believe you do and should be grateful to God for his kindness to restrain and reward. We are sorry for complaining about speeding tickets and broken tail lights while you spend the majority of your time keeping our neighborhoods as safe as possible. For every officer-related shooting there are hundreds of officer-related gestures of peace.

You often hold the very power of life and death in your hands.  The decision to wield that power happens in split seconds.  You are not God and we cannot expect you to always make that decision in perfect wisdom and righteousness.  But it is nevertheless a decision for which you will be accountable to the citizenry and ultimately to God.  We hope you will take that extra second and if it be absolutely necessary, aim low.

The reason you have a job is because we became criminals in Genesis 3.  We wanted a world where we could be our own gods.  God has not ordained the police force to fix this sort of world.  He has chosen to recreate this world through, and only through, Jesus Christ.  You play an important role in this world, but not a permanent one.  In this painful world of violence and brutality, God has woven his grace by giving us the good news that Jesus changes the hearts of sinners like us.  Tear gas and batons will never end violence because they can never end anger.  You can arrest a criminal but you cannot arrest the criminal’s heart.  Jesus ends anger.

We pray each police officer fulfills his/her duty as a servant of the people and of Jesus himself.  As the gospel might infiltrate your own hearts and communities you will need less riot gear.

The Church to Violent Protesters:
Looting and vandalizing the neighborhood store has nothing to do with justice.  It has everything to do with exploiting Michael Brown’s death to serve your own selfishness.  Engaging in such barbaric behavior in the name of justice actually trivializes the very justice you seek.  In fact, you are punishing those who had nothing to do with what offended you.  That is not righteous protesting.  It’s cowardice. A young man, your friend, lies dead in the middle of a street and you break a store window to steal gadgets.  You might as well have stolen Michael Brown’s shoes on the way.

You are behaving no differently than the police you allege abused the power afforded them.  You are stealing from your unarmed, unprotected neighbor.  How is that any different than what you say the police did to Michael Brown?  Maybe your neighborhood could do with less trigger-happy officers.  Maybe it could do with less of you, too.

We plead with you to submit to Christ and his life-giving authority. Jesus gives you a life of love, not looting.  Service, not stealing. Giving, not taking.  You may get away with rampant destruction in this life. But God will not be so lenient.  He defends the helpless and vindicates injustice.  You want a Ferguson police officer held accountable?  Well and good.  But you should also know you will be held accountable as well.  Run to Christ before it’s too late.  He will have you and you will know God’s mercy.  Like Zaccheus (Lk 19.1-10), give back what you stole or plan to work it off at the store you looted.

The Church to Peaceful Protesters:
You are right to want truth and justice.  God has wired that in us all especially when a life is taken.  No life is insignificant even if that life is a difficult one.

And we are extremely sorry about the racism we tend to encourage.  I hope we don’t want to do it, but often our churches know better than we do.  Jesus never established a white church or a black church. Despite what our pews may show Jesus really did make “one new man” (Eph 2.15).  Forgive us.  Be patient with us.  Help us.

But you must know that as much as we demand justice in this life we will never have enough.  Our sin runs deep.  No one is able to ultimately right what has gone wrong unless that One can change our hearts.  You may get better police officers and remunerations, but they will be sad and temporary fixes.  Only Jesus can change hearts of hate into hearts of love.

While we pray your neighborhoods enjoy a season of peace and unity, we know there will always be another Ferguson.  In a few weeks, Ferguson will no longer be “breaking news.”  You will be a byword and the news will be on to the next tragedy.  But, that tragedy along with yours is all part of the same tragedy.  We wanted a world where death reigns and police need guns and young men rob stores.  As tragic as the events are in Ferguson, they are part of the same story. Our story.  Our story of sin, shame, Godlessness and despair.  We make war with each other because we first made war with God.

