Tag Archives: Christianity

“Why do they feel the need… ?”

Most of the time, when I tell people that we are a host family for Safe Families for Children I receive a positive response. People see the value of the ministry and are glad to hear we are playing a part in it. Sometimes, though, we hear (directly or indirectly) a critique like this: “Why do you/they feel the need to do this?”

For those who aren’t familiar: Safe Families is a ministry that provides homes for kids whose families are in crisis. Perhaps the closest reference for most people is foster care, except that Safe Families is more of an alternative to foster care when the crisis is temporary. The parents don’t lose any parental rights, and participation is fully voluntary on both sides. Parents can pull out at any time and host families don’t get paid.

My family serves as a host family, so sometimes we have an extra child living at our house. That’s the case right now.

We don’t go it alone. We’re supported by others in our church, and even from people in other local churches. This community is essential to our ability to participate. It’s hard work, but it’s doable.

Then comes the critique: “Why do you feel the need to take care of someone else’s kid? You have your own children, your own set of responsibilities, your own set of cares. Why should you add someone else’s cares to your life? Is it responsible? Do you think you have to solve the world’s problems? Can’t someone else do it?”

Part of me wants to get angry: Hey, we’re trying to do something good here and you’re criticizing us?

But part of me understands the critique and sees the legitimacy of it. After all, our motivations could be poor: We could have a “Messiah complex” imagining that it all depends on us to take care of the needs of the world. We could think that this “good work” somehow merits salvation! Or, we could be acting irresponsibly, neglecting our own children so that we can look good to others of feel good about ourselves.

By God’s grace, I don’t believe that those are our motives. So why do we participate in Safe Families?

For me, it’s less because of a sense of need and more a sense of gratitude.

God has showered his grace on us. He has saved us, forgiven our sins, adopted us as his children, and welcomed us into the family of God. On top of those spiritual benefits he has given us material blessings. We have a warm house. We have sufficient food. We have enough money. We have stability, rooms, and resources. We have energy and health. In other words, we have been blessed not only with our daily bread, but with daily bread to share.

When you realize your blessing, it makes sense to share that blessing with others. That’s why we are a host family.

Not everyone is called to be a Safe Families host family. Most aren’t. But as we looked at the need (children in unsafe environments) and the benefit (providing stability in a family crisis) and the set of resources we have been blessed with, it just fit. Add, on top of that, the commands of God to love and serve our neighbors and the gratitude that comes from God’s grace, and it just makes sense for us.

“Raised to life for our justification” … Why do we need the resurrection to be justified?

In my circle of Christianity, when we talk about salvation, we tend to focus all our attention on the cross and neglect the role of the resurrection. Exhibit A is a book sitting on my shelf called The Cross and Salvation: 500+ pages of robust biblical and systematic theology on the doctrine of salvation. I was unable to find a single chapter or paragraph that dealt with the role the resurrection plays in salvation.

The book is excellent, but this lack of emphasis doesn’t seem to square with Paul and Peter’s emphasis on the resurrection. The resurrection played a key role in Peter’s early preaching and Paul saw it as essential (Romans 4:25, 5:10, 1 Corinthians 15:20-22).

It can be easy to believe that the entire salvation story is summed up in the cross: Humans sinned. Jesus paid for that sin. Since Jesus paid for that sin, we can be forgiven and reconciled to God, freed from the final judgment. In this story, the resurrection isn’t necessary. Or, it is only in this sense that it is evidence that what happened on the cross really matters.

On closer inspection, though, that’s not the “entire” salvation story after all.

The Whole Story:

So, why does the resurrection matter for salvation? What’s the whole story?

I want to tell three different and familiar stories.

First, there’s the story of humanity. We were made to live in communion with God, stewarding the earth for one another’s flourishing and God’s glory. Instead of living under his rule we tried (and try) to usurp his throne… and suffer disastrous consequences. This life of disobedience leads to death. This is the story of Adam.

