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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Hope, Riches, and Power

Hope, Riches, and Glorious Power

          No, this is not an election slogan from Donald Trump’s campaign. 
The title here comes from Ephesians chapter 1.  I believe God is in the process of reminding the people of HillSong Church of this specific promise and I believe God will show us how we receive the promised blessings as we live our lives here and now as individual believers and as a church family.
How did I arrive at thoughts about promises from God?
          Shortly after Easter this year, I was thinking about our church and I felt a little directionless.  That’s not where you want the pastor to be.  I talked to different people in the church, sought opinions, prayed, and pondered about how God would lead us forward.  As I discussed it with my wife Candy she recalled a Bible study group she was in that prayed scripture, specifically Ephesians 1.  She suggested I do that.
          As I considered our church's identity as the body of Christ and my role in it, I prayed the words of this chapter from the Bible.  I invited the elders to join me in this prayer.  We titled this season of prayer “Wisdom and Revelation Prayer” from verse 17 which says, I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him.”  For a few months, the church leaders prayed this chapter, seeking God’s wisdom, hoping for revelation. 
          This process flowed into an idea for our entire church – a seven-week period of recapturing a vision for who God is calling us to be and what God is calling us to do.  The pastoral staff along with the elders and the deacons continue to pray the words of Ephesians 1.  Now, we ask you, the church family, to join us in this.  And beginning October 11 and running through November 22, in sermons and group discussions our church will think about, pray about, imagine, and step into God’s vision for us for the next 5 years.
          When I say, “Vision,” it doesn’t mean I can see the future.  It is more of my sense of a road we are on and a sense of where that road is headed.  I don’t know all that will happen.  But, I trust what God says in the Bible, in this case specifically Ephesians 1:17.  Our HillSong prayers are for the same things Paul sought for the Ephesians, “that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”
          In some ways, we live into these promises by continuing to grow in what we are already doing.  This includes creating an atmosphere of welcome and love, sending people off on mission, small groups in which people spend life together, and trips where we partner with churches in other parts of our community or other parts of the world to announce the Kingdom of God.  Moreover, we will restart past ministries, like the Dental Bus.  And there will be new partnerships and new ministries.  All of it will enrich us in the Spirit as we walk in the power of God.
          The vision, the prayer, the promises, all of it is our life and is within our reach because of who we are in Christ.  “[God] has put all things under [Jesus’] feet and has made him the head over all things for [HillSong Church],23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

          I am excited about this time of dreaming and looking into the future God has for us.  Please pray Ephesians 1 and share with me your hopes for our church as we get ready for the way God will shape us so that we can answer his call on us.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Comforted and Strengthened (2 Thessalonians 2:1-17)

