Rejecting an image of Jesus

Read Mark 6:1-6. Jesus was rejected in his hometown, not because the people knew too little about it, but because they that they knew too much.

Or rather, they thought they knew who Jesus was, and their preconceived notions about him blinded them to his true identity.

They were familiar with him and with his family and they couldn’t get past that familiarity. Even though they heard of his miracles and were amazed at his wisdom, they just didn’t – couldn’t – believe that this carpenter was someone special.

I suspect the same dynamic in this post-Christian world is true today. Many of us are so familiar with Jesus – or rather, with a preconceived notion of Jesus – that we fail to recognize the real man. We have constructed an image of Jesus (a self-help guide, a political mascot), found that image wanting, and then rejected it. We tried the Jesus thing, and gotten past it.

Maybe that’s true for you. Have you rejected Jesus? Consider whether you have rejected Jesus, or an image of Jesus. Approach Jesus in the gospels themselves. Approach him in prayer.

Maybe it’s true for your friends. Consider that they have a false notion of Jesus but may experience that their notion of Jesus as over familiarization: “I already know all about Jesus, I don’t want to know any more.” Through God’s grace, point them to the real man.

Don’t let over familiarization with Jesus lead you away from him. In the narrative of Mark 6, this attitude led to offense, and, in Luke’s account, violent rejection. Instead approach him as a disciple, as a new wine skin ready for his new wine.

Jeremiah 22 and Abortion

When I was preaching in Jeremiah 19 last week, I read these verses:

19:3-5 ‘Hear the word of the Lord, you kings of Judah and people of Jerusalem. This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Listen! I am going to bring a disaster on this place that will make the ears of everyone who hears of it tingle. For they have forsaken me and made this a place of foreign gods; they have burned incense in it to gods that neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah ever knew, and they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent. They have built the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as offerings to Baal—something I did not command or mention, nor did it enter my mind.

A congregant talked to me after the sermon and said, “These verses make me think of abortion.” I agree.

If you believe that life within a mother’s womb is a precious person in God’s sight, made and formed in his image, then what is abortion but the shedding of innocent blood, a sacrifice of our own children, for which we bear a national guilt?

This week, I will be preaching on Jeremiah 22. Here God gives a specific call to the Kings and officials of Judah.

22:3 This is what the Lord says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place.

God calls the Kings and officials to exercise justice. That justice involves protecting the most vulnerable from wrongdoing. And, while not every law of the Old Testament can be woodenly dropped onto today’s context, the principle still remains. God still holds those in authority to a standard of justice and that justice still involves protecting the innocent and vulnerable from violence and wrongdoing.

I have sometimes been challenged with the assertion that abortion is a moral issue, but not one that the government needs to be involved with. I disagree. Abortion gets at the heart of what a civil government is supposed to care about, justice for all. And, just like God holds leaders to this standard, we should, too.

Of course, this logic applies to more than just abortion. It applies anywhere people are vulnerable to injustice. May we be a people to exercise our influence and resources, whether or not we hold a position in the government, to rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed.

Why Jeremiah? Key ideas and contemporary applications

As a Pastor at Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship I have been preaching through Jeremiah. You may ask: Why Jeremiah? Certainly, the book has its challenges for modern readers. It is one of the longest books of the Bible and is dominated by poetry and scenes of judgment. Yet, “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (1 Tim 3:16). Jeremiah has a unique word for modern Christians. Here are some of the key ideas, and their contemporary applications, that we can learn from Jeremiah.

Idols are worthless. Jeremiah’s most consistent charge against the people of Judah and Jerusalem is that they have exchanged the glory of the Creator God for images that they made with their own hands. These idols are worthless: they cannot save from judgment and they themselves will be judged.

Contemporary application: Idolatry is still a problem, though now in a different form. Whenever we put our ultimate trust or allegiance in another thing or person, instead of in God, we are practicing a form of false worship.

False worship and oppression are linked. Next to the sin of idolatry, Jeremiah places the sins of oppression and violence, especially against the poor and vulnerable. The two are linked. First, idolatry led to pagan cultic practices like child sacrifice. Second, when Judah abandoned God, they also abandoned his just laws and replaced them with laws that favored the strong over the weak. The Kings of Judah bore the brunt of the guilt, using their power for personal gain.

