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Exploring the Heart of Restoration

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white-dove-hd-720p-animalIf the Spirit brings unity then it only follows that the flesh brings disunity because the two are antithetical to each other. In Greek the word flesh is sarx (you get that in the word sarcophagus = flesh + eater). In its most basic sense the word sarx means our physical flesh, the part of us that covers our bones (BDAG). But flesh can mean more than that. Here is the thing about the nature of flesh. Flesh is corruptible. It is decayable. That is what it does because of what sin and death have done to our bodies. The fleshly component of our physical bodies is also part of what gets redeemed and restored in the resurrection which is why Paul says in 1 Cor 15 that death is an enemy to be defeated and that in the resurrection we truly will have bodies but not bodies of sarx in all its decayable properties but bodies of a spiritual nature, which are still very much bodies. That’s another point for another article but it is still one more piece of the puzzle that spirit and flesh stand in opposition to each other. I am not talking about Platonic dualism where material things are bad and spiritual things are good. I am talking about a particular characteristic of our earthly bodies, not material things in general.

Paul contrasts life led by the Holy Spirit vs life led by the fleshly desires in Romans 8. Here is what he wrote,

Romans 8:1-4:
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,
because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”

The “therefore” reminds us that what he is about to teach us is directly connected to what he said about life under the Law in Romans 7 and the connection between Law and sin and the result of our “body that is subject to death” (7:24). Paul ends that chapter in the very next verse, 7:25 where he says that the solution to that is deliverance that comes through Jesus Christ.

Paul just got things set up for a discussion on the difference between life lived in line with the desires of the Holy Spirit and life lived in line with the desires of corruptible flesh. You see this same distinction made in Galatians 5:16-25 where we find the “fruit of the spirit” contrasted with the life of the flesh,

16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

There are two ways to live in this world – the way that satisfies the desires of corruptible flesh or the way of new life by the Holy Spirit. When you examine the results of each you find they are diametrically opposed to each other…standing in direct opposition to each other. They are mutually exclusive in any given part of life. So when we live by the Spirit we are not living by the flesh and vice-versa.  The Spirit brings life, the flesh death. The Spirit is new creation, the flesh the old man of sin. The Spirit brings light. The flesh brings darkness. The Spirit makes us united. The flesh provokes division.

If you look at divisive moments and decisions in the life of the church, you will often see the desires of the flesh at work in what is happening because that is the nature of the flesh. People seeking to find unity in the Spirit are not people who promote division. The Spirit unites but the flesh divides. The Spirit unites because it leads us in a unified direction as a unified people, sealed with and indwelled by the same Spirit. Flesh gives birth to division because the way of the flesh is the way of discord, bitterness, envy, strife, etc which is what results when we seek to fulfill our most base and carnal desires to please ourselves at the expense of others.

It is impossible to find unity while trying to gratify the desires of the flesh. It is important that we constantly test our desires to make sure that they are truly in line with the Holy Spirit and not our own selfish, sinful, fleshly desires masquerading as Spirit-led living. Even scripture itself can be used in ways that propagate fleshly desires. The devil did this in Matthew 4 and many Christians have followed suit over the years in using scripture to justify all manner of carnal things.

You can always tell what kind of tree it is by the fruit that is produced, which is why I say if you find division you can almost always track it back to fleshly desires. Peter told us that in 1 Peter 2:11, “Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul.” “Sinful desires” is literally “desires of the flesh.” These desires, by their very nature bring war not peace and discord instead of unity.

Here is the rest of what Paul wrote in Romans 8:5-13
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.

12 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.

The other side of the unity of the Spirit is the disunity of the flesh. It is important that we are tune with the antithetical nature of flesh to Spirit so that we can better discern where our desires are truly coming from and be aware of the consequences. If we ever want to achieve unity in Christianity, we are going to have to address our fleshly desires that make unity impossible to achieve.

