Saturday, April 15, 2006

Jan on the Scandalous Gospel

The New Testament describes the good news of Jesus Christ, the Gospel that a dying Savior Who rises from death in order to give new life to all who dare to follow Him as a skandalon.

The term refers literally, to a bear trap, a snag that will prevent some from following Christ, the One Who calls us to submit to Him and part with our old dependencies on the conventions of a dying world.

Part of the trap consists of the Christian's celebration of good news won in such an ugly way, via execution of God-in-the-flesh on a cross.

Ugly too, is the Gospel's call for us to accept that our sins are what killed Jesus Christ and to accept the need for our old sinful selves to be crucified through repentance so that the new people God wants to help us become may rise with Christ.

Christ calls us to accept that the beauty of Easter morning only comes through the ugliness of Good Friday.

Jan at TheViewfromHer captures this well (and shows again why she's one of my favorite writers blogging):
...Christianity is not a religion simply formed around a wise teacher. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Lose your life to find it. None of these provide the catalyst to launch a world-changing faith. Take up your cross daily - who wants to rally around that? And perhaps more revealingly, Peter, following Pentecost doesn't stand up and declare "I preach this Jesus, who spoke the Beatitudes!"

No, over and over again through the book of Acts, Peter proclaims, "this Jesus, whom you put to death, and who God raised from the dead." The resurrection is the single most significant factor of the Christian faith. It's the reason we come together this weekend, with millions of believers around the world everywhere, to celebrate our "ugly" salvation. Because it is "the Good News that saves you if you firmly believe it...that Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day" (1 Corinthians 15:2-4).

Death isn't the last word anymore. Death has become life. Ugliness becomes beautiful. He is risen. He is risen indeed.

''If more people forgave, maybe there'd be less violence in the streets."

So said one seventeen year old from the Boston area, reacting to a five year old girl, paralyzed by gunshots who, along with her mother, has forgiven the gunman.

This is amazing grace!

(Thanks to Jake of Falter Ego for leading me to this story.)

Chinese Blogger Hao Wu Still Imprisoned

Read about it here. (Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for linking to this piece.) For background information, look here.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Agree or Disagree...

with the two conversational partners, you'll enjoy Charlie Lehardy's An Easter Dialogue. Charlie remains one of the most thoughtful and thought-provoking writers on the web.

Don't You Think the Queen Could Afford a Slightly Larger Gesture of Goodwill?

See here. It reminds me of the old Judean custom of giving Alms on the brink of Passover, discussed here.

Roberts' Holy Week Reflections Most Worth Reading

The incomparable Mark D. Roberts is doing a series of short posts on the last words of Jesus from the cross. Mark's reflections are definitely worth examining.

What Do Mahatma Gandhi, Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein, and C.S. Lewis Have in Common?

Among other things, they all had interesting insights on Jesus Christ. Check out what they all had to say here.

Were You There?

[This is from my colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot. Glen sends out a daily emailed inspiration to which you can subscribe. Information on how to do that can be found at the end of this post.]

Were you there?
Were you there when they crucified our Lord?
Yes, I was there and so were you.
We were there, but not as innocent bystanders.
We were there because Jesus was crucified for us.
If we had no sin, there would be no need for Jesus to die.
But there is sin in our lives.
And we know it!
Yet because of our sin, God looked at us with mercy.
Out of mercy and love God gave his only Son.
Jesus was crucified for us.
Jesus paid the debt that we could not pay.
Were you there when they crucified our Lord?
Yes - and when we think about it, it causes us to tremble.

Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Yes, I was there and so were you.
We were there, but not as innocent bystanders.
Every one of our sins nailed Jesus to the cross.
Every bad thought we have ever had nailed Jesus to the cross.
Every bad word we have ever said nailed Jesus to the cross.
Every bad action we have ever taken nailed Jesus to the cross.
But that is not all
Every good thought we have failed to have nailed Jesus to the cross.
Every good word we have failed to say nailed Jesus to the cross.
Every good action that we have failed to take nailed Jesus to the cross.
Jesus bore this entire weight on his shoulders.
Jesus paid the debt that we could not pay.
Were you there when they nailed Him to the tree?
Yes - and when we think about it, it causes us to tremble.

Were you there when they pierced Him in the side?
Yes, I was there and so were you.
We were there, but not as innocent bystanders.
Jesus was pierced by our every inappropriate thought.
Jesus was pierced by our every harsh word.
Jesus was pierced by our every unkind action.
His blood flowed to wash us clean.
His blood flowed to set us free.
Were you there when they pierced Him in the side?
Yes - and when we think about it, it causes us to tremble.

Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Yes, I was there and so were you.
We were there, but not as innocent bystanders.
For a while darkness had overtaken the world.
Too often we let the darkness over take our lives.
Too often we let the darkness extinguish our hope.
Too often we let the darkness rule.
But the sun did shine again.
At the cross the Son of God has overcome the darkness.
At the cross we have seen the light.
At the cross the burdens of our hearts are rolled away.
Were you there when the sun refused to shine?
Yes - and when we think about it, it causes us to tremble.

Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Yes, I was there and so were you.
We were there, but not as innocent bystanders.
Jesus accepted our punishment.
Jesus paid the debt that we could not pay.
Jesus died in our place.
Jesus died so that we could be forgiven
Jesus died so that we could live.
Were you there when they laid Him in the tomb?
Yes - and when we think about it, it causes us to tremble.

We will also be there at the empty tomb Easter morning.
We will be there as the light shines bright.
We will be there to celebrate our new life.
We will be there to celebrate our freedom.
We will no longer tremble.
Instead we will bend our knee in adoration.
And with our tongues confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Glen VanderKloot

[If you would like to subscribe to Glen's daily inspirations, email him at and put SUBSCRIBE on the subject line. That's all there is to it.]

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Maundy Thursday: How to Be a Servant Even When We Don't Want to Be

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2006.]

John 13:1-17, 31-35

In his fantastic new book, The Journey: How to Live by Faith in an Uncertain World, Billy Graham recounts an incident from his long evangelistic ministry. He and some of the members of his team were invited to a remote and mountainous area of India called Nagaland. As Graham tells it:
Nagaland has one of the largest concentrations of Christians in India...the occasion [for our visit] was the one-hundredth anniversary of the coming of missionaries to that area. Tens of thousands came to the celebration--some walking for days over rough jungle trails. One hundred thousand people, we were told, would be gathering each morning for a Bible study, in addition to the evening evangelistic meetings.
Billy Graham goes on to say:
When we arrived at Government House, where we were to stay, a man unloaded our baggage from the car, then took our shoes to wipe mud off them. I protested, saying we could do that, but he insisted. Only later did I discover that he would be leading the Bible study for those one hundred thousand people the next morning!
“Here,” Billy Graham concludes, “was a man who truly exemplified the attitude of Christ by his humility and his willingness to serve others.”

On the first Maundy Thursday, Jesus, “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself...poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.”

One of those disciples, Peter, had already confessed that Jesus was “the Christ [God’s Anointed One].” And He also confessed Jesus to be “the Son of the Blessed.” That second title indicated that Peter saw that Jesus was one with God the Father.

So, here was God, washing the feet of His disciples, servant’s work, and Peter didn’t like it. You may remember from our Lenten readings and from one of our Wednesday night ‘Soup, Salad, and Servanthood’ discussions the insight of Richard Foster into why Peter didn’t like Jesus crawling around on the floor to wash filthy feet. His initial refusal to let Jesus wash his feet, Foster says, “was an act of veiled pride. Jesus’ service was an affront to Peter’s concept of authority. If Peter had been the master, he would not have washed Jesus’ feet!”

During this Lenten season, we have focused on Jesus’ call to be servants of God and of our neighbors. The logo for these 40-Days to Servanthood is inspired by this incident from that Maundy Thursday when Jesus gave His disciples a command to love others as He had loved them and then showed them that true love and true greatness is about the willingness to serve.

But I have to confess something to you again tonight. It’s something I mentioned at the beginning of this Lenten season and in spite of all our study and prayer, it’s still the way I feel:

I would like to be a servant.

I know that’s Jesus’ way.

I know that a life of service to God and to others is the appropriate response of a person saved from sin and death by Jesus Christ.

I know that I have a place in God’s kingdom because of what Jesus did for me on the cross and because I believe in Jesus.

I know that love so great given so freely deserves my surrender.

But it’s hard to surrender.

As I’ve shared with you before, I identify with George Bailey in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life when he tells his future wife, Mary, “I want to do what I want to do.” In my sinful heart, I’d rather be served than be a servant.

By contrast, on the first Maundy Thursday, on the brink of His suffering and death, with every reason in the world to be turned in on Himself and filled with self-pity, Jesus served His disciples, faced His cross, drew strength from the Father, and commanded each of us to love just like He loves. How do we do that? How can we be servants when everything inside of us and all the warped values of a selfish world fight against it?

First: We admit that both the sin on the inside of us and the selfishness we find so appealing in the world is too big for us to overcome. We admit that while we want to be servants, another part of us doesn’t want that at all. We pray like the man who sought healing for his child from Jesus: “Lord, I do believe; help my unbelief.”

Second: We rely completely on Jesus Christ. A young man in the Boston area is recovering from alcoholism. I’m honored that he reads my web log regularly. About a month ago, he wrote to me to say that he sensed a call to a particular area of service, helping others to recover from their addictions. He said that he sensed this even though he had never been religious and wasn’t even certain what he believed about God. Two weeks ago, he attended worship at an Episcopal church and wrote to tell me afterwards, “I think I’m beginning to get it, Mark.” Just this past week, he made a presentation to some addicts taking their first tentative steps down the path to recovery. He wrote that he was frightened and yet at peace about it. He also said that he was relying on his Higher Power, who I am confident is the Lord Jesus Christ, in Whose strong hands I have also been placing him in my prayers.

