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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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Archives for July, 2015

JoshRossFrom the ages 8-12, I lived in a small town in East Texas called Crockett. It was named after Davy Crockett, because apparently when he was on his way to fight in the Alamo, he stopped there to get a drink of water or something like that.

It was my dad’s first preaching job, and our Sunday mornings looked like this; my mom would pile her 3 kids in our maroon Astro van. Then, we would begin our shuttle service around the town. We would pick up kids who were black, brown, white, rich, poor, and everything in between. It was back when you didn’t have to wear seatbelts in the back seat, so we would cram into the van and drive to church. Once we got to the building, I witnessed a church that faithfully loved up on every child who came.

At the time, I didn’t realize how this Sunday morning shuttle service, and the hospitality of the Grace Street Church was teaching and shaping my heart for God’s Kingdom. It was in Crockett that I declared Jesus as the Lord of my life through confession and baptism, and it was in Crockett that God began orienting my life for a calling so much bigger than anything I could have ever imagined.

***

If racial tension were a beach, a red flag would wave today signifying high surf and strong currents. Every camp has its extremists, yet what you hear are most minorities screaming for help and to be heard, and most whites who don’t really know how to respond, which means they either shrink into a shell, or stand still unsure of what to do or what to say about the current social climate.

When people ask me, “What do you think of this #blacklivesmatter stuff?” My immediate response is, “Do black lives matter to God?” Because if we answer that with a yes (which any follower of Jesus should), then we must wrestle with what it means to pursue whatever needs to be done to restore dignity, beauty, and reconciliation.

Here are 4 points to consider as we partner with God to live into His dreams for His world.

Embrace the Gift of God’s Colorful World

A dear friend, Don, challenged me a few years ago that one of the primary goals of racial reconciliation is not to be colorblind, but to embrace humanity as colorful. Being colorblind is helpful; I just don’t think it is realistic. To be colorful means that each tribe, nation, peoples, and language has a history with stories that have shaped their existence. Revelation 7:9-10 doesn’t describe heaven as a place where all redeemed bodies are reshaped into one skin tone, but rather that God’s creativity still shines through. If read right, heaven isn’t where ethnicities go to die, but where they go to be fully redeemed. The cross is where racism, elitism, and every unhealthy form of privilege went to die. And the resurrection is where the church was launched to set in motion God’s ultimate plan to bring together everything that has been divided.

Live to Shrink the Gap

The word “intercession” has become one of my favorite words; in fact, I’m currently preaching a 10-week series called Intercession at Sycamore View. In 1 Timothy 2:1, Paul writes, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone.” He could have just said to offer up prayers for everyone, but he didn’t. Intercession is a way to pray, and it is also a way to live. At the heart of intercession is to “create a meeting” or to “shrink the gap.” Isn’t this what we ask for when we pray for others? We are asking for a meeting to be created between God and a person. We plead with God to shrink the distance between a divided, confused heart, and to mesh it with His.

To live as intercessors also means that we stand in the gap. Wherever forms of injustice, blight, confusion, depression, or the loss of dignity exist, intercession calls us to step into those places—not as those who fix the problem—but as those who listen for ways God is redeeming hurting hearts and communities. To intercede is to get involved with the work of God, and the work of God is messy.

Tolerance Isn’t the Goal; Reconciliation Is

The more I study the life and teachings of Jesus, the more I see that His desire for humanity is not tolerance and cordiality, but reconciliation. Paul didn’t invite Jews, Gentiles, rich, and poor to shake hands in the marketplace, but rather to join together in a common community and mission for the sake of the gospel. And they believed it. Scales fell from eyes, privileges were laid down, and Jesus-followers learned to listen and respect each other as they worked in and for the Kingdom. When we fail to passionately pursue Jesus’ desire for diverse communities, we fail to properly embrace “let your Kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.” Tolerance is easy, yet leads to entitlement and apathy. Reconciliation is hard, yet it leads to life.