Contemporary application: We sometimes want to separate personal private sin (false worship) with public social sin (violence and oppression) but Jeremiah would have us see the connection. God’s people should be concerned both about right worship and right action. They should put aside idols and pursue justice for the oppressed.

God hates sin and brings judgment against it. Jeremiah’s language of judgment is strong and unrelenting. He is trying to wake up the people of Judah from their false sense of security that the prophets and priests have been feeding them for years. They’ve lost a sense of shame over their sin and they have no fear of the Lord. Jeremiah weeps over them, because he knows that the callousness of their hearts will lead to their destruction and exile.

Contemporary application: We’re always in danger of winking at sin, especially our own. We’ve lost our sense of shame and speak only of God’s judgment in hushed whispers. This isn’t to say we should rail against “the world.” Jeremiah does declare judgment against the nations, but his first and most sustained declarations of judgment are against the people of God.

Religion is worthless. Despite their idolatry and violence Jerusalem maintained a form of the worship of the Lord. They continued to enter into the temple and perform sacrifices. They continued to pray to the Lord and ask him to save them. These religious activities were shown to be false by their obvious hypocrisy. They fled to religion for safety, but not to God. If they had fled to God, they would have also returned to his ways: true worship and justice.

Contemporary application: Religious ritual (church attendance, baptism, prayers, etc.) are good if they bring us close to God and his ways. When we disconnect them from the God who gives them, however, they become worthless. Worse, they give us a false sense of security. The religious person needs to ask: Am I trust in my religion or in the God of my religion?  

God will restore his people. Jeremiah follows the pattern of the prophets: God’s people have turned away from him. They are guilty. God will bring judgment. And: God will restore. His restoration comes out of his own character, his faithfulness to the covenant he made, his mercy and compassion. He will discipline Jerusalem and Judah, but not forever, and when he sets things right, he will establish a “new covenant” that will transform the very hearts of his people.

Contemporary application: Jeremiah unmistakably points us to the gospel. God ultimately restore his people through the person and work of Jesus. In him he establishes a new covenant and, through the Spirit, transforms the hearts of those who trust him. He restores us purely by his character: his grace, mercy, and faithfulness. And, because we are restored to God now in Jesus through faith, we can look forward with confidence to an eternal restoration when Jesus returns.

You can find the sermons on Jeremiah on our church’s podcast, along with sermons on Mark and great sermons by Pastor John in 1 Corinthians and other books: https://anchor.fm/wpbiblefellowship

 

Does God care about injustice? An observation on the conversation

OnJustice

The above tweet encapsulates where many believe the fault lines of the conversation lies: On the one side are those who see in Scripture that God cares about social injustice and therefore pursue it and on the other side are those who think that God is only concerned about the salvation of souls. I don’t think that’s a good description of the argument.

On the surface it many seem that this is the argument at hand, but we need to dig beneath the surface here. This surface argument doesn’t usually flow from theological reflection, but from tribal and partisan reflection. Here’s how:

First, the terminology of “social justice,” while broad in its meaning, has come to be associated with certain politically and socially liberal movements, many not associated with a biblical conception of justice. It has a broad technical meaning, but a narrower connotation. Whether this is fair or not is another question.

Second, there results from this a conservative pushback. If conservatives are against a “liberal agenda” then they must also be against the language of that agenda: social justice.

Third, since justice is a very biblical concept, conservatives need some theological justification for being against social justice. Some will turn to a spiritual argument: While there will always be some injustice in the world, God is primarily concerned with the salvation of souls. After all, that is where humans will spend eternity. We should focus our efforts there, especially in the church.

There are elements of this argument that make it a good one, and parts of it that make it poor, but my point here is only that I don’t think most conservatives really believe it, and their behavior proves this to be the case.