          I was around 30 or so and had been a senior pastor for just a few years.  One of the elderly women in our church died and I had preached her funeral.  Her family appreciated the way things went.  So they called me a few months later.  One of her distant relatives, someone who did not have a pastor, was in a coma.  They were considering taking him off life support but they wanted to talk to me first. 
Something occurred to me this week as I remember that time 15 years ago.  It did not occur to me then, but it struck me this past week.  The man was young – only 48.  I was not so dense at age 30 that I thought 48 was “old.”  I was not foolish to think, ‘OK, he lived a good life.’ But it didn’t register with me that 48 is young.  I am now 45 years old.  Forty-eight seems young now.  He was 48 and his wife had to make the agonizing decision to take him off life support and sit with him as he died.  She wanted a pastor present.  She hoped I could offer meaning and make sense of what was taking place. 
I don’t know if I was of any help to her.  She was not part of our church family, so I did not see her after I preached her husband’s funeral.  Often people will turn to pastors, even people who have never been in church, when questions of mortality and ultimate meaning arise and they have no resources to answer such questions. 
The two questions facing us are (1) what bad news or misfortune hits with such devastation that we find ourselves at such a loss and so disoriented or overwhelmed that it would indeed be a crisis?  What losses in life knock us flat on our backs?  Your answer will be different than the person a few rows behind or even the person sitting next to you.  Maybe some of us have been through such a devastating crisis are in the middle of one. 
Syrian refugees are in the midst of life-changing events and indeed a life and death struggle.  In our own community, families locked in poverty face agonizing decisions that could render them homeless and maybe even tear their families apart.  And even families who are in relatively safe communities and have financial means, are middle class or higher, face personal crises that potentially bring suffering and loss.  What is the danger you face or I face?  That is the first question.
The second is what resources do you or I have to stand as the looming shadow of the approaching threat grows and threatens to swallow us?  What do we have that enables us not only to survive the threat, but to thrive in the face of it?  Jesus did not just promise he would get us through, help us survive.  He offered more.  He offers abundant life.  When faced with the death of a loved one at too young an age or the myriad struggles that come with poverty or the trail of tears refugees must walk or some other crisis, what gets us through and helps us joyfully thrive even in dark times?
We approach 2 Thessalonians 2 through these questions because of the first two verses.  We beg you brothers and sisters … do not be quickly alarmed as if the day of the Lord has already come (paraphrase).  The Thessalonian Church members accepted that persecution would come.  They would suffer because they chose to follow Jesus.  That was the course they had chosen.  That was not their crisis.  The letter does not specifically identify the source of the persecution.  It could have come from many corners.  Whatever the source, there were enemies opposing the preaching of Jesus in Thessalonica. 
The crisis came in continued speculation and confusion about when the risen Jesus would return, bring history to an end, judge the word, and usher in the Kingdom of God.  Even though this question had been directly addressed in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 5, confusion and concern over it persisted.  In fact, the people were very alarmed.  Their faith was beginning to crack not because of persecution but because of doubt.  Did Jesus come and did they miss it? 
Our crisis is not theirs but in our church as in their church, doubt comes when we get blindsided by some major problem threatens the vibrant relationship we have with God, and robs us of the joy we have in Christ.  The promise to that ancient church remains for us preserved in this letter. 
We see the specific issue for the Thessalonians beginning in verse 3.  Before the Day of the Lord comes, there will be a rebellion led by the lawless one.  This lawless one is called the beast in the book of Revelation.  In 1st and 2nd John, the term used is antichrist.  That term, ‘antichrist,’ is only recorded in two books in the Bible – 1st John and 2nd John.  Lawless one, beast, and antichrist – do these terms refer to specific individuals?  Are they each ways of identifying the same individual?
James Efird who taught at Duke Divinity School points out that because Paul did not specifically identify this person it is futile to try to do so.[i]  Paul felt the lawless one would be active soon, within a decade of his writing.  And, the Roman Emperor Domitian would have fit the bill as his persecution of Christians in the last decade of the first century AD did make things hard for Christians.  Abraham Mallherbe believes Paul was not identifying a specific enemy of God but rather had in mind an end-times “personification of lawlessness, the ultimate representative of those in whom lawlessness comes to expression.”[ii]
We could fill in names.  Hitler was the antichrist, the lawless one.  Osama Bin Laden is who Paul meant.  Or maybe today, the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the one.  When he’s off the seen another enemy of humanity will come along.  The point is evil is in the world right now.
