Category Archives: Faith

Can You Believe?

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16

102113This Bible verse, John 3:16, is one of the most well known passages of scripture in the Bible. Children throughout Sunday School’s memorized this verse and it was a favorite of preachers in many revivals, such as Billy Graham preaching to a stadium. Even those who never read the Bible may remember people holding up signs that read “John 3:16” at various sporting events such as seen in the picture above.

Yes, that is how popular John 3:16 has been. The passage has been a source of debate. Is it really true that we simply must believe in Jesus to receive the promise of eternal life? Well, that is what the passage says. Ok, then. But what about repentance and baptism? Doesn’t Jesus call people to repentance and re not those who respond to the gospel message in the book of Acts called to be baptized? And, of course, the answer to all of these questions is an easy “Yes!”

But these questions also seem more like a big adventure in missing the point because they are not the questions John is answering when he wrote John 3:16.

This might make more sense if we first recognize that John 3:16 is not the words of Jesus, but the commentary of John in response to a conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus. That conversation is about being born again and seeing the kingdom of God. Jesus tells Nicodemus in John 3:5-8:

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

While some interpreters see water and Spirit as a reference to baptism, these terms have more to do with life. For example, the vision in Ezekiel 36:25-27 suggests “a new begetting, a new birth that cleanses and renews, the eschatological cleansing and renewal promised by the Old Testament prophets” (Carson, The Gospel According to John, 195). Such newness of life comes from God alone and that is Jesus’ point to Nicodemus.

Keep in mind that Nicodemus is a Pharisee and as such, he believes that God will restore the kingdom when Israel returns to a strict observance of the Law and its traditions. While Jesus is not anti-Law, he is correcting the misunderstanding of Nicodemus. Seeing and entering the kingdom of God depends on the work of God but Nicodemus doesn’t get this and asks how this is possible (v. 9). So Jesus says in vv. 14-15, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believesmay have eternal life in him.” Alluding to his own pending crucifixion and resurrection (Slovan, John, 46), Jesus is telling Nicodemus that this is how God is ushering in the kingdom and this is what he must believe.

The point is simple but important: whoever wants to participate in the kingdom then  must believe that God is at work in Jesus Christ. This is what it means to believe in Jesus and why John sums up the conversation Jesus has with Nicodemus by saying in v. 16-17, “…God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”

This is gospel or good news to us. It’s good news for fundamentalists and legalists but such people may have the hardest time accepting this good news. Those who are trapped in fundamentalist and legalism often believe they must “get themselves right with God” so to speak. In my own experience, participating in the eternal kingdom of God required “sound doctrine” and attending the “right” church. For others it might have to do with not watching any movies, using the KJV Bible only, and so forth. Now don’t misunderstand me, I am not trying to suggest that doctrine doesn’t matter or that moral relativism is ok. The point is this: we will only see the kingdom of God by believing that it is possible because of what God has done in the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.

Anything else is doomed to failure and we know this because we know we are sinners. Even if we give an A+ effort, we still come up with the results of B or C or… Yes, sometimes we even get an F. The good news is that we’re no longer burned with the task of trying to get a good enough grade, because God loves us and has given his only Son, Jesus Christ, for us so that we too might see the kingdom of God and thus share in eternal life with God.

This I believe!

Can you believe?

The Shack: A Story On Suffering and Hope

Last Friday evening I watched the film The Shack directed by Stuart Hazeldine. This film is based on the 2007 novel of the same title by William P. Young. Having read the book, I wanted to see the film too. Like most film adaptations of a book, the movie loses some of the dialogue. Nevertheless, it’s still a good movie to watch.

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In fact, here is the little response I posted on Facebook after watching the movie:

“I just returned from watching #TheShack at the theater. Though the movie, and the novel of the same title it’s based on, is fictional, it tells a wonderful story and powerful truth about God and life, love and forgiveness, faith and hope. Having buried my oldest son, Kenny, nearly fifteen years ago, there is so much I resonate with. From the question of suffering to the hurt and anger that ultimately inflicts more harm on one’s soul to the conflict and encounter with God, I resonate. The thought I had when the movie was over was a reminder that though I have sinned in life, made many mistakes, and often judged both God and people when that is not my business, God still loves me, is at work for the good in my life, and how much I just want to love others and be a part of that Good which God is bringing about in Jesus Christ.”