There’s a huge overlap between those who would say “get ‘em saved” and “abortion is a moral evil.” Pro-life Christians don’t usually argue that we shouldn’t work to overturn abortion laws. Instead, most rightly recognize that abortion represents not only a problem with the hearts of individuals, but with systematic problems in our laws, our conception of humanity, and our culture more broadly. Therefore, when combating abortion, we try to solve the problems not only through evangelism, but also through votes and advocacy.

In other words, the “get ‘em saved” argument is selectively applied, and this selective application helps us see the heart of the debate. It also shows that Christian “liberals” and “conservatives” have more common ground than they think.

Both believe that God cares about justice and hates injustice. Both believe that there’s a role the government can play in ensuring justice. Both try to achieve that end through various forms of political engagement. The differences – and they are very important ones – lie in our definition of justice and our various strategies for achieving it.

What is justice? That’s a massive and complicated question: Is justice about equality of outcomes? Equality of opportunity? Equal application of the law without respect to persons? Is justice based on rights? What list of rights need to be protected? Are some rights more important than others? Is justice limited to punishment of wrongdoing or about rewarding the good? Where does “economic justice” fit into the mix? Is healthcare an issue of justice? What about justice when it comes to refugees and immigration? Does pursuing justice mean applying existing laws or trying to make those laws more humane?

Even if we agree on what constitutes justice, we may still argue over the means to achieve it. If we say that poverty is an issue of justice, do we argue for redistribution or a free market approach with robust private philanthropy?

These are important questions and questions to which I believe the Bible speaks, though not always with the degree of clarity that we would like. These are questions of Christian discipleship and Christians should pursue biblical answers. My point here is only that these are different questions than the one we started with: Does God care about injustice?

Only a brief reflection gets us to the answer: Yes, He does. And, I think it’s important that we try to find common ground on that argument first before we move on to the tougher and thornier questions.

For more on how salvation relates to justice, listen to my sermon “Receive Freedom, Extend Justice” from November 4, 2019.

Paul, “I Am Mother”, and the Incongruous Gift

In the science fiction movie I Am Mother, the robot (“Mother”) tasked with raising the main character (“Daughter”) presents her with a moral dilemma. Suppose you are a doctor and you have five sick patients each in need of an organ transplant. Without the organ transplant, the patients will die. Now suppose a sixth patient comes in, also sick, but treatable. If you, as the doctor, don’t treat the patient, they will die, but their organs could be used to save the other five. Then Mother gives the moral dilemma a twist: Suppose you as the doctor are that sixth patient and that, by sacrificing your own life, you could save the life of the other patients. Would you do it?

Daughter responds: “Well, do I know these five patients? Are they good humans? Honest. Dishonest. Lazy. Hardworking. I, a life-saving doctor might be giving my life away to people who are murderers or thieves, who end up hurting more people because of my sacrifice.”

Daughter wants to know if the people she’s sacrificing for are worthy of the gift. What would they do with it? Would they squander it or would they use it for the good or for harm?

In his book Paul and the Gift, John Barclay examines ancient patterns of gift giving. He concludes that, in most cultures, gifts are good when they are given to those who are worthy to receive them. Anthropologically, gifts are used to enhance social solidarity. If you give a gift to someone who isn’t worthy, who won’t reciprocate, then the gift will be wasted. That’s not to say that gifts are earned (like a wage), but neither are they given indiscriminately. A good gift giver, in most cultures, can be judged both on the quality of the gift and on who they choose as recipients.

For a modern example, think of philanthropist Bill Gates. If he gave his money away indiscriminately, we would say he was wasting his money. Instead, he carefully considers whether his money will be put to good use. We rightly praise his prudence in gift giving.

After considering how different cultures view gift giving, Barclay then turns his attention to Paul. Paul speaks of a God of grace, a God who gives radically good gifts. When God gives, how does he give and to who?

In Paul we find a surprising twist: God gives salvation – he gives us Christ – without regard to the worth of the recipient. In Barclay’s language, Paul perfects the incongruity of God’s grace. And, this, for Paul, is part of what makes God’s gift in Christ so good. This, of course, contrasts the typical way of giving gifts, which Paul highlights in Romans 5:6-8:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Daughter was, perhaps, willing to sacrifice for the life of good people, but not for the unworthy. Christ, however, died for the powerless, ungodly, and the sinners. He gave without regard for the worth of the recipients. He gave an incongruous gift!

