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Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Gospel Acceleration

You and a friend are talking.  Your friend is not really involved with Christianity in any way.  She doesn’t go to church.  As far as you know she really has no religious practice.  Faith is not something the two of you discuss, but she does know church is big part of your life.
            It is an occasion where the two of you are talking over lunch as you sometimes do.  She mentions she has wants to go to baseball game but she can’t find someone who will go with her.  She asks if you would go and you say, sure.  She pulls out her phone and pulls up the Bulls’ schedule.  She suggests a game that’s coming in the next week.  You start to say yes, but you realize that is the same day that something the church is hosting the chili cook-off.    
            In fact, you’ve want to invite this friend to this church event.  It will be fun and you hope it will be a springboard to discuss matters of faith with this friend because you are pretty sure she doesn’t really believe in anything.  You suggest that the two of you go to a game on a different day and then you ask if she would come to church to laugh and eat chili.
You’ve made the invitation and you look into her eyes.  There’s no spark.  In fact, her expression has gone blank.  You instantly know she is searching for a reason to turn down your invitation.  It is clear she wants no part of coming to church, discussing faith, or having this even come again.  Before you know it, lunch is over; you have no plans for a baseball game, you kind of feel like your friend is mad at you or at least annoyed. 
What happened?  Why is it so hard to talk about following Jesus with this friend or with a lot of people we know who are not in church?  Why does talking about our faith in the day-to-day conversations of life feel so weird? 
            This friend is interested in many things that you are also like.  There’s baseball.  You have worked together and are roughly the same age.  You have a lot of common ground and discussion with her is easy – unless it is about God or religion or faith.  Then, she slams the door shut. 
The Gospel has no ground. 
That is one example.  In countless others, we see how impossibly challenging it is to hope that we could share the news that in Jesus, God has come.  In Jesus’ death, God has taken away the sins of all who turn to him in faith.  In Jesus’ resurrection, God gives eternal life to all who give themselves to Him.  We are adopted as sons and daughters of God.  Disseminating that word, spreading that Good News, is why we are here. 
            However, in the secular workplace, coworkers, friends, bosses – they don’t want to hear us talk about Jesus, not most of the time.  Disinterest is an obstacle to the spread of the gospel. 
Our culture’s love individualism, tolerance, and relativism can be barriers.  Your religion is OK for you.  Mine is OK for me.  All religions are basically the same.  We tolerate all except for the religions that claim to be absolutely true.  If we’re all the same, there is no need for conversion.  And popular sentiment in our country is that the wrong thing is to try to say that there is anything wrong.  The Bible says the world is fallen – all have sinned.  That doesn’t really stick in today’s cultural climate.
            Another bump in evangelism road comes in our friendships with people as committed to their religious beliefs as we are to ours.  We have friends who are Muslims and Mormons, Jews and Buddhists and like in the example, we have friends who have no religion.  We love our friends.  But the differences act as obstacles.
            Make no mistake about it.  The Gospel is to be spread throughout the world.  Acts 1:8 – Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses.”  “Gospel” comes from a Greek word which means “good news.”  The only way news is actually news is if people hear it.  In our imagined encounter with friend who expresses no religion and might an atheist, is anyone hearing anything at all? 