As you can tell, I resonate with so much of the drama because of the tragic loss of my own son. However, that doesn’t mean I abandoned my theology hat when I watch the film. So from a pastoral-theological standpoint, I also liked the movie.

Of course, some are quite critical of the movie. Some of those critics are Christians who are concerned about the doctrine and theology of the film, like this review by Al Mohler (or for a much more balanced critique, see the review by Focus on the Family). But this really misses the point of the film in my opinion.

First, sometimes it seems like some Christians almost go looking for something to disagree with. In that’s our objective, we’ll find that something in almost everything we do. It’s even more frustrating when a minor issue is made into a bigger issue than it really is. Are their some elements of the dialogue in this film that I question from a theological standpoint? Of course, there is but I didn’t watch the film to get bogged down in little particular details and miss the major point of the film.

The beauty of this film is its journey into the world of suffering where there is brokenness and deep pain along with doubt and uncertainty that evokes a crisis of faith for anyone unfortunate enough to be on this journey. I have and still an on this journey, though I have learned how to walk along this way. This film is about the healing that everyone suffering needs. This is a healing that comes knowing that God still loves them, that the grace of God is still for them, and that they can trust in God again even though they don’t always understand.

And I’m telling you, as one who has suffered, there are people you meet every day who are dying from the inside out. Maybe they’ve buried a child, been through a divorce, been sexually abused, are drowning in drugs and alcohol… they’re the broken and what they need is not a lesson in the fine particulars of Trinitarian theology but a reminder that God the Father, Son, and Spirit love them and long to redeem them. That’s what The Shack reminds us of. So don’t get lost in the details and miss the big story, for if you can hear the big story then you just might be better equipped at helping someone who is dying on the inside find life again.

Lastly, I don’t normally recommend books I haven’t read but since I know this author and trust his judgment, I’ll recommend his book as a companion read. John Mark Hicks, Meeting God at The Shack: A Journey Into Spiritual Recovery, 2017. Besides being an apt theologian, Hicks has traveled on the road of suffering and so I believe you’ll bennefit from his perspective.

On Violence and Sacrifice: The Cross of Jesus and the Eucharist

René Girard, in his book Violence and the Sacred, which was published in 1972 and then translated into English in 1977, explores how violence is endemic among all people of every society. When blood is shed, there must be an avenging of that blood in order to bring about justice. Of course, attempting to bring about justice by means of blood for blood… blow for blow, establishes a perpetual and escalating cycle of violence to the peril of everyone. One only needs to read about wars to understand, as nobody really wins in a war since everyone pays a massive toll in the loss of human life.

If a society has a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim who will suffer the cost of avenging the violence committed by others, the cycle of violence is disrupted. Throughout history societies have turned to religious rituals as the means of sacrifice. However, as Girard observes, the loss of such rituals so that they lose their meaning as they become increasingly banal leads “…to the outbreak of a new sacrificial crisis” (p. 125). This crisis is one of violence, as society turns inwardly and casts its need for retribution on each other.

As a human society, we need not seek to destroy one another for the evil we have done. For we do have a means of sacrifice, a surrogate victim (if you will), who atones for our evil. His name is Jesus, the Messiah. On the cross in which Jesus is crucified, he absorbs our sin… all the hatred, envy, selfish and lustful desires that often lead to violence, as well as our violence too. When we peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we see the evil of our sin. However, as we peer into the mystery of the cross, we also see the grace of God, his love and mercy by which we find forgiveness of our sins. By peering into the mystery of the cross, we learn how to let go of our sin and extend such grace to other sinners rather than lashing out with violence upon them. But what happens if we lose sight of this sacrifice in which God offers up his begotten Son as the surrogate victim who absorbs our sin?

