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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Thank you God, for my Daughter

Lord, am thankful that I am a parent.  I even more grateful for the specific kids you have given, Igor, Henry, and Merone.  Yesterday, June 25, marked the day Merone landed on U.S. soil for the first time.  She came to stay and for this, Candy and I are filled with thanks in deepest parts of ourselves.  One of the ways you show love for us is allowing us to parent this little girl.  

Candy, posted this picture of Merone.

 She had that sad look on her face - we disrupted her world pretty dramatically and she was powerless to voice any kind of opinion. Even the language she had was taken from her. This look on her face is a good teaching tool for adoptive parents. We do something good - give orphans permanent homes. But in doing it, we have to acknowledge the trauma they have been through, the extreme losses they have suffered. We adoptive parents bring hope to them, but it must be a hope that is willing to take time, be patient, and honor the pain they are in and the pain they've been forced to endure. I see all of that Merone's sad eyes, in June 2011.

God, I thank you for all that Merone has taught me.  

I also thank you for the smiles that eventually did come.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Come Together (Galatians 3:23-29)

Sunday, June 23, 2013

            You and I walk into a Wendy’s together.  I want a frosty.  You’re having a fries and a Sprite.  A mom with a 6-year-old and a 1-year-old is ahead of us in line.  She looks haggard.  Carrying the young one, the 6-year-old mercilessly, relentlessly pulls on her free hand and demands a kid’s meal with toys
            The two women taking orders behind the counter are named “Cranky” and “indifferent.”  They seem annoyed that this six-year-old is acting like a six-year-old.  Really, they seem annoyed by all customers. 
            Behind us we hear someone cursing a blue streak.  It is a girl yelling at her boyfriend who is not actually there.  She’s giving the cell phone attached to her ear what-for.  It might be funny, her sitting there alone, yelling at someone not present while those who are present stare.  It might be funny if it were not so sad, foul-mouthed, inappropriate, and loud.
            A man in business attire is seated alone, going over charts, as he sips his drink. 
            The mom struggles through her order as the six-year-old goes to the table in tears.  She did not cave.  She did not get that kids meal.  She told him 10 times that he already had three copies of the toy at home and he never eats his chicken fingers.  And he’s upset.
            We step up to order.  Cranky looks at us with dead eyes and says nothing.  “Hi.”  I say.  “How are you?”  She says nothing.  You smile at her.  She gives no expression.  She won’t crack.  She is on the clock for three more hours.  She can play this game.  She won’t reveal a hint of personality.  She won’t affirm our humanity, not for a second.  She knows we want our food and we have to get through to get it.  She’s not going anywhere.  She can wait. 
            In shameful surrender, we order, pay, and slog to our seats, trying to find the joy we lost. 