It was this tragedy Jesus assumed to himself. He immersed himself in our griefs and sorrows (Is 53.4), the very kinds of sorrows you suffer right now.  Unlike Michael Brown, Jesus never robbed a store, smoked weed or tussled with a cop.  Yet he chose to be treated like he had. He gave up his life so you would not have to lose yours.  Jesus ensures justice will be served but may be different than you expect. But you don’t have to lose your soul to hatred in the meantime.  He redeemed your grief so that as horrific as death is it will not win the day.

We hope you’ll not listen to money-hungry, attention-grabbing “preachers” who claim to speak in God’s name.  As soon as the photo-op is over they will board their private jets and return to their gated mansions.  Rather, listen to those local pastors who live and love among you.  They walk those streets everyday and love you. Protest if you must, but then go pray with your churches.

Whatever truth, relief and justice you receive in the coming months, know that the problem still remains.  It’s not ultimately a race problem.  Racism is the symptom, not the cause. It’s a sin problem. It’s our problem.  We all die because sin has already killed us (Rom 5.12).  It’s the problem Jesus died to remedy in us.  We need new hearts that share, love and live in Christ’s name.  Ferguson doesn’t need any more band-aids or superficial peace.  Like the rest of us, you need the unrivaled, unrestrained, undeterred love of God to sweep the streets.

We don’t just want a better Ferguson.  We want “the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” in a better country, a heavenly one (Heb 11.10, 16). Pax Christi.

From the Church, With Love

The Gospel is Masculine, But Not Chauvinist

“Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Gal 4.7).

The gospel of Jesus Christ is decidedly masculine but it is neither discriminatory nor chauvinist.  In fact, the glory of the gospel is wrapped up in its masculinity, rightly understood.  Given the context of Scripture and the people among which the gospel spread, we want a masculine gospel.

God as Father with children almost exclusively called “sons” does not sit well in the increasingly egalitarian mind.  Gender-neutral Bibles attempt to tame the “maleness” of Scripture (and often of God) so as not to disenfranchise women.  Neither is the pulpit immune. Feminism has ridden the Trojan Horse of political correctness past the narthex all the way to the chancel.  Pastors and teachers feel compelled to emasculate Scripture so that “sons” always include “daughters.” “Brothers,” before anyone gets offended, always includes “sisters.”  We castrate Scripture lest any woman feels slighted by God or the church.

The gospel, however, does not need help including women in Christ’s kingdom.  The maleness of the gospel has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with “sonship.”  The gospel is about inheritance, not anatomy.  The greatest gift of the gospel lies in its “sonship” and that’s good news for women.

The typical Hebrew father passed down his inheritance to his sons. And his firstborn son was the primary beneficiary of the father’s wealth bestowed through the birthright (cf. Gen 25.31-34; 27.18-29; Mt 21.38).  The daughters of the family were not excluded or neglected.  Rather, a father would marry his daughter to a husband who would himself receive some measure of his father’s inheritance. Only in situations where there was no male benefactor would women lay claim to their own wealth (see Ruth, for example). “Sonship” implied an inheritance that would continually trickle down and serve the needs of those for whom the heir was responsible.

When God calls those he saves “sons” he is not intentionally excluding women.  Sons are not sons because of their maleness. They are sons because they inherit the wealth and riches of the Father. God’s children, however, are not second-rate sons.  They are all heirs to the wealth, riches and blessing of the Firstborn Son himself! Through “adoption” God makes all those who are otherwise excluded from his blessing heirs to all that the Firstborn Son is due (Gal 4.4-7).

For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.  For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba, Father!”  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8.14-17).

All who are being led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  Paul is not saying only men are led by God’s spirit.  He is saying all who are in Christ receive the status, position, hope, inheritance befitting of sons. The masculinity of the gospel does not define who are God’s children (males only).  It defines what exactly God does in salvation; namely, he makes those his sons who are not such by nature.

To become a son is to become an heir.  But not just any son.  They receive the full rights and privileges of the Firstborn Son – Christ himself (cf. Eph 1.3).  When Jesus tells his disciples he preparing a place for them so they will be where he is (Jn 14.1-3), he is not talking about a physical location.  He is talking about the place of the Firstborn Son.  All those God saves in Christ will be where Christ is: first chair next to the Father (Jn 17.24), heirs according to the promise (Gal 3.28).