God has already won the final battle.  That happened when Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world and then rose from the grave.  Those two events are inseparable.  Taken together, we see what God has won – our freedom from death and sin.  There is no final battle coming. 
However, the news of the victory has not yet made it throughout the world.  So for the time being, we live as people who have the Holy Spirit, are saved, born again, and are called to be heralds announcing the life people can have in Christ.  We have this truth and the mission to which we are called in the midst of a world where there is pain and suffering.  Evil has been defeated but not yet sentenced to eternal death.  In this interim period between resurrection and second coming, we live in the tension of the eternal power of God and the present reality of evil, suffering, and death. 
The Lawless One of 2 Thessalonians 2 represents the reality that evil is in the world.  We have to live within that reality.  This chapter falls in with a style of writing called apocalyptic.  This style uses fantastic images as an artistic way of describing God’s activity within human history.  Many reader mistakenly see in apocalyptic writing a script or a forecast of the end times.  It doesn’t actually work that way.  The book of Daniel, Matthew 24 & 25, and the book of Revelation are examples of apocalyptic writings.  In each case, the thing to catch is the promise of God described in poetic images.
Again, Professor Efird on the lawless one in 2 Thessalonians: “given the symbolic nature of apocalyptic thinking, it is possible that Paul did not have anyone or anything in mind as this “man of lawlessness.”  It appears that he speaks again in traditional symbolic imagery to describe a scene he does not know how to depict with specifics.  Paul always realized, as some others have not, that the future belongs to God and will be worked out by God.”[iii]
The urging in 2 Thessalonians is that the church not be shaken by rumors or lies or threats.  Whomever or whatever power opposes God and injures God’s people will wilt before the force of Jesus.  Verse 8, “The Lord Jesus will destroy [the lawless one] with the breath of his mouth, annihilating him by the manifestation of his coming.”
Of course this promise raises a more immediate concern.  It is wonderful to think that one day Jesus will come and conquer evil and death will no longer threaten nor will anything else.  We can count on that.  But what about between then and now?  Remember, we began with two questions: (1) what crises threaten us?  And (2) what helps faces these threats?  So, we say, great!  One day Jesus will come and defeat evil.  But what about today?  How do we live under threats to world security and safety, the threat of disease and death, and the specter of destructive behaviors and relationships that fall apart and leave us defeated and heartbroken? 
I have not mentioned Satan, this morning.  Verse 9 says the lawless one and Satan are affiliated with each and they use “all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception” in the destruction of the lives of men and women.  Satan’s works are made manifest in antichrists and lawless men and women.  We don’t see the devil, but forces of evil are real and active.  We see the results of their malevolence when we fall prey to temptation and step off the path of discipleship and onto the way that leads away from God.
This takes different forms in each person’s life.  Evil is extraordinarily individual.  What tempts you has no allure for me.  What leads me into sin wouldn’t be snare for you at all.  In the promises of this passage, what help do have that enables us to repel these threats and live an abundant life in Christ?  What assurance do we have for today?
In 2 Thessalonians 1:3-5, we see the potentially redemptive character of persecution and the concomitant suffering.  As we endure and keep our eyes on God, we receive his blessing and direct the attention of our persecutors to Him.  Paul prays for God’s grace for the church.  Today people in the church pray for each other and God answers with encouragement and transformation.  God’s Holy Spirit is with us.  It is God himself with us that gets us through our trials.  Through our suffering, God can actually work for good.  I don’t believe God causes suffering, but I do believe God works in it.
In 2 Thessalonians 2, that same Holy Spirit is said to sanctify us.  Just as the forces of evil conspire to tempt us into causing our ruin, the Holy Spirit God is at work in us, making more God-like.  Sanctification is a fancy word that means we become holy.  And as the closing verses the chapter reaffirm, this is not something we accomplish but a work God does in us.  We are told, “stand firm and hold fast to the tradition of faith,” but immediately after that instruction we see that our Lord Jesus Christ and God the Father both comfort and strengthen us (from 2:15-17).  The fullness of God – each person of the Trinity - stands by us with the Spirit makes us more like God and less prone to sin, and the Son and Father comfort us so that our suffering is muted and our blessing multiplied and strengthens so we can stay faithful when tempted and tested.
What temptation do you face or what trial are you suffering through at this moment in your life?  Whatever the answer, we have a promise.  God is with us in it.  With our focus on him, even trials will become the grounds on which our faith is honed and enlarged and we find ourselves in the joy of the Lord instead of the clutches of the enemy. 
May our Lord Jesus Christ … carry us into every good work and word.