Second, there’s the story of Jesus. At the incarnation Christ entered the story of humanity. He took on flesh. He faced the devil. He endured hunger and temptation. But, unlike the story of every human the preceded or followed him, he was obedient. He was even obedient to death on the cross.

Jesus took on himself, and completed within his own body, the story of humanity. On the cross he took the death that humans deserve. He took Adam’s death. But Jesus’s story doesn’t end there. He is raised from the dead to new life. He ascends to the throne of God.

Now here’s the third story: The story of little “Adams” who, through faith, move from being “in” Adam, to being “in” Christ. Jesus took our story – and our punishment – so that we could take his story – and his life.

When I’m “in” Jesus, I get his story. I get his death and I get his life. I die with him and I am raised with him. Because I die with him, my sins are forgiven. Because I live with him, I receive a new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Imagine, then, what salvation would look like if Jesus was never raised from the dead. If Jesus was not raised from the dead we could share in his death, but not in his resurrection. We could die with him, but not live with him. Without the resurrection, Jesus’s story is incomplete and so is our salvation.

On the Logic of Romans 4:25

This post started while I was reading through Romans with an eye towards Easter. In my reading I came across this puzzling text: “He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

I opened up John Stott’s commentary on Romans. It offered me this important reminder: Paul believed that we were “justified” at the moment we believed God “who raised Jesus Christ from the dead” (Romans 4:24). In Paul’s language we are justified when we believe God. We are justified by Jesus’s blood (Romans 5:9). And, Jesus was “raised… our justification.” How do these pieces fit together?

Paul equates justification with “being credited righteousness.” We are credited righteousness when we believe God. But how can we sinners be credited righteousness? It can’t happen through works (“there is none righteous”). It has to come as a gift from God. It has to come from Jesus. It has to come through his obedient life, his death, which atones for our sins, and his resurrection, which is the “new life” by which we share in Jesus’s life.

We can’t stop reading Romans after 5:8. Romans 5:9ff spells out a present/future salvation that is only available because Jesus was raised from the dead. We are justified through his blood (5:9), but we also “shall be saved through his life” (5:10)! His life here is the life available in the power of the resurrection, with which we come to share when we have faith: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (6:4). “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (6:5).

The Christian life without the resurrection

It might seem hard to imagine Christianity without the resurrection, but I fear that sometimes our preaching – if we neglect the resurrection – can lead to a Christian life without the power of the resurrection. How many people have walked down an aisle or said the sinners prayer with a shortened gospel story, a story that tells of the forgiveness of sins, but doesn’t tell of the new life available in Jesus, that invites us to share in Jesus’s death, but not in his resurrection, that rejoices in Jesus our Savior but ignores his life-giving Spirit? May it not be.

This Easter, rejoice in the full story of salvation. Rejoice in the cross. Oh, may we never neglect the cross! But rejoice also in the resurrection, not just as proof of the power of the cross, but as power to live in the life of Jesus.

Food Won’t Save You

Food Matters

My diet has changed drastically from when I worked as a manager at Burger King in college. The changes came in a series of shifts that my wife and I made in response to health issues her or I have faced over the past decade and a half. The most recent shift happened about two weeks ago. In an attempt to lower my blood pressure without medication I have been cutting out more sugary foods and adding more spinach, celery, and kale. I have even choked down a couple bottles of beet juice.

What we eat matters and it matters a lot. It matters for our health. From a Christian perspective, it matters to God. Our bodies are a temple of the Holy Spirit. How we treat our bodies isn’t just a question of health or disease, but a question of obedience or sin. We obey Jesus when we eat food that nourishes our bodies and prepares us for embodied works of service.

If we relegate obedience to the spiritual/cognitive realm, we fall into the platonic error of imagining that the body is unimportant. Our bodies matter to God. Therefore, what we put into our bodies matters to God.