Every year, Abilene Christian University’s Siburt Institute for Church Ministry provides an ongoing service by collecting compensation data from ministers in Churches of Christ and publishing the results electronically. The late Dr. Charles Siburt initiated the Ministers’ Salary Survey in 2004 as one of his many efforts to build congregations and their leaders.

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I suggest five (yes, count them, five) modes of visible unity that give expression to the underlying unity of the Spirit among believers. These practices not only exhibit the unity of the Spirit but are also means by which the Spirit dynamically works among believers for unity. The Spirit acts through them to manifest the unity the Spirit has already achieved. At the same time these practices are also transformative as they not only move us into a deeper experience and recognition of that unity but they also transform us as exhibits of that unity.

  1. Confession – we confess Jesus is Lord by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Paul provides the ground of this point: “No one is able to say “Jesus is Lord” except by (in) the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Contextually, this stands in contrast with those who say “Jesus is cursed” or who serve idols. This is an orienting confession. It is a centered-set confession, that is, we confess Jesus at the center of our faith journey. It is a directional confession, that is, we have turned our face toward Jesus and we walk toward him. But none of this is possible except by the work of the Spirit. The confession arises out of the Spirit’s work, operates within the life of the Spirit, and lives because we have all drunk of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).

This confession is made from within a story, which is essentially what is called the Apostles’s Creed or the developing Regula Fidei (Rule of Faith) of the early church. It gives shape to the confession of the Lordship of Jesus and locates believers in the flow of the history of God’s people. We confess the Father as creator, Jesus as the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit as the communion of believers.

Theologically, we acknowledge this, whoever confesses “Jesus is Lord” does so “in (or by) the Spirit.” We recognize the work of the Spirit in the confession itself. Whenever we hear Jesus confessed, or the Triune faith articulated, we confess that the Spirit is at work. We may embrace the unity of believers through this confession that is the result of the Spirit’s enabling presence.

  1. Transformation – we are sanctified by the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).

We all know Jesus’s saying “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). Sanctification belongs to the Holy Spirit who indwells, empowers, and gifts us for new life in Christ.

Theologically, transformation is the goal of God’s agenda. Transformation is an effect of communion. Through mutual indwelling, we are transformed by the presence of the Spirit in our lives. The fruit of the Spirit, then, is evidence of our union with God. The fruit of the Spirit is the life of the Spirit already present in us. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared sanctification or mutually experienced transformation that is the result of the enabling presence of the Spirit.

  1. Liturgy – we worship in the Spirit (John 4:24; Philippians 3:3).

The foundation of liturgy—not necessarily the foundation of liturgical forms—is the work of the Spirit. Our liturgical acts—not necessarily our liturgical forms—are deeply rooted in the work of the Spirit. Assembly, as communal praise and worship, is mediated by the Spirit. We worship the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Assembly, as an eschatological, transforming and sacramental encounter with God, happens in the Spirit; it is a pneumatic event. This is what gives significance and meaning to Assembly, and it is also the root of the unity we experience through Assembly as the whole church—throughout time and space—are gathered before the throne of the Father in the Spirit.

Liturgy might not appear to be a very fruitful approach to thinking about the unity of the Spirit since “worship” has often divided communities. The point will turn on whether or not we are able to discern the role of the Spirit in liturgy that transcends specific forms. If we take seriously the point—made in the Gospel of John—that the Spirit vivifies all life, sacrament, and worship in such a way that the reality is rooted in the work of the Spirit rather than in the specific form, then we can move beyond binding the Spirit to that form. There are no fixed forms that bind the Spirit. Rather there are gracious gifts—even specific forms—through which the Spirit offers communion and grace (e.g., sacraments). We may have preferred forms or even think some forms more biblical or more theologically coherent, but the forms are not boundaries for the Spirit.