            How could the trip to the fast food place go differently? 
Were any sins committed?  Any laws of God or laws of men broken?  Did faith fail? 
            In Galatians 3 we see law and faith juxtaposed, set in opposition to one another.  Both are from God.  We read that before faith came, we were imprisoned under the law. 
What does that mean, exactly, “before faith came?” 
            Jesus changed everything for Paul.  After his death and resurrection the ways humans related to one another and to God were forever altered.  This includes the law and our understanding of the people of God.  “Law” refers to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – the foundational scriptures for Israel.  Paul calls the law a disciplinarian.  The word he used referred to someone in his culture that saw to the education of wealthy children.
            The disciplinarian was not actually the teacher.  Rather the disciplinarian was the one who made sure the kids went to class.  The disciplinarian was a family’s personal truancy officer.  In most cases this role was filled by a highly trusted slave.
            We humans, even the most grown up and brilliant among us are as children before God.  We’re not just any children.  We’re children prone to misbehave in the worst ways imaginable.  Prior to Jesus, we needed our disciplinarian, the law, to show us how wrong we were. 
            Faith does something different that the law.  Law shows sin.  Faith calls us to holiness.  In Jesus, Paul believed a fundamental shift happened; life moved from law obedience to faith calling. 
I remember a conversation with a friend in which I asked him about church.  He’s a neighbor and he knows I am pastor of HillSong.  We had had 100’s of conversations about parenting, about baseball, about his time as a swimmer at Clemson.  When I asked about church, I just wanted to continue our conversation but on another topic.  I wanted to hear more of his story.  But I am a pastor asking about church.  He had this look on his face, as if I had watched him shoplift a candy bar from a convenience store.  “I know should be back in church” he sighed under a blanket of guilt.  He was afraid of getting caught by the truancy officer.  He was raised in a generally Christian worldview, but he still yields to the disciplinarian, the law. 
            So many Christians talk about salvation by grace through faith but then live in a good-bad, legalistic mindset.  Our actual living, which is law bound, doesn’t match the ideology we speak, salvation by faith as a gift of grace.
            Paul says no, no.  Jesus has come.  Faith has come.  Verse 24: “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came.”  God always intended Jesus, and now he has come, so we don’t live as naughty children held in check by the strictness of the law.  In Christ we are sons and daughters of God called to the holiness of God.
            We are called by God to live out this holiness in our daily lives here and now.  This is not the end-times Kingdom of God.  We are physically in the fallen world that has been corrupted by sin.   But with Christ in us, we are, even while here, full of the stuff of the kingdom and all its goodness.  We are to live into and to share the grace we’ve been given.  It is essential that we bid farewell to the disciplinarian and live into the new life, the life of faith. 
            The law shows sin.  Faith, which is a gift of God’s grace, calls us to holiness.  Law is our disciplinarian.  Faith is a joy producer. 
The law shows what makes for death.  Because of sin, death is our destiny.  But again, faith has come because God has come in Jesus.  Verse 27, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”  When we are baptized, we go under the water, buried, dead in sin.  But then we come out of the water, clean, fresh, clothed with Christ so that our life belongs to Him, and his resurrection becomes ours.  The disciplinarian law which reveals sin points to death.  Christ our savior calls us beyond sin avoidance to something new, something God always intended for us: holiness.  Christ our Lord does not stand over us with a thundering hand but walks beside us, grinning, laughing, making music and giving joy.  Christ our God calls us to eternal, abundant life. 
One more contrast shows we have moved from law to life, from a disciplinarian to a relationship in which God sees us as His daughters and sons.  This was quite important in Galatia and is equally important in church and in a Wendy’s restaurant.
            In Galatian churches, Jewish Christ followers worshipped alongside Gentile Christ followers.  In Christ, slaves were equal members – even equal to their masters.  Men and women were adopted by God on equal terms.  It is hard to say which divide was greatest.  Jews saw non-Jews as being unclean and unfit for relationship with God.  Men saw women as reduced humanity.  Many of the ancients thanked God above all else that they were created male and not female.  And slaves were non-human.  Even when slaves were treated well and given great responsibility, they were still slaves. 
            These cruel categories were not banned in the law.  But they had no place in Christ.  Galatians 3:28 is one of the defining moments of all Paul’s writings.  N.T Wright imagines this great scripture when he says, it is “like one of those symphonic finales where the composer seems to be trying to bring a many instruments into the action as possible, all playing different motifs but somehow combining into a glorious paean of praise” (Justification, p.127).  If you only ever memorize one verse, maybe Galatians 3:28 ought to be it.  We are baptized into Christ.  We are clothed with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek.  There is no longer male or female.  There is no longer slave or free.  In Christ we come together.
            Of course we hold onto what makes us unique.  Christ calls for us to die to self but not to forfeit the things that make us who we are.  When John, in Revelation, viewed the throngs of persons saved for eternity by Jesus, he noticed some things.  There were more people than he could count.  They came from every tribe on earth.  They did not lose their individuality.  He could see that this was a coming together of all people – joined in Jesus.  Note the final sentence in Galatians 3:28.  “All of you are one in Christ.”  In our glorious diversity, we are united in Him.  Women are still women, Jews are still Jews.  But we are all free from sin and joined to one another as brothers and sisters.
            Obviously there is no place in the Kingdom of God for any kind of racial or ethnic prejudice.  God has no sympathy for those who think races should not intermarry.  The notion that people should stick to their own kind is foreign in God’s kingdom for we are all His.  Our differences are reasons to celebrate one another and our likeness is that we are buried in sin and raised to new life in Him.
            Knowing this, does it make a difference when you and I go into a Wendy’s restaurant? 
            Maybe, Cranky and Indifferent don’t know that they are invited to come to Christ and that we are all invited to come together as children of the new age.  In their own minds  you and I are named annoyance numbers 1 & 2.  But, we love them because Jesus has come and with him faith.  Whether or not we have the chance to say they are invited by God, we love them.  By faith we are saved, you, me, and Cranky and Indifferent.  The Kingdom joy we put forth in that Wendy’s may or may not win them over.  They may never crack that smile, but we keep on pouring out Jesus because we know He wants these Wendy’s workers in His kingdom.  They each mean as much to him as any lawyer, pastor, doctor, or CEO.  In him there is no separation between them and us.  The moment the come to him in faith, we come together. 
            So, maybe we help out the mom with the crazy toddler.  We carry her tray.  We say a silent prayer for the young woman cussing her boyfriend over the cell phone.  We smile and hold the door for the lonely, rushed business man who spilled a bit of ketchup on his white shirt.  He needs a smile and a touch of Heaven’s love.  The Kingdom of God is made up of people who used to cuss but then met Jesus.  The Kingdom is made up of tired moms who find energy to continue in Jesus.  The kingdom of God is populated by frustrated fast food cashiers who think their lives are dead-ended until meet Jesus; and business men who discover the bottom line is not all there is; and girlfriends and boyfriends who treat each other with respect, love, and patience.  All these people belong to each other and to us in Christ. 
            Carrying a tray, sharing smile, and maintaining joy are not world-changing actions.  They are though deeds done in a spirit – the Spirit of the one who changed the world by coming and dying and rising and then calling all people together into His body, the church. 
            That’s the end game of grace and the deepest meaning of Galatians 3:28 and the entire gospel of Jesus Christ.  God calls the world together in His love.  Heaven is not a place where we each get our own mansions and get to be with the people we like.  Heaven is where we sit around one table and like and love the people we are with because Jesus is there it could be no other way.
            We begin living Heaven the moment He takes up residence in us.  We thank God for what the law accomplished and we acknowledged that it is finished because Jesus has come and the age of grace and faith has dawned.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Crucified with Christ