So, to be servants when everything inside of us and everything around us tells us to look out for number one, we must first, admit that the call to servanthood is too big for us to meet and second, rely completely on Christ. And there’s a third thing we need to do: We need to dare to serve.

On that night when He was betrayed, sitting with His disciples, Jesus could have simply told them to love.

But Jesus wasn’t one of those, “Do as I say, not do as I do” preachers. He lived the love He commanded.

He not only washed dirty feet and instituted a Sacrament that allows us to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

He also left that room to face kangaroo justice, violent beating, hateful rejection, and a painful death on a cross.

Jesus’ love was more than mere words. He dared to live it. He served. He served each one of us and every member of the human race.

And He calls us to love and serve others in the same way, a fitting response to His love and service, a powerful way to demonstrate what happens when imperfect people like you and me rely on the perfect Christ and let His goodness and power work in us and through us.

The Savior Whose death we will remember tomorrow and Whose rising we will celebrate on Sunday has so much that He wants to accomplish in and through you and me. All of it can happen...
  • when we admit the sin inside us and around us is too big an impediment for us to be servants without His help;
  • when we rely completely on Jesus Christ; and
  • when, fortified by the power of God’s Spirit, Christ’s gift to all believers, we simply dare to serve.

UPDATE: Thanks to Mark Olson of BlogWatch for mentioning this message on his site!

An Easter Letter

Some people tell me, "If only I could see a miracle, I could believe."

Or, despondent over the fact that someone they care about refuses to believe in the risen Christ we proclaim this Easter Sunday, others say, "If only so and so could witness a miracle, they could believe."

Let me tell you a true story. When I was in junior high school, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She was admitted to the hospital one day in order to undergo surgery the next day.

But on the morning of the scheduled procedure, the doctor came by her room. He was mystified. A final round of tests conducted the afternoon before showed no cancer. He didn't understand how this could have happened. But we all did: People had prayed and in the mysterious providence of God, my mother was healed.

I knew all about what had happened and yet within a few short years, I came to consider myself an atheist. I continued to say that there was no God for about eight more years after that.

That's the thing about miracles: They're as subject to questioning and rejection as the statements, "There is a God" or "Jesus is risen from the dead."

To believe in a God Who is bigger than us or in a God Who becomes human, offers Himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sin, and then rises from death to give everlasting life with God to all who believe in Him is not an easy thing. We human beings are such control freaks that even when we see the miraculous or inexplicable, we want to explain it away. We always want God to prove Himself with just one more piece of evidence.

Jesus once told the story of a man who had died and was burning in hell. In his life on earth, he had been an unjust man who ignored the needs of a poor man, Lazarus, who died at his gate and had gone to heaven. From hell, he called out to Abraham, the patriarch of Old Testament faith, begging him to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers of the fate that awaited them if they didn't trust in God. Surely, the rich man reasoned, if they saw someone back from the dead, they would listen to God's Word and believe. Forget it, Abraham responds in Jesus' story, if they didn't pay attention to the ways in which God revealed Himself through Moses and all the prophets, there's no way they'll pay attention to someone resurrected from the dead.

Belief in God isn't antithetical to the life of the mind. We don't check our brains in at the church door. But faith isn't the byproduct of the smoking guns of miraculous evidence, either. "Have you believed because you have seen Me?" Jesus asked His once-skeptical disciple, Thomas. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe."

Some say Jesus rose from the dead. Others don't. And while those who say that He did rise can point to oodles of evidence to support their belief (see here and here, for example), no amount of evidence will convince those who have decided that they will not believe. The apostle Paul, writing in the New Testament says:
...I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:3)
God Himself makes it possible for us to believe...but only if we are willing to believe.

This is where the credibility of Christians becomes so important. Mahatma Gandhi was one of the greatest people in human history. He was once asked why he, who had closely studied the New Testament and whose tactics for bringing freedom to India came directly from Jesus, never became a Christian. He had, it turns out, been quite open to following Christ. But as a young lawyer in South Africa, he was subjected to ill-treatment by Christians. He concluded that if the people who bore Christ's Name were so un-Christian, it was pointless to follow Christ.

Christians, of course, are sinners just like the rest of the human race. We are imperfect. We do things that we have every reason to regret. But when others see the direction of our lives...when they can see that when we sin, we regret it and seek to move toward the love of God and neighbor to which Christ calls us...when they see in us a commitment to service..when they see the risen Jesus Christ evidenced in our living, these things are seen as greater indicators of the reality of God and the truth of the resurrection than any number of miracles.

God will never force us to believe in Him or follow Him. But if we are willing to believe, the Spirit of God will begin to fashion faith within us, making it possible for us to join those ancient confessions of the Church: I believe in God the Father! I believe in the risen Jesus Christ! I believe in God the Holy Spirit!

I urge Christians to pray for their skeptical friends and neighbors to move toward a willingness to faith and to ask God to help all of us become believable, loving, serving witnesses for our Savior.

