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God works through us.
It’s not that He can’t work in other ways; obviously He can and does. But because He believes in us — that astounding fact of scripture which simply cannot be denied or dismissed — He wants to work through us.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. ~ Philippians 1:3-6
Can you conclude anything from this that there is a partnership in the gospel? That “he who began a good work in you” can be anyone other than God? So is this partnership just between Paul and the folks at Philippi?
(for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), ~ Galatians 2:8
No! It’s God working through Peter to the circumcised and through Paul to the Gentiles! How does He do that?
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. ~ Ephesians 2:8-10
Is it just to Peter and Paul? Does He just makes work for us? No! It’s for all, and for every:
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. ~ 2 Corinthians 9:8
Does He just give us the grace to prepare ourselves for the work? Not by a long shot! There are gifts attached to that grace:
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. ~ Romans 12:3-8
So He gives us specific gifts to prepare us for the work He has prepared for us to do. But prepared us in what way?
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:4-6
He empowers us. The Spirit, the Lord, God. How much power are we talking about?
Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. ~ Ephesians 3:20-22
That’s a lot of power! Does He do it long-distance?
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. ~ Colossians 1:24-29
No; from within! Christ in us. It’s His energy working powerfully within us. That makes us partners in the gospel with God, through Christ!
Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. ~ 2 Corinthians 6:1
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. ~ 2 Corinthians 5:20
How does Christ dwell in us? Through His Holy Spirit:
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. ~ Romans 8:9-11
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. ~ 1 Corinthians 3:16-17
The Spirit of God! The Spirit of Christ! Without His Spirit within us, we have no hope of resurrection! We have no chance of escaping destruction! Without His Spirit, we have no way to partner with God in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ!
We can know scripture forward and backward and think we know everything it means, and if we do not have the Spirit dwelling within us, we are pointless and powerless in our attempts to minister. By the Spirit, God speaks through us:
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus is accursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:3
And the One who knows how best to prepare and empower each of us does so at His own discretion, not ours:
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. ~ 1 Corinthians 12:7-11
Therefore we work for the common good, Paul says, in partnership with God to build His building, sow and water and tend His field:
For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. ~ 1 Corinthians 3:9
So how do we respond to this offer of powerful, dwell-within partnership?
Do we say, “Well thanks, God, but I’ve got my Bible and I understand it completely and perfectly; that’s all I need and I don’t really want your help”?
Or, “I’m just not sure about all that miraculous stuff or being a part of that; it’s not that I believe You can’t do it, but it scares me a little bit and I’d rather just believe that You don’t work that way anymore because it’s too likely to be perceived as fake and I don’t want to have my credibility damaged”?
Perhaps just: “Oh, You don’t need me, Lord. Use my brother; he talks better than I do”?
Maybe: “I’m catching the next outbound boat for the other direction.”
Do any of those sound familiar?
The culture of the world around us laughs at the concept; it is as outdated as poodle skirts and penny loafers — or the idea that someone can be (or even try to be) objective.
And the subculture of Christians who made it a four-letter word is at least partly to blame.
We made sexual abstinence a four-letter word, and that word is “Don’t.”
That’s all the world around us can hear when the word is spoken in the context of sex, because that’s the way we preached it.
A prohibition. A command. A requirement. A demand. An imposed sacrifice.
It wasn’t always that way.
Centuries ago, those who sought the heart of God and the grace of Christ saw abstinence as something completely different; something more; something blessed and blessing to those who committed to it. Church orders practicing vows of celibacy sprang up and called to those who yearned for that more-ness and closer-ness through consecration and dedication, as surely as the desert had called to those who sought it through isolation, meditation and poverty.
Maybe that life doesn’t resonate with us, but that’s no reason to discount it entirely — or reduce it to a four-letter imperative. There was more to the concept than that, and there still is.
When God warned Moses to have Israel’s people consecrate themselves by washing and three days of sexual abstinence, it was coupled with a warning that the mountain of meeting would be off-limits to them. They were called to purity — not just the single people; the married as well — as a recognition of the extraordinary holiness and significance of God’s presence among them. (Exodus 19)
In the forty days and nights which followed, a significant number of the laws God revealed to Moses would have to do with sexual purity, and by the process of elimination (of those one must not have sexual relations with, per Leviticus 20) they all boiled down to this: God’s intention, gift and desire was for a man and woman who loved each other exclusively — bound by a vow of commitment to each other — to seal that vow through sexual union.
No one else.
Nor was this simply a singular incident isolated to the Old Testament.
In a teaching on marriage and divorce, Jesus raises the stakes on the divine intention for marriage — and closes it by (possibly) recognizing those who choose another path as a “eunuch” for the sake of the kingdom. (Matthew 19:12) A eunuch, as one can see from frequent mentions in scripture, is someone not only deprived of sexual function but also taking the role of a servant.