Sunday, June 16, 2013

            I don’t know how you self-describe.  Our family attended a YMCA event where counselors were asked to introduce themselves.  What would you do if you were not working with the YMCA summer camps program as a counselor? Each counselor said his or her name, which group he led, and then this question was answered.
            So how about you?  What would be your ideal summer?  More generally, who are you?
            Recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s divorce was made public and Time magazine’s website did a spoof of what he might put for a personal column on  He is described a “Russian Teddy Bear” who wants a companion to travel the world with him and engage in some of his favorite activities like arm-wrestling. 
            Imagine writing a personal column, but not to attract romance but to show who you are.  Are you a “Chapel Hill Teddy Bear” who like arm-wrestling?  You have 1000 words.  What do you write so that the world knows you? 
            “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.”  Whoa!  Would that be a part of your self-description?  Why did the first century Christian evangelist and church starter Paul write that sentence about himself?
            I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.
            We back up to the end of Galatians chapter 1.  It helps to read Acts chapters 9-15 and also 1st Corinthians 15 along with Galatians 1 & 2.  Reading these passages together will not yield an accurate chronology.  My sense is neither Luke, the author of Acts, nor Paul, the author of Galatians and 1st Corinthians were offering a detailed timeline of events.  Both shared the story of how Paul went from persecutor of Christians to advocate of Jesus, but their purposes in telling the story were to build up the church.   Both wrote with an eye toward having their readers live the Christian faith the way Paul did. 
So I don’t think we will know exactly the order.  Did Paul go to the disciples first or to Arabia or to Jerusalem?  Which disciples did he see first?  How did he know what he knew?  What did he do in Arabia?  Scholars spin their wheels trying to piece it all together,  but the important point, which is brought out both in Acts and in Galatians 1 is that Paul was sinning against God by persecuting the followers of Jesus.  He was having them arrested and he assisted in their executions.  Then, the resurrected Jesus overwhelmed Paul in a dazzling display of speech and light.  After that event, Paul was the loudest mouthpiece for salvation offered by God through Jesus. 
This all happened in a Jewish context.  Jesus was said to be the fulfillment of the Law of Moses.  All that the Law was meant to accomplish was now finished in Jesus.  This meant Jews were to find their identity as the people of God in Jesus.  And it meant non-Jews, Gentiles, were invited to become a part of the people of God without becoming Jewish. 
Of course, being Jewish meant being God’s chosen.  This new paradigm of salvation in and from Jesus was an upsetting change that was not accepted immediately.  Paul, an early adopter, over and over collided with more tradition-minded people who wanted to follow Jesus but could not let go of their former practices.  And Paul really did not care so long as they did not force their tradition on new believers.
But they did.  In Antioch and then in Galatia, teachers claiming the name of Jesus and the authority of the leader of the Jerusalem church, the half-brother of Jesus, James, came and declared that to be of God, one must keep all Jewish traditions.  Paul retorted that such claims negated what actually does save – the faithfulness of Jesus to die on the cross for us. 
Last week we talked about the way Paul personalized his position of salvation by faith through the sharing of his own story.  This begins in the latter half of Galatians 1.  He continues in chapter 2. 
He had a faithful ministry partner, Barnabas.  These Jews understood salvation to be opened up to the world in Jesus.  He had come, God in human skin, and he had made a way for all people who would receive Him to become people of God.  Paul and Barnabas saw this with much greater clarity than even the original 12 disciples who led the Jerusalem church. 
But, as he says, the traditionalists were open.  They had seen Jesus repeatedly make clean what was previously unclean.  They were there when he forgave the adultress instead of sanctioning her execution.  They watched as he healed lepers by touch.  He commanded demons and his followers knew it was true.  They met him in person in the days immediately after his resurrection.  Peter, James, John – they knew everything was different.
So when Paul came declaring a gospel in which Gentiles could follow Jesus without becoming Jews, the Jerusalem Church accepted it and affirmed it.  When Paul brought his gentile colleague, Titus, no one in Jerusalem demanded that Titus be circumcised.  They extended to him the right hand of fellowship and accepted him as a brother in Christ.  
I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.
For Paul this meant everything was different.  Whatever previously existed to categorize and divide people, Jesus tore it down.  He no longer saw the world in terms of clean or unclean.  He did not meet people and immediately think, oh, a Gentile.  I’d better keep my distance.  For some reason, maybe the extreme empowering of the Holy Spirit, he could just let go of a way of thinking that had previously defined every element of his worldview.  Now in Christ, he would meet a person and think, Jesus died for this one.  I need to figure how I can make that clear so this other will surrender his heart to Jesus and be baptized into new life in Christ.