            The first Christians did not know they were Christians.  The term had not been coined.  They knew they were followers of Jesus whom they had seen on the cross.  They saw him die and knew he was buried.  Then, they met him, resurrected.  Everything they ever knew was turned over.  Their worldviews were completely upended, but it did not stop there. 
            After the resurrection and after he ascended to the Father, they were seemingly left without much help in a world that was hostile to their cause.  The temple leaders rejected Jesus as the Messiah.  The Romans were not monotheists.  In religion, the Romans thought they were insane.  The Greeks did too.  In politics, the Romans held the power and at moment could enslave the people of Jerusalem including the original community of Jesus followers. 
How could these people, most of them poor and undereducated, obey Jesus’ command to tell of the good news of the salvation God gives in Him?  They were powerless.  They were directionless.  They were kind of in shock.
Then the Holy Spirit came in full force destroying every wall that would stand between the salvation God offers in Jesus and the people who need it.  They had been praying in that same upper room where Jesus shared the bread and the wine.  The Holy Spirit shook the house and they worshipped in song and prayer, prophecy and Heavenly tongues.
Jerusalem teemed with Jews who had come from all over for Passover and the Pentecost.  Many heard the commotion and rushed to the house as the disciples, now Spirit-filled, spilled out into the street.  One by one, the disciple testified.  The gathering crowd was amazed.
Everyone looked around and saw as clear day that this was a gathering of people from everywhere – yet all clearly understood.  The obstacle of language was overcome and the Gospel advanced.  They saw that these were fishermen, not educated folks.  And they came from Galilees, not a place known to produce people of sophistication or scholarship.  More obstacle are obliterated – socioeconomic divisions; education; and the Gospel moves forward from the disciples mouths into the ears, minds, and hearts of the people in the crowd. 
Some critics accused the disciples of drinking too much.  I struggle with the logic.  I never thought getting smashed would enable me to speak Amharic or Karen.  Alcohol doesn’t have affect.  And the crowd did not buy this lame explanation from those who would oppose the Gospel.  They listened as Peter spoke and the story of Jesus was proclaimed. 
He told of the crucifixion and that would be a problem.  People did not continue following a would-be Messiah after he died.  They went and found a new Messiah.  But here was Peter still holding on, claiming Jesus had been raised.  No one, I mean no one, believed the Messiah would be resurrected ahead of an end-time resurrection at which point all people would be raised for judgment.  Peter’s message that Jesus was the carrier of God’s salvation and had been raised by God was totally unexpected.  Expectations and the idea of death stood to block the advance of the Gospel.  Empowered by the Spirit, Peter preached through these blockers.
When the Spirit poured out on the community of faith in Acts 2, they shared the Gospel, spread the good news of life in Jesus in spite of insurmountable opposition.  This event launched the movement of the Christians who carried salvation throughout the world.  The rest of the book of Acts follows Peter and John, Philip, and Paul and Barnabas and then Paul, Timothy, Silas, and Luke along with Priscilla and Aquila as they tell all who will listen that Jesus is Lord.
Many, like our friend in the opening story I imagined, have no part in it.  Many do not want to hear about Jesus.  But some do.  And even when we hear, “No thanks, let’s just go to a baseball game,” we don’t give up.  We pray for that person.  Maybe our invitation planted a seed that someone else will harvest down the line. 
The Holy Spirit is as active now as was the case in Acts 2.  The Gospel accelerated across Israel, through Turkey, through Greece, to Rome.  It continues today.  We have the word.  We stand in the encouragement of the church community – praying for each other, building up each other.  We have the history of our faith and the Christians who have gone before us to inspire us.  Finally, we have God – the Holy Spirit – in us. 
Our culture shows indifference or a penchant for pluralism.  In China, there are the persistent attempts of the government to control everything.  In Western Europe, many buy into the myth that religion has died.  In parts of Africa, Christianity is so infused with traditional religions it is hardly recognizable.  In North Korea, open Christian expression can land you in jail.  In Syria and Egypt, proclaiming faith in Jesus as the Son of God can get you killed. 
Everywhere, there are challenges and it appears the easiest thing to do is go underground, worship in secret, and keep to ourselves.  But a fire burns; the fire of Holy Spirit sizzles.  We can’t put it out and we should not try.  We stand it in it so the light of Jesus shines through us.  The Gospel is going to continue to fill the world.  We play our part by worship, by prayer, and by setting ourselves so we are attuned to the Spirit. 
I have a friend.  More often than not, when we try to get together, life gets in the way.  When do find time to grab a sandwich, our conversation is mostly about our kids or college basketball or the weather – not especially deep or spiritual topics.  He knows my work and my life and I think he’s most comfortable at the surface.
But last year, he showed up here at church – just once.  I’ve known him for almost 9 years and he finally came.  The Gospel is on the move around the world and into my friends’ heart.  To me what happened at Pentecost was a miracle.  When the Spirit filled those first disciples, it was amazing.  To me, when my friend comes back to church and when our conversation moves from debates about who should start at Small Forward to questions about what it really means to be a follower of Jesus that will be a miracle too.  They will be as important an advance of God’s Kingdom as any I can imagine. 
Evangelism and the work of the Holy Spirit are interchangeable.  I am sure this is true in your life and your friendships too.  The gospel is rushing forward.  Pray that you as an individual and we as church can be part of it.

AMEN

Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Making of a Disciple - Acts 1:15-26


Sunday, May 17, 2015

            Is there someone who is for you a hero in the Christian faith, maybe an author or an athlete or a musician?  I really appreciate the testimony of former football coach and player Tony Dungy.  I have learned much from the late Dallas Willard, philosopher and author.  Philip Yancey is a magnificent story teller in print as was the late Fred Craddock in pulpit.  Who are Christians we admire? 
            I think of the former Ohio congressman Tony Hall.  He recognized the problem of hunger in the United States and around the world.  He saw it with eyes of faith.  In an attempt to call attention to this problem and to awaken his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives, he went fast.  He went without eating for a long time.  He lost over 30 lbs.  Many of his fellow congressmen seriously questioned his sanity, but he achieved his goal.  He drew national attention, including the media, to the issue of hunger.  And for Tony Hall, it was always a matter of faith.  He did this because he thought it was what he should do, as a follower of Jesus
            I truly appreciate how the individuals I admire lived their faith. Tony Dungy won Super Bowls as a player and as a coach, but for him, more than anything else, the accomplishments served to give him a platform to point people to Jesus.  Dungy loved the football part of it, but the witness was a bigger deal.  Congressman Hall did dramatic things, but he wasn’t trying to be the lead on CNN.  His actions were an expression of his understanding of the Gospel.  Action; attitudes; an approach that does good as it points people to Jesus; each of these Christ followers that inspired me had specific attributes and experiences that brought them to my attention.