And unquestionably, Paul’s advice to married people is generally to honor each other through sexual relations, and the only exception he makes is a temporary period of abstinence by mutual consent for the purpose of prayer. I tend to take that period of “fasting” as an expression of purity and devotion to God. Whether married or single, either way of life should be considered a “gift from God.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-7)
Abstinence, especially among those who are not married, can provide an unparalleled opportunity to serve God.
Focus. Through the very reason Paul mentions later in the chapter: even without the same “present crisis” or shortness of time taking place today that was current then (7:25-31), the interests of the single can be singly on the Lord; the interests of the married are naturally divided between Lord and spouse (7:32-35).
We tend to see that as quaint but antiquated doctrine, and easily ignored. That was then; this is now; no one today could possibly think that abstinence could provide an unparalleled opportunity to serve God.
But the truth of it remains; the principle is as strong today as it was in the first century.
The culture around us sees it as unrealistic; a violation of personal rights; an expectation of God that is unreasonable and cannot be followed.
None of us has any self-control anymore?
No one is capable of using the power of brain over the power of genitalia?
No one can remain faithful to a spouse if they travel away from the home for a period of a few days?
No one has an unselfish desire to devote themselves wholly to serving the Lord over the transient pleasures of sexual congress?
And we believers, in our subculture, don’t see it all that differently. We won’t say it’s unrealistic (though we might think it); we just say its time has come and gone.
To our great loss.
I’m not calling for a renewal of monastic orders because I don’t believe Jesus was calling for them. I am, however, advocating a renewed way of looking at an opportunity we have neglected and sometimes denigrated — an opportunity for deep, personal spiritual formation through service to God and through a kind of kenosis we don’t like to talk about.
I’m not a martinet, nor a fool.
There are so many today who — by nature, their own choice or the choice of others (to use Jesus’ phrasing) — have had no opportunity to honor a beloved one with a pledge of fidelity sealed with sexual union. Many of them never will. That can be viewed one of two ways: a terrible, tragic oversight by an unfair God or an opportunity to serve in a unique way focused on liberation from the limitations of this life in an eternity graced by the presence of God.
There were people in the first century who served the Lord married; Peter, for one (he had a mother-in-law, remember?) … yet he spent a great deal of his time in Jerusalem, possibly at home with family as it should be, and only getting out for the occasional short mission trip to Antioch.
There were also people in the first century who served the Lord single, and people like Paul had the occasion to get their equivalent of passports stamped all over the Mediterranean while sharing the gospel, baptizing new believers and helping establish local church plants.
You may well think, “Keith, it’s easy for you to say these things — you’re a widower and pushing 60 like a hot rod accelerator.”
Granted. To a degree. I can say these things, but it is not easy.
Hey, I’m old … not dead.
I am almost two years away from having lost my dearest; I have not forgotten. Of course sex with the one you’ve committed to love for the rest of your life is fantastic. It’s incomparable. There is nothing else like it.
Yet as a single person again, I am beginning to see that there is also nothing else like an uncomplicated, undistracted opportunity to serve the Lord you love with all your heart, mind, soul and strength.
I am not there yet.
But I do recognize the potential described in scripture.
And it is so much more than the four-letter word “Don’t.”
I want my old soft comft’rble shoes
to tap my feet to gospel-and-blues
Church is a holy place
You’re there by walking, not grace
So wear your old, soft comft’rble shoes.
The Bible’s so convenient for me
It authorizes all the right “do’s”
And if you do a “don’t,” don’t you see,
You won’t have golden slippers for shoes.
I need my old, soft, comft’rble shoes
To walk the old paths that I choose
If I like ‘em, they’re hot
If I don’t like ‘em, they’re not
Authorized by comft’rble truths (I meant “shoes”!).
Repentance is a wonderful thing
For folks who need to leave behind sin
with faith, confessing and baptizing …
I’m glad I’ll never need it again.
I love my old soft comft’rble shoes
to tap my feet to gospel-and-blues
I changed that once for Him
So I don’t have to again
Won’t change my old, soft, comft’rble shoes.
Now worship is a serious time
A little joy but not too much happiness
If you do it right, it is sublime
If you do more or less, you’re in a mess.
I’ve got my old soft comft’rble shoes
to tap my feet to gospel-and-blues
Don’t need no podium plants
Don’t need no spiritual dance
Don’t want to see raised hands
Don’t want to hear praise bands
Don’t need no grace-filled rants
Don’t need no women in pants
Just a cappella songs
And hearing “We’re right; they’re wrong”s
And wearing old, soft, comft’rble shoes.