Redeemed Tables

Nearly every time when I hear people say, “I’m not a racist, but…,” the next few words reveal a racist heart. On a few other occasions, I’ve heard people begin by stating that they’re not a racist, and then they proceed to name all 4 of their black coworkers and friends. Pursuing the heart of God begins by acknowledging the pieces of my heart that are not of God. They must be rebuked so that the fullness of God can be embraced. Racism, elitism, and entitlement will have no place in heaven, and they shouldn’t have a place in a redeemed person’s heart either.

One challenge I give our church is to take time to eat a meal with someone from another race or economic bracket. Reconciliation happens best when feet are placed under the same table. Tables are more than the place where food is eaten; it is where stories are shared. In 2015, one of the greatest redemptive acts for my white sisters and brothers might just be to sit at a table with a person of color, and to ask them to tell you stories of their lives, challenges, experiences, and difficulties. And when they pause after a story is told, respond by saying nothing more than, “Tell me more.” Shared stories teach us to love and respect all of humanity, and asking people to share their story is one of the most effective ways of letting people know that their lives matter.

***

Let’s pursue and cultivate our eternal reality now.

Let’s embrace our eternal future as a life to be lived right now.

Let’s be guilty of loving relentlessly and spreading grace liberally.

Let’s pursue the other—whoever “the other” might be—as image-bearers of God.

reconciliation1Reconciliation is one of the most important topics of our faith today. It spans everything from big picture issues like racism and salvation to things just as massively significant but as small as healing a single relationship. This is what church is about – a community of the reconciled. This is what mission is about – reconciling lost people with God. This is what so much of what we do as Christians is about, so much so that Paul talks about our ministry in Christ as the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:11-18).

A few years ago I learned a valuable lesson on reconciliation. I heard through the grapevine that a friend of mine was going to lose her job. I wasn’t really supposed to know this was going to happen but I did know. Knowing something you aren’t supposed to know is often as awkward as it is difficult. What do you do if you know something is going to be really, really bad and you feel like you might have a solution to make things turn out better but you know you aren’t supposed to know about it? These are those things you try not to think about but it just plagues your thoughts…you just can’t seem to shake the thought of how poorly this might turn out and whether or not you might be able to be part of a solution.

In spite of my better sense I decided to take a chance. I had a conversation with someone who had control over the hiring and the firing and offered some solutions. The catch was, the person getting let go couldn’t know I was having that conversation on her behalf because it would undermine the whole process of keeping her job. What resulted was her keeping her job contingent on some mediation and counseling with me.

I just mentioned this was a friend of mine but that was going to be short lived. I had become part of the system and the problem to her. I was no longer a friend but an accomplice to those who were set on firing her. What resulted was a loss of trust and a loss of a dear friend.

What was the problem? I could say it was her…she should have been grateful an attempt was being made to save her job. She should have given me the benefit of the doubt! Right? But no, that wasn’t the problem.

I was the problem on several levels. First, I should have never acted on that information. That in and of itself wasn’t the real problem. That action was the symptom of a deeper, underlying problem in how I saw myself. The real problem was that I saw myself as someone who could fix a situation that I shouldn’t have been involved in. I thought too highly of myself. I thought so highly of myself that I was willing to cross the line and step into something that I should have known better. Pride can do that…saying it that way passes the buck. Let’s be accurate – I can do that when I am proud. I honestly thought that without my help that chaos would break out and that bigger problems would be at hand. I thought that if I wasn’t involved in the solution that things would get worse. The truth was my involvement in the situation made things worse. It would have gone on better without me.

It is hard to see that with pride glasses on your face. After a few of these situations the glasses get knocked off enough times you finally start seeing yourself for who you really are so that you can address that issue in your life.

Here is my point – We are not reconcilers. I know that sounds odd because we are charged with the ministry of reconciliation. The ministry is ours to do but the reconciliation is God’s. God is the driver of reconciliation, not us. We are God’s tools…His instruments but at the end of the day it is all His. If reconciliation occurs, it is God who does it and sometimes He sees fit to allow us to be His instrument in the process. Calling ourselves reconcilers is like saying a hammer built a house.