            After Jesus rose from the grave, he appeared to the disciples on several occasions.  However, after 40 days, he ascended.  That is, in bodily form he left them and went to the eternal realm of God’s Heavenly Kingdom.  He left with a promise that he’d return and that promise is reiterated throughout the New Testament.  One day Jesus will return, history will end, and all who have died in Christ will rise as he did and be with him forever.  We can count on this.  But it is in the future. 
That day has not yet come.  Immediately after Jesus was gone, the disciples and the community who had gathered around Jesus, some 120 in number (according to Acts 1), had to go on.  They had to take that next step in following Jesus but they did so in the reality that they would be following was no longer before their eyes in bodily form.
What was their next step?  They returned to Jerusalem and gathered for a season of deep prayer.  They may have actually been in the room where Jesus instituted the Last Supper.  In that place that was familiar and yet different, as everything, even the most familiar is different after resurrection, they prayed.  It was their principle activity.
Peter assumed leadership of the group, but he had no intention of taking Jesus’ place.  He had been humbled and restored.  He knew his job was to guide people to God, and in order to get to God, one needed forgiveness of sins and a confession of faith in Jesus.  Peter also worked to maintain the forms Jesus has established.
Jesus had over a 100 followers; over 500 hundred if we go by the count in 1 Corinthians 15.  Of that group of disciples, 12 were selected for a special role – the 12 apostles.  These had a relationship with Jesus that was unique.  Yet, this special group was not immune to temptation.  Peter denied Jesus.  They all abandoned him in his darkest hour.  And Judas, one of the 12, betrayed him.
Now, shortly after the resurrection, the community of Jesus followers was gathered, but with only 11 apostles.  Judas had died.  Peter felt a top order of business was to fill his shoes and keep their number the symbolically importer number 12.  He said, “So one of the men who accompanied us … must become a witness to his resurrection.” (1:21, 22). 
Later on, the number would increase beyond 12.  As the church developed it became clear that women could also be apostles.  Paul identifies a woman named Junia as an apostle in Romans 12.  And Paul identifies himself as an apostle.  Also, Acts 12 reports the death of the apostle James.  After Herod had him beheaded there is no account of the need to replace him to get the numbers right.  But at this early stage, Peter said, one must become a witness to the resurrection.
In this action taken by the disciples, they named criteria for what makes one an apostle.  First, the person had to be one who followed Jesus from the very beginning, when John the Baptist immersed Jesus in baptism.  I did not even know he had a following that early on.  He did.  This probably means he was formally recognized as a rabbi.  It also means those who became apostles had the full experience of learning from Jesus. They were seasoned disciples.  Sure, they made mistakes, but they were not recent converts.  They had walked many miles with Jesus and heard his words many times.
Second, the would-be apostle had to be one who remained after the crucifixion.  Yes, they all scattered, but this group did not scatter so far that they were out of touch.  They were close enough that when the risen Lord began appearing, they were there to see it.  And upon meeting him, they immediately put their faith him and dedicated themselves to him with such loyalty many ended up as martyrs.
Third and most importantly, to be an apostle, one had to meet the resurrected Jesus in person.  I believe we all meet him, but in our time, in most cases that I know of, he comes as Holy Spirit.  At that time, to be an apostle, one had to, as Peter said, be a “witness to the resurrection.”
Both Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias met the criteria.  Both had followed Jesus for years, had sat in the circle of his teaching, had been empowered by him to work miracles, and had seen and touched him after the resurrection.  The disciples prayed.  Then they took a rock and put the initials of Joseph on one and Matthias on the other.  They put both rocks in a cup and shook it until one rock popped out.  They turned it over to see Matthias’ name.  This was how they discerned that the Lord called him to be the 12th apostle. 
After this, neither name is mentioned again in the New Testament.  There are post-biblical legends of what became of each of these men and some of the accounts are outright contradictory.  We see in Revelation, in John’s vision (Rev 4-5), 24 thrones.  If those represent the 12 tribes and the 12 apostles, then Matthias is sitting on one of those thrones, praising the Lord.  But other than that, this is the last Biblical mention of him.  And that is OK.  Even though Peter and Paul, John, Timothy, Silas, and Luke all become important figure in the early church’s life, none of them were in it for personal gain.  They gave their testimony, often under duress, so that people would hear and put their trust in Jesus. 
We fill the shoes of those who preceded us as apostles.  Today some denominations do call some of their leaders apostles, and I have no problem with the.  But, by the definition in Acts 1, there is no one today who is an apostle.  No one today was there when Jesus was baptized.  No one today that I know of has met the risen Christ.  If there are those who have, they are so few in number it would be impossible to set that as a standard for leadership in Jesus’ church.
Our focus should be on the urgency Peter set on the task.  He felt they had to find a witness to fill a role of telling the world Jesus is alive.  What must we do, and who among us is able?  Remember, by the end of the book of Romans we see more than 12 apostles.  So today, we aren’t trying to fill a number.  We want to spread the word that Jesus has come and is coming again and all who confess their sins and put their trust in him can have life in His name.  What must we do?
Like the apostles, we must tell the world Jesus is Lord.  When this is our message and we embody it then no other person or thing or trend or institution is Lord.  No other power is the standard by which we are measured.  We are who we are because we are in Christ.  So, we have to tell ourselves and each other and the world that Jesus Christ is Lord over all.  And he is a Lord who is present today by way of his church and by way of the word and most importantly by way of his Holy Spirit.  In these ways, the Lord Jesus is active in the world today.  We have to tell that.
Second, we have to believe and then announce that the resurrection actually happened.  There is significant evidence that the resurrection of Jesus was an event in history.  He was really God in the flesh, he really died, he was buried, and he rose.  We are not one of those who met him in person after the resurrection, but we are their descendants.  So keep perpetuating that message to the world.  We follow this risen Lord with the same devotion and intensity shown by the first disciples. 
These are the things disciples do.  We follow Jesus with complete devotion. We believe in and defend the historicity of the resurrection event.  And we give our allegiance to Jesus as Lord, master over everything in our lives. 
Who among us can do this?  The simple answer is each one of us.  But it is a bit more involved than just that.  We are called to the singular vision for life the disciples showed – prayer and devotion to God.  This life will take us in countless different directions.  One is a missionary, another is a Bible scholar.  One is a Christ-follower as he does his work as a plumber, another as she does her research as a scientist, and another as she keeps life rolling as stay-at-home-mom.  A Christ-follower’s discipleship looks one way when he is 18, another when he is 35, and that is different than when he’s 55 and that’s different than when he’s 80. 
In all cases, we are devoted to a life prayer and fellowship within the community of Jesus-followers.  In this way, we are very similar to those in the earliest Christian church. We continue a chain of witness to Jesus that began right after he ascended.

I started asking you to think of heroes in the faith, people you might admire for the way they live out their love for Jesus.  I shared a bit about a Christians who has impressed me, a member of the House of Representatives from Ohio, Tony Hall.  Congressman Hall did a lot to give witness to the goodness of Jesus.  What is really important for me is not that I find myself wowed by his faith but that I am moved to act. 
You might say you favorite famous Christian is Tim Tebow or maybe you admired Dean Smith or singer David Crowder or the popular speaker Beth Moore or a theologian like Karl Barth.  That impression becomes something more when admiration of that person inspires us to do things in our own lives to strengthen our witness, enrich our testimony, and embolden our words about Jesus.  We might not meet apostle criteria as Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias did, but we have a story and God is calling us to be his witnesses, speaking the Gospel in the world today.  That call is for me, for you, for all of us.  And it is serious, just as serious as when Peter said, we must find one to testify with us to the resurrection.
We must be those who testify to the reign of Jesus.  He is Lord and we can have life in His name.  We stand in this heritage and add our voice to it.  And as we do, people hear and come to Christ.  And Christians watching us are inspired to grow into their individual callings.