The gospel is decidedly masculine but it is not chauvinist.  In Christ, God makes sons of those who are otherwise excluded from his riches.  God makes sons out of those the religious elite excluded from the Kingdom: slaves (Gal 4.7), children (Mk 10.14), Samaritans (Lk 10.30-37), shysters (Lk 17.9-14) and whores (Lk 7.36-50).  They all become sons when they become Christ’s.  The very people considered excluded from God the Father’s salvation become the full and rightful heirs of it.  Therefore, as much as we might want to denude the gospel by generalizing “sons” into “sons and daughters,” we actually rob the gospel of its full importance.  In wanting to include woman as God’s “daughters” let’s be careful we’ve not unwittingly excluded them as sons!  The glory of the gospel is that even the daughters of men become sons of God (Gal 3.28).

By referring to his children as “sons” God is not disenfranchising women (or slaves, children, shysters or whores).  In reality, he is restoring dignity to them all by giving them the wealth of his glory for all eternity.  Jesus assumed their shame to himself so they could enjoy the privileges of sonship. The gospel opens the storehouse of God’s glorious wealth those (1) not inherently permitted to it and (2) most unworthy of it.  Peter would even call the Christian wife a “fellow heir of the grace of life” (1 Pt 3.7).  God treats her as much like a son as he does her Christian husband.  Therefore, the gospel stood, and stands, against all forms of inhumane discrimination, be it gender, ethnicity, economic class, etc.  Unlike the kingdom of Caesar, the church would actually treat women, slaves, outcasts and cripples as equals in the kingdom of Christ.

Let’s not tame the gospel or attempt to make it more inclusive.  It couldn’t offer a more privileged position than that of the Firstborn Son’s place.  The gospel cannot bequeath more than the riches due Christ himself to all who desire them.

When God saves one of his children he does not leave her a daughter, slave or cripple.  Like David did for the club-footed Mephibosheth (2 Sam 10.13), Israel’s King makes his servants sons and heirs of his kingdom (Rom 8.29).  All girls allowed.

Give ‘em Grace, Not Hell

“Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear” (Eph 4.29).

I don’t know about your home but our three kids fight.  A lot. One minute they are laughing and playing.  The next minute they are fighting, snatching and calling one another names.  Like their father, they are quick to tear down, demean, disgrace and criticize.  

Rather than incessantly demanding they “Stop!” and “Be nice to each other!” we decided to try something that might actually work: Bible. We might succeed in altering their behavior for fifteen minutes, but God uses Scripture to transform their hearts forever.  So we memorized Ephesians 4.29 together to bring it to bear on conversations and arguments as they arise.  Christians are those who are slow to anger and quick with grace. Ironically, they now fight over who will recite the verse first! Oy-vey.

There is a measure of wisdom in not saying anything if you cannot say anything good or helpful.  Our tongues often do need restraining like a horse needs a rage-stopping bridle (Jas 3.1-12).  Growing in the gospel, however, is to unleash the tongue in edifying grace.  Having tamed the fleshly outburst, the Christian becomes a fountain of life-giving, grace-seasoned water.

“Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person” (Col 4.6).

The Christian shouldn’t say what he really wants to say until what he wants to say is what should be said.

Words like “edification” and “grace” can become so familiar they become meaningless.  We can talk much about them as concepts without ever pressing them into “the need of the moment.”  What then are these grace-ripe moments where our mouths become Christ’s means of edification?  We hope to work out these moments specifically in our family, a family that needs far less lip and far more edification.  Perhaps you might benefit from and/or add to our working list:

• Apply Eph 4.29 at the hospital hospital by thanking nurses/staff for their dignity-supplying help instead of demanding of & complaining to them.  They provide full-time services the rest of us recoil at doing for a few minutes.  They do their best to help our loved ones at their worst.