Last, you cannot do the work God calls you to do and do it in a way out of line with Christian character. In this case it was doomed to fail because of how I saw myself. You cannot be a prideful person and be a good instrument in reconciliation. It is like God trying to chisel something with a dull chisel. He will pick a different one, one that is ready and sharp. So if you truly want to be about the work of reconciliation start with understanding that it is God’s work, not ours and that the best way to be useful in this work is to be ready in your heart, mind and soul to allow God to use you as He sees fit.

Several years ago I was talking with a church about serving with them as a minister. During a congregational question and answer session, one elderly man raised his hand and asked what seemed like a controversial question.

“Liberal or conservative,” he asked.

Without showing any disgust on my face, I didn’t like the question because I thought he was trying to trap me into what surely would be a contentious matter. Instead, I quickly answered his question with the best reply I knew and with what I truly believed (and still do).

“Gospel and Bible, sir! I just want to be a minister of the gospel and teach according to the scriptures,” I said.

He smiled and didn’t say another word. I wasn’t sure what he thought. Did he like my answer? Did he think I was just trying to evade his question? Did he…

I ended up serving with that church as a minister and had the privilege of getting to know this elderly man. He was in his nineties, a widower, and one who spent most of his adult life serving as a church planter and minister of the gospel. On one occasion I asked him more about that question he asked and he told me that he asked the question because he wanted the church to have a minister focused on preaching the gospel and teaching the Bible rather than getting caught up in trying to be liberal or conservative.

 

The Gospel in Scripture

Ideally it would seem that this should be the focus of all Christians whether or not they stand before the church preaching on Sunday’s. If we take the scriptures seriously, they call us into a creative-redemptive story in which people of every nation, tongue, and tribe are reconciled to God and each other.

When we look at the scriptures, reconciliation doesn’t appear as a difficult issue until the apostles began preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. That’s when trouble arose because reconciliation meant that both the Jewish and Gentile believers had to learn how to practice this fellowship they now shared in together, embodying the gospel as the church.

As we read about these challenges the early Christians faced, it’s easy to see how ethnicity creates conflict. Yet, the problems that caused division were as much political as they were ethnic. That is, the division was rooted in ethnicity but played out in political ways.

Being aware of the politics here is important as we think about living as practitioners of reconciliation. Before we get to that, we shouldn’t miss how the apostle Paul responds to this issue. Rather than siding with Jewish nationalism or taking up the cause of the Pax Romana (peace of Rome), Paul remains thoroughly committed to the gospel because he knows that it is Jesus alone through whom reconciliation becomes real. As Paul says, “For he himself is our peace…” (Eph 2:14, NIV). Neither the Torah nor Caesar can offer peace, only Jesus!

 

A Question For Us

Fast forward to the twenty-first century here in the United States of America, the context I write from and the context I assume you are likely reading from. Half way through the year of 2015, nearly a year removed from the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, we have seen similar unrest in the city of Baltimore and most recently have been saddened by the recent mass-shootings in Charleston and Chattanooga.

What should be obvious is that racism remains a big issue but just like the first-century, racial division also plays out in political ways. The polarization experienced today is palpable and it will likely only increase as the nation approaches another major political election.

How should Christians respond? I’ve already demonstrated how Paul responded and how expected the churches he served to respond. I also think we should remember that part of the reason Jesus was crucified was the fact that the message he proclaimed was a subversive kingdom not of this world but one that is meant to replace the kingdoms of this world. So how should we respond as people who follow Jesus, who are called to embody the gospel as his church?

 

The Gospel As Our Cause

The simple answer is that we must live as the church we are called to be. That is, we must live as participants in the mission of God and that means our cause is the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we really believe that it is Jesus alone is our peace who makes reconciliation possible then it is the gospel that should be our cause and nothing else. Remember, just as Jesus says that we cannot serve two masters (cf. Matt 6:24), that very likely includes trying to serve two kingdoms or two causes. So I want to suggest two ways in which we prioritize the gospel as our cause.