At our Thanksgiving Service, Pastor John and children’s ministry director Becki Watson shared what criteria would make the “best gift ever.” It would be something we need, something we want, something costly, something unearned, and something given without regard to worth. It struck me that the first four parts of this description (needed, wanted, costly, unearned) were self-evident. But the fifth (given without regard to worth) is contested. It’s not “natural” but revealed as true in Jesus.

I find this to be incredibly good news for one simple reason: None of us are worthy. It’s only because God gives us an incongruous gift that we can be saved. In the words of Paul: “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” (2 Cor 9:15)

Wisdom: The Gift you search for

“For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.”

Proverbs 2:6

Wisdom is a gift. God created the world. He created in us the capacity to understand the world. He gave us the law and prophets. He gave us Jesus. He gives us the Spirit. He gives wisdom to those who ask. We do not construct wisdom (or knowledge or truth). We accept (or reject) it.

But wisdom is not a gift we passively receive. God does not download content into our minds as we lie in bed. Wisdom is a gift we seek.

Look at the active verbs in Proverbs 2:

My son, if you accept my words
and store up my commands within you,
turning your ear to wisdom
and applying your heart to understanding—
indeed, if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
then you will understand the fear of the Lord
and find the knowledge of God.

Turn your ear. Apply your heart. Call out and cry aloud. Look and search.

Pursuing wisdom is more like Easter than Christmas. On Christmas you run down the stairs and find the gifts waiting for you under the tree, neatly in one place, waiting to be unwrapped. On Easter you’ve got to search for those eggs. The eggs are there. They’re a gift meant to be found, but there’s joy in the search.

Or maybe it’s a little like mining with the expectation that the ground is filled with precious stones and medals. They were placed there before you ever started your search, but you still have to go through the hard process of digging up the dirt and stones. You will have to sift through a lot of useless material before you find that golden nugget placed there by the Creator.

Want wisdom? Ask God and keep digging. Dig in the ground where you know you’ll find it: Scripture. But dig elsewhere, too. God has stocked his created world with Easter Eggs waiting to be found. Move with caution and curiosity: Curiosity because God is immensely wise and his world is immensely large. Caution because there’s false gold everywhere that will take you away from the real prize. Deception is rampant. Search. Explore. Test. Call out to God. Repeat.

Receive it all as a gift with gratitude for the Giver.

Tullian, Boz, and the Nature of Grace

Tomorrow I begin a sermon series on the topic of grace. It’s been on my mind a lot recently. But the meaning of the word is contested, not in terms of its dictionary definition, but in how it takes shape in a community, especially among leaders.

This is illustrated most recently by the news that Tullian Tchividjian was coming back to pastoral ministry, launching a new church. He is coming back from a high profile scandal. Christianity Today summarizes:

“[Tullian] was forced to resign as senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in northern Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2015 after acknowledging that he cheated on his wife. The couple later divorced.

A year later, he was fired from an administrative job at Willow Creek Presbyterian Church in Winter Springs, Florida, after leaders there became aware of another, earlier sexual tryst.”

The nature of Tullian’s sin is contested. He argues that it was a purely consensual relationship. But many counselors believe any sexual relationship between a pastor and a congregant introduces a power dynamic that brings it under the category of abuse. The woman with whom Tullian had the relationship says that he abused his position of power over her.

Tullian, for his part, is marketing his church, The Sanctuary, in the language of grace:

“The Sanctuary is a judgment-free zone where people can come as they are, not as they should be. A place to find love and laughter and hope and healing and acceptance and forgiveness and mercy and help. Sadly, churches tend to be the scariest places, rather than the safest places, for fallen people to fall down and for broken people to break down. The Sanctuary strives to be different.”

I resonate with these words, and these words resonate with the gospel, but within Tullian’s context, something seems off. The Episcopal priest Paul Zahl says that “Tullian’s personal experience, as bad as you want to make it out, has qualified him (and qualifies him brilliantly!) to preach the Gospel.” Is that true? Does Tullian’s “experience” qualify him to return to the pastorate? Should we celebrate Tullian’s return to pastoral ministry as a triumph of God’s grace? Should his critics “extend grace” to him by supporting his return to ministry?