And if you are among the skeptical or the scoffers like I once was, I hope that you can move toward the moment when you can tell God, "I'm not even sure you're there. But I want You to be and if You are, help me to know You and to follow You." Don't be surprised if from that tiny opening, the Holy Spirit lovingly nudges you toward faith in the risen Christ. That's exactly what happened to me...and that really is a miracle, when you think about it!

[You might be interested in this blog series on why I believe the Christian faith is true:
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 1
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 2
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 3
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 4
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 5
Why I Believe Christian Faith is True, Part 6]

[You might also want to read this series, which deals with a tough topic impeding some from belief in God:
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 1
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 2
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 3
When Tragedy Hits the Innocent, Part 4
The Light of the World!]

Santos Wins: The Explanation...and What's Next?

When, on this past Sunday's West Wing, Democratic presidential nominee Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) defeated the GOP standard bearer, Arnold Vinick, my reaction was similar to that of blogger Rick Moore: I thought that the Democratic producers and writers of this excellent, but canceled, series couldn't resist putting another Democrat into the Oval Office.

It turns out that things were a bit more complicated than that. The New York Times reports that it had been the plan of producers and writers for Vinick to win. But that plan changed after John Spencer, who played the Dem Veep nominee, Leo McGarry, died. The Times reported:
...after Mr. Spencer died, [Lawrence O'Donnell, West Wing executive producer] said in a recent interview, he and his colleagues began to confront a creative dilemma: would viewers be saddened to see Mr. Smits's character lose both his running mate and the election? The writers decided that such an outcome would prove too lopsided, in terms of taxing viewers' emotions, so a script with the new, bittersweet ending — including the election-night death of Mr. Spencer's character — was undertaken by John Wells, executive producer of "The West Wing" and "E.R."
Strands of the previous plot line seemed apparent in last Sunday's episode, however. With about ten minutes to go in the show, we were told that two states were to be heard from: Oregon and Nevada. To get to the required 270 electoral votes for victory, Vinick (played by Alan Alda) needed to carry just one of the states, while Santos needed both of them. I told my wife, "Vinick wins." "Why?" she wondered. "Oregon might go for Santos. But there's no way Nevada votes for him," I explained. Nevada goes Republican in presidential elections and even the retirees, who might swing a vote to the Dems in other states, would go for a guy like Vinick; he appeals to the libertarian sensibilities of Nevada's brand of retirees.

But in West Wing world, in an effort to keep a character from suffering two calamities in one day, Nevada went to Santos. (That isn't very realistic, of course. It's apparent that these people ever read Job?)

Anyway, here's my prediction for what happens next on West Wing: Santos asks Vinick to serve as his Veep. They could simply ask the Electoral College voters to do that. We've never had a coalition executive branch before. It's too bad that the producers and writers won't be able to explore what that might be like.

By the way, I really love this show and am sorry to see its demise. There are five episodes to go.

40-Days to Servanthood: The Whole Series

Here are links to all of the daily readings in the 40-Days to Servanthood series:
Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7
Day 8
Day 9
Day 10
Day 11
Day 12
Day 13
Day 14
Day 15
Day 16
Day 17
Day 18
Day 19
Day 20
Day 21
Day 22
Day 23
Day 24
Day 25
Day 26
Day 27
Day 28
Day 29
Day 30
Day 31
Day 32
Day 33
Day 34
Day 35
Day 36
Day 37
Day 38
Day 39
Day 40

On Sunday, I hope to link to all the weekend messages given as part of our congregaion's 40-Days to Servanthood emphasis, designed to be a launching pad to lifestyles of service in Christ's Name.

UPDATE: Thanks to Bruce Armstrong of Ordinary Everyday Christian for linking to every installment of this series and for his words of encouragement!

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 40

We worship God through our servanthood.

When I served on the church council of my home congregation in Columbus, our pastor once told us, “You can worship God by serving your neighbor.” One man reacted negatively. He felt that we expressed our worship only by our expressions of love for God--our service of praise--on Sunday mornings.

But that man was wrong. The apostle John writes, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (First John 4:20) Jesus Himself paired love for God and love for neighbor into a single “great commandment” (Matthew 22:36-38).

There is an inextricable link between worship and servanthood. This is why worship gatherings are often called “services.” In them, God teaches us how to love Him and to love others, to live with a focus upward to Him and outward to our neighbor. But unless our weekend services of praise are matched by service to our neighbors in Jesus’ Name, our worshiping is nothing more than lip service.

In the book of Genesis, we’re told that one of Adam’s and Eve’s sons, Abel, offered God “the firstlings” of his flock. His brother, Cain, gave God the leftovers from his crops. When Cain noted God’s pleasure with Abel’s offerings and the displeasure with which his own offerings were met, he was resentful and killed Abel. When God asked Cain where Abel was, Cain responded angrily, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Genesis 4:1-16)

Centuries later, Jesus was asked another question: “Who is my neighbor?” He responded with the story of a man who was mugged by bandits and left to die on the road. Two religious officials, a levite and a priest, each having duties associated with public worship in Judea, passed by the dying man. But, in Jesus’ story, a Samaritan man stopped and took care of the wounded victim. By serving his neighbor, the Samaritan was the one who truly worshiped God. (Luke 10:25-37)

If our love for God is authentic, it will be seen in active service to others. Of course, we won’t always express this authentic love for God and neighbor. Christians, like other human beings, are infected with the disease of sin. But God is willing to help us when we fail. “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (First John 1:9). All who believe in Jesus Christ are to live, as Martin Luther reminds us, in “daily repentance and renewal,” seeking God’s help as we strive each day to love Him and to love others.