To recognize that the Spirit is the means by whom we commune with and experience God, that this means is not dependent upon perfectionistic obedience to specified forms, and that the Spirit is not limited by forms, enables us to affirm the presence of the Spirit among those communities who do not share the forms that we think are most biblical. We may embrace the unity of believers (worshippers) through our eschatological and sacramental encounter with God in assembly by the enabling presence of the Spirit.

  1. Practicing the Kingdom of God – we minister in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:18-19).

Spirit Christology is particularly important in the Gospel of Luke. The Spirit anoints Jesus, leads him into the wilderness, and empowers him for ministry in Luke 3-4. This is the ministry of the kingdom of God in which Jesus practices the kingdom of God by heralding the good news of the kingdom, exercising authority over the principalities and powers, and healing brokenness. Jesus is sent, and he sends a people.

This is the missional ministry into which believers are called. This praxis is an expression of the life of the Spirit within the community, and the community of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, continues the teaching and doing of Jesus, that is, they continue to practice the kingdom of God.

When believers practice the kingdom of God, the Spirit is present. Where the Spirit is present, Jesus is present. This manifests the unity of the Spirit through praxis. It is a missional unity. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared ministry (shared participation in the good news of the kingdom of God) by the enabling presence of the Spirit.

  1. Spiritual Formation Practices – we pray in the Spirit (Jude 20).

In Luke’s Gospel the kingdom of God comes in response to prayer by the ministry of the Spirit. This connects points four and five, but it also calls us deeper into the experience of prayer itself.

The unity of believers through the presence of the Spirit in prayer is a common theme in the history of spirituality. Throughout that history we see evidence of the presence of the Spirit in communal and individual experiences. This is where an acquaintance, if not a full immersion in, the history of spirituality might open doors for conversations about unity.

Theologically, we recognize that the practice of prayer (as well as other disciplines) is rooted in the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is present to listen and speak in these moments. When a community practices them together, or each member of a community practices them in their own walk with God, the Spirit works to unite through shared experiences and shared communion. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared experience and communion in prayer by the enabling presence of the Spirit.

Conclusion

The present experience of visible unity, however, is progressive (though not always evident). The present is not a “perfect” manifestation of the eschatological telos. Consequently, we pursue unity, just as we pursue sanctification. The church is constantly undergoing a process of communal sanctification parallel to the process of individual sanctification. It should not surprise us that the church is not united in experience since we all acknowledge our own progressive sanctification.

At the same time, however, we are not left with nothing. Though we have not yet experienced the fullness of our unity with God and with each other—and we will not until the eschaton, we do—even now—experience that future when we give space to the presence of the Spirit. We are already united, and we progressively experience that reality the more the Spirit sanctifies our communities and our lives. The present practice of visible unity though marred by brokenness is healed by mercy; it is hindered by human brokenness but empowered by the gifts the Spirit offers to the church, which include the five gifts listed above.

Through the practice of these gifts, the Spirit mediates an already-but-not-yet experience of that unity. Together, we confess Jesus is Lord; together, we seek transformation; together, we participate in the eschatological assembly; together, we practice the kingdom of God; and together, we pray in the Spirit. Yes, you counted correctly. The number is five.

[For a fuller reading of this perspective within the context of Stone-Campbell history, click here.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PatrickMeadAfter my last post – a look at a Jesus story out of Mark – I was asked to look at this story out of John 9 and walk through that in the same way. Okay, here we go…

But before we can get started in chapter 9 we need to remember John’s overarching theme. We don’t have to guess at it because he lays it out in chapter 1:1-13. Jesus is light and the bringer of light. The darkness doesn’t “get” Jesus and remains in opposition to him. Go through John (s.l.o.w.l.y) and notice all the darkness vs. light stories.

The story in John 9 seems to stand alone quite well so, without any further setup: “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.” Stop right there. Jesus noticed people. He saw them. He didn’t hurry from one place to another with the kind of me-based tunnel vision that most of us have. In our world of noise and rush and the constant siren call of the next thing it can be hard to practice this one discipline: to see and, more specifically, to see others. Here is a man who has been blind since birth. He has no standing in society but he is worth Jesus’ time and notice.