Food Idolatry

False worship means worshipping the created thing instead of the Creator, worshipping the gift instead of the giver. For a health-conscious culture, and for health-conscious Christians, this is a real danger. “Worship” is a funny word that we often associate with specifically spiritual practices like singing and prayer, but here I mean something more expansive. We “worship” food when we mentally grant it divine attributes, when we come to believe that it can save us.

For some, food is the answer to all our problems: We seek the right diet to improve our health, our mood, and our body image. There’s an important aspect of truth here. Better food can make your life measurably better (and bad food can make your life measurably worse).

But food has its limitations. It won’t fix your relationships. It won’t give you peace with God. It can’t protect you from tragedy. Even for what it sets out to do – to make our bodies healthy – it is only one aspect of a whole matrix of complex factors: genetics, germs, environment, community, exercise, etc.

If you put your hope in food, it’s eventually going to let you down. You might make aging a little less painful, but you cannot stop the inevitable.

A healthy perspective on food

I don’t think that we’re left between the false dichotomy of saying either that “food is the most important thing” or “food doesn’t matter.” No, we need to simply view food for what it is: A good gift from a good Giver. That enables us to receive it with thanksgiving.

Note Paul’s advice to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:3-5

“[False teachers] forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

God is good and he has given us the blessing of good food. That food, and the bodily benefits it confers, do not point to themselves, they point us back to our Creator. This perspective on food calibrates our expectations about what food can and cannot do.

The Food that Saves

Jesus said some shocking things while he was on earth, and perhaps one of his most shocking statements centers around food.

Jesus had just finished feeding 5,000 men with just a handful of loaves and fishes and a great crowd was following him asking him questions. That’s when he drops this bomb:

“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” John 6:48-51

Thinking that Jesus was advocating some sort of cannibalism the people questioned him amongst themselves. To that, Jesus doubled-down:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.” John 6:53-54

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story concludes with this statement: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).

My Catholic brothers and sisters say that Jesus is talking about the Eucharist and that eating the bread of the Eucharist really is eating Jesus’s flesh in obedience to his words in John 6.

Personally, I think that Jesus pointed us away from this interpretation when he states: “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.” (John 6:63).

What, then, is the logic of Jesus’s words? Simply this: We need Jesus. Specifically, we need his life and the eternal nourishment that he offers. The manna God gave Israel from heaven was a good gift and it sustained them in the wilderness, but it could not save them from death. It did, however, point them to the One who could.

Jesus is the bread of heaven. He is the food that saves. How do we “consume” this food? “Then Jesus declared, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’” (John 6:35).

The Rest of the Sermon. Or, an Important New/Old Clarification

I couldn’t properly finish my sermon this morning thanks to what has to be one of my most embarrassing moments in preaching – the distinct feeling that I was very close to fainting. In order avoid making a bigger scene, I “landed the plane” rather quickly and sat down.

Preaching in Mark 2:18-22, the main point of the sermon was rather simple: We cannot simply patch Jesus onto our old lives. We need to be open to his transformational work. We need him to make us new.

In this passage the key distinction is between “old” and “new”, where the “old” represents those who rejected Jesus and the “new” represented Jesus and those who, by faith, receive him.

But here I feel like I need to make a clarification I didn’t have a chance to make this morning. We could misunderstand Jesus’s teaching to mean something like this: What is New in time is superior to what is Old.

In other words, we could take up a position of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” This is the idea that modern is greater than ancient, the new idea greater than the old, the novel technique greater than tradition, what comes later is greater than what came before. In doing so, we could become unmoored from the anchor of our faith, “blown here and there by every wind of teaching.” (Ephesians 4:14) No, even though the Bible speaks about the superiority of the New, chronology is not exactly what is in mind.

22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. Ephesians 4:22-24

Consider this passage from Ephesians. First, you’ll notice that there is a chronology here. Paul speaks of their former way of life. In time, the Ephesians heard the gospel, believed, and confessed their faith. However, chronology is only part of the equation.