One of those critics is Tullian’s brother Boz. I’m familiar with Boz because of his role with GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environment). A report from GRACE was instrumental in our decision as a church to restrict funds giving through a mission’s organization that had a poor record with dealing with abuse on the mission field. Boz described clergy abuse as follows:

“Adult clergy abuse is when a ministry leader uses his position to identify, groom, and engage in “consensual” sexual contact with someone in his congregation or under his influence. There are no exceptions to this kind of dehumanizing objectification, exploitation and betrayal.”

This kind of behavior disqualifies Tullian from pastoral ministry. That’s not to say he can’t be a productive member of society, or that he can’t find forgiveness, but that given the seriousness of his error, his role needs to change.

We have here two differing accounts of grace. For Tullian, his sin magnifies God’s grace, and qualifies him for ministry. For Boz, grace is shown in taking sin seriously, demonstrating care for the abused, and protecting the church from potential further abuse. Tullian’s sin disqualifies him from ministry because it minimizes sin and puts the flock at risk.

If I were in Tullian’s camp I would point to two heroes of the faith in my defense: David and Paul. David slept with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband. Yet, he continued in his role as a King and his psalms of repentance magnify God’s grace. Paul, also, was shown incredible grace. He presided over the persecution and murder of Christians. He referred to himself as the worst of sinners. And yet God showed him grace and called him to be an apostle. In fact, the difference between Paul’s life before and after his encounter with Christ made him a particularly good messenger of the gospel.

But we should always be wary of comparing ourselves, or our pastors, to David or Paul. God used these men in unique ways for his glory. A pastor isn’t a king or an apostle. Paul himself established qualifications for ministry, for who could be a leader in the church. Amongst those are the following qualifications:

  • Above reproach (1 Tim 3:2)
  • Faithful to his wife (1 Tim 3:2)
  • Have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim 3:7)

Church leaders aren’t squashing grace by insisting that pastors and elders meet these qualifications. They’re ensuring that the message of grace goes out unhindered and they’re demonstrating grace to the flock by protecting it from moral error.

God’s grace is merciful and forgiving. He gives his people second, third, fourth, and fifth chances, and on and on and on. His faithfulness is magnified in our unfaithfulness, his grace is magnified in our sin. But God’s grace is also protective and just, and sometimes hard. God’s grace protects the vulnerable from the strong. God’s grace never minimizes sin – it atones for it. God’s grace removes the consequences of final judgment, but it doesn’t always remove earthly consequences. To the repentant sinner who comes home, God opens his welcoming arms, and the church should, too, but that doesn’t mean such a man is qualified or ready for a position of spiritual authority.

I think this is the full understanding of grace that Boz understands and to which I subscribe. I can’t pretend to know where Tullian stands with God. But I worry that his view of grace is too simple, that it ignores too much and that, as such, in can be used, as Paul warned, as a license for sin.

References: 

TULLIAN TCHIVIDJIAN’S UPSIDE DOWN CHRISTIANITY (First Things)

Tullian Tchividjian Is Back. So Is Scrutiny About His Past Infidelity. (Christianity Today)

Dear Pastor, You are not King David

 

84 evidences of God’s grace at our church

In the last post I concluded by asking the question, “What does a church saturated in the grace of God look like?” I’ve been spending the past couple of weeks writing down ways the God’s grace could be manifested in our church. I did this by mentally walking around our church, sitting in our worship service, listening to our sermons, sitting in on our groups, and participating in our various ministries. In some cases, I looked beyond present reality, to what our church could look like in the future.

This is a highly contextualized list. It makes no attempt to describe what the manifestation of grace would look like in every church, but hopefully to key in on basic principles in Scripture.

I’ve been tempted to write out my rationale for each of these – explaining how each connects to the broader theme of grace, but I’ve decided against that and just list what I “see”. If you have questions and want me to explain my reasoning, go ahead and ask.