• Apply Eph 4.29 at church by blessing others with Christ’s peace during the greeting time instead of quick, superficial, lifeless words.  The “passing of the peace” has long been a part of the church’s liturgical tradition.  In our microwave worship culture, however, that tradition has been de-graced with the “greeting time” where we rush through superficial, lifeless handshakes.  Replace the worldly generic “Good morning, nice to see you” with the Church’s specific “Christ’s peace to you.” Christians don’t merely greet one another; they bless one another.

• Apply Eph 4.29 at church by actually praying right then and there with the person for whom you’ve promised to pray.

• Apply Eph 4.29 at a restaurant by treating your server like a real human being.  Look them in the eye.  Ask how they are doing and even how you might pray for them.  If it’s their first day then just eat the wrong side they brought rather than send it back in a huff.  Make sure they are free to wait on that table of grumpy people before yours.  Tip them well.  Very well, for Christ’s sake.

• Apply Eph 4.29 at work by greeting your boss before he/she greets you.  Speak well of him/her and to him/her even (or especially) if you consider him/her unworthy of it (1 Pt 2.18-19).

• Apply Eph 4.29 at home by emphasizing what each other has done well before and much more than what we’ve not done well (okay, this one is just for me).  Otherwise, our children get the idea God is angrily tapping his foot just waiting for another opportunity to pounce on us.

• Apply Eph 4.29 at the grocery store by treating the checkout gal like a real person rather than a glorified scanner with arms.  Most of them cannot wait to clock out or quit, so they could use some grace while they’re weighing your bananas.

I hope our list grows and grows and grows.  And we along with it.

But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not to be this way (Jas 3.8-10).

12

08 2014

Christian vs. Worldly Endurance

Endurance in an important word in the Christian faith.  We might well consider it the defining mark of the Christian.  Jesus himself said, “. . . it is the one who has endured to the end who will be saved” (Mt 10.22; 24.13; cf. Mk 13.13).  Many will appear to start in the Christian faith but who do not endure in that faith (Mt 7.13-27; Lk 8.4-15).  And those who do not endure will not be saved in the end.  They will have made a good show of faith at some point but will not love Jesus at their last breath.  And they will suffer God’s eternal wrath in a gruesome hell despite the occasional, or even lengthy, appearance of saving faith.

Endurance is indeed an an important word in the Christian faith.  It bears the weight of eternity as heaven and hell hang in the balance. In reality we can only “see someone get saved” when we see them finally rest in Christ’s peace.

Endurance is not particularly a Christian word, though.  The world has its own sense of it.  Athletes endure training and grueling competitions to either win or at least survive.  An estranged wife endures a bitter divorce after her husband admits to serial infidelity. Cancer patients endure chemotherapy to enjoy a season of remission. Soldiers endure enemy fire and harsh weather to complete their missions.  Scientist endure decades of failure to finally produce a cure.

It is not, however, the worldly sense of endurance that Jesus said saves in the end.  Just because someone endures a difficult circumstance and lives to tell about it, even with a smile, doesn’t mean they are going to heaven.  As inspiring their story might be to others their endurance is not necessarily Christian.  While we should rejoice for and encourage those who endure painful trials, we must not assume or assure that their endurance de facto earns them a place in God’s kingdom.

Jesus had a specific idea of endurance in mind.  It’s not any form of endurance that results in salvation.  Christian endurance does.  If our eternal salvation depends on it then we should understand what it is. What then is the anatomy of Christian endurance?

First, what it is not.  Christian endurance is not:

     1.  The mere survival of a difficult situation.  Christian endurance does not equal survival.  Survival may be heroic and worthy of imitation but it is not necessarily godly.  Worldly endurance produces a measure of wisdom and maturity (an expression of God’s common grace), but it does not necessarily warrant eternal salvation.

     2.  “Letting go and letting God.”  Endurance is not a Pollyannic posture toward affliction.  Someone may not appear to be all that bothered by a painful situation.  They might well be quite cheery during it.  But that does not necessarily mean they are enduring Christianly.