What really makes something new is its relation to God: “Put on the new self, created to be like God.” What makes something old is its relation to the self apart from Christ: “put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires.” Notice that there is a possible progression in both directions – a continual corruption of the old self, or a renewal of the new. Both happen in chronological time, but only one can properly be called “new” in this sense.

God, in time, makes things new. Indeed, he is making all things new: A new people, a new creation. But not everything new is of God. That means that we are free to mine the ancient, the historical, even the traditional, for the beautiful “new” treasures God has in store for us.

Should Christians Fast?

The gospels tell an interesting story that calls into question the practice of fasting for modern day Christians. In the story, the Pharisees come to Jesus and ask why Jesus’ disciples aren’t fasting. Here is Jesus’ response:

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, on that day they will fast.” (Mark 2:19-20)

Just as it would be inappropriate to fast at a wedding, during a time of celebration, so it would be inappropriate for Jesus’ disciples to fast while in his presence. Now is a time of celebration. Those who fast do so with mourning and sorrow.

Jesus acknowledges that a time is coming when his disciples will fast, on the “day” that he has been taken from them.

Here’s the question: During what time period is it inappropriate for Jesus’ followers to fast? There are two possible answers:

1.       There was a short period of time when Jesus’ disciples could fast, either between the crucifixion and the resurrection or, more broadly, between the crucifixion and the coming of the Spirit.

2.       It is appropriate for Christians to fast any time after the crucifixion.

In defense of the first option, Christians can say with confidence that Jesus is with his people through the Holy Spirit today. The Spirit indwells individuals and the church corporately. We are a resurrection people. Post resurrection, post Pentecost, we are in a time of celebration. We only await the consummation of the celebration, the final wedding feast. As a resurrection people, enjoying the presence of Jesus through the Spirit, it would be inappropriate for us to fast.

There are a few problems with this argument, though. The first problem is historical. The practice of fasting has continued unabated since the founding of the church. That’s a lot of historical evidence to overturn. You might reject the value of such historical study but you still have to deal with the biblical evidence that the practice of fasting continued in the early church. The church set apart Paul and Barnabas through a process that included fasting (Acts 13:2). Then Paul and Barnabas set aside elders through the same process (Acts 14:23). Finally, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against the fasting of the Pharisees but, in doing so, assumed that his followers would continue the practice. His issue wasn’t with fasting itself but with the way in which it had been warped.

It is true that we are a resurrection people and that we can enjoy the presence of Jesus now through the Spirit, but we also live in an in-between time. We are just as much a people of the cross, a people waiting, a people in the wilderness of temptation. There’s still a gap between where we are and where we are going. That gap leads us to godly sorrow and confusion. In this place of godly sorrow, either coming from the injustice we see around us or the injustice we see within us, fasting remains an appropriate response for those seeking God.

Is it inappropriate for Christians to fast? No. There are times and places where it will be an appropriate act of worship.   

Heaven has a wall?

There’s a meme floating out there that states “Heaven has a wall and strict immigration policies. Hell has open border policies.”2dxqfh

I don’t address all memes out there (especially political ones!), but because I have seen this one shared numerous times, and because it is potentially damaging to our understanding of the gospel, I thought it was worth a comment.

Some truth?

First of all, like most pithy sayings, there’s an element of truth here. That’s what makes it compelling to Christians. The most obvious Scriptural reference to heaven having a wall is in Revelation 21:9-27. Here, the New Jerusalem is presented as a great city with a wall and twelve gates. The gates are always open, though nothing impure can enter the city, nor those who are shameful or deceitful. The only people who enter are those whose names are written in the book of life.

Perhaps the author of this meme didn’t have John’s vision in mind. Perhaps he was thinking more generally. Heaven really is restricted to those who have been saved by Jesus, a gift we receive by faith in Jesus. There’s an exclusivity to the gospel that makes many of us uncomfortable, but which is undeniably taught in Scripture.

And so, the logic goes, if heaven has a wall and entry criteria, then so should America. That is the logic of the metaphor. It is true that borders, in principal, are okay (think skin, the walls of a house, the membrane of a cell, etc.), and I’ll grant that level of logic to the meme.