First, our local churches must be intentional about practicing reconciliation amongst themselves. This is where the later half of Paul’s letters, as well as other writings from scripture, are instructive because they teach us how to live, loving and serving one another even where there are differences and even when there are disagreements. Practicing reconciliation must happen as we assemble in our church buildings but it must also go beyond the building as we extend hospitality to one another. This not only gives the gospel we proclaim credibility but it models among our local cultures an alternative community where reconciliation is happening. What a beautiful image that is!

Second, we must become intentional about speaking gospel among the different contexts we inhabit. This means speaking as ambassadors of Jesus Christ. That also means refusing to sound like echo-chambers of the partisan politics in America and that includes our social-media presence which, like it or not, has an influential role in culture. Repeating partisan platitudes, sharing clickbait political memes, liking inflammatory photos, and so on only further division and polarization. Our society already has plenty of people doing that. Whether they recognize it or not, what our society needs is people who speak of that which bring peace and reconciliation — the gospel of Jesus Christ. And when we do that, we speaking the one subversive gospel that invites our neighbors, in all of their diversity, into the new world where reconciliation happens.

May God, our Father, by the power of his Spirit, animate us to embody the gospel of his Son, Jesus Christ, in word and deed for his praise, honor, and glory!

ChurchDividedCan’t wait until my “loving Christian brothers and sisters” weigh in on this issue and trash our president. They’ll no doubt refer to those pardoned as “scum of the earth who deserve to rot in jail.”

This zinger caught my worship minister’s eye in a recent Facebook conversation. She was initially shocked by the words. Her shock turned to sorrow, however, when she realized they came from one of our church’s precious college students.

It came in response to a potentially controversial post. Any post can seem controversial, given current polarization over politics, gay rights, Caitlyn Jenner, Supreme Court rulings, and so forth. This particular Facebook post had to do with President Obama’s clemency of 46 non-violent drug offenders. The young adult who posted it was already anticipating a backwash of angry comments. He said, “Please keep comments civil. I will moderate if need be.”

Fortunately for him, remarks were civil. Until, that is, our college student unleashed his stinging comment. Why his cynical oracle of impending conflict? Why did our college student expect the worst from his fellow Christians?

I believe it’s because too many church members in recent years have fostered a ministry of division. I’m going to briefly explain why this has happened. But before you conclude that this is just another hopeless commentary on the polarization in our society and in our church, I want to quickly qualify that I am offering this article as a message of hope. I believe young people—like the one above who expressed cynicism—can teach us to live out the ministry of reconciliation.

Churches of Christ are not unique in the story of American Protestantism. We don’t get a big mention in most books. We sometimes think of our story as an extraordinarily impressive one, but most outside observers don’t agree. Almost every Christian sect or denomination has a similar period in its history.

Our movement flourished through a potent form of sectarian group-think. We were the only ones going to heaven. If you cared about people’s souls, then you did something to get outsiders into our churches. Didn’t matter if people already had a faith or were active in a different church. If you didn’t do things our way, you were lost.

Surprisingly, this worked better than you would think. We were very good at guilt trips. We scared many people into becoming Christians the Church-of-Christ way.

Whether you grew up in it or were converted into it, this pattern of “outreach” wrote itself deeply onto our psyche. Many of us are still overcoming it. Scare tactics aren’t the MO for many of us anymore, but they still surface as occasional, nagging feelings: “You aren’t good enough.” “God doesn’t really love you.” Although most of us no longer believe that our church brand contains the only saved ones, the mentality of “us vs. them” won’t let us go.

But it’s not just our people. This is a plague that visits members of most other Christian churches as well. They have comparable, judgmental pasts (and presents). Evangelicals believe that only the “born again” are going to heaven. Liberals believe that fundamentalists don’t know the heart of God. Conservatives think liberals have lost their moorings and their salvation. Charismatics doubt the legitimacy of non-charismatic faith. On and on it goes. Christian doctrine and Christian leaders have sadly taught us to divide, judge and condemn.