[i] J. Efird (2006), Left Behind: What the Bible Really Says about the End Times, Smith & Helwys (Macon, GA), p.51
[ii] A. Malherbe (2000), First and Second Thessaloians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, Doubleday (New York), p.431-432.
[iii] Efird, p.51.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Raise Your “Hope Levels” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11)

Sunday, September 13, 2015

          I have no idea what my cholesterol level is.  I don’t know what a healthy level is.  I went to the doctor last month and my cholesterol was checked and I don’t even know the result was.  I think if I had a real cholesterol problem I would pay a lot more attention to it.
          The Christians in Thessalonica were thriving as a church, but they had a problem and it was not a cholesterol problem.  They were not worried about levels that were too high, but rather too low.  Their hope was threatened.
We’ve been studying the Thessalonian church and the letters Paul wrote to it in order to glean ideas for our church’s spiritual health.  We see the two letters, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians as a prescription for life.  The doctor’s prescription is to read 1st Thessalonians, 2nd Thessalonians, and Acts 17, the account of Paul beginning the church in that city.  Read and re-read these texts, making sure you pray as you read and listen with a focused, receptive mind.
          Along with the prescription is a therapy plan.  This is not physical therapy, but it is analogous.  It is a spiritual exercise, a discipline.  We come to worship ever week, even when we don’t want to come.  We come and are fully present in the family of God, the church, when we gather for worship.  Make this time with your church family a top priority. 
In addition to the prescription and the spiritual exercise plan, last week, we received last week two diagnoses.  First, enter into deep relationships in the life of the church family, so deep that we take ownership of one another’s hearts; and, second, be mindful of the lurking enemy, the devil, who wants to snatch us out of God’s embrace.  In a few weeks, we’ll look a bit closer at this threat.  This morning, we’re going to hear about specific aspect of health that is essential for all of us – hope. 
One important feature of the earliest Christians, those who came to follow Jesus in the first couple of decades after the resurrection, is their expectation.  It is an expectation that’s profoundly different from what Christians expect today.  Those first believers in the Jerusalem Church and the churches of Galatia and Antioch and in Thessalonica thought they would live to see Jesus return.  They literally did not expect to die. 
We do.  We buy cemetery plots and we plan for our funerals.  We have life insurance plans.  We have wills – instructions for what to do with our assets after we die.  These are means of preparation for something we absolutely expect to happen.  I have yet to meet a person who lived as if she thought Jesus would come back before she died.  And nearly 2000 years of history have shown the wisdom of this shift in expectation.
When Paul wrote 1st Thessalonians, the shift was in the midst of happening.  We see from his words how his own expectations were adjusting to the reality that Jesus was indeed going to return, but as an unknown future date that very well might be after he – Paul – had died.  He had to adjust his thinking and so did the Thessalonians. 
A paradigm shift is always a crisis.  Listen to this definition of crisis: “stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for better or for worse, is determined; turning point.”  A second definition is a “condition of instability.”[i]  The Thessalonians had lost their loved ones, and they believed those who had died would miss the coming of Jesus.  A beloved grandmother; a best friend; a spouse of many years; a child who died of a disease: they would all miss the kingdom of God when Jesus returned to reign as Lord over all the earth because they were dead and buried.  Reflecting upon this, the Thessalonians’ hope was dangerously low.
Recall the key virtues of discipleship Paul said Timothy had mentioned.  From chapter 1 verse 3, he remembers the Thessalonians work of faith, labor of love, and steadfastness of hope.  These same virtues, ordered differently, come at the end of “the love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13.  “Faith, hope, and love remain and the greatest of these is love.”  But, the other two, faith and hope, are extremely important for a follower Jesus.  From 1st Thessalonians 1, we know the church had hope, but the glaring deficiency in their witness was the way hope was in decline.
Paul addresses this directly and at the same time gently.  He tells the Thessalonians he’s going to inform them so they won’t grieve in the way those who have no hope grieve (4:13).  He doesn’t specify who he means when he says, ‘those who have no hope,’ and we gain nothing by trying to identify them either then or now.  The focus is on the Thessalonians and on anyone who is in Christ.   We who are in Christ have hope.
Paul goes on to talk about resurrection with the promise that at Jesus’ return the dead in Christ will rise (end of 4:16) and meet him in the air and then we who are alive will also be part of that meeting.  The Thessalonians are free to grieve.  It is hard to see someone we love die.  Death is God’s ultimate enemy and our Heavenly Father who loves us weeps with us when we mourn the passing of our loved ones.  God remembers God’s own tears at the death of the Father’s Son, Jesus.  God identifies with us in our grief and allows space for that grief.  But it is not a hopeless grief.
In fact, Paul’s message to the Thessalonians is hope producing.  Jesus is coming back!  Your departed loved ones will rise to be with him.  If you are alive at his return, you too will be at that meeting in the air.  Paul concludes his thoughts by saying, “Encourage one another with these words.”  As we have discussed in previous messages, his love for the Thessalonians ran very deep.  In this teaching on resurrection, he wants their hope to match this wellspring of love and tireless faith. 