This is a critical thing to absorb before moving on to verse two: “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” Did you catch that? Jesus saw a man; his disciples saw an object lesson or theological issue. It was reported to me by a friend years ago that several churches in his community met to discuss “the gay issue” and the “gay problem.” If memory serves me, my friend said that it was hours into the discussion before a young man stood up and said “I am not a problem. I am Mark.” The churches had been discussing problems without realizing (I assume) that there was at least one gay man among them and he wasn’t a problem, he was a person. Regardless of where you come down on this or any issue, it helps to remember that the other person is a person, not a problem.

The apostles were trying to make sense of their world. That’s how we come up with a lot of our ideas about God: we want things to make sense. If we believe in a good, all powerful God and if we also believe in justice we have to believe that there is some penalty for sin. It is an easy move from there to assigning blame to those who are suffering, assuming that there is some sin behind that suffering…but whose? This “blame the victim” mentality doesn’t just exist in religion, it is everywhere. Eastern religions push the horrible doctrine of Karma that says we suffer to balance out the evil we have done in the universe: we get what we deserve. When entire nation systems are built on that doctrine, we get India with its caste systems and lack of provision for the poor.

We see people who are continually sick and on the prayer list and after awhile compassion fatigue sets in and we wonder what they’re doing wrong to be so sick all the time. We fall for supplement quacks and TV doctors with gleaming teeth that tell us we are suffering because of this or that food we eat (or don’t eat) or because we didn’t do their exercise program or…We find ways to blame the victim (or a conspiracy or the government) when we suffer. The apostles were just like us: they saw something (not someone) and wanted to understand it. In one sense, we are all Job’s counselors and after awhile we default to blaming the victim.

Perhaps they just wanted to settle an old argument among themselves – and their society – about exactly how God struck back at sin and if He might use the children’s misery to punish the parents. Perhaps they were frightened at seeing someone disabled and wanted to find a reason that they weren’t and, by finding it, keep from becoming disabled at the hands of God themselves. Some of our veterans who’ve returned with missing limbs and horribly burned and scarred faces feel this every day as people glance their way and then either stare in horror/fascination or quickly turn and go the other direction. It is a natural human response to seeing reminders of our frailty. “It could’ve been me” or “there but for the grace of God go I.”

This next part has caused a lot of trouble in some circles and rejoicing in others. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Calvinists have written reams on this, saying that this proves that all things are in God’s plan. They say that God planned from eternity that this man be born blind so that when Jesus came by he could heal him and, thus, show his power. This begs a lot of questions and raises a lot of issues: weren’t there enough blind people already available in 1st century Judah? Couldn’t Jesus show his power another way? Didn’t he? Are you saying that the bringer of light is a bringer of darkness, too?

Jesus sees this man’s blindness as an opportunity to do good “along the way” as Deuteronomy 6 might say. “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Did you notice? There’s that “light theme” again. Jesus cuts off the theological debate for it is not a question of who sinned or even if sin had anything to do with the man’s blindness, it is a question of who is going to help the blind man. I believe that Jesus is actively speaking against the assumptions of Calvin and his followers who claim that this passage proves that blindness is as much a part of God’s plan as is the restoration of sight. That makes Jesus not only a bringer of light…but the reason for darkness in this man’s life. The consequence of strict Calvinism is to lay at the feet of God the blame for every evil deed, every moment of suffering in human existence (and even that in the animal kingdom): all planned, all determined by God. One of the most famous Calvinists in the US today was asked the day after the school shootings in New England if God determined which child was shot and which child was not and he said “Yes.” I find that abhorrent and I don’t see that teaching in John 9 – or elsewhere.

