Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Belief Questioned...

This week (this morning, in fact), I was hit a couple of times upside the head by things that made me think about my faith.

The first was an article that someone from my congregation posted and commented on (you can read the article here).  In the article, the author shares what he proudly boasts as "Historical evidence that proves 'Jesus Christ' never existed."  What is curious, though, is that he doesn't actually share any actual evidence.  He makes a series of assertions, shows a couple of pictures, cites a couple of events from Church history, and then makes a couple more assertions.  Evidence?  Hardly.
Even  more fascinating is that he completely ignored the substantial amount of evidence that Jesus did actually exist (like Josephus, the Gospel writers, Thallus, Lucian of Samosata, Paul, and others).  Apparently making assertions and claiming that they are historical evidence is enough...even in the face of actual historical references.

But here is the deal:  I believe in Jesus.  By grace, through faith, I trust in the promises of God and the face of God that we see in Jesus.  I drank the punch.  I bought the line.  I am in.  In fact, I am all in!  That is what bothers me the most.  This article presents one of the worst arguments against Jesus that I have heard.  It is piecemeal.  It is academically irresponsible.  It is biased.  It is factually vacant.  

And yet, the subtle message is that Christians are ignorant people who have never done their homework.  We are simpletons who lack the intellectual capital to have informed opinions and so cling to faith and religious myths such as the existence of Jesus.  Did you catch that?  We, followers of Jesus, are the ones who are less intelligent.  And this argument has caused many to question their very beliefs and to wonder if maybe they are on the wrong side of the faith fence.  

This leads to the second time that I was challenged about ideas of faith and belief.  

Just moments after reading the article about why Jesus never actually existed (and the responses on social media to the article), I chose to take a quick scroll through my Facebook feed.  Here, I saw that Mumford & Sons had released their latest single called, "Believe".  Based on what I was chewing on mentally at that moment, I decided to give it a quick listen.  Here is the video:

video 

The lyrics state, "I don't even know if I believe."  So again, we have people question their beliefs.  Now, to be fair, I have no idea what the band is actually singing about.  They might be talking about a relationship with another person.  They might be talking about their lack of belief in the American political system.  They might be referencing their lack of belief in whether or not hot dogs are actually made from meat at all.  I don't know....but that isn't really the point.  Belief is being challenged.

Was Jesus actually real?  Am I foolish for believing in Him?  What would my academic friends think if they knew that I trusted a "myth"?  Maybe...  What if...  Oh no...

I think questions are OK.  It is good to think through the implications for faith.  It is necessary to consider how our belief challenges and shapes our worldview.  That isn't the problem.  The problem is that we can far too easily get sucked into an intellectual debate where we allow some smug punk to set the terms for the discussion...and then we wonder why we can't get any traction.  Worse yet, we then allow this same smug punk to challenge the God's very existence based on the calculations and fabrications of his own peanut-sized-brain.  So what are we to do?

First, I believe that as followers of Jesus we must stand firm.  We must understand that these articles and these arguments are fruitless.  They are the meager attempts of a society in rebellion against its Creator to justify their own rebellion by claiming there is no one to actually rebel against.  In other words, they are trying to disprove God so that their crazy, self-concocted ideas can stand without opposition or moral challenge.  This is an extremely dangerous game...that the Church should refuse to play.

Secondly, we should remember that Jesus is not only real...He is hope.  He is peace.  He is loving.

In the bridge of Mumford & Sons new single, they cry out with these words: "Say something, say something like you love me."  Are you ready for it?  He has.  He has declared His love for you.  In Jesus, God has already declared His love for you.  And in His word, He has said a lot about it.  Trust God's proclamation to you that you are loved, that your faith is solid, and that Jesus was real.  He was...and because He was, you can know what it means to be loved.  Hang on to that promise.


Thursday, February 26, 2015

Super Lutheran...Continued

This past weekend, I preached on Philippians 3 (you can check out the sermon here).

To try to effectively communicate the reality that resumes and pedigrees don't matter...Jesus does...I declared that I was a super Lutheran.  I talked about how I was raised in the church, how I went to a Lutheran university, a Lutheran seminary, and secretly have Luther's seal on my rear end (ok...that part isn't true, but you get the point).  I am a super Lutheran.  And yet...