AMEN

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

One More Step - Acts 10-11


Sunday, May 10, 2015
            Can anyone withhold the water?  The questions hits at the climactic moment that began when Peter was praying and in a vision was told that God would open his promises to all people, even non-Jews.  God would do this through Jesus.
            Can anyone withhold the water?  Somehow, Peter and other Jews present who had put their trust in Jesus could see as Jesus’ Holy Spirit fell upon these Romans – the centurion Cornelius and his household.  They could see it!  They couldn’t believe their eyes, but they could see it. 
            Can anyone withhold the water?  The Spirit’s work began in Peter as he responded even when God led him beyond boundaries he thought he would never cross.  The Spirit’ work began when Cornelius, lacking the benefit of a Jewish heritage, nonetheless sought God.  The Spirit’s driving of these men and the people around them inexorably led to this moment when they stood before each other and seeing with Spirit-filled eyes recognized they were brothers in Christ.  The baptism confirmed it.  The baptism sealed it.  The baptism served as testimony to all that new birth had taken place.
Peter had not fully grasped that Jesus would reach to the world beyond Israel.  He knew this in his head, but it did not register in his heart until he prayed on that rooftop and God changed his view.  Jesus would shatter the barriers that stood as walls dividing people and Jesus would do this through his, Peter’s, preaching.  As Peter prayed, there was a knocking at his door.  Emissaries from the Roman Centurion Cornelius were looking for him and the Holy Spirit compels Peter to go with these men. 
These Romans brought Peter to Cornelius, a man seeking the truth.  The truth found him.  He and Peter came together and shared their visions.  Peter preached.  He said,

“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all.

            Jesus is Lord of all and faith in him rips down the structures humans erect to keep a few in positions of prestige and power while most are kept at heel in the dust, powerless in poverty.  Jesus the Lord, lifts up the downtrodden, freeing them from their disadvantage.  Jesus the Lord gives the privileged the humbling they need.  Without it, often the wealthy, privileged class – including many of us – fail to see how much they need God and need their fellow human beings.  In baptism, we testify to the truth that no matter who we are, we have died in sin and been resurrected in Christ.  What is great about us is Him alive and at work in and through each of us. 
            Peter’s speech is interrupted by the Holy Spirit dealing not with him but with Cornelius, and the other Romans there.  The Holy Spirit fell on them.  The Christian Jews with Peter couldn’t believe it.  To this point, the message of Jesus had been taken to the far reaches of the world, but to Jews who lived in the far reaches of the world.  Now, a mere 50 miles from Jerusalem, the great divide had truly been bridged.  God’s Spirit was poured out on Gentiles. 

            The movie The Fellowship of the Ring, is the first of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Hobbits are the main characters.  The Hobbits were small people physically and they were small in perspective.  Their entire vision of the world was limited to the simple farming villages where they lived.  And they didn’t mind keeping it that way.  They were happy. 
            But the job of delivering the ring of power fell to a hobbit, Frodo.   Frodo would have to travel many miles through the darkest, most evil parts of the world.  His best friend, Sam, was determined to go.  Even through Sam was a simple man who would just as soon stay on the farm and never leave, he was going with Frodo.  As they walked, he stopped and said, “Well, this is it Mr. Frodo.”
            “What is it, Sam?”
            “This is the farthest I have ever been away from home in my life.” Sam took the next step and it led to places he had never imagined.
            Peter stood before Cornelius who was full of the Holy Spirit and he had a decision.  In mileage he was not far from home at all.  But in understanding and in terms of perspective and in faith, he was about to go father away from home than he had ever been before.  He would never go back.  And, he took that step.

“The Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’  So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Having received the Spirit, in baptism we take that step.  We go father from home than we ever have gone.  And there is no going back.  Nothing ever looks the same.  No relationship, no person – we see with Spirit eyes.
When a paradigm shifts, everything changes.  The availability of automobiles led to the near extinction of passenger railroad travel.  People don’t cross country by train.  As TV’s entered every home, we went through a paradigm shift.  It changed radio forever. 
Peter’s step to baptize Cornelius is the greatest paradigm shift in history.  He did it because he could see that the Holy Spirit was operating outside of his established boundaries and if he wanted to be where the Spirit was at work, he had to step outside those boundaries himself.  He saw where God was at work and he joined him there. 
For us to feel the full impact of Easter and resurrection, we have to practice the Spiritual discipline of Reconciliation.  This means we accept all people – white and black, rich, poor, and middle class, from every country, with accents we find different – we welcome all people.  It goes beyond that. 
Each one of us like Peter must take that step, go beyond our frontiers, experience that great paradigm shift of history.  Each one us has to reach that point where we are farther in ideology, expectation, understanding, perspective, and faith than we’ve ever been.  Then we take the next step. That point might be in another country, but, it might be in North Carolina, or in a neighborhood in Chapel Hill.  It might be in this room.  The place is in a person. 
There is someone we cannot love.  We’ll gladly spend the rest of our lives in a filthy, disease-ridden third world prison cell for the sake of the gospel.  But we will not go and in the name of Jesus love with that person.  That person is different for each of us. But we each have that person.  It would astound us to see the Holy Spirit poured on that person.  The hatred, the bitterness, the animosity is too great.  Who is that person for you?
Years ago, I was very new in the ministry.  I looked around for mentors – people who would give me advice and opportunities.  I was lucky.  Several veteran pastors took me under their wings in my first decade of ministry.  They gave me opportunities, so when I became a senior pastor myself I had already visited hospitals.  I spoke at funerals and did baptisms.  I was indebted to these seasoned church leaders because they helped me greatly by inviting me into their churches and letting me try out pastoral tasks.
One of these beloved friends, however, floored me with something he said.  He was telling me how he had to explain to one of his church members that he could never baptize a black person, not in his church.  I was stunned.  The way he told the story, it was as if he were spewing common sense that once explained would make sense to everyone.  He told it to me in a knowing way as if it would be obvious to me.  He could never baptize a black person.
My trusted mentor had not taken that step beyond his frontiers.  Sunday after Sunday, he preached the Gospel.  Year after year, he baptized new believers.  But the heart of the Gospel called for a change he was not ready to make.  He had to keep the Gospel small enough for him to maintain control.  That never works.
I did not confront my mentor.  I did not say to him, “Hey, what you just said is totally racist and antithetical to the way of Jesus.”  I should have.  I regret that I did not have the readiness or courage to confront the evil that is racism.  I maneuvered adeptly, moved on, and became a senior pastor who within my first two years of ministry had baptized Sudanese people, whites, and Hispanics. 
I remained friends with my mentor.    We don’t dump our friends just because they say foolish things. We love them.  But I did not love him enough to name an evil that lurked in him.  I do not mean he was evil.  In many ways, he was a good pastor.  And he did a lot for me.  However, His need for control and his refusal to follow Jesus beyond his own comfort zone created space in him for an evil – in this case racism – to set up shop and corrupt the good work he did.  Late in his career, he realized his errors.