This coming Sunday, as we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection, the people of the congregation I serve as pastor will be asked to commit themselves to active involvement in ministries of service. It’s a commitment that the God Who calls us to a life of active love is anxious to help us fulfill. I hope that everybody who has been reading this series will approach their (your) call to service with prayer and attentiveness and make a commitment to servanthood with joy and enthusiasm. “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:28-29)

We worship God through our servanthood.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “...those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (First John 4:20)

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Bataan Death March

Bruce Armstrong has an interesting post remembering the Bataan Death March of World War Two.

One of my high school teachers was a veteran of the march.

My late father-in-law was a bomber navigator in the Pacific Theater during the war. A distant cousin fought in the Battle of the Bulge in the European Theater of Operations. I have been privileged to pastor, in my former parish, approximately ten WWII vets. Whether, they're members of the "greatest generation," as Tom Brokaw has fashioned them, they surely deserve our thanks. (On that score, see here.)

Bruce has several interesting links in his piece

How You Can 'Prove' Christ Rose from the Dead for Yourself

In the light of this recent poll showing that most Americans don't believe in a resurrection of the dead, one might wonder about any proof Christians might have that our Easter celebrations are warranted. This message, shared last year on Easter Sunday, might help you prove the good news of Easter for yourself.

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 39

Servants see the big picture.

An oft-told story has it that a man walked by a construction site one day and asked a worker, “What are you doing?” “I’m laying bricks,” the worker said gruffly. The man could see that, but he wanted to know what the bricks were to become.

So, he asked a second worker what he was doing. This laborer said, “I’m helping to build a great cathedral. Just imagine it: Hundreds, maybe thousands of people, will praise God here!” That man understood the big picture.

Unless you understand the bigger picture of which you’re a part as a servant of God, you may become like the first laborer or worse yet, you could give up on servanthood.

What is our bigger picture as servants? After reminding us that every believer in Jesus Christ is a priest whose life and service is meant to “proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light,” the apostle Peter says that we’re really “aliens and exiles” in the world. Our real home is with God. Then, Peter says: “Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.” (First Peter 2:9-12).

When we serve others in Jesus’ Name, they see the goodness of God and will want to know more about the Savior Who gives everlasting life with God to those who believe in Him (John 3:16-18). Our serving and sharing Christ will give others reason to welcome the day when Jesus returns to establish His everlasting kingdom. That is the very big picture of which our Christian servanthood is a part.

This Sunday, as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus at Friendship Church, the congregation I serve as pastor, we’ll consecrate ourselves to Christian servanthood. If we remember that each of us has our own indispensable roles to play in God’s plan, we’ll serve with enthusiasm, energy, and fulfillment our whole lives.

Servants see the big picture.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “...let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 38

Servants tackle what they’re not good at doing.

After an evening Lenten service, which included discussion, a friend approached me. “Mark,” he said. “I should have mentioned that one of the best things we can do is get out of our comfort zones and try things we think we can’t do or that we’re not interested in doing.” He went on to explain that in his experience, serving outside his comfort zone caused him to see how faithful God is in helping His servants. He also found God-given talents he didn’t know about.

When Moses was an eighty year old shepherd living in Midian, God called him to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt toward a promised land. It was a frightening job, one that would start with confronting Egypt’s king, the Pharaoh, the world’s most powerful man. Moses was a reluctant servant. He offered God one reason after another for why he wasn’t the right person for the job. First, Moses said, “I’m a nobody. Who am I to do this?” Then he said, “God, I don’t really know Your Name. I wouldn’t know what to say if people asked Who I was speaking for?” Then he asked God, “What if they don’t believe me? And how about my speech impediment?”

To each of Moses’ objections and questions, God had an answer. “You may be a nobody, but I will be with you,” God said. “And, My Name is Yahweh, the great I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If the Israelites or the Egyptians don’t believe that I sent you, there are some show-stopping signs that I can do through you. And as to your deficiencies as a speaker, I made your mouth. I’ll make it work like it should or sometimes, I’ll draft your brother Aaron for the task of speaking My message.”

After hearing all this, Moses finally said, “O my Lord, please send someone else.” The bottom line was that Moses didn’t want to go outside his comfort zone. He eventually did, however. And though Moses was far from perfect as the earthly leader of the Israelites, history shows he did a pretty good job. (Exodus 3:1-4:17)

Servants tackle what they’re not good at doing.