Instead of accepting that some people have to suffer and be born blind because sin is in the world or because God has a higher purpose, Jesus immediately goes to work to restore light to this individual. I am chastened by his response because I have often caught myself thinking and puzzling over ramifications, doctrine, and issues instead of just acting in love where I was with what I had to the people in front of me at the time. Jesus doesn’t say “he was born blind so that God’s power and works may be revealed” but that is way we usually read it because we read it so fast and we read it through our humanity: assumptions and all. Greg Boyd says this in God at War “…Jesus is simply saying that, in contrast to the misguided moralistic speculations of the disciples, the only thing that matters concerning this man’s blindness is that God can overcome it and thus be glorified through it…” (pg233). Jesus made it plain in Luke 13:1-5 that the doctrine of karma and the assumptions of Job’s counselors are groundless and false: there isn’t a sin-punishment matrix that perfectly fits over human experience.

Sometimes we suffer because we are alive on a planet where everything dies. Sometimes we suffer because bad people do bad things and their evil splashes consequences on us. Sometimes we suffer because we took too long coming down the birth canal through no fault of our own or our mother’s. Sometimes things happen. Full stop. The question is, how we will treat those who’ve been caught by the crashing waves of evil or disease or suffering and how we will behave when it is our turn to be swept out by that same wave? Jesus reminds the disciples that their time is limited: see a person, help a person. Now. Don’t wait. Don’t spend time in arguing the theology of it, just do it. Reminds me a bit of Romans 14:1-15:7.

There is much more to be said about this story but I will let it wait for a few days. Thanks to all of you who wrote me, shared the last post, and who’ve encouraged me to write more of these. I am praying about doing a book length treatment of these stories since they brought me back to faith and have kept me there. As a non-theologian, that is not an easy decision. Pray that I will have the wisdom to do them justice here and elsewhere. Peace.

white-dove-hd-720p-animalStone’s point regarding our need for fire (Spirit) union leads inevitably to —

(Eph. 5:18-21 ESV) 18 And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, 19 addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, 20 giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 21 submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Our spiritual disease, which Stone calls book, head, and water union, is amply demonstrated by the fact that, to many among us, this passage is about what it does not say. It says nothing of instrumental music, and so it’s read as a prohibition against instruments. We thereby entirely miss what it does say!

It says that we are to “be filled with the Spirit … .” The references to singing are, grammatically, participles hanging on the verb “be filled.” You can’t get the participles right if you don’t understand the verb they modify. Hence, we should not make the least attempt to apply this passage without first exegeting “be filled with the Spirit” — as this is the central point of the passage — and yet this is the one part of the passage the we refuse to read, teach, preach, or understand! Read more »

hot-300414_1280     I don’t know how many times I have spoken of it. Or written about it either. But over the years I have talked often about the hymn I’ll Fly Away.

There is something quite compelling about the lyrics:

Some glad morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away;
To a home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.
 
When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away;
Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away.
 
Just a few more weary days and then, I’ll fly away;
To a land where joy shall never end, I’ll fly away.
 
I’ll fly away, Oh Glory I’ll fly away;
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by, I’ll fly away!

It’s probably not the most theologically correct song. Certainly the words are not the most erudite you will ever find. But it resonates. Oh, how it resonates.

I have no death wish.
I have no desire to leave my family.
Immeasurably more than I could ever explain, I love my wife, my family, my work, and you.

It’s just that simple.

But still the song resonates.

In a world where death stalks the living, in a world where evil seems to thrive, in a world where life can be so fragile, we can look forward to the day when the final victory is ours. And because there will be a day, we can live now! We can find meaning in the darkest hour, hard though it might be.

So, while we wait, I want to live life to the fullest. I want to know joy. I want to spread sunshine. I want to be at peace and happy no matter what this world brings.

How about you?

I haven’t always done the best at that. My faith has not always been as strong. I have faced challenges that cut my sea legs right out from under me. I have been angry and bitter toward God and others. But I have come to understand and experience peace in the valley.