In Maya Angelou’s book I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a dentist in Arkansas refuses to help 8-year-old Marguerite even though she is doubled over in pain with a tooth ache.  He declares he would give dental service to a dog before he put his hand in a black person’s mouth.  That dentist will never get it – the fullness of Jesus’ resurrection – until he loves someone who is black.  For him persons of a certain race represent that person.

Who is it in your life?  What boundary is God calling you to cross?  Where do we need to go to truly live the Gospel?  This is the farthest from home I have ever been.  There – that is where we see the Holy Spirit come down and baptism confirms the story. 
It might be someone who hurt you.  You’d rather see that person suffer than to be saved by grace as he comes faith in Jesus.  Loving the one who injured you is going farther than you’ve ever been.  You won’t bask in the full glow of Easter until you forgive that one and pray that Jesus would come to him.  If you are there when the Holy Spirit is poured out on that person and if you say Peter’s words, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing this one I hated but now love because of Jesus,’ then you’ve been through the paradigm shift.  You and that person will embrace at the cross and stand in the light of the empty tomb together.
            I saw Peter and Cornelius meet.  It was a worship service where we joined three congregations: a Spanish congregation, our English congregation, which was comprised of people from Asian, black, and Latino backgrounds, but was 70% Caucasian; and a primarily black church.  The preacher was a woman from the black congregation. 
            She preached the gospel as powerfully as I have heard it.  A woman from Argentina translated into Spanish.  The black woman would say a few lines, and the Argentine sister repeated them for the Spanish speakers.  It worked well – both women had done this before.  However, just as the preacher was hitting the high note, describing the unconditional love and limitless grace of Jesus, the translator stopped cold.  She couldn’t speak.  Her heart was pierced by the preacher’s words and the love of Jesus.  Her throat choked up and tears flowed.  She was overwhelmed by grace.
            The preacher stopped and came to her.  There they stood.  The larger than life African American woman preacher, embracing a small Argentine woman being showered by the grace of Jesus; I don’t know what it looked like when the Jewish Christians were astonished to see the Holy Spirit rain down on Gentiles that day in Cornelius’ house.  I bet it looked similar to that day when those two women were wrapped up in Jesus’ love.  I got to see it.  I was astonished. 
            I believe we can be astonished again as we step farther than we’ve ever been.  We step to that person.  We do, and we are there to see the Holy Spirit poured out.  We see God bring people together right here, in Resurrection reconciliation. 

AMEN

Monday, May 11, 2015

Grace

I shared this message a few years ago and I wanted to share it again here.  I acknowledge one glaring mistake I made in it.  I used the phrase "Apostle Judas."  I think actually, an apostle is an eyewitness to the resurrection.  Judas, tragically, did not live to receive forgiveness and embrace the risen Lord.  In spite of that misnomer, I think a word about grace is needed in the world.  Actually, many words about grace are needed.  I add mine the to the conversation.

Grace (Acts 1:15-20)
Communion Sunday, April 26, 2009

Philip Yancey in his book What’s so Amazing About Grace shares the following story he read in Scott Hoezee’s book The Riddle of Grace (1996):

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any belief was unique to the Christian faith.  They began eliminating possibilities.  Incarnation?  Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form.  Resurrection?  Again, other religions had accounts of return from death.  The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room.  “What’s this rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions.  Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy.  It’s grace.”
          After some discussion, [they] had to agree.  The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity.  The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law – each of these offers a way to earn approval.  Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional (Yancey, p.45).