This put Paul in such conflict with his Jewish countrymen he became almost paranoid.  He says that false believers were brought in to Antioch and now Galatia with the express purpose of spying on how he exercised his freedom in Christ.  Their plan was to re-enslave all would-be Christians.  They would again set up the law as a boundary marker.  And Peter fell for it. 
He sat right with Paul and uncircumcised Christ-followers, Gentiles.  They were all there together – Paul, Peter, Barnabas and a host of new believers who discovered true forgiveness and eternal life in Jesus.  But someone from Jerusalem showed up and went on the attack.  Under cultural pressure, Peter and Barnabas buckled.  They caved.  They got up from the table.  They looked at their new friends, Gentile Christ-followers.  Hemming and hawing with an astonished Paul watching from the table and furrow-browed emissaries from Jerusalem glaring from the side, Peter and Barnabas rejoined the herd.
Who are you?  How do you self-describe?  I am someone who, when the crowd goes in one direction, joins the crowd.  Even if I know the majority is wrong, I so crave peer acceptance, that I go with the crowd.  I’d rather be accepted than be right.
Who puts that on their personal ad? 
No one would want this to be true of themselves, but it is true of you or me?  Do we run with the herd because deep down that is easier than putting all our trust in God that his grace is the best thing for us?  Do we the seek the comfort of the familiar even if the way we know is not all that great because at least it is known and faith in God requires too much, well, too much faith? 
Peter and Paul and Barnabas and others among the first believers had torn down the wall of separation between peoples.  Actually Jesus tore it down on the cross.  Literally, the curtain hanging in the temple that kept the world away from the holiest parts of God ripped in two by supernatural force at the moment Jesus died for the sins of the world. 
Now here is Paul in Antioch watching Barnabas and Peter go back to the Jews-only table.  The separation Jesus crushed is re-established.  And it will happen in Philippi and Rome and everywhere that there are Jews ready to announce Jesus as Messiah but not ready for what that means.  No!  Says Paul, himself the most accomplished of first century men of Israel.
“If I build up again the very things that I once tore down,” the wall of separation, “then I demonstrate I am a [sinner.]  Through the law, I have died to the law, so that I might live to God” (2:18-19).  Paul could see that faith is truly life in God, life defined by God.  Faith is a story about who we are. 
Who am I?  Who are you?  We come together and call ourselves HillSong Church – a family of people who are Jesus’ disciples.  We are a group of Christ followers.  What does that about say us?  Paul knew with great clarity that faith defines a person. 
Paul was fighting an insidious idea, one probably held by very few believers.  I am convinced that most of the original Jewish Christ-followers were overjoyed to welcome Gentiles and Peter and John and Barnabas are evidence.  They stepped into the new world created by Jesus without knowing what they were doing.  Their lack of clarity became insecurity when their participation with Christ was challenged and they did not have ready answers.  How can you eat with uncircumcised gentiles?   They knew the answer was ‘we can because of Christ.’  But the answer would not come.  They knew they were made in Him, but the old ways prevailed.
Not so with Paul.  In confronting his friends and standing by uncircumcised Titus, Paul gave a gift.  He showed the new way that is in Christ, and he showed in a painful, dramatic fashion.  It is not fun to confront others, especially those we love.  But when his brothers in Christ reduced the Gospel to a set of rules, he did confront them.  No, said Paul, we’ve died to that way of thinking.  We are a people who have been born anew, free of sin’s curse, free to live as God’s people in the world by His Kingdom standards even here and now as we await the final inauguration of that Kingdom. 
Do we understand how extensive a claim it is on us to say that we belong to Jesus?  It is too big for a personal ad or a Facebook descriptor or an identification on an army dog tag. 
I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live but it is Christ who lives in me.
Salvation is a gift of grace, one that means we are forgiven, saved from death, but also saved to life.  In receiving the grace of God, we give up our lives.  We open ourselves to be filled with the Holy Spirit so that Christ lives in us.  Our lives are absolutely no longer about ourselves.  We are about Him. 
With Christ living in us, a new story unfold, one that includes hard times.  We will be tempted to retreat to models of living that feel less risky because to trust God and give ourselves to Him and receive Christ is to be unique and at times to speak out against the world around us.  It could not be any other way.  Those apart from Christ are fallen.  Those who claim Christ but rely on themselves, like the opponents in Galatia relying on their own understanding, are deceived. 
The best we can do is love the unlovable, speak the truth no matter the consequences, and trust God’s provision when giving such trust just makes no sense at all.  The God-purposed life Paul discovered in Jesus powered him through trying circumstances.  The will and presence of God empowers us to bear witness to Him and to endure whatever opposes us.  It also enables to see God in the world and to live in freedom; a freedom only God give.  We begin to truly live when we are crucified with Christ and he comes alive in us.  It is then that we live into the grace God has given us.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Gospel of Grace

