Tag Archives: Jesus

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?

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!

And Who Is My Neighbor?

Most people have heard the story Jesus told in Luke 10 commonly referred to as The Parable of The Good Samaritan. You can read the story here if you would like to reacquaint yourself with the story, which I would highly recommend. Why? Because despite the casual familiarity society has with this story, which has undoubtedly served as the inspiration for the names of numerous “Good Samaritan” hospitals and other “Samaritan” charities, this story really isn’t about a Samaritan.

Yes, you read that correctly! The Parable of the Good Samaritan really isn’t about the Samaritan whom, by the way, is never described as good (or bad) in the actual text. So while we may derive a side point about the virtuous character of the Samaritan, it’s not the main point of the story.

The story is actually about a conversation between a Jewish lawyer and Jesus. The lawyer approached Jesus wanting to “test” him by asking him a question about how he may inherit eternal life (v. 25). Wisely, Jesus turns the tables on his little religious test and asks him about what the Law says. More importantly, Jesus asks this lawyer about how he reads the Law (v. 26). It’s sort of analogous to saying “What does the Bible say about inheriting eternal life? How do you read the Bible?” That’s important because in becomes clear as the story unfolds that Jesus and this lawyer don’t read the Law exactly the same. Their hermeneutic for understanding what is necessary for inheriting eternal life is different. It begs the question of us, as we read the story, as to whether our hermeneutic differs with Jesus.

The lawyer responds by reciting what we commonly refer to as the greatest commands: 1) love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and 2) love your neighbor as yourself (v. 27) (see also Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-31). If this lawyer was simply taking a test, he would have passed because he is right that about loving God and neighbor. The problem is his understanding of what it means to love your neighbor as yourself. He doesn’t want to really love every neighbor as himself and so to justify himself, he asks Jesus just who his neighbor really is (v. 29).

In turn, Jesus responds by telling him a story… Well you know the story. But the shocking part of the story is that of all the characters Jesus could have chosen to play the role of hero in the story, Jesus chose a Samaritan. Jews and Samaritans hated each other with an enmity that was full of mutual distrust, discrimination, and animosity. And yes, Jesus knew this and that’s the point. Because Jesus is saying to this Jewish lawyer is that the Samaritans, whom he hates, are his neighbor too and if he wants to have a place in the kingdom of God then he must learn to love the Samaritans as his neighbor and that looks something like how the hero Samaritan of the story loved the man who was viciously assaulted along the roadside.

“…we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.”

So where do we find ourselves in this story? Who are we more like? The Samaritan or the Jewish lawyer? Of course, we want to become like Jesus but to do that we first need to ask if we’re not more like the Jewish lawyer than we realize. If we don’t discern that question then we may never realize just how much we attempt to justify ourselves, just like the Jewish lawyer, so that we don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves.

When Jesus made the hero of his story a Samaritan, he was saying that our neighbors include those we regard as enemies, those we may fear, and even those we may discriminate against in one fashion or another. Had it been a White American evangelical Christian approaching Jesus like this Jewish lawyer, who would have been the hero of the story Jesus told? I think the hero of the story would have been a Muslim father from Pakistan, Egypt, etc… Or a LBGTQ Feminist girl attending college at Harvard, Stanford, etc… or a young Black male living in Chicago, Baltimore, etc… Or a Latino woman originally from Honduras, Mexico, etc… Or a… The list can go on and on and on.

The point is that our neighbors are also Muslims, LBGTQ people, Blacks and Latinos, and whoever else we think of as different from us. Jesus told the Jewish lawyer to go do as the Samaritan did and extend mercy to our neighbors. We don’t have to agree with our neighbor, share their same religious and political views, or even like their way of life but we must love them as ourselves by showing them mercy − doing acts of mercy as we have the opportunity. In fact, we’ll never see the kingdom of God unless we can learn to show mercy and be their neighbor by loving them.

“Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!”

I’ll push this even farther because it is time we get the point. The currency of our gospel, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is that we love God by loving others… we love one another but we also love our neighbors and even our enemy neighbors. It doesn’t matter what we preach and teach if we cannot love our neighbors as ourselves! To paraphrase Paul somewhat, if we cannot love our neighbors then we are as useless as a noisy gong.

Let’s be more than a useless noisy gong. We believe that we are called to be witnesses of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God to the world. Very good! But remember that begins by loving our neighbors and the best place to begin is right in our own neighborhoods with the people living next door or just a few doors down no matter what skin color they have, what sort of lifestyle they live, what their nationality of origin is, or what their religious and political beliefs are. Until we learn to love these neighbors are ourselves, we are the Jewish lawyer!

Churches Seeking Ministers: On Renewal and the Way Forward

Over the last couple of years I’ve had the opportunity to talk with plenty of churches seeking a new minister to come serve with them. One thing that nearly every church has in common is they want to grow. They seek both spiritual and numerical growth that will result in fruitful ministry and this is a good desire. However, in my experience, many churches don’t really understand what they are wanting. That’s why I find this cartoon below funny… It’s all too real!

pastor-search-committee

Very few churches, if any, would say it in so many words but the truth is, most churches want growth without having to make any changes. In fact,

One of the questions I like to ask search committees is what sort of goals or outcomes does their church wish to accomplish with the new minister. The answers almost always includes evangelistic growth and getting more church members involved in the ministries of the church. I then follow this response  with another question asking about what sort of changes might be necessary. In other words, what must the church begin doing differently in order to obtain the results it desires? Most of the time the search committee struggles to answer this question, sometimes the answer is an awkward silence. Why is that? Why is there an expectation of the new minister to help the church go forward without any change? In the worst case scenario, any suggestion of change might is an anathema.