          I have served in vocational ministry since May of 1992.  In that time I have probably led over 500 small group Bible discussions, and have had countless one-on-one discussions with people.  In my experience, I found that Christians, people of the faith that rests on grace, have enormous trouble understanding it, giving it, and receiving it. 
          “So, group, tell me how do you know you’re going to Heaven?”  Someone, a professed Christian, will say, “Well, I am basically a good person.”  It comes up often in the context of funerals too, especially for people who did not live lives of faith.  Grieving family members say, “At least he’s in a better place?”  What does that mean? 
          I hear eulogies assured that the deceased is heaven bound because of all the good deeds he did.  “He would do anything for you” they say.  I never ask, “What specific wonderful things did he do?”  That question would leave the bereaved stammering; funerals are not a time to put people on the spot or evaluate the worthiness of someone.  At funerals bring comfort and hope from the Gospel.
          Yet the question remains, even if unspoken.  Whether hanging before mourners at a memorial service, put to a small Bible study group, presented in a sermon on Sunday morning, or just floating in the mind of the individual believer the questions confront us.  What is good?  Who is good enough for that “better place,” a euphemism for Heaven?  The answer is Jesus.  No one else qualifies.  The person who thinks he’s headed to Heaven because he’s done some nice things or is basically good or has given a bunch of money to worthy causes is fooling himself.  Heaven is not earned.  Heaven is where God lives and we get to be with God because he invites us.  He invites us because Jesus died on a cross for us. 
          And yet we are locked into the misguided thinking that good guys go north and bad guys go south.  The righteous go up, the damned go down.  There’s Heaven for us, and Hell for Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, Manson … fill in your favorite famous bad guy.  But the truth is there are no good guys and bad guys.  All fall short of God’s glory.  But the good news is God so loved the world, he gave his only son that whoever believes in Him should not die, but should enter eternal life.
          I may have indirectly contributed to this misunderstanding about grace in my preaching over the last two years.  I have emphasized over and over and over again the things a disciple does.  I’ve talked about deeds and actions.  I don’t think anything I have said has been Biblically inaccurate.  But this morning, I want to make sure we all remember that we are disciples doing Godly things because Jesus called us.  We are sons and daughters of God because of God’s invitation.  All the deeds of discipleship that we strive to do come after we receive that grace that is given by God. 
          It would then seem a paradox to talk about grace a spiritual discipline.  A discipline is something we do to accomplish that which we cannot accomplish on our own power.  I cannot run 5 miles at the moment; I can run 1, maybe 2.  But if I committed to the discipline of running a mile or 2 every day, soon I might try 3 miles, and I might make it.  From there my discipline increases until I am up to 5 miles.  Spiritually, I cannot will myself to stop sinning.  But, I can fast – go without food for a period of time.  I can fill that time with the disciplines of prayer, Bible reflection, and Bible study.  After spending time in these disciplines, I will sin much less, and I will be much more like Jesus.
          Grace isn’t something we do.  It’s something we receive.  So, how is it a discipline?  First, remember, that most Americans do not like receiving something for nothing.  We’d rather make our own way.  This country was built on a pioneering spirit.  We idolize the rugged individualist.  Grace as a spiritual discipline is a constant re-ordering of our way of thinking.  We give up that independence and accept that we are completely dependent on Jesus for life and for abundant life.  It’s not something we go get.  It something we receive. 
          Once our thinking is reordered, then we are in position to give grace.  This is the second act of grace as a discipline.  But the two acts – reordering our way of thinking so we can receive grace, and giving grace – are not sequential.  We do them concurrently.  Even when it cuts against the grain of our inner nature, we look for ways of giving grace.  We develop the art, perfected by Jesus, of giving grace.  It’s not letting people off the hook.  It’s not denying the sin of the other.  For grace to be given, the sin has to be acknowledged, spoken.  And then it is forgiven and it no longer comes between two people.  It is no longer an obstacle to a loving relationship.

          Grace is needed if we are to understand the Apostle Judas. 
It sounds weird, doesn’t it?  The Apostle Judas.  Those who have been around church or read Christian literature know there are common modifiers that accompany the most prominent names in scripture: King David; The Prophet Isaiah; The Virgin Mary; The Apostle Peter; The Apostle John; the Apostle Paul; Doubting Thomas; Judas, the betrayer. 
          Actually all 12 of the disciples were in fact messengers who carried the message of Jesus and successfully used the miracle power he gave them.  All 12 were apostles.  To understand the life and painful end for the Apostle Judas, the disgraced apostle, we need to wrap our minds around unmerited favor – grace.  And to get a good picture of grace, it helps to see what happens in the life of one who could never break free from ungrace.  Jesus modeled and taught grace, but for Judas grace was impossible.  He couldn’t get it.