Philippians 4:4-7, Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

That’s how I want to live today, tomorrow, and every day…

Let’s learn to really live, together, you and I! Even better, let’s learn how to live together in unity–because there will be a day!

There will be a day with no more tears
No more pain, and no more fears
There will be a day when the burdens of this place
Will be no more, we’ll see Jesus face to face
 
There will be a day he will wipe away the tears
He will wipe away the tears
He will wipe away the tears
There will be a day
(Jeremy Camp)

sailboat-1149519_1280

 

Les, Jr.
Madison/ Ridgeland, MS

PatrickMeadI’ve mentioned before that I took time decades ago to read the Gospels over and over for six months. It changed my world. It changed everything. On Wednesday evenings at Fourth Avenue in Franklin, TN I share some of the stories in a class called “Just Jesus Stories.” We covered one last night that hasn’t stopped rocking my world since the late 80s when I spent weeks thinking about it.

When I suggest you read Mark 10:46-52 I am really suggesting that you take a few weeks to read and absorb it. While the Book of Mark is, to me, frustratingly episodic and almost devoid of explanation and context I think that might have been part of the plan in that it makes us sit back and fill in the gaps – if we are willing to take the time to enter the story.

Jesus and his disciples are being followed by a large crowd as they leave Jericho (as usual, Mark tells us nothing of why they went there or what happened there). A blind man is outside the city begging for alms. Giving alms was a big part of Jewish culture; there was no workman’s compensation, Social Security, welfare, or Medicaid so those who were disabled had to rely on the goodwill of their fellow men for survival. Stories abound of them begging for alms here or there on high trafficked routes (such as by the Beautiful Gate to the temple in Jerusalem in Acts 3). Friends and family would bring their disabled loved ones out in the morning and get them set up for the day’s begging and then come get them in the evening if, indeed, the beggar was fortunate enough to have friends and family. It was a harsh life and it would do us well to sit back and contemplate what might have gone through their minds each and every day as they sat or stood helplessly relying on others for their very survival.

But something amazing happens next and by “amazing” I don’t mean the miracle of restored sight. It may seem odd to you but the miracles are, in some ways, the least impressive part of these Jesus stories to me. I believe that Jesus was the Son of God and creator of the universe so, as the developer of Eyes 1.0, I am not at all surprised by his ability to restore sight. No, first amazing thing in this story is…we know the beggar’s name.

Think about that. Beggars had no standing in the social order of the day. They were not respected and held no rank or property. And yet…God seemed to think it was important for us to know this man’s name: Bartimaeus. When that first hit me I stepped away from this story for nearly two weeks to give myself time to work out the ramifications of that: God knows that beggar’s name and He wants us to know it, too.

I found myself stopping after walking down a street or in a mall and turning around to see who I’d missed. Who wasn’t important enough to notice? Who did I actually notice and turn away from, perhaps unconsciously? Who were the Bartimaeus’ in my path whose name was known by God but whom I had treated as less important than myself or my mission of the day? I still make this a spiritual discipline, an everyday call to worship. On Sundays, I know that the members of my church want to greet me and visit with me but I find myself darting around looking for the Bartimaeus’ who might have come in and been unnoticed. The fact that God gave us this man’s name changed me.

Who does God see? Who does He think is important? Why did He want us to know this man’s name if not to impress on us the value of this person – and every person? The story moves on. Bartimaeus, once he hears that this is Jesus of Nazareth, calls out for alms and calls Jesus “Son of David.” It is at least possible that this beggar was also a son of David — of the same tribe as Jesus. It would have made sense for him to call that out and use that relationship to help his odds of receiving alms. It could even be that he had met Jesus before. Jesus had relationships with many people that can only be ascertained by backwards engineering the stories we find in these books: a colt is released for his use as soon as someone says it is for him, men immediately drop nets and follow him when he calls them. That only happens when you’ve already met a person, know them, and have a good relationship with them. As much as Jesus seemed to crave privacy and quiet, alone time he worked at building relationships that paid off time and time again in the Gospel stories. Maybe this was another one.