And yet...it doesn't matter.  I consider it all rubbish compared to knowing Christ and the power of His resurrection.  Resumes don't matter.  Jesus does.  We need to be careful not to overlay a moralistic, "Jesus + anything" standard to our identity.  We belong to Jesus because He claimed us in the waters of baptism.  That is it!  Nothing else!

This message seemed to resonate with a LARGE number of people.  I have heard about it all week.  They appreciated the call back to God's grace (through faith).   They appreciated the simplicity of Jesus and the stripping away of that which demands obedience and thus competes with the gift of God's grace.  It (apparently) was a powerful word from the Lord.

But something about it has unsettled me all week...

This is not a blank check.  This is not a case of "Now that I have God's grace I get to do whatever I want."  Grace is a gift.  Jesus is all that matters.  However, I want to be clear, God does have something to say about how we should live as His people.  He does.  The key is understanding the order of things.

We do not apply a moral overlay to God's grace.  His grace is enough.  It is awesome, powerful, and sustaining.  It is also, transformative.  Our new identity in Christ allows us to realize that God's way is always better.  His plans for us are better.  Thus, we desire to follow His ways.  We study His law.  We reflect on how He desires for us to live.  We strive to honor Him.  We start with His grace and the identity as new creations that it bestows...then we seek to live out that new identity.  This isn't a blank check.  It isn't "cheap grace".  It is, however, powerful.  The key is in understanding the difference between our desires and our attempts to create an alternate morality...and God's will for our lives.

Here is a secret:  God's ways and His will for our lives are always better...

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Work

"Pastor John, I don't know if I heard this from you or from somewhere else, but I have been thinking about it a lot lately.  'It doesn't matter where you are...the work is the same.  It is all about Jesus.'"  

The particular lady who shared this with me last evening then went on to share how, with her husband in the hospital, she woke up the other day dreading the day ahead.  She wasn't excited about going back to sit in a hospital room for another day.  She wasn't excited about the life interruption.  She wasn't excited to just sit.

And then it dawned on her.  "It doesn't matter where you are...the work is the same.  It is all about Jesus."  Whether she would spend the day at the hospital or doing something else, the "what" didn't really matter.  The work was the same.  Her day would be about honoring Jesus.

As I sat in the hospital with this incredible couple, I witnessed them both living out their identities in Jesus.  They warmly greeted visitors, doctors and nurses.  They read scripture.  They shared stories and talked of the hope they have...because of Jesus.  They didn't do anything extravagant.  They simply did what they would have otherwise done.  The difference that they tried to keep in focus what their lives were really about:  They work of honoring Jesus.  And honestly...it was pretty amazing to see. 

It just makes me wonder...

What would the world look like if all Jesus followers thought of their days and their activities with the understanding that it doesn't matter where you are...the work is the same.  It is all about Jesus.  I wonder...  


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Discipleship & Eating Alone

This past week, I was up in St. Louis and was waiting for a friend at one of my favorite restaurants.  I was a bit early and...well...he is usually late.  So I sat on a bench near the front of the restaurant and waited for him before getting seated.  But as I waited, something interesting happened...

A man walked in.  He was dressed in business attire and was one of those guys that exude an air of confident control.  Well groomed.  Perfect stature.  Articulate.  Powerful.  As soon as he walked in, the hostess immediately came running. 

"Just one for lunch?" she asked him. 

"Yes...um...wait."  And with that hesitant response, he spun around to look me in the eye.

"Are you waiting on someone or are you also eating alone?"

I responded that I was waiting on someone.  He spun back around and had the hostess take him to his seat.  The rest of the lunch was uneventful.  My friend showed up, we ate together and talked about discipleship and how the Church was changing.  It was a good lunch.  But...

I couldn't get the initial lunch invite out of my head.  To be fair, maybe he had just read Never Eat Alone or some other book like it.  Maybe he was just being polite after walking in front of me.  Maybe he was lonely.  I don't know, but his invite got me thinking about discipleship.