I wonder … does a person need the Bible?
            It’s sort of odd that a Christian pastor of all people would ask that.  We tend to tell people to read the Bible.  We never question if it is needed.  Now the question hangs in the air.
            I recall someone I met over a dozen year ago.  She was enraptured with her new found Christianity, but thoroughly did not understand.  She received Jesus and I baptized her and then did not see her for a long time.  She apparently did not need church.  When she finally did come back, she said, with much excitement that she assumed I would share, that she put her Bible under her pillow and slept on it every night. 
            She was developmentally delayed but I have known many Christians who treat their Bible exactly the same way.  They would not admit it the way she did, but they carry the Bible like some kind of talisman but never actually open and read.  When used in this way, especially like the simple young woman who lay her head on it, the only thing the Bible gives is neck pain.
            But what if we do read it?  A lot of people here do Bible study fellowship; or read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year-programs.  Our small groups get into the word.  I urge Bible reading all the time in sermons and newsletter articles and Facebook messages and tweets.  If we are group of readers, well, so what?  What does it do?
            Do we need the Bible?  No.  There is something we need for salvation, but it is not the Bible.
            Allow me to quickly back up and say that my statement we don’t need the Bible lies in a specific conversation about what puts a human in relationship with God.  The Bible is not a qualifier.  It is not needed in the way a passport is needed to get into another country.  It is not needed in the way a heart is needed for the body to function.  If your heart breaks down, you need a transplant.  If you lose your Bible, you can still be a Christian.
            The Bible is needed to know about God.  The Bible is necessary if we want to live in the story of our faith.  Just as the Holy Spirit breathed into the writers whose works became scripture, I think the Holy Spirit breathes into us when we read.  By the Holy Spirit our reading of scripture becomes a time of God speaking to us.  In 1000 ways, we do need it.  But in terms of marking one saved, we do not need the Bible. 
            We don’t need the church community either.  Keith Green, a popular Christian singer in the early 1980’s said “Going to church makes you a Christian like going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger.”  We don’t need the church per se in order to be saved.
            Just as I briefly hit the breaks to reassert how necessary the Bible, I do the same with the Christian family.  The church does not save anyone.  Jesus is the savior.  But I don’t see how someone can live as a saved person apart from Christian community.  In 1000 ways, we most definitely need Christian community, the church.  But in terms of being made right with God, the church does not accomplish that. 
            I begin with notions not normally spoken in worship – we don’t need the Bible or the church – because there is an issue of authority and the issue of the pure Gospel that marks the way the Christian faith can sometimes be misconstrued.  Distorted versions of what it means to be a Christ-follower and to be the church of Jesus Christ are rampant today and wrong ideas have confused believers all the way back to the first century.
            Christianity was born out of Judaism.  Jesus, God in the flesh, was a human being and a Jewish human being.  He was a circumcised, Torah-observant Jew as were all his original followers.  After he rose from death and ascended to the right hand of Father God, his followers were left to spread his gospel of salvation.  They were not left without help.  The Holy Spirit came and empowered people.  The Holy Spirit did not make the first Christians flawless.
            They were the most religious of people and their frame of reference was Judaism.  Jesus did not say, “Here ends Judaism; now begins Christianity.”  Jesus did not cancel, annul, discard, or reduce Judaism.  He fulfilled Judaism. 
            Every element of ancient Israel was meant to point the world to God.  The land was the land of God’s people.  The city, Jerusalem, was the city of God.  The temple was where God was found and worshipped.  Circumcision, Torah, festivals, and Sabbath-keeping; it all marked Israel as God’s people.  But it did more than that.  All these distinctions and practices pointed to God.
            Do we need the Bible to be saved?  Do we need the church to be counted ‘with God?’
            Did Israel need the Torah, which by the way is the text of the first five books of the Old Testament?  Oh yes, Torah was needed.  Did Israel need to be Israel, chosen?  Yes.  What changed?
            God came.  We don’t need something pointing to God if God is standing right there.  In Galatia, the first century Christian Paul could see that with Jesus having come, the distinctions of Torah, circumcision, Sabbath-keeping had been achieved and were no longer important.  Furthermore, if a worshiping community insisted on remaining in Torah and requiring circumcision for membership, then that group was actually failing to receive what was essential – grace. 