     3.  Baptized self-effort.  Christian endurance is not the display of a person’s inner fortitude.  We easily commend the person who “beat’ cancer or overcame tragedy in terms that make God a spectator.  We might unintentionally depict God as one who is impressed with our strength and therefore obliged to reward it.

     4.  Episodic.  Christian endurance is not persevering through a difficult occasion or two that seals a person’s place in heaven. Christian endurance is the lifelong examination and test that ends at our last breath (or last rational thought) and not a moment sooner. Christian endurance weaves in-and-out of all the ups-and-downs of life. The Christian will withstand faith-threatening tragedies and the mundane temptations of a surly neighbor.  It’s all endurance for all of life.

What then is Christian endurance?  What exactly is the sort of endurance for which Jesus promises eternal life? In no particular or remotely-exhaustive order, Christian (or, eternally-saving) endurance is:

     1.  Fruit-bearing (Lk 8.15; Jn 15.5-6; Col 1.6).  Christian endurance demonstrates itself as Christian when the one enduring produces distinctly Christian fruit, i.e. Spirit wrought evidences of Christ’s own character (Gal 5.22).

     2.  Cause for rejoicing because it is necessary for eternal hope (Rom 5.3-5; Jas 1.2-4).  Christian endurance results in greater longing for God to complete what we started in/through/with Jesus.  Worldly endurance may produce a greater zeal and appreciation for this life; Christian endurance produces zeal for the next life.

     3.  For the encouragement and comfort of other Christians (2 Cor 1.3-7).  Christian endurance is always a gift to the church as we are able to help other stragglers keep pace in the Christian journey. Christians endure “out loud” because Jesus suffered publicly.  Christians will resist the temptation of self-glory to become a conduit of persevering grace for fellow-endurers.

     4.  Befitting older, mature Christians (Titus 2.2).  The deeper we grow in the gospel the less wobbly we become by life.  Maturing Christians increasingly interpret their pain and despair in light of gospel truth, and they grow more proficient at applying that truth.

     5.  One of the primary means of Christian assurance (2 Pt 1.5-12). Christians are not sustained by emotional spikes, superficial worship, platitudinous encouragement or K-Love fuzzies.  They are sustained as they sow hardscrabble lives with godliness-reaping perseverance.  Jesus didn’t take the easy way out, so his followers (those he saves in the end) refuse to do so.

     6.  Painful (2 Cor 4.16-5.5; Heb 12.4-11).  Christians have a sympathetic, weakness-helping Savior for a reason (Heb 2.17; 4.15). He knows the homeward journey is fraught with “many dangers, toils and snares.”  Like the Good Samaritan he cares deeply for the children God has given him.  He keeps on binding their wounds.

     7.  Designed to prove to the universe the value and power of Christ in those he saves (1 Pt 1.3-9).  No matter how deep the pain and debilitating the despair, Jesus will still be sweeter to the Christian.  And one day all the universe is going to see why.

What makes eternally-saving endurance Christian?  It results in greater love for, hope in and intimacy with Christ.  Satan tries to hijack our pain to discredit and disgrace Jesus.  Satan intends to disillusion us about God’s love and saving purposes.  But in the end the Christian will have, often in spite of all reasons to do otherwise, treasured Jesus all the more.  Through tears and scars, the Christian will restrain his fleshly sense of entitlement to still hope in the gospel even (or especially) when that gospel has demanded “my soul, my life, my all.”

While the world, flesh and devil will derail many who seemingly started well (Lk 8.12-14), Jesus will ensure those he saves overcome Satan’s schemes (Eph 6.10-17).  Like Satan himself, the world will try to convince us that immense pain and suffering betray God’s love for those he afflicts.  It didn’t work on Jesus (Mt 4.5-11) and won’t work on those he saves.