It seems that so many of us who work for the Church are trying to figure out how to help people walk with Jesus.  Some are trying to launch new, bigger, and better programs.  Some are building even larger and more blinged-out buildings.  Some are trying to squeeze more into an already over crowded schedule.  But maybe we are trying too hard.

What if discipleship wasn't about doing more.  What if it was simply about doing what we already do...but with a new vision for those around us?  What if it was about a new vision for how everyday things could be used to share life and advance the Kingdom of God?  The guy at the restaurant had to eat anyway.  He simply saw me and invited me to join him.  No big deal.  Just a shared meal.  I like the idea.  I like the thought that living for Jesus might be as simple as eating...and inviting others to join me.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Furniture & Discipleship

My family is preparing to buy new furniture.  I know that isn’t earth shattering news…but it is kind of a big deal in our home right now.  We are buying new furniture.  New family room furniture, to be exact.  We haven’t bought any new home furniture that is substantial in quite some time.  And now we are (finally) ready to buy some new furniture for our family room.  A room where Minecraft is often played.  Where "snickeling" happens.  Where movies and funny videos are watched.  A room where kids enjoy sliced apples and where mom and dad sit next to the fireplace to enjoy a few minutes together.  It is an important room.  It is the heart of our home, and purchasing furniture for that room is kind of a big deal.

The problem, however, is this:  We are afraid the furniture we have picked out (and agreed upon) may actually be too big for the room.  We would like a sectional with enough room for our entire family, as well as guests, to sit together.  But how will the room feel when we add in a super-sized couch?  So last night, we hatched a plan.  We used a few chairs from the kitchen table, an end table, the love seat that is currently in the room, a few blankets, a tape measure, and some tape and we simulated what the room will look like if we choose to move forward with the purchase.  It is awesome.  It looks like a combination of a tent-playhouse and a thrown together obstacle course/jungle gym.  Our kids think it is fascinating.  We have talked about how it is an attempt to model the space.  It is a parody of what may be.

All of this has…as you can tell…got me thinking.  Specifically, I am reflecting on Paul’s words to the church in Ephesus.  Here is what he says:
Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.   
(Ephesians 5:1-2)

Paul tells the Ephesian church to be imitators of God.  That we should walk in love.  That we should follow Jesus in sacrificially give ourselves up.  This is a pretty tall order.  This requires seeing Jesus as more than a feel-good part of our Sunday morning (when we choose to actually get up instead of sleeping in).  It requires honestly facing the reality of our own broken, worthlessness…apart from Christ who gives us worth and who has claimed our lives.  It requires actually coming to grips with a God who is holy.  A God whose anger burns and who hates disobedience.  Rebellion.  Sin.  God hates sin.  It separates us from who He is and what He has planned for us (and for all of His creation). 

And that is why He came.  That is why the Father sent His Son, Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit to live perfectly.  To care for the poor.  To walk humbly.  To serve the needy and bring hope to the brokenhearted.  To die as the perfect sacrifice for our rebellion.  To live again as the firstborn of the resurrection.  So that we need not fear death, but instead can hope for the resurrection.  The day when we will live as fully human.  To live as He intended at the start of time, before our rebellion.

So what are we to do in response to this incredible relationship?  We are to be imitators of God.  We are to walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.  We are to be imitators.

Before my family left the furniture store, before we headed home to engage in serious discussion concerning the merits of different cushions, fabrics, frames, and footstools, we did something else.  We took measurements.  Yes, that’s right.  We took measurements.  You see, we couldn’t model what the sectional would look like unless we first studied it.  What were the dimensions?  What was the shape?  Which side had the extended section?  We needed to study the couch if we were to model it in the room.

And…

If you and I are to be imitators of God, we need to spend some serious time at the feet of Jesus.  We should read His teachings.  We should reflect upon His words.  We should consider His life, His actions, His movements.  We should reflect upon what He has given us…and learn to shape our lives and our worldviews around it. 

After all, this life is no longer about us.  It is all about Him.  So go be imitators…

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Membership or Partnership?