Bible Passages to Ponder: “It's criminal to live cautiously...” (Matthew 25:26, The Message). “I will be with you...” (Exodus 3:12)

Monday, April 10, 2006

By the Way: What is a Gospel?

With the recent hubbub about 'The Gospel of Judas,' it seems like a good time to answer the question: What is a gospel anyway? What do we mean when we call a piece of ancient literature a Gospel?

To answer that, we have to understand the meaning of the word, gospel itself. It's an elision of the Old English term, good spell or God spell (Our English word, good, derives from God. The phrase Good Bye began as a way of telling people God Bless Ye.) Spell was a word for news.

Gospel, then, is good news, specifically the good news about God's free gifts of forgiveness and everlasting life granted to all with faith in Jesus Christ.

The word gospel is a literal translation of the New Testament Greek's term, euangelion, which can be transliterated into English as evangel. (An evangelist then is a good newser, a person who presents to the world the good news of God's love and the free gift of new life offered through Christ.)

Some Biblical passages that summarize the Christian gospel include:
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)
What made the Jewish faith in the Old Testament unique among the religions of the world was that a relationship with the Almighty or enjoying blessedness was said to have nothing to do with religious works. In Biblical faith, one might do good works, but they always come in response to God's favor, freely granted, not as a ploy to earn God's favor.

A relationship with God was all a matter of God's charity (what the New Testament calls grace). For example, God charitably accepted Abraham's belief or trust in Him and His promises and counted it as the righteousness that a holy God demands. Abraham "believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness," Genesis 15:6 says. (And if you read anything about Abraham in the Old Testament, you know that he was far from perfect. That gives me hope!)

In Jesus Christ, God extended the possibility of rightness with God to Gentiles as well as to Jews.

As was true for the Jews, so for non-Jews: Reconciliation with God is not attainable by doing certain religious deeds or obeying religious laws. None of us is capable of sufficient goodness to measure up to God's standards of moral perfection, anyway.

But the Good News--or the Gospel--is that when we acknowledge our sin, seek forgiveness in Christ's Name, and entrust our past, present, and future in His hands, God reckons us righteous, just as He once did Abraham. This is the point of Romans 3:21-28 (most of which I cited a few days ago in talking about 'The Gospel of Judas'):
But now, irrespective of law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
So what do we mean when we call a book a Gospel? There are four books in the New Testament bearing that designation. They're described that way because in telling about Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, they invite people into a relationship born of God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ. John's explanation of why he wrote his gospel could pass as the mission statement for the other three New Testament gospels as well:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31)
So, could the Gospel of Judas be considered a gospel? Not really. That document was rooted in the Gnostic notion that some deeper relationship with God was acquired through intellectual attainment--in this case, just another religious hoop or good work--rather than by the amazing grace of God.

[To see my first post on the Gospel of Judas, see here.]

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 37

Servants need never burn out.

Servants can burn out, of course. But why do they? I can cite two major reasons.

First, there’s the 80-20 rule. It says that in any organization, 80% of the work gets done by 20% of the people. Conversely, 20% of the work gets done by 80% of the people. Servants burn out when they shoulder more than their share of the responsibility for serving in the church, at home, at work, or in the community. All Christians need to see that the call to faith in Jesus is also a call to service (First Peter 2:9-10) and that every Christian is gifted for service (Romans 12:1-8).

But there’s another reason that servants burn out. The apostle Paul writes in Second Corinthians: “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (Second Corinthians 9:7). The attitude Paul describes relates to more than just our financial giving, helping us to see several things:

(1) Burnout can be the result of wrong motives. When our giving--whether it’s of our money or ourselves in service to others--is rendered “reluctantly or under compulsion,” it will burn us out. There's nothing more wearing or destructive to our spirits than "have to" religion.

(2) Burnout is avoided when our giving and serving result from having “made up” our minds to be givers and servants because of what Christ has done for us. Our minds are the filters through which we look at life and by which we gauge our experiences. If our minds are renewed in Christ (Romans 12:2) and we’re intent on being servants of God and of others, our whole experience of service will be positive, in spite of whatever difficulties we may encounter (Philippians 4:5-11).

By surrendering ourselves to Christ in “daily repentance and renewal,” we’ll become willing servants. We’ll become what Paul literally calls “hilarious” givers (Second Corinthians 9:7).

Servants need never burn out.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (Romans 12:1)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

More on the Gospel of Judas

Ben Witherington, one of my favorite New Testament scholars, has posted two helpful pieces on the 'Gospel of Judas.' See here and here.

Witherington makes a point which, to my thinking, may or may not have significance:
...we do not have a Greek text of this Gospel, we have a Coptic one from which the English translation has been made. To simply state this text was based on Greek text is to argue without hard evidence. The fact that Irenaeus mentions this document may suggest there was a Greek original, but we do not have it, and the translation done is not based on any Greek text.
I confess that I had taken on face value the claims of the National Geographic's team that the Coptic text they've released was a translation of an earlier Greek document. There have long been rumors of a Greek-language 'Gospel of Judas.' So, I simply leapt to the conclusion that the current document translates that one. This may not be true. There may have been no Greek-language document.