It’s a legacy we shouldn’t be proud of. Yet this is our inheritance in American Protestantism. We have learned how to shame and belittle those who aren’t like us. This is hardly the way of Jesus. But it’s the way of Jesus’ followers here in the U.S.

Even though some of us are learning a more generous orthodoxy in questions about who is and who isn’t saved, we can’t shake the fighting mentality. Some have transferred this way of thinking straight over to politics. Which is odd for a movement like ours that was deeply suspicious of human institutions. Yet some now believe that those human institutions—the presidency, Congress, the courts—are our potential salvation or downfall.

Some who learned to be gracious about faith are unable to be gracious about politics. Did they transfer their primary allegiance to the nation-state rather than to Jesus and his church? I find it deeply disturbing when otherwise grace-filled Christians have no trouble trashing fellow Christians over matters of politics. In conservative churches like mine, it’s mostly those favoring a particular flavor of the Republican Party who sometimes rip into anyone espousing love or appreciation for the other party or for policies that strike them as “liberal,” “socialist” or other related transgressions.

This is why the afore-mentioned college student despairingly awaited a torrent of criticism for someone else’s post that showed support for presidential pardons. He had seen people’s comments get torn apart for exhibiting the wrong political leaning. He had been personally excoriated by fellow Christians for what they perceived as wrong stances on immigration, gender issues and so forth. He’d seen it before. Figured he’d see it again.

But here’s where hope is. When my worship minister saw this, she reached out privately with love. She said, “I know you have reason to be skeptical. But you’re bigger than that. Think about how your words portray the community of faith.” There was silence for several hours. Then finally he replied, “Sigh. I know you’re right. Thanks for caring enough to say something.” And he took down the comment.

There is hope for the future because young people are open to learning a new way. There is hope that the peace-loving people among us can turn the tide by loving and investing in a new generation. Young people may not be perfect, but they are thankfully tired of our judgmental ways. And with just a little coaxing, I think they are the ones who can guide the church back onto the non-judgmental path of Jesus that leads to reconciliation rather than division.

sanctimoniousI once remarked during a sermon that farts are funny. They just are. Even seeing the word typed out makes me giggle almost as much as I did the first time I ever read the word booger. I always thought it was spelled b-u-g-e-r but “booger” just looks way funnier. And it seems to be that the only people who aren’t willing to admit that farts are funny are old people and church people. I’ve said “fart” in a couple sermons and people always seem astonished and it has led to more than one conversation about what’s “appropriate” and what’s not.

I don’t go to many conferences or conventions since they are expensive and small churches like mine have difficulty paying for them. However, the last one I went to (I won’t mention any names) I just kind of sat there thinking, “Someone needs to say that farts are funny from up there on stage.” I mean, the conference was fine and I felt that it was worthwhile going to, but I was surprised at how seldom people laughed. How uptight they all were. There was a smattering of small groups of people who all seemed to know each other and were engaged in pleasantries with one another all the while smiling and laughing. But the joviality of those groups still seemed limited to the confines of the distinguished and genteel. It’s more likely that they were laughing about puns and their most recent trips out of the country than talk of bodily functions.

If you haven’t noticed already, I have a bit of a rebellious streak in me, but that’s not really what this is about. This isn’t about being crass for the sake of a cheap laugh. (Although I should warn you up front, this article will probably test your tolerance for crassness.) I realize that I stand at the other end of the spectrum when it comes to potty humor and what is or isn’t appropriate (like I said – farts are funny), but I think that I’ve got something worthwhile to say on this matter, so if you can plug your nose and watch your step, I’d like to throw something a little different out there at you.

It’s always interesting when I tell people that I’m a pastor. I always try my best to withhold that little bit of information for as long as possible, and the way that people react couldn’t vary more widely. For some, it instantly creates a sense of camaraderie. Those conversations usually begin with: “REALLY! I go to church down at so-and-so and I love my pastor, do you know him . . . and . . and . . . and . . .” For others, it brings up immediate guilt and goes something like this: “Oh, yeah, I really have been meaning to get back to church – when is your service? I’d like to check that out sometime,” I never hold my breath awaiting their arrival. Inevitably, there are those who are instantly turned off. It’s almost as though I can see the discomfort set in as the vomit rises in their throats slightly. They are almost always polite, but they try to get away from me as quickly as if I had Ebola.