The Worship Service:

  1. Welcoming to all who enter
  2. Man-made barriers to grace are removed (example: people know where to go, we don’t expect certain clothing, etc.)
  3. No one is favored, no one is shunned
  4. There’s a diversity that reflects the reconciling work of Christ across age, class, race, nationality, and gender
  5. The worship songs in music and lyric draw our hearts and minds to God
  6. The songs adorn the gospel
  7. The congregation is eager to sing
  8. Worshippers defer one another’s stylistic preferences
  9. Corporate prayers demonstrate dependence on God’s grace
  10. Lord’s Supper draws us to Christ and results in contrition, reconciliation, thanksgiving, and joy
  11. Baptisms celebrate God’s work of grace
  12. Life stories illustrate God’s work of grace
  13. Congregants look forward to coming to church and make it a priority
  14. Looking forward to worship, members invite their friends
  15. Tithing is seen as a thankful response to God’s grace
  16. Mourning together in hard times – depending together on God’s grace
  17. Rejoicing together I good times – praising God for his grace
  18. There are regular celebrations of God’s grace as he works throughout our church
  19. Sermons honor Scripture as God’s gift
  20. Sermons rightly and clearly divide the Word of God
  21. Sermons prioritize the gospel – the word of Grace
  22. Sermons tell the whole gospel – the full story of God’s grace
  23. Sermons draw hearts and minds to see the generous nature of God
  24. Sermons call us to receive Grace by abiding in Christ
  25. Sermons call us to extend grace as a proper response to God’s grace

Fellowship Time and Bible Fellowship Groups

  1. Established members ensure no one is left out
  2. New people are welcomed
  3. Conversations and food are received as a gift of God
  4. Groups are welcoming
  5. Groups are safe for all
  6. Groups build up the members of the group
  7. Groups build up the whole church
  8. Groups are places of encouragement and prayer
  9. Groups are grounded in the Word
  10. Groups are eager for service

Bible Studies, Spiritual Formation Groups, and Prayer Meeting

  1. Truth is honored as a precious gift
  2. Members practice honest confession, humbling themselves to receive more grace
  3. Participants commit to growing in God’s sanctifying grace
  4. The number of people digging deeper is expanding
  5. Participants find ways to practically receive and extend grace – and hold each other accountable as an act of grace
  6. Prayer meetings center around fervent prayer for our church, our loved ones, and our world
  7. We pray for those who don’t yet know Jesus
  8. Prayer is valued and practices
  9. Prayer is based on Scripture

Ministries within the church

  1. The work of the ministry is spread out – lots of people serving in lots of ways
  2. Congregants understand the gift of God’s grace
  3. Congregants use those gifts to serve the body
  4. Congregants are growing in the use of those gifts
  5. We’re patient with one another as we grow in those gifts
  6. A team mentality pervades – there’s a common mission with diverse contributions

Local and global missions

  1. We know our neighbors
  2. Our neighbors know us as a church the loves its neighborhood
  3. We understand our neighbors spiritual and physical needs
  4. The gospel proclaimed is adorned with the gospel performed
  5. Congregants are brave in their ministry – understanding the greatness of the gift of the gospel
  6. Congregants are creative in their service – seeking the help of the Spirit
  7. We provide financial and prayer support for missionaries around the globe
  8. Corporate celebrations of the faithfulness of our missionaries
  9. Missionaries spread the grace of God in unreached areas
  10. Some of our members feel the call to missionary service and are empowered by the church

At home and work

  1. Response to God’s grace extends beyond the church walls
  2. Individuals have meaningful times in the Lord’s presence throughout the week
  3. Parents lead their families in the presence of God throughout the week
  4. Devotional times are not rote, but enable us to know God and his great love
  5. Devotional times are rich in prayer
  6. Members are representatives of God’s grace in our families
  7. Members are representatives of God’s grace in our jobs
  8. Members are representatives of God’s grace in our places of recreation
  9. God’s sanctifying grace gives is victory over sin
  10. We apply God’s grace to every area of public and private life – seeking both personal righteousness and public justice
  11. Others are coming to faith, or deepening in their faith, because of personal witness
  12. Our homes are places of hospitality
  13. We know our neighbors
  14. We adorn God’s grace with good works
  15. We’re known as humble people
  16. We practice personally forgiveness and are freed from bitterness
  17. Our inner lives match our outer lives