            Thus it was not a simple matter of missing the finer points from Jesus’ teaching.  To require circumcision and to require Torah-observance of all who would be Christians was to stare at the signs instead worshiping the God the signs revealed.  Be sure and understand, the rivals Paul is worried about in the letter he writes to the Galatian churches view themselves as Christ followers.  In fact it may very well be that these teaching another Gospel, as Paul calls it in verse 6, have come from James, the half-brother of Jesus and author of the New Testament epistle James.  Whether James himself made the errors Paul is fighting here or emissaries from him took his teaching too far we cannot say.  But Paul is deadly serious.  He’s afraid if the Galatian church gets away from the graced received from God and move toward a religion marked by practice instead of relationship, then they will be lost.
            And we will too if we think reading the Bible enough and attending church enough will earn us Heaven points.  This may seem ridiculously obvious, but God does not need me to read the New Testament.  God knows what it says.  God will not be impressed if I am at church or church activities 100 hours a week. 
            The teachers who came to the Galatian churches after Paul accused him of deserting the word of God and lacking credentials.  His response?  “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (v.14).  Paul’s letters were filled with allusions to the Old Testament.  If we want to understand Paul, we need to read Genesis, Deuteronomy, the Psalms, and Isaiah.  And it wouldn’t hurt to be pretty familiar with Exodus and Jeremiah either.  Paul knew the scripture and he wouldn’t tolerate it if he was accused of lacking that foundational knowledge.
            Neither would he accept that scripture knowledge and scripture application were essentials to be saved.  The word is absolute necessary to live as a saved person, but the Bible does not save.  The Torah does not save.  God does. 
            “I advanced in Judaism,” Paul said, “But when God … was pleased to reveal his Son to me so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being … but I went away to Arabia” (v.15, 16, 17).  Here, Paul flips the script.
            He claims his credentials as a zealous Jews, then tosses those credentials out.  He does the same thing in his letter to the Philippians (Phil. 3).  Rather than stand on knowledge he gained through years of rigorous study, when it comes to helping people come to Jesus, Paul stands on just one thing – his relationship with God in Jesus Christ. 
            I need to reiterate that nothing of what I am saying is a suggestion that we read the Bible less or stop attending church.  What I am saying is those things should not be done out of duty.  We do not have a duty-bound faith, but a grace-response faith.  We read scripture to know more about the God who saves us.  We attend worship to exalt him and we participate in the life of the church to be in love-relationship with others who are saved by grace – our brothers and sisters.  Our study and participation are expressions of our gratitude to the Lord and our joy in Jesus is heightened in the Bible and in the church.  Or at least it should be. 
            Paul feared a loss of gospel and loss of faith as the young Christians were given conflicting teaching.  He insisted that to be the church of God, the people had to stand on the solid rock, Jesus, who was a gift of grace to them.  Any other means of being Christian was another gospel.  All other practices like worship and gathering and reading were good and right, but in their place.
            Refusing to boast of credentials, Paul stood on testimony.  As rendered in the Contemporary English Version, “My friends, I want you to know that no [human being] made up the message I preach.   My message came directly from Jesus Christ when he appeared to me” (v.11-12).
            Paul never insisted that the Galatians or any other group of Christians have the same experiences he had.  We cannot generate G0d-experiences.  They come from God and we cannot predict them or summon them.  We can say that God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whoever believes in him, which is another way of saying whoever receives forgiveness from him as a gift of grace, will have eternal life (John 3:16 par.).
            How God appears to you or me will vary from you to me.  The nature of one’s relationship will change over the course of time because personal relationships are dynamic.  If we don’t understand Christianity as a personal relationship with God, we’ll never fully get Paul’s gospel.  We’ll never walk in the abundant life Jesus promised.  We won’t hear from God when God chooses to speak.
            Now if someone came this morning and said, “I want a personal experience of God, right here, right now,” I would respond, “OK.”  And we would ask God for that.  Whether God would give that I don’t know.  I believe though for all who sincerely repent and come in brokenness to receive grace from God, it will be given.  I think that is the heart of Paul’s words in Galatians 1.  He says a lot more than just that, but the core truth is we need God’s grace.  Paul had achieved all one could achieve.  The Jesus came and it all changed. 
            If Jesus has never come into your life, when he does, it will all change.  You might feel the dramatic change right in the moment.  Or, salvation could be a process that begins when you stop trying to “be good” and give up on trading in accrued Heaven points and instead try a different plan.  Instead accept that like everyone else, you have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God but in His perfect love he holds out grace and forgiveness to you.  So, come and receive Jesus.  He is who we all need. 
            Everything good in life springs from Him.  Our church family becomes an expression of the Kingdom of God as we live in the grace we have received.  In repentance and by faith, come to Jesus.