The crowd tried to shut the beggar up – a common response to beggars hassling you right when you’re trying to do something else like listen to a famous local rabbi – but Jesus “stopped” and told them to bring Bartimaeus to him. I like it that Jesus stopped. Until I spent a lot of time in these stories I assumed that just meant he stopped walking but that wouldn’t explain why the crowd was so adamant that the beggar be quiet. I now think that Jesus was teaching the crowd and they were straining to hear his words. Bartimaeus was interrupting church, shall we say. That was impolite, impolitic even. But Jesus wasn’t interested in what the polite rules of the day were – he stopped.

I spent a few weeks thinking about that before I moved on. Will we – do we – stop church services, our formal or informal liturgies, for sudden needs or because we noticed someone that was in pain or left out?

And here is where it really gets stunning: Bartimaeus is brought in front of Jesus, a meeting of a beggar with zero standing in the world with the creator of the universe. And Jesus says…”What do you want me to do for you?” Sit back and let that rock your world. Almighty God looks at a beggar and doesn’t rush in, doesn’t intrude, doesn’t demand or assume. Rather, God looks at the beggar, whose name he knows, and asks what he can do for him.

Wow. I remember the old hymn we sang when I was a boy “Does Jesus care when my heart is pained too deeply for mirth or song, as the burdens press and the cares distress and the way grows weary and long? O yes, he cares, I know he cares. His heart is touched with my grief…” Mark has Bartimaeus saying “Rabbi, I want to see.” Some versions have a more poignant rendering: “Lord…if I could see…” And so Jesus gives him his sight. That restores more that sight, though – it gives him back his life, his standing, his place in the world…a place he had never lost in God’s eyes. He’d only lost it in the eyes of men.

And Jesus walks on. He does that a lot after healing people and even after raising a girl from the dead. He doesn’t capitalize on the miracle or bask in the adulation of the crowd. He merely does good to the Bartimaeus’ of the world and walks on. So when he tells us to “Follow me” I get the sense of what he really wants from me today.

From me. Because he knows my name, too.

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Barton W. Stone

The Restoration Movement, which gave birth to today’s Churches of Christ, was founded by Barton W. Stone and Thomas Campbell. Stone was earlier than Campbell by a few years, and worked in Illinois at a time when Illinois was the American frontier.

Stone had been an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he was excommunicated when he began serving communion to non-Presbyterians. He had preached at the famous Cane Ridge Revival and seen men and women converted by gospel preaching — even though many of the preachers weren’t fellow Presbyterians. Even Methodist and Baptist preachers brought people to Jesus. Indeed, in his autobiography, Stone declared, while near his own death many decades later, that not a single convert from Cane Ridge had strayed from Jesus. Each conversion had been clearly genuine as shown by the fruit of the Spirit borne by each.

His rejection by Presbyterian authorities led him to participate in the dissolution of the Springfield Presbytery, an organization of Presbyterian congregations that decided to be Christians only but not the only Christians. To explain their decision, they wrote the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery — the earliest document of the Restoration Movement.

THE PRESBYTERY OF SPRINGFIELD, sitting at Cane Ridge, in the county of Bourbon. Being, through a gracious providence, in more than ordinary bodily health, growing in strength and size daily; and in perfect soundness and composure of mind; but knowing that it is appointed for all delegated bodies once to die: and considering that the life of every such body is very uncertain, do make, and ordain this our last Will and Testament, in manner and following, viz: Read more »

markpowellAs a professor of theology and a minister in the church, I take seriously James’s warning that teachers “will be judged more strictly” (Jas. 3:1, NIV). Something has to distinguish authentic Christian belief from the host of other religions and ideologies, and the preservation of the gospel requires opposition to certain beliefs and practices. For my part, I maintain that authentic Christian belief is rooted in the historic Christian vision of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and what this God has done for the redemption of all creation, including the incarnation and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