          In Acts 1:15, Peter stands to address the community.  He is the one who stood up and told Jesus not to go to Jerusalem, to the cross.  He tried to block the way to salvation and Jesus called him ‘satan,’ adversary.  Jesus knew Peter’s bluster hid an inner cowardice that reared its ugly head the night of his arrest.  Peter denied knowing Jesus.  Then he ran into hiding.  Coward.  Blowhard.  Peter was a picture of failure.  But here in the middle of Act chapter 1, after Jesus has ascended to Heaven, before the Holy Spirit, Peter is clearly leading the small band who would become the church.  How did this guy get here? 
          Quite simply, he received grace.  He made it through the Saturday.  On Friday, when Jesus was crucified, Peter wallowed in shame, guilt, failure, and despair.  One of my professors used to say, he was lower than a snake’s belly in a wagon rut.  But, even then, something of Jesus held his heart.  He didn’t know what to do.  On silent Saturday, he didn’t know what to do.  On Easter Sunday, he didn’t know what to do.  But he did not abandon all hope.  He stuck around long enough to be there when Jesus, the resurrected Jesus, came around looking for followers. 
          Even in Mark’s Gospel, which gives less in the way of detail than the others, we see the value of sticking around.  The witness tells the women to go the disciples and specifically go to Peter and tell Peter that he will see Jesus in Galilee.  John’s Gospel gives the most detail.  In chapter 21, Jesus and Peter have a heart to heart right there on the beach along the Sea of Galilee.  Peter, shamed, looks into the eyes of the one he denied. 
Three times he denied Jesus.  Once; OK, I messed up; twice; I need to find my courage; three times, Jesus?  I don’t know him.  So, three times, Jesus asks if Peter loves him.  Three times, Jesus re-commissions Peter as a disciple, an Apostle, a leader of God’s people.  Peter didn’t earn this.  He wasn’t worthy the first time Jesus called him to be an apostle.  He says as much.  Upon first following Jesus, he sees an unbelievable site – the miraculous catch of fish, and he says what Isaiah said in God’s presence.  “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).  Jesus looked past Peter’s inadequacies and said you will be a fisher of men.  Then, after the resurrection, Jesus looked past Peter’s denial and said, feed my sheep.  And here we are in Act 1.  Peter is leading the disciples and he speaks about grace – grace that had been bestowed upon Judas.
“Concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus …, he was numbered among us” (1:16b-17a).  No one could appreciate being called by Jesus more than Peter.  A simple fisherman from an unimportant village in a backwater region – Peter knew how far he had come.  He knew that to be called was a gift of God, given freely by Jesus.  He acknowledged it was as much given to Judas as to him.  The title apostle belonged to Judas as much as it did to him. 
Peter continues.  “He [Judas] was allotted his share in this ministry” (1:17b).  Jesus gave his closest followers the message of kingdom of God.  He gave them the power to cast out demons and cures diseases (Mt 10:8; Lk 10:17).  He taught them separately and more extensively than the crowds.  They did what Jesus and learned what Jesus knew.  The Apostle Judas was allotted his share in the ministry of Jesus.  He had it all. 
From Peter, we know that that kind of access and that kind of power was not enough for transformation.  Seeing the amazing will not change person.  Crowds saw Jesus feed 4000 with one boy’s lunch.  An entire town saw Jesus drive 1000 demons out of man.  Even the resurrection did not turn hearts.  When the high council found out Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb – the tomb where they had guards posted – they did not seek out the disciples and ask what happened.  They did not become believers.  Theirs was a deep evil, a committed rebellion.  They bribed the hardened Roman soldiers to say that Galilean fisherman had managed to sneak past and steal the still-dead body.  Even in the blinding light of resurrection, those in positions of power were determined not to believe.  Belief comes when we receive the grace God holds out to all people.
Closeness with Jesus did not save Judas; witnessing the supernatural did not save him; invitation to the new covenant, taking the bread and cup could not save Judas; and he never had the chance to respond to resurrection grace.  He was so despondent on Saturday, while Peter and John and the rest pathetically laid low, Judas surrendered to his despair. 
Matthew’s offers a sterile depiction of his death.  A repentant Judas tries to atone by returning the money he was paid for turning Jesus in.  The elders will have none of it.  They lay the blame at Judas’ feet.  He’s at a loss for what he has done, and the priests offer no help.  He can’t wrap his mind around grace, so he has nowhere left to turn.  The weight of the wrath of God sets on him.  It doesn’t have to.  God would transfer it to the cross immediately.  But Judas won’t let it go.  It’s his responsibility and he can’t meet it.  So, Matthew writes, “he went and hanged himself” (27:5).
The picture in Acts is more vivid.  Apparently, the rope he used didn’t hold for long.  “Falling headlong, he burst open in the middle of the field, and all his bowels gushed out” (1:18).  Some scholars think Luke, the writer of Acts, included this macabre parenthetical detail for the sake of his gentile readers.  He wanted them to see the connection between the evil Judas performed and the awfulness of his fate.  Neither Matthew nor Peter mentioned bowels gushing out.  Luke threw that in there.  If his purpose was to accentuate Judas’ sin, it was probably a help in the story telling for some early readers. 
For me, the bigger issue is examining Peter (a sinner redeemed by God’s love), who is the speaker in Acts 1, alongside Judas, the tragic figure who died before he could see the story’s resurrection ending.  I am convinced that had Judas accepted the fact that he was a sinner who needed Jesus, then he could have been redeemed just as Peter was.  He could have made it through that awful Saturday.  He would be history’s picture of redemption instead one synonymous with treachery.
Just before the ride into Jerusalem on Palm the Sunday when the action began to move quickly, Jesus and the 12 were in the outlying village of Bethany.  Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, used expensive ointment.  She lavishly rubbed the nard on his feet and rubbed her hair on his feet.  She was worshipping him, and unknowingly I think prepping him for the grave. 
Judas took exception.  “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor” (John 12:5)?  His inquiry was a rebuke of Mary, and that drew a sharp response from Jesus.  “Leave her alone.  She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”  Acting out of the intuition God had given her, Mary heaped extravagant grace upon Jesus.  The fullness of what she had done would never come to Judas.  He didn’t make it through Saturday.
John the gospel writer reports that Judas’ question about giving to the poor was a ruse to hide his thieving tendencies.  He stole from the disciples’ common purse.  Instead of gratefully receiving what God would give, Judas felt he had to use cunning to get as much as he could.  Instead of trusting that Jesus knew what he was doing, Judas tried to force his hand.  I honestly feel that Judas believed when he turned Jesus in that Jesus was rally his followers to restore Israel to the Jews and throw the Romans out.  At worst, Jesus might spend sometime in prison.  Judas never thought he’d be flogged, mocked, and executed. 

We have mentioned the extravagant grace of Mary – this is the grace of worship we give God.  We have mentioned redeeming grace, or forgiving grace – the grace Peter received that as a prelude to being commissioned to lead the church.  These angles on grace fall under the resurrection and lead to a commissioning grace: the gift God gives in calling us to give our all to be disciples. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes this as costly grace and he contrasts it with cheap grace in his book of devotionals The Martyred Christian.  Bonhoeffer writes …

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without repentance, baptism without church discipline, [and] communion without confession.  Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all he has.  It is the pearl of great price to buy, for which the merchant will sell all his goods.  It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eyes which calls him to stumble.  It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him.
Costly grace is gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which we must knock. 
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives the man or woman the only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sing; and it is grace because it justifies the sinner before God.  Above all it is costly because it cost God the life of his son and what cost God much cannot be cheap for us.  Above all it is grace because God did not reckon his son too dear a price to pay for our life.
Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus.  It comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart.  Grace is costly because it compels a person to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him.  It is grace because Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (p.64-65).   