This past weekend, our congregation began a new sermon series examining Paul’s letter to the church of Philippi (Philippians).  It is an interesting letter.  It is unlike other letters of Paul in that it does not seek to correct bad behavior nor does it seek to warn against or correct false teaching.  Instead, it is a friendship letter which seems focused on the topic of “joy”.  

However, instead of restating the “Joy-Focused” message from this weekend’s worship (which you can listen to or watch by clicking here), I instead want to talk about another aspect of Paul’s introductory comments.  Specifically, I want to talk about “partnership”.
Here is what Paul writes in Philippians 1:3-11:
“I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace,[d] both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.”
Did you see it?  In verses 3-4 Paul says, “I thank my God…with joy…because of your partnership in the gospel…”  

So what is “partnership”?  Is it different than “membership”?  That is how we traditionally try to differentiate, isn’t it?  We talk about who are members or pride ourselves and pound our chests about being a member.  In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with a person who lives several states away and hasn’t worshiped with our faith community in at least a couple of years.  Her comment?  She thought I, as pastor, should have contacted her about a change we made because she was “a member” and deserved to be contacted before we changed anything.  That is too often how we think and talk about membership.  It is like signing up for a gym membership, never using the membership, and then complaining about the fact that the treadmill was moved and you are unhappy about it.  Silly, isn’t it?  But that is (far too often) how we think about membership.  But is “membership” the same as the partnership that Paul writes about?  I think not.

Membership is a dead concept.  Membership means having your name on a list somewhere.  That is about it.  Membership means you think you are entitled to something.  Some say.  Some power.  Some privilege.  Membership is not how the Church is to function.  Partnership is.

The word Paul uses here that the ESV translates as “partnership” is actually the Greek word koinōnɩ́a.  It is a powerful word that is pregnant with meaning.

Paul uses the word koinōnɩ́a a lot to describe the Church (large C).  Koinōnɩ́a is the mutual relationship in Christ that results from the call of God (1 Cor. 1:9), and is sustained by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14; Phil. 2:1). But koinōnɩ́a is more than just “membership”.  It also corresponds to action.  It requires action.  For example, when it is used in speaking of relief for the Jerusalem poor (Rom. 15:26) or the money given to those who teach (Gal. 6:6).  In essence, this Greek word means that there is a sharing that occurs because of Jesus.  Be it financial, or the sharing of life, meals, and relationships, there is more than just belonging.  There is giving.  There is faith that expresses itself through actions. 

That is what Paul thanks the church in Philippi for.  He thanks them for their partnership.

So what does any of this mean…practically?

It means that we need to reconsider our ideas about Church.  We need to stop thinking of ourselves as “members”…and struggle through what it means to be a partner in the Gospel.  How does our whole life – our relationships, tasks, families, jobs, web browsing, email, meals, homes, etc. – proclaim Jesus?  How do we partner, sacrifice, share in extending the reign of God to those around us…offering them hope and joy in the face of the trials of life? 

Who moved the treadmill?  I don’t care.  The question is how my life will proclaim who Jesus is and what He has done for me and for those around me.  I think that is a better question…

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

God is Good - Reflections on This Past Weekend


Visible, experiential grace.  That is how I would describe this past week.  Visible, experiential grace.  This morning as I drove to the office it was raining.  As I drove, I reflected on the beauty of God’s grace that though I deserve nothing but His judgment, wrath and condemnation, God instead gives me His grace.  I am allowed to live another day.  I am allowed to enjoy food.  I am allowed to breathe.  I am allowed to sing and dance and celebrate.  I am allowed to be called His kid (and am allowed to know that I matter) because He has claimed me through the waters of baptism.  That is what I reflected on this morning as the water fell on my windshield.  I am a child of God because of water…and because of God’s powerful Word!

But I am getting ahead of myself.  So let me rewind the tape a week or so…

The week before my ordination weekend, I was struggling.  In fact, that is an understatement.  For whatever reason, I was spent.  Worn out.  Dry.  I was exhausted physically, mentally tired, and spiritually malnourished.  It was not pretty.  It was terribly ironic since I would, just a few days from then, be ordained and installed into a position of joy and responsibility (one that involves carrying a lot of emotional weight and requiring a reasonably healthy life).  But the fact still remained, I was tired and I didn’t know what to do about it.  And worse yet, I knew that I had a weekend of shaking hands and kissing babies ahead and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to it (nor did I think I had the energy to get through it all).  But God is good!