The potential importance of there being no original Greek-language text is this: Greek was the international community's second-language in Biblical times. It was the lingua franca, much as English is today: the language of commerce, of philosophy and the arts. This is why all the canonical works of the New Testament were written in Greek.

We know that gnositicism was a perversion of the good news about Jesus Christ already being proclaimed immediately following His death and resurrection. The non-existence of a Greek document could indicate the lateness with which the Gospel of Judas was composed, thus undermining its credibility.

But even that, to me, isn't as significant as Witherington seems to think that it is. As I indicated in my post on this subject on April 6, the theology of this gnostic gospel is so counter to the faith traditions of Judaism, to the agreed-upon utterances of Jesus, and the other writings of the New Testament, that it's clear that the Gospel of James was never in the running for inclusion in the Bible, it ever it was considered. That's because it doesn't comport with what history, faith, and experience have taught about Jesus Christ or Judas.

[My first post on 'The Gospel of Judas' can be found here.]

UPDATE: Thanks to Redhawk Review for linking to my original post on 'The Gospel of Judas.'

ANOTHER UPDATE: Thanks also to Alex Jordan and the rest of The Best of the God Blogs crew for linking to my original post on the Judas document. Alex's blog can be found here. (I met Alex last October at the first-ever GodBlogCon in the Los Angeles area. He is a thoughtful, articulate man, both in person and in his writing. The Best of the God Blogs site has been very kind to this blog and I'm thankful!

AND ANOTHER: Thanks to Wounded Healer for linking to my original post on the Gospel of Judas.

ANOTHER THANKS: This goes to Kevin Creighton of Balaam's *ss for linking to my original post on the 'Gospel of Judas.'

MORE THANKS: This time to Brian Bill for linking to my original post on 'The Gospel of Judas,' listing it along with several other pieces dealing with the document. Thanks, Brian!

ANOTHER THANKFUL UPDATE: Thanks to Ron Jones of Three Things for linking to my original post on the Gospel of Judas!

The Choice: Jesus or the Crowds?

Mark 11:1-11
[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship celebrations on April 8 and 9, 2006.]

Father Andrew Greeley tells the story of a sixth grade social studies teacher who decided to have her students go through an election process, the object being to teach the kids about democracy. The students, it turned out, were enthusiastic and got into it. Even though the their parents had fostered a highly competitive atmosphere, especially as it related to academics, the kids got past the jealousies and resentments that can go with such circumstances, and elected a young woman who happened to be the smartest one in their class as the president of their mock country. Everything went well for the whole school year. But the next year, things changed. By then, the parental pressure for good grades was so intense that the kids began to turn on their former president. They resented her superior academic performance and the respect she'd garnered from them. They began to spread untrue stories about how she studied all the time, pinning the nickname of ‘The Computer’ on her. The message they were sending her was clear: Dumb down and be the way we want you to be!

This is a story that gets played out in many different ways in our world. And not just among young people. The crowd may love us as long as we’re doing what they want us to do, as long as their egos are boosted, as long as we do their bidding. But if something we say or do displeases them, they’ll point their thumbs down at us quicker than Roger Ebert or Simon Cowell.

This, folks, is the real story of Palm Sunday. Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem. Everybody’s happy. Yet amid the Palm Sunday celebrating was an atmosphere of implied violence, of threatened rejection. The actions and the words with which the crowds welcomed Jesus were fraught with ambiguity.

Their words seemed to speak of submission and surrender, taken as they were from Psalm 118:
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
...give us success
But in this context, the crowds also seem to be telling Jesus, “Take the lead in a rebellion against the Romans. Be the king we want you to be!”

The palm leaves or branches convey a similarly mixed message. They may have just been a convenient way of welcoming Jesus, broken off the trees that set outside the city walls of Jerusalem. But palm leaves and branches were also traditionally used by God’s people to celebrate some victory in war. The message seems to be, “Jesus, be our general. Lead us as an Army to destroy Roman power over us. Give us what we want: the plunder of war and victory.”

These crowds, itching for war and conquest, must have scratched their heads at what Jesus did that evening. He simply stepped into the Temple, looked around, and went back to Bethany for the night.

They must have been further mystified by what he did the next day. He didn’t confront the Romans, demanding their surrender or removal from Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean territory. Instead, he went to the Temple where, appalled by how the place was being misused--not as a place of prayer and worship, but as a place for price gouging and injustice--he threw the extortionists out of the place. Rather than confronting their foreign enemies, Jesus turned to His fellow Judeans and said that there was something rotten in their religion, their spirituality, their souls.

On Palm Sunday, the crowds welcomed Jesus because they thought He had come to do will. What they came to realize in the days after that is that He had really come to do theirthe Father’s will. He really had come, as He had already said, “to serve, not to be served and to give His life as a ransom for many.” He hadn’t come to confirm them in their sense of moral superiority, but to confront them with their need of a Savior and to be that Savior!