“For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, ‘This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…'”

For some time, the Christian faith has been in decline among North America. This decline is not something that has happened to us. It is something we, many of whom professed to be Christian, allowed to happen. Somewhere along the way, the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross became banal. Our ritual of peering into this mystery where we gather together in local congregations as the body of Christ to share in the Eucharist (the Lord’s Supper) gradually became more and more meaningless. It became a rote tradition we did at Christmas and Easter or, if you grew up in my Christian tribe, something done weekly merely to obey the command “Do this in remembrance of me!” which was inscribed on the communion table.

All the while, violence is escalating among us. Our society has become tolerant of violence and sometimes even seems to have an appetite for violence when it is taken out on an enemy. We Christians will acknowledge that Jesus teaches us to love our enemies (cf. Matt 5:44) but… we’ll find someway to dismiss what Jesus has said because our need for avenging evil is greater than our desire to extend the grace of God by showing love and mercy. Now the violence is turning inward, seen in the outbreaking of more violent protests and violent rhetoric aimed at cutting each other down. How does it all end?

As a committed Christian, one who believes in Jesus and seeks to follow him, I crisis begins to dissipate as we again learn to peer into the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross. This is why I love that my church shares in the body and blood of Jesus every Sunday as we gather together by partaking of the bread and wine. This is not just some empty ritual we do to check off a box that says we’ve now obey Jesus. No! This ritual, this act of worship, has much meaning. For as we partake of the bread and wine, we remember the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and took the cup saying, “This is my body broken for you… This is my blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins…” And so when we share together in the body and blood of Jesus, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).

What are we doing when we gather together to peer into the mystery of the cross by sharing in the Eucharist? We see our sin and realize how terrible and horrific it is. We recognize how much we have hurt ourselves and others, and in doing so, hurt God who is the Creator of us all. But we are not burden with this weight of sin that we cannot bear. For as we share in the body and blood of Jesus, we also see our forgiveness. We see that “God has shed his grace on thee” and we see that God loves us more than we can even begin to fathom. As we see the grace of God for us in the mystery of Jesus dying on the cross, we learn to extend that grace to others. It’s not always easy to do but just as God has loved us and forgiven us, so we understand and desire to love others and forgive them of their wrongs too. No longer do we wish them ill, do we seek to avenge their wrong with violence of any kind, for the love of God compels us to love one another… to love our neighbors and even our enemies.

And that, my friends, is how the crisis of perpetual violence is broken and the future of God’s kingdom breaks into our present day!

Encountering Truth in a Post-Truth Society

As of last year, the word post-truth officially entered into the American vocabulary. Ergo the Washington Post recently ran a piece with the following headline: “Post-Truth” named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. The article then went on to say, “It’s official: Truth is dead. Facts are passe.”

So this, among other things, is what we’ve come to as society. Truth has become whatever we, as our individual selves, want to believe. It’s not just the politicians or the journalists, it’s us. That’s why there is all the influx of fake news stories about this or that we’ve passed along as truth in various social-media outlets. Most of the time, we don’t even care enough to even see if what we’re sharing is true or not. Why? Because the fake news story agrees with what we wish to be true. As my friend Sean Palmer remarked on Facebook, “We [don’t] see things as they are. We see things as we are. The lies are a symptom, the ego and false self are the disease!”

The question we must as is where do we go from here? Where might we find truth in order that we see life as God wills life to be?

Let’s begin with how our western society has understood truth and the birth of modernism in the 17th century, particularly with a couple of philosophers named René Descartes and Immanuel Kant. They led us to believe that the human mind and our ability to objectively reason was the foundational basis of what could be known and how we could resolve moral issues. Truth was reduced to whatever could be scientifically proven and the western world began to operate as though human reason could solve all of our problems. Though it wasn’t the intention of Descartes and Kant, this resulted in a grandiose view of humanity and what could be achieved through human ingenuity.