As we near the time when we will come and take the bread (the body of Christ), and drink the cup (his blood poured out for us), I imagine a great canyon.  We want to be with God and he is on the other side.  It’s too great to make the leap across, no matter how great the athlete.  No bridge can be built from this side, no matter how brilliant the engineer.  There’s no chance of descending into the canyon, walking through, and climbing up the far wall; it can’t be done no matter how diligent a climber one is.  One cannot live on this side of the canyon, no matter how much rationalizing we attempt.  Our lives are short.  As each year passes, we come closer and closer to the great expanse.  Our toes are creeping over the edge and we realize a couple of things. 
We are going to fall to the depths. 
God is inviting us to His side constantly. 
We can’t make it on our own, but Jesus can carry us there. 
We have to give up our own efforts and except His help.
We have to trust his way is the best way. 
Then, we have to jump into that expanse knowing he will catch us

I am sinner, and I say to you, my fellow sinners, the only way is Jesus.  Receive the grace he offers.  Pray and pray until you are free from the demons of self-loathing, blame, and rugged individualism.  God’s favor can’t be earned but it can be received.  So, we open our hearts, and we receive grace by asking Jesus in.  The call of discipleship soon follows.

AMEN

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Pain

Pain
            I had a periodontal procedure.  #cringealert!! 
The periodontist scraped flesh off the roof of my mouth and then grafted it onto my receding gums.  I had the same procedure in 2007.  That was long enough ago and it worked well enough that I only remembered the success, not the pain.  This past fall, I had procedure, and it didn’t quite work.  So I had to have it again just a little less than two weeks ago.  Let me tell you, right now, the pain is very present.
            I had visions of using this as a season of spiritual discipline.  I knew what I was getting into and I hoped the throbbing on the roof of my mouth would push me deeper into prayer.  That has happened – a little.  I have prayed more lately.  The throbbing has also pushed me to codeine and ibuprofen and lots of it.  
            Philip Yancey and Paul Brand wrote a great book called The Gift of Pain.  Pain is a messenger.  It tells the body something is wrong.  The thing that hurts the lepers Dr. Brand worked with in India was lack of pain or feeling of any kind.  Numbness in their extremities prevented these poor people from realizing their hand was burning in a fire or being gnawed by a rodent or becoming infected from a wound.  Small injuries festered until digits fell off because of a lack of an alert system – pain!
            Our nation has been awakened by one of our “pain-induced alert systems” – the pain of our citizens of color who have been abused and murdered by the police who are supposed to protect and serve.  Ferguson and the backlash; Staten Island and Eric Garner; Cleveland and Tamir Rice; and now Baltimore and Freddie Gray; each case is an instance of societal pain.  Are we in America nearing some kind of tipping point?
            Do whites in America (people like me) feel this pain?  Middle class whites can pretend that these stories are not relevant to them.  But we are all part of the human race.  If a person’s skin color or income or zip code makes him feel immune to this pain and thus renders him indifferent to the situation, he is like that leper who cannot feel his numb fingers as rabid rats chew on them.  The screams of pain from persecuted communities will eventually bring serious hurt to us all. 
            We need to react to the alerts the pain is sending.  We need to pull our hand away from that which bites or burns it.  We need to see that when unarmed people are targeted and killed just because of their skin color, it hurts us all.  We need to link black arm in white arm.  We need to stand shoulder to shoulder, brother to brother, and sister to sister.  We need confront injustice in tangible ways: law enforcement injustice; educational inequality; lack of economic opportunity.  We need to say a resounding no to it all.
            I know how clich├ęd this all sounds.  I know how easy it is to sit at my keyboard and type.  I know how hard it is to transfer these true but tired bromides from wishful thinking into real action.  I don’t exactly know how to do it.
            So, I am starting with what someone else is doing.  May 9 is the Million Mom March on Washington (http://www.mothersforjusticeunited.org/p/march3.html).  I know I am not a mom, but I ache for those who have lost their children because their children happened to be African American and caught in the path of the wrong policemen.
            There are thousands of good men and women who are officers of the law.  One of my best friends in the world going back to when I was 13 is a law enforcement officer.  I trust him to be fair and honest, and I hurt for all the honest cops whose names and reputations have been tarnished by the actions of a few of their racist, bullying peers.   So many law enforcement officials are heroes who would put their lives on the line to protect the public – everyone in the public.  But, a few bad apples have inflicted enormous pain on America.
            And it is more than a few bad apples.  The bad apples are able to ruin the bunch because our system in America is set up to advantage one group and hold back another.  The strongholds that perpetuate this evil are systemic. 
Systemic racism is also aided by the lazy, cowardly silence from people like me – middle class whites not interested enough to get involved.  But to ignore the problem is to turn my back on Jesus.  When Jesus Christ died on the cross, he numbered himself with the abused and the disenfranchised of society.  Where was Jesus when death visited Freddy?  And Tamir?  And Eric?  And Michael?  And Trayvon?  With nail holes in his hands, he wrapped his arms around them and continues to wrap his arms around their families and the communities afflicted by our 21st century manifestation of racism.
            I cannot call myself his follower and then now follow.  He stands with the victim.  So too must I.  On May 9th, I will march because I feel the pain.  I am part of the body and I feel the creeping of the infection – the infection of violent racism.  I cannot ignore the pain nor I can I turn a deaf hear to the wailing of mothers in mourning, nor can I pretend my Lord has not commanded me to step forth.  I must join in.

I pray you will join me.  If you have plans this Saturday, change them.  Come march, and add your voice to chorus singing for justice, equality, and love.  Come, be part of a new declaration.  Be part of the moment when America declared racism would lose its voice in the 21st century.