Church culture

  1. If you look close, you see countless small acts of kindness, patience, and generosity
  2. Conflict is worked through with an aim towards reconciliation
  3. Each person considers others better than themselves
  4. We’re unified in the gospel of grace
  5. We love each other across differences
  6. Our tone and posture is first vertical (towards God) then outward (in mission)
  7. We steward the physical resources of the church as gifts of God’s grace

The list is incomplete. What would you add?

Dear church, What will define us?

What will define us as a church?

Churches could be, and are, known for many things: “That’s the political church.” “That’s the cool church.” “That’s the mega church.” “That’s the church with traditional worship.” They can be known for good things: biblical preaching, inspirational worship, or friendliness. Or they can be known for not so good things: decline, apathy, or scandal. Each church needs to reckon with their own identity, not just with how they are known, but with who they are, with what defines their center.

So do we.

For a long time, I believed that we are defined by what we do: We preach the Bible. We build community. We serve our neighbors. We proclaim the gospel. I defined myself by what I did, too, and by how well I did it. Too often, I still do. But my thinking has been shifting recently. It’s a shift from performance to grace.

What makes a Christian?

In our church tradition, we love to quote Ephesians 2:8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.” When it comes to salvation, we place grace at the center. From there it’s easy to fall into two traps – legalism or lawlessness.

In legalism, having been set free by God’s grace, we submit ourselves again to the yoke of slavery by establishing rigid rules. We’re saved by grace, but as far as we or anyone else is concerned, we’re defined by how well we conform to our rules.

In lawlessness, we rejoice in the grace of God and then go on to abuse it as a license to fulfill our own desires. We deny the transforming nature of grace. We say we’re defined by grace, but the “grace” we’re defined by is counterfeit. We’re not defined by grace after all, we use a caricature of it, but end up being defined by our own selfishness.

Jesus rejects both legalism and lawlessness. We’re saved by grace, transformed by grace, defined by grace, and we live by grace. And since grace is more than a concept, it’s more accurate to say that we’re saved by Jesus, transformed by Jesus, defined by Jesus, and we live by Jesus. Or, with Paul we can say “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

For the Christian, not only our salvation, but everything is grace. Everything is a gift: Our daily bread, our families, our resources, our skills, our breath, the community of faith, our perseverance, our holiness, the revelation of God in the Scriptures. All of it comes from the hand of a generous and good God. And, not only that perspective, but that reality, will work its way out. Grace is the heartbeat of the Christian life. Grace brings us to life and sustains us, so that not even death can separate us from the love of Christ.

What makes a Church?

As with the Christian, so the church. The church was birthed through grace and is sustained by grace. Jesus gave us life and the Spirit of grace sustains us. We’re animated by “Christ who is our life” (Colossians 3:4).

I’m saying nothing new or surprising. Of course, a church must be defined by Jesus. But I’ll submit to you that I believe we will be tempted to be drawn away from our Center. Or, perhaps, to drift away.

There’s a Presidential election coming in 2020. Will we be drawn away? Will we allow politics to define us?

We have some major capital improvement projects on the calendar. Will they define us?

We may stay the same size. We may grow. We may shrink. Will our size define us? Will it take center stage? (“We’re the growing and vibrant church” or “We’re the faithful few”, we always interpret in our favor.)

There will be challenges. There will be interpersonal conflict, differences of opinion, arguments over strategy, hard words. On those days, will there be evidence of God’s grace?

We’re finding ourselves more and more out of step with prevailing notions of morality. Will the culture war define us? Will we draw in for protection or push out in grace? Will we welcome or wall off?

Perhaps all will go well. Will we be drawn to pride? Will we come to believe that it was our power all along? Perhaps we will fail. Will we be begin to distrust the loving hand of our good father?

Weeds abound in this field, and they threaten to separate us from our Source, to make us unfruitful. It’s going to take tenacity and perseverance to keep Jesus the center.