The human mind and objective reasoning might all sound good but then came the 20th century with depression and world wars, gas chambers and nuclear bombs, and humanitarian crises such as famine and the rise in urban blight. This is what the human mind, with its capacity to objectively reason, produced? It became rather obvious that science and human reason wasn’t solving every problem. Enter into the conversation two more philosophers named Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. They helped us see that we’re not as objective in our reasoning as we wish since we all think from a location shaped by our experiences; and sometimes our motives are less than pure. Thus, modernism bequeathed postmodernism.

“Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Now I am far from well-read in the field of continental philosophy. However, from what I have read, it seems that postmodernism offered a good corrective to the arrogance of modernism which placed such high confidence in human reason. However, the downside of postmodernism is a trajectory that has led us into a post-truth reality where our only source of truth is our individual selves. Obviously, we have a problem when the only source of truth is ourselves. While we are all shaped by our own biases, experiences, and motives, is there any truth beyond ourselves? I believe so and if you’re a Christian, so then should you. Truth is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ and the gospel story which centers in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I further believe the Bible is a truthful, and therefore trustworthy, witness of Jesus Christ, his gospel, and teaching.

We know this truth in the passing of tradition among the church. What I am speaking of is what Roberto S. Goizueta describes as “a truth that emerges from the interaction between two particular persons and that, therefore, transcends each of them” (Caminemos Con Jesús, p. 158). In our case the two particular people is ourselves and the local church which is always part of the one holy, catholic, and apostolic church whom Christ is present among. Among the local church is the tradition of what the first witnesses of the crucified and resurrected Jesus saw and began telling others who then told others and so forth. They we’re simply telling what they saw first-hand and subsequently experienced vicariously through their encounter of the gospel among the church. So the gospel story of Jesus and his teaching became the tradition passed on from one generation to the next.

One of the ways we encounter this tradition even as we share in it in order that we might know the truth is through the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist where we remember Jesus Christ. In the partaking of bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus Christ, we encounter the truth of what the world really is coming to be as God wills. We anticipate the future of history in the present (prolepsis) as we remember the past by sharing in the Lord’s Supper together as we sing hymns and pray as well as read scripture and hear the word of God proclaimed. Gathered together for this Eucharistic meal is where we then learn how to live into this future as a witness of the truth so that others, in a post-truth society, will encounter the truth of Jesus Christ.

Advent: The Dissonance of Christmas

In protest of the Vietnam War, John Lennon wrote a Christmas song called Happy Xmas (War Is Over). The background of chorus that goes “War is over now, if you want it, war is over, now!” Well, maybe so… or not!

Not every Christian may realize this but the advent of Jesus ushered in a new cosmic war, a Spiritual battle, that wages on. It has to do with the clash of kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world − the collision of powers between God and the rulers of this world.

This clash of powers begin right from the onset of Jesus’ birth. The Gospel of Matthew reminds us that the joy of Jesus’ birth gave way to bloodshed once King Herod learned that the baby being born was considered the ing of the Jews. Once his conspiracy to kill Jesus failed, Herod ordered the murder of ever boy age of two and under born in the vicinity of Bethlehem.

The slaughter of these babies is horrible but it’s also the consequence of God’s kingdom colliding with the kingdoms of this world and it doesn’t end there. Eventually the Jewish and Gentile rulers of this world conspire together, crucifying Jesus. But thankfully, God raised Jesus from death and the resurrection of Jesus is God’s assurance that the rulers of this world have lost.

…to proclaim that Jesus is King is to renounce the claims of sovereignty the rulers of this world make, whether these claims come in the form of a monarchy, oligarchy, or even a democracy.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the rules of this world will surrender their claims of sovereignty so easily. We only need to read the book of Revelation to understand how this cosmic war wages on and is waged against Jesus and his church until God’s victorious reign is fully realized in the second-coming of Christ.

So where does that leave us who proclaim Jesus as King? We sing “Hark the herald angels sing ‘Glory to the newborn King!  Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…’” but our story reminds us that leaning into this reality places us against the kingdoms of this world. For to proclaim that Jesus is King is to renounce the claims of sovereignty the rulers of this world make, whether these claims come in the form of a monarchy, oligarchy, or even a democracy.