In the opening of chapter 5, Paul reiterates a teaching that originated in the very first community around Jesus from the days just before the crucifixion and then was circulated through the first churches in the decade after the resurrection.   Jesus gives this lesson himself.  Read Mark 13 or Matthew 24.  After the resurrection, Jesus will ascend and the age of the church will dawn and in God’s timing Jesus will return to gather all who have worshiped him to God to live in the eternal Kingdom of God in perfect fellowship with God and each other. 
The key for today’s lesson and for Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5 is the phrase “in God’s time.”  Jesus said, we won’t know when.  Jesus said that in the incarnation, when he lived his earthly life, even he didn’t know the times of God’s restoration of the earth (Matthew 24:36).  But he did know it would come.  Paul’s primary lesson in 1 Thessalonians 5 is “Keep awake” (vss 6-8).  Live a spiritually alert life.
The good news is we have been given the tools we need to do this.  It is one thing for the Bible to give an instruction.  But can we obey it?  Are we able?  In verse 8 it says we have spiritual armor to equip us – the breastplate of faith and love, and the helmet of the hope of salvation.  There those three essentials are together again: faith, love, and hope. 
Something important to note in 1 Thessalonians 5:8 is an observation from noted New Testament Scholar Beverly Roberts Gaventa.  She writes the Greek, the original language of Thessalonians, says in verse 8 “since we belong to the day,” in other words, because we are in Christ, we are already clothed with the breastplate of love and faith and the helmet of hope.  My favorite English version, the NRSV, misstates this verse.  When it says, “Put on” the armor it sounds like this is something we are supposed to do.
The verse is not saying that at all.  In this verse Paul builds on 4:13 where he promised to inform the grieving Thessalonians whose hope was fleeting.  In essence he says, because of Christ, you are already clothed in faith, love, and hope. We don’t have achieve these things.  We just live in what we’ve been given.  And the root of our hope is that we and our loved ones will join Christ in resurrection. 
So today, faith, hope, and love mark our lives and mark our communal life.  People in the world desperately need these things so it is with faith, hope, and love that we build one another up and encourage those from outside the church who come in to see what’s happening here.  Paul concludes this section of chapter 5 the same way he ended chapter 4.  “Encourage one another and build up each other.” 
A key to maintaining high levels of hope is for us to remind each other.  We’ve had two deaths of long-time church members this summer:  John Charles and Donna Allgood.  These losses hit those members who were especially to one or the other of these two particularly hard. In a patient, gentle way that allows space for grief, we gather round those who are really hurting and sit with them and remind them of who we are in Christ and encourage them.  If today, I am the encourager, tomorrow, I may be down, depressed, unable to see hope. I will need you to encourage me.  It is communal.  Our hope is dependent upon the promises of God and living in those promises within the community of faith.  And this means of maintaining high levels of hope by living in the armor God has already given and encouraging one another applies in all areas of life, not only where there is grief over one who has died. 
To that situation there is a unique question that always comes up.  Is the one who died asleep now?  Is the one who died with Jesus now?  My own reading of the New Testament does not give me definitive answers to these questions, but I do see indicators that I find very helpful. 
When Jesus was raised, that was not a resuscitation.  Resuscitated people are in bodies that will eventually die.  In resurrection, we cannot die.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15, we are changed.  Our bodies go through a transformation.  He says we put on immortality and imperishability (v.52-4). 
That resurrected body is physical.  When Jesus was raised, the women at the tomb were able to grab him (Matthew 28:9).  With the Emmaus Road disciples, he took bread in his and broke it (Luke 24:30).  He ate fish (Luke 24:42-43), and invited Thomas to touch him (John 20:27).  The resurrected body is a physical body.  And those who followed Jesus recognized him and re-established fellowship with him. 
All these stories would have been known in the first churches when Paul arrived in Thessalonica.  This was part of his preaching.  When he said, “Resurrection,” they knew what he meant.  They would be raised in bodies that could not be harmed or killed and they would be reunited with those they loved who preceded them death.  That promise holds for us.
Furthermore, Paul says in 1st Thessalonians 4:14, “God will bring with him those who have died.”  The actual way of saying it is “those who have fallen asleep.”  At this great event, the second coming of Jesus at which time the New Heaven and the New Earth will join together and the Kingdom of God will be fully inaugurated, the dead will already be with God.
I think that means that right now Donna’s soul, John Charles’ soul, Ellie Bevington’s soul, Vola Louder’s soul is with God.  In what form, I cannot say.  But when I read “God will bring with him those who have died,” to me it says those who have already died, and died in Christ, are with God.  They are with the Lord – Father, Son, Holy Spirit. 
Paul comforted the Thessalonians by assuring them their deceased loved ones would share in the resurrection.  Paul comforts us by indicating our deceased loved ones are with Jesus and will be reunited with us in the resurrection in the eternal Kingdom of God.  Living in the hope this provides we are armed with faith, hope, and love to be a community of encouragement where it is OK to grieve.  But our grief is always soaked in joy because we know God is with us in the Holy Spirit and our future is with the Lord and with everyone we have loved who also follows Jesus.  With our hope level high we are able to live out the joy of the Kingdom even here and now.