And so, like the students at that school in Greeley's story, disappointed and shown up by the girl they had voted for the year before, the Jerusalem crowds turned on Jesus. On Thursday night, just four days after His triumphant entry, Jesus was arrested and the next day, the same crowds cried for His blood. They cried too that the Roman governor release a murderous thug, Jesus bar Abbas be set free. (This man was otherwise known as Barabbas; whose name in English is Jesus, son of God.) Barabbas was a terrorist. The crowds may have thought he had the stomach Jesus of Nazareth didn’t have for revolution. The people were desperate for a leader who would follow them. They were sure now that Jesus, the son of Joseph wouldn't do it. Maybe Barabbas would.

Now here’s the question that Palm Sunday forces all churches and all Christians to confront: Will we be like the crowds or will we learn to be disciples, true followers of Jesus? I know that too often in my own life, I’ve followed the crowd or followed the world's way of doing things, instead of following Jesus. (After all that's the easy way to go!) But how exactly do we make the choice of discipleship over crowd-following?

Above all, it entails praying and striving to live by the words, “Your will be done,” not, “God, do my will.”

This has been and remains a hard lesson for me. I have a vivid imagination. I can imagine all sorts of wonderful things God could do in my life. “Lord,” I’m inclined to pray, “if you’d bless me in this way or that, imagine all the good I could do!” But God says, “I’d rather you imagined how much good you could do with the blessings I’ve already given to you.”

The Palm Sunday crowds probably thought that their lives would be so much better if the Romans were toppled and sent home. Then, they could love and serve their neighbors.

Today, we might think, “If only we could win the Lottery...”

“If only we could get a big tax refund...”

“If only things slowed down at work...”

“If only the kids weren’t involved in so many activities...”

If a thousand other things were just so, then we could be really good followers of Christ. But Jesus calls us to follow now on our current schedules, with our current incomes, under our current circumstances, just as He loves us now.

Our call is to turn from sin and surrender to Jesus Christ now. We’re to experience Christ’s presence in our lives today, even in challenging times. Our call is to love God and love neighbor now, today, just as God loves and blesses and cares about us in this moment.

Four nights after the first Palm Sunday, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed, “Abba [an Aramaic word that literally means, Daddy], Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup [of death on the cross] from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Through His death and resurrection, Jesus won new and everlasting life for all who follow Him.

In thankfulness, we can submit to God’s will for our lives. We can become servants who by lives of active love for others God uses to do a world of good.

On the Sunday after Easter, April 23, you and I are going to have the opportunity to get a handle on the area of God-given passion that burns in each of our souls, the way in which we can most effectively serve in God’s kingdom. That Sunday after Easter is notorious for poor attendance in churches the world over. The crowds, seeming to conclude that by going to Easter worship, they've filled some religious obligation, like to worship at St. Mattress of the Springs on the weekend after Easter. But I hope and pray that you and I will choose discipleship, the path of servanthood in Jesus’ Name and that April 23 will be the launching pad for a whole new phase in the life of Friendship!

The great nineteenth century evangelist Dwight Moody’s life was changed when he heard a preacher say words like these: “The world has yet to see what God might do in the life of someone wholly devoted to Him.” Moody prayerfully asked God that night to let him be that person.

May that be our prayer, choosing to follow Christ instead of the crowd. I live for the day when people everywhere say, “Friendship Church...that’s the congregation with all those servants!” Won’t that be cool?

40-Days to Servanthood: Day 36

Servants understand that sometimes, people will take advantage of them.

Jesus once asked rhetorically: “Is there anyone here who, planning to build a new house, doesn't first sit down and figure the cost so you'll know if you can complete it?” (Luke 14:28, The Message) This coming Sunday, as we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord Jesus at Friendship Lutheran Church, we’ll be asking people to commit--or consecrate--themselves to servanthood. I'll be inviting those of you who read this blog to do the same thing.

But before you do that, you should know all the facts, even the unpleasant ones. Jesus once healed a man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. You might have expected him to be grateful. But, knowing that the religious authorities had it in for Jesus, the healed man went out of his way to finger Jesus for the sabbath day healing he knew so outraged them. The man took advantage of Jesus’ power to heal, betrayed Him, and ignored Jesus’ admonition, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” (John 5:1-14)

If people took advantage of Jesus when He served them, you can be certain that people will take advantage of your servanthood, too!

A woman I know used to work in downtown Cincinnati. Often, as she walked to the parking lot for her nightly commute, she passed people begging for money. “I always give them something,” she told me. “I know there’s a good chance they’ll use it to buy a drink or some drugs. But I’d rather err on the side of mercy than on the side of judgment.”

It isn’t easy to be a servant of God. In a very real way, it means bearing the cross with Jesus. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” Jesus said (Luke 14:27). But Jesus’ cross also comes with a promise: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25). Jesus’ followers can afford to give themselves away, serving in Jesus’ Name; Christ has already given them eternity.

Servants understand that sometimes, people will take advantage of them.

Bible Passage to Ponder: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live” (John 11:25).