There’s a lot of ways I could describe these people and there are a lot of things I could say about them, but I think that a good way to look at it is this: those folks think that farts are funny, but they don’t think that I think they are funny (got that?).

Our church owns a rental property. We recently rented it out to a new family – a young man, his significant other, and their child. We never asked, but just assumed they were husband and wife. One of our elders went over to do some work on the house and in talking with him he (the renter) referred to his significant other as his wife. Turns out, they aren’t married. The point isn’t that they aren’t married, it’s just that he felt uncomfortable admitting that they weren’t married to a “church-going-guy.” In other words, he didn’t feel like he could be himself. Now, this elder just happens to be one of the most perceptive people that I know, and so what he said next made me smile. The elder told me, “Yeah, I was sure to use a cuss word when I was talking to him next, so he knew he could be himself.”

This story illustrates the point I’m trying to (rather strangely) make. I’m afraid that there’s been a very significant side effect of the growing professionalization of ministry in our church culture. Church people just aren’t very good at hanging out. We “host small groups;” we plan events and activities; but it just all seems so contrived. The overwhelming majority of ministers that I talk to seem to be wearing some huge protective shield around them that makes it very difficult to get to know them. And it’s becoming indicative of the broader church culture that they help lead.

In a nutshell, we’ve got to stop taking ourselves so seriously. Too many of us spend way too much time perfecting our sermons and classes to be sure that we say things just the right way – the stakes are high: heaven and hell, right! But come on – we’ve got to get over ourselves. Working with teenagers helped teach me this lesson. There have been times when I just really seemed to have a group of teenagers right in my hand purveying my vast wisdom for the sake of their future. As they all sit there in the palm of my hand, with me about to make my life changing climactic point, and someone in the back row rips a huge fart and all is lost. Or is it? Can’t we learn to laugh? Even at ourselves?

There are certainly times that call for seriousness and solemnity, and undoubtedly our young people need help in discerning the preciousness of these times. At the same time, we mustn’t think that solemnity is the only godly posture. I am convinced that the church would see amazing and sweeping changes if we were somehow able to stop taking ourselves so seriously. God has called us to be different – not weird.

I’m convinced that once we stop taking ourselves so seriously, others will start paying more attention. There’s a crass idiom my parents used to have for people who thought that they were better than everyone – they didn’t think that their farts stink. I’m afraid that that’s exactly the impression too many of us are giving off. We need to begin to ask ourselves – have we lost the ability to talk with real, everyday people? Do people feel comfortable talking to us about anything and everything? I bet even Jesus laughed at a fart or two in his day – don’t you think that that might just make people think differently about the people who claim his name? If taking ourselves too seriously is an obstacle to the gospel, then it is important enough for us to consider a better approach. It doesn’t mean you have to take the approach given in this article but it does mean we have permission to lighten up and be real with people.

There was something kept secret by God in generations past that was made known through Jesus Christ. This might be hard for us to wrap our minds around because we are so familiar with the Christian faith but in those days there were things that God only revealed in His own good timing,

“Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you, that is, the mystery made known to me by revelation, as I have already written briefly. In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets. This mystery is that through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” – Ephesians 3:2-6

It was no mystery that God intended to bless all nations through Abraham’s descendants (Gen 17:4). What was a mystery was exactly how God planned to go about doing that. In the Mosaic covenant, there was a means for the nations (Gentiles) to become the children of God and that was by becoming children of Abraham by adhering to the identifying markers of Judaism (circumcision, Sabbath, Kosher, etc).

But in Christ something new was taking place that people just couldn’t quite foresee or figure out how it was going to happen. This was a well guarded secret…so much so that Jesus’ own disciples didn’t understand it, Paul not understand it…neither did the prophets before them or the angels in heaven (1 Peter 1:11 & Eph 3:9)!