It is silly to expect any sort of future growth without change. Actually, it’s insanity. If a church keeps doing the same thing then it will keep getting the same results. Also keep in mind that every church is perfectly organized to get the results it is getting. So if a church expects something different with the new minister, change is necessary. If a church that has plateaued or began experiencing decline want to experience new growth, reach new people, engage in more fruitful ministries, etc… then something must change and that change is much deeper than just finding a new minister.

Without change then, the expectations of the new minister are unrealistic. Yet, at the same time, the new minister may have unrealistic expectations of the church if there is an expectation of change the church is neither ready for nor has had time to discern. And so it becomes a catch-22 with the only likely result being a lot of frustration. Sound familiar?

“The best barbecue is slow-cooked barbecue!”

What I want to suggest is a different way forward with some slightly different expectations of the new minister and church. What if churches and ministers had different expectations of each other? What if instead of expecting new growth and change, the expectation became discernment? This means the minister, along with other leaders (e.g., shepherds), and the church are listening to one another for how God is leading each other forth as participants in his mission? Together in prayer and dwelling in the word  (scripture), the minister helps the church discern how God might be working. Here the minister is helping the church to hear God’s voice as to what sort of changes might be required so that the church may obey God’s voice and continue bearing kingdom fruit. That’s what discernment is… hearing and obeying so that the church might faithfully participate in the mission of God.

This is a different set of expectations that not only opens space for God to work through his Spirit but also gives pastoral consideration to the reality that change is difficult. No longer is the cart placed before the horse, so to speak. The new expectation is discernment − hearing and obeying − rather than growth but with the awareness that such faithfulness will yield the fruit God desires in his own time. The role of the minister still involves preaching and teaching as well as equipping but on a path of discovery with the church, helping the church discern the way forward. Now instead of the minister having the responsibility of trying to facilitate change, for which the church may not be ready for, in order to bring about growth, the minister and church may grow together as they discover together where God is leading

This is admittedly more difficult as it requires patience and time. But keep in mind a little barbecue wisdom: the best barbecue is slow-cooked barbecue! And with apologies to those churches where I attempted change as a quick-fix solution for growth, I’ll admit that I’ve only learned this through some frustrating moments in ministry. But this is where renewal begins. It’s going back to Jesus and the his gospel, wrestling with what it means to follow Jesus as a local church and embody his gospel among the local context. It’s a question of discernment that takes place in prayer and with scripture, allowing God to chart the future of where he wants the church to go.

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!

Politics and The Way of Jesus

If there’s one takeaway from this past political season for me, it’s that most Christians are still trying to conserve a Christendom culture in America. Not a Christian culture or gospel culture but a Christendom culture. That’s a society where Christians are the dominating force in shaping laws, practices, and cultural values. With Donald Trump* as President Elect, some Christians may even think they have won the latest battle in effort of saving Christendom. But really, it’s just one more anxious response that will fail.

Regardless of what Christian-friendly policies the succeeding government may enact, morality can’t be legislated and neither can religious beliefs and values. More importantly, neither Christians nor any supposed Christian nation is made by legislation. Christians are formed as people see Christ among local churches in the lives of the Christians who make up those churches, as people see the church embodying the way of Christ in word and deed. So while the election may prolong some semblance of Christendom in America, it is only avoiding the inevitable death of a Christendom society. This election will certainly not change the souls of the growing number of non-Christians, who have a growing distaste for their perception of Christianity and particularly evangelicalism. Yet the more Christians leverage political power for the conservation of Christendom, trading the power of the gospel for state political power, the more  alienating Christianity becomes and unnecessarily so.

In general, it is the church in America that needs to hear Jesus saying, “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15). Christians, of which I am unapologetically one, must learn again how to embody this good news of the kingdom of God as their way of life in every local church. Put another way, we Christians must learn to follow Jesus again. We must learn to believe what Jesus believes about the kingdom of God and share the same values as Jesus so that our way of life becomes an imitation of his life. We can’t treat this gospel simply as a propositional truth we proclaim while serving for an end of some political agenda. Either the truth of the gospel becomes embodied as our way of life, lived together as local churches within local neighborhoods and community, or else the truth is lost.

As far as politics go, we must remember that the gospel itself is a politic. As Eugene Peterson once said, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.” Thus, our way of life as followers of Jesus should be a politic itself, a gospel-politic that is neither Democrat nor Republican. Let’s occupy ourselves with the gospel-politic rather than trying to control the political outcome of the state. Though there may be particular political issues that are of interest to us because of their impact on our local community, we must realize that the means of American political power − both the right and left − is incompatible with the kingdom of God. The power of the gospel is expressed in a life of humility and love that’s dying to self in service to others, where as American political power (like all worldly politics) involves various expressions of a coercive “might makes right” force. The power of the gospel invites people to participate in the Kingdom of God by faith, rather than legislating a way of life by political mandate.

The question that we Christians must ask is what do we want? Do we want to participate in the mission of God and see the kingdom of God extended into our local communities? Or do we want laws on the books that may reflect some Christian values but only create barriers between Christians and non-Christians? If the time has not already come, it is very near when we will reach the proverbial fork in the road. Which way will we go? I submit that only one way is the way of Jesus, lived out as local churches serving on mission with God.

* Regardless of who you or I believe should have been elected as the next President of the United States, Donald Trump is now the President Elect. Just as we should do for all governing officials, we must also pray for Donald Trump as he prepares to lead America as the nation’s next President (cf. 1 Tim 2:1-2).