Nevertheless, there are two major problems with this metaphor.

Problem #1: What else this implies about America.

Metaphors tend to carry a lot of weight, intended or not, and this one does too. The metaphor compares America to heaven and ends up implying quite a bit: In the America is heaven metaphor American citizens are heavenly citizens. Non-citizens are the heathens who have to pass some test. The government is God, which has the right to do “extreme vetting” however it sees fit. Etc. All of these fit into the nationalist idolatry prevalent in our culture today. Perhaps those who share this want to keep the metaphor limited to the wall. That’s fine, but it’s not all that gets communicated.

Problem #2: What else this implies about Heaven.

What’s worse is the way in which this metaphor works backwards. If America is like heaven then heaven (and its immigration policies) is like America. That’s a comparison that strikes at the heart of the gospel. Let’s think about how this works.

Heaven, as understood through strict nationalistic immigration policy, is primarily concerned about security. Those who want to enter must wait outside and show themselves worthy to enter. They must prove they are not dangerous and they must show how they can contribute. Citizens of heaven (Christians), on the other hand, are either in by birthright or because they have already gone through extreme vetting and have shown themselves worthy.

That vision of heaven is about as far from the gospel as you can get.  When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven it is both uncomfortably exclusive (“no one comes to the Father except through me”) and radically inclusive “whoever believes in me will have eternal life”).

The Pharisees and teachers of the law, the ones who imagined themselves citizens by birthright, the ones who were worthy and had something to offer, the ones who passed the “extreme vetting” were offended that Jesus came to invite the prostitutes and sinners into that same kingdom. But they had it backwards: “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31). He goes on to excoriate the Pharisees: “Woe to you teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces! You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13).

According to the gospel, when it comes to entrance into the kingdom of God, we’re all unworthy asylum seekers. We come with nothing to offer. We come without credentials. We come, even, as enemies of God. It is only by God’s radical grace that comes to us and invites us in that we could gain entrance. And then, having been forgiven much, we share that same goodness with the world – a welcoming and hopeful vision of heaven.

This isn’t really a post about immigration. I’ve written a more systematic post about that here. Instead, I’m concerned about two things:

(1) Are we misusing Scripture to make a political point? I think this meme does just that.

(2) Are we allowing an earthly political vision to impact the way we view or express heaven? Again, this post does just that. Even if we manage to understand this meme in a very narrowly defined way, when we share it we are sure to present a picture of heaven that is inconsistent with the gospel of grace, expressed in the mercy of Jesus.

What is a Christian vision of Authority?

I have recorded and published a new podcast in my “What Does it Mean to Be a Christian?” series. This one takes on the topic of authority.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Introduction:

  1. Christianity uses the language of authority. For example: God is sovereign, Jesus speaks with authority. Jesus is the King. Christians are servants, of Christ.
  2. As a culture we have become uncomfortable with authority. It feels oppressive. Freedom comes when we throw off authority. In fact, a lot of good has come from throwing off oppressive authorities.
  3. There have been many abuses of human authority in the realms of government and religion. We misuse authority when it becomes merely a tool of the powerful against the weak as a way of securing self-interest.

A Christian vision of Authority:

  1. Jesus came as a King, but did not act like the people thought a king should act (with power, coercion, military strength).
  2. Instead Jesus came in humility. He taught an “upside down kingdom”. He died on the cross.
  3. Nevertheless, his death (and subsequent resurrection) was an act of victorious power over our most vicious enemies: Sin and Death.
  4. The pattern of Jesus’s life and death undermines the human vision of authority of the powerful over the weak and gives a truly Christ-centered vision of authority that serves instead of demanding service.
  5. Finally, God has authority as Creator that humans can never have. Abuse of human authority comes when we reject Jesus’s pattern or try to take God’s authority for ourselves.

You can listen to the podcast here. You can also subscribe through any number of podcasting Apps.