I hope you’ll honor my last request
When you put me down for the big snooze
Just dress me up like all of the rest
And put me in my old comft’rble shoes.
I want my old soft comft’rble shoes
to rest my feet to gospel-and-blues
So when it’s time to fly
into that sweet by-and-by
In the children’s classic The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’ oft-quoted passage about Aslan (Narnia’s own Lion of the Tribe of Judah) gives the readers in post-World War II England a powerful image of the King of Kings.
I’m not so certain it is as powerful for the readers in postmodern America.
We’re not fond of kings. Our country was formed in defiance to the taxation edict of a king named George, and we decided we’d rather not have our tea taxed, and we were ready to die to have it our way.
We chose our own George and made sure that his authority was checked and balanced, and that he could not ever become a king.
The whole idea of a king is vaguely repugnant to us, unless it is attached to a symbolic monarchy, and the actual governing is done democratically. That one man (or woman) should decide what’s best for all of the rest of us lesser beings and subjects makes our skin crawl. We don’t want to serve anyone but ourselves, generally. And we certainly don’t want anyone telling us what to do.
Even with our President tightly limited by the Constitution, we hold little respect for the office anymore, claiming our constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of speech to lionize him or her in the public media to the point of hate speech and beyond.
We’re Americans. And nobody pushes us around.
But earlier empires did not always hate their king.
Israel had its share of good kings and bad, but one shone more brightly than all the rest combined: David, the shepherd king.
They loved David. David was a man after God’s own heart, no matter how fallible he was; no matter how poor a father or how willing he might have been to abandon his palace to a rebellious son. He sang of God and His love and His law. Before he became king, he soothed his predecessor’s madness with his compositions and performances of praise. When the tabernacle was brought home from enemies, he danced his heart out in praise. His people loved him for it.
When he felt himself inspired to create a palatial temple for God, and God’s prophet told him that it would not be his to build, David decided to prepare the way for his son Solomon to build it during his own reign. He gave out of his own wealth. He asked the people how many would consecrate themselves to this task, and they gave too, willingly and generously. Then David praised God in humility:
“Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.”
This is the kind of king of which prophets like Jeremiah spoke when they foretold the Messiah, the promised king to come:
“‘In those days and at that time I will make a righteous Branch sprout from David’s line; he will do what is just and right in the land. … For this is what the Lord says: ‘David will never fail to have a man to sit on the throne of Israel, nor will the Levitical priests ever fail to have a man to stand before me continually to offer burnt offerings, to burn grain offerings and to present sacrifices.’”
When those prophecies came to pass in a stable in Bethlehem years after, a jealous King Herod sought to exterminate his Infant rival. When this humble Messiah rode into Jerusalem, He was welcomed as royalty. When He was arrested and tried, the charge against Him from the overlords was that He claimed to be King of the Jews. In the Revelation, the Lion-that-becomes-a-Lamb will be the triumphant King of kings and Lord of lords.
We choose to serve this King, or we choose to serve self.
We choose to serve Him and live … or we choose to serve self, and die.
The timeless truth remains that the apostle Paul proclaimed to believers in Rome:
“Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. … But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
We’re comfortable with the baby in the manger, admired by shepherds and soon-to-be sought by wise men from the east. He is so sweet and helpless there. He makes no demands. He issues no orders. He doesn’t tell us what to do, or how to live, or how to crucify self. He hasn’t yet lived out the power of a selfless life, or died on a cross only to reclaim life by that power of God.
He’s just a baby.
But sooner or later we have to leave this nursery in a stable. We have to follow Him as He grows and matures, and we must grow and mature too. We’re drawn to hear His words and watch His life match them. We’re compelled to climb the hills and descend in the valleys with Him until we come to that hill with a cross and that valley darkened by the shadow of death. And we have to choose whether we believe that He is more than a man, more than a teacher, more than even the Son of God. We must decide whether He is our Lord, our Master.
Whether we will run for it or continue to follow, even though it will cost us our lives, our wealth, our selves.
Whether we will serve Him and love Him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – as He loves us.
He isn’t a safe choice.
He’s the King, I tell you.
And He’s good.
If I could cast a single vision for the future of the Churches of Christ — a vision that I would want to be in God’s image, rather than mine! — I would want to see us focusing less on subtraction and division, and concentrating more on addition and multiplication.
I think we’ve spent the past couple of decades squandering too much of those precious years with navel-gazing and holy-moaning about how many people are being subtracted from our numbers and why, as well as how many divisions there are among our ranks and what’s causing them.
Those answers are really painfully simple, I fear. We have spent our time more concerned about the church and less concerned about Jesus Christ.