As people started arriving on Thursday/Friday, something happened.  I began to see our out of-town guests differently.  These weren’t people who were demanding from me.  Instead, they were giving.  They didn’t expect me to entertain them.  They were content to simply be here and to go with the flow.  In fact, they were content to hang out with each other.  They began to share life with people from around the country that they had never even met before.  They talked.  They laughed.  They told stories.  They celebrated the Jesus who united them as brothers and sisters.  Like I said, God is good!

And then it happened.  One of those rare moments of clarity when God allows you to see things differently.  One of our members calls these moments “God winks”.  I just call them “thin moments”.  On Saturday night I experienced one of these thin moments.

I was standing on my deck grilling A LOT of hamburgers for the 60 or so people who had come to our home to help celebrate the weekend.  It was hot.  It was loud.  My timing was off (I was using a borrowed grill that I hadn’t yet bonded with.  Fellas, you understand…right?).  People were waiting for food.  They were hungry.  And yet, no one seemed upset.  They weren’t irritated.  They seemed to understand.  Maybe that isn’t stated strongly enough.  They actually seemed to enjoy just being together.  Before I continue, you should know that we had people from nine states.  People from all five “primary” chapters of our life.  Some knew each other before the weekend…others didn’t.  And yet, they shared life on my deck this past Saturday night as though they had known each other all of their lives.  It was pretty cool.

One of the guys from the seminary who was celebrating with us came out to the grill and offered to take over for me so that I could eat.  And honestly, I didn’t want to.  I was feasting on something else.  It was God’s Spirit at work in and through His people.  It was a glimpse of heaven right there on my deck.  It was satisfying.  It was good.  God is good.

And then, shortly after, I was called inside and given a few gifts.  Plaques.  A painting.  A few bottles of wine.  A cross and communion kit.  And…a book.  In the book were letters from people who wanted to join us for the event but couldn’t.  Later that evening I sat and read their letters.  Later that evening I cried.  Later that evening I remembered that God is good.  Are you catching the theme of this post yet?  God is good.  God is good.  God is good.

Throughout this entire weekend, I have seen evidence of the goodness of God.  The fact that He took a 25 year old loud-mouthed punk and helped extend His kingdom in Tracy, CA, and touched people’s lives.  The fact that He was at work in Indiana to encourage struggling kingdom workers.  The fact that He has scattered people who know what it means to love in His name across the country who are now helping others grow in that capacity to love.  God is good. 

And I haven’t even touched on the fact that this past Sunday was INCREDIBLE!  I got to hear my friend, Rev. Micah Miller, bring God’s Word to the people of St. Andrew.  Very cool.  And then I got to worship in a packed room as we celebrated God work in my ordination and installation.  I got to hear my old friend, Rev. Jeff Dorth, bring God’s Word and challenge us to run the race.  I got to hear incredible music…including a collection of dear friends who sang a special song.  I got to be “vested” by my father-in-law.  I got to celebrate with our St. Andrew family.  I got to see people who came in from all over the country just for the ordination service that I haven’t seen (some of them, at least) in decades.  God is good!

So.  It is now Wednesday morning (it has taken me longer to sit and write some of this down than I originally intended).  I am still tired…but I am no longer dry.  This weekend I was reminded that God is good.  I was reminded that none of this is about me.  It is about Him.  He is faithful.  He is at work through His Church.  He will not fail.  He is good! 

As I look ahead, I am extremely thankful for my friends who traveled great distances to be here this past weekend.  I am thankful for the members of St. Andrew who prepared and shared meals, who offered words of encouragement, who shared stories.  I am thankful to have shared this moment with them all.  And I am thankful for God’s grace in the midst of it all. 

Thank you, Father.  You have loved me and have called me your son.  That you have again reminded me that You lead, You speak, You use us for your purposes.  This isn’t about me.  This isn’t about any of us.  Not our capabilities (or lack thereof).  Not our joy.  Not our energy.  Not our anything.  This is about You, and you are…good.