Monday, June 3, 2013

Jesus in Everything

Jesus in Everything

            Recently in a sermon, as I was concluding, I told the church I wanted each worshiper to read about 1000 pages of commentary on the topic of the sermon – grace.  I was joking.  I don’t usually ready 1000 pages on anything in one week.  Once in a while I do, but usually, that amount of reading was planned in advance.  Some people love reading and read heavy amounts.  Others take in information in other ways. 
            All Christ-followers would benefit from reading the Bible and reading good Christian writing, whether by popular writers like Phillip Yancey or good Christian fiction (C.S. Lewis, etc.), or classics like Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ.  For some individuals, summer is a time to catch up on reading.  While it might not be 1000 pages between now and Sunday, I do highly recommend turning off video games and the internet, and doing some reading.
            I also recommend that we think about Jesus in everything.  We will find our God awareness heightened if invite the Holy Spirit into all activities.  While watching our kids play little, league, pause a moment and center the mind on Christ.  Take a second to quiet the mind and listen for the Spirit’s voice.  Eating at an outdoor cafĂ© and watching the world walk by, have Jesus on the mind.
            When I say ‘God awareness,’ I do not mean something unchristian or beyond Christianity.  I mean alerting our own minds and awakening our own consciousness so that when God acts, we don’t miss it.  Jesus’ great sorrow was that so many missed his coming (Luke 19:41-42).  I am sure that God, working through the Holy Spirit, is at work in the world today, performing the miraculous.  I just think His followers miss him because our minds are not focused on him.  We’re distracted by life.  

            By reading, we draw our minds to Him.  When we intentionally consider Jesus even in nonreligious events in the normal course of life, we condition our minds to always be conscious of the Lord.  In this consciousness, we surrender ourselves so that Jesus has greater influence over us.  The greater his influence, the more our choices reflect His gospel.

Grace Received

June 2, 2013

“A certain ruler asked [Jesus], ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’” (Luke 18:18)?
            Evangelical Christians think such a question to be absurd.  We don’t do things to earn salvation and with it eternal life, it is given as a free gift from God.  Yet, if we read Luke 18, we have to acknowledge that Jesus does not tell the man salvation and life cannot be earned.  The man asked what must I do?  Jesus tells him what he needs to do.  He has to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus.  We doubt that Jesus would give the same answer if another person asked about eternal life.   The context is clear; Jesus was speaking to this man’s idol – his wealth.  He has to get rid of the wealth he worshiped so it would not prevent him from following Jesus.
            But even with that caveat, it still sounds like something the seeker does: remove an idol and follow Jesus.  We say salvation is a gift from God.  Is that consistent with the Biblical accounts?  Or are there requirements and if we fail to meet them then do we have no hope?
            A few years ago, a popular book called Love Wins by Pastor Rob Bell raised all sorts of controversy.  Many readers decided that Bell, in the book, had discarded the Biblical view of Hell.  The critics accused Bell of universalism – the notion that in the end all people go to Heaven.  In numerous interviews, Bell tried to defend his writing and beliefs.  He maintained that he does believe there is a Hell.  He asserted that his views are in line with the Bible.  Two extremely popular pastors – David Platt and Francis Chan – did short videos responding.  Neither named Bell, but both were clearly refuting his ideas. 
            The conversation boiled down to a question.  Who is in?  When it is all said and done, who gets to be with God for eternity?  Who is consigned to Hell – eternal separation from God and the people of God?  These two questions have tormented the conscience of men and women for centuries.  Who is in?  What must I do to make sure I am in?
            In theological terms, these basic questions come up in the centuries old debate over justification.  I won’t spend a lot of time on that term.  I will though add to our discussion a late 20th century version of this debate.  It centers on the writings of the Apostle Paul.
            Paul is unquestionably the author of Romans, 1st & 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1st Thessalonians, and Philemon.  The New Testament also lists Paul as the author of 2nd Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1st & 2nd Timothy, and Titus.  Some scholars doubt he wrote the letters in that second set.  In most cases, I tend to think Paul was the author or extremely influential over the one who actually penned the letter.  What is clear is that this Christian, after Jesus, was the most important in terms of forming Christian thought in the first century. 
            The debate of the last 30 years is over what exactly Paul was saying in terms of who’s in.  Was Paul more concerned with what we need to do to be saved?  Or was Paul answering the question who is in and who is not in?  In other words, was Paul worried about a single individual?  What does Joe Smith need to do to make sure Joe Smith goes to Heaven?  Or was Paul dealing with groups?  How do we know the Jews are saved?  How do we know if non-Jews can be counted among the people of God
            Bible scholars get pretty worked up over the finer points in these conversations.  We’re not going to join the argument per se.  We’re not going to debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. 
            The letters Paul wrote were to specific churches.  Sometimes he wrote theological treatises.  Romans and Ephesians are this type of writing.  Paul also wrote very pointed letters in which he was responding to things he had heard.  First and 2nd Corinthians fall in this category.  Reading these texts so many centuries later, we are disadvantaged in that we don’t know what Paul was responding to.  We have to read his letters along with the rest of the New Testament, especially Acts, and we try to piece together the situation to which he responded.
            In Galatia, where there were several churches, there was crisis.  Paul had preached the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ.  He founded those churches on the idea that a person acknowledges sin and then receives forgiveness and new life from God.  The individual is baptized in the name of Jesus and that’s how salvation comes about.  It is an act of receiving what God gives.
            Paul built the church on this gospel of grace, and then he went on to other places.  After he departed, another group of evangelists visited the Galatian believers.  They agreed with Paul that it is necessary to put one’s faith in Jesus.  But they then added an additional requirement.  The believer must be circumcised and must keep the Law of Moses. 
            Were these other evangelists saying that one has to earn salvation by keeping the law?  Or were they saying that one has to keep the Moses tradition to be counted among the people of God?  The war scholars wage in lectures and the pages of journals is a worthy one.  It drives the church deep into the pages of scripture, where we need to be.   But we don’t need to settle this debate.
            What we find in Paul’s words, which we believe were inspired by the Holy Spirit and are thus a word from God, is that we are saved by grace.  And it is by grace that we, every one of us who follows Jesus, are counted among the people of God.  The gift we hold is the Word.  The Word of God came about, in the case of Paul’s letter to Galatia, because He has to clarify his Gospel in the face of a serious challenge.  His response stands before us and shows us what it means to receive the Gospel of Grace. 
            Grace is a tricky word.  It is a popular name for girls, a beautiful name.  It is something said before meals.  A simple definition of grace is it is something we receive as a free gift, with no strings attached and nothing required of us.  But is that a uniquely Christian definition?  What does the Bible mean by the idea of grace?  We are going to spend the next six weeks looking at this.