Under the new covenant in Christ, God accomplished the seemingly impossible. He made Jew and Gentile alike co-heirs of the inheritance…all children of God…all of the same body and the same faith even apart from the identifying markers of Judaism. In other words, you no longer had to become Jewish to be a child of God. What is more, that this didn’t make the Gentile Christians second class citizens or step-children in the kingdom of God. They were now on the same level in Christ…in the kingdom economy.

This may not seem like BIG news to us. In fact it probably feels like OLD news to us. But it was big news. It was earth shattering news that Jew and Gentile alike could participate in the covenant blessings of God, have equal opportunity of possessing the Holy Spirit, and be joined together in perfect unity as a spiritual house, as the body of Christ and as a temple to the Lord. Both Jew and Gentile are baptized by the same baptism, have faith in the same God, and made ONE in Christ. This isn’t just some material to get through teaching Sunday school…this is a new reality that has broken into this world that we often take for granted.

Why was this a big deal?
Here is why that is a big deal. It is a big deal because in their world there was an insurmountable barrier between these two groups. You catch this in Acts 10 & 11 when Peter goes to Cornelius’ house (A Gentile, Roman centurion). He stays with them and eats with them…something that Peter had previously considered unclean (Acts 10:28-29) and when the Jerusalem Christians found out he had done this they also criticized him for it (Acts 11:1-3). They criticized him for it because that is what they were supposed to do because up until that point that was breaking the rules! They had no idea that God was up to something new until they received confirmation that this wasn’t Peter embarking on a new History channel show called, “Apostles gone wild” but was the working of God (Acts 11:18). We see this in Acts 15 when the apostles decide that there shouldn’t be unnecessary barriers placed in the way of Gentiles who were coming to faith in Christ (Acts 15:19). They were not starting something new in removing the old covenant stipulations and requirements for citizenship and identity among God’s people. They were following God’s lead both through direct revelation to Peter and through giving the Gentiles gifts of the Holy Spirit in order to show God was accepting them (both in Acts 10). God made a way for Gentiles to becoming children of God that didn’t involve flint knives, giving up pulled pork and still allowing them to mow the grass on Sunday…but it really wasn’t about what they got to do or didn’t have to give up…it was about a new identity, a salvation and reconciliation not just to God but also to God’s chosen people.

Here is how Paul explained this in Ephesians 2:11-22,

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Paul uses some strong words here of the pre-Christian Gentile condition: uncircumcised, separate, excluded, without hope, without God, far away, barrier, dividing wall, two groups, hostility, foreigners, & strangers. That is where they were. But through faith in Christ they have become one with the people of God and so a whole new set of words emerge to describe their new situation in Christ: brought near, peace, one, destroyed the barrier, one new humanity out of two, peace, one body, reconcile, put to death hostility, fellow citizens, members of his household, joined together, rises, built together…

In Christ there is a new reality. The two are now one. This is radical reconciliation…notice that in 2:13 the means to make this happen was the blood of Christ. It was his Reconciliationsacrifice that paved the way for a new humanity in which all the nations can be blessed…not only be blessed but to exist in perfect unity of faith. This is a new identity that Christ has brought to the world. Again, this was a mystery in ages past but it has been revealed to us in Christ through the Spirit.

A bit of application
Now, if God can initiate and sustain that sort of reconciliation…the reconciliation of pagan idolaters with the holy people of God…how much more should we be about the work of reconciliation? How much more should we be about doing the difficult, costly and grinding work of reconciling people with people and people with God? This will cost us something. This will cost us our comfort zones. This will cost us our tradition. This might even cost us our own blood…just remember, Jesus went first and then invited us into His ministry. This won’t be easy but it will be worth it.

Last point here – when we think about ministry a lot of words come to mind: worship, prayer, Bible study, preaching, teaching, leading…but there is one word that is rarely used and I have yet to see a graduate level class offered in it – “The ministry of reconciliation.” Paul tells us point blank in 2 Corinthians 5. More on that in the next post!