Action which grows out of identity

By placing such a high premium on identity, I don’t mean to denigrate action or set aside mission. But identity must always be prior. The disciples had power because they had Jesus. They had authority because he gave it to them. Their mission grew out of the personal indwelling reality of Christ.

Grace comes in from the outside, it transforms our inner reality, and then it manifests itself in action. We see it and feel it. What does it look like? What does a church look like that has truly internalize the grace of God? That’s a future post.

Did Jesus speak in parables to be confusing?

Why did Jesus speak in parables? Did he use parables to make is abstract teaching concrete by connecting it to everyday life or did he use parables to intentionally obscure his teaching? Passages like Mark 4:11-12 make it seem like the second option:

He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “’they may be ever seeing, but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’”

This seems to contradict Mark 4:33 which says that Jesus spoke to the people in parables “as they could understand.” And, more significantly, 1 Timothy 2:3-4 which says, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Could it be that Jesus speaks in parables to intentionally prevent people “on the outside” from understanding and being forgiven?

Jesus the Prophet

Jesus’s language in Mark 4:11-12 is that of an Old Testament prophet so his words here are best understood in that light.

The word translated as “secret” in the NIV can also be translated as “mystery” (NASB). I prefer “mystery” because “secret” connotes something that should not be revealed. Secrets are meant to be kept. But for prophets, mysteries are meant to be revealed, in the proper way and time. A mystery, then, is a message that was hidden, but is now being revealed. Jesus is on a mission of disclosure as he says later in verse 22: “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” However, he is disclosing his message in different ways to different people, directly to his disciples and through parables to the crowd.

Next we come to his quotation of Isaiah 6:9,10. God gave Isaiah an impossible task. God called him to be his messenger to wayward Israel, which was already under God’s judgment. Their hearts were hard and their necks were stiff against God’s word. At one level, God’s word could be a message of salvation, if it was accompanied with repentance. But, because they had already turned off their spiritual senses, they responded to Isaiah with only more hostility. In this way, God’s word was transformed into a word of judgment as the people became guilty of yet another rejection. Isaiah asked how long he would need to speak to deaf ears. God’s response: until his judgment was completed.

Jesus came into a very similar environment. The people had already rejected God so he know they would also reject his word. They would also reject his Son. For those closed off to him, his words intended to bring salvation would only bring more guilt. For those closed off to Jesus, everything about Jesus would be a riddle, a puzzle, a parable. They would see the outer layer but could never perceive it’s meaning. Jesus is speaking as a prophet, revealing the hearts of men.

Parables, then, function as a sort of filter. For those of the “good soil”, they are an open gate, an invitation to dig deeper. They reveal in a way that leads to further revelation. For others, they function as a wall. The word falls on soil and the devil comes and snatches it away. Jesus is offering a stern prophetic warning: “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (4:9).

Clarity doesn’t seem to effect response

This becomes clear when we realize that Jesus’s method doesn’t seem to really have a big impact on the response of his hearers. Jesus’s disciples, to whom he gave the most clarity, to whom he revealed the “mystery of the kingdom” are consistently the most spiritually blind in the book of Mark. They act more like the bad soils of Jesus’ parable than the good.

The experts of the law and the religious teachers, those with the most knowledge, saw Jesus’s miracles – a clear indication of his power – as the work of Satan.

But those who, from a human perspective, were “on the outside” respond with the most faith: lepers, the demon possessed, the Syrophoenician woman.

The parables in Mark 4 point to one of the mysteries of the kingdom: It’s growth and influence seems to defy logic. It is met with obstacles and enemies and still yields its crop. It starts out tiny, almost imperceptible, but grows to have massive influence. It has a power of its own, an internal vitality that works completely apart from human influence. Those we expect to respond, don’t. Those we don’t think will, display the greatest faith. All we can do is watch in expectation as it happens.

From the prophetic perspective, it’s unsurprising that the word will be rejected, what’s incredible is that despite all the obstacles, the word will not fail to produce a crop, an explosive harvest, for the life of the world.

Note: I’m primarily following the argument of William L. Lane in the NICNT Gospel of Mark commentary.