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  Just as it is written, ‘FOR YOUR SAKE WE ARE BEING PUT TO DEATH ALL DAY LONG; WE WERE CONSIDERED AS SHEEP TO BE SLAUGHTERED.’  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8.35-39).

Even if the Christian hangs on to gospel hope by a mere thread, it is Christ’s thread (Jude 24-25).  And Jesus never lets go.

06

08 2014

Job, Jesus and the Potsherd

“[Job] was blameless, upright, fearing God and turning away from evil (Job 1.1) . . . the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away. Blessed be the name of the LORD” (1.21) . . . Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity? (2.10) . . . I am not at ease, nor am I quiet, and I am not at rest, but turmoil comes” (3.26).

We quickly play the Job card when affliction conspires against our heart. Anxiety peeks through the Sunday morning veneer and we clamor for that obscure medication we otherwise skip on the way to the Psalms.  Surely, we reason, our affliction is more Job-like than anything else.  It must be. Sabeans from the left, Chaldeans from the right, fire from above and wind from below.

We exalt Job as the paradigm for enduring distress because James did:  “We count those blessed who endured.  You have heard of the endurance of Job and have seen the outcome of the Lord’s dealings, that the Lord is full of compassion and is merciful” (Jas 5.11).  A glowing commendation indeed.

We need not, however, assume such praise (cf. 1.22; 2.10) insulated Job from being bothered by and doubtful of God’s dealings with him. The Job who didn’t blame God (1.22) or sin with his lips (2.10) was the same Job who was not at ease or quiet (3.26).  He engaged in a forty-chapter heavyweight bout with his friends and even God.  By 42.6, Job “repents in dust and ashes.”  Somewhere between 2.10 and 42.6 Job learned he wasn’t a victim needing vindication but a sinner needing mercy.

And that is the real commendation.

Christian endurance is not merely the ability to get through trouble and on with life.  Non-Christians get through trouble and go on with their lives. Christian endurance results in even greater conviction that God is still better than we imagined.  Job thought so:

“But it is still my consolation, and I rejoice in unsparing pain, that I have not denied the words of the Holy One” (6.10).

Heaven and hell are separated by the word “still.”  It’s what we still do after intense affliction that defines the Christian from the non-Christian.

As much tribute we offer Job, it is God who is paradigmatic.  God is the one who acts according to plan—with grace, mercy, patience, kindness and blessing.  God had as clear an agenda with Job as Satan did.  Both sought to break him down, but for opposing reasons. Satan sought to strip Job from his faith. God stripped Job down to his faith. Even the “greatest of all the men of the east” (1.1) needed to taste again the dust from which he came.

The blameless, God-fearing Job of 1.1 was an uneasy, restless Job by 3.26. This was by God’s design to unearth a new wealth of blamelessness, righteousness and fear in Job.  He would let Job run out his leash but not off it.  The extent of Job’s calamities is not as impressive as the extent to which God goes to wrench faith and confession from His people. Call it what (or who) you will but God will simply, carefully and masterfully break us down. He will weaken us until we will receive his undiluted love.  He will take us from talking about God to talking to him.  And from there receiving from him.  It took forty chapters to do so with Job. It’s taking 40-plus years for me and counting.

Job is about sympathy, but not our everyday run-of-the-mill Hallmark sympathy.  It’s about real sympathy.  God’s sympathy.  The sympathy he eventually puts on display in Jesus (Heb 2.17; 4.15).  We aren’t so much like Job as much as Jesus becomes like us who “prayed for his friends” (42.8; cf. Lk 22.31f.; Rom 8.34; Heb 7.25).  God accepted him so that he would not do with us according to our folly (42.8).  In a preview of resurrection God “restored the fortunes of Job when he prayed for his friends” (42.10). Out of his potsherd-shaped scars (2.8) Job became the conduit of blessing to a new family (42.12-16).  Blessed be the name of the Lord.

The fires of faith are kindled in the ashes of adversity, ashes piled up at the cross.  May we repent in them and finally rest as “an old man and full of days” (42.17).

29

07 2014