As important as these shared beliefs are, however, there is something more fundamental to unity. In fact Christians can agree on matters of belief and practice and still be divided by race and ethnicity, social status, political convictions, musical preferences, and even petty slights. More fundamental than our religious convictions and social identity markers is our union in Christ (Gal. 3:26-28) and the shared Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), which God has graciously given to us in our baptism. Further Jesus’s followers must have a heart that desires and pursues unity. A spirit of authentic unity is possible only by God’s Spirit of unity working in us.

In Ephesians 4:1 Paul calls Christians to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” English translations usually translate 4:2-3 as a series of imperatives or commands, but these verses are actually prepositional phrases and participles that expand upon and describe the “life worthy of the calling you have received.” This way of life includes being humble and gentle, being patient, bearing with one another in love, and making “every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit though the bond of peace” (4:2-3). Christian unity is a gift of the Spirit, but it is also something Christians are called to pursue. Just as Christians are to grow in the virtues of humility, gentleness, patience, and love, so Christians are to desire and develop a spirit of unity.

A spirit of unity, like the rest of the Christian virtues, is “the fruit of the Spirit” in our lives. In other words, a spirit of unity is evidence of the Spirit’s presence and working in us. It is interesting to consider both “the acts of the flesh” and “the fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5 in regards to Christian unity. The acts of the flesh include things like “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy” (5:20-21). In other words divisiveness is a destructive sin that comes quite easily to us and regularly tempts us. The acts of the flesh are contrasted with the fruit of the Spirit, which includes virtues that, among other things, cultivate unity in the church: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (5:22-23). The Spirit of unity gives the virtues needed to pursue and maintain unity to those who humbly seek God.

Like the rest of Christian discipleship, the pursuit and maintenance of unity is beyond our natural capabilities and inclinations. We need God’s Spirit to help us grow in wisdom as we discern which beliefs and practices are fundamental and spiritually healthy, and which are not. We need God’s Spirit to give us ears to hear God’s truth, especially when it comes from our opponents, and mouths that speak the truth in love. We need God’s Spirit to help us desire peace and love the unlovable. Christian unity is possible only by the power of the Spirit who binds the church together as one.

Even more so than a rigid uniformity, a spirit of unity among Christians is crucial for the proclamation of the gospel. An institutional unity preserved by power is far less compelling than a spirit of love even in the midst of visible divisions. After all, maybe God allows the divisions that exist, even among those who call on the name of Jesus, to help us grow in maturity and rely on God rather than our own schemes. Still, God calls us to pursue peace with others and submit to the Spirit’s work in our lives. As we do we live in hope, longing for the day when God gathers his people together as one, and the unity we already have in Christ is experienced in full.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 15:5-6).

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Mark Powell is professor of theology at Harding School of Theology in Memphis, Tennessee. His latest book is Centered in God: The Trinity and Christian Spirituality.

pope-francis-patriarch-kirill-meetThe schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches is over 1,000 years old. Ecumenical efforts have been attempted over the centuries, all to little avail. But things are changing thanks to — amazingly enough — persecution.

According to Christianity Today, Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the Orthodox churches, met in Cuba’s Havana airport. This is the first such meeting in a thousand years. Their discussion dealt with the persecution of Christians in the Middle East — many of whom are either Catholic or Orthodox. Many are also evangelical or Protestant. We Protestants have had missionaries in the Middle East for centuries.

Moreover, there are Christian churches in the Middle East that date literally to the apostles themselves. Much of Paul’s activity was in Asia Minor: modern-day Turkey. Other apostles worked in modern-day Syria and Iraq. We think of these as Muslim nations, but they were Christian nations centuries before Mohammad.

Pope Frances recently commented, Read more »