The Gospel of Grace
1 – Grace Revealed
2 – Grace Received
3 – Grace Lived
4 – Grace Shared
5 – Grace Declared
6 – Grace Sought

            The problem Paul faced confronts Christ followers all time.  We give lip service to salvation as a gift.  But in our minds, we label others as “good” or “bad,” and we determine one’s eternal destination based on how we have categorized them.  Oh, and we also have ourselves and the people we love in the “good” category.
            Someone spends his life drinking, goes through two divorces, skips out on child-support payments, never darkens the door of a church, and never prays.  At his funeral, his old drinking buddies gather around his casket.  “Well, he was a good man,” one says.  Another chimes in, “At now least he is in a better place.”
            We verbalize salvation by grace through Jesus Christ, but in actuality, we live with a good-bad, salvation by works mentality.  And we convince ourselves we’ve done enough.  Paul responds, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ” (Galatians 1:6a).  For Paul the issue of Gospel – the right Gospel or a false gospel matters.  For us it is of eternal significance.  
            Thankfully, in his opening remarks in Galatians, Paul lays the groundwork for the Gospel of grace.  Imagine that what he is writing to the first century believers in Galatia is also to us, 21st century believers in North Carolina.  The Holy Spirit has given life to Paul’s words so that his writing is God’s word to us. 
            “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (1:3-4).
            What do we mean when we say word ‘grace?’  We mean Jesus gave his life for us.  His act of doing that has set us free from sin.  A light is shed on the works argument.  What do I need to do?  Well, there’s nothing I can do, but there is something Jesus did and did with us in mind.  He went to the cross.  He gave himself for us.  We are free from sin’s grip.  No matter how dark the days in which we live, we are free from the evils of this age.  Grace means Jesus gave His life for us. 
            It also means we are in the family of God.  Paul declares we are all members of God’s family (1:2).  He will go on to introduce adoption as a concept for understanding our place with God.   He legitimate adoption as a way of being family and he sets it as the way of understand our standing with the Lord.  Over and over Paul refers to God as father and “our father” (1:1, 4).  Grace means that in Christ, we are related to one another.  To suppose the thickest connections among people are blood relations is a worldly way of thinking.  Paul implies that our connection in Christ runs much deeper than any blood kinship.
            His energies reach their peak as he writes, “I want you to know that the gospel [I proclaimed] … I received through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11, 12).  Human wisdom is not in play.  This idea of grace as God giving himself by become human and dying for all is a God-originated plan.  The only way we can know it in any sense is if God gives it.  Grace is something revealed by God in Jesus.  Any other definition of grace – a free gift; given something I do not earn; or any other is OK.  It is valuable.  But grace as a description of the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be understood in these terms.
            It is Jesus giving himself for us.
            It is a declaration that in Him we are related; brothers and sisters in Christ. 
            It is something revealed.  We only know it because God shows us.  We only have it because God gives it. 
            So now we turn back to our opening questions.  What must I do to receive eternal life?  How do we know who’s in with God at the end?
            I can’t do anything, but Jesus has done what was needed by giving himself on the cross.  So I receive what he gives.  And all who do this regardless of ethnic background, gender, education, or social status are in with God, forever. 
            This morning we’ve barely scratched the surface of Paul’s thought.  We have in the most general terms summarized grace.  What’s the next step?  Between now and next Sunday, I want each one here to read 1000 or so pages on the idea of grace.  I will provide reading lists.  Or you can find your own sources.
            Of course we probably won’t accomplish that.  I am sure I won’t.  So, read Galatians.  And with every verse, seek Jesus.  In your quiet moments, seek Jesus.  In your most difficult conversations, seek Jesus.  He is the giver of divine grace.  Ask Him to reveal it to you.