Sunday, September 6, 2015

Two-Part Diagnosis (1 Thessalonians 3:1-13)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

          Have you ever noticed how much an issue changes when it involves a personal relationship?  This hit me quite drastically many years ago.  I felt pretty confident about my views on immigration.  Then I discovered that one of my closest friends in the world was at that time in the United States illegally.  He entered with a visa and then stayed for years after it expired.  All of a sudden this was no longer a question of undocumented workers or illegal aliens.  This was my brother, Juan[i].  When I discovered his status, did I drop him as a friend?  Was he no longer Juan? 
          More recently, this sense of perspective-shifting has come again in the debates swirling around same sex marriage.  I have good friends who are gay and in relationships.  No matter how one feels about the issue, I still love my friends.  I love Morton.[ii]  No one outside my family has been my friend longer than him.  When he decided to come out of the closet, he called me.  We lived in different states at the time, and he felt he had to tell me.  It was awkward, no doubt.  But, he shared it with me.
I love Morton.  I love Juan.  At a certain level, an important level, it is not about homosexuality or immigration.  It is about my friends.  It is about Morton and Juan, people I love.
          This is because God made us to be relational. Theologians contemplate the 3-in-1 nature of God, the trinity.  Many have come to the conclusion that God is inherently relational.  Father-Son-Holy Spirit exist in an eternal relationship of perfect love and mutuality.  This certainly defies our understanding because we read the New Testament and see each person of the Trinity to be distinct.  Yet we see each is God and not three separate gods, but each is fully God – the one and only God.  Fully understanding this is beyond the capacity of the human mind. 
But even in our limited understanding it is important to recognize that God is relational.  This is as crucial a trait of God any we could name.  We say it is crucial to say God is transcendent and all-knowing and all-powerful.  I think it is just as necessary to say God is relational.  Genesis 1 says God made human beings in God’s own image.  Thus, we are relational.  It doesn’t matter if someone is shy and appreciate solitary time or someone is social butterfly with loads of friends.  We are all made for intimate relationships. 

I am going to do something when I finish today that I have never had a physician.  We are in the middle of a series in which we talk about a prescription for living life in Christ; this prescription works for both individuals and churches.  As I conclude today, I will step out of the metaphor and do something doctors are not expected to do, but pastors are.
I know many doctors are Christians and have done this, but in my years of visiting people in hospitals and in my own doctor’s appointments, I have never had a doctor end his or her time with me by suggesting we pray together.  This morning we will see in 1st Thessalonians chapter 3 the importance of relationship.  That’s the first diagnosis.  We are made for relationship.  Then we will look as the second part of the diagnosis.  It is a caution.  We need to heed this warning.  After the two diagnoses, I’ll pray. 

Relationships: simply hear the words of Paul in 1 Thessalonians 3.
When I could bear it no longer, I sent to find out about your faith; I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain.
Timothy has just now come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love. He has told us also that you always remember us kindly and long to see us—just as we long to see you.
How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? 10 Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.

Paul’s deep love for the people who make up the churches he has planted is expressed in vivid color in the letters he writes.  This is especially evident in 1st Thessalonians.  Chapter 3 begin with Paul making the decision to part with Timothy.  Paul would remain, alone, in Athens.  He felt orphaned by the loneliness but he did it because he wanted Timothy to travel to Thessalonica so he could find out about how the church was doing.  When Timothy came back to Athens with a good report, Paul was thrilled. 
He says in verse 6 that Timothy delivered good news.  The word he uses is derived from the same root as the word Gospel.  Gospel means good news.  When Paul heard that the Thessalonians were doing well in the faith and were concerned about him, he felt that was Gospel truth: good news!  More than anything, the relationships were what mattered to Paul.
Church is meant to be a place of relationships.  I often to refer to us as brothers and sisters in Christ.  In some churches they actually call each other ‘brother’ and ‘sister.’  I have never developed that habit.  It just feels weird to me to speak that way.  But even though I have not adopted the lingo, that is how I feel.  We are family – an eternal family linked by love. 
I know that in church someone will do something you don’t like.  He may do many things you don’t like.  Her personality may grate on you.  You see her walk in the room and you cringe and inch toward the door.  What I am proposing here is that in spite the imperfections and it has plenty, and in spite of the flawed people who make up the church and we are all flawed, we are each called to fully invest our hearts in the family.  I don’t see any New Testament model of someone attending church in a casual, non-committed kind of way.  There are no nominal Christians.  And Christianity is not a solitary venture. 
Paul felt the deepest of connections with the Thessalonian church.  We are called to enter this church family in the same way.  And if this is your first time among us or you have been visiting recently, I want you to know what we’re all about.  You don’t have to conform to some image or expectation to be among us.  We invite you in as you are with the hope that you will join your heart with ours.  We will worship God together.  We will confess our sins together.  We will celebrate one another’s baptisms together.  We will grieve together.  We will eat the bread and the take cup together.  The only way we know how to do church is with God as a Father and us as one another’s brothers and sisters. 
This deep feeling of connection is why Paul was nearly paralyzed with worry for the Thessalonians and with grief at being separated from them.  Simply put, he loved them.  So when he heard from Timothy that they were thriving as disciples, nothing could make him happier.  That’s how much we belong to each other.