We thought we could fix ourselves. Heal our own wounds. Stanch the outflow of membership lifeblood. Appeal to broader audiences. Perk up our worship. Have seeker services. Have instrumental services. Have services at nontraditional times. Start new programs. Get people involved. Spend lots of time with each other. Form bonds. Be more accountable to each other. Serve coffee. Have small groups. Break out into age-appropriate, gender-separated, common-interest cliques. Open community centers and exercise rooms and gymnasiums and cafes in our buildings. Have retreats. Host special events. Hire guest speakers.
Probably none of those was intrinsically wrong. But they were about the equivalent of treating the loss of members of our own bodies with a styptic pencil; putting a band-aid on an amputated stump.
They were our plans. Not His.
We tried everything but believe in the authority Jesus gave us to do what Jesus suggested we do empowered by the very presence of Jesus in our lives that Jesus Himself promised us:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
“And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We didn’t really accept His unique and total and divine authority; we kept some of it back for ourselves, to do what we thought best in the way we thought best.
We didn’t really go; we stayed — inside our buildings, inside our groups, inside our comfort zones, inside ourselves.
We weren’t into all nations; we were into ourselves.
We didn’t really make disciples; we told people how to behave in church, in marriage, on the job, in school, in life.
We baptized people in the names, but not into the natures, of the Father, Son and Spirit.
We sometimes taught them to obey, but we bound upon them far more than the everything Jesus commanded us — which was to love God with all of self … and to love and do for others as we would for self. We perpetuated tradition as if it were law. Our proud tradition, which made us comfortable — when comfort was the least of Jesus’ concerns for us.
And finally, we did not act as if we believed He is among us, with us, within us, every moment of every day of every month of every year until days, months and years are subsumed in eternity.
Instead, we keep doing what we’ve been doing, or trying something different, wondering why neither one is working.
I know. I’m sounding very negative. Very judgmental. (And I judge myself with these words, for I am deeply guilty.)
The challenge of a future vision for the Churches of Christ should be bright and positive. So let’s turn our past on its head. Let’s repent of subtraction and division. Let’s commit to addition and multiplication.
In the early days of the believers, the Lord added to their number daily. He multiplied their blessings with His very presence through the Holy Spirit among them, transforming and drawing them ever closer to Himself.
How can we be a part of that kind of numerical and spiritual growth?
We can try doing what they did. We can tell the gospel of Jesus Christ daily, at our temples of worship and from house to house, praying for boldness and for His Holy Spirit to come upon us in power and shake our world. We can proclaim Him whether we incur the favor of the people, or arrest and imprisonment and humiliation. We can seek to heal, if not miraculously, then at least spiritually. We could even sell some possessions and bless the poor — at least pay a few medical bills in this season of economic uncertainty. We could count others as more important than ourselves.
In short, we could try living the very gospel we speak, giving it credibility through our love, kindness, concern, respect, generosity, the display of every fruit of the Spirit.
I see this as the vision God had for His people from the very beginning. It was His original intent for the created residents of the garden near Eden; for His children led by patriarchs of monumental faith building arks and journeying to distant lands; for His nation delivered from slavery and led by laws of hospitality and justice; for His scattered tribes learning obedience the hard way; and for His gathered church of believing saints both then and now.
I believe this is the mission of male and female, young and old and in-between, every shape, size, color, gift, ability, passion and personality of every believer in Jesus Christ in every nation.
This is our future, starting right now, and going on forever; to be shared with anyone who will see and listen and accept the blessing of life in Him.
If we truly are Churches of Christ, believers in God, bearers of the Holy Spirit, we’ll do this. We’ll look like Him, sound like Him, teach and preach and heal and love, and perhaps even — if we’re found worthy — sacrifice like Him.
We’ll do this, because nothing else matters more in the world. No cost will be found too high. No alternative will be deemed superior. No temptation will be seen as too great.
We used to sing an old, old song in our worship together at the church where I grew up:
There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul.
Have you listened to the news this week? Read it in the papers or on the ‘net? Seen it on television?
We live in a world absolutely overflowing with sin-sick souls, desperately in need of healing and help and comfort and salvation from sadness and self and sin and Satan and death.
One of the verses of that old hymn makes this humble suggestion:
If you cannot sing like angels
If you cannot preach like Paul
you can tell the love of Jesus
you can say He died for all.
That’s it, isn’t it? The future of the Churches of Christ in a few simple words.
Will we sing it, embrace it, live it? Or …
Keep doing the same old thing the same old way? Try something different, born of our own planning and cleverness and wisdom? And continue to wonder why it’s not working, and the church’s lifeblood keeps flowing out of it?
Jesus knew what would be needed to get His work done in this world, using His methodology, following His instructions, through His power, supervised by His own presence and Spirit within and among us … to the glory of the Father.
What’s my vision for the Churches of Christ?
I see us trying it His way.