Baptism (1)The bad news

One more point. There’s an obvious temptation to rely on God’s grace to sin. (Don’t tell me the thought didn’t cross your mind as you read this post.) There are two serious problems with that attitude.

The first is that this is exactly the attitude that gets people damned. God’s patience is not unlimited.

The second is that sin is deceitful.

(Heb 3:13-14 NIV)  13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.  14 We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end.

(Rom 7:11 ESV)  For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.

When we play with intentional sin, we are in the midst of the place where our consciences are being seared and we’re losing the ability to repent. Sin lies — and one of the lies is “You will not surely die.” We become convinced that we can safely do what we know is wrong. Soon we no longer care about the things of God, and soon we’re unable to repent. Read more »

Baptism (1)Losing the ability to repent

So how is this good news? Well, look once more at Heb 6:4-6. Nowhere does it say God will not forgive. Rather, it says the person who falls away will not repent. “It is impossible … to restore them again to repentance.”

But what if someone is saved, then turns his back on Jesus and lives in deep sin, and then returns to Jesus in repentance? Well, then — obviously enough — it was not impossible to restore this person to repentance. Therefore, he did not fall away. He was always saved. Once for all. Perfect for all time.c Because the only people who have fallen away are those who cannot repent.

Paul also speaks of people who have lost the ability to repent —

(1Ti 4:1-2 NASB)  But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons,  2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron … .

(Eph 4:18-19 ESV)  18 They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.  19 They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity.

— as does Peter —

(2Pe 2:20-22 ESV)  20 For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first.  21 For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than after knowing it to turn back from the holy commandment delivered to them.  22 What the true proverb says has happened to them: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.”

How on earth could Peter be right that it’s better for those who’ve fallen way to have never known Jesus? Well, if they’ve become so hard-hearted that repentance is impossible, then they are indeed far worse off than if they’d never heard the gospel.

But, I repeat, this is never about God’s refusal to forgive those who approach him with penitence and faith. It’s about the sinner being unable to repent because he’s become so hardened against the things of God. Read more »

Baptism (1)Hebrews 6

To many, this sounds a lot like God refusing to forgive us, even if we ask. But that’s not the point. Stick with me.

(Heb 6:4-6 ESV)  4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit,  5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,  6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

First, a little Greek. “Impossible” means, well, impossible. It’s the same word used in 6:18 (“it is impossible for God to lie”); 10:4 (“it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”); and 11:6 (“without faith it is impossible to please him”). It does not mean “really difficult.”

Second, the description “those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit,  and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” refers to all Christians. Just as all the Israelites had seen the power of God to rescue them from slavery, the Egyptian army, and the brutal Sinai desert, all Christians have received the Spirit, been enlightened, etc. We’ve experienced what it means to be freed from slavery to sin and to live as children of God.

Third, “fallen away” means “left God so as to become damned.” The same word is used in Eze 14:13 and 15:8 regarding Israel’s rebellion against God that led the Babylonian Captivity and Exile, and the same word (with the ek– prefix) is used in Gal 5:4 of falling away by trying to be saved by works rather than faith in Jesus. The context is more than plain: “fallen away” means “become damned.”

That’s a pretty stark interpretation, but it’s what the text really says. And we will only find the truth of the matter by being entirely honest about what the words mean. Read more »

Baptism (1)[Rather than spreading these posts out over four days, I thought I’d post them all at once, to avoid leaving too many questions unanswered in this difficult topic.]

One of the most challenging passages in all of scripture is Heb 6:4-6 —

(Heb 6:4-6 ESV) 4 For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, 5 and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, 6 and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

On first (second and third) reading, the passage seems to deny the possibility of forgiveness after falling away. And so, all sorts of clever arguments are made by the commentators to explain away the text. I’m going to offer a radical theory. I mean, the topic for the month is “radical reconciliation,” and so this would seem to be the time for radical ideas.

And here’s the idea: the passage means exactly what it says. The problem is that the news it announces is so incredibly good, that we actually insist on reading it as bad news. But it’s not. So bear with me while I unpack that claim. Read more »