The second part of the diagnosis this morning comes in the form of a warning.  We’ve been told that God is relational and for us to live as God intended we must see relationships as our top priority.  Our church must be built on the relationships that are fueled by self-giving, agape love.  There is a threat and Paul names it in verse 5.  “I was afraid that somehow the tempter had tempted you and that our labor had been in vain.” 
In the previous chapter Paul said Satan was who prevented him from coming to the Thessalonians (2:18).  We know that it was a combination of political and religious opposition.  We could point to human causes.  But we also know from Paul’s letters, especially Ephesians 6, that underneath any human opposition to the success of the Gospel, Paul saw the workings of demons and the fallen angel, the evil who opposes God at every turn.  In 1st Thessalonians 2 he is Satan.  In chapter 3, this enemy is called the tempter.  In 2nd Thessalonians 2, he is the power that drives the “Lawless One.”
Paul fears that the Tempter would uses human forces to undermine the worship and community in the Thessalonian church to the point that the church would dissolve.  For Paul, no death would hurt any more than this.  Nothing could be worse.  Upon hearing Timothy’s good report, he says in verse 8, ‘we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord.’
Seventeen years ago, I was in church that was renting space to another congregation.  That congregation was made of Roma Christians – gypsies.  There was a bit of a conflict that the Gypsies were having with other Gypsies in the area.  Threats of violence were made.  The leaders in the English congregation, the group that owned the building and thus had the power felt it would be prudent to avoid getting in the middle of this.  They wanted to avoid any trouble for themselves.  So they told the Gypsies who were worshipping in their building they had to leave.
It felt like a death.  As the pastor, I had to tell the Gypsy pastor they had to go.  I felt like the knife was in my hands and dripping red.  The look on his face – I can still see it and still feel convicted by it.  Why was it so easy for those Christians in the English-speaking church so easily shove another community of believers out the door and into the street?  They could do it because they didn’t feel any sense of relationship.  It was all about the security of the building for them.  The Gypsies were ‘that church,’ not ‘our church.’  The people were ‘them,’ not ‘us.’ 
As I reflect this event that has haunted me all these years, I think my reading of 1st Thessalonians 3 puts it in fresh light.  The English-speaking Christians, people I still deeply love, did not connect relationally with the Gypsies, people I also love.  That sense of belonging to one another so evident in Paul’s words in Thessalonians was not there. 
The tempter stepped into that relationship void.  The devil used fear – a perceived threat, not even a real one.  That fear was enough to get the Gypsies kicked out.  For their part, the Gypsies had up to that point found it very hard to find a church that would welcome them.  In their discouragement, the people of the church went their separate ways.  The devil used fear with one congregation and discouragement with another to kill one church and neuter the other.  It never could have happened if the two congregations joined with one another the heart level.  If they felt that they belonged to one another, they would have stood together in faith and faced any threat that came along. 
When Paul says he’s afraid the tempter would render his work to be done vain and would do so by killing the church, he means it.  I have witnessed first-hand this happen in real life.
So then is the moral of the story that we all need to love one another with great intensity and invest our hearts fully here at HillSong?  Yes!  That’s it.
But then, if you have been here any length of time, you know we are already doing that.  In the past 12 months, the work of the Lord in this place has expanded greatly as now on Sunday afternoons a Spanish-speaking church meets under Pastor Lucio’s leadership.  Also on Sunday afternoons, a Karen-speaking church meets in here under Pastor Kerpaw Htee’s leadership.  And we each belong to each other. 
In a sense, what I am doing in holding us up alongside the Thessalonian church and Paul’s letter to them is I am urging us to continue as we are.  Continue being a community of love and welcome that takes full family ownership of each other’s hearts.  Grow in love as an expression of the Gospel and as a guard against the enemy’s evil designs.  Keep on as you are.  And you who are new among us, find out what this community is all about.

With that in mind, I close with that prayer I mentioned earlier. 
May our God and Father himself and our Lord help us increase and abound in love for one another and for all.
May the Lord so strengthen our hearts in holiness that we may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

[i] Name changed. 
[ii] Name changed,

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Pastor in Search of Apologetics


“Reasoned arguments or writings in justification of something, typically a theory or religious doctrine.” 