This isn’t a denial of the role which governments serve as God’s agents for maintaining law and order in a fallen world (cf. Rom 13:4). However, the war is over and in King Jesus, God has won the victory. As believers, who profess our allegiance to King Jesus, we bear witness to this victory. We declare that the kingdom of God is here!

And at the very least, singing “Glory to the newborn King!” should evoke some sense of dissonance with the world and even our own country. That won’t always be easy but the good news is that we’re on the winning side.

Happy New Year!

You may not realize it but Sunday will mark the beginning of the new year. So… Happy New Year!

According to the Christian calendar and in keeping with our historical Christian tradition, this Sunday is the beginning of the new year. And not only the new year but it’s the first Sunday of Advent, where we become mindful of the coming of God.

The reason this may be unfamiliar is that some groups of Christians have paid little attention to Christian history with its tradition, including the Christian calendar. If that’s the case, where does that leave us? Without the Christian calendar, the only calendar telling us the seasons and dates is the secular Western calendar which our lives are oriented around more than we realize. In terms of Christian or gospel formation, without the Christian calendar we are formed only by secularism as it pertains to how we live in response to the seasons of the year.

The late Charles Taylor described Western society as so enmeshed in secularism that a transcendent reality can only be seen like rays of light peeking through a cloud. Perhaps then it’s of little surprise that people, Christians included, have become so oriented around consumerism, nationalism/tribalism, and technology. All the more reason why we must give more attention to the Christian Calendar and to the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, and Ordinary Time or what some refer to as Kingdom Time.

Does this mean that our secular calendars are all bad or without value? Of course not! There are days on the secular calendar worth remember, like Thanksgiving which we will celebrate tomorrow. However, giving our attention to the Christian Calendar allows God to form our imaginations and worldview even more so around the gospel story as told throughout the biblical narrative. One way of doing this is reading the scripture readings that are listed in the Revised Common Lectionary for every week of the Christian Calendar.

So I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. More importantly though, Happy New Year! Advent is upon us, so let us turn our attention to the coming of God. For our God, who became flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus, will one day come again and make all things new!

Now That The 2016 Election Is Over…

The 2016 American Presidential Election is over. Donald Trump will most likely be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America. Some people are elated, while others are angry. Other people might feel a sense of relief, though others will become even more anxious. I will be none of the above because I believe that Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom was crucified but then raised from death, is now and forevermore the exalted King of Kings, Lord of Lords.

If you are a Christian then you share this profound conviction that Jesus is Lord with me. Our shared confession of Jesus changes how we respond to the results of what has been a very vitriolic and polarizing political season for Americans. Now we have an opportunity, because of what God has accomplished in Jesus, to display what living hope looks like in real time.

The apostle Peter reminds us that as God’s chosen people, his royal priesthood and holy nation and as such, we are also foreigners and exiles among society (1 Pet 2:9, 11). This is also a call for living good lives reflective our identity as God’s chosen people, as his royal priesthood and holy nation. If we read the letter of 1 Peter, we’ll quickly see that this call includes how we relate to the governing authorities. We may criticize their policies and decisions at times but we dare not mock them or insult them, as we are to show respect for everyone and that includes those who are elected to political offices (1 Pet 2:17).

Doing good matters because it is an essential part of our Christian witness. It matters little for us to confess that Jesus is Lord, if we turn around and live like everyone else and subject our doing good to certain qualifications like doing good only when it’s convenient and cost us little. As Christians, doing good is not determined by undertaking a cost-benefit analysis or risk assessment first. That may be acceptable in the world of which we are foreigners of, but not in the kingdom of God which we live in. This is why the apostle Peter exhorts Christians to keep doing good.

With 2017 around the corner, we live among a society that is very fragmented. All around we see seed of anger and hostility sown, where hatred and violence only seems on the rise. What an opportunity for us Christians! What an opportunity by simply doing good to one another, a neighbor or co-worker, even a stranger!