That is the definition that came up when I typed ‘Apologetics’ into the Google search bar.  Of course apologetics is not saying “I am sorry.”  It is a defense that is rational.  But, the word ‘defense’ sounds very military, as if an attack is coming.  And, the definition Google produced uses the word ‘argument.’
In committing to be witnesses for Christ, does it mean we are entering a battle ground?  Ephesians chapter 6 puts it that way but we need to read that with care.  The fight is in spiritual realms against forces of darkness.  How that fight plays itself out in our experience comes in any number of ways.  It might be a materialist/atheist insisting the natural world is all there is and that God is a myth like the Easter Bunny.  Be it may come in the form of temptation, and usually temptations hit us where we are weakest and least suspecting.  Apologetic approaches are often not helpful in warding off temptations. 
So why raise the issue of apologetics?  Non-church goers already have an unease about evangelical Christians.  Why think of presenting our faith in terms of ‘argument’ and ‘defense? If you are a person who worships at HillSong Church in Chapel Hill, you need to know that in upcoming years I am dedicated to reading heavily in the area of apologetics.  Here is why. 
Besides the fact that I find it incredibly fascinating, I am aware of our ministry context: UNC hospital; major universities (NCCU, UNC, Duke, NC State); Research Triangle Park; our state capital.  We are located as the vortex of knowledge and power not just in North Carolina, but our place in North Carolina draws researchers and investors from all over the world.  Leaders in science and business (especially the pharmaceutical industry) are here.  Walking down the street, you never know who you will meet.  Are you prepared to explain why the best way life can be lived is in a relationship with God in Christ?  Are you equipped to answer if someone asks how Christianity could possibly be true?
That is one piece.  I want to be ready to give a grounded, evidentially supported case for my Christian worldview.  And as my base of knowledge expands, I am asking God to help me pass on what I learn to people in my church.  I want HillSong members to be prepared to enter conversations.  I don’t mean seek out arguments or to win them.  This is not about outsmarting anyone.  I am in the process of trying to become grounded in apologetics and leading our church to be grounded in apologetics so that we sound like we know what we’re saying.  Maybe your neighbor is a hard and fast atheist.  Fine, he has the right to think that way.  But does his worldview make sense?  Can you explain the conclusion that there is a God and we can meet that God in His Son, God incarnate, the resurrected Jesus Christ?  When he counters with an argument that sounds convincing and makes the resurrection sound impossible, are you prepared to respond back to him with a rational presentation?  And by the way, saying “I believe it and the Bible says so,” is not going to work because belief is not evidence and your atheist neighbor does not take the Bible as the authoritative word of God. 
The rational presentation of the faith matters.  A second piece is the experience of so many people who come to HillSong.  We have bridge-builders and construction foremen and fix-it-men; these folks like to know how things work.  Some are content, when it comes to faith, to just accept the mystery.  But many would find their faith enriched it they were equipped with a deeper, more evidence-based foundation for why we say the things we say about the Lordship of Christ.
We have in our church family physicians and chemists and pharmacists and biologists.  They possess immense knowledge about the workings of the body.  How does their work and their expertise enhance their faith, and how does their faith fill their work?  I think apologetic-thinking (that is, celebrating the natural world as God’s creation and harmonizing that knowledge with theological considerations) is the crossroads where intellect and faith meet.  Each compliments the other.
Maybe you work in a lab and your coworker, an accomplished PhD like yourself is astounded that you waste time going to church.  She wonders why a skilled scientist like you believes in a superstition like Christianity.  Can you show how your faith and your dedication to science go hand-in-hand?  Can you articulate that?

My goal is to learn to articulate meaningful, rock-solid answers to these types of questions and then to teach our church family how to have and pass on these potent answers for the faith.  Pray for me on this quest.  And join me.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Kudos for Pope Francis

I am a pastor, a Protestant pastor.  I would consider myself an evangelical.  I don’t have a lot of history with Catholicism.  My tradition is not predisposed to celebrate “the Church.”  I had a reaction inside myself when I saw the new pope on the cover of Christianity Today magazine, and I cannot say that reaction was positive.

Then I started watching what Pope Francis is doing – speaking words of peace, washing the feet of prisoners.  Then I considered a Pope from the 3rd world, one with a fresh perspective.  Then I talked to one of my friends, a missionary, who a few years ago strategized with this man about how to carry the gospel to Argentina and Brazil.  And this was before he was the pope.  My friend, an evangelical through and through, gave a glowing report, commending the man’s character.

Finally, I read the Joy of the Gospel. And what a joy!  Pope Francis’ spirit leaps off the pages.  I found myself reminded about how happy we are to be as Christians.  I am a church leader.  I am supposed to give this message to people in the church.  Here the Pope was giving it to me – filling me, blessing me.

There are points in the book that are particular to Catholics, but that took nothing away from it for me.  I am so happy I read it.  My review is a recommendation – Christians of all stripes, read this books.  Read Pope Francis’ Joy of the Gospel.  You’ll feel the happiness and fulfillment that should come with a true faith in Jesus Christ.  And you’ll long to reach for that faith and for that joy in your own life.